Chaos in Cambridge
“WE'RE SO PROUD of you.” Petronella Dixon clasped her daughter’s arms and stood back to look at her. She smiled and stroked away a hair that had fallen across Annabelle’s face. Annabelle pressed her lips together, her eyes shining with unshed tears. She was so full of conflicting emotions—excitement, sadness, optimism, and fear—that she could barely speak the word “goodbye” out loud.
Annabelle embraced her mother again. They stood in front of the terraced London home in which Annabelle had grown up, a house identical to thousands more that stood in rows and which, when viewed from a plane as it prepared to land at Heathrow Airport, made parts of the British capital look like a maze. On the ground though, one could only observe Annabelle’s face imprinting itself on her mother’s blue, home-knitted cardigan. A loud sob escaped from the teenage girl’s lips as she let out a breath.
“Come on now, Annabelle,” her mother said, patting her tall, gangly daughter on the back. “I’ll come up with your dad next weekend once you’ve settled in.”
Annabelle wanted to respond. She wanted to tell her mother that she would think of her every day, that she loved her very much, and that she would desperately miss her chocolate cake. She also wanted to tell her that maybe going to university wasn’t such a marvelous idea after all. She wanted to say that maybe she should call the whole thing off and stay at home. She was only eighteen; she had plenty of time. Why not put off leaving home a little longer? All this got jumbled in Annabelle’s mind, however, and emerged as just another dramatic sob.
As they hugged, Annabelle’s father packed the last of her bags into his black cab, then stood beside Annabelle’s best friend, Mary, on the quiet, London street. He put an arm affectionately around Mary’s shoulders and comforted the girl who had, for virtually her entire existence, been inseparable from his daughter. The two girls had played together since they were babies.
Mary had been born in the back of Annabelle’s father’s cab, his mad dash to the nearest hospital not quick enough for Mary who made her appearance amid a traffic jam outside a grocery store next to Liverpool Street Station. When it became obvious that Mary wouldn’t wait and he would have to take the lead, Annabelle’s nervous father reminded himself that if he could memorize London’s 25,000 streets and every business and landmark on them, he could remember what had transpired at the births of his own two children, one of whom had been born only a few weeks before.
He rose to the challenge in front of him and improvised, undeterred by the fact that the street teemed with rush-hour commuters who surrounded his cab like iron filings around a magnet. He steeled himself, rolled up his sleeves, and focused on the job of helping Mary land safely on the back seat. He was aided in his quest by loud and vigorous instructions that assailed him throughout the delivery courtesy of Mary’s mother who had already been through this experience five times before. Mary also helped by making her safe arrival known, clearly demonstrating that she had inherited her mother’s ability to make a lot of noise when the situation warranted it.
Raymond Dixon and Mary now watched as Annabelle pulled herself away from her mother and turned to her friend, overwhelmed and confused by her emotions all over again. Beneath her blonde curls, Mary’s tender face crumpled sadly. They were an odd pair—Annabelle was a tall and robust brunette, Mary a small and fragile blonde. While Mary was shy and reserved, Annabelle was effusive and loud. Mary was small, graceful, and delicate, while Annabelle wielded her gangly frame somewhat wildly. Mary treated everything seriously and with a sense of importance, while Annabelle was quick to laugh and act before thinking.
But these differences between the young women were only superficial. They were more like sisters than friends. At heart, they shared plenty. Both were sincere and compassionate and were constantly looking for ways to help others. Both sought adventure and often found mischief instead. They both lived their lives somewhat chaotically, and both harbored a deeply spiritual streak. “I might become a priest one day, Mary,” Annabelle had told her friend when they were six. “I promise to come to all your sermons,” Mary had said.
Now though, their adult lives called. Mary, who was from an enormous family of Irish Catholics, would soon leave her family home to train as a nurse, while Annabelle was off to study theology at Cambridge University.
“Oh Annabelle,” Mary said, looking up at her tall friend. “I will miss you. But I’m sure we’ll see each other soon.”
At a loss how to respond, Annabelle hugged her. Mary was five foot three, her little face only coming up to the top button of Annabelle’s soft summer coat.
“I’ll call you as soon as I arrive,” Annabelle said, laying her cheek on the top of Mary’s head.
“And don’t forget to write!” Mary’s words were muffled by Annabelle’s coat.
Annabelle silently nodded and disengaged from her friend. She hurriedly walked to the car before her emotions overwhelmed her again.
“All set?” her father said, opening the cab door for her. “If we wait any longer, we’ll spend half the day in traffic.”
“I’m ready, Dad.” Annabelle looked back and nodded gravely to Mary and her mother, then bent into the taxi and got inside.
Now it was Mrs. Dixon’s turn to wrap an arm around Mary. They watched as the cab moved off, Annabelle turning in her seat and smiling weakly until the cab rounded a corner and disappeared from view.
“I BOUGHT TOFFEES for the journey. Want one?”
Annabelle shook her head. Her father looked at her. It wasn’t like Annabelle to turn down sugary treats. He dropped the bag of toffees on the dashboard. “I’ll leave them here in case you change your mind.”
Annabelle sat quietly in the cab, gazing absently at the familiar London streets as they passed by. She felt weightless and detached, memories drifting through her mind randomly.
At nine years old, Annabelle had spent a summer tagging along while her mother cleaned a large, four-story house in Kensington, one of the wealthiest areas of London. The occupants were away, and in between polishing and wiping, Annabelle had found herself in awe of the luxurious interior and fairytale garden.
“This house is wonderful,” Annabelle had said as she and her mother had sat in the garden during a brief break.
Her mother, always smiling, always calm, had replied, “Study hard, and you might live somewhere like this one day.”
It had been a minor exchange, but it had stuck with Annabelle. Her mother was wise, and Annabelle took every word she said as gospel. Annabelle realized there and then that there was a world beyond her experience, beyond the terraced house she lived in, beyond the square—the only patch of green for a mile, beyond the local school where the plastic chairs got too hot in summer and the bathrooms ran out of paper towels before the end of the mid-morning break.
It was as she sat in that garden full of purple foxgloves, red poppies, and rolling piles of honeysuckle that exploded with fragrance and hummed with greedy bees that nuzzled on its nectar that Annabelle decided to study as hard as she could. She would steer herself down a path that led to university so that she could experience the world and all it offered. And perhaps she too, one day, would have a garden full of flowers like this one.
As she sat in the cab, now on the cusp of realizing the first part of her dream, her near decade-old memory was replaced by a more recent one. She remembered how, mere months ago, her father had taught her how to drive in this very taxicab. He was a gentle man, adored by all for his good humor. There wasn’t a setback or problem that he couldn’t see the bright side of. Like most people, Annabelle was anxious about learning to drive, but her father had made it seem so trivial and appeared to have such fun teaching her that the lessons felt more like recreation than education, more fun than nail-biting, more exciting than intimidating. Encouraged by him, Annabelle had come to relish the challenge.
“Blimey! The way you took that corner, you should be teaching me!”
“Was I going too fast?”
“Just a tad. I think you rather humiliated that man in a Ferrari a few streets back.”
“Don’t apologize, you’re doing wonderfully, love. You’d make a terrible cab driver though. You drive so fast you’d barely rack up any fares!”
Annabelle had passed her driving test with flying colors. To celebrate they had gone out for a pub meal. Over pie and mash her father had said, “I always had a ‘dream car’ when I was a boy. I bet you’ve got one in mind already, haven’t you?”
“Well,” Annabelle had replied, “I always thought those little Minis looked rather cute. I quite fancy owning one of those one day. Perhaps a bit souped-up, you know, go-faster stripes, a decent engine. I don’t want to putter around. I want to do things, go places!”
“That’s my girl.” Annabelle’s father raised his pint in salute.
The sound of the car radio snapped Annabelle back to the present as her father clicked a button on the dashboard, and as they idled at a traffic light, she watched a homeless man move fitfully inside his sleeping bag while a black dog with a touch of Border Collie in him curled up next to the man’s quilted form in the doorway they shared. Annabelle shifted in her seat and sighed. She knew she was blessed to have such supportive parents. She was far more fortunate than many.
“What do you fancy?” her father asked. “A little classical?”
“Alright,” Annabelle agreed, more to appease him than anything. She preferred music that was slightly more upbeat, but she wanted these moments with her father to be easy and serene. Classical music would meet both goals.
Raymond Dixon clicked over to a station playing a violin concerto and put his hand back on the wheel. “Never understood classical music—orchestras and the like—but it makes me feel clever to pretend.” Annabelle laughed gently, knowing that her father very much understood classical music, orchestras, and “the like,” and only professed to be less intelligent than he was. It was what she loved about him—his street-smarts, his humility, his goodness.
Today, Annabelle’s father had dressed for an occasion. He was wearing a freshly pressed flannel shirt and had gelled his hair. She could smell the musky scent of his favorite Old Spice aftershave. She knew he wanted to do her proud, and his effort touched her, making her eyes sting with tears once again.
“You know,” he began, as the taxi sped up to join the motorway, “this might be the first time I’ve ever seen you this nervous.”
“Dad…” Annabelle murmured.
“It’s true,” he persisted. “Even that time that policeman took you and Mary to the station—what were you then? Eleven? Anyway, as serious as it was, you didn’t even flinch.”
“The poor cat was stuck on a ledge!”
“Caught red-handed, you were,” her father continued, smiling as he remembered, “climbing up a drainpipe to the third floor. Little Mary holding her hands out below as if she could catch you.”
“We had to do something!”
“And then when that copper gave you a telling off, you gave him one right back!”
“He deserved it! Would he have preferred that the cat had fallen?”
They glanced at each other for a moment before breaking into hoots of laughter. In the more relaxed atmosphere that followed, her father said, “Don’t worry, Annabelle dear. You’re going to do well, make new friends, learn new things. Going to university is something to be excited about.”
“I know, Dad… It’s…” Annabelle searched for the right words but found her eyes growing a little heavy instead. “Leaving you, and Mum, and Mary, and everyone and everything…”
“You’re not leaving anybody, love. We’re all still right here,” he said, pointing a thumb back over his shoulder. “Just a little further away, but still no further than a phone call or a bus ride.” Annabelle smiled, and her father reached over to pat her knee.
“You’re right,” she said, as the spires of the city of Cambridge appeared on the horizon. There was enthusiasm in her voice—a quality that her father knew well and was happy to hear. “I’m sure it’s going to be great.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“I’m worried about the change, that’s all.”
Her father laughed, and she shot him a quizzical look.
“What’s so funny?”
Mr. Dixon shook his head, and as the city neared, he said with a chuckle and a sigh, “Annabelle, I don’t think you’ll ever change. And that’s why I know you’ll be fine.” He picked up the paper bag that lay on the dashboard and shook it. “Toffee?”
THE LATE MORNING sun shone over Cambridge as Annabelle and her father passed the wide-open space of Midsummer Common and traversed roads lined with rows of identical terraced houses much like the ones they had left behind in London. As Mr. Dixon urged his taxi on toward the city center, an awed, attentive silence came over both of them as they soaked in the increasingly grand surroundings. Spires scored the blue sky. Sunlight trickled across ancient majestic buildings picking out elaborate details—flying buttresses, vaulted roofs, mock fortifications.
“Those are examples of Neo-Gothic and Classical Revival architecture, Annabelle,” her father said, knowingly. Annabelle nodded. Raymond Dixon was a fount of surprising amounts of knowledge, much of it gleaned from books he read while at the taxi rank in between fares.
The Cambridge streets were filled with young, optimistic-looking students, often chattering away in groups or riding their bicycles fearlessly through the cobbled streets. Annabelle had never thought of London as gray or gloomy, but in comparison, Cambridge most definitely seemed an upbeat place. If her father hadn’t cheered her up, the striking beauty and character of the city would have done so.
Eventually, they had to stop to check their map. Annabelle’s father was slow to embrace new technology, and so they stretched out the Cambridge City Ordnance Survey map he had bought specifically for this occasion. They got out of the car for a better look at their surroundings.
“This is the Faculty of Divinity,” her father said, pointing at a multi-storied, glass structure very different from the sand-colored, centuries-old buildings they had passed earlier.
“Right,” Annabelle said. “My rooms should be nearby.”
“Let me see,” her father said, continuing to study his map. He’d paid good money for it, and he wasn’t going to let it go to waste. “They’ll be on here somewhere.”
As the pair glanced between the map and the modern brick buildings around them, scanning for recognizable landmarks, a young, handsome man emerged from the faculty building.
“Lost?” he said. “Need some help?” Annabelle thought she detected a slight accent of indeterminate European origin.
“Oh no,” Annabelle’s father said instinctively. “We’re fine, thank you.”
Annabelle looked at the young man. He was tall and slim, his brown hair neatly combed to the side, his clothes casual but neat—jeans, t-shirt, tennis shoes—the standard uniform of students the world over.
“Actually, yes, we do need some help,” she countered. “We’re looking for King’s College. It’s on King’s Parade.”
The stranger smiled in recognition as soon as she said the words. “Yes, I know where it is.” He shifted his shoulders, displacing his backpack slightly. He pointed down the street. “You need to turn right on Queens Road, left on Fen Causeway, and left onto Trumpington Road. Follow the street along to King’s Parade, and you’ll see the college. You can’t miss it. It’s only one of the most iconic buildings in the world.”
“Oh, that sounds a bit complicated,” Annabelle said ignoring her father who stood behind her. He’d put his hands on his hips and pursed his lips.
“I could show you if you like,” the stranger said.
“Oh yes, please,” Annabelle said, with relief.
“We’ve got the car, though,” her father said, patting the cab before gesturing toward the back. “And all your stuff.”
Annabelle looked from the car to her father then to the stranger before coming to a decision.
“Hop in,” she said, opening the rear door of the taxi and urging the young man inside. “You can direct us from the back seat.”
Without missing a beat, the guy slid his backpack from his shoulders and clambered into the taxi. Once they were all inside, he poked his hand through the window that separated the front seats from the back.
“My name is Noah.”
“Nice to meet you,” Annabelle said, shaking his hand. “I’m Annabelle.”
“Raymond,” her father said, looking in his rearview mirror before turning on the car and driving off.
“If you go down this road, I’ll tell you when to turn,” Noah said. Annabelle looked back at him. He remained close to the window that separated them. “So what are you studying, Annabelle? No, let me guess…Theology?”
Annabelle gasped. “How did you know that?”
Noah shrugged. “You have the look.”
“The look?” Annabelle said.
“Yes. Soft features, sensitive to the world. Spiritual. Large eyes, expressive and open, indicating a faith-based nature. Your hair in a ponytail, practical and tidy—a student unconcerned with superficialities, someone who seeks to understand things rationally but deeply.”
“Wow…” Annabelle sighed, utterly amazed.
Her father chuckled and slapped the steering wheel, his indignation at being given directions by a man less than half his age disappearing.
“Or maybe,” he said, “you know that theology students stand around outside the Faculty of Divinity!”
Noah laughed along with him, not at all embarrassed to be caught out in his little game. “Well, there is that.”
Annabelle went a deep red, before allowing herself to find this as amusing as the men who laughed uproariously.
“You’re a student?” her father asked.
“Just visiting,” Noah said. “Take this left… Here we are.”
“Would you look at that?” Annabelle’s father parked his cab across the street and stared up at King’s College. The details of the sand-colored stone building were mesmerizing. “I could look at that for hours and not see it all,” he said as he took in the pointed arches and rows of mullioned windows. On top of the building, turrets stood to attention, and a tower displayed a clock with golden hands. Coats of arms, fleurs-de-lis, and rosettes carved in stone decorated the front of the building.
“You wait, Dad. That’s only the gatehouse.”
While her father unloaded her luggage, Annabelle’s eyes roamed the college walls. She moistened her lips and swallowed. Once more, she felt overwhelmed by what she was facing.
“Here, let me help you,” Noah said to Annabelle’s father, eager to help even though the older man was handling the luggage with ease. Mr. Dixon was built like a featherweight boxer—slight and sinewy, without an ounce of unnecessary body fat. Noah grabbed the other end of a heavy suitcase.
“Thank you,” Annabelle’s father said, rather pleased with Noah’s manners.
“Well,” Noah said, once the bags were on the ground, “I’ll leave you to get acquainted with your new home. I’m sure you’ll love Cambridge as much as I do.”
“Thank you so much for taking the time to help us,” Annabelle said, forcing herself from her thoughts. She beamed at Noah.
“My pleasure,” he responded. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around. Cambridge is beautiful, but it’s a lot smaller than London.”
“Oh! We didn’t tell you we were from London.”
“You didn’t need to. I could tell by your accents. And the black cab, of course.”
Noah smiled his goodbye, and Annabelle and her father watched the young man walk away.
After a few silent moments, Raymond Dixon turned to his daughter. Annabelle was still looking down the street. He said quietly, “It’s time to go, love.”
“Yes, Dad.” Annabelle didn’t move.
Annabelle’s father wheeled a suitcase over to her and parked it at her side. “Here, follow me.”
“But you don’t know where you’re going.” Annabelle looked down at him; he was a few inches shorter than she. Her height came from her mother’s side.
“Then show me.”
And so the tall, fresh-faced theology student, her ponytail bobbing, and her shorter, wiry father each grabbed a suitcase and crossed the road toward the entrance to King’s College, Cambridge.