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U3A Writing: City Of Contrasts

Virginia Nasmyth tells of a day in the life of a city.

The city sleeps.

It is three o’clock in the morning, too early yet for street cleaners and milkmen on their rounds. A few stray cats roam the streets, slinking silently along in the shadows, bent on raiding the dustbins, or on other nefarious errands. A sudden gust of wind catches a newspaper left lying in the gutter, and the rattle of a tin can shatters the silence of the night. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks.

A figure looms suddenly out of a shop doorway, stumbling and unsteady, disturbed out of his alcoholic sleep. He gathers his inadequate coat about him before settling down again, drawing himself back into the dark protective shadows.

Street lamps twinkle, the rays broken by the movement of the leaves on the trees. An ambulance rushes by, its lights flashing, intent on some errand of mercy in the night. An occasional car passes.

Mostly all is still.

The unbroken bulk of the cathedral casts a deep shade, looming over the other buildings near by. The houses in the Close huddle around the outer edges of the cathedral green, sharing the open and special space that they have graced for hundreds of years. The moon appears feebly between banks of scudding, grape blue clouds.

There are no people here. The city appears deserted, and the shops left unattended and locked up against intruders of the night. It is the time for sleep.

Now it is daytime, a spring day full of promise. The wind has dropped and the sun is shining, lighting the buildings and the streets. People mill around in the city, going about their daily lives, oblivious of each other and the night that has passed. It is a different world, a different city.

In the Market Place the stall holders have been busy since six o’clock, setting up their wares and greeting each other like the friends that they now are. They gather in twos and threes clasping hot mugs of tea in their work-reddened hands, gossiping about the other towns where they regularly visit and speculating on the business this day will bring. The stalls are filled with a variety of things, shoes and leather belts, olives and vegetables, cheese and flowers, and many other articles set out to entice the people.

Students, hung about with bags and books, hurry along the pavements. Housewives, on their busy tasks of buying food and necessities for their families, steal moments to stop and talk with friends. Business men and women, dressed to impress, drive to meetings and park their cars wherever there is room. The roads become congested with traffic and the impatience of the drivers shows in the worried expressions on their faces, and the sounding of horns. All is noise and activity, hustle and bustle.

The Cathedral stands impressive and unassailable, looking down at the city over which it presides. The sun glints on the many windows, and warms the colour of its stone. Weather vanes on the tower, sparkling against the blue sky, tell one and all the building is still there and will be for ever.

Amidst the rumble of the traffic, the clock on the cathedral wall strikes the hours and the quarters, keeping the business of the day ticking over and indicating the passing of time, as it has done for hundreds of years. It seems that nothing changes except the people.

Groups of tourists gather, ready for their conducted tours, eager to learn about the building that stands there so proudly. Smaller groups, risking the possible dampness of the grass, sit on the ground and eat their sandwiches. An old lady, dragging her wheeled basket behind her, makes her way homewards.

On the Green the pace of the day slackens, leaving the noise and bluster to the busy streets, and the quietness of the open space takes over.

As the afternoon passes, the pace of activity quickens again as throngs of school children make their way home. Visitors enter the cathedral restaurant for a well-earned cup of tea and rest for their weary feet. The market packs up its wares for another day and the stalls are dismantled.

The eye is caught by a crocodile of small figures - the choristers hurrying across the Green to sing Evensong in the Cathedral. The bells ring out to welcome the people and remind them of the purpose of the great building.

Slowly, as the light begins to fade, the street lamps take over, casting longer shadows and lighting up the dark corners. Windows are lit up in the houses, and families settle down for the evening. The shops are locked and lights extinguished. Car parks empty and the streets become quiet. Figures are seen entering restaurants and bars, eager for the revelries to begin. Solitary people make their way home for a quiet night before beginning a new day.

As the evening hours pass and the excitement of the day fades, the city withdraws into itself and the life-pulse slows, seems to falter, to stop breathing.

But it is not dead, only asleep.


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