It was strange trying to adjust to what seemed to me to be two very separate existences. There was me at home and then there was me in London, on buses and trains and in the underground, in the crush, my bag caught in the barrier at rush hour, a matter-of-fact woman striding up to me, aggressively, resentfully helpful, yanking my bag out of the barrier and hoisting it over, saying nothing, moving on, and me saying nothing either, moving on, sliding past the suits on the escalator, sliding into a full carriage, making an unlikely space for myself beneath the raised armpits of a tall woman in a silk shirt and Nike trainers. I was not a commuter, of course, I was not any different (or differently indifferent to the lure of the rush and the rush of the big bright city) than I had been elsewhere, at other times. I read books in between all other activities, tried to suppress the feeling of being a fraud but having to go through with it (whatever 'it' was) anyway. No, it was not like my life here was so different: it was just that my life in Oxford happened at such a different pace. For a start it was not just my life but ours - a conscious decision, a thing that seemed both sweet and necessary - otherwise, how would we survive the slow, long winters, the cold weeks between paydays? When we woke on a weekday morning pressed warmly together, the dawn having shimmered into day a few hours ago, most of the commuters already commuted and sat stiffly at their desks with the first cup of coffee, I thought things like: we don't know how to pay our rent and we don't ever stop working, even though there's no guarantee that any of it will work out, but at least we have this. This is something other people don't have, this is something other people want, maybe, but are too afraid to pursue. Whether it was true or not, or meaningful, didn't matter: it helped.
There was also, in more general terms, the dreamlike quality of Oxford life. There was the sense of having been suspended - although not in time, exactly. In fact it was continually amazing to me how old I could be made to feel, even at just 25. Each year a new crop of kids asserted themselves as the rightful though temporary owners of the place, and each year I was - exponentially, it seemed - even older than them. Leaving the swimming pool one evening I overheard a boy saying earnestly to two friends: "But you guys are still so young, you know? It's different for me, I'm already 23."
The thing John Fowles had written about the Greek island Spetses, where he lived for a few years in the early 1950s, seemed a truth about Oxford as well - and he had lived here, too, so perhaps, even if just deep down, without realising, he understood its relevance to here too: “In no place was it less likely that something would happen; yet somehow happening lay always poised."
In Oxford, I thought: even if I wanted to make something happen, I'm not sure how I could. But I went to the pub optimistically enough anyway: it seemed like some big, positive change was always about to occur, though really it was just the acrid smell of smoke and the sound of preliminary fireworks being set off.
Whereas in my other life, things were happening all the time; I was overwhelmed by things happening. I made things happen. That was the whole point. I strode hurriedly through parks, down side streets, lost but too busy, too rushed, to admit it. I was largely irrelevant here - invisibly unsettled, passing through, mostly anonymous. I kept being confused by the layout of the Bloomsbury, kept getting turned around. But I was starting to be able to locate myself on the map, to find my way. That was happening.
Night. Outside the drunken hordes stagger home from the pub. Inside the heating is on, the laundry is drying on radiators and bannisters. The house, indifferent to the change of seasons, goes on silently containing all the stuff, the multitudes, the cobwebs, the history, as it has for many years now, and many different occupants.
"Home, we may say, is the action of the inner life finding outer form; it is the settling of self into the world," I read.
So I go to London and spend a few hours between meetings in the library and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the bus ride home. I look at sample spreads for the book and respond to queries from a copyeditor. And I make my money one blustery Wednesday by painting a large trellis, my shoes stained blue, my hair tucked under a wool hat, Radio 4 humming in the background. It's nice to be outside, in the cold, to feel my hand cramping around the paintbrush, to be fed fresh coffee and homemade biscuits, to let the rain and the mud not really matter.