If I Were Real

May 25

Stand at that node on the chapel floor where veils of light waft down from the stained glass windows. There, at the prism’s crossroads, where bruised ruby light collides with lapis, amethyst, and ultramarine, there at the incandescent crime scene where new colors are born—that’s Oxford.

There’s Lyra’s amber Oxford shattering against Tolkien’s jasper and my father’s jade. There’s C.S. Lewis and Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde and Isaac Newton and a thousand other unnamed colors. And there’s Virginia Woolf’s Oxford. Hers is the topaz of an October afternoon. In their midst, I feel vanishingly pale. I am only half-real here.

In Magdalen College chapel, light ages like fine tokay. Its empty chancel is jammed with stern saints. Beyond the chapel door, the college cloister is embroidered with wisteria, a silk border stitched around a cashmere lawn. Grains of pollen drift down and the courtyard is filled with a hissing stillness, as if I stand inside an hourglass.

The perfume of roses ferments in the sunshine. It’s a liquor just potent enough to make me feel translucent, incorporeal as an unemployed ghost. I paid five pounds for the privilege to steal through the keyhole and haunt Magdalen.

On another cashmere lawn, four boys blaspheme their way through a strangely sober game of croquet. Play is punctuated by laments of “That was atrocious!” and “You jammy bastard!”. Juxtaposed with the croquet rogues, a harem of deer lounges under a benevolent plane tree just beyond the fence. I repeat the croquet party’s litany to myself as I stroll alone along Addison’s Walk. The players’ vernacular tastes like a mouthful of Wellesley fudge cake.

Flurries of summer-snow sift over the path: dandelion down or some other feathery seedhead. On the Isis, a punter cradles the pole in one arm to catch a phone call. The trees lean closer, eavesdropping over the conversation as the current nudges it down the river. This boy with a pole in one hand and a cellphone in the other, the jammy bastard kings of croquet, the bored deer—this is what’s so scrumptious about Oxford. I live in the then and now all in one breath. It’s like hyperventilating. It’s dizzying. I’m only half-real. Half of me won’t be born for another century. If you tried to photograph me, the light would seep right through my skin and you would see only the towers of Magdalen.

I wish I were as real as the punters on the river. They’re drenched in sunlight. It butters their bare arms and dusts their cheekbones with a glisten of sugar. I want to steal their realness, but they’ve already glided under the bridge and away.

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