|"It's England. Everyone seems gay."
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
Figure 1. Oxford Museum of Natural History
Yesterday, I hopped on a coach to Oxford to visit foreverdirt and distract her from her impending exams.
I got to Gloucester Green earlier than planned, so I purchased a map at the bus stop and got myself a sandwich and ginger beer. I wandered into the market in the square behind the station, which was full of weird things. Twenty-four AA batteries for £1.99. Bottles of thick bleach, 2 for £1. Fresh satsumas, pound a bowl. In one corner stood a big lorry with one side removed and converted into a meat counter. I took its name – "The Meating Place" – as a sign that I should wait there for Katy. She found me easily.
First she showed me dear old Balliol, her beautiful little college at Oxford. Due to its Lilliputian dimensions, this portion of the tour engulfed a whopping five minutes of my eight-hour visit. It was, however, both very pretty and very full of people lying around on its manicured lawns being nervous and vociferous in the manner of students in the middle of exams.
At the Museum of Natural History, I reminded all and sundry that a Ph.D. in no way confers dignity on a person by giant-stepping in the dinosaur tracks outside while making silly faces and waving my arms around threateningly. (Insert obligatory pained Americans.-Can't-take-them-anywhere remark here.) Inside the museum, we had staring contests with an alligator and a leatherback turtle. They won. I maintain that they cheated, since being dead, stuffed and having glass eyes confers an unfair advantage. We smiled at the Urodela and cringed at the severed lamprey head in the jar of formaldehyde. Katy made me close my eyes and led me around to the front of the mammalian skeletons (Fig. 1) and told me to open my eyes, so that it appeared I was being charged by tigers, elephants and rhinoceri. This was good for a laugh. Finally, we paid a visit to Euclid, who promised to aid Katy in her exams today and tomorrow. At least we think that's what he said. It's not easy to tell with these stony Greek men.
We walked through the Pitt Rivers Museum, which has the look of a curio shop in a horror movie, complete with shrunken heads, bone jewelry and shamanic totems, all arranged in tall, cramped glass cases which couldn't be easily looked over or around. (Note to any any of my horror-loving LJ friends: if you visit London, you will have to make sure to set aside a day to go to Oxford, because there's no way you are missing this.) Don't be fooled by the virtual tour on the web site. It's dark, hot and dusty in there, and there's a faint musty smell that puts a visitor on edge immediately. I fed the wooden anthropologists in their glass case and they rang a bell with their orange LED eyes alight and bowed in unison. We stopped to read their hand-written arm tags. "Lived a quiet life nursing her parents until 30. Then traveled the world collecting artifacts." "Makereti, Maori chieftainess, donated many Maori artifacts to the museum." "General Pitt Rivers, collector. At first, mainly interested in guns." We peered at Siberian clothing, at smoking pipes modern and ancient, at tiny friction drums and at voice disguisers used to emulate spirits, which employed spider egg-cases and were "not shewn to women."
We stopped at Katy's for a drink. She showed me her fancy exam robes. Because she is very, very smart, her robes have scholarly sleeves instead of being usual chintsy vest-like affair that most of the undergraduates wear. I put it on and paraded up and down feeling important for a couple of seconds, which was plenty for me. We watched a bit of cricket through her kitchen window. We were lost for a time in our own private contemplation of the homoerotic aspects of the game. Not like it's difficult. Because there's absolutely nothing straighter, nothing less repressed, than a bunch of men dressing up in immaculate white trousers and shirts with the sleeves sexily rolled up to the elbows and clapping politely when they watch each other have a good run. We both noticed the disturbing propensity of one of the bowlers towards wiping the ball suspiciously close to his crotch before each pitch. To, uh, clean it, right?
Eventually, we peeled ourselves away from the cricketers and headed back out into the blazing sun to try to visit the Bodleian Library and the nifty science blackboard exhibit but were stymied on both counts. The former merely sat there with its gates locked and no explanatory signage. The latter closed five minutes before we arrived. Instead we went down to a bridge by the canal and spent a lovely hour sitting on the grass, watching the fish try to snag soggy bits of bread left by the overfed ducks. Katy made a daisy chain, which I hung over one of my dreadlock pigtails and promptly forgot about. (As I wrote this, it was still there. A bit of dignity, that's what I'm lacking.) I fished in the river with a stick, with negligible success. We were largely undisturbed, chattering about ambitions and plans and scary future things both near and far.
The idyllic spell was broken by the passage of a houseboat, captained by a lobster-red and irascible fat man, through the locks. He berated a tourist who passed by with a large camera. "Oi, were you taking pictures of me boat?" "No," answered the tourist, with surprising aplomb. Looking as though he'd prefer to take the tourist's camera and jump up and down on it a few times to be sure, the man contented himself with growling, "Looks pretty dodgy to me." Oh, you mean unlike your boat, which looks like a slum on water, complete with scraggly chickens, broken garden implements and a wife with a face that could sour vinegar?
We met some of Katy's friends for dinner. I was too sun-baked by then to participate much in the conversation, which veered about wildly from exams to the gay and back again. Katy sang us a geeky mathmo theorem to the tune of "Doe, a deer." I took my leave, with expressions of gratitude and good-luck wishes, so she could get some revision in before sleep. I knew I was home when I got off the coach at 11 PM. The first thing I saw was a woman standing in a crosswalk berating a cab driver for not stopping when he had the green light. He wasn't going to let that pass without comment. I stopped briefly to listen and appreciate the flexibility and utility of the word "fuck" all over again. Ah, dear smelly old London.