Andrew had become complacent and his complacency was shattered in the most gut wrenching way. When he got to the ward on the Sunday morning he saw Graham’s bed was not in its spot. This was not necessarily a big deal, children were often taken for treatment on the bed, which was why they had wheels on them. But there was a tension in the ward and several of the kids he had befriended looked red-eyed when Andrew saw them. One of the nurses saw where he was looking and indicated with her head at one of the private rooms, always used for difficult situations and especially as a holding station until hospice care could be arranged.
“His cancer has spread and is no longer operable.”
Graham was going to die, and soon.
“He has been asking for you all morning. The sister needs to see you about this.”
She patted his arm but then you could see the mental armour re-engage and she was back to working hard to save these children, while protecting herself. Andrew walked to the little office where the sister was sitting and knocked on the door frame.
“Graham would like to see you but I need to ask you if you are okay with that. This is not something that I can force you to do. We get so few volunteers here anyway and this is exactly why.”
Her gaze was unblinking and fierce.
“What am I allowed to talk about?”
His question threw her.
“What do you mean?”
“Am I allowed to talk about him dying?”
Her look got fiercer but she blinked in surprise. Rather than immediately harangue him she stopped and looked at Andrew for a long time.
“You saw it, up close, didn’t you?”
All he could do was nod, it was like Faith was lying in the bed beside him.
“As with all these things, don’t bring it up but answer him honestly if he asks.”
“I am sorry to have to ask, but my mind has gone blank, what is his cancer?”
As soon as she said it Andrew remembered. He stood outside the door for a second gathering himself and then knocked and went into the room. Of course Graham’s parents were there and all the careful words and speeches went out the window as he scrambled to manage the simple niceties at a moment like that.
“Andrew, you came. Mum, Dad, this is Andrew. He comes and visits on a Sunday and has done so for the last month. Andrew, these are my parents.”
Despite everything Graham was being polite and putting on a good show. What Andrew said to the parents he had no idea, Graham did more talking than the rest of them combined. He started to look weary but he clearly wanted to talk to Andrew and alone as well.
“Mum, Dad, could you leave us for a few minutes I want to talk to Andrew for a little while on my own.”
They could hardly say anything but they looked taken aback. Once the door closed Graham closed his eyes and the air just left him. It was like he shrivelled before Andrew’s eyes.
“I knew you would come Andrew. You are here so they will have told you.”
The tears started and they couldn’t stop. For more than five minutes this little eleven year old wept his heart out. Andrew gently clasped his hand, all the comfort he could offer.
The unanswerable question.
“There is no answer to that Graham. The part of my story I never told anyone out there is that I was in a bed next to a young woman named Faith Campbell. She and I supported each other for two months, talked about being scared, faced death together. She died and I lived. There is no reason to it. Cruel, capricious fate. I wish I had answers. I got out of hospital nearly five years ago, and the first time I set foot in a cancer ward was last month. What you are facing is why I hid away, I wasn’t strong enough.”
“Andrew, you are huge, how are you not strong enough?”
“Emotionally strong wee man, not physically. To see the looks on your parent’s faces, to hold your hand as you sob your heart out, knowing that there is nothing I can do but give you words. You are stronger than I am, just as Faith was stronger all those years ago.”
Andrew knew Graham was tired and confused by his non answers and spent from the emotional turmoil of the week. He wanted to say so much but had no idea how to say it. Most of all he wanted to scream and rage. Graham drifted off to sleep and Andrew closed his eyes for a second before quietly leaving the room. Graham’s parents were hovering and looked in the door and saw that he was sleeping.
“Can I ask you what he wanted to talk about Andrew?”
His father sounded lost.
“He asked me ‘Why?’ And I don’t know if I gave him any help or comfort.”
The mother this time.
“Can I ask you what you answered in case he talks about it?”
“We better sit down. I told him I had no answer. I told him of the woman in the bed next to me, who didn’t make it. I told him he was stronger than me, stronger than you. He also cried for five minutes, just deep sad weeping. I think he hoped I would have an answer but in the end, I told him there is no reason. Cruel, capricious fate.”
Andrew looked down at his feet. The parents looked at him.
“Why are you here?”
Andrew looked up and tried to marshal his thoughts.
“To try and make a difference. To give hope, to show them that there is a future, to go from the frail little skeletons that they currently are to my size, with just lots of food and exercise. Maybe because I have to, remind myself of where I came from, and how much I have to be grateful for. I don’t know.”
The father stood and pulled him up and shook his hand.
“It might not seem like at right now but you are making a difference. You were all he talked about when we got here. Andrew this and Andrew that. Thank you for everything you have done for Graham.”
Andrew was barely holding it together as he left them to sit in their dying son’s room thinking about the cruelty of life. He was immediately put to work and spent the next hour dogs-bodying for the staff, a clear attempt to keep him busy and to let him settle down. As Andrew worked in a store room getting some things down from high shelves he had to figure out how to deal with all this. He never considered quitting, that was not an option but as he moved things around he had to figure out how to deal with all the kids in the ward as usual, answer or deflect questions about Graham and hold it all together. There was a reason that no one volunteered there. Andrew knew the choices he made and especially the way he acted was going to be one of the pivotal moments in his life. He was naturally a reserved person, never one to talk much but that afternoon he had to compartmentalise his mind, shove all the pain, anger and sadness into a box and shut the door. He had to be like the professionals that worked there, game face always on, even under the most unimaginably hard circumstances. And so the rest of the day was no different than any of the previous ones. He deflected a couple of questions about Graham at the beginning when he went and talked with ‘his’ little group. Truthfully, he was not allowed to see any medical information and so was able to hide behind that fig leaf. Or so he thought. At 2.45 Andrew was getting ready to tidy up when one of the older children, a girl called Mandy, 14 or 15 years old, asked him to draw the curtain and sit with her for a moment.
“I thought you would be honest with us having gone through this yourself.”
Ah. She looked at him waiting.
“Mandy, I have to follow a long list of rules, and they are there for a good reason. The thing to think about is that what you might want to hear is not necessarily what others want to hear. You might wish you had not asked the question once you get the answer. And finally, would you want me talking about you to some other patient?”
She considered all that.
“Okay, I see your point but it is just the two of us and I will take my chance with your second point.”
Andrew sat there desperately trying to think about how to answer this question and not make it worse.
“Okay. I will be as honest as I can but I may not answer some of them okay?”
She smiled weakly and now that she knew that he would at least partially answer all her darkest fears she looked afraid to start.
“I am one of four kids, the oldest, and there is just my Mum. She can’t visit me as much as she wants so I am here on my own a lot. I don’t have anyone to ask questions to and I don’t have anyone to listen to my fears.”
Andrew nodded. The gap in the curtain he had left at the bottom of the bed was filled with the ward sister.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes thanks sister, Mandy just wanted to ask a couple of questions not in front of the younger children.”
She looked at them both for an extra heartbeat but left them to it.
“I am scared Andrew, scared of my treatment, scared of dying, scared and, I don’t know, angry for missing out on life. What can I do?”
He took a deep breath.
“Nothing Mandy, nothing.”
Andrew closed his eyes for a second and then opened them and looked at her thin, scared face.
“I was in hospital for five months on and off, including two months solid at the end. I was in a ward just like this in Edinburgh and I saw children fade away in front of me, before suddenly the bed was not there and the next day another child was in the spot. I was in an adult ward for my chemotherapy and the only other person close to my age was a young woman who they put me beside. She didn’t recover. Over those five months I saw the same doctors, was looked after by the same nurses and we all got the very best treatment available for us. It did not work for some patients.
“I can’t tell you not to be scared, that would be foolish. What Faith, that woman in the adult ward, and I did was talk about it. Supported each other after treatment, let the other talk when we needed to, listened to them, and questioned everything. I don’t know that I would have survived without Faith Campbell in the bed next to me. I would ask to be moved so that you are beside someone closer to your own age, doesn’t matter if it is a man or a woman, you can’t have these conversations with an 11 year old. I was 13 and Faith turned 16 while in hospital.
“The other thing is get a couple of journals, one for questions that come to you during the week, I will answer as many as I can on Sunday but the other journal is the more important one, think about your life. This was by far the most important thing that Faith and I talked about. Start to plan your life for the day you are released from here, I did. Think about old Mandy, the person who came to this hospital, and then look at your life decide what you like, keep all those parts, and what you don’t like, and make a plan to fix them.
“Why plan my life when I might not…”
She didn’t finish the sentence.
“My answer is why not. Assume nothing but the best, plan for the day when you get home and suddenly you have your three siblings running around, not caring about you, or your treatment. You might want to come back here for the peace and quiet.”
“But seriously, think about life after cancer. Dream, but dream with your eyes open. Next week I will sit with you for longer and will answer some of your questions.”
Andrew stood up to go.
“And hey, keep it clean, I know about you country women.”
The sound of her squeal and laughter helped on the walk back into town. If he was serious about doing this then he had to be ready for mornings like that one. The thing he never, ever hinted at was that the odds on childhood cancers were horrendous. More than a third of those patients were never going to walk out of there. Andrew also had to not let this affect him around other people, or on his course. He would have to figure out a way to stay focused on the other parts of his life, learn to enjoy the more mixed dinner on a Sunday and not sit moping in his room. It was going to be an interesting term; it was going to be an interesting four years. Andrew stopped outside the Library and shook his head, like a dog shedding water, took a deep breath and pushed it all down. Once he had dumped his stuff at a desk he called Mhairi and it was Neil that answered the phone.
“I was looking for a crazy lawyer who was leading impressionable young people astray this week.”
His laughter was deep and genuine.
“She blames you entirely, she missed the first two trains to London and had a horrible hangover all day.”
Neil was a nice guy.
“It was a whole lot of fun to see her as a person not as a lawyer. She is always so smart and organised and is intimidating as hell half the time but that night she was a woman in her twenties having some fun. It was a hell of a way to start the week.”
“She never really tells me Andrew stories, your party was an eye-opener for all of them but she told me about Monday, what was it, ‘take me to your room’?”
“Oh Neil, you should have seen her face. I have never, ever seen her so flustered. It was a very human moment and broke the ice for the evening.”
“I am getting the evil eye here so I’ll put her on the phone. Good speaking to you Andrew.”
“I am not sure I want you and Neil talking about me.”
Mhairi was in good form.
“Just be grateful that you look way too young to be my mum. I once announced at Nikki’s work that she was really my mother. You should have seen their faces, they fell for it hook, line and sinker. I still have the bruises from where she attacked me. So it could be worse.”
“Oh Andrew, you didn’t, did you?”
He told her the story of the afternoon at the Mitchell in Glasgow.
“It is just as well that you have, what did you call it, good looks and charm a plenty?”
It was his turn to flush.
“Truce. I mailed the personal proposals back to you with my thoughts, which are many, and my recommendations. The short version is the computer guy has no clue what he is trying to do, so no to that one. The two marine repair guys have a good idea but will need money to get equipment, so I think we go back to them and change that proposal to one for funding from CMS. I will wait to hear from Doug and Leslie as to whether they think it is a good business plan. The woodworker is a yes, at least from me. There should be a second investment in two apprentices so that the volume can increase. Talk about that with Doug and see what he thinks. If it can last until December I want to think about marketing the furniture, use some of the connections that we have. I am thinking a couple of pieces at the distillery, and talking to the local MPs and councillors about getting some furniture from a local firm into their offices. Something to give him a start and then go from there. I will look at the others this week and let you know my thoughts.”
“Interesting ideas, thanks Andrew. I will wait for the package and then set up a meeting with Doug to go through your thoughts. Thanks for calling and we will talk next weekend.”
Having to think about the business was a sufficient distraction that he sat and worked uninterrupted for three hours and had to jog back to College in time for a late dinner. Matt and Navya were there and they sat and chatted about the week. Matt had finally found out the scoop about Tuesday night.
“Did you really buy those girls three rounds of drinks to go and flirt with Jack and Rollie?”
“Yes. They were supposed to wind them up and at the end of the night walk away leaving the pair of them to a long lonely night.”
“Remind me not to get on your bad side you bastard. Well your plan only half worked. Jack ended up on his own cursing humanity and feeling very sorry for himself, but Rollie, the lucky git, was taken back to the Art School dorms and wasn’t seen until Wednesday lunchtime. He hasn’t confirmed anything but they man is walking tall.”
Dinner was relaxed and fun with all three of them speculating what revenge Jack would plan on Andrew, and maybe Rollie just for being a lucky git.
“He’ll try and get me blown up on Salisbury Plain in a couple of weeks.”
This was Andrew’s own prediction. Once again, the weeks settled down into a routine. Andrew was doing well on the course, and was putting the hours in and enjoying the experience. The four of them at the lab table didn’t get on each other’s nerves. Olivia had a knack at setting up experiments and each of them benefitted from a quiet word to fix something they had done wrong. The braying donkey that was ‘Johnno’ had quietened down, not completely but mostly, and from the buzz round the room and at his lab bench he was not doing as well as he expected. Andrew smiled unashamedly. Even Olivia’s stoic demeanour cracked slightly when she heard that.
The weekend before the OTC went to Salisbury Plain he went through all the proposals for CMS but had so many questions that he told Mhairi it would have to wait until he was back in Edinburgh. The time at Addenbrooke’s was as trying as the previous week. Andrew had looked in on Graham; he was asleep and already seemed smaller and frailer. But Mandy and the other patients with few visitors were doing okay. Mandy had lots of questions most of which were easy to answer. Andrew sat with her and they talked about life going forward, this seemed to be much more difficult for her to bring herself to do. He knew that it would come with time. He also told them that he would miss a week due to the OTC weekend on Salisbury Plain. This was a great diversion for the guys, although the girls were uninterested.
Andrew and Rupashi had progressed to having dinner together which was an entertaining evening of theatre, with the two of them the entertainment. They went for a curry, there were several good curry houses in the town and although they weren’t the only students, they stood out for being a mixed couple. Judging by some of the looks at the tables round about them they were the subject of much scrutiny. It was here that Andrew’s knowledge of Hindi gave them some insight. Rupashi went to the toilet and some of the locals took the opportunity to talk about them, never suspecting for a second that Andrew could understand them. The general consensus was that Rupashi was bringing shame on her family, closely followed by ‘what would her mother think?’. It wasn’t mean per se just something that they didn’t see very often, if at all. On the walk back to Jesus College Andrew filled Rupashi in on the chat while she had been away.
“The sad thing is they aren’t far off it. I don’t feel ashamed of going for dinner with you but if we went for dinner on Kingsbury High Street my parents would know before we had finished the meal. It makes me tense just thinking about what Mum would say.”
Rupashi shivered. It also emphasised to Andrew the difficulty of even dating Rupashi. It was a different world, a different mindset. But Rupashi was his second crush, which when he stopped and thought about Ara and how it ended didn’t fill him with confidence. Different race, different circumstances, same obstacles. But all of those worries didn’t stop him holding Rupashi in his arms caressing her arse and letting her grind away against him. This wasn’t a one-sided crush. But after many minutes spent snogging in a dark doorway on the cold streets of Cambridge Andrew walked her back to Jesus, received a chaste peck on the cheek and walked back to Trinity once again resigned to some alone time in the shower. Hmmm.
Other than that very pleasant distraction the two weeks passed quickly and on a cold November night 178 of them, cadets and staff, were loaded onto four coaches at 5.00 and headed off to Salisbury Plain. Andrew was sitting beside Jack with Rollie and Matt in the two seats in front of them. The discussion was about the weekend activities which were still a mystery.
“There are camps in East Anglia and Lincolnshire that are a lot closer so it must be something that can only be done there.”
This was Rollie’s assessment.
“I was there in July and to be honest, we were in the way. There was a big exercise, infantry, tanks and artillery supported by Combat Engineers, the last thing anyone wanted was a bunch of cadets getting in the way. It was great to watch and a couple of officers did take a few minutes to explain some things but it was a real exercise, careers were being evaluated. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was just available accommodation for all of us.”
This didn’t stop the speculation for the remainder of the trip, and at 7.45 they pulled up to Tidworth Camp. Andrew had heard of it and driven past it earlier that year. Perham Down was less than two miles away and they had seen the signs for Tidworth during their three days there. It was a typical pre-war Army camp, First World War; cold, draughty, outdated and with a unique odour. While at the mess getting a late dinner they were told that exercises would start at 6.00 the following morning which meant they were would be up at 5.00. That rather dampened the mood as they sat in their separate mess nursing a beer.
The weekend of training was about demonstrating in a real way, the impact of sleep deprivation upon people in both processing orders and giving orders. It was classic training, an obstacle course, a timed run, shooting at three different distances, a set of problems where each member of the squad took a turn leading the team, giving the orders, finding the solution and getting everyone successfully through it. They had to eat field rations for both lunch and dinner and as the exercises continued well into the night it dawned on them they would not be returning to camp that night. They started repeating the exercises at 4.00 and as soon as dawn broke everyone was at the range, then it was off running again before re-tackling the obstacle course. By mid-afternoon they were all exhausted but the problem solving had to be done again. Now they had done the same exercises about 28 hours earlier but it did not go as well this second time, not even close. Teamwork was compromised and of the eight challenges they failed four of them. Then the instructing staff made them run again before going to the range one final time. It was 4.00 in the afternoon when they were brought back to the camp. Only to then sit through a summary of how they had performed over the weekend and it was fascinating and frightening to see the deterioration in the scores. Slower, less accurate and more fractious. But also a real world example of what it would be like on the front lines, defending yourself for multiple days. If the Soviets invaded through West Germany there would be no sleep for a week, men would die and equipment would be destroyed. No one was singled out either positively or negatively, it was a demonstration of how people would react when fresh and when tired. They proved their point and then some.
The journey back was silent except for the snoring. Andrew skipped Hall, showered and went straight to bed when he was back at College. Of course this meant he was starving in the morning and so Andrew cut a loop out of his run and was at Peggy’s 10 minutes earlier than normal. She looked at the clock in the café when he came in.
“Is the clock wrong?”
It was nice to have a reputation of punctuality.
“No. I was away with the OTC at the weekend, got home late and skipped dinner. I am bloody starving. Can you make me a full English on top of the soup today please?”
It only took her a few minutes to fry everything up and Andrew demolished the big plate of food with speed and determination. With a satisfied smile he paid for breakfast and walked slowly back to College. His second breakfast there was eaten in a more leisurely and polite manner but he still ate the lot and by the time the lectures started he was pleasantly full. That night Andrew didn’t stay too late and joined several of the people from the corridor at dinner. The chat was all over the place as usual, people catching up on happenings over the weekend. He just said they had trained for 36 hours straight and it was exhausting. Sympathy was hard to discern, most of them had no idea about or inclination to know anything about the military, if anything the general mindset was more pacifist, and there were several people that supported CND. But it was tacitly understood to not make a big deal out of it. Andrew didn’t really talk about the OTC and they stayed away from disarmament talk. He knew he was in a minority at university in considering the Armed Forces as an option, even just in the Reserves. Then Navya ambushed him.
“We won at the weekend, we managed to not get beaten by Newnham 4-0.”
This brought cheers, as the tagline for the second eleven was well known.
“In fact we won 2-1. But the interesting part of the day was in the bar afterwards when I ran across an American girl playing hockey for the first time. And as it turns out she knows Andrew.”
Andrew had not thought of Judy since the start of term.
“As I only know one American I am guessing you ran into Judy?”
Navya was quite the story teller, or maybe story embellisher is a better description. Most of the facts were unknown, it was not as if Judy had just told this total stranger about their time together but that didn’t stop Navya from adding two plus two and getting seven.
“I ran into her over the summer, she was with her cousin and some of his friends, all of whom conformed to the stereotype of American tourists. She was here to look at places for her year abroad. We wandered round some of the sights of the West End and had dinner. It was right after school finished.”
“What were you doing in London?”
Mentioning that he was there for the Supertramp concert was not the right thing to do. A more un-hip band could not be named. The abuse was immediate and prolonged although it moved the conversation on from Judy. Pedro sounded horrified.
“To think I nearly went to some gigs with you. Supertramp!”
His outrage was feigned but it pretty well summed up the critiques from his friends.
“You are all musical Philistines.”
There might have been a thrown bread roll at this point. What Navya failed to tell him at the time, although she told several of the group, was that she had mentioned to Judy he was normally at Cindies on a Tuesday night. She also made sure that Matt knew to insist they went to Cindies the next day. In other words, Andrew was stitched up well and truly.
After OTC on Tuesday they all went to change as normal. The three hours had gone by quickly as the permanent staff went through the results in more detail and the cadets got the chance to see how big a drop off they had suffered across the exercises. What had been noteworthy was that the physical drop-off was there, they were all slower on both the runs and the obstacle course, but that the shooting, although less accurate, was not affected as much. Where they had totally ballsed it up was in the thinking, cognitive parts of the exercises. They were less mentally sharp, and that was how mistakes were made which would get them and their men killed. It was sobering to listen to the staff go through the errors. But as with all good training courses they ended on a positive. The Army had hundreds of years of managing this situation and the training for the rest of the term and through the start of the following term was going to be on ways to manage this situation. This review was where the Permanent Staff started to use the phrase ‘staying switched on’, Army speak for fighting through fatigue and making sure you were still able to maintain discipline, issue and follow orders and not just doze off. It was a ubiquitous phrase within the armed forces and Cambridge University OTC were treated no differently. Understanding tiredness was fundamental and they all now knew the potential impact. So it had been a good session and Andrew was really enjoying being a member of the platoon. He and Matt got changed and discovered that ‘coincidentally’ Navya, Helena and Pedro were also going to Cindies that night, so the five of them headed over there and fought their way into the throng. Jack was already there but making no progress at the bar, and Rollie had found them by the time Andrew could get them all served.
He should have realised that something was up because Navya looked far too happy, looking round waiting to see if Judy would show up. But in the meantime Raquel was there along with the usual gaggle of Art School students. Rollie, Jack and Andrew were swished off to the dance floor where he made Raquel dance with Jack first while he danced with the smallest member of their group. Andrew was more than a foot taller than his dance partner and Raquel was six inches taller than Jack. After half a song they switched and the laughter around them calmed down. He and Raquel danced for three or four songs and when he got back to the group there was Judy, just as he remembered her, standing talking to Navya watching him approach them. Andrew stopped in front of them and looked down.
“What, you are not going to throw yourself at me?”
The whack was entirely expected and he pulled her in for a big hug.
“I have never seen you around the place and I thought you had ended up going to London, or worse, Oxford.”
Matt took Navya off to dance and the two of them caught up. Like him she had been taken with Cambridge but Oxford had also dazzled her before she finally chose Cambridge based on a gut feeling. Andrew looked at her trying to discern whether he was any part of that feeling but could not detect anything. She had returned to the States to get organised and pack and had arrived just in time for term. Newnham was south and west of the town centre and so they had never run into each other, but she seemed to have been quite lonely and hadn’t made as many friends as she hoped. Then Pedro and Helena came back from the dance floor and she got a crash course in Spanish romancing. She went with him out onto the dance floor and Helena nabbed an empty bar stool so that he was vaguely closer to her height.
“Navya told me that her eyes lit up when she talked about you. Another victim of the McLeod charm?”
Her smile and voice were wistful.
Her smile turned genuine.
“Just testing. She does seem nice. Nobody can ever accuse you of having a type, can they?”
“Oh I have a type as you well know. Clever and interesting. After that everything else is a bonus. Take that girl Raquel. A nice person, struggling to deal with being 6’2” as a woman, clever but I didn’t find her interesting. There was just no vibe. It is the complex ones that I am drawn to, plus let’s face it I am a bit of a tart.”
Helena laughed out loud at the last comment.
“Yes, but you are a tart with a heart of gold.”
She leaned her head against his arm for a second.
“I am guessing we will see a lot more of Judy going forward.”
“I have no idea. What are the rules about the Women only Colleges? Are men allowed on the grounds, I mean I presume they are, they are not nunneries but it will feel odd going there, like I am this alien species that doesn’t belong?”
“Oh, give it a rest. Of course guys are allowed in the College.”
“Then we will see. I really did only meet her for one day. The one thing I do know is that Navya is a right little shit stirrer.”
When Judy came back from the dance floor with Pedro they split from Cindies and Andrew offered to walk her back to Newnham. She put her arm through his as they walked down the street.
“I gather that you didn’t know I would be there tonight?”
“No, but it is no big deal. Navya is always stirring it up. The fact that I am comfortable around women has them all convinced that there are lots and lots of stories. Running into someone like you just reinforces those beliefs.”
“Random American tourists that you wooed into your bed?”
“Something like that. But what really piques their curiosity is that I don’t talk about it. You turn up out of the blue and Navya is all excited. But there are no huge secrets with you.”
He changed the topic away from their one day together and instead asked her how she was finding life here at Cambridge.
“It is all very different Andrew. Not bad different but just different. I miss the States, way more than I thought I would. This week is Thanksgiving, the first I will ever miss with my family and I am homesick. I can’t wait for term to finish so that I can get home and see my folks. You have no idea how nice it was to meet someone who knew you and get a chance to talk to you?”
Judy had not let go of Andrew’s arm during the whole walk back to Newnham and he could almost feel the loneliness. He asked about the other girls at the College and it all seemed fine, it just had not clicked, she had not found the two or three good friends, the way Andrew had with Matt, Navya and Helena. He imagined himself in Providence in the same circumstance and it would be tough. They got to the gate to Newnham.
“What are you up to this weekend Andrew?”
“I normally go for a swim on a Saturday afternoon, why don’t you come to the pool. I will meet you there at 2.00 and if you don’t want to swim we can meet afterwards at say 3.00?”
Judy was not a swimmer so agreed on 3.00 at Parkside and Andrew hugged her and leaned in to give her a peck on the cheek. Turning her head Judy kissed him long and hard before smiling shyly and scooting through the gate of Newnham. Hmmm. Andrew went to sleep with a raging hard on dreaming of his last encounter with Judy Stein. Hmmm indeed.
There was only one week of term left. Andrew had accommodation for another week and had also paid to leave his stuff in his room over both the Christmas and Easter vacations. He would only be taking one bag back to Edinburgh with him. The last class of his course was on November 30th and all classes were finished by Friday December 2nd with accommodation provided until the 9th. Andrew’s issue was he had told both the staff at the hospital as well as some of the patients that he would be there on the 11th, he had got his weeks wrong. One night at dinner he overheard an older post grad student explaining that you could pay for additional nights, so for a few extra quid he had two additional nights and would leave the College on the morning of the 11th, volunteer at the hospital and then start the journey home to Edinburgh. It wasn’t ideal but it was his own fault. Andrew was thinking all this through in his head as he swam the morning after walking Judy home and contemplated the vacation. He knew he was fine with the coursework from the term, but staying a week after classes finished would allow him the chance to not just review the term but to read ahead for the next one.
Andrew knew that he came across as the most boring student ever, he did study too much but it was something that he enjoyed and, at some deeper level, needed. Mhairi’s words also came back to him as well, he needed to switch off, to find something that would ultimately take the place of studying. It was time to seriously embrace a hobby that would occupy him especially in the evenings. His camera and photography were the most obvious choice. He used to take his camera everywhere with him, he had boxes and albums of pictures, the memorable sessions with Tanvi and June, the wonderful day with Nikki and Fran, there were lots of photos that he had taken over the years.
Of course for the last six months nearly all his photography had been the modelling sessions with Maggie, mostly outdoors. If he did bring his camera back to College with him next term he would need to get back into the habit of shooting ‘normal’ shots. It would probably be even more of a difference given the plans the three of them had made for the winter break. But the landscape of the Fens was very different to Edinburgh and Scotland generally. He may not get the chance to use the camera much given the constraints of time but it would be good to have the option. Thinking about Edinburgh and photography not only reminded him of Maggie but also Suzanne. There were rolls and rolls of film of Suzanne from their vacation, always dressed but in everything from little sundresses to skimpy bikinis. The later were spectacular, Suzanne relaxed and flirty, tanned and voluptuous. Hmm.
The other possibility was his computer. Lack of time meant that he had done very limited programming during the term, he was always studying and although he had used it to tabulate results in VisiCalc, it was just gathering dust most of the time. Music and computing had been so much a part of his life at school, his two main hobbies, and now he was barely doing either. One more example of his constant need to maintain balance.
Andrew assumed that most people would leave the weekend after classes finished and so the College, at least the undergraduate parts would be quiet. It was something to bring up as mealtime conversation with his friends. What he did not expect was so many offers of visits and staying with his friends. Navya, Helena, Pedro, Nigel and, surprisingly, Justin all offered if he wanted to visit them before returning to Edinburgh or coming down early and then going up to College in January together. Andrew was taken aback and a bit overwhelmed. He thanked Pedro but they agreed to delay until Easter, Andrew would bring his passport and would go to Ferrol with him for part of the Easter break. In the end it was almost decided for him. Nigel, Justin and Navya were all leaving first thing on the Saturday morning as soon as classes finished and Andrew had to be at Addenbrooke’s on the Sunday whereas Helena’s parents were flying back from holiday on the Saturday and would not be in Cambridge until Sunday. He got her to push the pickup time back until 2.00 and figured he would go in early to the ward. It was Sunday and there were limited surgical rounds then. The agreement with Helena was that he would stay until Wednesday and then come back to College for a couple of days before finally heading north.
As for the other three Andrew decided to give Rupashi some space and not freak her out by showing up at her house. They had met regularly during the term and despite some limited but intense snogging he could tell that she was struggling with the whole concept of being attracted to a white non-Hindu. Navya understood and Andrew told her he would come and stay at Easter if the offer was still open. As he learned about the expectations of children of Indian parents he wasn’t sure that their parents would be overly enthusiastic about the idea. So he talked to Nigel and Justin about staying with them in January. They could come back up to College on the 14th of January so it would be the second week of the month that he could stay. Justin made it easy, he had the space so Andrew would crash with Nigel at the beginning of the week and then the pair of them would stay with Justin for the last couple of days and then drive with Justin and his Dad back to College. Andrew did wonder about the space for all Nigel’s stuff but hey, that wasn’t his issue. Of course, the quid pro quo meant that he would have a stream of visitors in Edinburgh during the summer, and Andrew found himself pleased at the prospect. This was part of what university was all about, and the thing he was most shit at doing. So everything was set, he had one more week of classes, three weekends at Addenbrooke’s and would be back in Edinburgh late on the night of December 11th.
All the logistics of life taken care of, Andrew made sure he finished the term as strong as he had started. The final lab was a complicated set up so they were working in pairs. The issue of plagiarism was known and watched for but was not the all-encompassing issue that it became in later years. Nothing was online, there was no such thing as online, you looked things up on microfiches and if you want to copy something you had to copy it out longhand from the book. Lab work in pairs was an area where the Engineering Department watched to make sure that both students were totally involved in the design and setup of the apparatus and then conducted the experiments separately. He and Olivia had no issue and just took turnabout with the readings from the experiments and then wrote up their results separately. Olivia was fun, helpful and very hard working but at the end of the day she went west to Newnham and Andrew went north to Trinity. She had relaxed a little over the term but had taken a few weeks to get over being thrown out of her initial lab group. They compiled their results separately, helped by the fact they did not socialise at all outside the Department. With this last lab done it was just the last lectures and supervisions and Andrew would be done for the term.
After the last hockey game of the year the team celebrated their overall 4-3 record. The toast was ‘at least we didn’t lose to Newnham 4-0’. There were a good group of guys who had fun, played hard but never took it too seriously. Exactly what Andrew needed and what a lot of the team needed. They had a reputation amongst the Colleges of not taking the game very seriously but played hard, and always mocked the second elevens who played like it was the fucking Olympics. St. John’s being the most prominent example.
Andrew was at the pool early and got into one of his mindless swims, not very fast but able to be sustained for a long time. With classes almost over and the term having gone well he was thinking about the break, specifically the three days with Helena and her family. They were close now, a little flirty and touchy, but still living their own lives. They knew what they had, almost a fall-back position and fucked every couple of weeks. Here he was about to meet Judy and all he was thinking about was fucking Helena. At this rate he was going to leave the pool embarrassing himself. But Helena and Navya made university better for him, they kept him grounded, took the piss relentlessly and in Navya’s case flirted quite determinedly in an utterly asexual sort of way. It was as if she was trying out her moves on him. The biggest issue to her flirting was that she bumped and ground against Andrew’s thigh as opposed to his groin which negated the impact. Between the two of them he had a couple of good friends that he saw nearly every day. Andrew thought about Judy and his instinct was that she was lonely, missing her family and that he was more of a friendly face than anything else. He would talk to her later in the day and see how she was doing. Come Saturday she would be at Heathrow for the first flight home to New York.
Thinking about Judy and how she was missing her family led Andrew to thinking about his own family. Things were not good with his parents, there was no point in pretending otherwise. Other than a single letter there had been no communication between them. Andrew’s annoyance at the situation had resulted in him asking about Scott but making no mention or enquiry about Rowan. It was petty but he couldn’t help himself. He guessed his parents were kind and loving but in selfish way that worked for them. In fact as he thought about it he hoped they were kind and loving, there wasn’t much evidence based on the way they treated him. How many of the family issues, the emotionally remote dynamic, were due to him, the impossible son? The son who needed nothing, who had paid off their mortgage, paid his own way through school and university. He hoped his parents were proud of him, but Brian and even Jim Barnes were much more vocal in their praise of him than either of his parents. As he thought about it, he wasn’t sure the last time they said they were proud of him. But Andrew knew that he had to shoulder a lot of the blame. He had deceived his father into signing the licencing agreements, not that his father had cared to read any of them, but still. He had a flat in Edinburgh that they didn’t even know about, again as a result of them being upset with him in the house. Andrew took Suzanne with him to buy the flat, to buy the furniture and furnishings. She had played the role of his wife, it never occurred to him to ask his mother or father to do that with him. And his six weeks at home were already down to four and he hadn’t even left Cambridge yet. He had no idea what to make of it all, but they were definitely not the Scottish version of The Waltons. He looked up and saw that it was 2.55, also saw that Judy was in the gallery so pulled himself out of the pool and went to change. He was showered and out in the foyer at 3.01, another reminder of the benefits of short hair.
“Well if it isn’t the human torpedo. I came early and you were metronomic, back and forth. I can also see why you have the body you do, when you came out the pool it brought back lots of memories of London, especially the next morning.”
Judy’s smile was radiant, it was good to see her looking so much happier.
“So we are not going to coyly step around our first meeting then?”
“Oh don’t be silly Andrew. This from the man who stood naked in the room, pulled a condom on and then sat down and said ‘come and get it’.”
Judy was on a roll.
“I admit I did. But I did have this smoking hot Art History student naked in my bed and I wanted to see her sashay across the room before impaling herself upon my magnificence.”
Even Andrew couldn’t keep a straight face for that and they both burst out laughing.
“Only you can make sex so fun, do you know that? Impaling herself upon your magnificence. Hah!”
It was probably just as well there were no little old ladies around just at that moment. Judy wanted to sit and chat so he took her to Peggy’s café, it was close by and was usually quiet at this time on a Saturday.
“Hello Peggy, this is my friend Judy from the States, an exchange student. Two students in at once doesn’t exceed the rules, does it?”
“Ha, ha, funny man. Nice to meet you Judy. How on earth do you know this crazy Scotsman?”
“Hello, nice to meet you too. I met Andrew in London over the summer. Finally ran him to ground last week so we are catching up.”
“There is no soup left but I do have some pie and I can do a sandwich as well.”
“One sandwich and two slices of pie please Maggie.”
They grabbed a seat and she looked at him.
“Well, how are you so friendly with a blue-collar café worker?”
She had to explain what blue collar meant.
“Oh, working class. I come here every morning on the way back to College after my swim.”
Sometimes Andrew forgot who knew which part of the story. So he quickly went over the swimming every day and lentil soup for breakfast part of his routine.
“Lentil soup for breakfast!”
This from a nation that eats gravel for breakfast.
“Yes luv, every morning. We don’t get many students down here but this one comes in before term even starts and asks me to make him lentil soup every morning. He has been eating lentil soup for breakfast for how long now Andrew?”
“At the end of January it will be five years Peggy.”
She just walked away shaking her head.
“Andrew, I understand you swim every morning and you eat lentil soup for breakfast but why.”
Ah, another thing he had not mentioned, it was just a one night stand.
“Five years ago I was in hospital undergoing treatment for skin cancer. It was January that I finally got the all clear. When I was released the leaflets all said eat lots of protein especially vegetable protein, so Mum made huge pots of lentil soup and I had it breakfast, lunch and dinner until I went back to school and then I just had it for breakfast and dinner. When I came here I got Peggy to make it for me.”
Judy just looked at him.
“Wow, there is so much I don’t know about you.”
So they talked for an hour and a half, bought some more pie, but Peggy left them in peace. It was nice to catch up and again Andrew tried to make Judy talk as much as him. He signed her in to College and she joined the table at dinner not that Andrew got a chance to talk to her much. Justin was all over her, once he knew she was also reading Art History. The two of them were in their own little world and hit it off really well. They had friends of friends in common and Andrew was pleased that Judy was making some new friends. He felt a hand on his leg and turned to Helena’s smiling face.
“Very. I am happy that she is making some friends.”
The smile in her eyes told their own story.
He mouthed quietly. She nodded. They were a large loud group in the common room that night. Judy chatted away with several people, including another American who was reading NatSci and was in his second year. At the end of the night Judy came up to Andrew looking a little sheepish.
“I can’t believe the time. I have hardly spoken to you all night. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, I am glad you have had a nice night and you seem to have made a few new friends.”
Judy looked at her feet and mumbled. Andrew had to get her to repeat it.
“Would you be okay if Justin walked me back to the College?”
His smile was broad and genuine.
“Of course I am fine. You are my friend. Just be gentle with him.”
Her smile was wide and the whack richly deserved. She and Justin left and Helena and the rest of the group looked at him.
“What? Have you seen Justin so animated and happy so far this term? She is a friend and so is he. Hopefully the wedding is here rather than the States so that we can all go.”
Some of the group left to get ready to head out, it was the last Saturday of term for most of them and soon it was just Helena and him.
“You really okay?”
“Yes. Let’s be blunt, she was not the love of my life, she is American and proud of it; and Jewish and that is important to her. This would have been a dalliance, was a dalliance, nothing more. I am pleased that she had a fun night and seemed to have made some friends. She told me she was lonely when I spoke to her on Tuesday, maybe meeting us was what she needed to break out the shell.”
“Come on, let’s go to bed Andrew.”
Andrew didn’t know what it was that night but Helena was horny and wanted to be fucked hard and often. They both stripped as quickly as possible but rather than lie on the bed Helena dropped to her knees and looked up at him.
“Think about what I am saying to you with my eyes Andrew.”
Her blowjobs were basic but they did not need to be anything else. She hardly blinked and never broke eye contact with him. Between the head of his dick in her mouth, her hand rolling his balls gently back and forth and her eyes telling him to come hard and to come now, Andrew had no chance. Helena knew how to play the game, engage the mind and the rest was easy. For the first time she tried to swallow and other than some leakage round the edges she did a wonderful job. She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand but was still taken aback when Andrew kissed her. She pulled apart.
“Never mind going down on me just hurry up and fuck me.”
Andrew needed a moment to recover and for his dick to harden again but kissing Helena while she wanked him back and forth worked its magic and once he was wrapped, lifted Helena up under the bum cheeks, pushed her against the wall and lowered her down onto him, her hand helping line everything up. She dropped onto him with an oomph and they kissed savagely. Andrew hoped like hell that Abigail was not in her room because the wall was shaking. There was no way that they could keep this intensity up for long and as Helena came with a howl Andrew felt his dick get squeezed and let go as well. His legs started to give out and they slid down the wall to a tangled heap on the floor. Slowly they disentangled themselves and crawled to the bed, cleaning up the condom on the way. Helena lay on top of him as usual.
“I hope Abi was out.”
“I had the same thought. The wall was shaking pretty hard.”
They didn’t really say much at first, they just lay recovering.
“I don’t know what has got into me tonight but I am so fucking horny Andrew.”
Without a word he pushed her off his chest and sat up grabbing another condom.
“On your hands and knees, head down, arse up, with your arms out in front of you. Brace against the wall.”
There was no questioning glance or any hesitation from Helena, she was ready by the time he was safely covered. Holding Helena’s hips, almost lifting her knees off the bed due to the height difference, Andrew tried to drive her through the wall. It was the most out of control fucking he had done in a long time. But it was what Helena wanted and needed, the snarls of encouragement and mocking of his efforts just drove him even more. Letting go of her hips his arms were outside hers and he could lean close to her ear.
“God, you are so fucking sexy, so deliciously wanton; is this what you need? To be ravished. Do you know what I am going to do to you next? I am going to make you come again and again until you can’t take it anymore. I am not going to stop making you come until you scream Helena at me.”
Andrew grabbed her and bodily flung her over. Impaling her once again he leaned back on his knees until Helena’s body was arched against his, his cock pressing up against her g-spot. Andrew knew from the one time he did this with Suzanne that he needed utter focus to hold off but had done it before. In the end it wasn’t fair, Helena was a sobbing mess before he even started but to feel her body react to his, to know that he was producing this effect on her was heady stuff. As with the last time Andrew narrowed his focus to nothing more than his dick rubbing back and forth across the top of her pussy. He had his eyes firmly shut, that was key, and just kept on fucking. His back ached, his knees ached and his balls ached but he kept on going.
“Helena, Helena, Andrew. Mercy”
Andrew stopped the movement and lowered Helena down gently back onto the bed before slipping out. Removing the condom he wet a cloth at the sink and gently wiped her face and neck. He then lay down beside her and held her in silence for a long time.
“Remind me not to get you riled up again.”
The voice was weary but the Helena spirit was still there.
“What did I ever do to you to deserve that?”
Her head lifted up and she smiled at him.
“Was this my end of term treat?”
She was getting stronger by the minute and it was lovely to see her so happy, shattered but happy.
“I need to pee, let’s get ready for bed, come on.”
Helena dragged him out of bed and he groaned. 10 minutes later they were fast asleep, his hand as always cradling her arse, Helena with her head testing on his shoulder. The following morning they lazed in bed and finally talked about the night before.
“That was interesting Andrew.”
“That can mean a lot of things Helena. What do you mean? How are you feeling?”
“Confused. Happy. Sore. Those three will do to start. My pussy aches and that is to be expected, but I am sore in the oddest places. My calves are tight and I have done something to my shoulder.”
It took a few minutes and a partial demonstration to show Helena how the night had ended and why she had strained some of her muscles.
“That makes more sense. I am happy because I didn’t know sex could be that intense and I loved it. And that gives rise to the confusion. As usual when I think I understand you, something else shows up to just make me throw my hands up in the air. Here is safe Andrew, who looks out for me, is happy for us to have a relationship which is a close friendship with a little sex thrown in every now and again. But he studies insanely and has this nice guy vibe. Like I said, nice and safe, exactly the kind of guy a girl can take home to meet her parents at the end of first term.
“I was never a rebel Andrew, I am not a rebel now but you have seen the movies, read the books, it is a cliché about the good girl drawn to the misunderstood bad guy. Here I am lying next to you talking about my idiotic girlish fantasies but I always wondered what it would be like to go out with a ‘bad boy’. All the wanting what you can’t have or don’t know, I suppose.”
She stopped and looked at him.
“Like I said you confused me last night because you played the part of bad boy so well. The way you took me, fucked me against the wall, the casual command but said in such a way that I could never refuse, ‘head down, arse up, brace yourself against the wall’. And then the fucking at the end, Andrew, I am a stubborn headstrong woman who hates to give up and never wants to lose to anyone and you fucked me into submission. And I loved it. I can lie here this morning and talk about it with you. You confuse me Andrew. Look at last night, you introduce Judy to a bunch of people, are happy that she spends most of the night with other people rather than you and let Justin take her home. Nice guy, nice guy, nice guy, but then we come here and you try and knock the walls down and make me pass out from orgasming.”
She stopped talking and it was his turn to talk apparently.
“It is interesting to hear you talk like that. Just when you think you have shed old labels they are reapplied in a new situation. I was seen as safe at school, which is probably my personality. One of my friends talked to me about my turn-ons, what was buried down in my psyche that I wanted to try. We had played around with some of her fantasies and she wanted to return the favour. But we couldn’t find any. Partly because I was a lucky bastard and had had a lot of sex, so there was not much that I hadn’t tried. But my fantasies are about being with the other person as they explore them. I can’t enjoy sex unless the other person is into it. That is really my only fantasy.”
“Come on Andrew, really? There is nothing that you want to try?”
“Helena, without going into any details, I have been tied up, tied someone up, spanked someone, done analingus, had anal sex, played dress up, had semi-public sex, and played the punter when a friend wanted to try a hooker role play. I made her negotiate for a night of no holes barred sex in the town square in a pub beer garden, put my room key on the table and left her to think about it for five minutes before coming to my room and being handed money by me.”
Helena was stunned into silence. They lay there as she processed that lot. Finally in a quiet voice.
“All of them at the woman’s suggestion, well the semi-public was mutual, but the rest were all the lady. I wasn’t trying to shock you Helena but every one of those acts is true and they were not all this summer. I was 15 when I started anal play. So when you are really turned on and want some hard physical sex I can do it. But I don’t think I could initiate it, which is my dilemma. I take what I am offered but I don’t know that I can suggest something like last night, and I’m sure I could never demand it. Well, that is not true but as it applies to you and me, it would not happen.”
“What does that last part mean?”
“I have never really had a girlfriend, once for a couple of months in 5th year but she ditched me for being too boring. But I have one long term sex partner and she and I have sufficient knowledge, understanding and history that I am slightly different with her than I am with other people, that’s all I meant. But she sets the pace most of the time, my partner, whoever it may be, always does. It is who I am. A bit of a chameleon I suppose, able to adapt to the situation.”
“Just when I thought I couldn’t get any more confused.”
Helena shook her head.
“So if I wanted to do any of those things that you listed out you would?”
“I would talk with you about it, make sure there was some prep done to ensure success.”
“How do you mean?”
“Without being too gross, hygiene and lube spring to mind. Thinking back to the first time I tried anal sex it ended in miserable, painful failure. Dress up requires planning, being tied up requires planning, and a discussion beforehand. But most of all, it requires the right mental frame of mind. If I put you over my knee right now and spanked you there is nothing sexual about that. It is just punishment, and undeserved. But if it is something that you want to try then the whole night is based around you being ‘naughty’, pushing my buttons, and me telling you to behave or I will put you over my knee, playing games like that. But you also need to have a word that cuts through everything and stops it immediately. And at the end of the day it has to be fun and something you want to do or try. It can also something that may freak you out and make you wish you had never tried it. That has happened to me as well. At the end of the day you have to trust the other person, especially if you are being tied up, or spanked or treated in a very different way.”
Andrew reached down and rubbed Helena’s temples with her fingers.
“There is obviously a physiological component to all this, but for me and in my experience the other person, it is mostly mental. Lots of taboos, lots of experimentation. Think about it at the beginning of the term. I asked you to wear a little black dress that would look good on you and even better puddled at your ankles, and I made you wait a week. You had a whole week of thinking about that moment. So what did you do? You wore no underwear, so when the dress fell down there you were. I hardly saw you that week, it was not physical it was all mental. I planted the seed of the scene in your mind and you made it even better.
The silence stretched on between them as Helena lay there thinking.
“So it can work with planning or it can work spontaneously, we have shown that either can happen. So if you are this guy who responds to the demands of the moment, reacts to the situation around him what does that make me?”
“That is what university is all about, finding yourself. I have no knowledge of your sexual history but you seemed to have done everything in the dark and there had been no blowjobs or pussy eating so you were pretty inexperienced. I don’t think you have any chance of knowing who you are yet.”
“Can we talk about us?”
He nodded and she carried on.
“We are not boyfriend and girlfriend but I think I have been holding back because we live so close to each other.”
“I completely agree, I never pushed things with Emma because of exactly that reason. I am glad for different reasons now but at the time it felt, em, disloyal somehow. Even although as you say we are not a couple.”
“As I lie here thinking about everything you have said, I need to get some more experience, and not just in bed but in dealing with men, find out what works for me and what doesn’t. But it also doesn’t mean that I don’t want to do this every now and again. Is that selfish?”
“Of course not. This year will be tough, inevitably when you least want someone to be in the corridor they will be there. I know Pedro and Emma have had someone stay over but I am actually totalling oblivious to anyone else’s escapades. I don’t care anyway. Plus we also have the option of staying over at the other College as well. You are my friend first and foremost, the fact that you happen to be this outrageous sexual wildcat is just a bonus.”
The kiss was deep and heartfelt but then Helena got a spark in her eye.
“You never did come last night did you Andrew? At the end I mean.”
She continued to slide down his body and his dick was hard and ready to go even before he felt her hot breath on it.
“Put a pillow behind your neck so that you can see me.”
Andrew did as she requested.
“Now look into my eyes. What do you see there? What sexual acts do I want you to do to me, with me? What are my darkest fantasies?”
She was a master at this, the mental manipulation. But what made it so much better was the way Helena looked at him, innocent and dirty all at the same time. Every so often, randomly, she would raise her eyebrows and looked shocked. When Andrew came it was with a toe curling intensity and she had to put an arm across his stomach to stop him trying to drive his dick down her throat. She came back up the bed with a very smug expression on her face.
“See, that is the kind of look that gets a woman a spanking.”
They both burst out laughing and he kissed her soundly. Andrew sat up and Helena yawned and snuggled back into bed.
“Get out you crazy Scotsman. Go for a run and let the sensible people have a long lie.”
He dodged the pillow just in time.
“I am going to be in the library as usual this afternoon. Dinner tonight?”
As Andrew ran he thought more about Helena and their situation. He had not turned down anyone because of Helena or at least so he thought but it had played into the situation with Emma at the start of term. But it also suited him. What had Tanvi said all those years ago, ‘you live life on your own terms’, something like that? This was exactly the same, studying came first, the routine came first, and the people in his life had to fit around it. That every couple of weeks he and Helena fucked was just an added bonus. Andrew had never found anyone that made him want to compromise, in anything. Was that it for him, when he gladly changed something in his life for another person? He spun round at the golf course and increased the pace on the run back into town. He couldn’t handle having a girlfriend, Hannah had shown that two years earlier, he did nothing to make her seem like a priority to him. Life on his terms. As Andrew thought about it Helena could do much better than him, someone who wanted to spend time with her as opposed to seeing her at dinner occasionally or at her bedroom door in the morning.
This was not a new insight but it did seem to be a lesson that he needed to keep learning. At 18, not even a term into a four year university course, Andrew had time but it was how he had lived life for years. Something to think about.
The ward brought reality back into Andrew’s life in a hurry. Two more children, ones he did not know well, had not responded to treatment and Graham was no longer in the ward. However, the group of children that he tried to spend time with, the treatment orphans who were often on their own, all seemed to be responding to their treatment. There were eight of them at the moment, three girls and five guys. The guys were all in the 9 to 12 range with the girls ranging from the youngest, a very shy quiet 8 year old, up to Mandy who was 15 and would be 16 early in the new year. Andrew said hi and chatted away as he helped around the ward. For a lot of the children, he was now a familiar face, and to their parents as well. Little by little his story had got out and he was an accepted part of the ward environment. After helping the orderly serve dinner, this was the unionised 1980s all he did was push the food cart, he went and sat with the usual group. Three of the boys were called Michael which didn’t help the clarity of the conversation. Andrew told them he would be in on the Saturday the following weekend, he had already checked that this was okay with the sister, as he was going to somewhere in Hampshire on the Sunday.
“How do you not know where you are going?”
This was their perfectly reasonable response. So they just chatted away about staying at a friend’s house which they were familiar with. He told them about meeting Judy again and this led to a hilarious discussion about the States, England, London, girls, it went all over the place. The non-sequiturs always made his head spin. But as always it was the small simple things that they liked to talk about. Judy lived outside New York City which they had all heard of and most of them had seen scenes of it in the cinema or on the television. Andrew always talked about exercising, running and swimming trying to plant the seed so that they embraced it when they got out of hospital.
“But look at us Andrew, we will never be like you.”
This was one of the Michaels. In his wallet Andrew had the picture of him taken by Tony at the start of February, a couple of weeks after his release from hospital. It showed his painfully skeletal little body, his ribs sticking out, his arms nothing but twigs and his thin, drawn face with his bald head. So he showed them all the photo.
“That is not you.”
Another of the Michaels.
“I promise you that is me. I got out of hospital two weeks, maybe three weeks earlier. I was 13 and a half and that is what I looked like. The day after I got the all clear from the hospital I tried to do my first sit ups, I managed three I think, and my first push ups, and I didn’t manage any. I had to do wall push offs to start.”
He showed them what he meant.
“But I did that every day, ran every morning before school, again all I could do was walk at the start, and I swam every day before school as well. The first time I swam the lifeguard kept a close eye on me and I managed four lengths I think and had to have a long rest after each one. But if you do something every day you get stronger, faster and able to do it more and more.”
Even that five seconds of reflection from them all was worth it. They were thinking about what they were going to do themselves when they got out. They continued chatting away and then more and more of the kids started to look tired and settled down to nap. Andrew was able to sit with Mandy and talk to her more privately.
“It is hard to believe that you were once just like all of us.”
“It is mainly my height, I had not yet hit puberty when I was diagnosed and all the radiation and chemotherapy delayed it so when I was out I started growing at the same time as I gained back the weight. It drove Mum crazy that every term nothing fitted and we had to go and get new clothes. At the start of term everything was too big and at the end of term everything was too small, or short or tight. I only stopped growing earlier this year. Anyway, have you any questions for me today?”
“How did people treat you when you got back to school?”
“Children are very self-absorbed and I found that most people were interested for a couple of days but then something else came along and distracted them. I never brought it up and tried to avoid talking about it, especially by the start of the next school year. I didn’t want to be the kid who survived cancer and so I just didn’t talk about it. Once I grew and put on weight then it became less and less obvious and it didn’t come up much. Some of the people in my year even forgot that I was off for two terms in 2nd year and had survived cancer. That was oddly pleasing for me. I have had to talk about it more recently because it has come up during all the meet and greets at university. I have spoken about it with my new friends at the College and the Department. But it is five years ago and so it is more background info than anything else. Are you worried about how people will treat you?”
“Look at me, I will be a freak.”
“No you won’t, because you don’t go back to school immediately. It was nearly three months later before I went back to school. You will be weak and susceptible to germs, the flu, stuff like that. I got the all clear at the end of January but studied at home for the rest of term two and only went back to school in April. My hair had grown although I was already cutting it short, and I was a little taller and had put on some weight. Sure you will have short hair and will be thinner than normal but it will come back. Again, think about it. There is nothing that you can do about your appearance, only time and good eating will fix that and there is also nothing you can do about what other people think. I got into a fight at school at the end of the first week back and was suspended for a day because of it.”
He told Mandy the story of Murray Jones and the aftermath.
“People will say stupid and cruel things. I found a knee to the balls an effective retort.”
“I had survived cancer, what was the worst thing that could happen to me? There was nothing. I started living my own life at that point. Like I said I embraced the parts of me that I liked but I changed other things. That’s what caused the fight. I was no longer the person from a year earlier. I think about it as old Andrew versus new Andrew. I never would have had a fight before, I never would have had rows with the parents of some of my friends. Hell, I was impertinent with the Headmaster in his office. Be yourself and if you don’t know who you are then keep exploring. It is an odd thing to say but I learned a lot in hospital about myself and about living life.”
“Is that why you are here? To not just be a friend and a support for us, but also to talk to us about life?”
Andrew was profoundly shocked.
“Mandy, that is brilliant. I could never have articulated that but there is some truth to that. The reasons for me being here are very complex and I don’t know that I could fully explain them all but I think you are right. It is talking about life after cancer.”
She had flushed but looked pleased at his praise.
“So you are Obi-wan then are you?”
He laughed at the Star Wars reference.
“Don’t let the Michaels know that you like Star Wars, you will never get a minute’s peace.”
Andrew left to help tidy up around the ward. As he was carrying something back to the nurse’s station he saw a man staring at him. Andrew felt he should know him but couldn’t place him. On the way back the man was looking at him again and Andrew realised where he knew him from. He was one of the men who was at the Café in the morning, he worked for the council and Andrew usually saw him wearing one of those fluorescent vests. He stood as Andrew came down the ward.
“What are you doing here? I thought you were a gownie?”
Gownie was the pejorative term used by the people who lived in Cambridge to describe the students. There was a whole townie versus gownie issue lurking under the surface in the town.
“You are right, I am a student but I volunteer here on a Sunday. I had cancer myself when I was a child.”
He looked taken aback at this, then his whole attitude changed and his bristly persona just collapsed. He took Andrew over to meet his wife and son. His son looked terrible, frail and weak, in obvious pain. Andrew stayed and chatted for a few minutes and then left to say goodbye to Mandy. Although he did not spend a lot of time in the ward he was always surprised when a child said goodbye to him as he headed for the exit. Andrew stopped to remind the sister he would be in on the Saturday not the Sunday and then headed out. The guy from the café and his wife were waiting at the elevator, on their way down to the cafeteria while their son slept.
As Andrew walked back to College, he rarely took the bus as it gave him time to think and process everything, he thought about Ron, the council worker, and his wife. The look of despair, the realisation that nothing was working. You could never tell from the way Ron acted at the café, the banter between the workmen and yet away from that he was a father facing up to the fact his son was dying. And he had a lifetime of pain to face, the tragedy of Faith’s death never left Mary and Brian. It was often buried but it never went away. As Andrew walked he thought about his own parents, how they were at the time of his treatment and especially afterwards. They had dodged the ultimate nightmare for any parent, the death of a child. How did those fears play out in the way they treated Rowan and him afterwards? Whether intentional or not, Scott was a result of the good news about his recovery. But as always, his relationship, or rather the lack of one, with his parents confused Andrew. He had the ideal teenage year’s childhood. There were no rules, other than the time to be home by. He could often be away for 15 hours at the weekend with everything that he was doing. He had Sunday dinner with another family. They never seemed to push back, demand family time. He didn’t get it.
Rather than study at the Library he wrote a couple of short letters to Leslie and Suzanne, updating them on life at College. He was looking forward to seeing them both, and Julian too. Half the time Andrew stopped writing and just sat there reminiscing about all the things that had happened over the years. Dinner that night was busy, the last weekend for most of the students and so it was lively and entertaining. Justin was the subject of much banter at the dinner table and he took it well. He didn’t have much choice as he was spotted coming home at 11.30 that morning. The other odd thing was that Abigail was staring at him in a very strange manner. Of all the people in the corridor, even David who was dull and only talked about rowing, she was the person Andrew was the least close to. They were never alone just the two of them, and she always had this air of defensive sadness about her. Andrew had initially thought she was lonely and was the clichéd pretty woman that no one could get close to. Now he wasn’t so sure, there was something about her that he could not understand. She was nice and polite but it was a veneer. It was only when they were jammed in the corner of the bar that Helena told him what the latest staring was for.
“We knocked two pictures off her wall last night. She came to ask me if there had been an earthquake of all things. As soon as she asked I tried to be nonchalant but I blushed like a lighthouse. I ended up telling her that it was us. I have never been so embarrassed.”
Andrew shook his head.
“It is what it is, don’t stress about it. She never talks to me anyway, she probably thinks I am a beast taking advantage of my sweet innocent friend. Ravishing you like an earthquake? That’s a new one.”
Helena chuckled and didn’t even bother whacking him.
“Sweet and innocent, you remember that next weekend.”
The last week of term was full of end of term parties. The OTC had one, the hockey team had one, back to back nights which was tough. On the Friday night after the last classes it was a drunken chaotic night all across town. You could get in nowhere, restaurants were packed, clubs were a complete lost cause, so the College bar was where they ended up. A classic night of letting off steam. Drinks were spilled, people were carried out, and vomit had to be carefully stepped round on the way back to the room. Exactly what most people think student life is every day. Andrew was the drunkest he had been all term and was not feeling very well when he woke up. After forcing himself to go for at least a short run, he went as far as Peggy’s Café for the last dregs of that week’s soup and a full English.
“I am away until Wednesday night next week Peggy and will only be here Thursday to Sunday. I will be at the pool at the weekend so can you run a slightly smaller batch but not make it until Wednesday?”
“Sure luv, I thought you would be done now.”
“No, I am back for next weekend but head home on the 11th. I will be back on the 14th of January and will be in on the Monday morning as normal.”
Peggy had scribbled a note of her new 1984 calendar that was on the kitchen wall.
“No problem Andrew.”
When he got back to College parents had already started to arrive and so he ran the gauntlet of greetings. Pedro like Andrew had kept his room for the holidays, actually called non-resident occupancy, you were allowed to keep your stuff there but not live there, unless you paid like Andrew had for the following weekend. So Pedro had one bag of, presumably dirty, clothes and was off to the train station. The Rais arrived to get Navya before Rupashi and Andrew helped Mr. Rai carry her stuff to the trolley. He and Navya shared a big hug and a peck on the cheek, to some mild tutting from Mrs. Rai, and then they were off. That Mrs. Rai had seen fit to tut at something as innocuous as a peck on the cheek gave Andrew pause. He and Rupashi had snogged intensely four times over the course of the term, with Andrew equalising their heights by holding her by the arse in his arms. It didn’t bode well for the prospect of anything further between them. Hmmm.
Other than Pedro everyone else had only paid for the term, not the holidays, so mere weeks after getting everything into the room everyone was faced with having to pack it all up and take it home again. There was a constant buzz of ‘too much bloody stuff’ and he knew that come January people would return with many fewer possessions. Andrew stood and to chatted to both Nigel’s mum and Justin’s parents and was the polite young man that his mother would be proud of. He thanked them all for letting him come and stay in January but everyone had the space and like most parents they were glad that Nigel and Justin were settled and had made some friends. Andrew left late morning for Addenbrooke’s, escaping amidst all the chaos of people leaving.
Saturday at the hospital was no different than Sunday, hospitals are open all the time but like most businesses try to schedule things for the working day, the weekends and nights were quiet. Ron and Dot were there sitting beside their son who clearly was fading before their eyes. Andrew did not intrude, there was nothing to say, and it was a tragedy that they needed to process on their own. He was kept busy with chores for the first couple of hours as usual and then went and sat with the little group at the end of the ward. Today two of the children had parents sitting with them.
“Andrew, Andrew, come and meet Mum and Dad.”
One of the Michaels and Amy, the shy little girl, were clamouring for his attention. Andrew introduced himself to the parents and as always was assessed. It was understandable, children’s oncology didn’t get volunteers, and so he was unusual in that regard and that was before considering his size. Around the children Andrew really did feel like a lumbering giant. But soon it was a group discussion about everything, the subjects and comments pinged around. The two sets of parents ended up part of the group discussion, sport, what he had been up to that week, the parties were discussed in detail. He tried to let the parents spend some time with their own children, after all they were not there as frequently as some of the other parents but Michael and Amy wanted to be part of the group.
“Did you know that Andrew can do 100 push ups every day? And he used to be just like me.”
Michael was telling his dad about Andrew’s athletic feats.
“When I get out of here I am going to start doing push ups just like Andrew.”
All the tears and tragedy was worth it for little moments like that. Life after cancer, impatient to get on with life. All four adults felt it and Andrew had to work hard to keep his composure.
“Show us some push ups Andrew.”
He was amazed, this was shy little Amy. He had been told that Amy had beaten her cancer and was being discharged the following week. The nurses knew to let him know so he could say goodbye. Amy was being shushed by her mother but it was time for some fun.
“It is alright. So I don’t know if I told you but I used to coach the woman’s team at field hockey when I was at school. Now you see the size of me, I wanted the team to be able to tackle hard and win the ball. So I bet the team that anyone that could tackle the ball off me I would do five push ups with them on my back. You have never seen more ferocious tackling, even the teacher wanted to beat me. So why don’t you sit carefully on my back, hold your mum’s hand for stability and I will do five push ups with you on my back.”
Amy’s eyes lit up like he was Santa Claus. Ignoring her mother’s protestations she waited for Andrew to get into position and then climbed onto his back. She must have weighed all of three stone, there was nothing to her. The giggle she made when she climbed back into bed was fabulous. Of course the flaw in his plan was everyone else wanted a go. Three of the children were attached to too many tubes but the other three were clamouring for their turn including the Michael who had his parents there. Fortunately Andrew was on the final person before the authorities cottoned on to what was happening. The ward sister and two nurses came down the ward shaking their heads. They had watched the whole thing and just wanted to make sure that the children attached to drips and ventilators did not try it. He could see one of the nurses smiling widely and even the sister couldn’t maintain her frown. Everyone had expended a lot of energy and most of them were ready to nap, including both Amy and Michael. Andrew apologised to their parents for disrupting their visit.
This was Amy’s father.
“It was the first time the old Amy showed herself. Happy, cheeky, ignoring her mother.”
He clasped his wife’s hand.
“Best moment in months.”
The other parents were exactly the same.
“You have forged a strong bond with these children Andrew. When we got here it was all about you, you were coming today, it will be fun, Andrew, Andrew, Andrew. We had no idea what to expect and then we saw you, this huge man, shaved head and the accent. And the children all clamoured for you straightaway, I was blown away. When Michael talked about when he got out of here I nearly burst into tears.”
Andrew was not big on being praised to his face but accepted it that day. He could see Mandy waiting patiently at the end and so excused himself and went and sat with her.
“You look more tired than me.”
Her spirit was getting stronger every week.
“Hey some of these kids were nearly four stone you know.”
She laughed appropriately.
“I imagine that days like today balance the other days.”
She was looking at him intently.
“There is always something positive out of every day here. Of course there are days when it is tough but even on the toughest day there is someone who is on the mend, whose spirit is returning, who is worried about their future not their present.”
“You are a very bright and insightful young lady, you know that. I bet there is not much that you don’t see and understand.”
She blushed at the praise.
“How do you know the man over there?”
She was nodding towards Ron.
“We eat at the same café in the morning. Cambridge is a small town, you are always running into someone you know.”
Mandy lived in Thetford which was a lot smaller than Cambridge and she knew what it was like to have no privacy, to have no secrets.
“I got the all clear Andrew. I get out of here next week.”
Andrew hadn’t realised this and couldn’t believe that she had not told me immediately. With all of these celebrations you had to be so low key. Across the ward Ron’s son was dying but he grabbed Mandy’s hand and squeezed it.
He sighed a deep and heartfelt sigh.
“I have a couple more tests but I get out on Thursday. Can I ask you something?”
“Would you show me Trinity College? I have been to Cambridge so many times but I have never been inside any of the Colleges.”
Andrew thought through when he got back from Helena’s and figured it could work.
“Do you know when you are being released? Late-morning?”
“Okay, I will meet you at the front entrance at 11.00 okay? Don’t worry about being late I will bring a textbook. I don’t want to come up here because it is too disruptive. We will meet there, you can introduce me to your mum and then I will show you round College. You can have lunch with me in Hall afterwards before you head home okay?”
Leaving the ward was a long protracted exercise, with a goodbye hug from Amy, and her parents and lots of waves and goodbyes. The curtain was drawn round Ron and Dot’s son’s bed but when he got to the nurse’s station there were smiles there too.
“You are just a big kid you know that, don’t you?”
“You forgot to mention my good looks and charm.”
The scoffing sounds would have been hurtful if it was not for the smiles and, in one case, a frank appraisal of him.
“You are so full of it. Anyway, sister wants to see you before you go.”
Andrew smiled and wandered down the hall. He guessed he would be asked to tone it down, it had got pretty noisy down in the corner of the ward.
“Come in Andrew, close the door please.”
She indicated the chair so he sat and looked at her.
“I wanted you to know that several parents have come and spoken to me about you.”
Andrew tried not to panic but his heart started beating faster.
“Sorry, relax. Positive comments Andrew, sorry I didn’t mean to worry you.”
He tried to look casual but she could see that he had been taken aback.
“Sorry Andrew, I just wanted to let you know that what you are doing is working. The young energy that you bring to the place, the knowledge that the children all have that you have been here and survived it. Look at today, that shy little girl is giggling away and sitting on your back, yes we do keep an eye on you, and both sets of parents came up to me and praised you. And it is just life, a normal student life, that you tell them about. The nurses often stand and listen to your stories with the kids and they come back and are just so astonished at the mundanity of it. But the guys like to hear about your Army training and playing sports. The girls like to hear about the nightclubs and parties and all of them just listen to you talk about your friends.”
Andrew had to stop her.
“Thank you for letting me know but I don’t want to hear any more praise please. I am not doing it for the praise I am doing it for at least 10 reasons some of which I can’t even explain to myself never mind you. If you need me to do something or stop something then let me know but otherwise I would prefer to not hear all this. It makes me uncomfortable at the best of times to be praised in public but over this it feels wrong.”
The sister looked at him for a long moment and nodded.
“I understand, and it is just like you when I think about it. I will see you next, what day are you coming in?”
“I am going to come here on Saturday for a long session and then will be back on Sunday morning for a couple of hours before I am off to Edinburgh that afternoon, assuming British Rail are not doing track maintenance or some such thing. I am back in town on the 14th and will be out here as usual on the 15th of January.”