After two abortive attempts to avoid larger coffee shops, confounded by the tendency of small businesses to take holidays when everyone else is also off work, I decided that at least I could opt for organization over corporation and wended my way through building work and poor signposting to the Ashmolean’s basement.
In many ways the place is dry and unwelcoming, with hard chairs softened only by use, and harsh architecture softened only by the last-but-two choice of lighting. But it’s unpretentious, and the coffee—although expensive by volume—is smooth and rich. I took my laptop out and began one of the two stories I had been thinking about since snoozing on the coach yesterday.
An elderly couple–perhaps a hundred and fifty years between them—roosted at the table near mine shortly after I had begun writing. “Oh, Charles,” said the old woman in well-bred tones, clearly completely enraptured at the surroundings he’d brought her to see, “this is wonderful!” He stooped over the table, put down his cane and his coat, and only his pride stopped him from smiling at how happy his wife was at so simple a gesture.
They both shared the task of bringing food back from the counter: she shuffled carefully to her seat with a tray, teetering on legs that suggested slight osteoporosis under the dark tights and sensible shoes; he walking like a onetime soldier, going “back for some water” (“Charles, what a nuisance”). He asked me for an extra chair to replace the one he’d filled with coats, and used it to sit on the side of the square table next to hers. They then clustered round a map, and talked about possible trips round the city—“we could try those shops along there”, “so boring these days”, “got to go miles“—with their heads forward so there was barely a foot between them.
I didn’t think the cafÃ© anything more than functional, and I’ve yet to rediscover what’s so wonderful about Oxford, but when you’re with someone you love then the meanest four walls can glow as though in the light of unseen fires; to that old couple, twittering away over simple plans and silly ideas, the Ashmolean’s vault was probably their Aladdin’s cave, where they could find, buried under sceptres, crowns, gold and gems, the treasure of another day.