I’m in the upper gallery of the Sheldonian Theatre, watching a graduation ceremony take place in Latin. Ad honorem Domini nostri Jesu Christi, the Vice-Chancellor intones, but I’m distracted by the fact that a few hours earlier I had to take a crap in a plastic bag…
I’m going to be in Oxford this weekend, a girlfriend had told me earlier that week.
I’d offer you a bed, but we don’t really have a bathroom, I said.
The other day I’d gone to a hot yoga class so I could use the showers afterwards. There are probably easier ways to get clean, but I’m not great at thinking things through.
My girlfriend was coming to Oxford to watch a work colleague graduate. She asked if I wanted to join her.
I thought you’d be up for it, she said.
This, coming from a woman who persuaded me to drive to the New Forrest for dawn so that I could stand barefoot in one of the small lakes, wearing a nightshirt, holding an enormous white globe – while she took photographs, and Carp swam between my legs, slapping my ankles with their chunky tails.
After the ceremony, my friend and I meet with the graduate.
You’ve grown a beard, she says.
(Apparently, when you’re doing a PHD there isn’t time to shave.)
A small area has been fenced off, where a man is taking official photos of the students in their gowns. My parents have a similar photograph of me in their bedroom. My hair is doing something it’s never done before or since. Usually, it’s big and curly, but here it hangs either side of my head, bland and limp. Besides looking nothing like me, it scarcely seems to represent my time at university.
I spent my first night, careering through the bar, laughing uncontrollably about the fact I was in room 69. That whole year I’d get knocks in the middle of the night, slurred voices calling out: sixty-nine!
They weren’t after me, they were after the promise of a number: I once met a sixty-nine from another block and their experience was the same.
One of the first guys I did let into my room was a man in his late thirties who I was doing promo work for. I was under the impression he wanted to pick up all the old flyers and unsold tickets I had, but as soon as I closed my door he was trying to climb into my mouth tongue first. As he kissed, he made this creaking noise in his throat. His voice was so distinct that all the people who worked for him always did an impression whenever they said his name.
I leapt away, so that my beanbag was between us, saying: I have a boyfriend!
Oh, he said, confused. Apparently, he’d asked around and everyone said I was single.
It’s a secret, I said, trying to think hard. Um, his parents are Jewish – they wouldn’t approve.
He stared blankly. He had a wide nose with nostrils that looked swollen, and a 3D mole on his cheek. I began to feel queasy.
You better go, I think I’m going to cry with regret. I turned away and waited for the click of the door.
There I am, high on my parents’ bedroom wall, looking formal in my Bachelor of Arts gown, two wilted flaps of hair either side of my startled eyes, holding my first class degree.
My girlfriend, the graduate and I make our way into town for lunch. The restaurant is full, but we’re promised a table in fifteen minutes.
That’s great, the graduate says.
Lucifer, he tells the bright-looking waitress.
Lucifer, she repeats, writing it down in her reservation book. I press my lips together and walk quickly on.
It’s still funny twenty minutes later when I hear LUCIFER! called across the restaurant.
We have been joined by Dan and another PHD student – a handsome man in his forties with a compelling Spanish accent. We talk about my girlfriend’s photography – whether it’s possible to produce work on purely creative terms.
Lisbon story, I write in my notebook – the first words since being back in Oxford. It’s a movie, which has at its heart a man’s disgust with commercialisation. He tries to capture images of Lisbon, removing the subjective view. Above these two words is a poem I wrote in my final days in Wales:
On rainy days we huff,
Stand by the window, staring out;
Look at the clock,
Walk into rooms, and,
Just as quickly,
Walk out again.
The poem then moves out of my head to look through the window, where sheep graze – their manner plodding, oblivious. Trees and saplings reach and stretch, grateful to the wind as it shakes free their loads; the leaves glide away on their own adventures.
The graduate wants to know if I got any writing done in Wales. I say it was a rich time.
He says if he found himself alone in a cottage he would spend most of his day arranging things, and then rearranging them.
I tell him the best thing is not to have any preconceptions about what you’re going to write: to put trust in the experience of a new place, and observe what this brings up.
Several years ago, Dan and I left our jobs in London and moved to Mexico. I planned to write a play. The previous year, my agent had arranged an audition for a commercial. I was shown into a tiny room with a sofa. A man and woman stood beside a video camera. The ad was for the rampant rabbit. I had to sit on the sofa and fake an orgasm.
Try and look surprised, the man said. The whole point is that this vibrator has unexpected results.
There’s footage of me somewhere, looking very surprised – surprised at how I’m in a broom cupboard with two strangers, faking an orgasm.
I walked back to the tube station afterwards, thinking: there has to be a better way to be an actress.
When Dan and I got to Mexico, we found a room at the back of a restaurant run by a woman called Celia who wore khaki shorts and men’s suit shoes. She had ferocious eyebrows and several dogs that liked to lie in the alleyway, which led to the street. On hot days, after Celia had sprayed the passage with water to keep the dust down, the air in that confined space became warm and moist, carrying the aroma of dirty dog. The room had a triangle of grass out the back and each evening, Dan made a fire and we cooked toast on an oven tray he’d found in a hedge.
I never wrote that play.
What I became was a short story writer. My first piece was set in the English Civil War. There was a woman in a castle under siege – her husband far off, fighting for the king.
I’d like to read some of your work, the graduate tells me.
Read the buck, I say.
I wrote it when I was back from Mexico, after I’d had a few pieces published, but didn’t really know what I was doing, and if I was on the right track. But then I received an email, telling me this story had won an award – an award named after one of my favourite writers. That night, I rode the tube into London, standing in the half-empty carriage. I was listening to music and moving my body, smiling. There was no self consciousness, no jittery feeling of concern in my bones. I moved gently, subtly, thinking: I’m a writer. I’m a writer.
My life made sense, finally – the fact that on the surface it appeared to be one thing, and yet deep down there was so much more going on. Now, that bottomless whirlpool had been given a purpose.
The graduate produces paper and begins to explain a game. We’re to each write two lines, folding the paper so the first is hidden. On the basis of that one line, the next person writes two more, folding the paper and passing it on again
We play round after round and the process is like the combing of a huge, bushy mass of hair, which finally unites in a smooth, shiny finish:
Coming together after a long separation,
they still hadn’t found the right language to speak to each other.
Braille seemed the ideal form of communication:
they didn’t need to see each other, speak or touch.
The silence was enough for them.
They reached across it and made it theirs.
Beer glasses, old wooden tables,
The odd Penguin Classic or two…
Writing makes me love life, seek out unexpected openings, which I can slip through into new experiences. I’m grateful for days that work rather like that poetry game, each moment rolling off the previous one – inspired in some way, yet moving in a new direction: one minute I’m squatting above a bin liner at seven in the morning – the next, I’m watching dozens of men and women in their gowns, beginning a new phase of their life.
A few nights later, there’s a knock on the door. It’s dark and the wind is talking loudly.
Excuse the outfit, says a young voice, which carries on with: for some reason I didn’t pack any trousers!
This is a young girl on a road trip, trying to sign people up to monthly direct debits for a charity.
Come in, Dan says. Get warm.
I’m lying on cushions by the fire. I create a little spot for her and Dan goes into the kitchen to make tea. She begins to tell me about the charity, but suddenly stops and says: it’s a bit weird, giving you a pitch.
I laugh and say it would be mean to kick her out now, empty handed, but I explain that Dan and I have entered a period of austerity.
We’re putting in a new bathroom, you see.
But this makes the thought of not donating even more perverse – the fact that soon we’ll have a beautiful wet room, yet people out there, whose homes have been washed away by floods, have nothing.
Sign us up, I tell her.
I then go upstairs and get her a pair of jeans.
Can I use your toilet? she asks when I come back.
You can, but there’s no door.
While she pees, Dan and I talk loudly to cover the sound.
We’re the same size, she says, once she comes back into the room, wearing my jeans.
Keep them, I tell her. They look better on you.
She leaps forward and gives me a hug.
I hope I’m like you when I’m older, she says.
You might be, I tell her. You remind me of me when I was your age!
After she goes, I glance at Dan and say: lucky we had the toilet plumbed back in.
It was only out for twenty-four hours, but during that time Dan and I happened to get drunk and I happened to wake up with the feeling that if I didn’t get to a loo in three minutes there’d be trouble.
When I met her the morning of the graduation ceremony, my friend asked how I was managing without a bathroom.
I’ve been enjoying the challenge, I said – even since the toilet has been unplumbed and sitting out in the garden.
My god! But what are you doing?
You don’t want to know, I said.
She began to tell me about a house party she’d had with her flatmates. The whole thing had become fairly raucous. The following morning they discovered a plastic bag in the bathroom with a poo inside.
No! I said. That’s just shocking…