I, the Duchess's daughter, made a foreign friend at the train station and we set off on a new journey together!
September 17th, Year 32 of the Reign of Queen Victoria (1868)
"Excuse me, do you know where the platforms are? I'm looking for the train to Cambridge, but I can't find it anywhere..."
The voice of a girl somewhat younger than myself pulls me to reality, and I look to both sides before finding her. As soon as our eyes meet, I'm struck by how childish she appears; she can't be much older than secondary school student, perhaps in year 10 at most. And yet just like me she carries behind her the suitcase filled with countless possessions from home that only a fellow first-year university student would have on them.
I shake my head for a moment, and turn my vision back towards her once more. She's still as young as she was, and her absolutely impeccable dress makes the sight even more ridiculous to my eyes.
That pair of shoes alone must cost an absolute fortune. I can't believe a child university student is wearing something that expensive.
Realising she's still waiting for my answer, I decide to help her anyways. After all, we might be classmates, and even if we aren't I know mother would never let me live it down if I refused to assist someone in need.
"I'm actually going for the same train," I reply. "The 3:20 on Great Northern to Cambridge Central, isn't that right?"
She gives me a nod and a wry smile before asking me. "Are you also a Cambridge student, by any chance?"
Once again, her manner of speaking seems oddly refined, oddly elegant for someone who looks at least five years too early to even consider admission to university.
"Yes, I'll be starting at Girton this year in their philosophy programme. What about you...you are a student, yes?"
Another nod, with the same quick motion of the head as before. "I am. I'm also a first year at Girton, economics programme. You're the first person I've also met from Girton, and that means we're classmates, aren't we?"
"Right, classmates." I reach my hand out in invitation, only to see she's already started bowing. Wondering if I should bow instead, I make to lower my head but this time she's the one whose arm is extended, making our situation reversed. I find myself holding back a light giggle at the confusion, and find that she too is laughing, the hand before her mouth failing to cover how the corners of her lips are turning upwards ever so slightly.
In that moment, our fate was cast.
"Friends?" I asked, offering my hand for the third time.
"Friends!" she agreed cheerfully, taking it in her own.
Then, without warning but as if both of us had somehow been communicating telepathically, we follow our handshake almost immediately with a bow towards one another.
"I hope we can get along well," she says.
"I'm sure of it!" I reply, and we grab our suitcases before heading off towards the platform where that journey to the newest stage of our lives is about to set off.
Sophia running hastily to inform her newly made friend the 3:20 Great Northern bound for Cambridge is about to depart and there's no more time to look at British imitations of porcelain.
The smoke inside the waiting rooms is immense, a dark cloud almost as intense as that which regularly covers much of London during the week from Monday to Saturday.
Next to me, my classmate's outline is barely visible, and I might have lost track of her entirely if not for her constant coughing sounds.
"Are you alright?" I ask her, concerned over her reaction to what I've now accepted as merely an inconvenience.
She's about to speak, but breaks into another coughing fit, and I hand her my handkerchief.
After a long time her coughing subsides and she seems to be breathing normally again, much to my relief. "I'm fine" she tells me. "It's just I was born in a place with a much cleaner environment than London, with rivers of pure water and clearest skies."
"As our good Queen would say, a little pollution is a worthy price of progress, isn't it?" I ask half rhetorically. "I know what you mean though. I may have been born after London's skies turned grey and the rain caustic, but whenever I visit our countryside villa I'm reminded of everything we've lost to technology and reckless abandon."
I want to say something else, but the roar-like shout of the station manager grabs my attention instead. "The 3:20 Great Northern bound for Cambridge, now boarding on platform 3!"
Walking hurriedly, we reach the train without a problem and hand our luggage off to the porters. One of them appears to struggle to lift her suitcase, and I raise an eyebrow at the sight.
"Just what did you have in that suitcase?" I ask her as we climb onboard the carriage designated "Great Northern First Class" in golden lettering.
"This and that," she responds, not really answering my question. "Maybe you'll find out later on. We do have three years together, after all. It would be a shame to tell you all the secrets at once." She slides open the door to a compartment, and finding it empty, gestures inside. "Shall we sit here?" she asks, and although it's a question I feel myself compelled to obey her for some untold reason. Perhaps its her voice, so elegant and yet filled with the authority and what feels like wisdom far beyond her apparent years, a voice nobody our age should have.
Somewhere towards the platform rear, there's the sound of a whistle blowing, and then doors being slammed shut.
"Bon voyage!" the conductor says, and slowly the train begins to move forward, at first almost imperceptibly, and then gaining speed as station outside the window is replaced with scenery which moves faster and faster, carrying us towards our next three years
Lovely pastoral landscapes in a palette of greens, whites, blues, and yellows passes by the train, a feast for the eyes as much as tea-time is a feast for the mouth.
We are deep in conversation when there's the sharp knocking on our door, followed by the words: "Cabin service"
"Come in" I order, and as expected we are greeted by an attendant pushing forward a cart stacked with cake stands. "Fresh pour Darjeeling without cream or sugar, sweet and savoury finger sandwiches including cucumber and cream and jam, assortment of scones, and miscellaneous pastries for your enjoyment. We hope you will find today's teatime satisfactory, madames?" the attendant says, placing cake stands, teapot set, and silverware on our small fold out table before leaving. Much to my delight, upon closer inspection, I see there's also more than enough miniature Victoria sponges mixed in among the sweets and sandwiches. Without hesitation, I grab it, though of course I make sure not to eat too quickly. And then, a second and a third, with my self-control the only thing preventing me from devouring them faster than our Royal Navy's budget does to pension funding.
"..." When I finally raise my head, I see she still hasn't touched any of the food at all.
"Are you unaccustomed to the food here?" I ask. "If you'd like, I can tell them to change the menu and prepare you something you'd prefer instead."
She shakes her head. "No, I just think it's so lovely, this custom of your nation called tea-time. And the smell of this Darjeeling, the lovely colours of that strawberry jam cake, it's all so wonderful."
"Well, it's not going to be wonderful for long if you don't start eating, or else I'll be finished entirely," I threaten jokingly, and that seems to be enough to motivate her. She picks up a Victoria sponge, inspects it for a moment, and then takes a bite.
"This is edible" she proclaims happily.
"Of course it is," I say. "What, we British are often mocked for our cuisine, but our culinary traditions aren't so poor to where we're eating what can't be eaten."
"What I mean is, it's just as delicious as it looks," she adds. After that, the two of us enjoy a leisurely tea-time as the train rolls on and the sun drops lower in the sky. And all the while we are moving towards Cambridge, that glorious destination.
"So this is Girton College. It still has surrounding it the aura of a newly established school."
When we arrive at Cambridge Central, the heavens are tinged with a light shade of orange, though the usually dim colours have taken on an almost celebratory hue as if in welcome.
The train comes to a halt with the hissing of steam, and immediately there's an wave of voices as everyone gets out of their seats, excited to exit the train and explore their new environment. But the girl across from me doesn't make to move at all, and neither do I.
At last, when the crowds have dissipated, she makes to stand up. "Shall we go, then?" she says, looking at me.
"Yes, let's" I reply, but I stop when I remember there's one more thing I wanted to do first.
"We've known each other for an entire train ride and then some," I tell her. "Shouldn't we at least introduce ourselves so we know each other's names?"
She laughs before voicing her agreement. "That would be a good idea," she offers, deferring the first introduction to me.
"Lady Sophia Anna Cecilia Emma Kensington, Countess of Cheshire, Inheritor of the Great Mission, and Protector of Swans, but between friends it's just Sophia" I say. "My family is from Cheshire and owns property there, but I was born in London. I'm an only child. Pleased to make your acquaintance." Finishing my self-introduction, I look to her.
"I'm from Kyoto, Japan, and the younger of two sisters. My name is Ōmiya Sakura, Sakura if you'd prefer. I hope we can get along well."
"I'm sure we will," I tell her, stepping off the train onto the ground and allowing myself to savour the crisp, fresh country air.
Even the breeze here seems to evoke the idea of a new beginning. I wonder what sorts of memories we'll make here that I can look fondly upon later?