All that power held dormant, sleeping, only needing the detonation of a touch to trigger a chaos in which mind was subservient to passion, mind’s will extinguished in body’s will.
Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds
Nile waits for the water to boil. She glances down at her feet and sees the second toe of her left foot starting to peek through her socks where the material has thinned out so much it’s hanging on by only a few threads. It’s another pair for the trashcan, and she makes a mental note to buy new ones, knowing very well that she’ll forget the second she’s back at her desk, trivial tasks pushed to the back of her mind out of necessity. Perhaps she’ll remember to ask her mother for socks next Christmas. But it is more likely that her mother will just know that that’s what she needs. She’s got a sixth sense about these things.
Pushing that sting of homesickness down to make space for the gallon of coffee she’s about to brew, Nile fights the urge to lean back against the kitchen counter and close her eyes for a moment. She doesn’t trust herself not to nod off standing up at this point. The motions she goes through once steam rises from the kettle are practically automatic. Grab the big jar of ground beans. Deposit three too-large spoonful’s into the French press. Pour in the hot water. Let it sit for a few minutes.
But she grows impatient, pushes the filter through the almost-black muddy mass before it has properly brewed, going for effect rather than taste. She’s just reaching for her favourite cup at the back of the cabinet when he hears the front door open, a set of key jangling as they’re tossed into the small dish they keep on the cabinet in the hallway. There’s a soft knock on the doorframe as her fingers finally close around the ceramic handle.
She turns around, cup cradled to her chest. “Oh, ‘sup Dizzy?”
Her friend and roommate raises her eyebrows, undoubtedly taking in Nile’s appearance; the sweatshirt she hasn’t changed out of since Tuesday, the basketball shorts with at least three prominent coffee stains, her braids all piled up in a messy nest on top of her head. She isn’t sure if she remembered to wipe off the pen marks off of her chin.
“Hey,” Dizzy tells her gently. “How’s the writing going?”
Nile suppresses the hysterical laugh that’s threatening to climb up her throat. “Oh, you know,” she says with an aborted gesture. “It’s going.”
Dizzy nods, pulling her lower lip into her mouth to worry at it with her teeth. “So,” she starts carefully, “we were thinking of heading out for dinner tonight. That new Ethiopian place we were talking about last week, remember? Near Haggerston Station?”
She can’t remember that particular conversation, but she nods anyway.
“Wanna come with?”
Nile thinks of the state of her draft. There are a frightening number of comments from her supervisor she has yet to address and the deadline he’d set for the submission of her edits is approaching quickly. And she needs to stick to it if she wants feedback on them once the next term kicks off in September.
“Maybe next time. I’m a bit behind.”
Dizzy furrows her brows. “You gotta eat, Nile.”
“I had Thai for lunch,” she replies, though that may have been yesterday. To be honest, she doesn’t really know what day of the week it is anymore. Everything between deadlines has mutated into one murky, indistinguishable lump of time that simultaneously passes in a blink and drags on forever.
“Right.” Her friend nods. “Well. I just came to drop off some stuff, so – I guess I’ll see you tomorrow. Don’t stress, okay? You got this.”
Her chest feels tight when she smiles. “Thanks.
Dizzy turns and disappears down the hallway. Nile hears the floorboards creak and the door at the far end swing open and shut. With a deep sigh that doesn’t quite reach her lungs, Nile puts down her cup and rummages around in the bread basket for a slice of toast she can shove between her teeth. It’s not a proper meal, but it’ll tie her over for now. Grabbing the French press and her cup, she makes her way back to her room and shuts the door, navigating around piles of laundry that irritate her, but that are just not on her list on priorities right now.
When she sets everything down on her desk, a sliver of space available between mountains of notes, printed out essays and books, she see that a notification has popped up on her laptop screen that makes her heart drop.
There’s an email sitting in her inbox. Nile has been waiting for an official confirmation of her external examiners for weeks. Holding her breath, toast still clenched between her lips, she opens the email without even checking sender and subject line.
Nile’s eyes are stuck on the word ‘married’. Her mouth drops open, toast falling into her lap without her noticing.
Nile hastily rubs at her eyes. God, she told herself not to fucking cry and of course here she is, slobbering all over her top. She takes a deep breath, and then another, tilting her head back to stare at the ceiling. It’s not as if she hadn’t prepared herself for criticism, or expected things to go swimmingly without being pressed on any issues she knows still need to be addressed.
But it’s just really fucking hard. And she is just so damn tired.
Her hand closes around the small crucifix hanging from her neck; a gift from her mother, a good luck charm meant to guide her that she had given Nile after they’d received news about her scholarship. It’s very difficult not to feel like an imposter right now, like she doesn’t deserve to be here, like that scholarship is wasted on her.
She turns around to see Joe exit the room where Professors Kozak, Stefaniuk and Keane are still sitting, probably waiting for the next poor sucker to cross-examine about their research. Joe is directly in front of her with two quick strides and before Nile can wipe tear tracks off her face or reassure him in any way that she is fine, just fine, she is not a child – he has wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to his chest.
Joe gives the best hugs. But now, it does not makes her feel better. She just feels even more like a failure, like she has failed him as well, even though he’s doing so much to support her in this. Nile doesn’t want this to reflect badly on him, and she doesn’t want to get snot all over his nice shirt either.
“I’m sorry,” she can’t help but sob against his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I completely fell apart, I don’t know –”
Joe cuts her off with a shush and takes her shoulders, pushing her back so that he can look into her eyes. His gaze is warm and calm, as always.
“Don’t apologise, Nile,” he tells her firmly. “You did not fall apart. Exams are tough, and your exam panel was very tough as well, but you answered all their questions.”
He digs through the bag he must’ve hastily slung over his shoulder when he followed her out the room and hands her a packet of tissues, which almost makes Nile cry again.
“A referral is not the end of the world. It does not mean your research is faulty, or that you made any awful mistakes. It just means that there are a few things you need to address and clarify.”
It sure feels like the end of the world, but Nile doesn’t tell him that. She just feels like she’d been in such a great place in her research, finally feeling sure about her contribution to knowledge and confident in her writing, and now it’s like she’s back to square one, back to the drawing board, all because she failed to properly apply Joe’s suggestions to her presentation and texts.
“But Professor Keane,” she starts, not even knowing how to continue. She’d never really encountered him before, Visual Cultures and IMS not sharing many intersections. The exam panel always had to be made up of people from various departments and she knows that, Joe had even warned her about Keane and his tendency to hyper-focus on methodology, but –
“Keane,” Joe says with a roll of his eyes, and quickly glances over his shoulder, “Keane is an arsehole. The issue isn’t your methodology, it’s the fact you’re a young, strong woman who stands her ground. Andy is the one you want on your side, and she is.”
Nile blows her nose on a tissue and hands the packet back to Joe with a thanks. “She is?” Dr. Stefaniuk’s questions had been among the most difficult to answer. She hadn’t seemed very impressed with Nile’s work at all.
Joe smiles. “Just wait until you get her feedback notes. They will be very helpful, and give you very precise points to address. And you will see that these are not major issues, but some tweaks, and you have three months to do them, alright?”
Nile nods. She feels a bit more stable, a bit calmer, but it will probably take a few hours for her to be back to normal.
“Good,” Joe says and begins steering her away from the exam room and towards the stairs. “Now. The exam is done, the term is over. How about you and I get a drink?”
They find a pub close to the college that’s frequented by plenty of Goldsmiths students and staff, but they have one or two hours until it will get properly busy, so they manage to find a table out back and Joe disappears inside to get them something to drink. They don’t do this very often, even though their relationship is probably a lot closer than between most research students and their supervisors.
But it’s the first time Nile has had a fellow queer person of colour to look up to academically. Goldsmiths alone represents an incredible opportunity, but what really sealed the deal for her was the chance to work with Joe; to learn from someone who’d changed and challenged their still predominantly white and heteronormative field so much and whose work continues to move the needle. It’s such a relief to no longer have to justify her sheer presence to some ancient fossil still quoting Baudelaire.
Joe returns with a large glass of white wine for her and what she guesses is ginger ale for himself. He clinks the small bottle against her glass and smiles, showing his teeth. Nile can’t quite manage to smile back yet, but she has a sip of her wine; dry and sharp, not too sweet, just like she likes her wine, because Joe always remembers.
She does, even if only minimally. “It’s frustrating, but – like you said. Not the end of the world. Not sure why I couldn’t stop crying.”
Joe twists the neck of the bottle back and forth between his thumb and middle fingers, making its bottom spin on the table. It’s an overcast day, not quite summer but warm enough to sit outside without a jacket, and Joe’s shirt stretches across his shoulders. There are at least two people already staring at him, Nile sees out of the corner of her eyes, but Joe doesn’t notice. He rarely does, always so focused on her, always making sure that she feels heard and seen.
“It’s the adrenaline,” he tells her after a beat, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table. “You work up to an exam like that for weeks and months and then suddenly, all that pressure is released. Opens the floodgates. Completely normal.”
“Did you cry after your confirmation exam?”
Joe snorts. “Pretty sure I didn’t manage to keep it together until I’d left the room. You know me. I’m a sensitive soul.”
He winks, lifts the glass bottle to his lips and takes a short sip. “In all seriousness, Nile. You’ll be fine. The referral submission is at the end of August, which gives you plenty of time, though I would suggest you get started as soon as you get the written feedback. Quynh is going on annual leave in August, so she will be able to help you if needed, and while I can’t promise you to be quick about it, I’ll read and comment on anything you send me.”
Right, Nile remembers suddenly, Joe will be away on a research project funded by the European Union until September. She’d just started at Goldsmiths when he and a small team of fellow researchers from other European universities had started the grant application process. It’s still wild that is has taken so long for the project to be granted funding, and for the actual fieldwork to finally take place. She is already excited to read about it all, even though she knows it might take years for a publication to be finalised. But it’s a welcome distraction.
“When are you heading to Rome?”
Joe pulls a face. “Day after tomorrow. And I have packed absolutely nothing so far.”
Nile winces in sympathy.
“Are you flying home this summer?” Joe asks her then.
She nods. “In two weeks. But I’ll be back in July. I signed up for the EAP training, though now I’m wondering if that was the right decision.”
It would be decent teaching experience, Nile knows, tutoring some undergrads in English for Academic Purposes, and that is what she needs if she wants to continue on her path in academia. Pay is fairly average, but due to her scholarship, she fortunately has the unprecedented luxury of not having to worry about money as much as she is used to.
“Definitely do it,” Joe tells her. “It’s good for your CV, and it will boost your confidence. Maybe it’ll remind you what a good writer you are.”
Her face heats up from the compliment and Nile quickly raises her glass of wine to her lips.
“Fingers crossed,” she mutters. “I’ll be stuck in the library for weeks while some Italian gigolo will drive you around the streets of Rome on a Vespa.”
Joe throws his head back and laughs, mouth wide and eyes lit up with amusement. “I wish, Nile. I think someone else may have to recreate Roman Holiday in my stead. I doubt that I will see more than the archive’s inside walls.”
“Oh yes, such hardship to be stuck in a room with invaluable historical artefacts in one of the oldest and most beautiful universities in the world, in one of the most beautiful and historically relevant cities in the world.”
At least Joe has the decency to just shrug, lips twitching like he’s trying really hard not to laugh out loud again.
“I’ll get you a good souvenir?”
“You better,” Nile huffs and finishes her wine.
Nile takes a deep breath (she’s not nervous, just – excited), adjusts the shoulder strap of her bag before pushing open the door to Joe’s office and stepping inside. It’s become such a familiar space, so comforting that it feels almost like walking into her mother’s kitchen. It smells of books and paint and mint, and it’s warm, the late afternoon sun dipping the room into orange.
Joe is bustling around his desk, a modern thing made mostly of glass, contrasting with the piles of books and papers, the little trinkets sitting on the study shelf and lining the sill beneath the south-facing windows. But it fits, this intersection of history and the contemporary, just like Joe fits into this cluttered office that, as Nile now knows, is a carefully curated reflection of its inhabitant.
Said inhabitant seems to be clearing a space on his desk for Nile to set up her notes, shuffling papers and notebooks, muttering quietly under his breath. When she shuts the door behind her, he halts what he’s doing and turns around with an infectious smile that Nile just has to mirror.
“Nile!” he exclaims, and pulls her into a quick hug, before drifting over to the sideboard where he keeps his kettle and cups. “How was your summer? Tea?”
She pulls out a chair and grabs a pen and notebook from her bag before letting it drop onto the floor. “Yes, please,” she tells him, looking forward to drinking proper tea and not the cheap PG Tips stuff they’ve got in the student café. “And it was good. Busy, but good.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
Joe hands her a steaming cup, and the smell of mint wafts into her nose. He walks behind his desk and sits down, finally still, and Nile gets a good look at him over the brim of her cup. He looks good. Of course he always does, but she’d expected him to be tired, having only returned from his stint in Rome a few days ago, according to Quynh, and for there to be some evidence of the stress this intense research period must have produced.
But he looks like he’s just come home from a nice beach holiday, skin a tad darker than at the beginning of the summer, eyes just a little bit brighter. The sleeves of his light grey shirt are rolled up to his elbows and his shoulders are relaxed as he leans back in his chair.
Nile moves to put her tea on the desk, carefully pushing an old book slightly to the side just to be safe, when her eyes fall onto its spine, widening when she deciphers the gold letters.
It’s a bible.
She looks at Joe with raised brows. “Don’t tell me they managed to convert you.”
He looks startled, like he’s forgotten it’s there and he – he fumbles for words, something Nile has never seen him do before. For a split-second, she almost expects him to tell her she caught him.
“Oh, sorry,” he says and takes the bible, “I didn’t – I forgot that was there.” He puts it in a desk drawer that he shuts decisively. “And no, of course not, just – well. I’m trying to win an argument.”
Joe clears his throat, the previously relaxed posture suddenly replaced by a subtle but nevertheless noticeable tension.
“Anyway,” Joe says and interlaces his fingers. “Quynh sent me your referral submission, and I also spoke to Andy yesterday, who was quietly impressed with your progress.”
The smile tugging at his lips still has an underlying tension to it, but it reaches his eyes, once again warm and sparkling and always so, so encouraging.
“I’m happy to also give you some more detailed notes if you want, but I think I’d rather not look backwards. You did what was asked of you, and now you’ve officially passed and moved onto the home stretch. One year away from submission.”
She feels slightly nauseous just thinking about it. “If you put it like that…”
“I know, I know. So much and yet so little time. There’s lots to do, but like I told you: you can do this.”
Nile nods. She’s staring to believe it, too.
“Oh, but first.” He opens another drawer and pulls something out, holding it out to her across the desk. “I promised you a souvenir.”
Nile takes the small box from him, warmth blooming in her chest. “You shouldn’t have.”
She opens the lid. In it, there’s a folded piece of white cloth, and when she reaches inside to carefully unfold part of it, her eyes fall onto the most beautifully intricate lacework she’s ever seen.
“It’s tombolo lace,” Joe tells her, and Nile can’t bring herself to tear her gaze away from it. “It represents female intelligence and creativity. They’ve been making this in Genoa since its days as a maritime republic.”
Nile wants to tell him that this is too much; a gift too expensive, too thoughtful, to be wasted on her. There is a lump in her throat that stops her from voicing these thoughts. So she just puts the lid back onto the box, and presses it to her chest. The thanks she utters is so breathless she can’t be sure it even reaches Joe’s ears. He smiles anyway.
In retrospect, Nile realises that this was probably her first clue.
II. Literature Review
Nile doesn’t know why, but she genuinely finds Quynh a little bit terrifying. She’s a seemingly delicate women with bird-bone wrists and a fine bone structure, but there is always a weight to her gaze that pins Nile down, an intensity in her presence that makes her feel slightly short of breath. She doesn’t know that much about her, only that she was the youngest woman ever to be named Chief Curator of Sculpture at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Last summer Nile had taken Jay and Dizzy to an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery Quynh had apparently consulted on.
(There’s also a rumour circulating amongst students that she and Dr. Stefaniuk are an item, but Nile is very uncomfortable gossiping about the private lives of people she knows professionally.)
Despite the smile she greets Nile with once she has knocked on the open door to her office, Nile still feels a bit nervous. Quynh’s office is the polar opposite of Joe’s; sharp, clean lines, no clutter. Every item of furniture is white, precisely arranged, three framed black and white pictures of Vinh Ha Long on the wall behind her desk.
“Nile,” Quynh says in greeting and gets to her feet. Even her outfit appears to be carefully curated, the red of her lipstick matching the red of her dress that has a high collar and sculptural sleeves, fitting her like a glove.
Nile instantly feels inadequate in her still damp boots and jeans. It’s been raining all week and she doesn’t think she’s been properly dry in days.
“Hi, sorry to bother you –”
“Oh, it is no bother at all,” Quynh waves her off and picks up a single key that’s sitting beside the keyboard of her iMac. “Joe called me last night and explained. He does feel terribly sorry that he can’t be as present right now.”
“He shouldn’t,” Nile immediately replies. “From what I understand, this research project is a big deal and I – I think I’ve just gotten used to him being very involved, so…”
She trails off, aware how it sounds. She should be working fairly independently at this point, only checking in with her supervisor every other month, not rely on him for self-assurance when he has other students to guide, lectures to give, journals to edit, and his own research to conduct. It makes Nile feel a bit guilty for become so dependent on him. She is very aware that other PhD candidates are lucky to get replies to their emails at all. Joe has definitely spoiled her.
“That’s Joe,” Quynh says and steps around her desk, heels of her pointed-toe boots clacking on the floor. “He always cares so much.”
There is a wistful note to her words. Quynh probably knows it better than Nile. Again, she is not one to pry into the personal lives of people she works with, but Quynh and Joe always seem relatively close. Nile always seems them standing together with Professors Stefaniuk and Le Livre when there are college-wide events.
“I hope I’m not keeping you from anything important,” Nile feels the need to tell her as they make their way down the corridor towards Joe’s office on the other side of the Richard Hoggart Building.
“Of course not,” Quynh quickly assures her. “Besides, Joe has asked me to water his ficus.”
It’s strange to step into Joe’s office without him being there. His presence is palpable still; it feels and smells the same, but of course it does, Nile silently chides herself, it’s not as if he’s been gone for long. While Quynh makes a beeline for the ficus that, in Nile’s honest opinion, seems to barely be holding on at this point, she heads to the shelf behind Joe’s desk, scanning it for the Visual Cultures journal.
It doesn’t take long for her to detect a few magazine files that are labelled Journal of Visual Culture 2015-2019. But when she goes through the issues, she realises that the one she needs is missing.
“Crap,” she curses quietly under her breath, but it’s no surprise that Quynh hears her in the otherwise silent office. “The issue I need isn’t here,” Nile says in response to Quynh’s questioning look.
Nile shakes her head. “There isn’t one of the article I want to reference. And the library only started collecting this magazine two years ago, so they don’t have this issue either.”
“Well, let’s have a look then, shall we?” Quynh says and steps away from the drooping ficus.
“I don’t want to rummage through his stuff,” Nile responds, glancing around at the stacks of books on the desk and around it.
“Nonsense,” Quynh comments dismissively. “Joe won’t mind. Might teach him to tidy up once in a while.” She steps around an impressively tall tower of magazines and pulls a face. “What a hoarder. Living with him was a nightmare.”
Nile is pretty sure she gapes at Quynh. “You lived together?”
Quynh smiles as she starts going through that tall pile of magazines one by one. “In Milan, yes. I’d just started my MA at NABA and he was in his final year of his undergraduate degree.”
She picks up a journal, glances at the cover and then deposits it on Joe’s desk.
“At least now it’s just books and magazines. I can’t tell you how many paint brushes I stepped on back then.”
Nile smiles to herself and finds her own stack to sift through while Quynh moves on to his desk where she shuffles papers and pens to the side, organising it all efficiently like she probably did back then.
It only takes another handful of minutes before Quynh asks, “Is this it?”
Nile looks up. Volume 15, Issue 1. Visual Activism. Khaki cover.
“Yes,” she exclaims and takes it with a relieved sigh. “Thank you so much.”
“No worries,” Quynh tells her, still attempting to bring some order to the mess on Joe’s desk. She mutters something in a language Nile doesn’t understand.
Nile gets coffee at the International Café and finds a secluded spot towards the back before pulling the journal out of her bag, determined to get through the article in the next hour and pull out everything she needs for her literature review. It’s only a small addition, but she wants to be thorough.
She is flipping through the pages when something disturbs the flow of the paper, making her stop.
There’s a postcard tucked in towards the end of it. Perhaps Joe used it as a bookmark and forgot it was in there. But it’s just as likely that it accidentally fell between the pages. On its front is a picture of a statue of Saint Sebastian, arrows piercing his marble skin. What an odd postcard to send, Nile thinks, and picks it up without a second thought. Only once she is holding it between her fingers, sees the worried edges, the foldline down the middle that indicates Joe having folded it to… well, maybe keep it somewhere else, that she realises this is probably something private not meant for her eyes.
She should just tuck it back into the magazine. She really shouldn’t flip it over to read who it’s from and what’s written there, even if she’s curious.
Nile turns it over.
This isn’t how her mom raised her. But now her eyes are glued to the handful of words written there. Because it really is just a few words next to what is probably Joe’s home address, not even signed with a name, a coffee or tea stain in the corner. The letters are black and angular, a neat handwriting that is easy to read. But they spell out words that are undoubtedly Italian, and Nile’s Italian does not extend beyond Ciao and Grazie.
“Cuore mio,” she reads quietly. Well, that’s one she can figure out herself. Vita is a word she knows as well. Cursing at herself, she pulls up GoogleTranslate and types it all in. “Ti ho cercato per tutta la vita.”
When she reads what the translating tool spits back out, her heart drops and leaps simultaneously and suddenly, her neck starts prickling and burning.
I have been looking for you all my life.
Hastily, with a racing pulse, she puts the postcard back where she found it and drops her hands, tucks them beneath her legs and sits.
Sits there until her coffee turns cold.
Nile has been eyeing the bar for the last hour. She’d initially planned to sit in the library for a few more hours to get as much work done as possible before the holidays, before her mom and brother come to visit and she won’t want to work, but spend time with them instead. But Jay had lured her here with promise of free wine, and who’s Nile to say no to that.
It’s a small event for a Vietnamese artist Quynh has managed to lure to Goldsmiths for an exhibition and a small series of lectures and workshops for her Curating class and some of the Fine Art students. Objectively, her work is stunning, and the brief speeches given by the Dean, Head of Fine Art and Tiffany Chung herself are comparatively interesting, but Nile’s mind is still stuck on the third chapter of her thesis and Joe’s comments on it.
It’s the section of her research she feels most unsure about. A common insecurity, Joe had assured her, before sending her back her draft with annotations. Just a few comments, he’d written in the email, and when Nile had opened the documented, she found almost every paragraph marked, with an essay-long comment attached to it. Just a few comments her ass.
It’s even more frustrating because he’s right in everything he says and Nile can’t believe these things didn’t occur to her before he pointed them out.
The wine might help, she thinks, longingly staring at the counter of the makeshift bar where two waiters are already filling glasses with red and white wine. She’s tempted to walk over and just take a glass, but she doubts it would leave a good impression with the staff attending this little soirée. Joe is over to the side with Quynh and Professor Stefaniuk, but the Vice-Chancellor is here as well, and so are a few departments heads from around the university.
She sighs and tries to pay attention again, but a friend of Jay’s from Architecture starts whispering in their ears.
“Professor al-Kaysani looks really fucking edible tonight.”
Here we go again, Nile thinks and rolls her eyes.
“What, you don’t agree?”
“I’m gay,” Nile says in response. It’s not that she can’t be objective and admit that her supervisor is a very attractive man, but – no. Not going there.
Jay’s friend shrugs. “So am I. Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate him aesthetically.”
Someone clears their throat behind them and Nile blanches when she turns around and sees Professor Le Livre.
“Excuse me, ladies,” he says and steps around them with a soft smile, moving through the crowd until he can sidle up next to Joe, dropping a companionable hand onto his shoulder.
“There’s no way he didn’t just hear that, right?”
Nile can only nod, grateful that she didn’t say anything to embarrass herself as well. Thankfully, the speeches seem to be coming to an end, and the first handful of people move to the bar to grab wine. Nile waits another minute before she makes her move, eyeing a particularly full glass of Chardonnay.
“How’re you doing, Nile?”
Joe steps up next to her, taking two glasses she assumes are for Quynh and Professor Stefaniuk. He’s in black slacks and a dark blue sweater, and he looks infinitely more tired than at the beginning of the term.
“Hanging in there,” she replies honestly. “Working my way through your notes.”
He gestures to where she can spot the top of Quynh’s head through the crowd, so she follows him, weaving a path between people shuffling about between the artwork and the bar.
“I want to get as much done as I can before Christmas.”
Throwing a brief look over his shoulders, he asks, “Are you going home for the holidays?”
Nile shakes her head, then realises he can’t see that. “No. My mother and brother are coming to visit. My roommates are both heading home so I’ll have the apartment to myself.”
They reach the others and Joe hands Quynh and Professor Stefaniuk their wine with an exaggerated bow that makes both of them smile and Professor Le Livre shake his head.
Nile waves at them when their gazes turn on her, feeling slightly awkward and out of place. Surprisingly, it’s Professor Stefaniuk who speaks to her first. Even in a simple white shirt and jeans, she is a bit intimidating, blue eyes sharp and piercing.
“It’s good to see you again Nile. I hope your thesis is going well.”
Nile swallows down the honest answer and forces a tight smile in response. “It’s going. Thanks again for your comments after my exam, Professor Stefaniuk. They were really helpful.”
“Andy, please,” the Professor responds. “And you’re welcome. It’s solid work.”
She can feel her face heat up, sees Joe’s pleased smile out of the corner of her eyes. “Thank you,” she breathes, not sure what else to say.
“I hope Joe is doing right by you,” Profess – Andy tells her and Nile should perhaps feel a bit embarrassed how quick she is to reply to that.
It makes them laugh. Professor Le Livre shakes his head.
“Don’t inflate his ego even more, kid.”
Joe is about to throw a comment back at the literature professor, but he is cut off by his phone ringing. Nile misses the way Andy’s expression shifts and turns dark, but she does see the way Joe’s tired eyes suddenly seem more alert and alive as he glances at the screen and then back at them.
“Sorry, I have to take this,” he apologises, briefly turns to Nile with a soft smile. “Have a good break, Nile. I’ll see you in January.”
He only answers as he already starts shuffling through the crowd, away from them and towards the exit. Nile can hear a few bits of rapid Italian before his voice is drowned out by the other conversations around them.
And despite the steady hum filling the room, Nile all of a sudden finds herself standing in a strange and stifling silence. After a long, drawn-out moment, it’s Professor Le Livre who raises his voice, looking at Andy with raised brows.
“He still talking to him?”
Without even knowing why, Nile holds her breath.
Andy levels her colleague with a tired gaze. “At least they’re just talking.”
His jaw clenches minimally. “I doubt that’s going to help.”
“You try and tell him that.”
Quynh simply clears her throat, and downs her wine. She probably has the right idea. It feels tense, and Nile figures Joe will be gone a while.
“I – um. I should get back to my friends,” she eventually says. Andy and Professor Le Livre turn back to her, expression in their eyes almost surprised at her presence. “Happy Holidays and… yeah.”
She legs it back to Jay before they can utter a response, an unsettling weight beginning to fester in her belly. She hasn’t thought about that postcard for weeks. But she thinks about it now.
The New Year descends on her far too quickly. Before Nile knows it, her family is at Heathrow Airport, getting on the plane to head back to Chicago, and she knows she won’t see them for at least another nine months. Her final submission date is in early September, and there is no way she’ll have the time to fly home before she’s done. She feels nauseous just thinking about all the work she’s got left to do.
She’s also at a point in her writing that everything she produces seems the biggest load of garbage anyone has ever produced, rapidly losing all sense of objectivity as well as the will to live, and she refrains from emailing Joe about it all, because she’s sure he’s even busier than her. She is also mortified when she thinks of perhaps disturbing him when he’s visiting his family. He doesn’t celebrate Christmas, obviously, but the last two years, Joe had used the winter break to see his parents.
Nile is back in the university library the second week of January when she rummages through her bag and realises that she’s still carrying around his journal on visual activism. The new term doesn’t officially start for another week, but it’s a good excuse, she decides, to tentatively get back in touch and maybe set up a new supervision.
While she waits for his reply, she decidedly does not reach for the postcard she knows is still hidden away in the journal. But she does think about it. My heart, she remembers. How infatuated does someone have to be to use that term after only a few months of – what? Dating? Though Nile recalls Quynh mentioning living with Joe while they were both at NABA in Milan. Joe knowing Italian and probably knowing numerous Italians is not very far-fetched. Might be a previous love. Might very well be an old postcard as well, it occurs to her.
Though if she think about that small soirée before Christmas and the pinched expression on Andy’s face – maybe not.
She works for a few hours, tummy starting to rumble around noon and as she wonders what to get for lunch with the canteen not operating until next week, she sees that there’s an unread email sitting in her inbox. It’s from Joe.
Nile stares at the email for a solid five minutes before she types out a quick response.
It’s how she finds herself standing on Prince of Wales Road just a few short days later, staring up at the large red brick building that contains Joe’s apartment. Flat, she corrects herself mentally. Joe’s flat. She knows that he suggested meeting here, but Nile still feels like she’s intruding, needing a few moments to breathe in the cold London air. It’s dark already, the street lanterns glooming ominously. It snowed a few days after Christmas, not much, but some remnants are still stick to the sidewalk, brown and mushy and unpleasant.
It’s a nice building, Nile finds. Obviously nicer than the shoddy block of flats she lives at with Dizzy and Jay. She rings the bell next to his name and waits for a few moments before she hears his voice through the intercom.
“It’s Nile,” she calls out.
“Hi Nile! Second floor, on the left,” and a second later, the door buzzes and she pushes it open.
The lobby is warm and bright, stairs leading up to a small hall with a portier’s desk that is currently unoccupied. When she looks to the left and right, glancing about, she sees two small courtyards through glass walls on either side and two sets of staircases that presumable lead to two different sides of the same building.
On the left, Joe said, so she takes the left staircase and walks up two flights, following the apartment numbers down a carpeted corridor towards almost the end. Nile takes another deep breath before knocking, trying not to feel nervous. It’s just Joe.
It takes a while for him to come to the door, but he greets her with the same warm smile, even if it is a bit strained.
“Come in, come in,” he tells her and ushers her inside. “I hope you found it alright.”
“Oh yeah, easy,” she assures him quickly, kicking off her boots and putting them next to a pretty impressing numbers of shoes she assumes all belong to him.
Joe takes her jacket from her and hangs it up on a coatrack that’s mounted to the wall, though how it stay up there, given the weight it must be carrying, is a mystery to her. Grabbing her bag off the floor and straightening up again, her eyes fall onto the knee-brace he’s wearing on his left leg and winces internally. That can’t be comfortable.
“Not too far for you?” Joe asks as they begin shuffling down the narrow hallway.
“I live near Victoria Park, so it was just a few stops on the Overground.”
“Good, good,” he says. “I was a little worried about you trekking across the entire city.”
Nile doesn’t say that she would have done it and not minded at all. Instead she thanks him for taking the time but, as expected, he waves it off.
“It’s no problem. I’m aware that I have not been as present this year, so I’m glad you emailed, and I’m glad you insist on regular meetings.”
They step into the living room, and given what he’d mentioned in his email, Nile expected a messy place, cluttered and unorganised. But she’s pleasantly surprised that he was greatly exaggerated when he warned her about the state of his home. It’s a large and airy room with big, panelled windows and a high ceiling, homey like his office and tastefully decorated. A large Persian rug in the centre, a dining table with four chairs in mid-century style to the right where Nile can also see a sliding door separating off a small kitchen. There are bookshelves and plants, a soft-looking corner sofa in grey velvet by the windows, opposite a sideboard that carries more books and a surprisingly large and modern TV.
Nearly every inch of the walls is covered in art.
Nile’s head whips around. Joe is limping out of the kitchen with a big silver tea pot that he sets down on the dining table after moving a copy of the Evening Standard to the side. There are already two cups set out, but he picks them up, limps back into the kitchen and comes back out with two new ones.
“Oh yeah, thanks,” she says, then tries to inconspicuously look around some more as she makes her way over to one of the chairs.
She’d just assumed he’d live alone, but now she isn’t so sure anymore. Though, to be fair, two used cups are hardly a sign of cohabitation. Maybe he had another visitor earlier today. Maybe he used one cup this morning and another one this afternoon. Maybe she is also just overanalysing this.
Joe sinks down onto a chair with a wince.
“How did that happen?” Nile asks with a nod towards his leg. He said he’d slipped, but Joe never struck her as someone who is unsteady on his feet.
He pours the tea and pushes one cup towards her. “Slippery stones, one wrong step. Don’t forget, my limbs are ancient and brittle.”
Nile raises an unimpressed brow at him. “You’re in your thirties, Joe.”
“Like I said,” he grins, showing teeth. “Ancient.”
“How high on painkillers are you right now?”
His grin just widens and Nile snorts into her tea. Sometimes he is such a child, but it instantly calms and reassures her.
They work for the next hour and manage to outline the structure for her fourth chapter in a way that makes sense to both him and her, and set a deadline for her to send a draft to him. She feels warm inside from the mint tea and his company, spirits lifted and anxiety-inducing thoughts in her head silenced for now. Outside the windows it has started to snow.
“Are you sure you don’t want an umbrella?” Joe asks her for the third time as she pulls on her boots, holding out her jacket with a sceptical look on his face, like he’s not trusting this item of clothing to keep her dry and warm.
“I’ve got a hat,” Nile tells him for the third time, pointing to said hat. “Plus, it’s maybe a two minute walk to the station. I’ll be fine.”
“If you’re sure.” He gives her a solid hug once she’s slipped into her jacket. “Get home safe, email any time.”
She smiles. “Thanks Joe. Will do.”
With a spring in her step and newfound determination, Nile skips down the stairs and crosses the lobby, nearly bumps into a man who, judging by the snowflakes in his hair, has just come in from outside. Even in the dim light, his eyes are a startlingly piercing blue, like the Mediterranean Sea in summer. With a kind smile, he steps to the side and holds the front door open for her.
“Thank you,” she says and slips past.
Once she’s stepped outside and the snow begins brushing against her face, she forgets all about him.
Nile checks the time again. It’s twenty minutes past three, and for the first time since she’s known him, Joe is late. They’d agreed to meet at three to go over his notes on her first full draft before the end of the spring term, just a week before Easter. He’s going back to Rome and staying for a few weeks, at least she believes to recall him telling her something along those lines, so they’d wanted to get another in-person feedback session in.
She opens up her emails to see whether he sent her anything asking to reschedule when she hears quick steps and, looking up, sees him coming around the corner.
“I’m so sorry, Nile,” he breathes out, fumbling for his keys. “Have you been waiting long?”
She got here ten minutes early, as she usually does, but Joe looks so stressed that she doesn’t want to mention it. “Not too long,” she says instead. “It’s fine.”
“It’s not, it’s really not,” he says and lets her inside. “I don’t even have a good excuse. I was on the phone and I just – lost track of time.”
“Happens to the best of us,” Nile says, but Joe barely seems to register it.
He hurries over to his desk, letting his bag just fall to the floor without care before he starts to furiously type something out, not even sitting down properly. Nile approaches almost cautiously, taking her usual seat and getting our her laptop as Joe still frantically shuffles notebooks and papers from one side of the desk to the other.
“I’ve pushed my meeting with Copley back,” he tells her, finally lowering himself onto his chair but not looking up, instead focused on leafing through a stack of papers before moving these to the side as well. “So if there’s nowhere you have to be, we have until four thirty to go over your draft.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
In fact, Nile can’t help but feel guilty for meeting with him as much as she does. She knows from some MA people she knows that they had end of term crits the last couple of days, most of which Joe sat in on, and while he isn’t supervising anyone but her right now, he is still the programme responsible and working closely with Andy to set up another week full of seminars and workshops for all research students. Not to mention that his own research project appears to be intensifying each month. And she just made him read 70.000 words of her own gibberish.
“Of course I did,” Joe tells her and grabs his laptop from one of the cabinet drawers to his right. “Let me just…”
He absentmindedly taps two fingers against his left temple as he presumably looks for the right document, giving Nile a chance to take in his appearance. The Henley he’s wearing is crinkled around the collar. There are dark circles underneath his eyes, a constant frown line between his brows, and his hair and beard are longer than she’s ever seen on him. When she started at Goldsmiths, he’d been nearly clean-shaven. In her second year, he’d come back from his annual leave with a buzzed head, which had sent half of the student body into a frenzy.
“Right,” he breathes, clicking on something, still not meeting her gaze. “I annotated the entire draft, but I’ve also compiled a list of the most pressing issues with the text that I’d suggest you consider before you start editing. How are you feeling about it now that it’s complete?”
“Honestly?” Nile asks. “I hate everything and want to start over?”
That’s what finally makes him look up and at her. She’s taken aback by how exhausted he looks; so drained that it would take more than one night of decent rest to counteract it. His smile is equally tired.
“Welcome to the Valley of Shit. Every researcher eventually gets there.”
“Please tell me there’s an end to it.”
His smile turns apologetic. “The Valley of Shit is long and vast. And how quickly you can leave it behind depends solely on you. But you shouldn’t feel too bad about your draft. There is a lot of work in there, and a lot of it is very good. You just need to make some changes to fully bring its potential to light. And I do apologise for the Enlightenment language here.”
“I know, just – I don’t think I’m particularly objective right now.”
Joe shrugs. “Happens. That’s why I’m here. I think a lot of the core issues can be addressed with a more thorough alignment of your key argument with the actual text. You’re arguing for the relevance of a revisionist history for a new, discursive approach in the analysis of something very contemporary. And while you make a good argument for it, you’re not really speaking to the dichotomy between the two.”
Nile has to swallow a lump that’s started to grow in her throat. She knows what he means, but no matter how hard she’s tried, she just isn’t able to articulate it the right way. It’s endlessly frustrating, and she’s also exhausted and tired, but she refuses to cry. She’ll probably go home after this meeting, crawl into bed and call her mom, but she won’t cry in front of him.
“You’re outlining the historical, and then you move on to the contemporary, but what makes your research different, and what is at the core of your contribution to knowledge, is that you address the inherent tension between the two sides, which is revealed through your case studies. So that is what I want you to draw back to. Right now it’s there, but it’s getting lost amongst a lot of other points that distract from rather than emphasise your main argument. Okay?”
Nile nods. Joe can probably tell that her eyes are a bit glassy. “Okay.”
“Chapter five probably needs the most work,” he tells her. The frantic tension from before is gone. Instead, his presence feels almost as calming as it usually does, and Nile guesses that focusing on work helped him regain his composure. “So let’s start there.”
The weather is beautiful. For the first time in weeks, the sun is out, the skies are a deep and unblemished blue, and Londoners are flocking to parks and pubs to soak up the warmth before it inevitably disappears again before their two weeks of summer at some point in July.
But Nile’s mood is dark as it has been for weeks. This time last year, she’d sat her confirmation exam and somehow it feels like it was only a month ago. So she knows that time until submission will pass in the blink of an eye, meaning there is no time, there’s just never enough fucking time and she just wants to stop waking up with a ball of anxiety already filling her stomach even before she’s had her first of many coffees.
The Richard Hoggart building is pretty deserted when she walks up the stairs towards the Visual Cultures floor, all students and most staff either busy with exams or already done with them. She’s managed to snatch up an hour of Joe’s time, who is busier than even. He’d mentioned to her in passing when they’d run into each other in the quad that he was doing nearly two dozen exams, and chairing five of them. She can’t even imagine how many sample chapters and literature reviews he’s had to read in the last month.
Nile checks the time. She’s about five minutes early, but if Joe’s still in another meeting, she’ll just wait outside his office and take the time to just breathe and compose herself. Internally, she is an absolute fucking mess, but she doesn’t need to burden Joe with it right now. She’s here to discuss her edits, ask about the external examiners they’d picked and whether they have already confirmed their interest, and talk about some submission requirements she’s still a little uncertain about.
When she rounds the corner to Joe’s office, she sees that the door is slightly ajar, meaning that he’s already there, waiting to get started. When she gets closer, she hears voices, maybe another meeting drawing to a close. Unbothered by it, Nile raises her hand to knock on the door when the words being said inside suddenly register with her.
She freezes mid-motion.
“ – sn’t a conversation I want to have, Joe.”
“Then don’t have it,” Joe replies. He sounds tense, tired.
“If that was a choice I could make, I would.” Andy, Nile realises with a start, sounds downright pissed. “But I’ve been fielding calls from Matrisciano for a week now, because she wants to know whether there is any truth to the rumours that someone on the project shacked up with the fucking clergy.”
Jesus fucking – what? Nile feels her eyes go wide.
“What did you tell her?”
“I didn’t tell her anything, Joe,” Andy bites back. “I stuck my neck out for you and told her not to believe any dumb rumours that get circulated by jaded researchers who are bored and need some entertainment. I may have also added that these rumours could be motivated by the fact that you’re not an ancient white Christian, so…”
She lets out a long sigh and Joe doesn’t respond for a moment. When he does, his voice is so quiet Nile has trouble understanding him.
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Of course I did,” Andy is quick to retort. “She caught me off guard. But you’re part of my staff and I’ll be damned if I let anyone drag you through the mud. No matter how fucking dumb you’re being,” she adds.
They both go quiet again. Nile is tempted to hold her breath as to not draw any attention to herself, and she wonders whether she should just head back downstairs, and then make a lot of noise coming up the stairs again so that they will be alerted to her presence. It’s probably the right thing to do instead of eavesdropping on a conversation that is not meant for anyone’s ears. She curses herself and her own curiosity.
“I just,” Andy goes on and sighs wearily. “I am genuinely trying to understand what you thought would happen? Why you didn’t press pause and tried to think just a little bit ahead?”
“Trust me, I’ve not done much but try to think ahead for the better part of a year,” Joe replies.
There’s a sound of shuffling paper, and by now Nile knows Joe well enough to know that it’s something he does when he needs to collect himself. A physical manifestation of him trying to sort himself out.
“What do you want me to say?” he asks.
“I don’t know Joe, what do you want me to say?” Chair legs scrape across the floor, and Nile can see in her mind how Andy folds her tall body into the chair, crossing her long legs undoubtedly clad in jeans. “Really, Joe. What do you want me to say? What is the question you want me to ask? Because I didn’t think I’d ever have to tell you to maybe stop fucking a priest.”
Nile slaps her hand over her mouth just in time to stop a startled gasp from bursting past her lips. What on earth –
But it seems Andy isn’t quite done. “Or, you know what? By all means, Joe. Fuck all the priests. You know I don’t give a shit about any of that. But maybe next time, pick one from some backwards provincial town in the middle of buttfuck nowhere instead of one who works for the bloody Pontifical Council for Culture.”
Whatever Joe mutters in response to that is drowned out by Nile’s own blood rushing in her ears. Maybe this is part of some weird fucking fever dream and in a moment, she’ll wake up at her desk with a page of notes stuck to her face.
Just a second later, she’s glad she didn’t hear what Joe said, because Andy’s demeanour, until this point forceful and, if not angry, very pissed off, suddenly softens completely, judging by the tone of her voice.
It’s so soft when she says, “Oh, Joe”, and nothing else after that.
Nile hears another chair being pushed back, quiet steps and then the familiar clank of the cups and teapot always sitting faithfully in Joe’s office. She presses back against the wall and stares at the ceiling, not even trying to understand it all. Her mind is reeling and she doubts anything she could tell herself would stop it from doing that. She can only guess that Joe hands Andy a cup of tea and takes one for himself, the smell of mint reaching her even outside of the office.
“I’m not going to jeopardise the project,” Joe says eventually, probably back in his chair behind his cluttered desk. “It’s not going to affect the research.”
“Fucking hell, Joe,” Andy exclaims exasperatedly. “I don’t give a shit about the research. I couldn’t care less about the project. I care about you. You’re my friend. And I don’t want to watch you getting your heart broken.”
Oh God, Nile thinks and blinks rapidly to will away the burn in her eyes.
“I’m worried about you,” Andy continues emphatically. “So is Quynh, so is Booker. We’ve been worried for months. And don’t you dare tell me we shouldn’t worry.”
Joe, wisely, does not.
“What do you think is going to happen, Joe? I mean, have either of you thought this through at all? Because his job isn’t exactly something you can just walk away from.”
“Trust me,” Joe says, sounding resigned, sounding as exhausted as Nile has seen him appear since even before Christmas and now, she guesses, things are starting to make more sense, even if she is sure that she can’t even begin to wrap her head around it all. “I’m well aware of that. Probably better than anyone.”
“This isn’t sustainable.”
“I know!” Joe exclaims, the sudden increased volume of his voice enough to startle Nile and make her press back against the wall even more. “But what am I supposed to do? I can’t –”
“You could stop talking to him.”
Joe scoffs. “No, I can’t. I won’t. Not now. Fuck, Andy, what I’m feeling isn’t even a fraction of what he’s going through and I can’t just –” He cuts himself off, pauses for a moment, seconds ticking by that feel like minutes. “I need to be there for him right now. Not because of some ulterior motive, for me, because I think he might just –”
Give it all up, Nile’s mind supplies, and her heart clenches.
“I should’ve just –” he goes on after a beat. “I should have taken a step back right away, but Andy – it was one conversation. Just one. That’s all it took.”
“Are you sure that –”
Joe cuts her off. “Don’t ask me that. I’m not a child. I know what I feel. And I’m not projecting some weird fantasy onto him like Booker thinks.”
“I’m not saying you don’t know your own heart, Joe,” Andy tells him gently. Nile doesn’t think she’s ever heard her speak so carefully before. “But are you sure it’s enough? That it’s worth all this?”
That he’s worth all this, is what she leaves unsaid. And even though Nile just found out about her supervisor apparently engaging in an at least emotional love affair with a priest, she already knows what his answer is going to be.
“More than,” Joe breathes, and Nile feels the tension that was gripping the room tightly until now suddenly dissipate, drip onto the floor and seep through all the cracks, disappearing into stone. “Whatever it is, he’s more.”
That’s all Andy says. And maybe that’s all she needs to say. Maybe this is all she needed to hear. To hear Joe confirm that this goes beyond some thrill-seeking affair. The postcard suddenly springs into Nile’s mind and when she remembers the words written on it –
My heart, it said. Christ, Joe, she think desperately and digs her nails into her palm, the sting from it grounding her and tethering her to the present. She checks her watch and sees that it’s already a few minutes past the hour. Joe is probably expecting her, and he and Andy have been quiet for a moment. She should probably go ahead and knock before either of them step out and see her standing here like a moron.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Nile steps back up to the door and knocks firmly, once, twice, before pushing it open without waiting for a response. Joe looks up at her, head lifting from where he’d been resting it on his hands, elbows on the table. Andy looks over her shoulder.
“Hello Nile,” she greets her.
“Hi,” she replies. “I can – um. Come back later. If this is a bad time?”
“No, no,” Joe is quick to assure her.
“I was just leaving,” Andy adds. Her expression is still unusually mild, her smile soft when she gets up and looks at Joe. “Dinner tonight. At seven.”
“Are you cooking?”
Andy snorts. “Of course not.”
Joe returns her smile. It doesn’t quite reach his eyes, but it’s a start. “Fine then.”
“Don’t be late. And bring wine,” Andy says. “Good to see you, Nile.”
“You too,” Nile says to her back as she leaves the office with long strides and shuts the door on her way out.
She turns back to Joe. He still seems a bit – well. Nile doesn’t think she knows the right word to describe it. If there are any. But he beckons her to his desk and, taking her usual spot, Nile decides that while it is also none of her damn business, she only has a limited amount of time with him that she should use efficiently. She’s written a list of things she wants to talk about, so she pushes the thoughts still making her legs feels a bit wobbly to the side and focuses on the task at hand.
She’s got a PhD to complete.
She manages to stick to that decision and decidedly not think about Joe and – whatever it is that’s going with a priest in Rome, good Lord. But she’s been working in the library for hours already, getting their early because she’d run out of coffee and decided that she could just get one on the way, and gets so hungry around lunchtime that she joins Dizzy and Jay in the canteen for lunch.
While the others talk about this and that, Nile wolfs down a plate of soggy fries and washes them down with more coffee. She only listens to their conversation with one ear.
“Did you hear?” one of Dizzy’s friends from History asks. “Apparently Professor al-Kaysani seduced a catholic priest.”
Nile inhales her coffee. It goes down the wrong pipe and she coughs, half of the brown liquid soaking the remaining fries on her plate. Jay hits her on the back a few times and the others stare at her until she’s gotten her breath back.
“What?” she asks, baffled. “How did you – where the hell did you hear that?”
The guy, Alex maybe, or Adam, she can’t remember, shrugs. “I heard two people talk about it at the Queer Soc meeting yesterday. But I mean – makes sense, doesn’t it? I know I wouldn’t mind getting on my knees for him.”
Hot anger unfolds in Nile’s chest, a sudden and fierce need to protect Joe spreading through her chest. She levels Alex or Adam with a glare.
“Don’t fucking talk about him like that.”
Alex or Adam just stares at her, clearly taken aback, but it’s Dizzy who picks it up for him.
“He’s your supervisor, Nile. Do you know anything about that?”
“Of course I don’t,” Nile spits out. “And you should all know fucking better than to spread rumours like that. Especially ones that perpetuate a racist trope like a non-white non-Christian seducing anyone.”
“Nile,” Jay tries, but Nile is already getting up, grabbing her bag.
“I have to go.”
She doesn’t exactly storm out of the canteen, but her heart is pumping and she nearly bowls over a poor unsuspecting undergrad on her way out the door. Once outside, she keeps walking until she finds a sunny but secluded spot, sits down and pulls out her earphones. She puts them in, pulls up Spotify and turns up the volume, willing her racing pulse to slow down.
Nile doesn’t know what to feel when she drops the five copies of her thesis onto the admin’s desk in the Research Office. She hands over the disc with the digital copy and signs the form the admin hands her; writes down the date, signs her name. And then that’s it. She’s submitted her doctoral thesis. And nothing happens.
When she steps outside she comes face to face with Joe so suddenly she nearly pees herself. He waits just a second, then lifts a party blower to his lips and Nile –
Nile laughs like she hasn’t laughed in… damn, she can’t even remember. Laughs and laughs until there are tears in her eyes, then she launches herself at Joe, wraps both arms around his neck and squeezes him tight.
“You did it, Nile.”
“I did,” she says with a sigh. “I really fucking did,” and a wave of relief washes over her so forcefully that she almost feels vertigo from it. “Thank you.”
“Hey, this was all you,” Joe tells her when she pulls back, keeping his hands on her shoulders like he’d done for her after that disastrous confirmation exam that had made her doubts absolutely everything. It steadied her them, it steadies her now. “I didn’t do anything.”
“I think we both know that’s not true.”
Nile is more than one hundred percent certain that she would have not made it to the finish line without Joe. Not even close.
“Agree to disagree,” Joe says with a wink. “How’re you feeling?”
“Honestly? No fucking idea.”
Joe smiles and Nile has to mirror it, smiling so wide and overcome with such an enormous amount of gratitude that her cheeks hurt from it.
“Want to go for a walk?”
Nile doesn’t think she’s properly been outside and actually had the time to enjoy it since last year.
They walk towards Greenwich Station and then past it. It’s the first of September, and it’s sunny and warm, summer drawing to a close but still hanging on and Nile relishes the sudden silence in her mind. It’s been a while since she’s just walked, and breathed, and not thought about how much work she still needed to do.
They find a sunny spot on the grounds around the Conservatory, Joe offering his jacket for Nile to sit on, which she politely declines. Instead, she sits right down on the lawn and digs her hands in, closes her eyes and feels it against her fingertips for a moment, relishes the smell of freshly cut grass. When she opens her eyes, she sees Joe watching her with a serene smile.
They’ve both had a really rough fucking year. But it looks like they’ve both made it through in one piece. More than, she thinks, and then remembers – oh.
Christ, he got married.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” she says and then pointedly looks at his hand where she can see a gleaming silver band that hadn’t been there the last time she’d seen him.
For a second, he looks surprised but then realisation dawns on his face.
“Yup,” Nile confirms. “There was an email. I hear there is also a gift, though I don’t know what it is. But I did sign the card. There's a lot of glitter.”
Joe throws his head back and laughs, and Nile realises that it’s been about a year since she’s seen him laugh like that as well; his whole body thrown into it, filled with joy, unrestrained.
“Oh dear.” He shakes his head to himself. “So I should brace myself, huh?”
“Definitely,” Nile says.
She still can’t quite wrap her head around it all. She remembers the postcard and overhearing the conversation between him and Andy and the tension that had been so palpable just a few months ago. Had one summer really made such a difference? Had it happened so quickly without anybody catching wind?
She wonders what she might have picked up on if she hadn’t been rightfully preoccupied with her thesis. There are a lot of things she’s missed in the last few years but especially these past twelve months. And it seems like while she’d been going through life with tunnel vision, laser-focused on nothing but her research, her supervisor and one of the absolute best people she’s ever known had gone and fallen in love. It makes her feel quite choked up.
Cuore mio. My heart. Damn, Nile thinks, what a story.
“As of today,” she says, “you’re not my supervisor anymore.”
Joe tilts his head at her, questioning. “I guess not.”
“Right. Well,” Nile muses and guesses it’s now or never. She’s been very good, not gossiping at all, but she is curious. “So forgive me, but I have to ask: a priest, Joe? Really?”
The face he pulls in response to her question is difficult to describe. There are a number of words that come to her mind; bashful, for one, maybe even a little bit smug, and also surprised and definitely a little bit embarrassed.
“Quynh?” he asks again.
Nile shakes her head. “Nah, I’m pretty sure that particular rumour has been circulating among students for months. No idea how they heard it.” She pauses. “It’s true then?”
Joe shrugs, still smiling. “Well, as I’m sure you’re aware, priests can’t get married.”
Nile rolls her eyes. He can be such a shit if he feels like it. “Former priest then. But… he’s not been a former priest for long, has he?”
Joe’s expression goes unutterably soft. He doesn’t reply to her question, but then again, he doesn’t really have to. Nile can do the math in her head. He’d still been a priest in May. And they must’ve gotten married end of July or early August. Which is pretty extraordinary. And slightly overwhelming. Most regular people don’t get married if they’ve known each other for less than a year and even then, it oftentimes seems like a really dumb idea.
This, however… My heart, she sees in front of her inner eye again, I have been looking for you all my life. Nile doubts that Joe doesn’t have a clue what he’s getting into. If the significant hurdle of priesthood hadn’t been an obstacle, their nuptials might have happened even sooner.
“Only you, Joe,” Nile snorts and shakes her head. “Only you would manage to tempt someone into breaking a vow of celibacy.”
Joe waggles his brows. “Who’s saying I wasn’t the one being tempted?”
Her jaw drops. “No way! Don’t tell me you got a priest to quit the clergy just so he could seduce you.”
“Well,” Joe winks at her. “I don’t think I’m going to comment on the sequence of these events. You may not be my student anymore, but let’s not go into the details.”
Nile figures that they were definitely banging before any vows were officially rescinded, but she doesn’t voice her conclusion. Instead, she takes a minute to look at Joe; how he looks years younger again, bright and infectious and full of life. In the end, does it really matter how it happened if this is the result? Any journey might be worth it if this kind of happiness waits at the end.
“You look happy,” she says.
His eyes are warm and kind and Nile feels a weight she hadn’t realised she’d been carrying all this damn time just… slide off her shoulders. She feels light and elated and hopeful.
It’s an attempt to return to life among the living. Now that Nile has put her viva behind her and knows that she only has three months of minor corrections to do, all relatively straight-forward, she has made a list of things to do in the handful of months until her visa runs out. She still has to decide whether she wants to stay in the U.K. or return to the States, but it’s a decision she’s going to take her time with.
Either way, she wants to soak up as much of Goldsmiths as she can, and maybe learn how to be sociable again. So when Quynh had forwarded her an invitation to the opening of an exhibition on the Royal Academy of Dance she’d curated for the V&A, Nile had decided to put on nice clothes and drag her ass to Kensington.
She allows herself to wonder whether Joe would be attending, since she forgot to ask him when she’d seen him for her viva two weeks ago. She’s been trying not to email him every other day, which has become such a habit that it’s really hard to break out of it. There’s a chance he’s back in Rome for a while, or maybe in Paris where another member of the research group he’s part of is teaching.
Nile weaves her way through the crowd, finds an area of the exhibition hall that is slightly less crowded and lets her eyes wander over the pieces carefully placed in a formation that only makes sense to Quynh but somehow just works. There are old films projected onto one of the walls, some of the costumes worn in the performances artfully positioned in their periphery.
She gets so lost watching one of these films that she doesn’t register at first that someone is standing almost right beside her, apparently equally entranced by the old video. Seeing movement out of the corner of her eyes, she turns her head minimally and is struck by an odd sense of familiarity.
He looks to be just slightly older than her, but it’s difficult to tell in this artificial light, just like it’s hard to pinpoint whether his hair is dark blonde or brown, pushed back from his handsome face, profile defined by an aquiline nose. He’s tall and lean, figure emphasised by a black suit and a white shirt, no tie.
Nile should have guessed that he can tell someone is staring at him, because he turns his head just moments later, and her gaze is met by one of the most striking pairs of eyes she’s ever seen. They’re devastating – like a clear ocean wave washing over her.
“It’s beautiful, is it not?”
His voice is deep and soft, Italian accent curling around the syllables. Nile blinks at him for a second before she gathers herself.
“It is. Are you familiar with the Royal Academy?”
What kind of bullshit question, Nile chides herself. Obviously he would be, since he’s at this exhibition. But she’s still freshening up her social skills. She just hopes he doesn’t think she’s hitting on him.
“I have not seen a live performance,” he replies. “But I enjoy ballet.”
“I saw The Nutcracker when I was twelve. But I haven’t been to the ballet since.”
She wonders if she should introduce herself when she a familiar voice reaches her ears.
“Eccoti. Ti stavo cercando.”
Son of a bitch, she thinks and hopes she is not openly gaping as Joe, dressed to the nines, sidles up to who can only be his husband. Now Nile really hopes said husband didn’t think she was trying to hit on him.
“Sono qui,” Joe’s husband tells him.
They don’t kiss. They barely touch. But they share a look so raw and intimate that Nile feels as if she’s just walked in on them in a far more compromising position. She’s still a little off-kilter when Joe turns to her.
“Hi.” Her voice sounds breathless and high-pitched even to her own ears. “I didn’t know if you’d be here.”
“Oh, like Andy would allow us to decline Quynh’s invitation,” Joe says, his gaze almost instantly drawn back to the man by his side.
Well, it’s not like Nile can blame him. They make a very aesthetically pleasing pair. Joe continues to look at his husband until a literal nudge from him seems to remind him of his manners.
“Nile,” he starts gravely. “This is Nicolò. My husband.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Nile,” Nicolò says and reaches out. When Nile shakes his hand, she feels the shock of a cool metal band around one of his fingers. Wild, truly. “Yusuf has told me lot about you.”
“It’s so nice to meet you too,” she replies and means it, glad to finally be able to put a name and face to him. “And he’s told me almost nothing about you.”
“Really?” Nicolò says and looks at Joe with what Nile can only describe as mock-exasperation. “Mi chiedo perché.”
Joe rolls his eyes. “Lo sai perché.”
Nile can’t quite see it, but he thinks one of his arms finds its way around his husband’s waist. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see that there are a few people staring at them, possibly students or former students who know about the rumours they are still eager to have confirmed, and while Nile knows that both Joe and Nicolò are older than her, she feels weirdly protective of them. The curse of being an older sister, she guesses, and does her best to glare at everyone looking their way.
“So, Nile,” Joe draws her attention back in. “Are you heading back to Chicago soon?”
“Yeah,” she replies. “I’m flying to the States for two weeks, for Halloween and my brother’s birthday, but I’ll be back in November. I’m still tutoring some EAP students. And I might as well use up all of my visa.”
“Great,” Joe says. “You should stop by my office once you’re back in London, then. There’s something I would like to talk to you about.”
“…Ok? About what?”
He winks at her. “You’ll see. You should enjoy your newfound freedom and have fun back home first and foremost. And enjoy tonight, too, of course. We have to go find Andy, but I’ll see you in November, alright?”
“Alright,” Nile manages to respond, still confused as she watches the two of them wave goodbye and weave their way through the crowd.
Nicolò looks over his shoulder once before they disappear, and that’s when it hits Nile and she suddenly realises why he seemed familiar.
She’s seen him before. In the lobby of Joe’s building in Kentish Town in early January. She’d nearly run into him, and he’d held the door open for her. His hair is a bit longer now, and he looks more tan. But now she recalls those eyes.
“Son of a bitch,” she mutters. “Yeah, totally banging from the beginning.”
Then she goes to look for more wine.
“You’d think the fucking honeymoon period would be over at this point.” Andy walks back out onto the terrace and lets herself fall into the empty chair next to Quynh. “Jesus Christ.”
“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain, Andrea,” Nicky chides her, following her back outside and brandishing a bottle of wine like it’s a peace offering.
Nile snorts into her own drink, both because of the sour expression on Andy’s face as well as the joke Nicky’s comment was clearly meant to be. For a former priest, Nile has found, he has an astonishingly sharp and dry sense of humour. Joe never stood a chance.
Andy mutters a Russian curse under her breath, but takes the bottle, and fills her glass right to the brim.
“I regret every damn choice I have made that has led me to this moment.”
“Sure you do, boss,” Booker says, having long grown immune to Andy’s piercing gaze.
“Admit it, boss,” Joe pipes up, a kitchen towel slung over his shoulder from drying the dishes, sauntering up to Nicky and not quite plastering himself to his back, but it’s a close call. “You always miss us when we go off on annual leave.”
“Slander,” Andy replies, but there’s a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, though that can partially be blamed on Quynh placing a gentle hand on her forearm. “You know, you’ve still got a chance, Nile. There’s still time to make a run for it.”
Nile glances around the table. It’s pretty mild for mid-July, so they’ve all met at Quynh and Andy’s up in East Finchley for one last barbecue before they all go their own way for a month. She’s got flights booked for Chicago, and Joe has divulged (in far too much detail) that he and Nicky are heading to Malta, where they spent a few weeks after getting married last summer. She is pretty sure Booker is taking his wife and kids to Elba, but has no idea where Andy and Quynh will disappear to.
With a wistful smile, she glances at Booker, stretched out in his chair and face tilted towards the sun before her gaze lands on Joe and Nicky. They’re not sitting any closer together than the rest of them, but Nile can tell they’re holding hands under the table. They used to be her teachers. Well, at least some of them. She likes to think of them as friends these days.
“Nah,” she says. “I think I’ll stay.”