As my days in my new home began to turn into weeks, and my discoveries into day-to-day occurrences, I found, inevitably, that I was beginning to domesticate the dream, to know my way around the marvel and superimpose upon the map of Kyoto’s streets my own particular homemade grid.
– Pico Iyer, The Lady and the Monk
One day our ceiling starts to fall down.
I tell this to everyone I know, like I am Chicken Little and it is our sky: “Our ceiling is falling! Our ceiling is falling!” But really it is just a bit of the cornicing in our front room that has fallen. Cornicing. I’m forced to learn this architectural term by my boyfriend, who corrects me each time I tell a friend or acquaintance or harried passer-by about our crumbling house.
What happens is this: it collapses onto our sofa one evening, perhaps due to the strain of the heavy bassline coming from next door. I am home, upstairs, in my study, pretending to write but really just staring at my own reflection in the window. I hear a crash – distinct but soft, like maybe a bottle of shampoo has fallen into the bathtub. But nothing has fallen into the bathtub. It is just part of the cornicing coming down on the couch, the couch we sit on every evening before bed, drinking our tea or our wine, watching old episodes of The West Wing on our laptops, sending last-minute emails, accidentally falling asleep.
Here and there
One day, for a change of scenery, I cycle into town with my laptop to investigate a newly-opened café. The café was a bookshop when I first moved here, almost five years ago, a little round bookshop in the center of town where my boyfriend worked. I spent a lot of time here. Then it became an empty building, hollowed out, boarded up.
And now, this: a wood-burning stove, an armchair, a mug of coffee. I’m working, but I’m not working; I’m looking across the room, out the window, at the building opposite, with its curved windows, the old honey-colored stone of Exeter College. I’m thinking, is that even Exeter College? Once I could have told you with certainty. Now I know the city so well I’ve forgotten to know it; now that I live here I don’t need to concern myself with details anymore.
The problem with here is that there is no here here; I keep rewriting the map. When I first arrived it was Oxford, home of Evelyn Waugh’s effete undergraduates, spires, and champagne and ghosts. This bookshop meant something, this was the center around which everything else arranged itself — the pubs nearby, the sandwich shop, the bike racks.
But then, for a while, for some years, in fact, it was nothing to me, it was empty, it didn’t even figure into my story. It was just a building where some hazy memories lived, while I was busy making other memories in other places. So the here is relative, the here is mutable. When I say “here”, I know where I mean in terms of latitude and longitude — I could put a pin in an atlas, a finger on a globe — but that’s it, that’s all I know.
People I know
We meet up with a friend for dinner. She tells us about life in Syria, where she lives. I have the idea for a short story, maybe a novel: two men who live in the same building and do nothing but get high all day. They only have one shirt between them, which they share to do errands, so no one ever sees them out in public at the same time. You couldn’t set a story like that here, I think, though I’m not altogether sure why not.
We eat steak with peppercorn sauce and talk about American politics. Later we have a drink at a pub in town. We sit close to the fire. It rains on our cycle home. The next day it’s warm and after lunch we sit outside at a local café. I drop a few sugar cubes into my latte. A parade of people we know walk past, but only because it is Christmas, only because so many people have fled the city and now, it seems, it’s just us left, us and everyone we know, the aimless, the homeless, everyone on their way somewhere else, but still somehow stuck here, too.
I see people I know practically everywhere, in the library, the street, the pub, the swimming pool. One evening, as I’m unlocking my bicycle after a swim, a local writer I know a little (well, enough to recognize) cycles past on one of those Danish cargo bikes, the ones you sometimes see children in. But her small son is cycling ahead of her, on his own bike, and from the cargo compartment comes the unmistakable mewling of a cat.
There’s a passage in a novel set in Oxford — Javier Marias’ All Souls — about beggars. “The city of Oxford, or at least its centre, is not that big, so it’s perfectly possible to come across the same person two or three times in one day,” writes Marias.
- “Particular faces and outfits began to grow painfully familiar to me…I feared that they would begin to recognise me too and assimilate me into their ranks, that they would begin to realise that, although I was not a beggar and did not speak or dress like them…I too, over a period of one week, two weeks, three weeks and eventually four weeks, cropped up several times a day during their mechanical, directionless wanderings, like a stray domestic animal.”
I used to like being asked for directions; it gave me a sense of ownership, because I could answer confidently, because I liked knowing I looked like someone who could answer confidently. Now I’m as aimless as a cat, as cold, as well-suited to feeding and keeping indoors. I listen to music. I still, sometimes, get asked for directions, and I take my headphones out and gesture wildly, enacting the agony of inarticulacy, trying to impart some of my knowledge, trying to indicate the vastness of that knowledge. One man asks me where the entrance to the swimming pool is; we’re at the side of the building, near the car park, and I point and wave and grin.
“There!” I say. “It’s just there, it’s just along there, to your right, the big building, the small door. I’m going there too,” I say, and put my headphones in and we walk together-but-separately to the same place.
Back at home
At dinner — consumed not in the kitchen but on the couch, where we’ve cleared a space amongst the debris of the fallen cornicing and the unopened bills — I tell my boyfriend that I think I’ve taken the easy route. I live somewhere comfortable, somewhere I wasn’t born, sure, somewhere 5,000 miles from where I was born, in fact, but somewhere comfortable nonetheless. Sometimes, as with anywhere suburban and complacent, there are fights and fires. Once there was a couple down the street who stabbed each other during a domestic dispute.
But mostly everything is routine. I tell my boyfriend, “I got to choose where to live, and I didn’t even choose somewhere interesting.” “Interesting?” he says. “Do you mean difficult? Dangerous?” “Dangerous, maybe,” I say, but then I think about it: the plaster is peeling from our walls, the cornicing has fallen on our sofa. It’s dangerous just to be in this house, in this room, at leisure on the big green sofa that doesn’t even belong to us.
Our garden sleeps through the winter: the washing line, the old bicycle, the cloche (under which, one ambitious spring a few years ago, we planted some lettuce), the watering cans, and the compost bin. Someone else’s chimney smoke drifts over the fence. I watch a cat climb a cherry tree. Later I go for a swim; they’ve recommenced the nearby roadworks after a Christmas hiatus. I alter my route slightly to accommodate road closures. Signs promise another 25 weeks of disruptions, delays — the second half of a year-long project to do…what? It has never been made clear to me what they are doing. Ripping up the tarmac; replacing it with more tarmac. But the sweet pine smell of Jackdaw Lane, set off from the main road, lined by big bushy trees, is the same as ever.