It was shortly after the start of the Lent Term of Bink’s second year at Cambridge, January 2008.
We were in bed, asleep, in the sweet and tiny cottage Shaun’s employing church had bought for us, which we all squeezed uncomfortably into, tucked in among dozens and dozens of piled-high boxes which I knew we’d never be able to unpack until we moved out again.
Shaun and I slept with our heads under the low Western window in our dear little higgledy-piggledy beamed bedroom, which was a thoroughfare to Serena’s room and Bink’s, which (I’d forgotten this, but there weren’t any others) she must have shared with Rose. There were windows behind and before, church bells through the one and birdsong through both, and an early woodpecker which used to rat-tat-tat-tat at dawn, delight us and drive our neighbours nuts.
It was long before dawn, though, when the telephone rang. Between about one and two, from memory.
I’ve taken so many distraught telephone calls from Bink over the years that I’m probably amalgamating other memories as much as distinguishing this particular one. Sobbing, beside herself, out of control with grief and distress. Help me. Come and get me. I can’t keep going any longer.
One sentence, however, I recall very clearly. Over and over again.
“Don’t make me stay. Please, please, don’t make me stay.” Begging, desperate, entreating.
I was surprised, thinking it never would have occurred to us to persuade her to stay in such wretchedness. But I wonder now, remembering her anguished words as I still do so clearly over a decade later, imploring us not to divert her course: why was she so insistent...?
We calmed her as best we could, and assured her we would be there as soon as it was day.
Shaun went over to Cambridge to pick her up, and was with her for three days. I’ve no idea where he stayed but that’s how long it took for her to be able to leave.
At some stage he accompanied her to her tutor’s study, signing her off to degrade from Cambridge, which in theory means you can resume your place again, when – if – your health improves enough. The tutor, Shaun told me, was deeply shocked at Bink’s appearance. There was no question as to whether she was ill enough to warrant leave of absence.
What we didn’t know at the time (nor the tutor either, I presume) was that the CPS had deemed there was sufficient evidence against the friend she’d reported as assaulting her, so the court case was now pending…
Thus Bink left her course at Cambridge, half-done, half-way through, and came back home to the little cottage.
And for years afterwards bemoaned her departure. What a waste of so many years of her life! Why didn’t she stay on? Surely she would have felt better again soon…
I am reminded, in some ways, of a choice Alex made some years later. I knew immediately that it was a bad one – it was obvious, glaring, idiotic – and he and I were an hour on the telephone, talking of its ramifications.
At one point he implored me, as if longing, “Just tell me I’m not allowed to go.”
“Alex, I can’t do that,” I said. “You’re an adult. I know you’re making a mistake. I can advise you as strongly as I can. But I can’t tell you you’re not allowed to.”
So he went, and learnt for himself.
For a long time afterwards I wondered whether he really had been asking me to prevent him. When I relayed the conversation to him a year or two later, when he’d had to reverse his decision, having lost a year of the career he could have embarked on and the deposit for a house he could have had, I asked whether I should have put my foot down and told him he couldn’t do it? Was that what he was asking me to do?
“Surely not,” he said, not even remembering his request. “I wouldn’t have wanted that.”
Perhaps Bink, too, was begging us to make her keep going?