Scraping dredges of hummus with my last-but-one piece of flatbread, my first year at Oxford ended with an anti-climatic sigh as I clicked ‘send’ on the last essay of term.
I hadn’t left Oxford in twenty four weeks – the extent of my travels since the Christmas Vac only going as far as Christchurch Meadows on one end and South Park on the other. Fourteen of those weeks I was one of only three freshers in my college who stayed once everyone else had been sent home. There were stretches of days when I never left my room, and weeks I never set foot outside college. I kept thinking the social isolation and controlled movement would eventually make me desperate to leave. I waited for the dreaming spires to morph into looming towers, or for my floor-to-ceiling windows to make me feel like a trapped test subject. Yet, as I came to the last couple of days before undertaking my carefully planned Corona-avoiding mission to get home, I found myself wishing I could be confined to Oxford just a bit longer.
As the crowds slowly started to dribble back in 8th week, I looked back to the start of the Easter Vac when Oxford was – over a single weekend – drained of tourists, staff, and students. The first few weeks were a strange period of acclimatising to the overwhelming silence that suddenly blanketed the city. In an old Western movie this is perhaps where some tumbleweed would roll across the screen and wind would stir up clouds of sand. Thankfully this was not the case, but the ringing church bells that flooded the Oxford of broad daylight tolled hauntingly in the dark, echoing endlessly down its cobblestone alleys. The first Wednesday night was notably marked with the screeching brakes of nocturnal cyclists navigating the hollow streets, highlighting the absence of the usual buzz of students walking (or rather, running and stumbling) to Park End. A lone porter patrolled the Lamb and Flag Passage as I watched on from my room above. Barely three nights in, I was sorely missing the turnstile sounds of 3am returns.
After two terms of dreadful rain, the weather turned cruelly stunning once there was no one around to enjoy it. Determined not to let it go to waste, I took occasional walks around town, piecing Oxford together in details that elude me (us) in the rush of a normal term. However, even with springtime blooms and seamless skies adorning the city, the roads abandoned of footfall, kebab trucks, and rushing cyclists often left me staring vacantly down a High Street peppered with “Sorry, but we’re closed…” notes on shop windows. Although, it wasn’t all a bleak dystopia: the ducks from the Isis became regular patrons of Cornmarket Street, no doubt lamenting the indefinite closure of McDonald’s and Gregg’s as I was. G&D’s stayed open, providing the much appreciated post-essay (takeaway) treat. And, much to my joy, the socially-distanced Tesco on Magdalen Street was better stocked and had more discounted items than ever. I took the opportunity to upgrade my student diet of fried rice and pasta to include smoked salmon and avocado, somewhat compensating for the terrible loss of Hall’s Sunday brunch.
Lack of routine made the days blend into a never-ending stretch, the lengthening summer days aiding this distortion of time. Taking up almost permanent residence on my sofa, perpetually staring out the windows attuned me to certain natural time and weather cues. The sun was at its strongest between 2-4pm, glaringly shining onto one side of the sofa where I would sometimes take an imagined tropical afternoon nap. On colder days the sky would be an ever so slightly deeper shade of blue. A narrow line of evening sunlight would hit the corner of my desk as the day drew to a close. How much the bigger trees shook due to the wind would determine whether or not I needed a jacket to head out. The group of pigeons that took refuge on my window ledge would start cooing or tapping on the glass at 5.30am. In a time of such uncertainty, these signs formed a reassuring rhythm – no matter how much I wanted to push those pigeons off the ledge as I tried to go back to sleep.
As I started to write this on the aforementioned sofa, the sun was shining in a brilliant blue sky and the leaves were a vibrant summer green. While I packed up my suitcase to return to one home, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was leaving another behind. Somewhere and somewhen in lockdown, Oxford the ghost town of remaining students became a little slice of Eden, a sun-drenched fortress which I was privileged enough to inhabit. I finish this piece on my second eastward flight, looking forward to being reunited with friends and family at home, but still thinking of spires against cloudless skies.