All the leaves have fallen and the cold becomes profound. The newly-naked branches look raw and pink from exposure, like our cheeks. Will it snow? Everybody says excitedly. But of course it won't, not really, that's not the sort of place Oxford is, where you get the first snow and then it settles and stays for months. Yes, it snows, in little anxious flurries, the flakes get in our mouths, stick to our backs, and then it stops and we walk to the farmer's market to buy root vegetables and bacon.
We rocket towards the New Year. Time speeds up, or seems to speed up, but only in retrospect: we were there, now, suddenly!, we are here. There's a flurry of excitement around Thanksgiving (since I've been away, everyone in the USA seems to have met up and agreed to start calling it "American Thanksgiving") - people start to blog about how thankful they are, how they'll overeat, how important it is to be with family. I hate the way they say that word, as if I - or anyone else - might not know what it means on any of the other 364 days of the year. Then they excitedly go out and buy stuff, because that's the tradition. Everything's about tradition.
I think people think I'm a bit crass about Thanksgiving, that I'm denouncing my heritage or something. But the thing is, what I mostly remember is bad school lunches with too much chalky turkey, and top hats and shoe buckles made out of construction paper, or else red and yellow Indian headdresses clumsily coloured in. I never remember how they chose which of us would play the pilgrims and which of us would play the Native Americans. I think they did that thing that primary school teachers do, which is wave a hand and say, "and everyone on this side of the room, you're all piiiiiiilgrims!". Sometimes someone would bring a real turkey in and we would look dispassionately at it and it would look dispassionately at us and then someone would say hey, it's like a chicken, but bigger! I don't think anybody ever said, "you're about to eat one of these," but it was implicit, and also it was California, so there was a pretty good chance that half of us were vegetarians already.
And later, I remember not going home one Thanksgiving, because if you have ever tried to travel across the United States of America on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving you know that it is not an experience worth $500 and 12 hours of your life. So instead I drove from Boston to New York with my roommate at the time, a Catholic grad student from Westchester County. I read Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, studied old court cases for an upcoming American Government & Politics exam (the professor was notorious - "oh, you're taking a Mike Brown class?" people would say, but I had managed to make him like me by sitting up front in the lecture hall and staying awake). We had Thanksgiving lunch with her aunt, who lived an hour away in Connecticut. On the drive up I finished Decline and Fall. On the drive down I fell asleep. The next day we went to Gap and I bought a jumper and a pair of socks. We took the train to the city and tried to go ice skating in Bryant Park but decided the line was too long so instead we had pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks and looked at the trees and the strings of Christmas lights and later we went for pizza somewhere on the upper east side. One night we just drove aimlessly around, listening to Weezer, ending up in the Bronx, near Fordham University. It was a nice time but I fail to see how I'm meant to be sentimental about it. (The year after, my only concession to the holiday was to buy a pumpkin pie from Whole Foods. I ate it with a glass of vinegary red wine, sitting on the floor next to the heater, and then wrote a few thousand words of my thesis and watched Pirates of the Caribbean on my laptop.)
Anyway, at home we never ate turkey, but ham and salad and pumpkin pie. California is a hard place to be festive; it always shows holidays up, laughs and says, it's Thanksgiving? Okay. But look at the bright sky, feel the sun on your back. Go for a swim. Have lunch outside. Don't eat too much, you'll want to go for a long walk later. The hills are green.
Really it's just that I'm contrary and I don't want to be made to feel thankful. And I certainly don't want to take the Guardian's poll on whether I nabbed my Black Friday deals online or in-store this year. Here's what I did on Black Friday: I went to work. I bought a sandwich from the Moroccan deli down the road and everyone said, "ooh, isn't it cold today!" Later, I went home and we had a glass of wine and watched videos of cats crawling into boxes.
So maybe that's the thing. We're marooned in November, in our own present. It's impossible to look forward, equally impossible to feel any connection to even the recent past - was it last week I stayed in bed with a cold, the week before that we drove to the Isle of Wight? It may as well be last year, or someone else's memory.
Everybody's head is down and the trees are shivering. The leaves have formed a carpet over the garden pathway. A sleek black cat visits us nearly every night; we've called it Dobson, as in Zuleika, and don't know if it's male or female or if anybody owns it, but it seems to get enough food. Still, it likes to be scratched behind the ears and rubbed on the throat and to wrap itself around your legs.
I read: “Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.” But in this strange month it seems the other way round, that the entire world converges in a narrow gate.