Emily held up the translucent brown envelope with its official University of Cambridge insignia and stared at the wavy ink marks smeared across the top. She could hear her landlady, Mrs. Stubbs, shuffling back down the stairwell to her own quarters. The woman, after a small sad smile, stood around for several minutes making inane small talk -- nasty rain, trains later than usual, pub business down. No doubt she hoped Emily would open the envelope in front of her and tell her what it said. Nosy old lady! Emily held the envelope up to the light. It contained a very thin letter. Now she wished she hadn't sent a follow-up note after she'd been denied a place at Cambridge. She'd practically begged to be given a chance. This must surely be the response. Streaked with dirt and crumpled, the official postdate June 13, 1950 seemed to loom above her name, shouting at her, who do you think you are?
Emily drooped into her chair by the window, and dropped the letter onto the arm of the seat, reluctant to open the thing, not wanting the inevitable rejection to force her to accept the truth. The idea of coming to Cambridge had been an exciting dream. But here she sat in her new digs above the Crown, and the pang of loneliness she felt made her feel completely cut off from everyone and everything decent and worthwhile in life. The only people she talked to here, apart from Mrs. Stubbs, were the drivers and the bus dispatcher, a tall fellow with mean lips that made him look as if he hated everyone and everything. Her regular driver, a gruff sort, was taciturn, rarely giving her more than a cursory nod hello.
When Mrs. Stubbs gave the letter to her, she'd cast her eyes down, but the woman obviously must have seen the university crest on the back flap. Emily wished she had never told her about her hopes of becoming a scholar and getting accepted. How foolish she must have seemed like an excited little girl, spoiled and silly with no grasp of reality. At the time of Emily's outburst, the landlady had said nothing but knowingly shook her head. She probably couldn't wait to hear Emily tell her the bad news so she could be kind and offer Emily a cup of tea which would be well-intended torture.
Emily realized her anxiety was making her resent everyone. Even the mean-looking dispatcher might just have his dreams too. For all she knew he had a doctorate in philosophy. Their conversation rarely went beyond the usual politeness. As for poor old Mrs. Stubbs who was a widow, she had been most welcoming. This overstuffed chair in the lounge where Emily now sat humped was surprisingly comfortable. The yellow flowery wallpaper decorating the room did nothing to cheer her up, but at least it was bright. Mrs. Stubbs had said she'd done it herself with the hope of attracting a decent young lady tenant. Well she'd certainly got herself a decent and boring tenant, Emily thought glumly. At times she wanted to turn tail and flee back to London, but no way was she going to do that and have to listen to everyone saying it was for the best, London was her home, etcetera, etcetera. Carol would be suggesting she marry Peter. She liked Peter, maybe even loved him, but she wasn't going to become anyone's wife, not any time soon. Maybe never.
Outside, a train thundered down the tracks shaking the walls of the old building. Emily felt horribly rattled and it wasn't the vibration or the sound of china cups chinking together in a kitchen cupboard. She had told herself even if she wasn't a student she would be downright bohemian, not some decent girl like all the girls she knew, all waiting for a man to sweep them off to domesticity. Yet here she was living by herself in a university town where she didn't feel as if she belonged. Her initial euphoria at finding such a super apartment so close to everything had sadly diminished. Now she realized it was probably almost impossible to rent this place out for any length of time. The noise was deafening. Her view through the window onto the high street, often bustling with people, made her even more lonely and wistful, wondering where they were all going, and who they were going to meet. She wished she could get her London flat back. It overlooked the green expanse of Blackheath. What have I done, she thought, forgetting how desolate the grassland used to seem. It'd certainly been quiet there -- a place to think unlike here where the noise of trains crashed into her brain and seemed to taunt her: stupid girl, stupid girl, stupid girl.
At last, refusing to give in to despair, she ripped open the brown envelope and took out the slip of paper. It wasn't even addressed. It was merely a list of lectures available to the general public with times, dates, and lecture halls. Emily threw it onto the floor. Could watered-down talks for people not qualified to get degrees be all she might hope for? She wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked herself. It wasn't as if she hadn't known the outcome might go against her. But this was her life-long dream. She had studied and studied to prepare for her A-levels in English, Biology, and Maths. Her marks had all been over ninety which meant she was in the upper ten percent of students. But she hadn't even made it to the oral interview at Cambridge. Now all hope was snuffed. She'd probably made a fool of herself and they'd blacklist her name -- except they probably wouldn't even remember her name. She might as well be an invisible bug in a giant sea of algae.
Watery sunlight shone through the window. Bloody useless English weather! Suddenly she wanted a blaze of exotic sun, not this feeble promise of summertime. England, oh my England, she thought scornfully, the tune to Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free sounding in her mind, you have really let me down this time. But whose fault was it? Before she'd actually come to Cambridge, she'd not had much of a clue about university life. She'd believed what she'd wanted, her head full of false ideas. She'd expected the university to be several connected buildings just like the schools she'd attended, except bigger. She'd read about Girton and Newnham Women's Colleges when they'd been in the news for getting the right to award full degrees to their women graduates. She had thought it surely meant she would get into one of them. But somehow it hadn't registered until she'd gotten here that a woman getting an education was not the norm for any woman and certainly not the norm for girls with dads who drove a bus for the London Transportation Company.
Peter had tried to warn her. He'd told her she'd have to sit in the back and that the dons would ridicule her and make fun of her. He had been right in a way, even if he hadn't understood much about Cambridge in spite of having attended one of the colleges for a couple of weeks. He had hated the place and immediately transferred to the University of London. She'd assumed his sense of inferiority -- him being a farmer's son -- had made him bitter against the Cambridge toffs.
How she missed seeing his lanky frame with his head in the clouds, strolling towards her while she waited for him for one of their weekly teas near Trafalgar Square. How she longed to feel the mist from the fountains on her face. She wouldn't even mind it dampening her hair and turning it frizzier than ever. She never had been impressed by Nelson's Column though, perhaps because war was so intolerable, and military heroes did nothing for her, not even Monty whom Dad served under in North Africa and admired. But the thought of resting her hand on the solid paw of one of the huge lion statues beneath the column filled her with nostalgia for their overwhelming presence. Now, a glimmer of truth filled her. They were symbols of power, not love. They weren't fluffy cuddly toys who'd purr when you stroked their faces. What a fool she had been, as innocent as the little children feeding pigeons, giggling if one landed on their heads. Adults called them flying rats.
The thought of the National Gallery filled her with longing too. She yearned to spend an hour gazing at her favorite paintings: Botticelli's Venus and Mars, Van Gogh's Sunflowers, and, oh, the Impressionists! How she loved the Water-Lilies! She'd hoped to learn more about the artists and their work, but there never seemed to be enough hours. Her job took up not only time but also energy. More often than not in her spare moments, she'd be napping, reading, walking the heath, visiting family. And dreaming foolish dreams. Even at the local public library here in Cambridge she'd felt too much a stranger to ask for help. She'd not taken out any books and barely managed to browse some art books.
Peter had no use for painting, but never tried to prevent her from pursuing anything that interested her so she couldn't blame him for her feelings. She should have paid attention to his straightforward honesty and his cynicism. She knew exactly where she stood with him. He was humble too. He'd only tell her about his studies if she pressed him and then he'd admit to feeling ill-prepared. Yet judging by his marks, he was brilliant. He always laughed too at her stories about the funny London bus passengers she met. When she'd applied for the bus conductress job on the ECO, the Eastern Counties Omnibus line, he'd looked crestfallen, and her heart had skipped a beat, realizing how much he cared. She'd convinced herself he would wait for her, not that she meant to get married. Maybe they could live together later on. What a scandal that would be. Meanwhile, she had thought if she lived in Cambridge that would somehow give her a better go at acceptance into the university. The truth was she hadn't thought she'd get the conductress job in a million years, but when it was offered to her, she'd almost jumped out of her skin with excitement. Now she'd been here for three months. And wasn't that something, she thought, trying to cheer herself up.
Sitting up straight, the old chair not much support for her back, she seized the list of lectures not bothering to so much as glance at the subjects being offered. She pushed herself onto her feet by the somewhat wobbly arms of the chair and padded back and forth in her small flat, eventually tossing the list in a corner cupboard. It didn't miss her attention that it fell onto some shells from Cornwall, objects that reminded her of very strange times. Blackheath had not been nearly as friendly as she wanted to believe. She wished she could stop brooding over the past and yet the sight of the wooden elephant given to her by her little brother David, and a boomerang given to her by her other brother Byron sparked memories. How she now empathized with Byron for telling her smugly that someday he would go back to Australia because there wasn't a bloody thing for anyone in England.