CAROspace | One You Lose

Guest Writer: Theophi Kwek

The Miles

Two hours into an afternoon’s revision, I notice there’s a girl on my left who seems to know everyone in the café. I struggle to place her accent (American, but not totally) and I’m fairly certain I’ve seen her somewhere (a concert, maybe?), though I can’t quite place it. This is a regular occurrence — I’m bad with faces, and in any case it’s nearly impossible to have a latte at The Handlebar without meeting a fellow writer or musician — but I keep drawing a blank, and it’s beginning to bother me.

Finally Dan Roiser, manager extraordinaire, comes to my rescue. ‘Theo, buddy, how’re you doing?’ He waves, then comes over, grinning towards us. ‘Have you met Caroline?’

We discover that we have, in fact, performed at the same music-and-spoken-word evening a couple of weeks before, hosted by Oxford’s Inter-Collegiate Christian Union just across the street. I’d arrived late, missing half of Caro’s set, and she’d left midway through mine, so we’d never actually met. We both serve on the worship teams at church, and we’ve both organized gigs and readings at The Handlebar. Before long we’re talking about CAROspace, and she mentions that she’s on the lookout for a violinist. We become friends on Facebook: she’ll let me know when she has something in mind for the next shoot.

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It can be hard to get a handle on distance in Oxford, a small city even by English standards. Crossing its town centre from the train station to The Plain — a deceiving name for the roundabout that merges three important thoroughfares into High Street — takes barely half an hour, even less on a bicycle. The old walled city, extending from Merton College to St Michael’s Church at the Northgate, is even smaller. Modern students and residents, not unlike their medieval predecessors, live in close quarters, even outside the centre’s fast-moving orbit where rents and living costs continue to rise.

Having lived three long years as an international student, however, there are some aspects of distance that I’ve become too familiar with. Beyond the challenges posed to any Skype call by college internet speed and British Summer Time (liable to catch any tropical traveller off-guard), there are the less immediate perils of homesickness, miscommunication, and knowing that halfway around the world, the life of someone you love is changing in a way that you’ll never be able to understand fully.

Molly and I spent the first year of our relationship apart. On her year abroad in Beijing, she battled the bone-biting cold, lawless traffic, and wraiths of smog with her classmates while fielding my half-comprehending questions over Skype. Back in Oxford, like every second-year historian I knew, I threw myself into a thousand distractions: I organized poetry readings, played in three orchestras, travelled compulsively, and helped plan a conference. Winter came around and on an impulse, I booked flights to Beijing, turning up on Molly’s doorstep days after the end of term.

Talking to Caro about her relationship with Fred, it’s easy to think I know just what they’ve gone through. In a sense, many of the struggles — the uncertainty, the yearning — are the same. Nonetheless, every distance is distant in its own way. When Caro sends me the song she’s planning to record, it’s a pitch-perfect balance between a sense of separation I understand, and a latent pain that is hers (and Fred’s) alone. I reply with a list of musical suggestions, then add: ‘I like it. It’s full of feels.’

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We meet for the shoot on a warm June evening at Society Café, one of Oxford’s hot new coffee-spots. When I pass by, an hour before schedule, Caro’s already there, reading for a paper by a floor-to-ceiling window. Matt, our sound engineer, arrives, and we hunt for the store’s elusive light-switches before the rest of the crew turn up. Calm evening light pours in through the front of the shop.

‘I’m so done with distance; but the miles, the miles, they break me.’ This is my favourite line, and the music starts climbing towards it from the song’s opening notes. In our first take we use an arrangement we’ve practiced, with me holding a bass line as Caro builds the tune, but the café’s rich, still acoustics are enough to support her voice. So I slip out of the opening phrases and come in during the first stanza instead, which seems to work. I glance over at Caro, but her eyes are closed, and she’s miles away.

After three takes, and a lot of laughter and false starts, we’re done. We stack the furniture and shift bags of coffee-beans back onto the counter: tomorrow morning’s crowd will never guess.

At the end of the week Caro and I find ourselves playing together again at The Jam Factory, and within the month, at an installment of Sofar Sounds Oxford. We’ve added a few other songs to our repertoire, but this is the one we keep coming back to. Somehow it’s one we’re most comfortable with, and perhaps one we connect with most easily. Caro’s planning to release the video before we both leave, dedicated — of course — to Fred and Molly. But after a couple of months in the States (for her) and in Singapore (for me) we’ll both be back in October, and I’m already looking forward to our next collaboration.

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