Shared Geographies

Oxford Streetlamp

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time - T.S. Eliot

I want to say that I don't believe in fate. Coincidence, maybe. Yes, I'll accept coincidence--this happened and so did this, what a coincidence. But then in a certain light, from a certain angle, things start to look ridiculous and too improbable. There's that whole funny thing about me meeting a man--the man--my first day in Oxford, and then it gets even funnier when you learn that before me there was another American girl called Miranda with the same initials who studied the same things in college and it's almost as if we were literally meant to be and maybe he'd got the wrong one the first time round--but really, who believes that? I don't believe that. I'd like to, but actually what I believe is that we happened one night to meet in a pub and we got along. And later it turned out that he happened to once have had a girlfriend who shared my name and initials and nationality. Maybe it says a lot about him---that he's consistent, that he has a type--but more likely that's just the way things are.

But then this: this street. This street that I've been working on for more than two years. In my life, my twenty-something life, that's a lot. I've held this job longer than I've ever held another and now I'm leaving it. It was not an arbitrary appointment, either--no more than anything else is arbitrary. Because it's where he went to school (and also where she--the other Miranda--went to school). Because he had good things to say about it, I applied for a job there. You can't even say I applied for a job there. More like: I wrote a desperate email and they responded saying yes, what a coincidence, we do have an opening, would you be available for an interview next week?

And that street. What a funny street. Tucked away in North Oxford where I would never ordinarily go. Except that I did go there. My first week in Oxford, three years ago, long before I was hired. Because just around the corner is where my tutor's house was. And we would sit and drink tea and discuss the political history of the situation in Iraq.

And then it turns out that Pico Iyer went to school just down the road. The Dragon School. Once I had to go there to deliver some errant post. Pico Iyer has been one of my favourite writers for a long time and I've always felt this stupid sense of connection--because he lived in Santa Barbara, where I'm from, because he was schooled in Oxford, where I love--and then to think that he walked down this street where I have spent five days a week for more than 728 days. Well, that's funny enough.

Then tonight. Arbitrarily, because if you remember this is all arbitrary--I look up the name of an author I once wrote an email to. I'd loved a book of his and I had a question--who knows what it was, I was in high school--and he wrote back within hours and I thought it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me. I remembered his name tonight, for no good reason at all. It popped into my head as I watched an episode of Dr. Who so I typed it into my computer and pressed "search". And you know what? Paul Watkins went to the Dragon School too.

How do I express the strangeness of this? I can't tell him--can't say, retrospectively, I'm writing to you and in ten years I will share a very specific geography with you . I don't write it to him now, because the time has passed for that sort of thing. I wouldn't write to him now, I couldn't, because I am an author too, and the letter would be tainted by that--no longer an innocent high school girl seeking advice and giving praise, but a bloodsucking competitor trying to network. And yet--

And yet--

And yet here we are. We share a street. We have that street in common. You know who else lives there? Roger Bannister. Who was the first man ever to run a sub-four-minute-mile. 3' 59.4". And my first year in high school that was the name of my favourite album--Four Minute Mile by the Get Up Kids, who, if I listen to them now, sound like noise and nothing else and I feel very little except for some obligatory and very vague nostalgia. I used to listen to that noise coming through headphones every night. Four minute mile and Roger Bannister, and I played with the idea of being a track star myself and I listened to Belle and Sebastian and thought idly, though I never imagined it would ever actually happen, that when I was free of the shackles of high school I would move to Britain and set up a life there which was a million miles away from where I knew, and it would be good--

--And it is good, and feels spontaneous. But then if you really look, everything points to it. Everything points to that one damn road--the road where I've spent hours making photocopies, constructing files, answering phones--I share a knowledge of that road with other people--and maybe Four Minute Mile wasn't so much about the noise but about something else.

But then I don't believe in all that, do I? Do I? On nights like this I'm tempted to say yes. Yes I do.

And that's the magic of it--that you never know. All the signs point to this--whatever this is. This moment in East Oxford with the ever-evolving draft of my first book in a special folder on my desktop and the knowledge of that road with the Dragon School at the end, and the man who sleeps beside me every night with his heavy breath and his soft beard. But the signs could point anywhere if I wanted them to. It's like that film Pi where you start to see 3.14 everywhere, and the more you think about it the more it appears in obscure places. It takes over your everyday life.

And here is everyday life. Early mornings, muesli drenched in organic milk from the farmer's market. Cups of tea and pints of cheap cider. Kisses across the table. A street, another street, another, all the way to and from work. A bicycle locked up in various places all across the city. Everything is arbitrary. You love every minute. Things shift at the back of your mind--maybe this was meant to happen, maybe this just happened, but definitely it doesn't matter which. You curl up with the window open and the duvet up against your chin and a warm body beside you. Never mind all that. This is now.