Everyone was standing. Nick rested back in his seat feeling witless. Had the class come to an end? It must have done. The students were leaving. Duval was sorting papers in her open briefcase.
Her hair had lifted.
It couldn’t have done. What was he thinking? His eyes had been playing tricks on him. He wasn’t well. He’d thrown up, hadn’t he? Nearly passed out. Of course he had. He’d frightened Murray to death.
The girl with the auburn hair had left her seat. Nick looked to the crush at the doorway, but could not pick her out, not the auburn hair, not the green sweater. Most probably she had already gone. He felt oddly relieved.
Sunshine poured through the skylight, its intensity pressing on his head. Squinting into the light source, he could clearly see a flaring round the edge of the passing cloud. Stupid sod! That was what he’d seen around her head — an after-image of the sun’s corona.
In the quad the breeze gusted about him, kicking up dried leaves and pieces of litter. Cornered by the buildings they chased round and round upon themselves, chattering on the paving slabs as if animated. It was cooler outside, much cooler. The clouds weren’t wispy as they had been earlier in the day, but ominously thicker. He’d give odds that they would be training in a downpour. Slick grass and standing water. His kit would have to be scrubbed of its mud.
The memory of Louise’s touch came unbidden. He tried to banish it, but it was insistent. She liked the rainy games the best, standing on the touchline with that huge red and blue panelled umbrella. She would rush on to the field to meet him when the final whistle blew, to lay a hand on his heaving chest, to draw her nails down the shirt that had become his second skin. She could pout when she didn’t get her own way, and her way was for him to be unshowered, unshaven and still sweating after a game. And he’d gone for it like a dog with its tongue hanging out. Not any more.
He toyed with the idea of going back to the house, but he knew that he would drop on his bed and sleep if he went there. He needed food and he needed something substantial. If he ate later he would be liable to throw up again, and if he did so all over Hodgson’s boots there would definitely be no place for him in the team. He checked his pockets for cash and made his way to the main refectory.
The noise in the high-ceilinged hall reverberated with a need and an excitement as if everyone was speaking in tongues. Nick couldn’t see a free table anywhere and the queue to the counter was twenty deep. He groaned and considered his options. He could go to the shops on Cottingham Road, but he didn’t want a takeaway. There were the campus’ cafes, but he wanted more than a snack, and the queues were liable to be the same. A couple ahead pulled out and he stepped forward, and it was then that he saw her, leaning over to pick up a tray. Five up the queue was the auburn hair and green sweater.
He didn’t think about it. He slipped his position in the line and pushed in behind her, raised his hand to touch her arm, hesitated, then let it fall on her shoulder.
She spun round more startled than he had expected, the tray held vertically, a shield between them, but he met her gaze with bright eyes and a face wreathed in smiles.
‘I missed you at the end of the seminar,’ he said. ‘I’m so pleased I managed to catch you. Sara didn’t say where I could get hold of you and I was afraid that I might not see you again until Duval’s next session.’
It came out in a rush as he’d meant it to, giving her no time to voice automatic defences, and Sara was such a fantastic name to use. There had to be over 200 Saras on campus. If she didn’t know one, she knew someone who did. He could see the confusion standing in her face. She was puzzling the name, trying to locate the connection. Sara was his foot in the slamming door.
‘I’ll be up front,’ he told her. ‘I’m here because I need help, and Sara said that you were red hot on the subject and— Hey, I’m sorry, I haven’t even introduced myself. I’m Nick, Nicholas Blaketon.’
He offered his hand, half expecting her not to take it, but she did, even in the confined space of the queue. She had a light grip, a cool and damp hand, very small in his. He released it at once, wanting her to read nothing untoward in his manner. She was shaking her head, not a good sign.
‘I’m sorry, I—’
‘We met at a party last year—’
‘Well, a gathering, anyway. I suppose it didn’t quite get out of hand enough to be called a party.’
Didn’t she go to parties? He reached across to collect a tray from the stack, hoping he could sever that thread of conversation.
‘I’m sorry, I think you’ve got the wrong person.’
He was losing it. He watched her lift a prawn salad from the chilled shelves and turn her back on him to move a little further up the queue. Fibres of her sweater wavered iridescent under the intense lighting, her hair a shower of red-gold leaves.
‘Alison,’ he said. ‘Your name is Alison.’
She half turned, one eyebrow raised. ‘Alice,’ she murmured.
Alice..? He had never been that close in his life.
Snapping his fingers, Nick tried to look contrite. ‘Alice. I’m sorry. Alice, of course it is. This just underlines my problem. I don’t have a retentive memory. You could answer Duval’s questions just like that. I was floundering, believe me.’
The assistant behind the counter inclined her head towards him and he looked down the regimented line of stainless steel tins set into the heated work surface. ‘Meat pie and everything. As big as you like. Thanks.’
The queue was moving. Alice was following it, leaving him. She paused to take a glass of orange.
‘Can you get me one of those?’ Nick called. She looked back at him, perturbed he thought, but she reached for a second orange and stood it on her tray. He caught up with her at the till. She had her purse open, ready.
‘Let me pay for these,’ he said.
‘No, I’m fine, thank you.’
‘Hey, it’s the least I can do. Excuse me, these two trays together, please.’
But the cashier’s fingers were moving faster than the eye could follow and the bill was for two meals. Nick slapped a note in the woman’s hand. Alice put away her purse and picked up her tray.
‘Thank you, but it wasn’t necessary.’
‘It’s the least I can do as I’m imposing on you like this. Now where are we going to sit?’
Stunned surprise crossed her face, but he made out that he hadn’t seen it. Thankfully the occupants of a table stood to leave and he shepherded her towards it.
He had expected them to sit opposite each other across the table, but as he was making himself comfortable she began moving along the bench to leave them sitting diagonally. He thought of moving up, too, but decided against it. Was it leg or eye contact she was avoiding? Either way, she was looking distinctly uncomfortable. He used the most obvious opening gambit.
‘Thanks for picking up the orange,’ he said, retrieving the glass from her tray.
A weak smile was sent in his general direction, but her flitting gaze didn’t come closer than his elbow before returning to her lunch. He was going to have to work here, he could tell.
Lifting his meal to remove the tray from the table, the gravy slopped across his fingers, dripping from the edge of the plate to create a thickening pool on the Formica. Alice had collected a serviette for herself, but he hadn't thought to do the same. Casting covetous eyes on it as he licked his fingers, he caught her studying the meal before him. He looked at the decorous salad in front of her and at his own meat pie, two veg and chips. He gave a Gallic shrug.
‘She likes me. I remind her of her son.’ He looked pointedly at Alice, hoping to elicit a response. ‘I suppose I remind you of your brother. It’s always the same.’
Her gaze flicked over him, never landing for more than a moment, direct eye contact not on the menu. ‘I don’t have a brother.’
Filing the information, Nick cut into his pie. ‘I’ve got sisters, two, both younger. They can be a right pain. I suppose it’s different if you’re female yourself.’
There was no answer, and Nick read it that she was an only child. That might account for her reticence. University could be overwhelming when you were used to dealing with people singly. He decided to eat for a while and not say anything to see how she’d react. The silence was tangibly unnatural, but he persisted, wanting her to be the one to break it.
‘You’re not a History student, are you?’ she said at last.
Thank you, God.
‘No, I’m a joint American Studies and English.’ Nick took a gamble on an almost certainty. ‘I believe you’re majoring in History.’
‘Yes, I am. That’s why I can’t understand why you think I can help you.’
It stumped him, too. He was going to have to think fast and speak hesitantly.
‘Basically... because you aren’t from my main groups.’ He pushed at the vegetables on his plate. Yes, this would do. He lowered his voice.
‘I’m on a warning. I don’t want the others to know.’
‘How bad a warning?’
Nick shifted in his chair. ‘How bad does it get? I’m here. I might not be next year if I can’t pull it together by Christmas.’
This wasn’t coming out the way he wanted. It was sounding too close to the real thing.
‘I still don’t understand. What do you want me to do? Write your essays for you?’
She was looking at him, directly at him, and for the first time he could see her properly, could sink into her clear grey eyes and pale skin. She wasn’t wearing any make-up. None at all. Her eyebrows and lips were the only flashes of colour in her face, apart from her hair. Her auburn hair made her live. It was an effort to draw his gaze away.
‘Is that what you think of me? That I could baldly ask you to write my essays? Of course I don’t want you to do that. I just—’ he opened his hands, trying to think on his feet ‘—I read the books, I do the studying, but I can’t retain it. I miss things out, obvious things. All I ask is that you give me fifteen minutes, just to look over an essay before I hand it in. That’s all. A few pointers, no more. I’d ask one of the group, but it’s embarrassing. And I feel I can trust you.’
It was the biggest load of bullshit he’d uttered for weeks, but she was swallowing it. He could see her unbending.
‘We’re not due to hand any in for a while.’
‘I realise that, but I had to ask, y’know. I mean, fifteen minutes doesn’t sound much, but you are busy, everyone’s busy...’
‘No, it’s all right.’ Her fingers were touching unseen points in the air as she tried to placate him, to keep him at arm’s length. ‘We’ve a lot of reading now. It’s the notes you take that make the difference. Do you use headings?’
He tried to look suitably fazed.
‘You should put them under headings, each heading on a separate sheet, or digital file. And make sure that each note you make is marked with the title of the book and the name of the author. It’s easier if you have a source sheet and...’ She trailed off to pick at her salad. ‘I’m sorry. You’ll do this already.’
She was shy, that was what it was. Nick smiled. After Louise he could do with a bit of shyness.
‘You seem to have it taped. It’s the basics I seem to have missing.’
Her gaze rose to meet his. ‘It feels like I’ve been doing research all my life. I guess it comes naturally.’
‘Do you do anything else? Clubs, sports or anything?’
The locks of her hair danced around her face as she shook her head. Nick drew breath as he watched them lift, suddenly uncertain of what he’d seen during Duval’s seminar.
‘No, nothing. When I’m not studying I’m studying. I’m very boring.’
‘I don’t think you could ever be boring.’
He slammed his teeth down on the words, but they had already escaped. There was no change in her expression, but her grey eyes were open to the world and he could see that the barriers were going up again.
‘I think you would bring a vitality to anything you put your mind to. I think you could lecture Duval off the park. Is that what you want to do, teach?’
She smiled at him, but it was all polite courtesy. The fragile rapport was broken. He felt a physical pain when she placed her knife and fork together on the remains of her meal and rose to leave.
‘I have to go,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you at the next seminar. We’ll know what we are supposed to be doing then.’
‘Thanks for agreeing to help me.’
‘That’s okay, just as long as you don’t land your assignment on me five minutes before it has to be handed in. I can’t work miracles.’
‘However you want to play it.’
She wanted to play it away from him, he told himself; let her go.
‘Bye,’ he said. She nodded and left. It took him all his time to keep his eyes on his plate and not turn to watch her weave between the tables. And he hadn’t even got her phone number, dammit.
The babble of voices crowded in on him, the clatter of plates and cutlery sounding as sharp as cymbals to his ears. He tried to continue with his meal, but it had no taste. When three freshers came to ask if they could share his table, he let them have it to themselves.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this #SampleSunday excerpt please leave a comment and Tweet the posting. Chapter 2 continues next Sunday. If you are desperate to find out what happens, check out:
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