The Compound was as I’d imagined – clipped lawns, blocky redbrick buildings, rows of undernourished Ironwood trees lining cobbled paths. Everything beautifully neat and clean, conscientiously scrubbed of personality.
It was hard to imagine Fiona teaching there. Her rooms at Oxford had been a cave of crumbling books on every subject from alchemy to growing bonsai trees, archaic scientific instruments, fossils – there had even been a stuffed alligator suspended from the ceiling until the porters put in a complaint to the college chancellor.
How could the jigsaw of her personality – the pot smoking, Scotch drinking, jazz playing academic – possibly slot into that sterile institution?
“Hi-ho, stranger!” She pulled me into a bear hug, at once uncomfortable and comforting. “How you doing?” She held me at arms length, examining my face. “Let’s retire to my snug,” she said, threading her arm through mine. “Jim Beam is waiting.”
The Ironwood tree (Eusideroxylon zwageri) is a rare hardwood tree native to Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines known for its resistance to fungus, insects and bacteria. It’s a tough old devil, in other words and I thought it made a good analogy for Fiona – resistant to change, very much a survivor!