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A Lesson in Love
(A Village Romance Novel)
© Harper Bliss
I have ten minutes before my next appointment and I instinctively reach for my phone. My finger hovers over my trusty dictation app, but I catch myself. Not here.
With a sigh, I put my phone back. When I arrived this morning, I was in the middle of dictating a climactic scene. But it would have seemed too odd to sit talking to myself in my car in the car park so I stopped—although, these days, so many of us look like we’re talking to ourselves all the time.
These are my university hours and I can’t allow my two schedules to get confused, even though my office door is closed and no one would see me.
Instead, I grab the sheet of paper I printed out earlier from my desk. Victoria Carlisle. Sounds posh. But I’ve taught myself not to judge—if that’s even possible. This is Oxford. There’s no shortage of posh people here. I’ve seen many students come and go over the years, from all backgrounds, but the majority have always been more posh than not.
I glance at Victoria Carlisle’s picture. The department makes it compulsory to have your picture on its website. Could she be the very last student I supervise?
“You very well might be, Victoria Carlisle,” I say to her printed image. Dark hair. Brown eyes. Wide, full lips. She must have been in one of my first-year lectures, but if she was, I don’t remember—despite her distinctive mouth.
Someone knocks on the door.
“Yes.” I drop the sheet of paper.
The door opens and in walks the woman whose picture I was just studying.
“Hello, Professor Swift.” She walks straight towards me, hand outstretched. “I’m Victoria.”
I briefly take her hand in mine, then invite her to sit.
She’s wearing jeans and a turtleneck sweater. Her hair is pulled into a ponytail.
“Right,” she says and looks me straight in the eye, flashing a very wide smile. “I have to admit”—her voice is clear—“I’m a little nervous.”
Her attitude and facial expression contradict her statement. Since her arrival, the energy in my office has shifted. She’s one of those people who draw the eye—who light up a room. I wouldn’t be caught dead using that cliché in one of my novels.
“No need for that.” She’s making me nervous now. One day, if she does get her doctorate, she’ll make an outstanding lecturer—unlike me, perhaps. With some people, one glance is all it takes to know they’ll excel.
“The way I see it”—she cocks her head—“you’re my only chance at doing this particular kind of in-depth research.”
I arch up my eyebrows. I know what Victoria Carlisle wants to research. She emailed me about it in astonishing detail.
“I wouldn’t put it in such black and white terms, Miss Carlisle.”
“Well, no doubt you know what I mean.” That wide grin again, accompanied by a wink this time. Goodness, this woman is forward. Like most young people these days, who carry themselves with a familiarity towards faculty that I’ve never quite got used to.
Of course I know what she means. “Professor Monohan has an interest in the subject you suggest.”
Victoria shakes her head. “She doesn’t really.”
“Did you inquire with her?”
“I did and she wouldn’t even meet with me to discuss it.”
That figures. “So I’m your second choice?”
“Most definitely not, Professor,” she’s quick to say. “You were always my first choice, but I felt like I needed to hedge my bets.”
“You didn’t try Professor Fleming?” I ask, more to amuse myself than anything else.
She cocks her head again. “No, of course not.” Now she’s making me sound silly for even suggesting it.
“All right.” It’s time to move things along. “So, the evolution of lesbian characters in English literature in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.”
“I take it you have considered this subject carefully?” Another silly question, but one I find myself asking every time nonetheless.
“My master’s thesis was about lesbian pulp fiction of the fifties and sixties, so a doctoral dissertation would really be an expansion of that. I feel like there’s much more to be said on the subject and a DPhil dissertation carries more weight.”
“You seem very passionate about the subject.” I take my time to examine her face more carefully this time.
“I am, indeed.” She sits up a little straighter. “In almost every aspect of life, lesbians are the most invisible group. Regardless of the reasons for that, it’s my mission to unearth as many lesbian characters as I can in the last hundred years of English literature. It is very much my passion.”
“Good.” I give her an encouraging nod. The goal of this first meeting is always to gauge and predict—insofar as that’s possible—the stamina of the DPhil candidates. The dropout rate is so high, and so many promising dissertations never get finished. I, for one, would like to read the final version of this particular project. At the moment, Victoria Carlisle surely comes across as very enthusiastic. I see a determination in her glance I rarely encounter. This could be one that works out. “I’d be very happy to be your supervisor.”
“Yes!” Victoria bumps her fist into the air.
I can’t help but smile a little. It bolsters my enthusiasm for my own job just a bit. The fondness for it that I seem to have lost along the way. It’s been a while since someone like Victoria has come along. One more year full-time, I tell myself. By the end of this year, my other supervisees will have completed their dissertations and working part-time will give me more than enough hours to supervise Victoria. To help this woman get started with her research. I can actually see myself do it now.
Victoria regroups and puts her hands in her lap.
“The first few months, I’ll see you once a week.” I’m already looking forward to discussing Victoria’s quest for lesbian characters in literature. When I was a student, it wouldn’t have been entirely unthinkable to devote a dissertation to this type of subject, but it would have taken a lot more convincing to get the whole thing off the ground. I also didn’t have any out-and-proud professors to turn to. Today, in the Faculty of English Language and Literature alone, there are three of us—with a lot of suspicion surrounding a fourth.
“I look forward to it, Professor Swift,” Victoria says.
Professor Swift has no idea how much I look forward to working with her. I had kind of hoped she’d want to see me twice a week to discuss my progress—or take me out to lunch to celebrate. But I’ll take once a week. I’ll take whatever I can get.
I glance at her, wondering if she’ll have anything else to say or ask. Maybe she’ll want to inquire about my research methods or perhaps she’d like a copy of my master’s thesis. I have one just for her in my bag.
She moves her mouse and looks at her screen.
“Shall we say Mondays at three?”
“Okay.” I don’t even consult my calendar. I’ll make time regardless.
“Was there anything else?” Professor Swift’s light blue gaze goes a little steely all of a sudden.
“Um, no.” I came to this meeting prepared. I have all the answers to her possible questions at the ready in my head, but she doesn’t appear to have any. Perhaps she had already decided to take me on before seeing me. She doesn’t appear to be the most talkative type. There’s a lot of inquisition in that icy gaze of hers, however.
“I take it you know what to do next?” There’s a hint of doubt in her voice.
“I do.” Resolutely, I jump out of my seat. “I’ll report back next week.” I offer my hand.
She eyes it for a split second, then stands and takes it in hers. She gives me a curt nod before releasing my hand.
I exit Professor Swift’s office and once I’ve closed the door behind me, bump my fist into the air again.
When I decided to go for my DPhil I only ever wanted to do it on this subject and with Professor Swift as my supervisor. I might have gone to Professor Fleming if Swift had refused to supervise me, but it wouldn’t have been the same, what with Fleming being a man.
I walk out of the building’s stuffy hallway feeling like I’ve won the lottery. In a way, I have. This should also keep Mother and Father happy with me for a few more years.
* * *
“Swift’s on board,” I shout as soon as I walk into our apartment. I don’t even know if Jessica’s home.
She leaps from the kitchen into the lounge. “You wooed the ice maiden.” She puts her hands on her hips. “Go you.”
I chuckle. “I hardly wooed her.”
“You know what Sarah told me.” Jess walks to the drinks cabinet. “G&T to celebrate?”
“Is that what Sarah told you?” I beam a smile over to her.
She rolls her eyes at me. “You want one or not?”
“Do you even have to ask?” Jess and I are both DPhil students, both of us lingering in limbo between student and ‘real’ life. We can have a gin and tonic before lunch any day of the week.
“On it, darling,” Jess says.
“What did Professor Monohan tell you?”
She turns around to roll her eyes at me again. “I take it Swift will never let you call her by her first name, but Sarah and I are very much on a first-name basis. Have been from day one.”
“Yes, yes, I know. You’ve told me often.” I let myself fall onto the sofa.
“Sarah told me she’d be very surprised if Swift took on any new DPhil students to supervise this year.” Jess arches her eyebrows.
“I must have some really serious powers of persuasion then.” I wink at her.
She turns towards the drinks cabinet again. I hear the sizzle of a can of tonic being opened.
“You really must, Rory,” Jess says with her back to me. “I should know, after all.”
I ignore Jess’s comment and think about the brief amount of time I spent in Professor Swift’s office. I didn’t have to persuade her at all. Professor Sarah Monohan must have assumed wrongly.
“There you go, darling.” Jess hands me a glass filled to the absolute brim. “Cheers.” When she clinks hers against mine, some liquid sloshes over the top. Sometimes, I feel like we still live a bit too much like students.
“Now that it’s official,” she says, “you should come to lunch with Sarah and Alistair tomorrow. We’ll have a gay old time.” She grins at me.
“Christ, Jess.” I take a large sip and inwardly admonish myself for not picking a more subtle kind of person as a roommate.
“Sarah’s much more forthcoming than Swift and she’s rather fond of a boozy lunch. Think of all the background information you can get out of her.”
“I’ll see.” I glance at my friend. We’ve been living together for three years and I know what she’s like—a loud busy-body who likes to throw a party every other week.
“Fuck that, Rory. You’re coming,” Jessica says. “I know you better than you know yourself. You want to come.”
“Don’t you have a Tinder date to get all dolled up for?”
“Not today,” Jess says on a sigh. “In fact, not this week or this month or this year.”
“Has the well of eligible Oxford bachelors run dry?”
She expels another sigh. “I should have stuck with you, Rory.” She paints on another grin. “We had a good time together.”
“For about a week or two, maybe.” We’ve had this conversation so many times before, usually over a couple of drinks.
“I could have been married to Victoria Carlisle by now,” Jess muses. “Acquired myself a piece of your family’s fortune along the way.”
“I hate to break it to you—again,” I catch her gaze. “But it’s hardly a fortune and, besides, my mother would not have welcomed you into the family with open arms. She’s not really a very open-armed kind of person.”
“What are you talking about? Lady Carlisle adores me.” Jessica bats her lashes.
“Sure, as long as you’re nothing more than my friend.”
Jessica shrugs and takes a large gulp of gin and tonic. Even she doesn’t have a comeback for that one.
<<End of preview>>
A Lesson in Love will be available on Tuesday 6 August 2019.