Half way through the month of January, Hilary Term begins in Oxford.
The students return from the 21st century with their trainers and their iPods, and step through the gates of their colleges into the medieval quadrangles.
The faces of the stone gargoyles welcome back the scholars with grotesque smiles, just as they have done for the past 700 years.
Sally had only known Basil for ten weeks, but she felt as close to him as to any of her oldest school friends.
When she met him loping around the quad, she would have liked to have given him a hug or a kiss, but it didn't seem quite the done thing.
He hailed her with a casual "Hiya!" and she was pleased when he invited her to join him for a cuppa.
Tea in Basil's room was something of a ceremony as he actually had proper cups and saucers,
and a blue and white china pot into which he spooned loose Russian Caravan tea leaves from Fortnum and Mason in London.
Like other students, he kept the milk on the window sill when the weather was cold.
His biscuits came from a cylindrical tin, and Sally rated them as posh, but not as nice as chocolate digestives.
It did not take more than a "How was your Christmas?" for the conversation to turn to the most fascinating subject in Westerly College at that time - the remarkable Princess Talia.
Sally explained how Her Royal Highness had come to stay at her family home, and had disappeared and reappeared without so much as a bye or leave.
And then she had dreamed up a crazy story about meeting her uncle, King Arthur, and her aunt, Queen Guinevere, among the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.
At the end of recapping her encounter with the freaky side of Talia, Sally asked:
"Basil, do you think she's got a serious problem? I mean, like she's mentally ill?" She thought the question sounded naive as soon as she heard her words coming out of her own mouth.
Of course somebody who has visions of legendary kings and queens and talks about them as near relatives has a problem.
But Basil, who was normally the most straight down the line, tell-it-like-it-is, of chaps, didn't just throw his arms up in the air and say: "Why yes, she's as nutty as a fruit cake,
out with the fairies, one sandwich short of a picnic," or some such phrase. He looked thoughtfully at his teacup and hunched his shoulders in a slightly awkward, embarrassed sort of way.
"I'm not sure," he said. "Or, I did think she was a touch crazy at first. But then at the end of last term - look Sally this is an absolute secret between you and me ...
" Before he could continue his confession, he glanced at Sally and checked that she was nodding in agreement that she would keep his confidence ... and then he opened up a little more.
"You see at the end of last term, I had this dream. Only it was so vivid it wasn't like a dream. It was more of a vision. It was as if I had travelled forward in time.
As far as I know, I wasn't asleep, I was awake - like it was really happening. Talia was there. Actually you were there too, only older.
When I came round, I was so shaken, that I'm not sure I'm over it yet. I think perhaps there is something different about her.
But I'm not going to say she's a nutter, because that would be like the pot calling the kettle black. If she's crazy, so am I."
Sally couldn't take this entirely seriously: "Oh Basil, you're the sanest person I know," she laughed.
"No I'm not at all sane," protested Basi. "Or perhaps I just hide my crazy thoughts better than Talia does. Pretending to be normal is a social skill.
It's not one that's particularly developed in her."
And that remark got Sally thinking. As she walked back to her room, she pondered how she might help Talia to develop a few social skills.
It was a problem that she put to Mags, who was studying Art History, and who was one of the coolest, most tattooed, and popular characters around college.
She always seemed to be sitting with her legs across the arm of a chair in the Junior Common Room, and laughing about something or other. This was where Sally found her.
"Why Talia just needs to lighten up a bit," was her verdict.
She added: "A boyfriend wouldn't do her any harm either, but first and foremost she needs to stop looking so suicidally serious the whole time."
The word 'suicidal' struck Sally really hard. "You don't think she might do anything to harm herself, do you?" she asked anxiously.
"Naaa. But she might die of misery."
Sally didn't think this remark was entirely fair. She had seen Talia in a light-hearted mood at her parents' house, when she had even danced with her father. But that was the exception.
Talia wasn't like that most of the time, or with most people. Other people couldn't see the nice side of her, because they didn't see beyond that beautiful but often expressionless face.
She could certainly do with some loosening up. There were times when she just wanted to shake Talia and say: "Come on, if you want to make friends, just hang out with us!"
Sally knew that Talia was back in college, because she heard her magical but melancholy harp music. Even so, it was a few days before they could have a proper conversation.
Sally got on with her studies, but she found that her thoughts were often drifting off to her unusual friend and how she might help her.
Eventually, she saw her silently flitting through the Classics section of the Bodleian Library, but it was no place to chat.
As Talia walked past with a pile of books in her hands, Sally studied her face to see if there were any signs of her being miserable or mad, but she just seemed lost in her own thoughts.
She saw her the next day at a lecture on the comic plays of Plautus. Talia seemed to think that the professor's description of a scene involving a trick with a rope was hilarious.
She was sniggering away to herself, although nobody else thought it was at all funny.
As they walked out of the hall with their books, Sally invited Talia to come with her to a party at Brasenose College the following Saturday.
"That's so terribly kind of you to invite me," said Talia, "but I'm planning to write my essay on Saturday night."
"Oh come on! Saturday night's no time for working."
"Will Basil be at this social gathering? I hope you don't mind me asking."
"I'm afraid he's got something else on," said Sally.
"Ah. Oh well. I'd better do my essay."
Now at least, Sally knew what it would take to lure Talia out of her little world. Another tea with Basil followed, and a plan was hatched.
A few days later, when Princess Talia went to check her pigeon hole in the Porter's Lodge, she found a handwritten note from Basil inviting her to a party in his room the following Friday.
There was no mistaking that the plot was off to a good start when Talia hammered on Sally's door. "Look Sally, have you got one of these?" she asked with childish excitement.
It wasn't yet 9 am and Sally was still in her dressing gown. She wiped a crust of sleep from her eye.
"I haven't had a chance to check my pigeon hole yet," she said. But in truth the invitation was not entirely unexpected to Sally.
Talia showed her the card and asked what various things written on it meant like, 'PBAB' - 'Please Bring a Bottle'.
"Oh it's like a secret code," remarked Talia. "And what's this?" The line said:
"Beware of forfeits - come if you dare."
"Oh don't worry about that. It's just a silly party game," said Sally.
"And how can one dress smart casual?" asked Talia. "Surely they are two entirely different things?"
"Well I suppose you have to be between the two," her friend replied. Talia closed her eyes and held her hands together as if in prayer.
"Oh Sally, what shall I wear? I don't have a single thing."
"You poor Cinderella."
"Cinderella? Who's she?" asked Talia. Sally ignored the question. She knew that Talia's wardrobe was full of the most beautiful clothes you could possibly imagine.
Nobody quite knows how many hours Talia spent trying on different dresses, colours and styles.
Golden threaded caftans, fir trimmed collars, red taffeta, elaborate bird patterns - all of which would have been stunning at a Summer Ball,
but not really quite the thing for an evening in a student's room.
"Well, if you must dress up, haven't you got a little black number?" asked Sally exasperated.
"No, I don't believe I do," said Talia. And she rushed out to the shops to buy a black dress.
In the event, she looked as stunning as a film star on Oscar Night, and made everyone else at the party feel a little bit in the shade.
Sally could see that she wasn't winning many friends among the envious girls, although the boys could hardly keep their eyes of her - except for Basil.
He was clearly making a strenuous effort not to look at her so that anybody might notice.
There were a dozen people in all, and Basil had made a surprisingly good job of setting out all sorts of little eats and treats on a side table.
The music wasn't too loud, and the idea was that everyone should have a fairly civilised time.
Talia hung by Sally's side, and clearly found it hard to join in any of the conversations which all seemed to be about alternative rock bands, and even more alternative comedians.
When Basil was nearby, she kept her perfect cool, but he looked a little bit less than his usual casual self. Overall, it was just a perfectly nice, ordinary party.
The only thing that made it just a little bit different was, that at 9 o'clock Basil dipped down the music and clapped his hands together.
"Friends!" he declared. "Gather round. It's forfeit time!"
This was the game that had been promised on the invitation. Basil fanned out twelve playing cards, one for each guest. One of the cards was a Joker.
Whoever picked it would then have to choose a folded piece of paper out of a hat. On the paper was written some sort of silly stunt or trick that they would have to perform. That was the forfeit.
It was impossible to pick a card without a little sense of thrill and trepidation. The only guest who knew that the odds were a little bit loaded was Sally.
She was in on the secret - that Basil was good at card tricks, and that he was going to make sure that Talia picked the Joker at least three times.
Even so, she was quite relieved when she chose the harmless Queen of Hearts. A boy called Charles picked the Joker the first time round, and he had to do a hand stand.
He managed it for about one second, before toppling over, to a round of applause.
“Oh Sally,” said Talia, “do I have to play this game?” “I’m afraid you do,” said Sally. “It’s Basil’s little whim. It wouldn’t be polite to him to drop out.”
She knew perfectly well that the word 'Basil' held a lot of sway with Talia, and would probably persuade her to stay.
And this time, as Basil came around with the pack, Talia made her choice, turned over her card, and shrieked: “Oh no! Not me!”
“Yes, you,” said Basil with a smile. And he brought over the hat for her to choose a forfeit. She unfolded a piece of paper on which was written:
“You must do a cartwheel.”
“I can’t. Not in this dress,” protested Talia. And Basil said kindly: “Well alright, you can pick another one.” The second piece of paper said:
“You must bend over backwards.”
This time Talia achieved the task like a gymnast. She dropped her hands behind her onto the floor and turned her entire body into a perfect semicircle. Everyone marvelled at her suppleness, and Talia looked genuinely surprised and pleased with the applause from the other guests.
In the next couple of rounds, one guest had to sing the National Anthem and another had to go and pick up one of Basil’s socks from behind the sofa. And then Talia pulled out the Joker in the pack once again.
“Oh,” she said, looking horrified, and a little cheer went up around the room. This time her forfeit read:
“You must jump up on the desk and act like a chimpanzee.”
“No excuses,” said Basil. And the poor princess, coaxed by Mags, had to squat on the desk, curve her hands under her arm pits and say “Ooooh-ah-ah!” She clearly didn’t enjoy the experience, but did manage to laugh at herself at the end of it.
“This has to be the best possible therapy,” whispered Basil to Sally. The whole idea that they had cooked up together was to force Talia to act quite silly, like everyone else at the party, and let her hair down.
They thought that the experience would break down the impenetrable fog of mystery that surrounded her, and make her 'one of them'. Either that or she would run out screaming, but Sally calculated that she would do anything if Basil wanted her to.
Basil shuffled the deck once more. Sally watched him closely, but she couldn’t spot any sly card slipping. This time it was she who pulled the Joker. She had no idea if it had been by chance, or by the slight of Basil’s hand. She picked a forfeit.
“Oh Sally, I’m so sorry for you. I know how it feels,” said Talia. Sally’s forfeit read:
“You must do splits and stay like that for 1 minute.
That’s not so terrible,” she said, and proceeded to do so.
There were more rounds of forfeits. Somebody had to say the alphabet backwards while standing on one leg, and somebody else had to scramble around on all fours yapping like a dog. When nobody picked the Joker, Basil had to take the forfeit. He had to recite a poem, and he managed to get only so far with a famous one:
“In Xanadu did KubIa Khan A stately pleasure dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.”
Then he could not remember the rest, but it was enough to impress everyone.
When there was only one forfeit left in the box, the cards came round for the last time. Sally wondered if Talia was going to escape without doing another forfeit, but Basil had promised that she would have to do three, and so it proved.
“Oh no that’s not fair!” she shrieked. “I’ve done two already.”
“Well there’s only one left in the box, so you are safe after that,” said Sally. And Talia, with obvious reluctance, opened the folded piece of paper. It read:
“You must sing a karaoke song.”
She looked mystified, and Basil had to explain to her that she had to make use of his karaoke kit. He showed her a book of songs, and she had to sing one through a microphone to the backing music that came through a speaker.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “My sister gave it to me for Christmas.”
“But I don’t know any of these popular tunes,” she protested. “Can’t I sing a madrigal?” “I don’t think that would be quite the same thing,” said Basil. And the verdict of the room was that she couldn’t get out of it that easily.
“Oh very well,” she said. “The words and music are written down here. I'll do this one.” Sally looked over her shoulder. She said: “Are you sure that’s wise? There’s got to be an easier one to do.” But Talia said: “No. I think this one looks lovely.”
It wasn’t exactly your everyday pop song. The introduction was a full blown orchestra which played very softly for almost a minute. Then Talia began to sing in a crystal clear voice:
“It won’t be easy, you’ll think it strange When I try to explain how I feel That I still need your love, after all that I’ve done You won’t believe me.”
Her audience was quite entranced. When she reached the climax of the song, the orchestra swelled up and she sang:
Don’t cry for me Argentina The Truth is I never left you All through my wild days, My mad existence, I kept my promise You kept your distance.”
The music lasted more than five minutes. When the final bar died out, there was thunderous applause - as loud as eleven people can manage - and Talia bowed graciously. It was almost impossible to imagine that she hadn’t been practicing the performance for days.
She had sung it expertly and so movingly. But as she put down the karaoke microphone, she said to Sally:
“By the way, who is Argentina?”
And then Basil came over to congratulate her: “That was so splendid,” he said. And so saying he kissed her on the cheek.
“Why thank you Basil,” said Talia, turning quite red. And with that, she ran out of the room.