“Hey dad, I was just wondering if you'd be able to make it tonight? Please call me back.” No answer, again. With a deep sigh, Tristan recorded the voicemail message and sent it. He leant back against the classroom desk that he used for practising his speech and rolled his shoulders to get the tension out. For a short while he revelled in the silence, looking out the windows to see the sunlit college courtyard in what very well could be the last few bright days of the year.
It was the first week of October, and although the academic year had already begun, it was a Saturday which effectively left the courtyard and classrooms empty. Occasionally a breeze stirred the very first yellow leaves on the trees, leaving the cobbles and grass dotted with some much needed colour. Yet even such a calm sight couldn't settle his nerves, ever afraid that he would mess up at the opening ceremony.
He got up again, and walked over to the desk in the very front of the class. The stately Oxford logo seemed nearly too much to bear for the basic university computer; the kind only meant to function, since nine out of ten professors had no clue what this magical light-up box was meant for anyhow. With a few clicks he opened the video he had taken on his phone from his drive, and projected it on the large screen behind him.
He was met by the sight of a young man in suit, with wavy blonde hair kept short and tidy. He had a full, slightly round but still well defined face, with high cheekbones and a straight nose. It was invisible on the low quality image, but he knew he had a faint scar that ran over his left cheekbone. Although he was well aware it was somewhat vain, he was still pleasantly surprised with how he appeared, as it was always worse in his mind.
The very first time he had seen and heard a recording of himself he had found it uncanny, and it had made him anxious to be confronted with his image, but over the course of last year he had spent enough time in televised and recorded debates to get used to it. At this point he found it very useful to review and improve – even if that meant he had to face the sight of himself filmed badly on his phone.
With a notebook in hand, he marked the times and the flaws he found in his speech; places where his intonation and cadence were off, improvements to his mannerisms, and so on. He scrutinised every single thing he could find, well aware that mediocre wouldn't do.
In the midst of his self-critique, he was startled by a loud buzz. On the screen of his phone ‘dad’ lit up brightly. Quickly he took the phone and answered, dashing to the front of the classroom to pause the recording.
“Hey dad. Did you get my voicemail?”
“Oh I didn't get a chance to listen to it, I'm at work now, I just saw you called.” He heard his father's voice on the other side, at home in Sheffield.
“Well, I wanted to ask if you'd make it tonight?”
Although his father couldn't see, he still tried to keep up a smile as he realised that he'd been forgotten again.
“Yeah, I told you right, it's the big speech for the first years I got selected for?” He asked, trying to spark his father's memory.
“Oh, that was tonight?”
“Shite, I thought it was tomorrow.”
Despite the genuine surprise, part of him couldn't help but bitterly think that it was also genuinely their fault for forgetting. But he didn't want to feel that way, since he wasn't sure if it was worse to just have a forgetful father, or one that didn't really care.
“No, it is tonight. Do you think you could still make it?”
“It’s a three hour drive Triss, and Jane has a school play. But we'll see you for Christmas right?”
Maybe I was wrong for expecting them to come all the way here?
“Right. Sorry for bothering you at work. Tell me how Jane's play went?”
“It’s no issue, and will do. Keep your chin up, I'm sure you'll go down well.”
“Thanks dad.” He replied with a smile, even if it wouldn't really reach anyone. A little click on the other end of the line ended their short lived chat.
As his phone returned to the home screen, he felt a sting deep inside his heart. That's the first I heard of you in weeks…
The sound of voices and footsteps echoing down the hallway outside the classroom made him realise there was more left to do than sulk. Quickly he put his phone away and took a few deep breaths to get his act straight. Although he still felt nervous and stressed, he knew he could keep it under control if he kept his focus on the tasks at hand.
The classroom door opened, to a rowdy bunch of students laughing and talking about one thing or the other. He crossed his arms and leant back against the desk, pretending to appear more nonchalant than he really was for his friends.
The first one through the door was Killian; surprisingly tall for being of Vietnamese heritage. He had long hair kept in an unkempt knot. As far as Tristan was aware, he actually came from Edinburgh, and he spoke with a distinct Scottish inflection to the girl behind him. Liz was second to enter the classroom, chipper and laughing at Killian's antics. She had mid length brown hair, a few freckles on her cheeks and round, brown eyes. Sam was the last to enter, bearing a slight, amused smirk as she closed the door and gave a nod to Tristan, causing her loose black curls to bounce slightly. He nodded back and smiled.
It was short lived though, as Killian finished speaking a split second later and noticed the still of his previously recorded speech.
“Aah!” He jumped back and lifted his arm as if trying to protect himself. “Do you want us dead? Get that ugly face out of here.”
Tristan sighed and rolled his eyes, but Killian was relentless.
“Kssht, begone, demon!” With two fingers he made a cross as if that would help.
“Fine, fine, and I'm not a demon 'An…” Tristan muttered under his breath while he closed the video player. With a relieved sigh, Killian fell down into one of the classroom chairs.
“So why have we been summoned here?” Liz grinned from her own chair, pretty pleased with her pun.
With a sigh and a shake of his head, Tristan rummaged through his messenger bag. He took out several sheets of paper, and handed them out.
“Well, these are the schedules for our debates this term,” he said, handing out the dates when they were held. “And here are reference lists with all the readings for general arguments.” He laid three stapled packages of papers in front of them.
Rather incredulous, Killian looked through the list upon lists of book chapters and scholarly articles.
“Hey, you see that?” He said rather sudden, glancing up out the window, causing Tristan and Liz to look as well – Sam was too invested in her papers to pay him much mind.
“What?” - “Huh?” Liz and Tristan said, wondering what in the world he was referring to. Killian just gave an excited point.
“There! Wait no, never mind... I thought I saw my free time but it’s gone now. Thanks Triss.” He barely had the time to grin at his own joke, before Liz hit him in the back of the head with her rolled up papers. Meanwhile Tristan just groaned and shook his head, rubbing the side of his face with his hand.
“I just don't want to lose, this is my hard work too.”
“You just want an excuse to complain ‘An.” Liz said as she unfurled her own papers and looked them through.
“When did you even have the time to do all this?” Killian asked as he quickly took in the sheer volume of sources.
“I prepared over the summer vacation.” Tristan mentioned off-handedly, as he took up his own papers and a pen to keep track.
“Focking hell, you honours students are nuts.”
“It's great Tristan, thank you.” Liz smiled, while Killian still shook his head beside her.
“Question.” Without batting an eye at everyone else, Sam had gone through the list of dates and reading material.
“Yes?” Tristan asked after taking the butt of his pen out from between his teeth.
“When are we ought to have read this all?”
“I arranged with James to have mock debate the Thursdays before the matches.” Tristan said, referring to the teams that came second this year.
“How did that smug bastard take it? You sure got him down a few notches.” Killian snickered at his rival's demise.
Not nearly as amused about it all, Tristan shrugged.
“He was right mad. Can't blame him though – I didn’t expect us to be first either.”
“Well, can’t say I didn’t try to meet your expectations.” Killian said as he leant back in his chair. Liz just sighed and rolled her eyes, trying to read while at the same time resisting the urge to shut him up.
“So let's just go through the dates then, shall we?” Tristan tapped his papers with his pen to draw their attention, and despite their earlier protests, they were mature enough to focus.
“Hey Triss?” Liz asked afterwards while Tristan was packing up his stuff.
“Hm?” He didn't look up, instead fixated on sorting his papers so they wouldn't crease.
“What happened to your cufflink?”
Quickly he glanced at his sleeve, and saw the one cufflink with the missing decorative stone. He smiled to say it was no big deal.
“This? It just fell out this morning, but they're rather old anyway. I'll probably try and glue it back on sometime.”
“My father has a few, why not come with and borrow a set? Have some lunch too while you're at it.”
“Are you sure that's fine? I don't want to barge in unannounced.” Tristan said as he slung his bag over his shoulder.
“Oh, no worries, as long as you don't mind a vegan lunch you're set.” Liz grinned. Tristan shook his head, as he had no qualms with her parent's rather intense eco-hobbies. If anything it had its charms.
“It's probably better than what I was going to have.” Tristan said, as he thought about the by now room temperature container of pasta in his bag – he realised he preferred vegan.
Since the weather was so pleasant, they walked most of the way to the outskirts of Oxford. With a shortcut through a hillside forest and past stone-walled pastures, the two of them soon enough walked down a long road flanked by gardens and free-standing homes. The whole way they had discussed various philosophical and sociological topics, which Liz was well versed in even as a mathematics undergraduate.
It wasn't very difficult to spot the house – as it was the only one with a vegetable patch in the front, surrounded by several tall, formless flower bushes and a low, brick wall. The roof that peeked out above the garden was completely covered in solar panels.
The wrought iron gates were open, and while Tristan carefully squeezed between the pristine electric car and the neighbour's fence, Liz darted ahead to the back of the house. Just like the front, the back garden had been converted to vegetable patches as well, interspersed by flowering plants and fruit trees. A narrow path lead to a chicken coop in the very back, and a pair of beehives beside it. A man with gray, curly hair and large, round glasses was feeding the chickens.
“Hey dad! I brought Tristan over!” Liz shouted down the garden while waving and pointing at Tristan who'd finally made it out past the car. He raised his hand somewhat awkwardly when he was pointed out. Her dad waved back, and threw the remainder of the chicken feed into the coop to come greet him.
“It’s been a while, hasn't it? Good to see you Tristan, and congratulations with first.” Liz's father caught himself just before he was about to pat him on the shoulders with dirt-covered gardening gloves. Instead he smiled and gave a hover pat.
“Good to see you too Professor Everett, and thank you.” Tristan smiled back, ever polite, but Liz's father just sighed and shook his head.
“Is he always like this Lizzy?” He asked with a sideways glance at his daughter. She nodded solemnly.
“Well then, care for lunch, Mr Wright?”
“If it's no trouble?” Tristan asked with a slight, concerned smile.
“Of course not, sit yourselves down and I'll whip up something real quick.” Liz's father grinned widely and gave a grand gesture towards the open sliding doors.
Their lunch was accompanied by the soft classical tunes of a rather unintrusive radio station, and the clatter and scraping of forks and knives on plates. It seemed he was in luck, as the chickens had laid fresh eggs – meaning he wouldn't have to go entirely vegan in this instance. Regardless it was a nice meal: fresh, and well seasoned.
“Dad, Tristan's cufflinks broke, could he borrow some of yours? Just for tonight?”
“Ah, now that's unfortunate, isn't it? I'll get you a good pair so you can make a grand impression tonight.” Professor Everett said with a sly smile, as he pricked his fork in his own meal a little.
“Who is he going to impress?” Liz butted back, not keen on her father's whimsical attitude.
“Anyone close enough to see those cufflinks, of course.” Her father grinned, causing Liz to sigh and shake her head, before continuing with her lunch.
“I don't have that many, but there should be some that go well with your suit.” Liz's father looked through a small box in his oaken armoire, and this was the first time Tristan had seen the master bedroom in the house. He felt rather awkward and out of place while he had to wait for the selection process to be done, like he was disturbing the room just by being there. With a rather critical eye, Liz's father held up two different cufflinks, judging which one fit better. As he saw the shimmer of gold, he felt even more uncanny.
“You don't have to if they're very valuable?”
“Oh nonsense, this is your big day right? If I have to believe Lizzy you worked every day since exams?”
“I may have…” He admitted a little sheepishly, having lost track of the days somewhere along there.
“These should do, it's not quite the same colour, but nobody notices that.” Liz's father pretended he hadn't heard his reservedness, taking his sleeves and quickly fixing them with a set of gold and mother of pearl cufflinks.
“There you go, these suit you.”
Tristan smiled slightly, feeling ever more awkward as he wasn't used to compliments. So when Liz's father patted his shoulders he was startled, stiffening up expecting he'd get a stern warning – instead it was just a smile.
“You’ll do fine, so try to lighten up a little. Life is no fun if you only worry about your grades. Lizzy said that you guys wanted to celebrate the new school year with drinks tonight?”
Tristan nodded, not sure where all this advice and support would lead to. Although he was sure he had a good idea when Liz's father took out his wallet. Immediately Tristan raised his hands and shook his head.
“You don't have to,-”
“It's not because I have to,” not taking no for an answer, Liz's father took out twenty pounds and folded it in his hand making sure he took it. “Just go have fun for once, so you're not running yourself straight into a burnout. Got it?”
“I uh, thank you…?” Tristan mumbled, still a little shocked.
“Good.” Liz's father grinned and patted him on the back.
Tristan still wasn't sure what to think about it, simply pocketing the money since he figured it would be more impolite not to accept at this point.
I guess I'll go out just this once…