Rain was good for Oxford. The endless grassy quads were at their most verdant, and students packed the local pubs to warm their fingers around mugs of hot mulled wine. When the sun came out one mid-afternoon, the wet paving stones glistened. Perfect English weather, I thought with relish when I stepped off the train and into the damp air.
I was in England partly on a family vacation, but mostly for college tours. A childhood spent in the company of Philip Pullman, E. Nesbit, J.B. Priestley, and E.M. Forster had me primed and ready for a mad love affair with Oxbridge. I couldn’t wait to hole up in a cell-like room, tearing through volumes of Milton and Spenser. I would, I thought, bike around in a flapping wool coat and penny loafers and discuss Truffaut over pints with my tutors.
The second day in Oxford I woke up with a sore throat. That night the rain gave way to snow. Big, wet flakes got caught in my hair as I walked, sniffling, back from dinner. My parents and I were staying at St Stephen’s House, an Anglican theological college within the university. Accommodations consisted of dormitory-style rooms with twin beds and icons of saints on the walls. My parents were on one floor and I on another, separated by many winding corridors.
The fever hit me suddenly as I lay in bed. I piled all of my warmest clothing on top of my body: baggy sweaters, thick ribbed tights, my winter coat. Still, I shivered. A crucifix hung on the opposite wall. It seemed in that moment that I was going to die in that little room with only a stack of guidebooks for company. Overcome with delirium, I imagined myself a nun, wasting away from the Black Death or consumption or some other ravager of storybook heroines. I was alone with my thoughts, hermit-like, just as I’d dreamed I would be in my future Oxford dorm room, and it was misery. There was no one to wipe my sweat-soaked hair back from my face and reassure me of reality. I turned over and cried into a tissue until finally, in the small hours, I fell asleep.
By the time my parents came knocking on the door the next morning bearing tea and hot buttered toast, the fever had subsided. Over the next two days, I saw the white spires of King’s College Chapel and walked into the wind along the River Cam, but I stopped picturing myself inhabiting that strange and majestic gothic landscape.
The last day of the trip, we took the train to London, where we would spend our final night at the Columbia Hotel, a knot of grand Victorian townhouses cobbled together along Hyde Park. By the time we checked in and dropped off our luggage, it was after three in the afternoon. We had an early morning flight, and so we had just a few fleeting hours to spend in London. We were all tempted to collapse into bed and sleep the evening away. Then, my father said, “Who knows when we’ll be in London again—maybe never?” We all caught fire. We would see every little bit of the city that we could before midnight.
I had made a list of the top five museums I wanted to visit, but there was no way we would have time for even two. We settled on the Victoria and Albert, partly because it was the closest to our hotel, partly because I wanted to see the costume exhibits. Alexander McQueen had died just a few weeks earlier, and I paused for a long time in front of a pearlescent gown from his “Plato’s Atlantis” collection, the last one exhibited during his lifetime. Then, suddenly, the museum was closing, and we stumbled back out into the bright of day.
One of us—probably me—suggested afternoon tea, but we didn’t know where to get it. We were turned away from Claridge’s by a maître d’ dressed twice as well as any of us, so we walked aimlessly around Mayfair for a while until we found the Dorchester. There, in a sea of potted palms, I had a cup of some flowery oolong and one too many cucumber sandwiches. Feeling indulgent, tricked by the marble columns into thinking we were more extravagant than we really are, we decided to go to the theater.
“Can you take us to the West End, please?” my mother asked the cab driver. “Anywhere in the West End.”
And so we found ourselves caught in a dense crowd on Shaftesbury Avenue, with no idea of what might be playing where or when or for what cost. In a stroke of sudden genius, my mother bought a copy of “Time Out,” which had theater listings for the week. Ibsen’s “Ghosts” was on at The Duchess, so we set off walking. None of us had a map, but we asked directions again and again until, miraculously, we found the theater just a half hour before the evening show, got tickets, and took our seats in the upper balcony. I was in such a haze of euphoria that I barely heard a word of the play.
After a post-theater dinner of roast chicken and sticky toffee pudding, we rounded a corner and were in Trafalgar Square. It was late—long past our self-imposed curfew of midnight-—but the streets were full of people: a pack of rugby fans chanting at the sky, teenage girls trying to balance in glittering high heels, tourists snapping photos of the fountains. I stopped and stared at the milling bodies, feeling, for a moment, utterly free of my own thoughts. Then my father hailed a cab, and we were hurtling through the night, back to our hotel beds.