006 — Morning after 🍳
Breakfast, boundaries and a country churchyard, plus the terror of leaving and what comes next.
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.
Song-match this piece with: All I Really Want, Alanis Morissette.
Not your quick-release serotonin fix, The Notebooks are in it for the long haul.
Now re-opening The Notebooks to June 2006….
It is a truth universally ignored that a single woman in possession of a large hangover must be in want of a string of small disasters.
I checked Facebook as soon as I got back to my room. Nothing from last night yet — but I know there will be. Tags, pokes, amusing photos from the nunnery. New in-jokes from the party in Cowley that I’m not party to.
I sighed. Post-Geoff, I felt bleary and fuzzy. A one night stand like getting erased, rubbed out. Perforated, edges unclear; spilling out through holes and oozing into others. Unsure where they stop and I begin.
Out of toothpaste too and damned if I’m going to meet everyone for breakfast without brushing him off my teeth first.
Glasses on. I usually wear contacts — putting them in making me more awake, sharpening everything — but this morning I just threw on my glasses and ran out of college towards Tesco.
Rounding the corner into the front quad, I ploughed headlong into Rachel, one of my tutors.
Rachel doesn’t like me very much. I’ve never quite been able to work out why. She gives the impression that she thinks I’m taking the piss, a bit of a smart-arse — and certainly too conventionally attractive for my own good. In tutorials, my efforts never suffice, insights never rise above rudimentary.
Rachel is also head of the selection committee for the BCL (remember? That prestigious Masters I’m hoping to join?).
“Oh, morning Rachel!” Silent internal thank you prayer that she is seeing me now, rushing out of college, demure in shoes and glasses — and not half an hour earlier when I was rolling into college, barefoot and mascara-streaked.
“Good morning.” A smile that doesn’t touch the sides. “Where are you rushing off to? Exams already over, aren’t they?” Forced attempt at jollity.
“I’m out of toothpaste.”
“An important errand!” More frosty pseudo-jollity. “Don’t let me detain you.”
Rolling eyes, I legged it down Broad Street, pausing a moment at the corner of St. Giles to register that, across the street, the lights in Tesco were lit.
I dodged a couple of buses and hurled myself full force into the automatic sliding doors at the entrance to Tesco.
The doors reverberated with the force of impact and I reeled backwards, insensate. I became aware that I was lying on the pavement outside a definitely-still-closed Tesco. My glasses felt like they were embedded in the bridge of my nose. My skull, still intact, was conducting pain from my eyeballs.
A homeless man lying about twenty feet away in the bus shelter sat up in concern.
“You alright mate?”
Pulled myself up to sitting, prising glasses out of the bridge of my nose, I touched my face experimentally. There was nothing immediately askew. My hangover compounded; proliferated and flowered behind my eyes like an algebraic equation.
Bill Bryson once observed there is an interesting phenomenon of causing oneself intense and debilitating pain — but without the type of serious injury that necessitates X-rays, general anaesthetic and weeks in bed eating ice cream and watching Sex and the City. I might be paraphrasing slightly there but, sitting on the pavement outside Tesco, I knew exactly what he meant.
I dabbed at the blood cruising southwards from my nostrils. As my vision joined back to one, I saw the sign on the door. Tesco opens at 10am. Another five minutes, according to my phone.
I plugged my nostrils with a receipt I found in my pocket and, when the doors slid open, slipped inside and found the toothpaste, picked up some tampons and a few other bits and pieces.
The cashier was animated with the woman in front of me, chatting away like they were old pals. She turned to retrieve a pack of cigarettes.
“Ha, I just caught that, did you see it?” She was holding a bottle of Jameson. The woman waiting to pay for her cigarettes hadn’t seen it. Nor had I. “Did you see that? I can’t believe no one saw that.”
The cigarettes woman made a knowing face:
“No one ever sees your catches, babe, only your falls.”
“So true. That’s always the way.” The cashier shook her head in wonder.
“Always the way.”
They are having a real sage, bonding moment. When the cigarettes lady leaves, it’s my turn.
I imagine — hope — the cashier will be likewise engaged and contemplative with me. It’s been a lonely 12 hours.
As she started scanning my stuff, I said, as a hopeful precursor to conversational intimacy:
“It’s so boring isn’t it?”
“Grocery shopping. You just never finish it.”
She says nothing and keeps scanning. Fuck, maybe she thinks I’m having a go at her for taking too long or something. I feel obliged to keep explaining myself.
“I don’t mean you. I mean, me.” What am I doing, why am I talking. The phrase digging a hole jumps to the forefront of my mind but I ignore it, unwisely. “Grocery shopping, I mean. You know, because you keep running out of things and just have to keep doing it.”
Still nothing. I plunge on recklessly.
“Everyday, it’s just never done. I’m always running out of the things I need, over and over and over again. And I have to keep buying them. It’s just so…. boring.”
She isn’t even looking at me at this stage.
“I don’t have that problem.”
“Do you have a club card?”
“No. Thank you.”
Back in my room, I brushed my teeth, had a shower and examined the black eyes blooming, nostrils still raw with blood rings.
I sighed again.
After a quick shower, I met Matty at Brown’s in the Covered Market. Tim and Patrick came too. Rich was non-responsive.
Oxford’s Covered Market is, as the name suggests, a warren of covered lanes full of twee shops. The tourists love to wander through it but spend no money, as far as I can tell, because two-thirds of the establishments seem to be permanently shuttered or never open. Shops selling novelty cuddly toys and Oxford dishcloths appear and then vanish, only to pop up somewhere else, like mushrooms in the rain.
But not Brown’s. Brown’s has been there since the dawn of time (or at least, the seventies, judging from the orange, brown and yellow midcentury signage). In a town of venerable institutions, Brown’s is superlative.
It is the definition of a greasy spoon. I used one of them to stir my tea (two sugars) and winced.
“My eyeballs hurt.”
“Where did you go last night?”
“Where did I go? Where did you go?”
Matty got interested in the menu. Way too interested.
I looked pointedly at him.
“Just, you know.” He shot a glance up at me and grinned. “Getting to know Munroe a bit better.”
“Fair play mate, she’s fit.” Patrick is a generous soul. Amiable to a fault, and happy for everyone.
“Yeah, and you know, she’ll be in London next year too.”
I zoned out as he explained to Patrick in great detail about Christine’s plans for the legal practice course then a training contract with a Magic Circle law firm and then, you know, partnership or whatever.
Listening to this alternate future, I felt relief that I won’t be there, eating crap sandwiches in some corporate tower, and smug because I’ll still be cosseted in a familiar world of essays and lectures, lie-ins and nights out.
But then, immediately on its heels, a hot spike of terror.
What if I don’t get my first? What if I can’t stay on in Oxford?
My lapsed attention trips me up.
“Here, you’ve dodged the question. I saw you sneaking up the staircase twenty minutes ago. Where the fuck did you end up if you weren’t in Cowley?”
I studied the menu. Do I tell him? They don’t know Geoff with a G, but they’ve heard oblique snippets over the months about the posh guy I’ve been stalking in the library.
I opted for no.
“What?” I looked up and feigned nonchalance. “Oh, I crashed at Al’s. I bumped into him at Hassan’s.”
Al is Alexander: an on-off friend-with-benefits in another college that none of the boys know well. A gorgeous tall human with a mane of long blonde hair, he and I have long since realised that we don’t work in any kind of exclusive relationship situation but are good enough friends that it doesn’t matter. We don’t really sleep together anymore (much), which the boys know.
“Yeah?” Tim poked me in the ribs. “Yeah?”
“No stop, everything hurts. And you know it’s not like that anymore.”
They got bored and moved on.
Tim and Patrick started banging on about last night in the Zodiac — a club in Cowley — and how one of the girls had a funny turn on some dodgy mushrooms. I laughed along, enjoying the punchline: she locked herself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out until a year two Classicist crawled under the door and opened it from the inside.
By the time the plates of beans and eggs and rashers arrived, it had become clear that the week of partying in Oxford post-Finals I had envisaged is evaporating rapidly. People are scattering, to holidays, internships, future lives. Oxford feels emptier already.
I looked at my friends. Individual shapes of known people; all young, sure and separate. Things are slipping so quickly into a future I’m not quite ready to meet. Already, eyes are forward to the fall, to what’s coming next. Never again, in our lives, will we be this intimate, sharing meals and details of shags.
We will become outlines of ourselves that we must explain anew each time we meet — and we will meet, with decreasing frequency.
It’s agreed that we will reconvene in a week in London. Tim has drinks with a future colleague — he’s already landed an internship in some impressive temple of mee-jah. I have a two-week long work experience thing in a barrister’s chambers. Everyone else is keen to drink in a different setting.
Rich arrived as we were finishing. He bowled in, wearing pink mirrored plastic sunglasses, still clearly a bit shit-faced, and sank down heavily into the booth.
He ordered a coffee and pulled off his sunglasses, grinning across the table at me.
“What the fuck happened to your face?”
Hours later, I pulled my bike onto a train heading west from Oxford station. It’s a quiet train, off-peak. I got off after a few stops and cycled without a route in mind.
I need a bike ride.
The land out here is flat, as if pressed. It seems heavy with the countless multitudes that have trodden, orated, battled, trudged, dreamt, expostulated, laughed, ploughed, plotted, hated and loved on it.
I’m often struck by the weight of history in this country: the dense humanity. It seeps out from the pores of the earth.
Everything is permeable. As women, we know this. We feel it: space invaded. I sometimes feel sorry for men, who must maintain the illusion of impermeability and solidity, of an inviolable boundary.
The countryside is riven with footpaths, greenways and old roads. Sometimes the hedgerows grow over the top of an ancient holloway such that, scanning the landscape, you would never know it’s there. I passed portal dolmens, stones capping each other in triplicate, houses of the dead since the Bronze Age. At Rollright, legend has it that the circled stones are treacherous knights who plotted against the king (which King? who can say?) and, turned to stone, can now be summoned down to drink from the river only by the bells of Long Compton.
There’s a sign for Oxford but that’s for cars, not for me. Oxford’s dense libraries and crowded pavements are a world away. Out here, the sun is muted but warm and the breeze is steady. There’s a smell of manure. The fields are golden and crunchy-looking; chunks of cut hay whirl roadside. Wasps alight on my fingers when the bike stops.
There’s a deserted feel out here and I feel more alone than ever. This is a rich town but all these houses are silent, emptied of residents fled to the south of France or wherever. I’m the only person to sign the guestbook today in the ancient church.
At the entrance to the churchyard is an old Lychgate, leading to the cemetery and the path to it the Lychway. The Lychway was the funeral procession route, the way traversed to the next life, and the Lychgate: the hatch through which everybody passed to exit.
There was an old folk belief that the spirit of the last person buried stood watch at the gate till the next was buried: a kind of smoothing of the way and a straddling of the divide.
I know boundaries are an illusion. We are all blurry, hazy and bleed into one another. Boundary enforcement is an unnatural circumcision, a deft blade that slices holes in universes and souls apart like in The Subtle Knife. This aching alone in the void is not how we are designed. We are not units but unitary, melded and messy in the world.
Near the entrance to the Lychway, an etched stone:
When I die don’t put me down with the worms.
Carry me up the mountain and leave me for the birds.
And if my body is too heavy, your limbs too stilled with grief,
burn me first.
And carry my ashes, feather light, up to the top
and toss them into the sky.
We are each an outline that even as we fill, empties; even as we shade it in, leaks out. Never constant, just a constantly-fluxing picture of a person.
I spent a long time in the graveyard reading stones, trying to imagine what comes next. I heard the bells chime a couple times. Imagined where I might be in twenty years, sitting on the same bench in a country churchyard, wondering at the long way round I’d taken.
Near the churchyard exit was a stone quoting Robert Louis Stevenson.
As if a man’s soul
were not too small to begin with,
they have dwarfed and narrowed theirs
by a life of all work and no play.
The ends for which they give away their priceless youth
I’m realising there is never a moment where you feel truly solid, at the centre of things and right in the prime of life. Things are always squeezing away, slipping apart. I am so perforated the wind seems almost to pass through me. Will I ever feel solid and impermeable?
It’s getting dark and I realise I’ve been out on these country lanes for a long time.
There is a ghastly blank where the tapers of town end, where any road ends. The blaze of the final streetlight peters out and the roads winnow on into darkness.
I perch on my bike there, outside the warm penumbra, and listen to unseen shiftings in the woods, strange calls, the sound of impossible textures: tin, twine, knucklebone. I imagine cries, snaps and falls. I imagine a black moon and terrors of the most inhuman kind.
And wheel round, to glide back into the familiar which, though terrible, is at least human.
I’ve got a train to catch, to London.
To be continued.
*All names of people are made up and any likeness to a real person, dead or alive, is coincidence.