I have been struck, of late, by a curious desire to move my legs. I believe the act is called walking. It’s something that’s alien to me, but the British seem very fond of it; that and cycling, and drinking tea, which are activities in which I have yet partake.
Oxford is great place to go walking. Behind the he ivy walls that keep out tourists are gardens, and meadows, and fields that stretch off into cool dark forests. Yesterday my legs brought me to Magdalen College, pronounced “Maudlin”; it’s home to Magdalen Tower, the highest point in Oxford at 144 feet. I was surprised to find that, beyond its boxy courtyards and across a small stone bridge, it’s also home to the water meadow. This is where my legs led me.
The water meadow is a large meadow. It’s surrounded by a great loop of gravel path, perhaps a mile or two around, and a stream, which circles the outside of the path. Deer play in the meadow (I counted around 60 of them), and I heard that when a new fellow of Magdalen College is inducted he gets to shoot one and eat it for dinner. I want to be a fellow of Magdalen College. Not to shoot a deer, of course, but because it’s so beautiful. Alright, fine. I kind of want to shoot a deer.
At strategic points around the meadow are small benches. Some of these benches are dedicated to long departed souls; others are not. Because the dead creep me out, I picked a stone bench without name or bearing and sat down. I took out my notebook and tried to write some poetry, but I couldn’t bear to stare down at its plain white pages when Oxford’s natural beauty frolicked all around me. There were deer, and squirrels eating fallen chestnuts, and the quiet sound of the bubbling stream as it whisked fallen leaves out to sea. The grass, yellowed with fear from the sense of impending winter, was crunchy underfoot; the sky was grey and the wind was cold and there was the smell of snow in the air, but the experience was perfect, the stuff poems are written about, if I could only bring myself to write one. I couldn’t. I couldn’t look away. And as I stared at this beauty, I had an interesting thought. From my vantage point, I could see anyone coming around the meadow in two directions. No one came. I was the only one there.
Where is everyone? I thought. I found them all later that day, in the library, staring at books and computer screens. They were like zombies, those solemn, quiet geniuses, like men of stone. They did not react to the squeak of my sneakers on the hardwood floor. There was not much to see in the library, so I left and got a haircut.
The man who cut my hair was from Poland, and he spent roughly equal amounts of time cutting my hair and staring at me in the mirror. I stared at the hair on the cape and pretended not to notice.
“You have very nice hair,” he said, running his fingers through it under the guise of testing its length.
“Thank you,” I said, and he smiled and continued to cut it.
“Very, very nice hair,” he said after a while, licking his lips.
“I appreciate that,” I said, more than a little scared for my life.
“My friends and I have a saying,” he said. “Nice boys go to heaven, but the bad boys have more fun.”
“Great,” I said, getting up from the chair and leaving a wad of cash in my place. Coins scattered on the floor. My cut was only half done. It looked very European. “Great saying.” I didn’t look back.
As I ran out, I had an image of the odd Polish man sliding a barber’s razor under my neck and letting my blood out onto the floor. That fateful haircut would have been my last. In heaven, when all my ghost buddies and I were shooting the breeze, what would I tell them about my last day on earth? Would I tell them that it had been fulfilling? Was it enough to appreciate the most beautiful place I had ever been? Was it enough to explore the dark nooks and passages of a lonely city, to go on a mission for the best cookie in town, or make foreign friends over the delights of a 16-year-old single malt Scotch whisky? Was it enough, or would I rather have spent my time in the library?
I think I know the answer, and it lies in the curious desire to move my legs.