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  • Tom Binnie

A Cambridge Affair

Updated: Feb 16




She stood, taller than the others, that's what caught his eye: thin, elegant not ungainly, gamine, gangly perhaps, ... gawping, for god’s sake Jack, Stop Gawping!


The beat of the Cambridge Archaeology Society disco on a wet October Friday night throbbed in his head. Standing at the bar, coddled with a few males he knew vaguely, Jack sipped his third and last pint. He had nervously downed the first two quickly; three was his limit. Gaining momentum, the dance floor was filling. The room was near dark apart from the beams from a couple of stage-lights and the fluorescent gloop display of the psychedelic slide projector. The music became incrementally louder with every disc change. Yet most, he guessed, hadn’t danced; they waited for others to lead.


The students had arrived in, or coalesced into, conversational groups. The mixed parties behaved as a unit, taking the floor en mass to an approved track, or leaving it when the deejay spun a dud. Other groups were segregated by gender: girls, who were happy to dance with each other; boys, those not at the bar, held pint glasses and shouted unremarkable jibes and jokes into their circle of friends.

Jack decided he would leave at the bottom of his glass. His only alternative thought was whether to risk an invitation to dance. He was not shy of it. Most girls were polite enough to offer one or maybe two dances prior to a barely expressed thank you as the end of the track neared followed by a determined return to their flock. No conversation was possible. Did anyone actually, meaningfully, meet at a disco?


Jack knew if you waited wait until the end – hours yet – you might, you just might, attract a girl who had enjoyed one too many vodkas and fancied a snog in the cloakroom before rushing to beat the college bell. At that stage, a girl might even approach a guy to ask for a dance, except that they didn’t ask. At that late stage they would walk over and pull someone on to the dance floor, usually by the hand or sleeve. If their invitation was refused, they simply stepped to the side and pulled the next guy along. Rarely were more than two attempts necessary.


The odds for boys had been better at his third/fourth-year school dances where the adolescents were desperate to experiment with their new-found hormonal urges. And better still when, at his military training school, buses of uniformed female auxiliaries were bussed on to the mono-cultured base for two or three hours on the last Saturday night of each month. Never would he again see so much tree, bush, and wall sex, before the eleventh-hour whistle pulled pants and zippers up. There was hardly an exchange of name never mind a conversation. He once received a letter from a girl named Sue, there was a photograph, but that promise soon petered out. A social occasion of great clarity and frankness. Everybody danced, everybody got drunk, and, in the briefest of intervals, made an attempt at intercourse. You didn’t attend otherwise.


Yet, sex was not his goal this night; nor was it a chanced snog he sought. His schooling, lectures, college, and supervisions were predominantly male. The rare girls who subscribed to his discipline were usually independently-minded and great fun. As such they quickly became just friends with their male classmates. Those with any with a hint of glamour were quickly snapped up by the post grads. He generally made a point of not seeking the geek, of either gender, but he had hoped his time at university might allow him to broaden his social scope.


He enjoyed female company, at least he thought he did. It had been such a rarity in his life so far, there had not been such a sufficiency of it for him to conclude by even the crudest evaluation. And he wasn’t quite sure how to achieve it, particularly in the little social time available to the committed first-class undergrad. Hence last Monday’s perusal of the college notice board and his awkward presence at this dig for female company.


The pint glass was in the last quarter. A tall girl was not fully engaged within her group and had intermittently stood back looked around the room. She wore tight, light-blue jeans, not flared – which was unusual – and a short, darker, smock top with a high collar. It was covered in a pattern he could not make out. Some in her group were swaying to the music but that had not translated into a release from their conversational bonds. What the hell! - time it so you arrive at the end of the track and your request should at least be audible...


‘Hi,’ he said half-heartedly, ‘Would you like to dance?’


She turned to look at him, then over his shoulder and back again to his face and, with an apologetic expression, as the music started, she shook her head. It was the Kinks too, She walked up to me and she asked me for a dance...


He smiled and nodded in acceptance and returned to join the others at the bar.

‘Not your night, mate.’

‘So, it seems. I’ll console myself with another half, and head-off after.’

‘Rugby tomorrow.’

‘Sure, I’ll come and watch.’


As Jack stood waiting at the bar to shout for his half, the tall girl walked over and stood to order at the far end of the counter. He looked over as she did the same. He smiled and...and, was there a slight pause before she looked away, probably not. The barman came to him, but he sent him to the girl, ‘She was first.’ The music improved but half-an-hour later, the pint glass empty – he had decanted the half – he walked around the dancing crowd towards the cloakroom. He had lost sight of the group of girls which included the girl who had held his attention.


Jack walked the long corridor to the cloakroom. He loved these older buildings. Early nineteen hundreds he reckoned: the Empire still at its height, oak panelling, portraits of portly professors, polished concrete floors, chunky pipes and radiators, none of that overly-ornate Victorian embellishment. It was the age of the aeroplane. The cloakroom was like a sports' changing room: rows of hooks over benched seats and the tall girl was there, facing away from him, pulling on a long black coat - crushed velvet he thought. She didn’t turn and he didn’t speak. She left by the far door.


He found his jacket – the type that miners wear but without the shiny shoulders – but his college scarf was not, as he had left it, in his pocket. He hoped it hadn’t been nicked, unlikely. No, it was under the bench, pushed almost out-of-reach. The far door led to the square reception hall; the night attendant still at his desk, ‘Good night, sir.’

‘Good night,’ Jack replied.

Yet, at the hall entrance, she had stalled – to wait for him? – she turned.

‘You can walk me back if you like. It’s not far.’

‘Oh...OK.’ He noticed now that the pitch of her voice was quite low.


They started to walk; she pointed the way without speaking and was unhurried.

‘Did you get a dance?’ she asked.

‘No, I didn’t try again.’

‘I don’t dance you see, at least not very well.’

‘It’s fine... really.’

‘So, why did you just ask me?’

‘I noticed you...you looked...’

‘I’m waiting.’

‘Different,'- gawd Jack -'em...interesting.’ Jack struggled initially, to find suitable words.

‘You were attracted to different?’

‘Yes, I found you attractive.’

‘My look you mean?’

‘Yes, and your movement. The sense of you, I guess.’

‘Were you staring?’ She feigned crossness.


He couldn’t work out if she was teasing; there was no outward sign of it.


‘I was looking, yes, and there was something that made me want to talk to you.’

‘Well, here, I am. You are not in Archaeology, are you?’

‘No.’

‘What are you studying? It’s left here and along the path.’

‘I’m not going to tell you. Ask me anything else but not that.’

‘Why?’

‘My subject is death to all conversation. There will be silence for the rest of the walk.’

‘Is it not interesting?’

‘To me yes, but very few others.’

‘I’m intrigued now.’

‘Don’t be. It’s academic but not conversational; it defies discussion or amusement. Except perhaps to a madman.’

‘And that is not you?’

‘I hope not.’ Jack replied.

‘First year?’

‘Yes.’

‘You seem older.’ She changed tack, ‘It’s actually quite warm, we can go along the Backs if you’re not in a hurry.’

‘OK...your bobbed hair.’

‘What?’

‘That made me look at you. I thought you might be French or something.’

‘I tried it long once and didn’t like it. They called me boy at school. It stuck.’

‘You don’t look like a boy.’

‘Don’t I, are you sure?’

‘Yes,’ Jack affirmed.

‘Really, I’m thin, awkward, zero figure and short hair...and, it has been noted, you find me attractive.’


Jack felt an uncertainty, a lurch in the pit of his stomach.

They had passed through an unmanned gate into college grounds. It was mild and a waxing gibbous moon shone from behind the college buildings silhouetting their high, crenulated gables. Not the nineteen hundreds here, sixteenth century more like. A row of leafless, spooked willows leaned over the Cam. Jack stalled. His initial unnervedness faded. This was quite fun, who or whatever his companion was. She/he was exciting company. His three and a half beers helped him rise to the adventure. He did want to know, however. He looked around,

‘This is pretty. The river is attractive at night.’

‘Yes.’

‘You are attractive,’ he pushed it.


She – and he was sticking with she in the moment – stopped and put her hand on his shoulder, to balance, as she removed her shoes. In bare feet, she stepped over the foot-high railing onto the grass. Jack stopped himself from pointing out the obvious.


‘C’mon!’


Boots off, he followed and as he began to catch up with her, she ran. The grass was wet, cold wet, but it felt firm, soft, and oddly freeing to run across it. A hint of childhood or a distant resonance from an ape-like ancestry; who knew?


She was not slow, and she had reached a group of trees when he caught up with her. She dodged, deliberately avoiding proximity. He puffed and held his midriff.


‘Are you alright?’ she asked.

‘Yes, I drank three pints, I've got a stitch...and I need a pee.’

‘There are plenty of trees.’


He threw his boots towards her and made for a large oak.


‘Do you not need one?’

‘No, nice try though.’


As the steamy, uric, stream soiled the age-old bark, Jack smiled in relief and his situation. She knew exactly what she was doing. He was just her sport. The mouse to the house cat, a toy for play only to be discarded when the amusement ceased. He didn’t mind. He buttoned up and found her sitting on a bench overlooking the river. She had picked up his boots. Jack sat on the bench leaving a measured gap between them. He immediately looked to her feet, but she was too quick and moved them into shadow.


‘Size seven and a half,’ she said, and continued, ‘So this attraction sparked an interest. An interest in what?’

‘Well, you. It was...is an instinctive attraction. You have a litheness, if that’s a word, and an elegance.’

‘What about my insides?’ she questioned.

‘Is that not the business in hand?’

She stifled her laugh, ‘Not sex then.’


‘Not as such.’

‘Not, I bet she’s good in the sack?

‘No, not my intention.’

‘I’m not sexy?’ she pretended offence.

‘I didn’t say that, you’re twisting.’

‘But I am, remember, and you only have this to go by, boyish...and attractive.’

‘Check, but not check-mate. You are attractive, I said.’

‘To you?’

‘Yes,’ he replied honestly.

‘Boy or girl?’

‘Yes.’ He stood his ground.

‘So, you find boys attractive?’

‘Now you’re extrapolating the singular to the abstract. No, is the answer. I do not in the general or in the norm, find boys attractive, in appearance.’


‘But, I have an example that says you could.’

‘Yes, but not sexy.’

‘Uh huh,' - she shook her head - 'you did not exclude that possibility.’


It was she who pushed now, as if she were male, he thought, and he became less sure. After all, he had not really had a good look at her. It had been dark in the hall and on the walk. She had waited for him outside, turned away in the cloakroom. Her face was quite angular, her nose long and her voice low in tone. He realised he didn’t know, for sure. But then what was she/he after? Jack needed to know; how could he find out?


‘It’s simple,’ he said, ‘Attraction a pull-toward, a longing-for, an appreciation-of; it is beauty or enchantment. Anyone or thing can be deemed attractive. Sex, on the other hand, is just the result of primeval lust, the ape, a necessity for the prime directive and difficult to overrule. But love is purely cerebral, in relation or in union, it is nurture and sacrifice. It is belonging.’

‘The prime directive?’ she asked.

‘Procreation.’

‘Must be Philosophy?’

‘What?’

‘Your subject.’

‘No.’

‘You’re quite smart,’ she appraised.

‘...for a Cambridge student?’ he responded.

‘They are not all smart. Haven’t you discovered that? Some attend only in fool's clothes.’


She paused in her thinking, ‘Let's not be serious ... What, then, sir, is your next move on a warm night, under a moon-lit tree, on a bench by the river, with a person you have a longing-for?’


He saw the way to find out. It was a risk though, and perhaps a threat, in a number of ways.


‘I would chance a kiss,’ he answered. That would give it away, surely.

She was quiet as she looked around and up to find the moon.

Turning back towards him, she invited, ‘Go on then.’


He shuffled along the bench. They both giggled in anticipation and awkwardness. He waited for his own composure then leaned toward her and paused. As he moved further, he placed his hand to her waist under her open coat and touched a tantalising sliver of skin. Jack moved his head nearer to look more closely at her face in shadow. She waited expectantly. He closed the last inch and their lips touched, softly at first. He retreated a little, then returned to kiss her again, longer this time, their lips a fraction open, partially moist - she had licked hers, and after small sumptuous movements, lasting no more than half a minute, he pulled slowly back to catch the gift of her shy smile.


They both startled as the loud, deep, college bells chimed the hour.

‘Shit, I’ll be locked out.’ She stood up quickly, grabbed her shoes and ran.

Jack was still stunned by the kiss, ‘What’s your name?’ he shouted.

‘Jo...,’ was, in the rustle of the trees, all he heard.

Then she was gone.

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