“Just look at all this mess,’ said Penny to Petra.
She was right; the construction had been going on outside their flat on Cowley Road for several weeks and there seemed to be no end in site. The barriers that kept the works at bay were right in front of their door, which made getting in and out of the building not impossible, but hindered by the disorder of water pipes and wet sand. The day bustled throughout, when workers came and went, their tools constantly whirring and progress looked on the brink of constant realisation. But weeks had passed and the scene was just as disordered and just as unending, and the safety signs remained, sullied daily by mud and dirt.
Penny and Petra’s bikes were kept outside, chained to an iron railing. It was an early Sunday evening in late November: the sun had already rested its head and a thick darkness had descended upon the streets. The red brick of their accommodation had been made all the duller for the drizzle of rain earlier in the day and its façade drank in the light.
Despite this tranquil blanket of night, the Cowley Road was overwhelmed by traffic. They had entered the main stretch on their bikes and were peddling simultaneously with and against cars, buses, other cyclists and various daring pedestrians along the way. Though the cars grumbled their way through the asphalt jungle, illuminating the shadows of reality, the buses, the urban mammoth, plodded on in humble duty. However, Petra and Penny did not encounter the impatient scream of a car horn, and even when they did it was delivered with resignation, the result of a defeated week.
They made their way along the roundabout and were heading along Magdalen Bridge, where the chaos of the previous route had filtered into a slipstream. The buses quickened their pace along the straight road and took the opportunity to compete against the speed of smaller vehicles. So too did the bicyclists, accepting their lot as small parts in this theatre of motion; their light wheels gave them guile, but the brute weight of the motors ruled the road for now.
For the pedestrians, there was a different scene. The multitude of genres that walked past – the academic, the soldier, the mother — the entire cohort of the human paragon — enriched a journey that was hemmed in by a metal wall of fumes on one side and a stone baluster shielding the river on the other. With a well-imitated sense of purpose, all rushed along, emulating the other: each one had their destination and this was merely transit.
Magdalen College loomed over on the right and the usually brighter limestone had taken on a similar hew to that of a dank brick wall. The ancient grandeur seemed to have died, betrayed by the headlights of cars, the bright glow of the street lamps and the regularity of the traffic lights. The size of the building, supported by a handful of towers that serve as watchmen across the city, impressed itself upon the girls and they felt their humility in all its grandeur. The dominating front, enhanced by the menacing stone, was uneasy against the darkness of a sky that had clouded over and few stars had the courage to shine through the dying light and offer some glimpse of an attainable ideal.
Penny and Petra left Magdalen behind and were revealed by the series of bright lights that line the High Street and maintain order through illumination, before turning the corner onto Queen’s Lane. Here, the more funereal aspects of the night were shown to them; a dimmer glow was emitted by the lead lamplights which were isolated from each other by large gaps of stone and withering wall-flowers. Though it cannot be seen from the street, the girls were aware of the presence of a graveyard that marks the beginning of the street from behind the high wall that runs its length. The church, now a library, offered a small view of the world inside; the old, wooden beams, painted red, were lit up by apathetic lights and it just somehow did not look real.
The wall continued, punctured by the lamplights and lead conduits. There seemed to be a distinct lack of joy and the buildings on either side proved defensive and barred to the girls. There were, however, plenty of windows, the presence of which was betrayed by the sills, orange in the twilight. But few signs of life were to be detected by the passer-by and even fewer by the cycling girls. The silent monuments to the cavernous expanses of the mind simply existed, sitting like tired old men in empty rooms, where the unbearable silence is broken only sporadically by the heavy sounds of determined footsteps. The library seen from without seems to flicker, as if lit by lamp-light and for a moment the books adjust themselves on the shelf, and a shadow might present itself on the wall. But no body is ever revealed through the windows, no form seems to claim responsibility for the action; the hands of the clock beat on and no victim comes forth.
Penny and Petra carried on their route, past the dim, enclosed world of the burning lamp. The road had many corners, unlike the sure guide of the high street. But the characters the girls meet are more withdrawn; couples who have only each other in this world, Dido seeking Sychaeus; academics who have only their own mind and inhabit it with all the fervour with which one inhabits a country house; and the other loners who jump from one solitude to another in succinct and measured leaps. As they turned one of the last corners, All Saints rang six o’clock. The girls continued, but neither had spoken for some time, focused as they were on their own mission. The bells pealed, muffled by the dense stone and heavy atmosphere; they did not ring with abandon, but a weighted accuracy, carefully deliberate, struck the minds of the girls with acid repetition.
The girls quicken their pace and peddle a little faster on the final corners, not caring if someone else is coming the other way. The windows become more apparent, disturbed by their presence, rousing from their slumber and turning their dormant fires on them. They gaze down at the girls, here and there in the darkness and wonder why they have come. The cathedral-like interior of All Saints commands the scene, bellowing orders at its fellow guardsmen; the stained-glass reproductions are barely perceptible, telling stories of a forgotten discipline, lit through by artificial light. No reflection stared back from the unrelenting architecture, in contrast with the dozens of shop fronts on the High Street in which Penny and Petra were drawn to looking, enticed by their own image; the world inside, selected as fitting for the reverent, was projected into the fabric, predetermined by a crafty committee of illusionists.
The road had more twists and turns to offer before emerging on to Catte Street, with its horizon of library and concert hall. The lamplights, now seemingly changed to gas, showed Petra and Penny their route, kindly guides of an eternal journey, reassuringly bidding them to follow. The girls, however, did not pay much attention to them, keeping themselves close to each other, sure of their own knowledge of the path and the directions to be taken. Its end, they know, is near and they start to perceive the open space that marks the limitless possibility that the city offers; the turns their minds can take, the rooms they can seek — and the distant lands, offered on foot, appear to be accessible.
But they stop before the Bridge of Sighs, crystallised by so many posed photographs — a state of morbid inertia. Dead glass and stone, each time breathing its last, on the edge of crumbling, roots them to the spot as they gaze goodbye to the world they once knew. The procession has ended, the ritual now so evident and meaningful to them, that they look on the imprisoned décor with satisfied curiosity, willing victims to the slaughterhouse of imagination.