Paddington Station after 7.00am is a luxury. Mind clear of sleep and caffeine, eyes alert, feet no longer bounding on auto-pilot, dashing for the three minute coffee and the slam of the closing train door. Flashes of the past through the window cause a shudder, but it's a calmer journey, sat still and patient, rooted to the seat, with no change at Reading.
Visiting Oxford is like staring through a series of mirrors. Everything is familiar, yet twisted to a different angle. Sights bring memories and signs point in redundant directions home. Reality hangs out-of-reach only by inches, blocked by the floating bubble of perspex.
Change is slow in a city almost older than time. An old shoe hugs a familiar foot closely. Edamame, that hidden gem of a Japanese broom cupboard, still maintains opening hours determined by the mule and his spinning wheel. Healthy, nourishing seaweed, pickles, and beans counter the brain-addling qualities of near-frozen beer. Pork, breaded and soaked in a curried sauce, sweet with rice and soup. £15 is daylight robbery, with the customer holding the gun.
Yawning, belly-slapping, and belching from a duck and a pint under the Autumn-stained eaves of The Turf Tavern. Caffeine, hooked to the vein, drip-fed through the tangle of tourist and student chain-gangs marching the flagstone floor of King Edward. Cake, the other ubiquity of Oxford follows closely behind.
It's getting close to that time. The anxiety, the day of work, the week of work, the life of work, the tired mind draws to alcohol like a buffalo to a watering-hole. Etiquette and education left at the door, four wooden chairs, three lumps of cold coal, two imported lagers, and one pie, with chips and salad, carrying as many flavours as memories.
One last walk along the wall, one last peer through the iron gates, one last cigarette (she claims). Raoul's is a hot as it ever was. Drinkers drip off every wall, staring in awe at the dancing flames behind the bar. A drink from memory taken from the menu, placed back in the glass for one last time. Feet shuffle home, the chattering teeth warmed by the blanket.
Ghosts rise early. Scrubbed, cleaned, and out into the fog, back behind the glass sipping coffee, back behind the glass watching a world chased by winter. An hour and we are home. Drinks steady, not spilt. Heads clean, not dirty. Bananas peeled, not uneaten. Here's to the next trip, whenever that may be.