005 — One night in Oxford
A wayward tampon, Facebook’s potted history and Geoff, with a G.
Welcome back to The Notebooks. If you missed the last, this is where we were.
If you’re coming in fresh, The Notebooks is a piece of long form writing, based on a true story, served in weekly instalments. You can read it yourself or listen to me read it in the VoiceOver.
Pieces in The Notebooks may have a song-matching, like wine and cheese.
Not your quick-release serotonin fix, The Notebooks are in it for the long haul.
Now re-opening The Notebooks to June 2006….
He responded immediately.
Ping, went my little pink Nokia flip phone.
Is this English? Who cares. Never was there a human so unwilling to use fully-formed sentences as a post-Finals student.
I would never usually write like this but mimicking him to be cool.
Then I followed it up with a double-text, instantly undoing the cool.
jst walking bk frm Jericho
Actually I’m well back from Jericho by this point, crossing Broad Street, almost back at college and my soft bed. Barefoot. But not quite ready for the night to be over. Not when Christine and Matt have already hot-footed it back to college and Tim, Patrick and Rich have gone off to Cowley with the cooler cohort, and some coke.
Now? My hesitation was momentary and easily dispensed with. He’s hot, I convinced myself. He’s a catch. JP Morgan. I think he went to Eton. Geoff with a G.
He named a college, then:
He wasn’t being cryptic. 4.7 = room 7 on staircase 41 in his college.
Which is not my college.
This posed a hurdle. I reverted to full words for clarity’s sake.
I won’t be able to get in.
Ye u will jst tell the porter
Ignoring the red flag of his certainty that the porter will sort entry for late night female callers, I pitched up ten minutes later at his college lodge2. The night porter was embarrassed for me. Shoeless, filthy and still wearing Matty’s coat that smelled a bit like wee.
I pulled myself up and tried to maintain a scrap of dignity, waving my Bod card3 at him.
“I’m here to see Geoff. With a G. I just need to, um, give him his coat back.”
The night porter’s face doesn’t move. He has literally heard every single thing, already, just this evening.
“I’ll ring his extension, my dear, to make sure he’s expecting you. What’s his name?”
“Geoff. With a G.”
No fucking clue.
“It’s staircase 4 room 7.” I ignored the question and hoped for the best. No fucking way I am texting this guy to ask his surname. “Geoff.” I can’t stop the words flying out. “With a G.”
He made the call.
“Alright darling, go ahead. Just don’t let me catch you causing a nuisance now. It’s 4:30 and everyone is sleeping.”
A stern look. “Off you go then.”
Geoff with a G was shirtless and really shit-faced. His room smelled horrific.
“What is that smell?”
“I dunno. Come here.” He kissed me and tasted like vomit. I looked across his room. The sink4 was full of vomit.
I broke away. “Your sink is full of sick.”
“Yeah, so what? The scout5 will be round in the morning. Come here. Don’t be a dick.”
Speaking of which, he was absolutely on board and I was still too drunk to remember it was not the best time of the month for him to be hammering away at me.
“What’s wrong with you?”
I scrambled out from under him and ducked to the loo. Extracted a long-forgotten tampon from this morning’s pre-exam rush, which felt like another day (which it was) and another life (which it wasn’t).
Still this same life.
Coming back, feeling like Princess Grace of Monaco.
The stench-filled room was quiet.
He was asleep. In sleep, he was better looking. The nastiness around the eyes and corners of the mouth was gone.
I laid down and fell asleep pretty quickly too.
Now. What went before Geoff? Nothing illustrious, I assure you.
Let’s see if I can remember them all….
Generic older guy in school. An intermittent course of making out in taxis from the pubs home and one New Year’s Eve when my parents were out, an awkward convo and the morning after pill. He’s now the CFO of some food tech company or something similarly shiny and private equity-backed and boring.
Generic older guy in college. All the credentials, posh, handsome and tall, plus a girlfriend in Brookes that no one ever saw but that he was happy to cheat on. Until one night he asked me out for a glass of wine and I blew him off for….
Stan. Years later, just saying his name in my head enough to feel the need to underline it with unnecessary force. Stan was a medic6. A boy, really, like a kid in a candy shop. Anyone with half a brain could see he was not boyfriend-material. I thought he was a worthy challenge, I guess, and he said he fell in love with my skinny ankles. Then he hurt me, over and over again, until I hurt him too. He is a doctor now, living in Australia or New Zealand or somewhere else equally far away from which he can’t return because he messed up his tax returns and owes HMRC several thousand pounds in back taxes. I heard he married an Australian woman whose ankles thickened after childbirth.
Karma’s a bitch.
There were more: the rebound, the one in Dublin, the friend with benefits, the one from the ski trip, the friend of a friend from a different college. Then Geoff with a G. It’s so easy to remember them all with Facebook. Facebook is like Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With tent.
Speaking of which, do you remember when you got Facebook? I found a Guardian article that says Facebook arrived at British universities in October 2005. This is just wrong. It must be wrong because I got it in May 2005. It says so right there on my profile page: ‘Joined May 2005’, next to a little memento mori clock icon (because, why? They own my time on this planet, and house its definitive record?)
How did it happen? I remember walking into Patrick and Rich’s room one day and they were like “have you heard of this thing some people are getting” and I put in my Oxford domain email address and boom, I had it too.
A profile to fill in, with the same quiet pleasure I used to get as a child filling in credit applications that pitched up in the post. Filling out fields on Facebook was like a credit application for a particular kind of life. Something so satisfying about filling in those fields; about looking at a piece of paper — or a blue and white Facebook profile page — and saying “this is me”. I’ve encapsulated my essence, here it is: a quote from Anchorman and my favourite movie: Reservoir Dogs. (A lie!! What woman’s favourite movie is Reservoir Dogs?! I barely like it. Who was I kidding? Who was I trying to be?)
It was still called thefacebook in those days and still sported “brought to you by Zuckerberg and Saverin” on the masthead. I remember logging in one day to find they had dropped the definite article and become just plain old Facebook. I remember when they hit a million users and invited us all to celebrate with them, which means I must have been one of those first million. A strange thought: I wonder if we’ll have reunions in years to come (Zuck-sponsored, of course). I remember Christmas pre-Facebook, only a few months after I started university, missing all my new friends (and my new boyfriend), wishing desperately that I had some way of keeping in regular touch with them over the break. Treasuring the few texts we exchanged, feeling like we were all so far apart.
All this, while Zuck was feverishly coding the prototype.
Because what did we do before Facebook? We called each other on the phone every once in awhile. In a brief temporal interregnum, after mobile phones but before we had Internet on them, we texted. Text messages were the way station to Facebook messages, and then to WhatsApp chats. Less and less meaningful, our interactions boiled down from a conversation, to an emoji, to a reaction GIF. Not friendships but Facebook friends; not friends, but “contacts” or “connections”. Membership in WhatsApp group chats, and the ability to chime in with the right soundbyte at the right time, paramount.
Everyone reduced to a cipher, a stereotype, a readily-digestible digital representation of their real human self. This is the type of person I am. These are the things I like. Smooth out my inconvenient edges, let me make myself explicit.
I am a package of information about myself. I am a short-form self.7
Sell me things: sub-par, short-form things with no shelf-life and no substance. Everyone in Oxford: I am an Alpha8. I like theatre or sports or drum and bass. Give me matching friends, and matching stuff.
But, already I notice a palling of stuff. Things are … less good. More uniform, smoother, of wider appeal, but less good: things everyone likes but no one loves. Things that break and have to be replaced. Things that are made to be replaced.
With less variation comes less potential for unexpected brilliance. Everything is ok, just a bit bland and same-y.
But not outside. Outside things are still complex and suffused with brilliance. If I go out to the University Parks and take my shoes off, blades of grass between toes and closed eyes, I’m home.
The gentle thunk of toads plopping into the river.
Corncrakes calling, and cut hay.
The shade of ferns, taller than me, under a tulip tree down by the stream.
Then, I hear tourist crowds along Parks Road and remember myself, remember I have an essay to write. Slip shoes on and walk strips of concrete between libraries. Wonder what kind of life is out there for me, on other walkways. Will they be concrete too? I have no imagination for those other ways; just a nagging sense that this library life is incompatible with the life I really want.
A raft of contradictions: I want to be outside when it’s sunny. I want to smell trees and dirt. But I want the trappings of success. I want nice things, a nice house, nice holidays. I want a Chloe handbag, covet Kate Moss’s style.
When I wake up, Geoff with a G is pissing in the sink. On top of the vomit.
I pretended to be asleep and waited while he got back in bed. I barely breathed and, after a minute, he was back asleep.
I shot a look at my phone. It was 8:47.
No messages. Everyone still asleep or … busy.
Fuck this. I levered myself up without waking him and grabbed my shoes and Matty’s coat.
As I exited back through the porter’s lodge, the same night porter was still on duty. He winked at me.
“Still wearing that coat.”
“Oh I got confused. It’s … someone else’s.”
“Someone else’s? Christ darlin’ you don’t mess about.”
I fixed him with a stare that said: don’t fuck with me. I just finished Finals at Oxford.
And he lapsed into quiescence.
I left this college, smelling of sick and piss, soles of my feet filthy below French-manicured toes, heels in hand and shoulder-robing a large male coat.
Passing the Exam Schools where yesterday morning I sat and wrote some of the most serious sentences written that day in the UK.
High Street was bright and quiet, spattered with Saturday morning’s half-dried vomit and red carnations strewn on the cobbles. The occasional bus for London or Heathrow thundered past.
I wonder what kind of a life I’m building. One where I fuck bankers and walk home on vomity streets. One where I marry one and watch TV alone late into the evenings, while he’s still out working, or post-working. One where I become a brilliant lawyer, working alone myself, travelling on first class flights down metal tubes, sleeping in metal tubes, with joyless packaged soaps and crisp sheets, and eventually die and get put in another metal tube.
These are not appealing choices.
It feels like those Choose Your Own Adventure books but a variation called Choose Your Own Life, in which certain tracks and paths lead to known outcomes. I can see that, if I take a training contract in the City, in ten years I will be living a life of bland corporate anonymity. All the tracks are manmade, concrete. They’ve been pre-prepared and have few surprises. There is no wilderness, there are no trackless voids.
Walking back up Catte Street past the Rad Cam, whirling motes of light spun in the early morning air. Possibilities shifted in and out of focus.
My phone pinged.
It was Matty.
Breakfast? Ya tart.
To be continued.
*All names are made up and any likeness to a real person, dead or alive, is coincidence.
Oxford colleges are arranged around quadrangles (duh) and the rooms on staircases, rising off the quads. Staircases may be grand, for tutors only, rising off the formal front quads — or they may be poky 50s builds, tucked at the back of college and filled with first years.
Porter’s lodge. Entry station for all Oxford colleges.
This sounds raunchy, but isn’t. It’s the Bodleian reader’s card. When you’re a student, this is basically your free pass everywhere. It gets turned off pretty quickly after Finals, like when you get fired from your corporate job and they turn off your gym pass.
It’s a rare college room that has an en-suite but most rooms in college have sinks. These are ostensibly for the brushing of teeth, ablutions, etc. Toilets are usually shared with the staircase and may be up or down a flight of stairs so, in my experience, the sinks tend to function as emergency toilets. Especially in more advanced states of inebriation and, occasionally, food poisoning.
Cleaner. One per staircase. No idea where this comes from. Apparently they used to deliver milk and cook breakfast. Mine smoked fags at the bottom of the staircase and came in to do the hoovering on the mornings when I was most hung over and still in bed.
What we called medicine students. Like law students were lawyers, biology students biologists, etc. Getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
Substack, home of the long-form self, seems the logical next step….
Ref. Brave New World, Huxley.