I’m walking purposely down the High Street, take a right into Cornmarket Street and get completely tangled up in a forty-strong group of Japanese tourists following a red coloured umbrella held high by a very English-looking elderly man.
No sooner do I manage to dodge them than I run to a halt into a twenty-strong mass of loud Spanish teenagers.
Much as I love Oxford in the summer, the invasion of foreign tourists is a real plague! I dive into St Michael Street to avoid the bulk of the crowd and emerge soon after near Gloucester Green. I make sure to avoid the square where the market is at its height.
I’m meeting Polly and Eddie, who are coming over from London to bid me farewell and spend the day with us. I’m really looking forward to seeing them. As they step off the coach, I can see Polly is looking a bit under the weather. She shrugs off my concern and hugs me tightly.
Cindy and Greg join us at the café opposite the now new Westgate Shopping Centre, a bit of a modern pomposity to try to attract retail commerce to the heart of the city. Not sure we will ever be a threat to London or Reading, but I expect it has made Oxford a little bit more alluring to the younger crowds.
I notice Polly visits the wash-rooms several times in the half an hour we are sitting there, Eddie looking worryingly at her disappearing figure. I exchange a look with Cindy.
‘Everything okay with Polly?’ I ask Eddie as gently as I can.
He is distracted.
‘Uh? Oh yes. Everything’s fine. So, where is it we can go punting? We’ve heard so much about it, and it’s a brilliant day. What do you guys think? Shall we?’
He has recovered in record time, and his jovial smile is back. He studies us in turn, expectantly.
We look at each other. Sounds like fun! Why not! The weather is perfect. A warm summer’s day, not a cloud in the sky. Maybe a tad too warm, if anything.
We walk leisurely down the High Street toward the Plain, dodging groups of different nationalities. Just before Magdalen Bridge, we dip left down the steep path to the waiting punts. The queue is acceptable, and we wait patiently behind a Spanish family. Greg and Eddie are talking football. I can’t think of anything more boring! Finally, we get in. As the boys have been volunteered to take it in turn to punt, we three girls settle as comfortably as we can onto the wooden seats.
‘Where to, lasses?’ Greg is at the helm. Eddie and Polly shrug and open their hands out, palm up. I look at Cindy.
‘The Vicky?’ I suggest. She nods vigorously.
‘Yes, the Victoria Arms, in Marston. You need to go North, Greg,’ she instructs with her usual efficiency.
Punting involves one person standing up at the end of the wooden boat – the punt, pushing a long metal pole in the riverbed until it sticks to the bottom and then use this to propel the boat forward. It looks like fun for those sitting in the punt, it is a bit less hilarious for the poor soul doing the actual punting. But Greg is not complaining, and although it’s the first time he has tried his hand at it, he is doing quite a professional job.
We pass by the manicured sports grounds belonging to various colleges and along University Parks. We cross some other punts in different states of distress. Some have been abandoned on the river banks while their occupants have sprawled on the grass to tuck into the home-made picnics and supermarket bottles of wine. Others are just stalling in the shade of the willows, while the designated slave takes a breather, holding on to the punting pole. Ducks are treading water, unfazed by all the human activities on their native patch.
We swish past luxurious trees caressing the waters, willows dipping into the current, foliage swaying on the river banks. In the fields, cows munch lazily and pay us little attention. When we pass the last bridge, we see there are at least other five punts waiting for their occupiers to come back from their session at the pub. We tie ours to a tree, wobble our way out of it onto firmer ground, and stroll up the embankment to the pub.
The sloping field is covered with people enjoying the glorious sunny afternoon. No chance of getting a table today. We sit on the grass, out of a lack of choice rather than a pondered decision and send the guys to get our drinks.
‘What is the advantage of being a woman, otherwise?’ coos Cindy when Greg jokingly mentions that after all the hard work pushing us all the way here on a wooden log, the least he could expect was an easy ride at the pub.
We three girls sit in a semi-circle facing the river. I’m in the middle and enjoy the feel of the warm rays on my face and bare arms. I put my hands behind me, stretch my legs out in front and lean back. Cindy tucks her legs under her and stretches her chiffon skirt over her knees. Polly crosses her legging-clad legs. All three of us close our eyes and tilt our faces up to the sky.
‘Ahhh. This is the life!’ Cindy speaks for all of us, and Polly and I grunt our agreement.
Our drinks eventually arrive and are only marginally spilt in the journey. I notice Eddie handing an orange juice to Polly. I stare and raise an eyebrow.
‘Do you two have anything you would like to share?’ I quip.
They look at each other, then Polly beams: ‘I’m pregnant!’ And grins from ear to ear.
‘Ay lass, this calls for celebrations!’
We cheer our congratulations and are all asking the usual silly questions. She is due just after Christmas, so their travel plans are temporarily on hold, but they are glad they have been saving. They will undoubtedly need all the money they can get. They are clearly elated, and we share in their happiness.
What a fantastic farewell for me!
‘Thank you all for a great day, with great people and a great bit of news. Thank you, you two, for having come all the way here to say goodbye. Please keep me up-to-date with news from the growing bump!’
I hug Polly, unconsciously gently now, and squeeze the father-to-be. We wave them off and then walk back toward town. I will miss these people, and I will certainly miss this vibrant, chaotic, busy, colourful, diversified, happy city.
EYES WIDE SHUT
There are none as blind as those who will not see