wintering

In November we spend a week in the countryside, looking after children and animals and a great big farmhouse. The bathtub is so large that I can't comfortably read in it; I stretch out, my full length, and my toes just touch the end of the tub, while the top of my head brushes the other. There's certainly no way to negotiate a way to hold the heavy issue of Vogue I'd planned to leaf through. I come downstairs and say, "the bathtub is too large!" I didn't know this was a problem you could have, but there you are: a bathtub definitively built for two, not one - or for one much taller than me, at least.

We drive the kids to rugby practice (I stand on the sidelines, watching, trying to understand the rules; he brings me a cup of tepid brown water masquerading as coffee and stands beside me, trying to explain) and pick them up from school. The autumn colours are lingering; "This is the road with the pretty trees!" I keep saying; "This is the A361!" he replies, bemused. The garden is patrolled - or should I say owned - by an aggressive rooster who fears us a lot less than we fear him. Once I'm chased all the way to my car, and then into my car, and I sit helplessly as the rooster continues to peck at the side of the vehicle, and I wonder if I can explain to the rental company that I'm sorry about the dents but have you ever been chased by a rooster?

In the kitchen we're kept warm by the Aga, charming if inefficient, and one night we sit outside at the pub, jackets pulled tight around us, the dogs on leashes yapping at every passing leaf. It seems odd that we are grown-up enough to be actually acting as grown-ups; that is, to be the people in charge, even when we don't feel up to the challenge, even when we feel quite like children ourselves, wanting to be taken care of, to ignore the world, to succumb to the belief that if I can't see them they can't see me. Most of adulthood, if I'm understanding it correctly, is about this kind of surprised realisation of accidental, arbitrary authority. I am alarmed as much by the prospect of being in such a position as by our apparent capability: not that we are brilliant at being the only grown-ups in the house, or even totally competent, just that I had always expected that this was something you'd have to be meticulously taught, something that didn't come naturally, something that only years of practice (and the kind of confidence you only get from having Done Something Substantial - started a brilliant career, had kids, bought a house, whatever) could equip you for. At one point, over-tired, I turn to him and say: "I don't want to be responsible anymore!" But we are, irrevocably, and so we bear our responsibility responsibly.

It bothers me a little that we can't seem to be this way just for ourselves, that we need to be needed in order to act our age; but then, I think, who can, really, who does act their age, except when it's required?

***

Back at home, I read the proofs of my book and let piles of post and other work stack up on my desk. The rain is coming down hard outside. I look out at the almost-bare cherry tree, black against the bland grey sky. A few leaves still cling to the branches; they shiver violently in the wind and remind me of fish, suspended on hooks. A sinister image for a seemingly sinister day (a big black fly has taken up residence in my study; its constant buzzing causes me to feel overly anxious). But later the rain stops and the clouds break apart and there is just one fresh hour, before nightfall, when it is warm and radiant out after all.

***

One weekend in December we come home to discover that friends have brought us a small Christmas tree, from a farm in Wales. It smells cool and fresh and I find a pot for it and give it warm water. I have this very particular image of a memory (or memory of an image) which isn't mine: my parents' first Christmas tree, the first Christmas tree that they had together in the first house they lived in together, before I was born. It's a photograph, from the mid-1980s, I guess, or thereabouts. Slightly faded, in that particular yellowy faded way that photos get, with thick white edges. My father is on a bicycle, in shorts and a long-sleeve top (this is California, after all), with the Christmas tree tucked under one arm, or maybe balanced in the palm of his hand. His other hand is on the handlebars. For some reason the poignancy of that moment, frozen arbitrarily by my mother's camera, and the memory I have (which may not even be real) of being told the story of that tree, has instilled in me a sense that this is a very special occasion, this first tree. So I'm happy to have it, even if it's extraneous. Ours is about the same size as theirs was, though I'm not sure I'm quite a confident enough cyclist to have been able to carry it home by bike. I buy a string of cheap fairy lights from the hardware store and tell everyone I know that after five Christmases together we finally have our first Christmas tree.

***

The shops are full and the streets clogged with people buying things, but at the same time it feels like everyone has evacuated the city. The houses on either side of us have gone dark and quiet. At the pool, I have a lane all to myself. I go to the library in search of a particular book, and even though there's nobody else about, I receive whispered directions from the librarian; I turn the pages silently; I muffle a sneeze. While I'm reading it gets dark, and by the time I unlock my bicycle the stars are out. A fingernail-clipping moon hangs over All Souls. The Iffley Road, deserted, seems wider and longer than usual. I'm tired when I get home: I need to pump my tires.

***

The Saturday before Christmas, we drive up to Suffolk for a wedding. This is a crazy thing to do; I know it's a crazy thing to do, he knows it's a crazy thing to do, but we do it anyway, because this is what being young is all about: driving to other people's weddings three days before Christmas. Someday the kids of the people whose weddings we're constantly attending now will be having their own weddings and they will do the same sorts of things and we'll laugh and say, "what a stupid thing to do!" and then, presumably, feel humbled by our own forgetfulness, our own antiquity. Anyhow I rent a car and we dump our finery in the boot (me: a silk merlot-coloured dress and a pair of diamond and sapphire earrings that used to belong to my grandmother; him: a black suit, reluctantly, after discovering that the jacket that accompanies his kilt has been decimated, since he last wore it five years ago, by hungry moths) and drive to Suffolk. Towards the end of our journey we pull over and change in the car, and then we drive for twenty minutes or so down narrow, flooded roads to this little old church perched on a hillside. There's nothing else around; we're not far from the coast, and there's an edge-of-the-world feeling, or an end-of-the-world feeling, perhaps, even though the Mayan apocalypse was yesterday and we're still here. I complain about the parking conditions (I drive the car up a steep muddy bank at the side of a field, like everyone else; he tells me I'm still sticking out; I tell him that's tough, I can't move, the wheels are stuck, we're going to be fucked when we want to get out, if they didn't want people to block the road they shouldn't have chosen to get married here, blah blah blah). My high heels, and they're very high indeed, sink into the mud as we walk to the church. We're shown to pews and given candles to hold, and as it grows dusky outside the church window is stained bluer and bluer. After the couple is married we try to light Chinese lanterns, but there's a strong wind and only a few of them take to the dim sky. The reception is in a school gymnasium, decorated with fairy lights and bunting. We eat roast pig and spend two hours ceilidh-ing; I take my heels off and develop a blood blister the size of Alaska on the ball of my right foot. I haven't had a blood blister of any note since I was a freshman in high school, when I was on the track team.

We take about an hour to say goodbye to people, moving slowly around the room. Then we start driving again. At first it's quite pleasant; we feel very adult, sober, leaving the party before midnight, driving away, chatting away. We turn the radio on, the rain has stopped for awhile, we take the gentle curves of the B roads smoothly, like in a car advert, passing through little villages, past trees, hedges, fields. On Radio 4 there's a programme on about William Carlos Williams. Various people read out bits of his poems; I remember my mother reading me "This is just to say" when I was little.

"Forgive me/they were delicious"

"He was a doctor," I remember out loud. (So was Chekhov, I've just learned, which makes me feel a little better about my own sort of double life, if also somewhat abashed). There's this pleasing period where we're just driving along on these British roads, listening to people talk about William Carlos Williams, whose poems I recognise from my own American childhood, who I knew was a doctor as well as a poet, and we remind me of what I imagined adulthood should look like during that American childhood: we become, briefly, the thing that no one ever really is. Then eventually we're out on bigger roads, and the rain is falling harder, the visibility is poor, and the mood is tenser, because I can feel how little control I actually have over any of it - the car, the weather, the million little stresses - and because we're both tired, and suddenly wondering if we've been a bit ambitious. The roads are virtually empty, though, and finally we get where we're going for the night.

The next day, driving down the M11, the sun breaks through the clouds and I ask for my sunglasses, and there's a moment on Desert Island Discs, just after Dawn French talks about her mother's funeral, when Etta James is singing "At Last", that feels particularly sweet. And when we get back to Oxford we have our little Christmas tree, and leftover beer from an impromptu party earlier in the week.

***

Since my pool is shut until the new year, I go for a swim at the community pool off the Cowley Road. I'm secretly hoping for Christmas music, like last year, but there's just generic Radio 1-ish music coming through the speakers. At one point, about halfway through my swim, I recognise "Gangnam Style," which I last heard in a grubby nightclub (is there any other kind?) in central Oxford on a Saturday night. The pool is basically empty: there's a lifeguard sitting on the bleachers with his head in his hands, one man doing laps in the next lane over, pleasingly just a little bit slower than me, and an elderly man in the big slow lane, paddling doggedly up and down the length of the pool, looking disturbingly, desirably serene to me, with my pounding heart.

***

On Christmas eve, we take a bus into town and do all our shopping. It's raining hard but it's also unseasonably warm. In the covered market we run into some friends and pause to say hello next to a hanging deer carcass. Later we split up to buy gifts for each other and reconvene at the King's Arms. I have half a pint of bitter; when I complain of hunger he buys us a pickled egg and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, puts the egg in the bag, shakes it up.

***

I like the long stretch between Christmas and New Year's Eve, particularly when we're not at home, are excused, for a time, from the daily indignities of responsibility ("What's making the fridge stink? Is this broccoli too old to eat? Can I borrow 55p? I hope the postman didn't notice that I'm not wearing anything under my dressing gown. I hope we remembered to put the right bin outside. I hope that red wine I just poured all over the front room won't stain the floorboards." and so on). One day, when everyone else has gone out for a little while, I go into the garage and use the cross-trainer for half an hour. It's an old machine that someone rescued from a skip and it makes an awful creaking noise, like it's too tired to go on, it wished we'd left it well enough alone so it could rot slowly in the persistent English rain, but eventually I get used to it, and my boredom transforms itself into exercise-induced elation. I listen to music and feel pleasantly, mildly high, even though in reality there's little as mind-numbing as using a piece of gym equipment in the corner of someone's else's garage, with nothing to look at but stacks of old boxes and children's bicycles, long retired, leaning up against the walls, and bottles of wine and vodka on wooden racks. I have a memory of being in college, using the campus gym, which was in a basement and stank of sweat but sure as hell beat running outside in the middle of a Boston winter. It was also a social thing, a bit of a game. I ran very fast on the treadmill and was always gratified to see someone I knew there, a friend from class, a boy I almost-liked, someone whose presence, whose acknowledgement of my presence, validated the efforts I was making. Otherwise I was just running in place for an hour, working up a sweat but going nowhere.