The Excellent Trap

Alan looked listlessly at the minutes he had taken of the meeting. It wouldn’t be difficult to tidy them up so they would read smoothly. A coherent and complete account of – what? The bickerings of academics, mostly old, male and white. No wonder there were so many murders in Oxford.

It wouldn’t be difficult, and that was the problem: he was bored, although the professors would often praise his diplomatic skills. He had the knack of nudging warring parties to compromises, quelling storms in this parish teacup. Perhaps he had no enemies because he was so mildly flavoured and preferred to avoid conflict.

He remembered with a start the school reunion he’d agreed to attend the following Saturday in Reading, a group of five gathering to mark thirty years since leaving school. He should probably book a room at the pub. But the website showed no rooms available. Damn, left it too late. There was a Premier Inn within ten minutes’ walk, but he couldn’t face it. He resolved to forego alcohol and drive back to his own bed.

**********

When he arrived the boys were already onto their second pint, and the conversation was lively. The others had all arranged taxis or booked rooms in town, and after the initial greetings he felt out of step, excluded by sobriety as they grew louder. Disengaged, he let his eyes wander round the group.

Look at Robert, the cool one, who’d been in a band at school and dropped out before his final year. After a decade of trying and failing to make it as a musician and songwriter, two failed marriages and three children, his dad had lent him the money to buy a beat-up old studio, and he’d refitted it, and done very nicely, thank you: now he rubbed shoulders with rock royalty, and was regaling them with stories of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison. Like the gold rush, thought Alan, the prospectors don’t often get rich, it’s the guy who sells them the picks and shovels. Robert had lived.

And Martin the nerd, laughing enthusiastically at Robert’s anecdotes – already alternating his G&Ts with straight tonic water – who had wanted nothing more, since he was fourteen, than to be an accountant, and had applied himself single-mindedly to this steady ambition. Surely he was even more boring than Alan? Maybe not, Alan had to concede, because he had such an air of contentment – seemed so relaxed in his skin – that he made very easy company, never seeking the limelight – one of the gang.

Mark, he remembered, had come in to school on a motorbike almost as soon as he reached sixteen, and had spent his weekends tinkering with it. Whether to make it faster or just noisier Alan never knew. Mark had trained as an engineer, and had wound up in charge of a large car plant in the Midlands. He still favoured a leather jacket – although the evening was warm – and walked unevenly, the steel pins in his leg a souvenir of his biking days. He asserted, as he waved his pint about, that Brexit would make no difference to the business.

Alan went to challenge this view, but mistimed his effort to be heard over the volume of his alcohol-fuelled friends. His mind drifted back to the sixth form: his French teacher “Your work is excellent, Loudon. Have you considered Oxbridge?” And Mr Kershaw had been right, in a way. Alan had sailed into Oxford with near perfect A-levels. He hadn’t enjoyed the atmosphere of the college – initially he found it stifling – but he applied himself well to his studies, and when his tutor pointed out that he was on course for a solid first, and encouraged him to study for a doctorate, Alan had felt flattered.

Eager to please, and not drawn to any external careers, he had remained in academia out of inertia and…lack of imagination? He’d found exams easy since primary school, and had been happy to let himself be swept straight ahead, as long as he received approval, never curious about other avenues, wary of the world outside.

So Alan started a doctoral thesis. On, then, to R. But he soon realised he was not yet at Q: he was not sure he had even reached N yet. He could answer questions easily, it seemed, but was he smart enough to ask one? He felt his intellect – or fatally, his curiosity – reaching its limit. With help from his tutor, he had concocted a question, and answered it in a way that was…fine, and duly collected his doctorate. But – and he was still embarrassed by how long he had taken to realise this – even if he became England’s greatest expert on Maurois, Molière and Mauriac, so what? He would still rank behind a hundred professeurs and professeures who had grown up speaking French, steeped in the literature and culture.

So he had lost any interest in pursuing a teaching post, but having met Alison he didn’t want to leave Oxford. He accepted a modest job in administration, and had risen to become secretary to one of the smaller colleges.

Nigel, who had got wind of the gathering and invited himself along, was now holding forth on how share prices were about to plummet. Annoying know-it-all little Nigel, Wormtail of the group, who had gone to work in the City and now owned a huge house in Beaconsfield. Thirty years on, bumptious as ever.

But that was it. The others all loved what they did. Square pegs who’d found square holes. Except for the accountant Martin, there had been no career plan, just trial and error, opportunistic – sometimes desperate – leaps from rock to rock. But here they all were, full of life, brimming with stories. Alan found himself fingering the car keys in his pocket, although it was not yet ten o’clock.

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