Wandering those cloisters, those corridors. Checking the library shelves: blowing dust off a favourite, fragile volume. Sitting on the hard oak benches. Not reading: daydreaming. Remembering; the wooden shelves breathing out “the intoxicating scent of learning”, as her tutor had once observed.
Still not daring to walk on the immaculately-trimmed grass.
And here, to her left: the college chapel. No more religious now than she had been a near-decade before. But places of calm, of solace, are forever to be cherished.
Reflecting. What would her younger self have made of her now – not that many years, which felt like so many years, on? Pride, perhaps, at the trajectory of a career being built, of ambitions being dreamt up and then pulled to within her grasp.
No. Today was not a day for “but”.
She glanced at her watch, and resented it. Time had flown, in this place where it would forever, for her, stand still. Twenty minutes, no more, until she should be at the hotel: “registration, coffee, networking” and utter, utter boredom before the nerve-wracking ordeal of her own presentation in two days’ time. Silently, she murmured a not-prayer to herself: for what she was about to endure, may this past hour of peace bring her strength.
And she should never have bumped into him – not really. That was not in the plan. He’d moved college to one older and even-more esteemed, yet nearer the edge of town. His nameplate had long since been replaced on the study door that she remembered. She had a conference dinner, after the obligatory horrid-cocktail reception. But two people’s paths are sometimes meant to cross; the strolls of two early evening truants’ walks meant to intersect.
She saw him first, walking towards her amidst the swarm of undergrads. He had that strange sensation, that extra sense, of being gazed at. Glared at?
“Dr Jenkins?” Before the passers-by swept him past. Before he ignored her.
Before a too-formal handshake. “What an unexpected pleasure.”
Before the shock of the unexpected turned in a moment, to each other’s delighted surprise, to broad smiles. To a hug, quite oblivious to those around. Just like that final afternoon, an era before, when she’d climbed those rickety stairs for the last time, to say thank you. To say goodbye.
He’d held her close, then. Ruffled her hair, in a way perhaps permissible with a new graduate, no longer his student. Pressed her to him. Kissed the top of her head, gently. “You made me proud,” he’d said. “Keep on doing so,” he’d entreated.
And there’d have been other girls since. Other girls who’d sent him proud Christmas cards, knowing there’d be no reply. For that was how it worked: fostered, nurtured, prepared, set free.
“Do you have time for a sherry in my rooms?” he surprised her by asking. “Or do you need to get back to your conference? Your topic on Thursday sounds most interesting…”
“I may not reply, but that never means I don’t observe. And take pride.”
And so one sherry led to two, and two led to tears. Tears of safety, of security, of there being someone who cared. Led to the discussion that they’d both known was inevitable, from the moment the world had stopped around them less than an hour before.
“And does a good girl still need encouragement?”
Eyes downcast, an emotional gulf about to be bridged. “Yes, sir.”
“Then you know where I keep the slipper.” Even in a different room: bottom right-hand drawer of the desk.
And then she knew what was expected of her, without him needing to say. As she had done since that tutorial on the third day of the second week of the second term of her first year, when he had pronounced himself “disappointed” by the essays she had dashed off too quickly in those party-filled days between Christmas and the New Year.
When he had told her, then, that she had even more potential than she had ever dreamt of for herself. But that success would require diligence, not indiscipline. That she could trust him, if she so chose. But that he wouldn’t make it easy for her if she did.
She handed him the feared implement, avoiding his eyes, and removed her skirt – blushing now even deeper than she had then. Folded it neatly, without requiring his command: some habits, ingrained deeply and re-enforced painfully, never disappear.
And then he beckoned her forward, and fear and need fought their long-suppressed battle once more, the former vanquishing the latter through a mist of much-needed tears.
Gentle had never been his style, with his blows if not with his words. But time dulls the physical memory, and the first strokes after he’d pulled down her knickers so abruptly made her scrabble from his grasp.
She stood, shocked at the pain. At the humiliation. At her rejection of the trust he had extended to her once again. Ashamed at her own non-compliance. He sat, in silence, letting her decide. Hours passed – or so the seconds felt – before she murmured her “I’m sorry, sir”, and resumed the place that felt so right; so rightly hers.
That he would make her sob went without question; that he would make her scream, and plead, and would keep beating her until she fell silent and obedient was not, did not need to be, discussed.
And after? After that post-punishment punishment, when he’d made her face the wall with her hands on her head, as her bottom throbbed with pain, and the tears rolled down once more before slowly subsiding?
That was when he called her back over to him; let her curl up with her head in his lap; held her and stroked her hair. And when he told her what a good girl she was. How proud she should be, and how determined she must be to surprise herself with how well she tackled life’s next challenges, small and large.
When he told her he would always be there for her, even if it took many more years before she needed his support once again. Many more years before she once again glanced through that learned journal, and set eyes on news of a conference so near to the place that felt like home, and plucked up the courage to attend – because, maybe, just maybe…