Every weekend in London, I thought about going back. The bus trip was 90 minutes long, and the ticket was 19 pounds - pricey but not unaffordable. I could make a trip out of it. Leave on Friday after work, be in time for the end of the week festivities, and spend Saturday wandering through Christchurch meadows. It would have been so easy. But the first weekend, I rode the tube straight home on Friday, slumped in the seat, and my roommates threw a raucous dinner party in the evening. I did not want to rock the boat, not the first weekend, so I accepted every beer they pushed on me. The next weekend, I got out of work late, and then the weekend after, I felt too ill-prepared for such a momentous trip. After all, I had spent the better part of a year trying to return. I had written resumes and cover letters and sent them, by the hundreds it seemed, to firms and companies and charities that replied with silence. Nobody wanted me.
Some mornings I would get up at dawn and use a cheap international phone card to cold call numbers I had compiled in a notebook. Surely, if they heard my voice, they would recognize the real sound of desperation. Surely. Surely. I cradled the words close to my lips in the lull before calling the next number, sitting in the ghost of yesterday’s daylight, pressing against the cold table leg. And then a memory would flicker, like the smell of fresh coffee, like Penny’s quiet voice telling me about Wordsworth, and I clung on to the sensations and called another number. A jug of Pimms, filled to the brim with freshly cut strawberries. The Thames by my side as I ran through Christchurch Meadows. I dialed again.
But it was on Turl St that my life in Oxford began. I had been coming back from the Covered Market, when I passed the café with the lit-up front window. I stopped to drink the scene in. Tea lights glowing on broad wooden tables, people hunched over papers and mugs, scribbling and reading. I pushed open the door. A small fireplace in the corner, bookshelves and couches gathered around the same long tables, where it was apparently acceptable for strangers to sit together. There was a cushion left empty, next to a man typing into his computer. I sank down and pulled out the book I had brought. It was the Penguin edition of The Picture of Dorian Grey, a cheap copy I had picked up at the airport. As I settled into the story, I was vaguely aware that my couch companion had stopped typing. I looked up to catch him surveying the cover of my book with a curious smile.
“Have you got to the part where he goes off the rails?” he said.
“Does he?” I said. “Not yet. Don’t spoil it for me. I need to be shocked.”
He laughed, dissolving the last of the distance between us. “Penny,” he said, offering a firm hand. “Are you from around here?”
“No, just here for a few weeks. Chinese by birth, Australian by nature.” I said. He raised his eyebrows. His eyes were a light grey, hard to look away from. I found myself spilling it all out, my first impressions of Oxford, the spires, the art, the vein of literature that seemed to throb in the city. He listened with curiosity and a touch of weariness. But then – it was his home. He had grown up here, steeped without escape in the town’s prestige, sectioning his life into school terms, swerving on his bike around Oxford students who blocked the roads in October and then rode through on their own bikes in December.
“It’s a strange place, Oxford. So beautiful but always in transition.” He picked up his cup on the table, and put it down again. “I think it’s important to get out of here, every now and then. Perhaps even get out forever.”
“I can see that. Where would you go otherwise?” I asked.
“I’d go to Berlin,” he said. “I’d go see where the wall fell.”
He looked around the room for a moment and the dimness lifted again. “But this is my favorite place in the city. I work behind the counter, on and off, but I’d come here even if I didn’t. You don’t have be a student to come here. You can sort of be anyone. You can sit down with somebody around a table, have a conversation with them and it’s alright – it’s a part of normal life.”
“I wish every place would be like that.” I said.
The room was nearly empty now. It was well into the evening. One of the baristas came in, waved at Penny, and collected a stack of dirty coffee cups. I slipped the unread Dorian Grey into my bag, as slowly as possible, dreading the moment I would have to say goodbye.
“Stay around if you’d like,” Penny offered. “We like to hang out after work and have a few drinks and laugh about the customers.”
So the chairs were first stacked on the tables, marking the official end of the workday, before the rest of the baristas, Eva, Kris and Tom, brought out gin and tonics, arranged nicely with candles on a tray. One was for me. It was dark enough that I couldn’t quite see any of their faces, but I could hear them complaining. Eva, a loud girl from Northern England who had a crude taste in jokes, Kris had come abroad from Latvia and had a small crush on Eva, Tom who said little but smiled a lot, and Penny, the oldest one who the others deferred to, the force that had drawn us together.
After that, I would drop in the café every day, and one of them would always be there, sliding me a free macchiato (but don’t advertise it, for God’s sake, hissed Eva) or poking fun at how posh I was beginning to sound (how fareth you, mates, Kris said, in a poor imitation of my voice. I would throw a terrible Eastern European accent back.) At first, I was carefully aware of being the newcomer, the one that had intruded, and yet I was embraced with a kindness that washed away all my reservations. I fell into the routine of their lives. I would meet them after work, and everyone would smoke a cigarette in the alley behind the café. Then we would take advantage of the elongated days. It was always warm enough to sit outside in the evenings. Penny kept telling me how unusual this was, how it wouldn’t last, but the days went by and the heat didn’t let up. We brought picnic hampers filled with wine and spreads of cheese, and ate on the riverbanks as the twilight deepened. We frequented a dive bar called The Cellar, where you walked down a flight of dubious steps into a musty room, where the walls were smothered in an eye-aching collection of graffiti. We would dare each other to talk to strangers in the streets, just for fun.
Arguments would blow up within the group every week. Penny was deeply socialist, while Eva was committed to the current political establishment, and it would result in angry outbursts as the rest of us tried to restrain them. But even those moments were glorious to me. I had been bent, for most of my life, on achieving goals and ticking boxes, only knowing what was necessary to fulfill the expectations of others. I liked many things, but did not love anything. They loved music and art and philosophy and people, with a passion that I felt stupid next to. And something else. It was in the way Penny would stop to chat to the squatters that slept on the steps, the way Eva arranged candles and incense in every picnic hamper so we could smell lavender no matter where we went, and the way Kris and Tom would take off their shoes the minute we approached any kind of grass. It was infectious. I finished The Picture of Dorian Gray in one sleepless night and raved about it to Penny the next time I saw him.
“It was so… restrained, so…well-worded. It was a book about people who did terrible things, but were not terrible in themselves.”
“If you liked that, then you should try Somerset Maugham next,” he said. “After I read Of Human Bondage, I gave up religion entirely. You’ll see why.” He was more distant than usual, his eyes distracted.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just thinking. I think I might go away for a few days. Hiking somewhere in the countryside. When are you leaving again?”
My heart dropped. “Two weeks. Not too much time left.”
“All right,” Penny gave me a reassuring smile. “I’ll make sure I’m back by then. Don’t worry.”
This is how I would remember him later, his clear eyes on mine, his face relaxed. A man who had reached the prime of his youth, a man too old for his body. I had a question in mind, and I wondered whether it was the right time to ask it. Why me? Was this all because I had chosen the right place to sit?
“Let me know when you get back.” I said. “I’ll be here.”
Penny had never given me a phone number. He didn’t use phones, he said. All our meetings had been arranged in person. I realized with a shock that I had nothing to trace him with. Even the rest of the group didn’t know where he was, but they weren’t concerned. This disappearing act was normal for him, they confirmed. In the precious last days, I hovered between the café and the places that had been most beautiful to me: The Cellar, the bookstores, the secret turns in the meadows, the fast-moving river. I was leaving in a week. Five days. One. Eva, Kris and Tom threw a going away party after the café had closed its business hours. They had all signed a card with messages of support. None of them brought up Penny’s absence.
“You’ll remember us, won’t you?” Kris said. “I don’t know what kind of people they have in Australia, but do not let them fool you – they are all dangerous.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” I laughed. “But I can guarantee you there will be no other Latvian man who can take your place.”
“We’ve got a gift for you, by the way. You’ve earned it.” Tom said. He held up a green shirt with the café logo on the side. It was the one they all wore.
“I….” My throat tightened. It came upon me then that I loved them. I wanted them to have happy, fulfilling lives, and to continue on, their sparks never fading out. Had Oxford done this, or they themselves? Was it Penny? It was entwined together now, I didn’t know. I had written to them too, letters that were an emotional outpouring of gratitude and funny observations I had made over the weeks, and I handed them out now. When Eva and I got up to clean up some of the plates, I pulled her aside in the kitchen.
“Eva, this letter is for Penny. It has my email address in it. You’ll make sure he gets it? I don’t want him to think I left without saying goodbye.”
“Then he should have come back earlier,” she said calmly. She took the letter from me. “I’ll make sure he gets it. But I don’t know when he’ll be back. Sometimes he takes it too far, this whole isolation thing. ” The letter disappeared into her pocket.
I kept it together, even on the shuttle to Heathrow. I was sitting on the plane, with the green shirt in my lap when the grief punctured me. Only then did I allow myself to cry.
* * * *
I woke up in London with the sheets twisted around me in layers of tension. The sun had not risen, and the light was a muddled color still between day and night. It was quiet. My roommates had disappeared on a trip to Lisbon, an act of revelry they enacted every year. I sat up and unwrapped myself, and then, as if I had been planning this all along, I reached for my backpack, and began to pack. I waited at the bus stop for the X90. There were only two other people waiting with me. I chose a seat next to another young woman. She watched the scenery, and so I watched too, the grey concrete became sparser, until it was engulfed by the hills of the countryside, stretching impossibly far, impossibly green.
The bus inched up High St, 90 minutes later. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears, as if I were at the starting line of a race. The woman who had sat next to me got out first, and walked away with firm, confident steps. I thought of following her. Now that I was here, I did not know where to go. I stood, swaying, gazing and marveling for a while. I had forgotten so much. The look of the place, for once. The old charm, the wooden boards above the shop fronts with their old lettering. Queen’s Lane Coffee House, a café three hundred years old. My feet began moving, towards Broad St, and a strange pain settled in my heart as I walked. Was this really the place? Was I really back in Oxford? Japanese tourists, laden with Oxford bags, brushed past and I let them buffer me. I was between the Radcliffe library and the Bridge of Sighs now, an arch full of romantic myths. Last time I had been seen the Bridge of Sighs, there had been a newlywed couple kissing underneath it – the last of the summer weddings. The Radcliffe, a dark round blot in the sky, loomed on the right. Had it always been that large? I lost myself in the sight, and a tour guide backed into me.
“Oh sorry.” He turned back to his tour group and resumed. “Look around, everybody! You are now standing in – arguably - one of the most famous squares in Europe.”
One of the most famous squares in Europe, I repeated under my breath. It was what the tour guides had said too, when I had been there. Some trainer must have taught them that pretty phrase. And yet, at 3am when there was little security, I had once seen a homeless man relieve himself in a corner of this famous square, before arranging his body across the steps of a nearby church. These tourists would never know this. A panhandler picked out a mournful rendition of “Wonderwall” on his guitar. A memory resurfaced. Was this the man? The same man who had played that same song, n the center of a circle Penny, Eva, Kris, Tom and I formed, as we sang and waited for morning to come? I had forgotten. The floor had been a little damp and still we all huddled around this poor musician none of us had known, singing this sweet ballad. It was him. His name had been Ray. I walked by and tried to catch Ray’s eye, willing him to stop me, ask me where I had been all this time. Our eyes met and Ray grinned, and I opened my mouth, and Ray’s eyes slid over me to the tour group. I shut my mouth. Of course Ray would not remember me. A few hours of idle conversation, one year ago. This man must have played “Wonderwall” for hundreds more since then, other people coming back from a night out, others who might have huddled around him. I was being ridiculous.
Faster now. I was heading towards a place I once knew down to the chips in the mugs. At first, I walked quickly, overtaking every other pedestrian on the pavement. But because I was close, because I knew now that nothing could stop me, I found myself slowing to a crawl. Here was the Blackwell’s where I had bought my books and read them, hidden between the shelves. But next to it, where once had been a makeshift cardboard wall was now an expanse of sandstone steps, blocks of unstained stone. I stared. The steps were quintessentially Oxford – grand but not gauche, aged only in appearance. But they were not right. They did not belong there. I had walked past that cardboard construction on the way to classes, to buy my weekly groceries, to the café, and I had never once turned. Now, I analyzed the newcomer with religious dismay.
The Turl St street sign flitted into sight, behind hordes of moving bodies. A quick joy leapt through my body at the sight of that sign. I had forgotten the charm of the street signs in this city with the serif type set against a white slate. I was so close. I sped up my steps. I had dreamt of low lights and green leaves and the ever-present scent of roasted coffee beans. I was in front of the café now, peering into the front window and I gasped. The couch was gone. They had removed it. A few people were littered around glass tables, eating from plates of indeterminate food. I hoped that my old friends would still be there. I hoped Penny would be there. That last day at Oxford before the party, I had searched one last time, starting in the morning at the café, and then walking throughout the town, to the parks I knew he liked and the riverbanks I knew we’d visited. Was I only meant to find him now? There was a terrible rightness to it. If there were any meaning to this colliding of people, then he would have to be there. It was no use hovering by the door. I shook my hands out and pushed in.
There was a new espresso machine behind the counter. There was also a teenage girl I didn’t recognize, wearing a red uniform. I hung back, unsure of what to do, then lined up to buy a macchiato. As the girl handed me my change, I summoned the courage. The answer was closer than it would ever be.
“Do you know a Penny, by any chance? He used to work here, on and off. I’m looking for him.”
She smiled in recognition, showing little, even teeth, and my body tensed. "Oh! You just missed him I guess. He’s moved to Berlin.”
“This week, actually. You just missed him.”
This week. This week.
“And Kris and Eva? Tom? Are they still around?”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know who Kris is. Eva is at university now, in Scotland I think. And Tom works at the White Horse.” I managed to thank her and turned away. I did not want her to see my reddening eyes. I stumbled towards the bathroom instinctively, a path my brain had not forgotten.
And it was in the bathroom, siting on the toilet seat, that the message was brought home to me. The city had stayed mostly the same. But with each change that I had not lived through, a tiny adjustment had pushed it further away from me. I reached out, beyond the gap of time, but although I felt the pieces of the city, I could not grasp them. It was not my Oxford anymore. The old friends, Kris, Eva, and Tom, Penny who had called the place home, they had taken their own parts of Oxford and they had moved on. I would never see all of them again. I would never get to know what became of their lives. I had built a shrine on fragmented memories of a man and his friends, and a place that would never exist again. I was tearing apart, thinking, here was where I first sat to meet Penny, here was where the coffee was poured, and here was where we used to meet around a candle-lit table after everyone else had gone home. The grip of the past was so alluring that, for a moment, I would have given everything I had to go back. I wished I were not alive.
When the summer sun finally set, I got a drink with the only person left in Oxford that still remembered me. He had come into the White Horse for his shift, and exclaimed to see me. Out of all of them, Tom and I had been the most distant, and I had forced the offer from him, hanging around the bar, until he asked me, awkwardly, if I wanted to get a drink after he finished work. He had always been nice. Nice and forgettable. In those days, our conversations were based on his desire to leave the country and visit Australia one day. I had lightly encouraged him, without thinking too much about it. Everybody said that they wanted to go to Australia. Nobody really did.
It was only when we sat behind two pints of English beer, blinking at each other, that I realized we were not really friends at all, only going through the motions. He had gotten piercings in both ears. His hair was longer. I did not know anything about him. I wanted to say that I was sorry for making him sit with me; that I was trying to make up for something I didn't even understand. Instead, we talked about traveling and school and what had happened during my absence. The café was now under new management. He had quit because he hated the new boss, and liked bar-tending better anyway. The pub was teeming with people, and we ordered two more pints. After a while, flushed from the beer and the atmosphere, I felt a glimmer of my old self again.
“How touristy Oxford had become,” I said, looking around the room.
"But you’re a tourist, aren’t you?” Tom said. He put his cigarette out and searched for his rolling papers. I drank to hide my reaction. I was sure my face would show the hurt, and so I gulped and gulped instead. But why was I hurt? He was right, after all. Two months was not enough to naturalize you. I had put too much of myself in the hands of this place. Oxford was part magic, part lies. It tricked you into thinking it could be a home, when it would never be anything more than a delicious, momentary calling. I was laden with bags, brushing past people in the most famous square in Europe. I was a tourist. Just another transient tourist.
The next morning, I opened my eyes to Tom’s rustling as he swung his legs out of his bed and began putting on his shirt.
"You'll be out before nine?" Tom said hoarsely. “I’m sorry, but you can’t stay past nine. I have to lock the door.”
Fine! My head throbbed, and I wanted to scream. Fine, fine, fine! You will never see me again. I threw my arm over my eyes, turning away as he continued to dress, suddenly hating him, hating me for what I had just done.
On the X90 back to London, I pulled out a piece of paper. It was the only email Penny had ever sent me, two months after I left the UK. I had written a letter on the back to give him in person. I read his words again, word by word. He had deliberately not returned. He couldn’t bear to say goodbye to another person.
Don't be sad about nostalgia. I feel like nostalgia is just when a memory is strong enough to elicit any accompanying emotions. It means that the memory, indeed the moment that you experienced, is still alive.
It was good our adventures briefly collided.