I met Seb in 2000, the summer of my second year at Oxford. Lara and I had been there long enough to stop feeling green and naive and not long enough for responsibility to loom large: no exams all year, or at least none that counted officially, and no requirement to think about jobs until the third year. Our tutors felt it was a good year to bed down the solid groundwork for the following exam year. We thought it was a good year to bed down in actual bed after late nights clubbing.
The favorite summer pastime was ball-crashing. Unthinkable now—to dress up in black tie and sneak into an event without paying, to avail oneself of everything on offer just for a lark. But it was a lark; no one made the connection with stealing that would be my first thought now. Perhaps I've spent too much time thinking about the law now, or not enough back then. Anyway, the point was never the ball itself, those were always more or less the same—perhaps a better band at one, or shorter bar queues at another, but the same basic blueprint every time. No, the point was the breaking in: the thrill of beating the security teams, and getting away with it. The high of that was worth far more than the illicitly obtained alcohol.
The night I met Seb the target was Linacre Ball. Linacre isn't the richest Oxford college, and it isn't the largest; there was no reason to think the ball would be particularly good. The only distinguishing feature was that Linacre is a graduate college: right there lay the challenge. Them against us, graduates against undergraduates, security team against students. Drunken students at that, due to the pre-ball-crashing council-of-war at one of the student houses that lay across the sports field from Linacre, where cheap wine was flowing freely. I remember going to the toilet and tripping on my high heels; I'd have crashed headlong into a wall if it hadn't been for unknown hands catching and righting me. It occurred to me then that we'd better go before we were all too smashed to cross the field, let alone scale the walls surrounding the college.
And then we were going, streaming out of the new-build house to congregate on the sports field. The darkness was periodically split by flashing lights from the college some two hundred meters away, the grass fleetingly lit too emerald green to be believable whilst the rugby goalposts threw down shadows that stretched the entire length of the field. Someone was giving orders in a military fashion that set Lara off into a fit of giggles as she stumbled and clutched my forearm. I glanced round and realized in surprise that there must be thirty or forty of us ready to storm the college. Lara and I found ourselves split into a subgroup with barely anyone we knew. It was hard to tell in the dark, but at least two of them were men with definite potential. Lara's smile notched up a few watts as she turned her attention to them.
But there wasn't enough time for her to work her magic—we were off. It was sheer numbers that made the plan work. We went in waves, ten or so at a time in a headlong dash across the field—how did we run in stilettos? I cannot think but I know we managed it. Come to that, how did Lara make it across without ripping her skintight dress? Mine ended up hiked high, dangerously close to my crotch. I remember the adrenaline coursing through my veins with the alcohol; the battle cries and the shrieks around me; the fractured picture when the lights flashed of black-tie-clad individuals in full flight. Lara and I huddled at the base of the wall of Linacre College, trying to get our breath through helpless giggles. That was probably why we got in: the security team were too busy dealing with the first bunch that surged the wall. I lost track of Lara as we awkwardly climbed the wall, hopelessly hindered by utterly inappropriate clothing and footwear. As I reached the top a hand stretched down from broad shoulders to help me. I caught a glimpse of gleaming white teeth beneath a remarkably hooked nose, topped by wayward dark hair. I grasped the proffered hand and felt myself yanked unceremoniously upright just as the lights flared, leaving me temporarily blinded, blinking awkwardly on the top of the wall as I tried to thank my helper and regain my footing and eyesight.
"Jump!" someone called below, barely audible above the music. "I'll catch you."
I looked across at the stranger on the wall with me. He nodded, gesturing to the black-tie-clad individual below. As the lights flashed obligingly I looked down into a pair of spectacular blue eyes: Seb. Of course it was Seb.
I jumped. He caught me.