Nicola Marlow had three things she wanted to achieve during her time at Oxford. Number 1 was a First Class Degree. Coming from a family of intelligent, well-educated children, it was slightly strange that none of her elder brothers and sisters had graduated. Her two elder brothers, Giles and Peter, had gone straight from Dartmouth into the Navy. Her eldest sister, Karen, had only survived two terms at Oxford before leaving to marry a widower with three children; Rowan had left to run the family farm; Ann trained as a nurse at a famous London Hospital. And as for Ginty- well, the least said about Ginty, the better. Nicola’s twin, Lawrie, was now at Drama school, so that just left Nicola to gain high academic honours. She wasn’t exactly feeling the pressure, but it would be nice if one of them could write B.A. after their name!
Her second ambition was to play cricket for Oxford University Women. Her talent for cricket had certainly helped her gain a place at Oxford. Her selection for the South of England Girls team in her final term at Kingscote had given her a great deal of satisfaction, and now she was determined to play for Oxford – hopefully in the Varsity Match. She was looking forward too playing cricket at a higher level than before, but knew the competition would be tough.
Her third ambition was to find a new, absorbing hobby which would give her another interest when she was not playing cricket or studying. It would also be a good way of making new friends. So it was with an open mind that she headed to the Freshers’ Fair. It was held at the Exam Schools; a vast, impressive building, full of impressive architecture and paintings. And hundreds of student society stalls. She wandered around the various stands without being inspired by any of them. Many were political, which she dismissed straight away. Plenty of musical ones, but she didn't play an instrument and was determined to resist carrying on with her singing, even though she enjoyed it now far more than she had when she was younger; it had been impossible to resist Dr Herrick's enthusiasm, especially after she had won the Young Singer of the Year, which had been quite fun really. Also the academic ones; she would have enough of that sort of thing on her course. She wanted an interest where she would be doing something, but she didn't want a sporting activity; cricket would be more than enough.
She reached the end of the row and turned down into the next one, and realised that the sound of bells, which she had been conscious of hearing faintly ever since she entered the room, did not come, as she had thought, from one of the many churches nearby, but from one of the society stands which declared itself to be the 'Oxford University Society of Change Ringers'. Immediately her mind flew to the book she had read when she was 13, by Dorothy L Sayers: the Nine Tailors, which had been the start of her love of Lord Peter Wimsey. This could be IT. She approached the stand and stopped in front of it. She smiled at the young woman who was standing next to the display board full of pictures of bells and churches, with bellropes draped artistically around it.
"Hello," said the girl next to the display board. "Are you a ringer?"
"Not yet," replied Nicola, "but I think I might want to become one."
"Excellent," replied the girl. "Do you know anything about bellringing?"
"Only what I learned from reading The Nine Tailors,” said Nicola. "I thought at the time that it sounded interesting, and that it was something I would quite like to learn, but I was only 13, and at boarding school for most of the time, and when I was at home we lived in a tiny village and I only heard one bell clanging away before the service on Sunday."
"Excellent," said the girl again. "My name is Jo, and I'm in my second year. I started ringing the year before I came up. I hadn't got very far, but the Society are very good at teaching people, so I got on quite quickly. We have special sessions for teaching people to handle a bell until they are good enough to join our regular practices at St Mary Magdalen. I should warn you, though - it isn't easy. It's not just randomly pulling a rope. But you will know that as you have read The Nine Tailors."
"That's ok. I watched the TV series of The Nine Tailors and could see it wasn’t easy." said Nicola. "I quite like difficult, challenging things. I play cricket, which isn't an easy game, and I nearly decided to do Maths here as I'd always been good at it when I was at school. I also sang at school, and my music teacher was very demanding."
"Sounds like you have all the attributes needed to become a good ringer," said Jo. "Good hand-eye coordination, good with numbers and a musical ear. Neither of those last two are essential, but it does help."
Jo went on to explain that the first practice of the term was being held the next night at St Mary Magdalene, and said that Nicola should come along to see what it was like. Then, if she still wanted to learn, teaching sessions would be arranged.
So the following evening she made her way to St Mary Magdalen church, met Jo outside and followed her up the stairs into the small whitewashed ringing chamber. She had been slightly disappointed that it was not the same St Mary's church which she had climbed when she was looking for Rose all those years ago, when she had first fallen in love with Oxford and hoped that one day, p'raps, it was somewhere she might study. ("Oh, that's St Mary the VIRGIN," Jo had said when she had mentioned this to her. "They are seriously heavy bells, not really for beginners. But you will certainly ring there when you are a bit more experienced). But she had been charmed to discover that it was opposite Balliol College (surely Lord Peter would have rung there?), and she had already found her way to St Cross Church, where Lord Peter had married Harriet Vane, having turned down St Georges, Hanover Square which was the choice of his loathly sister-in-law.
It was a fascinating evening. She watched in awe as the ringers controlled the dancing ropes with seeming ease, with the sound of the bells cascading down from above, sometimes clashing, but other times in perfect rhythm. And the following evening, when she first took hold of the soft woollen sally and felt the weight of the bell swinging above her, she knew that this was something she was going to enjoy enormously.