I'm in a hazy jet-lagged state. I wake at 4 AM, unable to sleep, weirdly hungry, so we get up and eat cheese and crackers and then find crumbs in the bed for days. Yesterday I climbed out of bed with all intention of doing something useful, like cleaning the three dishes by the sink, at the very least, but all I managed was to tidy the piles in the lounge up and put my newly-arrived books on the shelf before I sat down on the couch and promptly fell asleep, for three hours.
When I awoke it was dark out, and I was meant to have met Xander in town fifteen minutes ago, but I didn't have the energy to hurry, and I knew I needed a good spell in fresh air if I was going to be remotely human, so I walked. It was cold out but the cold felt good--not a harsh cold but a gentle one, with a moist breeze blowing off the river and a fog laying low over the city, weaving in and out of spires. I went down the Iffley road, which was full of bikers going the other way, away from town, girls in red coats with baskets full of books, boys in jaunty caps and scarves. Magdalen bridge seemed to stretch over an invisible river, a thin line of black nothingness--if you peered over, all was blank, except a few silver trees on the bank. Across the way the ghost of Magdalen tower crept up into a foggy sky and a wind neither warm nor cool silked past. As I approached it rang out some hour--6, 6:30? It didn't seem to matter what the time was, only that at regular intervals, the city gave a call.
There were a lot of students. Or people I assumed were students. They had books tucked under their arms, or they looked weary, as if they'd been studying too long. They had sporting gear slung over their shoulders. At the Turf, where we settled for a drink, they crowded the inside of the pub with excited chatter and hot breath--a sea of young lithe bodies. We stood by the radiator in the back, huddled, and they drank circles around us, and sometimes talked about the things you think Oxford students talk about: philosophy and writers, with vague gestures indicating complicated theories. But sometimes not. Sometimes they only talked about things that ordinary young folk talk about: each other; the sexy boy behind the bar or the beautiful girl smoking outside; something they'd read in the paper or seen on TV.
It only occurred to me after awhile that I wasn't one of them. Not older or wiser, but not one of them either. In a city of students--arguably the city of students--I am not a student any longer (except of the world, of course). The first place that I go to live having finished my undergraduate career is a place where you can be an eternal undergraduate, if you so choose.
It got colder and colder as the night progressed. The outline of the city looked hazier and hazier. I have never thought about it before (I think of Oxford as a conglomeration of towers and spires and beautiful buildings but in my mind they are generically beautiful, vague in image, shimmering) but each college tower has a distinct shape and a particular hue. Draped in night, the entire place seemed eminently mutable. On Magdalen Bridge I could picture romantic 19th century undergraduates quoting the poets of yore and falling in love with the fleeting image of a woman, some Zuleika Dobson-esque seductress (though not one so harmful); as I walked down Queen's Lane in comfortable quiet, everything felt medieval; under the Bridge of Sighs on my way to the Turf, I could only think of Sayers' Gaudy Night and prim women scholars making a place for themselves alongside handsome men in 1930s garb under their gowns.
All tied up in literature like that, it didn't seem so much a place as an idea, a state of mind, a state of being. I have things to ground me, of course--the happily reinstated vegetable deliveries, the creaking wood in the house, the promise of a beautiful new bicycle, the man behind the counter at the sandwich shop who, realizing I haven't enough cash to pay for anything, kindly lowers the price of a vegetable samosa so that I won't go hungry, snuggling under a duvet in chilly morning. These are good things, and when I think of them I no longer feel as if I'm swimming through an impressionist painting. But there is something about a place marked as much by intellect as by physical habitation that gives you a pleasant kind of almost-vertigo if you walk through it on the edge of darkness, if there's a wind you can't quite place and a fog on the horizon.