Oxford Circus at 5.30pm on a Saturday. The usual throng of tourists, tuk tuks with flashing lights, performers, and nike-fitted teenagers is palpably absent. The low light of a spring evening spatters the empty alleys behind Liberty’s, creeping into the soiled corners previously occupied daily by florists and street vendors, and congregating eight metres up on the roofs of narrow shop fronts; all is quiet. The stores are shut, blinds down, grates locked, and the hum of the city is damp and muted, interrupted only by sirens and a rubbish truck; ‘keep clear, vehicle reversing’. On Carnaby Street there is; a pigeon, a bin, one walker with a face mask and a phone, and turning onto Regents Street; buses and black cabs tail gate the one-way system on a relentless search for anyone.
I cycle towards Piccadilly Circus- past Hamleys, the Apple Store and Hollister. Past Superdry and Barbour and Hotel Cafe Royal, taking a right, and a right again at the junction, and within seven minutes hitting Green Park Station, coasting along the edge of St James’s Park, hopscotching the Mall and skirting Buckingham Palace. It’s all downhill and upmarket. The houses here- wide and terraced- have cold windows and long black doors with knockers. High railings and deep front gardens, meticulously maintained, conceal- I like to suppose- a doorman? A host of spies, with wires and radio sets? One expat and his family? Someone international and important in hiding? Or perhaps no one at all- just thick carpets and veiled grand pianos- just houses waiting for unknown persons to arrive and bury themselves away behind layers of doors and draft excluders.
The red tarmac, a sash of old privilege, runs me towards the Horse Guards Building and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where the gravel courtyard is flanked by a couple of police vans and officers on Bromptons. One grabs a megaphone and shouts at a bundle of people to remain ‘6ft apart please!’. The rest hang quietly in corners, as if afraid of occupying space in the expanse between the road and archway. A jogger holds his breath as I pass. The woman with a pram fastens the plastic cover, and turns away. 200 metres away, beyond the gravel, and the arch and the police, Rishi Sunak- at his desk, and Boris Johnson- also at his desk but with 4 packets of opened tissues and defoiled paracetamol, discuss at length – on Microsoft Teams, I suppose, economic measures for the self employed, ventilators (or lack of), and tests for frontline staff (or lack of).
Its smells of chlorine near the Thames- metabolised by the road-level ventilators at London Country Hall Club, and spilling out from the automatic doors of St Thomas’s A&E, hurried by wind tunnels between 10 storey buildings. Three gowned, masked and goggled hospital staff manoeuvre a stretcher from an ambulance; the low pitched whirr of the power load, the mechanical squeal of extending legs, and the purr of rubber wheels on tarmacked surfaces- all before the hospital doors close behind them and the pulse of the roads resume. Intensive care units, IV drips, speckled floors and sweaty plastic seating in waiting rooms, beeping, lift buttons, dual-direction swing doors, white coats, blue gloves, half the staff, no empty beds. Outside, a relative sits on a bench with a cigarette; the ambulance restarts its engine and pulls away; I pedal home to a pantry filled with baked beans and tun tins.
By Mia Simovic, OxSID Co-President for TT20
*journey was a cycle ride for exercise purposes completed within 30 mins