"Old Love" makes the argument that competition—in this case, competition over grades and academic distinction—can form the basis for a lifetime of love. The two main characters, Philippa and William, are linked from the beginning of their college careers as the brightest students of their year. They are so evenly matched in their abilities that neither can claim superiority over the other. At first, it seems that their similarity to each other, and their need to compete, will drive them apart.
The story turns on their competition for the Charles Oldham prize. They both exert themselves to the fullest in preparing their essays, but Philippa, William discovers, is burdened by the recent death of her father. His response to his rival's pain is (surprisingly) empathetic: he makes some gentle inquiries:
"How did he die?"
"Cancer, only he never let me know.
"He asked me not to go home before the summer term as he felt the break might interfere with my finals and the Charles Oldham. While all the time he must have been keeping me away because he knew if I saw the state he was in that would have been the end of my completing any serious work."
"Where do you live?" asked William, again surprised that he did not know.
"Brockenhurst. In Hampshire. I'm going back there tomorrow morning. The funeral's on Wednesday."
"May I take you?" asked William.
Philippa looked up and was aware of a softness in her adversary's eyes that she had not seen before. "That would be kind, William."
William's decision to drive Philippa to her father's funeral is the decision that makes the rest of his life with her possible. The story suggests that, far from making this pair antagonists, their love for language and competition becomes the basis for their affection. For example, after William proposes, he strikes a deal that if he wins the Charles Oldham prize, Philippa will marry him. Even though William has already signaled that he hopes Philippa will win the prize (in memory of her dead father), this arrangement is at once a way of using competition as way of expressing love, and a way of subordinating the will to win to the need to show affection. That is, each one says they want to win, but secretly hopes they lose: Philippa wants to lose because she really does want to marry William, and William wants to lose because he really does want to help Philippa heal from her father's death. (The outcome, of course, is that they tie!)
In this way, the story, although mostly concerned with the comic details of their competition, actually subordinates their competitiveness to their mutual affection. The story's conclusion, in which Philippa suddenly dies and William, distraught, takes his own life, turns on an obscure crossword puzzle clue. William has underlined the word "whym-wham" in a Skelton poem, thereby winning an argument with his wife over whether such a word existed; his annotation ("Forgive me, but I had to let her [Philippa] know") could be taken to mean he had to let her know (even after death!) that she was wrong, but, more likely, it means he had to let her know that he could not exist without his life-long love and rival.