Sunday, October 28, 2007

Timedance, Part 3: The Girls of Brasenose

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Here's Part 1. Part 2.

In the cozy and snug, well-worn old rooms off Staircase Two at Brasenose College, Oxford, some twenty-five minutes before Terry Alan Simon had blue paint sprayed across his face, a week into Trinity term of her second year, a short, slim, bushy-haired girl of twenty-one going one twenty-two lay on her bed and took her headphones from her ears slowly. Elizabeth unplugged the 'phones from her DAB stereo and listened for a moment to the static of the radio. She could almost discern the click of the needle as it refused to lift off of the end of side two of Abbey Road, then she switched off the radio and flopped belly-first onto her bed once again.

Elizabeth smoothed her thick, waist-long brown hair over her ears carefully. Her ears were the reason she wore headphones whenever possible; she had never quite given up the hope that constant pressure would push them flat against her head. When Elizabeth was born, her grandmother had said of the infant, her namesake: "She's going to be lovely—just like her mother." Elizabeth's grandmother had beamed happily at Elizabeth's mother, who was lying in bed holding her newborn, glad it was all over for the moment and rather hoping it wouldn't have to happen again for another couple years or so.

"She has your face," Elizabeth's father had said to her mother. "Your nose, your eyes, your..."

Elizabeth the baby, becoming gradually more used to life in a world in which she could do a bit more than just swim, wiggled a bit in her mother's arms and turned her head slightly to one side.

"Oh dear," said Elizabeth's grandmother, without quite meaning to.

Elizabeth had inherited her father's ears.

"Still," Elizabeth's grandmother said, "a lovely child."

That grandmother (after whom she had been named) passed away the year that Elizabeth Alexandra Anne Mountbatten-Windsor had started college. Even with her father's preoccupations with the transition of ceremonial power it was harder than she had expected to convince him to let her go to Brasenose College. If she must go to University now, her father had sighed, why not at least Christ Church, or King's, where it would not be completely unthinkable to see her walking from housing to classroom. There, her father had pointed out, she would be at least in company that was in her social class.

"No one," Elizabeth pointed out, with a mischievous smile, "is in our social class. Anyway, you went to Cambridge."

The argument had continued. Why not Balliol—or Magdalen? But Brasenose? It was a very minor college, and for her to attend a school such as that—well, it was simply not done. Brasenose had no distinguishing marks towards its credit; it had never been one of the more prestigious Oxford houses. Why did Elizabeth want to go there? Elizabeth did not tell her father that her main attraction for the place had been her enchantment with the place upon reading an Elizabethan play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, in which a magician sets up shop at Brasenose College. She had been enthralled by the play and by the college's name. There was no other reason than that. That was was, she felt, a fine enough reason in and of itself. She had lived most of her life wanting to do things she had only ever read about, and was denied, by birth and class, and therefore she wanted them even more. Without being a spoiled brat about it, she put her foot down, and quite enjoyed the sensation of doing so.

In the end, to her surprise, she got her way, not because she would have disobeyed her parents had they truly forbidden her—she had no illusions in her mind about that point—but rather she got her way simply because her parents loved her. She was a Princess not only of the United Kingdom, but more important, a princess of their hearts.

There had been no problem in getting her accepted into the college—there was never a problem getting a princess accepted into anywhere— but her mother was most emphatic that she roomed at the college, that she share a room with another girl. It was an idea Elizabeth was eager to accept. "But..." her father had protested. "It seems to me that the situation would be most uncomfortable. Quite a trying experience."

"I think Elizabeth shall adapt, don't you?" her mother had asked.

"I'm not speaking of Elizabeth," her father had said glumly. "I'm talking about the other girl."


"I mean—I mean, rather, would you have liked to share a room with my sister?"

"I see your point."

So, in fact, had the JCR's director of female life at Brasenose. At first she had drawn up a list of suggested roommates, but this one and that one had been ruled out with the strike of a pencil. It was not that they were unsuitable to Elizabeth, who longed for any friend her own age, but rather disqualified by her father—"Oh dear, this one simply won't do." It was a puzzle for her father. More for his role as her father than the country's sovereign, he did have that sort of authority to make a totally biased decision. So Elizabeth sat back and chewed her fingernails and waited.

Or, the candidates for Elizabeth's roommates were unsuitable to the college director—"I musn't gossip, but in her reports...well, I musn't gossip." So Elizabeth sat back and sighed and waited, and wished she could hear the gossip.

In the end both parties, including the special services of MI5 (put on overtime investigating the political connections of the girls' families), agreed on Lady Laura Kingsley, the daughter of Lord Mayfield (Wilks.), and the two girls met each other over the summer, exchanged the secrets that girls meeting for the first time exchange (that is, the least-secret ones) and both agreed they were looking forward to their first term at Brasenose.

Two weeks into her first Michaelmas term, Laura was sent down for selling hashish.

"Oh dear," Elizabeth's father had said, "this won't do at all."

In rapid succession, Miss Pamela Peacock (daughter of a Conservative M.P. from an affluent south London district), the Hon. Danielle Sperry-Marylebone (daughter of the British Ambassador to Antarctica) and Princess Teresa Rominova (daughter of King Leo of Concordia) came and went from Elizabeth's student digs. Pam broke her legs after drunkenly falling off the roof of the Radcliffe Camera and had to be sent home when she refused to push herself about in a wheelchair; Danielle had experienced a sudden attack of morning stomach and continued out the term staying with an aunt in Switzerland, and Teresa's father, unceremoniously ousted from his throne and country, recalled his entire family from the various corners of the globe. He later turned up on a number of American television chat shows, which was easier than governing a country. Teresa went to Sarah Lawrence and enjoyed it much better—it was more fun being a Princess at a college, she decided, when you were not rooming with another one.

On the day that Jellybaby Shakespeare moved in, Elizabeth was wondering to herself how all the other girls at Brasenose had managed to hold onto their roommates through the first six weeks of Michaelmas term.

"H'lo," said Jellybaby Shakespeare, throwing a ratty worn carpetbag on the empty bed. "I'm your new roommate." She thrust out her grimy hand and grinned widely with a gap-toothed smile. "You're the Princess."

Elizabeth stood up uncertainly and took the other girl's hand. "Elizabeth," she said.

"What 'bout the Princess part? Do I say Your Maj'sty? Or do I call you Miss Mountbatten-Windsor?"

Elizabeth had to think for a moment—she was so used to being referred to by only one name for most of her life that she did not immediately recognize her last. "I just use Elizabeth. You can just call me Elizabeth."

"My name," the new girl said, opening one of the drawers in the bureau and finding it, to her satisfaction, empty, "is Jilabi Shakspiri."

"Is your father," Elizabeth said carefully, "a diplomat?"

"A diplomat?" The girl looked up from dumping her knickers from bag to drawer, a ragged rain of pastel cotton and satin. "No. He runs a fish 'n' chip shop in London. He's from India and Mum's from Liverpool. She wanted to call me Susan and he wanted to call me Jilabi." The girl grinned again. "Guess who won?"

"Jil..." Elizabeth tried to wrap her tongue around the syllables. She had been tutored for years in diction by the same professor who had taught her brothers. French he had taught her. German had been an essential part of the curriculum. Latin he had hammered into her head until she could op cit. with the best of them. He had never taught Elizabeth how to pronounce East Indian names, however.

"But nobody calls me that. Nobody can spell it, 'sides. Jellybaby Shakespeare. That's the best I've ever been able to make it pronounceable. You can call me Jelly."

"Oh dear," said Elizabeth's father when he heard about Elizabeth's new roommate.

To put it succinctly: someone had screwed up. Somehow along the line, somewhere in the director of female life's office, the two files had been carelessly shuffled together; the half-caste Indian girl who was looking for a new roommate after the last three had moved out in outrage, and Her. The director knew what it all meant. She poured herself a cup of coffee to perk herself up, and then poured half a flask of Irish in the coffee to perk that up. She typed—rather shakily—her resignation, and slipped it, without knocking, under the Head of College's door, beating a hasty retreat to the girls' housing to at least try to straighten things out while she was still official the director of female life. If that failed, she could always have another cup of coffee.

To her surprise and shock Jellybaby Shakespeare and Princess Elizabeth were sitting on Elizabeth's unmade bed, Elizabeth's multiphonic DAB stereo rumbling through the ancient corridors, bass turned up way past the levels recommended by the Ministry of the Environment, a can of warm lager in Jelly's fist and a mug of tea steaming on the bedside table for Elizabeth. They were playing two-handed bridge for points—more precisely, for money—pound coins with Elizabeth's father's picture on them—and they were singing along loudly with the music (the Clash's Give 'Em Enough Rope, a great favorite with both of the girls), spilling beer and tea whenever one of them scored.

They were clearly having the time of their lives.

The Director had just enough time to retrieve the letter with a ruler and a wad of spearmint chewing gum, and attributed the perfect match of Elizabeth and Jelly to her own personal genius.

Elizabeth's parents, though they questioned Elizabeth's choice, could not refuse the request that Jelly be allowed to stay as her roommate, because—as always, they could refuse her nothing, because they loved her very much.

That had been a year and a half ago.

This is now, a week into Trinity term in their second year: "Wake up, Eliza!"

Elizabeth blinked her eyes open and was not surprised to see Jelly's face, looming over her. The patented Jelly grin split her round brown face, a manic grin that often put doubt to her pedigree as a Shakspiri and cast paternity suspicions upon the late Jack Nicholson. "It's only bloody one o'clock," she said excitedly. "Sarah and Kim found a punt somebody left outside Oriel boathouse!"

It must not be assumed that nearly two years in a room with Jellybaby Shakespeare as her roommate and best friend had totally led Elizabeth to always understand what Jelly was talking about. "So what..."

"We're going to take it out punting on the Isis!" Jelly exclaimed. "That is, when you get your duff up."

"We're going punting at one in the morning?" Elizabeth asked incredulously.

Jelly shrugged. "It'll be fun."

"Not if we get caught by Proctor or the Bulldogs with the boat."

"Why the hell do you think we're bringing you," Jelly said, exasperated, standing back and putting her hands on her hips. "No one in their bloody right mind is going to report you."

"It's one in the morning, Jelly," Elizabeth repeated carefully. "Besides, I'm tired."

Jelly shook her head. "Saturday night and..."

"It's Sunday morning, Jelly dearest."

"Sunday morning and you're tired? You can sleep through your lit tutorial on Monday, Eliza."

Elizabeth stood up slowly and stretched her arms towards the ceiling. "Oh, very well," she mumbled, and then smiled. "But it's only because you're asking so nicely."

"Well, eff you, Princess." Jellybaby spread her arms out wide and mock-curtseyed. Jelly was the only girl at Brasenose who even dared to get away with teasing Elizabeth about her position in society. Contrary to Princess-like stereotypes, Elizabeth was not that sort of Royal who absolutely dripped noblesse oblige—one could, after all, not take totally seriously a girl whose favorite tee-shirt read "I've Seen Elvis at Balmoral"—but only Jelly, out of friendship, or ignorance of custom, or gleeful mischief—or all three*#151;stretched the limits of polite behavior by treating Elizabeth's royalty with the same viper-tongued heresy that she applied to everything else in life. She perched upon the shoulder of Elizabeth's life and acted as Greek chorus and Mephistophelean tempter, tormentor and comforter, fool and hero, her best and only friend, her guide and her conscience—Jiminy Cricket with breasts.

She treated Elizabeth as if she were a human being rather than God's own appointed political Divinity-in-Blue-Jeans-On-Earth, but she was the only one. Being a Princess, one might observe, is never as fun as the legends often make it out to be. Aside from the usual universal Princess hazards (poison apples, potential lovers in the form of hopping amphibians, and midnight curfews), being a Princess also meant that one had to give up much of the fun a normal person had. Befriending Jellybaby was Elizabeth's way of feeling more like a normal girl rather than the last in line of the immediate Royal Family to an area that used to be an Empire and was now barely a country.

It still beats being a bag lady, but it ain't all dance balls and lacy gowns, Elizabeth would have told you.

"Hey, your wireless's on," Jellybaby said, stepping over to the stereo and pulling out Elizabeth's headphones. All that was audible through the speakers now was a low hum, slight static and a dull, regular that echoed through the room like a cricket at 33 1/3 RPM. "Radio 1's off the air."

"It was their last night tonight," Elizabeth said, slipping a jumper on over her tee-shirt.

"Awww, 'cos you're gonna miss what's'is name, the night shift bloke, Simon." Jelly giggled.

The highlight of the early morning's punting was Jelly's tumble into the river as they passed Christ Church Meadow, quickly followed by her capsizing the other girls when she tried to scramble back into the tiny boat. They had to remain in the Thames, silently treading murky cold water, while a vicar, out for his pre-service stroll, had thought he had heard something splash and swear in the foggy dawn and called out, peering into the misty morning and then finally gave up, wandering on, completing his day's sermon-lesson in his head.

The four girls got the punt back to the boathouse, stole some blankets to wrap up in, and made it back to the college just after dawn. Jellybaby and Elizabeth returned, unobserved, to their room, and then proceeded to go to sleep.

Jelly was still slumbering when Elizabeth awoke at two in the afternoon. After a quick shower Elizabeth quietly curled up in the window ledge with a cup of tea, put on her headphones and turned on the radio.

She had forgotten, of course. The power had been switched off back at Broadcasting House in London and even the continuous click of the needle on the old Abbey Road LP had ceased to be broadcast across the United Kingdom.

Elizabeth sighed with the resignation of one who could do nothing about the matter—contrary to the usual public perception of her birthright, she was used to being denied most things that she truly, truly wanted. She flicked the DAB receiver over to MTV and settled back to listen to the music, without video, to let the pictures form in her own mind. It was going to be a lazy afternoon. She sang along softly with the music and daydreamed of radio.

(More to come. Next week: Superheroes.)

Playlist 3: Donald Fagen "Tomorrow's Girls" • McFly "Five Colours in Her Hair" • Fleetwood Mac "Seven Wonders"


SallyP said...

Well this is certainly different. I loved the Mountbatten name. Didn't it used to be Battenburg, but they had to change it during WWI?

ABS said...

I'm pretty sure frogs aren't reptiles.

It's starting to get intriguing, though.

km said...

Sallyp - Yeah. Also, up until then the ruling house was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, hastily switched over to Windsor.

Bully (and/or your friend John), you have a gift with character and I'm following their adventures with interest.
Am not sure I needed the mental image of 'Jiminy Cricket with breasts,' though. Come to think on it, I'm REALLY sure I didn't need that mental image.

Randi said...

No idea where you are going with this, Bully, but it's looking like it's going to be one heck of a journey.

Do you have a specific point in mind where this has deviated from history as we know it?

Bully said...

ABS: You're right; thanks! Corrected. Appreciate it.

Randi (and others): I'm not trying to make too big a fuss about it, but one sign this is not our earth is the Mountbatten-Windsor name as a legal name (rather than simply a stylistic choice that's fallen into disuse). Another clear sign that this isn't our world is what didn't happen in August 1997. Another more significant difference to the world outside our windows will become more evident next installment. But I don't intend to use "it's an alternate earth" to explain away any plot holes or problems, and the story doesn't hinge on it--it's simply a way to populate a fantastic world with characters of my own creation. And a few that I've stolen from real life. The first one of those pops up in Part 4, as well.