If there is one secret wish that everyone has, is having a perfect relationship. Why that translates to anything sexual has always been beyond my comprehension. Companionship, in any form, built on mutual respect, has been something that I seek from any close bond I create. Perfection, like affection is not a constant state of being, but respect is forever. Love, like Tina Turner sang, is but a second hand emotion.
But since we are talking on the day of love, companionship with the opposite gender is an inevitable point of conversation. I am reminded of a short story I probably loved most (yes, I admit, I am a closet romantic). Probably my first Jeff Archer book was his collection of short stories—A Quiver Full of Arrows. This story, is in fact, the last arrow in the quiver. Titled Old Love, the story set in 1930s is about two whimsical English Literature students, William and Philippa, who fall in hate at first sight. With time they come to respect each other and eventually fall in love, but the sarcasm and competitive spirit of their relationship doesn’t die down.
Their tutor, Simon Jakes of New College, was both bemused and amused by the ferocious competition that so quickly developed between his two brightest pupils, and he used their enmity skilfully to bring out the best in both of them without ever allowing either to indulge in outright abuse.
“Why don’t you separate them?” asked the Dean, sleepily.
“What, and double my work-load?” said Jakes. “They teach each other most of the time: I merely act as referee.”~Old Love, Jeffrey Archer
As the years go by, they learn to find new ways of one-upmanship; never really winning against each other. However, they manage to keep winning over each other and keep achieving success after success.
They don’t live a life of roses and posies either. The death of Philippa’s father and her inability to bear children does not tear them apart either. If anything else, it brings them closer without compromising on their childishly competitive nature.
“Do you realize that I can complete The Times crossword puzzle in half the time my husband can?”
As the years passed many anecdotes, only some of which were apocryphal, passed into the Oxford fabric. Everyone in the English school knew the stories about the “fighting Hatchards”. How they spent their first night together. How they jointly won the Charles Oldham. How Phil would complete The Times crossword before Bill had finished shaving. How they were both appointed to professorial chairs on the same day, and worked longer hours than any of their contemporaries as if they still had something to prove, if only to each other. It seemed almost required by the laws of symmetry that they should always be judged equals. Until it was announced in the New Year’s Honours that Philippa had been made a Dame of the British Empire.
One particular morning in June at the end of their final academic year before retirement, William came down to breakfast to find only one space in the crossword left for him to complete. He studied the clue: “Skelton reported that this landed in the soup.” He immediately filled in the eight little boxes.
Philippa looked over his shoulder. “There’s no such word, you arrogant man,” she said firmly. “You made it up to annoy me.” She placed in front of him a very hard-boiled egg.
“Of course there is, you silly woman; look whym-wham up in the dictionary.”
Philippa checked in the Oxford Shorter among the cookery books in the kitchen, and trumpeted her delight that it was nowhere to be found.
“My dear Dame Philippa,” said William, as if he were addressing a particularly stupid pupil, “you surely cannot imagine because you are old and your hair has become very white that you are a sage. You must understand that the Shorter Oxford Dictionary was cobbled together for simpletons whose command of the English language stretches to no more than one hundred thousand words. When I go to college this morning I shall confirm the existence of the word in the O.E.D. on my desk. Need I remind you that the O.E.D. is a serious work which, with over five hundred thousand words, was designed for scholars like myself?”
“Rubbish,” said Philippa. “When I am proved right, you will repeat this story word for word, including your offensive non-word, at Somerville’s Gaudy Feast.”
“And you, my dear, will read the Collected Works of John Skelton and eat humble pie as your first course.”
“We’ll ask old Onions along to adjudicate.”
With that, Sir William picked up his paper, kissed his wife on the cheek and said with an exaggerated sigh, “It’s at times like this that I wished I’d lost the Charles Oldham.”
“You did, my dear. It was in the days when it wasn’t fashionable to admit a woman had won anything.”
“You won me.”
“Yes, you arrogant man, but I was led to believe you were one of those prizes one could return at the end of the year. And now I find I shall have to keep you, even in retirement.”
“Let us leave it to the Oxford English Dictionary, my dear, to decide the issue the Charles Oldham examiners were unable to determine,” and with that he departed for his college.
“There’s no such word,” Philippa muttered as he closed the front door.
The great man was sitting at his desk poring over the Oxford Dictionary, humming to himself.~Old Love, Jeffrey Archer
“I told her, but she wouldn’t listen, the silly woman,” he was saying to himself and then he turned and saw the doctor standing silently in the doorway.
“Doctor, you must be my guest at Somerville’s Gaudy next Thursday week where Dame Philippa will be eating humble pie. It will be nothing less than game, set, match and championship for me. A vindication of thirty years’ scholarship.”
Read the entire piece for yourself. Why is the word whym-wham so important to the plot? The passion with which Philippa and William love and compete with each other is a constant reminder of how somethings cannot change if they don’t need to, no matter how impulsive and whimsical it seems to the world at large.