Town and Gown
Down in the town off the bridges and the grass,
They are sweeping up the old leaves to let the people pass,
Sweeping up the old leaves, golden-reds and browns.
Whilst the men go to lecture with the wind in their gowns.
—Frances Darwin, “Autumn Morning at Cambridge,” 1898
Knock, knock, knock. The pounding door rattled me from my dream like a rock being skipped across my forehead and sinking to the sludge of my sleep, Knock, knock, knock. Kick.
“Who is it?” I called from the seat of my bed.
“It’s me,” came a muffle that began in the hall outside the door and without as much as waiting for an invitation stormed through the lock and into my rooms like a tempest bearing tea. I looked down at my watch — seven-fifteen — and when I looked up, I saw staring down at me an elderly woman dressed in pale pink whose disapproving glare and proprietary stare reminded me of the Little Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe.
“I’m your bedder,” she said.
“But I’m in bed,” I said.
“Not to worry,” she said. “I don’t make your bed. I just take out the bin.” She marched to the far wall between the two windows, reached beneath the desk, and retrieved my metal litter bin, which was devoid of any litter but strewn with stacks of still-soggy New York Timeses. “My name is Edna,” she said. “How about you?”
“Are you American?”
“Can you tell?”
She looked at me sprawled on the unmade bed.
“I’ve met a few over the years … Now let me just tell you a few of the rules in V Entryway.”
Edna was a short, sturdy woman with thinning white hair and a bulging pink apron. On this morning, like a hundred hence, she smelled more of smoke than disinfectant.
“I arrive every morning at seven,” she said. “Have me a cup of tea downstairs with the ladies and then go round to the rooms. I should be arriving here around quarter past. I empty the rubbish every day, wipe out your sink in the comer when I have time, and Hoover the floor mat once a week … ”
If I did not wish her to come into my rooms every day, she continued, I could leave the bin outside the door as a sign for her not to enter. Which reminded her, fresh milk would automatically be delivered to the door every morning in pint-sized bottles. If I would like to stop this service, I should notify the housekeeper immediately. Did I have any questions?
“Well, yes, actually. Is there a shower?”
“Oh yes, the shower. I’m afraid there’s only a bath. There was meant to be a shower in this entryway last year. I had already made the fitting on the tub. But it was during exam time, you know, and the students” — she glanced down the arch of her nose, mustering as much reverse snobbery as she could — “well, the students did not approve.” Anyway, she would see what she could do. In the meantime, there was a shower in U Entryway.
“But be careful,” she warned. “My daughter is the bedder over there and she will get on you if you don’t clean up after yourself.” She glanced at my clothes in a pile on the floor, and tiptoed over them toward the door.
“Well then, see you tomorrow, Bruce.”
She slammed the door with a migrainous shock and dragged my bin along the plaster walls until she arrived at the rooms next door and banged her fist dictatorially on my neighbor’s nameplate: H.L. YANG.
“You look like you need a cup of tea.”
When I knocked on her door an hour later, Halcyon Yang was sitting quietly with a book in one of two grey corduroy armchairs, sipping tea with milk and nibbling a biscuit, which she said was a scone and which she pronounced, royally, as “skahn.”
“Very British,” she said with an exaggerated, self-mocking roll of her tongue. “Would you like a taste? Edna lent me the tea … What a card.”
As I stepped into the room, Halcyon marked her place with a bookmark from her lap and pursed her lips in a piercing grin. She was striking, poised, Chinese — much less pale, and much more attractive than I had dared anticipate.
“I’m warning you,” she said. “Edna doesn’t stop talking. Has she told you about her husband?”
“Well, it seems he’s been having insomnia problems. So Edna makes him sleep on the sofa so she can get some rest. By the way,” she said, “won’t you have a seat.”
I bowed reflexively, then stopped myself, almost tripping on my way to the bed to sit down. She watched bemused, her body lithe like a sparrow, then tossed her head back and laughed like a princess flattered by my boyish fluster. As I steadied myself, Halcyon slid the book from her lap onto the floor. As she did, I noticed the title: Holy Bible.
For the rest of the morning Halcyon and I sat around introducing ourselves to each other. A magazine editor from Hong Kong whose father had gone to Oxford, Halcyon was returning to university after a ten-year absence to fulfill a lifelong dream and study archaeology. She was, she confessed, an unrepentant Anglophile.
“Do you have your gown?” she asked me as we carried the dishes to our shared kitchen, which was called, after the personal servants who were assigned to up-coming students, a gyp.
“What for?” I said.
“We have to take the matriculation photograph this afternoon and everyone must wear the proper gown.”
“I have one that my brother used at Oxford. Will that do?”
Halcyon turned around and stared at me with a disbelief verging on pity.
“Oxford?!” she cried. “Did you say Oxford? My dear boy,” she intoned with a schoolmarmish tweak, “in sport Oxford wears the dark blue and Cambridge wears the light blue. In school their gowns are sleeveless; ours are full-cut. It has been that way for seven hundred years. It will be that way for a thousand more.” She stepped forward and took me by the arm. “Now you must forget about that other place. And before you make another mistake, I must take you into town this instant and turn you into a proper Cambridge man.”
Excerpted from LOOKING FOR CLASS. Copyright © 1993 by Bruce Feiler. Harpercollins Publishers. All rights reserved.