Staring into my drink, I told him, “On my way. And miserable.”
“Aw come on, then. Tell me what’s happened?”
“Yeah, she did. Our affair in New York cost her her job, whereas I got a slap on the wrist. She thinks she might not get into Maggie’s program now.”
“And I went to have dinner with Portia the night after Ruby and I finally shagged, not knowing Tony’d given Ruby an ultimatum: me or her job.”
“Exactly.” I finished what was in my glass and dropped it onto the floor. “So, needless to say, she’s ended things with me quite soundly.”
“So you’re going to drink yourself into a stupor of self-pity on your couch then?”
“You know what my life with Portia was like,” I started. “And with Ruby . . . I’d never thought much before about children or finding what you have with Sara, but I did with her.” I stared out the window, at the sky and the new leaves as they shook in the early spring breeze. “But I will never be okay after this. She changed me and I . . . I don’t want to go back.” The line was quiet for a moment and I reached for my glass again, refilling it. “So drinking myself into an amnesia of what I’ve lost—that sounds about right.”
“Or,” he suggested with a laugh that said, You twat, “you could get off that stupid arse and go talk to Maggie. For fuck’s sake, Niall, you act as if you’ve got no resources. Figure out what you can bloody well fix and fix it. This is what you do, mate.”
I had a bit of time to reflect—finally sober—on what I wanted to say while I took the train from London to Oxford. Margaret Sheffield was a bit of a hero of mine, having served on my thesis committee and been more of a mentor to me than my own alcoholic advisor had ever been. Although Maggie’s specialty was civil engineering, she had a hand in designing and overseeing the construction of many of the cornerstone commercial buildings in crowded London neighborhoods, and I idolized the way her career easily straddled engineering, architecture, and broader urban planning. One of the proudest moments of my professional life to date had been when a colleague had introduced me at a keynote conference as “our generation’s Margaret Sheffield.”
But I’d never been to see her on such a personal matter. In fact, aside from the heated moment I’d stormed into Tony’s office last week, I’d never really been to see anyone from my professional life with a personal matter. So even though the cold wind whipped around me as I trudged down Parks Road toward the Thom Building, I was flushed with nerves.
Maggie had been around long enough to deserve an emeritus office in one of the grander buildings, but preferred being closer to the action, she’d said. Her building was an odd, hexagonal structure but from it she had a beautiful view of the University Park just to the east. Just being here again, close to Engineering and the materials sciences buildings, brought on a heavy sense of nostalgia. I’d been young when I lived here. Young and married, and for that reason always a bit different from my peers who spent their days working hard and evenings partying harder.
I knocked on her open door, relieved when she looked up at me and smiled widely.
“Niall!” She stood, making her way around her desk to give me a firm hug. Maggie had never been a hand-shaker, but with determination had trained me over the years to give in to her affections.
When she pulled back, I asked, “I was hoping you’d have a few moments?”
“Of course.” She smiled. “Your email did make me curious with its complete lack of detail.”
“And . . .” I began, “if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, we could grab a coffee?”
Her eyebrows rose, eyes twinkled with interest. “It sounds like this is not a strictly professional call?”
“It’s not. But . . . it is, too.” Sighing, I explained, “I’d just prefer the flexibility.”
She laughed, retrieving her jumper. “Well, this is a shock of a lifetime. A personal discussion with Niall Stella. I can certainly make time for that.”
We walked to a small café on Pembroke Street, using the trip to catch up a bit on the past two years. The topic of Ruby’s future hung heavily around me, and despite Maggie’s best efforts at small talk, my answers to her benign questions were tight and brief. I was relieved when we reached the café and ordered tea and croissants, before sitting at a small corner table.
“So,” she started, smiling across the table at me. Steam curled up from her cup. “Enough small talk, I gather. What’s this visit about?”
“It’s about a student who has applied to your program, who was an intern at Richardson-Corbett.”
“Yes,” I said, surprised that she knew immediately whom I meant, but then realizing I’d said “who was an intern.” Clearly, Maggie had read Tony’s letter. “I didn’t work directly with her. As you know, she reported to Tony.”
“I got his letter,” she confirmed with a frown. “He didn’t think all that highly of her.”