Saturday, 7 May 2016

Three Cambridge days

August 1973
Last summer, my cousin and I were pink floral bridesmaids for our auntie. Now we are being rewarded with a holiday at her house in Cambridge. We are disappointing guests. Both of us spend all of our time reading novels, which we carry with us everywhere we go. We're too shy to chat.

Two exciting things happen during our visit, though. We are taken for a picnic, and when our auntie gets out our pudding, a tupperware bowl of jelly, it has melted. Little mandarin segments are swimming like fish in a swishing syrupy orange pond. This is not the sort of thing that happens in Belfast, where the temperature is always about ten degrees colder.

And we find terrapins at the market. I am entranced by these tiny, flailing fellows. Their little black eyes look straight at me. They want to be my friends, so I decide to buy two and take them home. I start to count out my money. My auntie stops me. The terrapins wouldn't like to go on the plane, she says, and also my mum won't be pleased to see them. Neither of these sounds very likely to me and I protest. But my auntie is firm. My new friends watch sadly from their tank as I am dragged away across the market cobbles.

December 1983
Here I am again, at Cambridge University's music department, doing my interview. It isn't going well. I can play some pieces on the piano. I can do the task where you're locked in a room with a string quartet score and have to learn it from memory. But when I'm required to speak, it's not so good. 

I'm asked what sort of music I like best. Contemporary music, such as Stravinsky, I reply. They roll their eyes. The pieces by Stravinsky which I name were composed seventy years ago. And, to be honest, I don't really like them that much. I just can't think of anything else to say.

At eighteen, I am not articulate. Or even thoughtful, about anything the university cares about. I am also acutely Northern Irish, and today I feel like a poor relation in this clever, confident city. I look at the other prospective students in the waiting room and know that this is not a place for me.

My letter of rejection arrives at the start of the Christmas holidays.

April 2005
I leave the conference a little early and make my way to Auntie's Tea Shop. I'm meeting J for our second date. 

I pick at a scone I'm too nervous to eat, while he tells me about the first time he came here, an uncouth American, and distressed the waitress by ordering both milk and lemon for his tea. They did not turn out to be a good combination. I relax.

We wander through the city in the warm, late afternoon sunshine. We visit the market and I tell him about the terrapins. I show him St Catherine's College, which I failed to get into. We take a punt out on the river. At first I'm terrified for him, in case he falls in and it's all incredibly embarrassing. But he turns out to be good at this. 

We open a bottle of wine and float gently along. It's restful, watching the old, honey-toned walls as we pass, thinking about a summer to come and maybe more of a future to follow.

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