Sunday, 20 November 2011

Third Part of the Prologue of American Daughters

They walked slowly over to the Atwood Commons Dining Hall, where the lunchtime crowd was beginning to thin out. John sat down as Hilary offered to wait in line to get their meals. He asked her for an omelette, fries and coffee.
After the bleakness of the campus up at the dorms he was happy to be surrounded by all the noise of undergraduate feeding time. It was also a further respite from the hand-to-hand struggle with Hilary. The students were the classic New England co-ed mix in their Middlebury College hoodies and sweat tops, dark blue, purple, green and grey seemed to be the predominant colours, with a few girls in more refined cashmere and a few guys in warm-up suits. They were noisy but not boisterous, more like junior professionals in an office canteen than students in a campus cafeteria. They carried their trays to the long tables, oblivious to an older, overdressed stranger in their midst.
When Hilary returned to the table with their food, two female classmates accompanied her. Debbie, a slight, dark-haired pixie of a girl with bright, mischievous eyes sat down opposite John alongside Hilary. Her home was on the outskirts of Keene in upper New York State, across the lake from Middlebury. The girls would often repair en groupe to her place for their short breaks, as they had for the previous weekend, with Robin in tow, to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was a large modified ranch house, from which her parents, who were both vets, ran a successful practice. Later Hilary would confide to John that they all thought her rather spoiled by her doting parents.
John talked with her about skiing in the area as he’d been to Lake Placid many years before. He amused them with his tale of a traumatic descent he’d experienced on the Mount Van Hoevenberg track in the Budweiser bobsleigh, comparing it with the slide down the La Plagne run in le taxi bob and the complimentary glass of champagne at the finish. He resisted telling them that the French locals called their white four-man taxi bob with its high, protective sides the fastest suppository on ice. Somehow he didn’t think that description would go down particularly well with his daugther’s friends.
Hilary looked on quietly, with a self-contained nonchalant air, as she demolished her vegetarian lasagne. She would have been proud of his restraint, he fondly thought. At his side sat Virginia, a lanky, pale, blue-eyed blonde from Minneapolis, very much quieter than the animated Debbie. She had struck up an instant rapport with Hilary in their freshman year. Both worked in the library to supplement their living allowance and one summer Hilary had joined her working at a summer camp in Minnesota. Neither she, nor his daughter, contributed much to the winter sports conversation.
It was something of a relief for John when Brad joined them. He was obviously a long- standing butt of their jokes and took them all with a good grace. He’d placed a salami sandwich, coffee and a Snickers bar on his tray, his selection the subject of gleeful derision.
‘Brad, can’t you eat anything else for lunch? You seem to have the same items on your tray every time I see you,’ Debbie charged.
‘I’ve gotten kinda used to them. Saves me from thinking.’
‘And we know you have to go easy on that score, don’t we?’ This from Virginia.
‘Yep. No doubt about it. Need to marshal my limited resources.’
‘Poor Brad, the thought miser. You can always revert to that box of Oreo cookies your mother sends you every couple of weeks,’ Hilary observed.
‘Yeah, sure. And that’s the last cookie you’re ever going to beg off me, Hilary Swift.’
John sensed there was a deeper link between his daughter and the cookie monster from New Jersey. He queried her about it as they returned up the hill after lunch.
‘Brad’s a good friend, nothing more. I think he secretly fancies Debbie. She’s more his size. I think Virginia and me are just too big for him. Too tall, I mean. But I’ve told him what I think about that. He and Debbie would be a disaster together. She’s got this weakness for jocks and wild parties. Brad just isn’t that interested in sport, the clubs or the party lifestyle. He’s resolutely not a joiner. And neither am I. I’ve stayed away from all the clubs, the replacements for the fraternities and sororities that were banned on campus a few years before I got here, and haven’t regretted all that one minute.’
‘Why banned?’
‘Simple. Alcoholism was the prevalent social disease on campus.’
‘Did it work?’
‘Er, no. The frats moved off campus. And there are still plenty of students who come here to get wasted. Middlebury still has the rep for being a social school. Club Midd they call it. I just keep out of it.’
‘But you’ve got your rugby crowd.’
‘Oh yes. Now that’s altogether different. A load of laughs. But with Brad, for all his playing dumb he enjoys nothing better than a glass of red wine, a book and a philosophical conversation. That’s why we get on so well. Except I prefer the occasional brew.’
John laughed. This was one aspect of his daughter he hadn’t put into the equation.
‘Pick us up at seven, then,’ she said when they reached the car.
‘For what?’
‘Thanks for everything. For being you. For seeing me. For letting me into your life just a bit. For not being too hard on me.’
‘No problemo. Anyway you’ve had it easy so far. You’ve only had to tackle me.’ Turning on her heel she gave him what appeared to be a pre-prepared parting shot. ‘Robin is something else altogether!’       

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