“Here is the first chapter of my new novel, provisionally – and not very originally – titled, A Cambridge Romance. I think I am going to try and write a Cambridge version of Notting Hill, without trying to make it look too familiar! Although, the main protagonist does work in a very unsuccessful book-shop. Oh well, I am sure I will be able to think of additional plot twists to set it apart from said movie …”
“It was a bright and breezy day in Cambridge. On Parker’s Piece, a few acres of parkland sitting in the very centre of the city, the day was looking particularly pleasant. The breeze rustled the crisp leaves of the trees lining the southerly edge of the park and the sunshine produced a glorious golden lacquer over the houses and hotels that lined the other sides of the park. Meanwhile, in the park itself, crowds of people provided a gentle hubbub of chatter and laughter. Some were playing sports, some walked casually along admiring the view and others were just simply lounging around on the grass, basking in the late autumn sunshine. It was a picturesque and quintessentially Cambridge scene, full of natural beauty and a perfect backdrop for romance. If, that is, one was looking for romance.
Two people on Parker’s Piece today were most definitely not looking for romance. In fact, they were not looking at anything very much at all, really. And as they were both riding bikes, that wasn’t a very good state of affairs. They were riding in opposite directions along the two diagonal paths that ran across the park. At the intersection was a tall, black lamp post, known locally as Reality Checkpoint. The keen, knowledgeable Cambridge cyclist knew that crossing this intersection required a modicum of caution; a quick look along the other path to check for traffic before proceeding across the junction. But, this morning these two cyclists were modicums of carelessness and were blissfully unaware that they were on a collision course with each other and possibly the lamppost as well, or even worse both the lamppost and each other.
The two carefree cyclists were both heading to separate destinations. Professor Melissa Worthing was rushing to deliver her first lecture as professor of English at Caius College. Despite setting numerous alarm clocks, she had risen late and was now trying to make up for lost time by cycling as fast as she could across the piece. Meanwhile, Hugh Plant was cycling as slowly as he could. He was running – or rather cycling – early and before he arrived at the dusty old book-shop where he worked in the city centre he thought he would dawdle along the path and take full advantage of the autumnal resplendency of Parker’s Piece – Cambridge’s very own sun-baked savannah.
As the cyclists neared the intersection of the two paths, they were unaware of the collision course they were on. Melissa had her head down, cycling furiously. Hugh had his head up in the clouds, cycling nonchalantly. One moment before the crossing, Melissa looked up and Hugh looked down. Finally, they saw the accident that was waiting to happen and took immediate, evasive action. Unfortunately, rather than swerve in opposite directions away from each other, they swerved towards each other.
Despite their best efforts at correcting their direction of travel, the inevitable collision happened. The gentle, unbroken peace of the piece was disturbed by the clank and thud of two bikes colliding and the combined shrieks of both book-shop owner and professor as they felt the full force of the impact.
Hugh was the first to recover from the tangled heap of metal and flesh that lay one bike-swerve’s width to the left of Reality Checkpoint. As he slowly stood up, he thought he could hear the nearby Catholic church ring out a peal of bells. Then he remembered that said church did not have any bells, so realised that the tintinnabulation must be in his head.
‘Oh my, oh my,’ he said as he held his head in his hands feeling slightly disoriented. He looked down and saw a lady dressed mostly in black, underneath an old, heavy bike. Both the bike and the lady looked slightly crumpled.
‘Can I help you?’ he enquired, as Melissa struggled to disentangle herself from her bike.
Melissa shot him a rather withering stare, implying that no help would be necessary. She squirmed a little and eventually managed to haul the bike away from her and bring herself to her feet.
‘You could have killed me!’ were her first words.
‘Good morning to you as well. In fact, you could also have killed me,’ said Hugh slowly and carefully, as that was the way that he always spoke.
‘I tried to swerve away from you, but you swerved in the same direction as me and so the inevitable happened. I guess our minds are wired the same!’ He began to chuckle, which made his head hurt more and the non-existent church bells started to ring again, so he stopped chuckling and went back to cringing.
‘Oh, my. Oh, my,’ he repeated.
‘I am sorry, but I fail to see what is funny. Moreover, I can’t imagine that there is anything that we have in common.’
Melissa gave Hugh another withering stare and looked him up and down a few times to ensure that he felt withered from head to toe. Then, she bent down and picked up her bike.
‘Well, I can think of one more thing,’ said Hugh. ‘Let me just check’. He bent down to inspect Melissa’s bike. ‘Oh, yes. We both have buckled wheels.’
‘What do you mean, buckled wheels? My bike is perfectly fine,’ said Melissa and she jumped on her bike and set off down the path. But, after a few turns of the pedals her bike came to a sudden, unexpected halt and she fell off the bike for a second time that morning. This wasn’t exactly what she had in mind for her first morning at Cambridge University and her distaste for the morning was further increased when Hugh started chuckling again. She tried another withering stare, although she quickly realised that withering stares don’t work particularly well from ground level.
‘What are you laughing at now?’ she asked.
‘Well, I’ve just thought of a third thing that we have in common?’ replied Hugh who was beginning to see the amusing side of the situation and rather wished that his pile-up partner had a similar outlook.
‘Really? Another thing in common? What would that be then?’ said Mel as she picked herself up off the ground for a second time.
‘I think the best description is .. bloody-mindedness. Anyway, given that we do have so much in common, I suppose introductions are in order. My name is Hugh, Hugh Plant. I was just on my way to work. I work in a bookshop in Cambridge, not too far from here, actually.’
Hugh picked up the prof’s bike and after a bit of tweaking with the brakes managed to ensure that although the wheel was still a little bit wonky, it was able to rotate. He looked up triumphantly as he gave the wheel a quick spin to demonstrate the success of the repair.
‘There you go, that should be fine for a few more miles. But I would recommend that you take it to a bike shop as soon as possible.’ He handed the bike to Melissa and noticed that she seemed to have discarded the withering stare she had for him with a more contented look that seemed to contain a little hint of gratitude.
‘Thanks. What’s the bookshop called?’
‘It’s called ‘Bumpty’s’, ‘Bumpty’s Books’. Best shop on Green Street.’
‘Sorry, I’m new to Cambridge. Not quite got my street names sorted out.’
‘Or your highway code?’ smiled Hugh.
‘Oh, yes. Right. Now, I really must dash. First day at the new job and all that. Bumpty’s, eh? Sounds more like a coffee shop?’
‘Well, funnily enough that’s what the owners think as well. They’re looking to sell it. I mean, Cambridge definitely needs another coffee shop don’t you think?’
‘Yes, of course. Lots more coffee shops,’ replied Melissa. Hugh raised a slight eyebrow.
‘Oh, yes. Oh, You’re joking, aren’t you? Sorry, not quite with it this morning. Mind on other things, I suppose.’
Hugh smiled at Melissa, but even this grimaced as his head still hurt and the bells began to ring in his head again.
‘Oh, the bells, the bells. I can hear bells again,’ he groaned.
‘Oops! No bells this time, just my phone,’ said Melissa as she pulled out her ringing phone. ‘I prefer traditional bell rings for my ringtone. Sorry. This alarm was set to go off when I got to work. So, now I realise that I must be late, so I really must, I really must …’
‘Yes, you really must … dash?’ said Hugh, offering a suggested completion of her sentence.
‘Yes, dash that’s it. Thank you for fixing my bike. I will be sure to get it fixed. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’
‘Could I ask before you dash off? What’s your …’
‘Melissa, Melissa Worthing. Newly-installed professor of English at Caius College, and if I don’t get a move on it will be the shortest tenure ever recorded at the college.’
Mel smiled at Hugh, took her bike from him and set off down the path with her black gown billowing around her in the autumnal breeze, leaving Hugh alone with his thoughts and his headache. After a short pause, during which he tried to recall exactly where he was and where he was meant to be going, he swung his leg over his bike and set off in a nonchalant and slightly wobbly direction towards the centre of town, thinking of nothing in particular – apart from Melissa and the rather elegant shape of her nose.”