Every year is the same and every year I think it is different. The blackened trees stand defenseless against a pale sky and the parks are wet and the fog at night lies heavy, suppresses my breathing. The streets are littered with the pieces of plastic and cardboard that the wind stole one rebellious morning and even the shop window displays are bleakly ambiguous: jewel coloured party dresses (for a spring wedding!), bare shoulders, boots, murky raincoats that can't decide whether to be warm or to be whimsical.
The whole world is brown and made of stone. One Saturday we decide to walk into town because it is sunny and warmer than usual, but there is a wind blowing, and if you sit outside for too long your fingertips start to go numb, so you have to keep moving: through the ceaseless throngs of tourists, the packs of Big Beautiful Blonde Undergraduates, the sporty types in shorts and college sweatshirts carrying lacrosse sticks or sacks of hockey gear. I start to hate them all. They look smug, though I only think they look smug because they look happy. The funny thing is that I probably look happy too, because I am happy, if I don't think about them; I am in town buying underwear which is something I have been needing to do for a long time, and later the Man and I will go and buy a toilet brush together, and some coathangers, just before nightfall, in the dewey evening, and it will be one of the most strangely intimate moments we have ever had. But right now, in town, watching the parade, I say to the Man: everybody else is dressed better than I am, and what I actually mean is, I'm cold, let's go into the Covered Market and buy some cheese. But that's the other trick of This Time of Year: the way it steals the words you want to say and makes you say something else entirely.
I always think that at This Time of Year it would be possible to think that no one really lives in Oxford, that it's just people passing through. Some of them, like the school group from Spain that cross the street as an unruly army, will be gone in a few days, while others, like the three friends meeting for a sandwich outside the Radcliffe Camera, will be gone in a few years. We don't even see anyone we know, which is unusual here, because everyone pretty much knows everyone else, in a roundabout sort of way. But everyone is in hiding, or, more likely, is too self-absorbed, too completely engrossed in the drama of early February, or is it mid February, or does it even matter, to notice each other. I know I am, but I can't really speak for anyone else.
On the Cowley Road, construction begins on a new supermarket, directly opposite the old supermarket. At night the darkness falls tantalisingly slowly, now, and students who have drunk too much in order to feel warm again are sick on the sidewalks. Even the pubs, which gave such comfort in the tilt towards winter, with their wood fires and warm glows and pints of bitter on a Saturday afternoon with a P.G. Wodehouse novel and the falling leaves outside, are now just loud and hot, the glow too bright, the fire a reminder of the cold, not an alleviator of it.
I wear torn tights and worn-out boots, not because that's all I have, but because that's all I have the energy to wear. In the mirror my face has become obscured by my hair, not because I have not brushed it but because I have brushed it in just such a way that it falls like a veil. The air inside is unbearably dry; my nose hurts - my nostrils hurt, my NOSTRILS! - and my lips crack. I stop shaving my legs because my razors are all too dull and because I have ceased to be able to remember what it's like to have bare legs, even though every night I go to sleep with bare legs, even though hardly a month ago I was in California walking on the beach in shorts and a bikini top. I force myself to forget my own proximity to these experiences for the sake of feeling grumpy.
Every year I think this is the first time in the History of EVERYTHING EVER that anyone has been miserable in late winter. Every year I think that only my body aches and only my mind is tormented by the breath of summer's memory in my ear as I sleep. Every year I think this is the first time I have felt this way, or else I think that I have not felt this way at all, that I've escaped! until one night I fall asleep realising that I have felt the same way I always feel at this stupid time of year - right before my birthday, right before the beginning of the period when you are allowed to start to Hope For Spring. Just maybe in different ways. And I start to be annoyed that I have framed even good things so negatively - I want to capture the sweetness of buying a toilet brush better, I want to say how beautiful and blue the sky was as we walked down Queen's Lane towards the bus stop and what a relief it was to be home in the late afternoon before the darkness had fallen and how we had a cup of tea and cleaned the fridge out and pulled chunks of ice away from the sides of the freezer and laughed. But even being annoyed about that is a form of negativity and I worry I've been poisoned by the hot dry inside air.
Is it spring yet?