My late father I remember most vividly, had foretold of my winter experiences at Cambridge. Of the cold tempests that run inland from the island’s eastern shore; of the East Anglian breeze; of the chilblains that I was to suffer on my blithe undergraduate frame, the tints of blue in the nails; the runny nose and the teary eyes.
Ah! That was the winter I had always wanted; my first tryst with Norwegian gusts. I remember the sun taking its time to dapple the town with scattered beams, taking its time to pace up the sky, confronting huge blobs of marbled volcanoes which were the clouds, finally making a solitary appearance as though on a throne, sending forth its early beams through the oaken trees, its beams reflecting off the Doric structures, floating through the clerestories of the steeples, their wooden benches, pricking the comfortably heated swimming pools where half naked undergraduates took a dip before their first lectures.
I always biked through Parker’s Piece, a luminously green sward of a land separating Hughes Hall, my college, from a host of other colleges that were almost clumped together. The Parker’s Piece, where many a nerdy conversation fell upon my ears, economics, Aristotelian, the Archimedes principle, Hobbesian, snatches of Milton, poesy of the romantics and so much more that at present I am too indisposed to recall, possibly a result of my being overworked, my being married, and a bit too domesticated, and too much on the verge of “Anno Domini” – too much time spent in activities that drain the life out of you.
Life’s a bit too much like having an unpleasant conversation with a crone; or having an affair with someone you’re not in love with.
To Parker’s Piece now! Where young teenage English girls, stretched to their extremes lying heaven faced on the grass, in their minis, their cheeks flushed with youthful energy; their lips wagging with the latest classroom gossip; their limbs mostly unclad and lubberly like the twigs of a pitch pine, soft as a tallow, and wet with morning frost, their scent full of petrichor and dewy mud; and young boys seen hopping, skipping, jumping, in a rather coltish ecstasy, bursting out through their pearly teeth.
Ah! The Parker’s Piece, the nerve center of my Cambridge experience, I don’t know where all that time fled, and why and how? The Michaelmas term was hardly the one for much serious study, I’d hardly get my nose in a book, in things I was enrolled to study I mean; there was great fascination for studying tomes that never concerned me.
Anyway, let’s talk of Fenner’s as it was in my immediate foreground as I lodged in a college just behind its pavilion. My college building was of the colour of anthracite, though when the skies had a certain purplish tint to them, it looked tawny, the main entrance was crowned with gabled frontages, the windows were paned and leaded in the manner of the Saxon style, and on the knob of its door one could feel the presence of kummel, possibly a result of overnight drinking, in winters perhaps the attachment to alcohol is looked upon as remarkably helpful, it aided sleep and most importantly kept your toes warm.
I remember, getting up early, in one of those darkly blue wintry December morns, unbearably chilly especially for boys from the tropics, and everywhere you saw life save the lecture auditoriums as we stood on the brink of Christmas, everywhere you’d turn your head to a darkly lit corner, in such settings the need for a warm inglenook is most urgent.
Anyhow, I was up early, up to the constant chiming of the heavily steepled Cambridge sky, the loudest of these fascinating sounds of chapel bells rose from the foreground, from a church that stood beyond the Fenner’s cricket ground, whose spires were vaguely visible from my window, even the weather cocks were shrouded in snowy fog. It was white all about me, white and pretty and noiseless, and every now and then if you peered through the thick blur most observantly, you did turn lucky at beholding a certain brick built Tudor building.
Inside, it was all nice and cozy; and it should have served me well to just moon about my own college, but I yearned for experience, for chilly pleasures. And so, fitting myself into a double coated thermal undergarment, and a pretty woolen knee length overcoat, I mounted my bike, a most uncomfortable mount I must confess, and rode out with great alacrity, unaffected by the gusts, risking extinction, determined, paddling through the winding pathway of the Parker’s Piece.
I could see nothing, between me and that vast nothingness above was the sky, and between me and that sky was the university. In my initial months, I had passionately studied every nook and bend of the town and knew exactly where I was headed, after successfully traversing the Parkers Piece, I branched right, and found myself among that clump of colleges, and where the views were better. I rode on.
And now, at least I could see the tops of the buses, the stench of the diesel that whirled up filled my nostrils and gave me a sense of metropolitan existence. I rode on, flanked by colleges, by Edwardian shops, by pews full of bat droppings, I rode past more colleges, by narrowed lanes where sprawling of dead leaves were brushed aside, and suddenly before me, by a long running paved pathway, flowed my destination in a sort of misty haze; this was the Cam river, where the entire loveliness of this university was stowed.
I dismounted before a little cafe, from where wafted out mingling smells of baked bread, kitchen sink and cappuccino; and I found myself a solitary low kerb, all about me continued that incessant chiming of the church bells, one two three four, four two three one, one two three four, and the dispute went on, and I looked at the surrounding trees, sad from the chill, as though in a pensive mood. My thorax was seized with a strange sensation in the company of that noisy silence, and the following verses came to my lips:
Distinguished Cambridge! Ye emblem of knowledge!
There’s wisdom in your story,
Your soil is fretted with tales of yore,
Your works are steeped in glory.
Blessed be your gravel paths,
Your river hemmed in by oaks,
Your skies are pricked by lofty steeples,
Your halls are full of important folks.
B.J. Sadiq is a British Pakistani writer, biographer and poet