|Celandine's Chronicle (celandineb) wrote in cels_fic_haven,|
@ 2016-01-08 16:33:00
|Entry tags:||hb fic dakin/scripps|
History Boys fic: The Only Education Worth Having [Dakin/Scripps, general]
Title: The Only Education Worth Having
Fandom: History Boys
Pairing: Dakin/Scripps (implied)
Length: 2866 words
Summary: In their last year at Oxford, Posner asks Scripps and Dakin for help.
Note: Written for tigrrmilk for yuletide, 2015.
I half-expected to see the tie on the knob of the door to Stuart's bedroom, but I was irritated just the same.
It's a time-honoured tradition, or so I've been told. Stuart learned about it shortly after the start of Michaelmas term our first year. Merton had only begun admitting women four years earlier, but long before that they were around unofficially, if you know what I mean. The tie was a signal that the occupant of the room was, well, occupied, and not to be interrupted.
Normally it didn't bother me. Unlike Poz I had managed to keep my feelings pretty well hidden over the years. Stuart didn't suspect a thing on that front, which was how I preferred it.
I did, however, make a certain amount of effort to be out of the way when any of Stuart's girls-of-the-week (and they usually did only last a week, or a fortnight at most) was around. I'd developed a few bits of repartee to use either with them or about them later, but all the wordplay was just a way to disguise what I really felt, and it was easier if I didn't have to make the conversation in the first place.
Today was different. I hadn't seen that much of Poz in a while. Stuart and I were both at Merton, Rudge at Christ Church, and Poz at Magdalen, so we didn't eat in hall together or share tutorials or anything like that. Poz and I had both joined the Gilbert and Sullivan Society when we came up to Oxford, and in fact we both were in the society's production of The Pirates of Penzance in our second Michaelmas term, but I'd been too busy since to keep it up. Since then I'd seen him occasionally in lectures or at the Bod, working on papers or revising for end-of-year examinations. He'd been the only one of us to get a scholarship, and he took it seriously.
So seriously, in fact, that it got him noticed. That was what I wanted to talk to Stuart about. As it was I resigned myself to leaving a note for him on the doorframe, and hoping to see him in hall for dinner.
'Don!' He slid in next to me and pushed up the sleeves of his gown. Tonight's fare was a rather anaemic-looking curry, with soggy rice and sprouts on the side. Nearly all of the time the meals at formal hall were quite good, but the kitchen had failed today. 'I saw your message. What gives?'
I swallowed my mouthful of sprouts. 'Poz.'
Stuart rolled his eyes and picked up his fork. 'Poz, what?'
'Professor Howard talked to him yesterday.'
'Professor Sir Michael Howard?'
It had been a big thing around here, last year, when Professor Howard was knighted. He was perhaps the best historian in England, and we'd both attended his lectures, but never spoken to him. I mean, undergraduates talking to the Regius Professor of Modern History? It doesn't happen. But apparently he'd talked to Poz.
'The very one,' I answered. 'He suggested that Poz should try for one of the Examination Fellowships at All Souls in the autumn.'
'Huh.' Stuart took another bite of chicken dripping with yellow sauce. 'I wouldn't want to apply for that.'
He wouldn't qualify, I thought. Nor would I, for that matter. From what I had heard the papers set for the fellowship made A levels look like child's play. Not only were there general papers to write all of one day, and on a second day papers in your special field—it would be history, of course, for Poz—but there was a truly frightening additional paper, known simply as the Essay, in which the applicants were given a single word and had to write on it. It could be anything at all, and there was really no way to prepare for that one.
'Poz wanted to know if we'd help him revise, for the general and history papers.'
Stuart shrugged. 'The Fellowship examinations aren't until autumn, and we won't be here after the end of next term. I won't, at any rate.'
He was applying for several positions in London, I knew. Banks mostly, the sort that did a lot of international business and wanted Oxbridge graduates to impress the clients.
I hadn't decided what I might do after university yet. There was too much to get through still before then.
'I think he meant just until we graduate,' I said.
He shrugged again. 'I suppose so, then. Won't hurt, might help for our own exams, right?'
'True enough.' I scooped up my last forkful of rice. 'I'll let him know, next time I see him. We'll set something up.'
It was a couple of days before I saw Poz again. He still seemed surprised that anyone should have thought so highly of his abilities, and was relieved when I told him that both I and Stuart would revise with him, as long as we were still in Oxford.
We put together a regular schedule of evenings, Mondays and Thursdays, and met in Poz's room. When we came up for our first year I had given him a copy of the photograph Akhtar took of all the lads from Cutlers, when we were at Fountains Abbey, and he'd found a silvery frame for it and put it on his wall.
Stuart had asked around—he managed always to know useful people—and put his hands on copies of some of the examination questions that had been set in previous years.
'Christ, listen to this: 'Is it wrong to change your accent?'' He put on his poshest tones to say it, and I laughed.
'I can't change mine,' I said. Which was true. I had a Yorkshire accent and that was that. Both Stuart and Poz could put on RP if they wanted, but I couldn't. I could hear the differences in how the words were pronounced, but not mimic them.
'Would it be wrong though if you could?' Poz asked.
I lifted my shoulders in a shrug. 'Some might say so. You're pretending to be something you're not.'
'That's probably the answer the Fellows would expect to see, reading the papers. Irwin would say you should argue the other way then.' Stuart opened his eyes wide as we both stared at him. 'Well, he would say that.'
It wasn't that I disagreed with him, nor that Poz did, I'm sure, but that he brought up Irwin. Maybe it was the photograph on Poz's wall that had reminded us all of the past.
'I still write like him,' said Poz. 'I mean the handwriting, not the manner. Though perhaps the manner too.'
So did Stuart, still. I didn't. I hadn't been obsessed with Irwin, to imitate him, and I'd always been more discreet than Poz who imitated Stuart imitating Irwin.
'It did work,' I pointed out. 'The manner, that is. Turning questions on their heads, giving unexpected—and therefore interesting and memorable—answers. We all were accepted here.
'For that question, about changing your accent, I think it would work well to argue that no, it's not wrong. That would be the more unexpected answer, and it would still be, well, rather conservative, wouldn't it? The perfect thing to appeal to Fellows who like to think that they prize originality, but are also very much about maintaining the status quo, or so I'd imagine.'
Stuart nodded, and Poz did too.
'That's the thing about these questions,' Poz said. 'They're all, I don't know, enormous. I don't even want to think about what the Essay word might be. It could be anything at all.'
'Bugger,' said Stuart.
'What's wrong?' Poz asked a heartbeat before I would have.
'No, 'bugger' could be the word.' Stuart gave us his best smirk.
'In your dreams,' I shot back. His dreams of Irwin, maybe, but I didn't mean it to be taken literally.
'Let's look at the next question,' Poz interposed. 'You'll like this one, Dakin. 'Why is gold valuable?''
'Because it's shiny,' Stuart said.
I looked at him and raised my eyebrows.
'No, really. It's shiny, and pretty, and it doesn't tarnish. And it's scarce. So people like it, but there's only limited amounts, so not everyone can have all he wants.'
'There's something to that,' said Poz. 'Anything we want but can't have, we value more.'
He didn't look at Stuart when he said it, but I knew what he was thinking, and I'm sure Stuart did too.
We kept meeting twice a week through the end of Hilary term and into Trinity. I had to marvel at the sort of questions that the Fellowship examination asked. Even the history papers were massive topics although the Irwin technique worked well on a lot of them. A question like 'Alfred the Great, overrated?' just cried out for that method.
Three years is a long time. Too long, maybe, or maybe not long enough. Poz had never entirely gotten over his schoolboy crush on Stuart, and all three of us knew it, but at least Stuart was kind. He worked as hard as I did at our revision sessions, although Poz worked harder than both of us. Well, he was the one of whom much was expected.
'You never suggested asking Rudge,' I mentioned one night when Stuart hadn't arrived yet. 'He's bright enough.'
'He never really cared about being intellectual,' Poz said. 'We all knew that. He'll get through with a third, or maybe a two-two at best. That'll be enough for him.'
Probably Poz was right. I was hoping to get a first, but resigned to the likelihood of a second, though in my case I expected a two-one rather than a two-two. Poz would get a first, and maybe Stuart would; he was more likely than I, anyway. Working with Poz was helping me, but only time would show whether it would make the difference.
'Mm. Where had we gotten to last time? Was it the one about Scotland ceding its independence?' I asked.
'That was it. 'Why did Scotland cede its independence in 1707?''
We settled in and worked for half an hour before Stuart arrived, banging open the door and setting down a bottle of whisky with a flourish.
'What's that for?' Poz asked.
'We are celebrating my future employment,' Stuart said. He collected the cups we'd been drinking tea from and dumped the dregs into the basin. 'You may toast my success in obtaining a position at Aylmer and Stratton.'
'Doing whatever I'm asked to do, to begin with. For twenty thousand pounds a year, I'm not going to be choosy.'
'Twenty thousand pounds? They must think you shit gold.' I wasn't sure my father made that much after more than twenty years at one firm.
'Something like that,' said Stuart complacently. 'Investment banking, here I come.'
He'd be good at it. Stuart had the assurance, the chatter, the—let's admit it—the good looks that would make him a success at rubbing shoulders with the great and the good, or the not-so-great-and-not-so-good but unquestionably wealthy, which was likelier.
Stuart handed us each our cups back, now well-filled with whisky. 'To life after Oxford.'
'Life after exams,' Poz amended.
'Hear, hear,' I said.
We drank. And again. Stuart refilled the cups and we kept drinking and talking, not revising now, just tossing thoughts around.
'What do you plan to do, Don? After the end of term?'
'Maybe journalism. Something more, I don't know, flexible, more creative, than a job in the City like you'll have. I don't care that much about the money,' I said. 'And even if I had a chance at a post-graduate fellowship like Poz, I don't think I'd like being a scholar-in-residence. It's too—disconnected, for me anyhow.'
'I don't think I'll actually win a Fellowship,' Poz said. 'It just seems like I ought to try for it, since Professor Howard said I should.'
'He should at least write you a good reference, even if you don't win,' said Stuart. 'What do you think you'll do if you don't manage to become a Fellow at All Souls?'
It was Poz's turn to shrug. 'Teach, perhaps. I think I could do that well enough.'
I nodded. Poz would be a good teacher. I'd read some of his essays and he had a knack for explaining complicated events in ways that made them understandable.
'Like Mister Hector?' There was just an edge of mockery in Stuart's voice.
'Stu-' I began to object, but Poz spoke over me.
'No one will need to protect himself against me with the second volume of Tudor Economic Documents, if that's what you mean,' he said dryly. 'But in other ways, yes. He did make school interesting. Remember the time that old Armstrong walked in when the class was doing French, and you were being a customer at a brothel? And Hector covered by pretending that we were acting out being in a Belgian hospital during the war?'
Stuart and I both laughed. 'Yes, I remember that day. And all the bits of poetry he made us recite, and the songs, and the films. Useful sometimes even now.'
'Did any of us ever win the kitty? By stumping him at identifying films?' I asked.
'Once or twice. Lockwood did it, as I remember,' said Poz.
'Right. It was a film called something like The Secret Partner, and he knew it because his parents had gone to see it on their first date, and used to talk about it,' Stuart said. 'Clever of him.'
¬We were nearly three-quarters of the way through the bottle by then, and all getting a bit owlish.
'Do you ever miss Cutlers?' Poz asked suddenly.
'No.' Stuart shook his head.
'Sometimes,' I admitted. 'Life seemed easier then. It was all about passing the exams and being accepted here, wasn't it? We never stopped to think about what we'd do once we were here, or afterward.'
Poz looked at me then, and nodded. 'Nothing quite turns out as you expect, or hope, does it?'
Not for me. Not for Poz. Perhaps for Stuart, though. He mightn't be the white-haired boy of this year's history students like Poz was, but he did well enough, he was bound to get a first; he was going to take a lucrative job straight out of school; and he pulled all the girls he wanted. There was nothing in Stuart's life that hadn't turned out well, as far as I could see.
That question put a bit of a damper on the conversation, naturally. We all fell silent, and Stuart shared out the last of the whisky.
'What did you hope for?' he asked me as we walked back to Merton.
'Nothing much. Just to be here, I suppose.' I stole a glance at his face. It was hard to imagine not seeing him daily, after all these years. 'How about you? Any hopes that were crushed?' I tried to ask it jokingly. 'Girls you fancied who said no?'
He didn't answer right away, but I saw his jaw clench. 'No. No girls who said no.'
I had to ask. 'Then what?'
As if I didn't suspect before he said it. 'Irwin. He didn't say no, but then there was the bike accident. I thought… it doesn't matter.'
'You really were obsessed, weren't you?' Again, I tried to keep my tone as light I could, not to let it sound as though it mattered. 'Like Poz. But Poz got more than you did, in the end.'
Stuart exhaled a heavy breath. 'Don't remind me.'
'It was kind of you,' I pointed out. 'Gave him something, at least, and he knew he wasn't going to get any more. Whereas you and Irwin…'
'Nothing happened at all. But it would have. It would have.' He walked more rapidly, and I increased the length of my own stride to keep up. We were almost to the Mob Quad now, and our rooms.
'I know.' I hesitated a moment before adding, 'So it was only Irwin? You never fancied another man, just him?'
That made him stop and look at me. 'Does it matter?'
Our final term was almost over. Stuart would be off to London in a few weeks, embarking on what would no doubt be a highly successful and lucrative career. I had no clear idea as yet what I would do, or even where I would go—probably home to Sheffield for a little while, before I figured things out. The thought that I might not see him again after June made me reckless.
'Yes, it matters.' My voice was thick, partly from all the whisky, partly from trying to keep my emotions from showing through.
Stuart kept looking at me, his expression slowly changing. I could tell the moment he understood.
'Come on,' he said, and I followed him up the staircase.
He opened his door. The inside doorknob had a tie hanging from it. He moved it to the outside.
'Scripps' reward,' Stuart said. 'If you like.'
I stepped over the threshold and pushed the door shut behind me.