The last pint was a demi, standing at the bar in the midst of Saturday gaiety, resting the glass between sips on the flat brass sieve set into the counter. A half pint of White Horse bitter, a local brew, none better nor more bitter than the last, one-pound-sixty at the White Horse, to the right of Blackwell’s, where I’d spent the preceding three hours reviewing my notes for Module 4, as it’s affectionately known, of the Faculty of Astrological Studies diploma course.
It’s all very Harry Potter. As I type, a red and gold version of the Oxford University crest floats on the screen, along with the horizontal white, gray, and burnt navy stripes of my ten-pound rugby-shirt knock-off. What world am I in?
Outside the window, beautiful English countryside hurtles past before a mottled sky of baby-blanket blue, pigeon gray, and white white. Magnificent in its lack of magnificence, pasture land, trees in rows, bushes in clumps. The ride’s smooth. And sheep-white sheep. A cluster of tract houses, brick buildings, “approaching Banbury.” Rusting things, a parking lot, brick apartment buildings.
Across the table a red-headed youth is nibbling his pinky as he reads Ricky Gervais’ Idiot Abroad. He’s freckled all over, chunky, with an LA fitness backpack on the seat beside him. Beside me is a thinner, limper youth in a baseball cap playing with his phone, earbud in ear, clutching a beautiful translucent aquamarine plastic bag. A parade of SouthAsian ladies in colorful head scarfs and nose rings, children first, passes through the central aisle. Cue raga.
An ingratiating grandmother type just bumped the pinky-nibbler to the window seat and took the Daily Mail off her husband, seated across the aisle. She’s pointing out an ad to him now. Or is she his mother? Her skin’s baggier, droopier, soggy, sodden, dripping off the bones. His is taut. Tauter.
We’re quite cozy now. Hate to leave, but I’ve only got another 20 minutes of this heaven before I descend at Birmingham International for a half-hour wait, a 4.5-hour train ride to Holyhead, a five-hour wait to board the Ulysses for Dublin, where I’ll greet the Irish dawn at 5:55. All for 41 pounds.
I knew it could be done because I’d booked a sail-rail ticket online from San Francisco, but could not get the British Rail or Irish Ferries web sites to cooperate with me from Oxford. I was in despair, calling myself names like “feckless” because I hadn’t nailed down the extra night at Magdalen so I could do my laundry, pack, and commune with gargoyles… choosing instead to dawdle with my last astrology teacher because she was so far-out and actually invited me to drink a pint when I’d been feeling like an idiot for wanting to drink one with her.
She’s what’s known as a live wire, the first one I’d encountered during a week of fairly circumspect pedagogy, fairly polite/trite albeit astrological interactions with fellow students and faculty. She kind of zeroed-in on me. Maybe she zeroes in on everyone. Somewhat brazen she. I was in a stupor after a week of taking notes, eating English breakfasts, seeing Irish theater, idling in Blackwell’s, never feeling wholly present.
The clouds are magnificent. Everything’s magnificent. There are storms on either side but the train itself is in bright sun. The sky above is blue. The horizon is yellow to the right and sapphire to the left, shot with strips and chunks of white clouds going nowhere.
At 3:20 pm precisely, after I’d finished my orange on platform 2 of Oxford Station, rain dropped suddenly from the sky like a bead curtain. I was joyous to be by it, but not in it. Good timing. Even though I’d succumbed to the temptation to buy a Blackwell umbrella as I left the bookstore for the pub. It’s phallic, fabulous, awkward, and would’ve protected me.
I was grateful to be at the station early, nervous about the ticket ordered over the phone from a woman in India. Would it materialize as a valid ticket in the Oxford train station? Yass.
Arriving in Leamington Spa, with its other-worldly old church tower, foursquare, crenelated, gnarly, moss-ridden, encrusted as a rock beneath the sea.
I think she embarrasses him so maybe she’s his mum. She has a benign look, they’re the worst. He’s trying to keep a low profile. She just poked him and pointed with her eyes, hoping he’d follow her gaze, saying, “There are three of them.” He wouldn’t turn his head. She’s staring at passengers boarding, a right Miss Marple.
Behind me, a soft-spoken man speaking to his phone says a lightning strike caused an outage in Birmingham, delaying trains, so now we’re paused at Leamington Spa. I was here once, ten years ago. No, an earlier trip. 1986. Twenty-six years ago. The train resumes its pace and clouds dominate the view with their foreboding. Awe-inspiring forces of evaporation mass themselves in opposing teams, huffing and puffing, sending out scouts, slyly moving out of one shape into another.
I made it onto the Welsh train, which was waiting noisily on quay 1 after my ride up in one lift with a man, his veiled wife and their baby, a walk across the concourse, and a ride down in another lift with the same family, without a nod or word between us.
The English are very tough. Watching a bunch of them stroll along the platform outside the window I’m impressed by their sinews, their intent, forward-leaning stride. At Birmingham New Street, they’re not kidding around.
Now we’re speeding into Wales through a rusting industrial landscape sometimes lurking behind foliage, sometimes popping into plain view. Jagged windows, fallen walls, Victorian mausoleums.
The young pink-faced man from the platform who’d said he was “the dining car,” just came by with his tea cart, sold me a cup, and called me Angel. I feel loved.
Seagull flies over mossy corrugated roof. Train at a standstill. Huge clouds moving alongside like demi-urges, big fat half-formed impulses, passing in ambivalent parade.
One of the porters, Rob, had said Thursday evening he’d take me next day to the woman who’d book the extra day, the next day, Friday. The last day of class. The apogee of saturation and imminent loss, or separation.
I hung around and hung around after class, until the last other student peeled off, and then we went together to the dining hall, in the midst of the stained-glass windows and dark-stained carved walls, sat together, ate together, in sudden conspiracy. This teacher knew how to throw a party of two. Other guests were acknowledged and sent on their way with a gracious word, then her focus would swivel back to me like a needle to North. She was spoiling me. I never tire of such treatment.
After lunch, she made a snap decision to skip the feedback session and then’s when she floated the pint project. I yelled “Yes” because she’d read my mind. She suggested the Turl Street Cafe but I recommended the White Horse, since that’s where, the day before, the notion of drinking a pint with her had invaded my thoughts.
So we did. I got my credit card in before her pound notes unfolded. We sat in the window, on a wooden seat wrapped around wood tables under a chandeliere, by an open window graced by a plain glass vase of blue flowers, as the light shone through and a couple seated outside had a late summer date.
We weren’t having a date, just a pint. Immune as I am to romance these days, I was a bit knocked off my feet by the boldness of her approach, not to mention her style of personal adornment. I’d never seen such style. A combination of county fair, pirate, and Charles Dickens.
Sun setting on successive cloudy couches. Cows lying comfortably on grass. I love this train. Random raindrops flying in through the open window one row up. It’ll be dark when we reach Holyhead. There’ll be a five-minute walk to the ferry. Sheep grazing in a grassy pasture.
We were talking and talking and talking, something I haven’t done for ages. She drew the speech from my lips by priming the pump, talking on and on, following her own thoughts and fancies as if oblivious to mine, until I caught the rhythm and answered, which she allowed. She didn’t seem to care who spoke as long as there was speech. Speech was communal, like the air being breathed.
I saw her pint was finished before I’d finished mine. Finally, she rose to pee. She asked me should we have another pint each, or a half each, she thought a half was more reasonable. I couldn’t say. It was all unreasonable. When she came back she’d realized she had to leave, announcing her departure in a gentle way. I was relieved to be released, having not much will of my own.
She said she had to get back to the love-of-her-life, a man who just got his filmmaking degree, working in animation, whose computer crashed the day she left for Oxford. Psychosomatic? He’d managed to reboot in her absence, but god knows what else might go wrong did she not return promptly.
I was surprised she mentioned a man. She’d been saying boyfriend this, boyfriend that, but somehow I thought that was all in the past. I couldn’t imagine a straight woman paying such intense attention to me. Is anyone really straight, Freud? No, they’re merely straight-er. Straight-ish.
I’m so lonely. It’s something I’m going through for my own good, I’m convinced, but it feels wrong, or selfish, or pathetic. All week with the astrologers I’d been friendly but there was never a sense there was a language beyond the language of astrology I could share with any of them. Until her.
Young girl beside me with huge dark eyes, scarlet hair, pink nail polish, lip ring she’s chewing, Punk Princess fanny pack covered with buttons, pink and black checked suspender hanging useless, white hoodie with voodoo dolls and hearts, clutching a Primark brown paper shopping bag. A man is with her, her father, who looks like a woman, soft features, in nice gray jacket and pin-striped shirt, jeans with a gay buckle, similarly clutching a Primark bag. He has the sweetest look when he looks at her, the softest voice. As they leave I see she’s wearing silver mini-shorts with white polka-dots, black stockings, red Doc Martens. How he spoils his queer daughter.
Something about that pint. That license. That oblivion. I’d let myself go. I’d fallen under her spell. I went along with her desire to weave one. And when she left the pub, I felt heartache, the gift that feels like torment. I’d forgotten what it feels like. It threw me for a loop. She’d introduced meaning and contact and exchange, and then gathered them up in her magic scarf and evaporated onto a London bus.
I bounced along back to Magdalen, where I was told that my guardian angel porter Rob had gone home, as had the lady who takes bookings, and over the weekend no one could take my reservation, and online bookings were 48 hours in advance, and they couldn’t let me stay if I weren’t legitimately registered, even though there was no one wanting the room, so I’d have to leave tomorrow after all.
How the hell was I going to pack in time? And get my box of books to the post office? And book another night in some hotel? And buy my ticket to Dublin? I didn’t have a room there until Sunday. Should I spend the night in Wales? I came down hard, fast.
Thank goddesses, there was something to come down from.