Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls
At the north tip of west Cowes, there is a run-down wall and a row of overgrown sycamore trees around the outside. Pushing through the rusting iron gates reveals a building with five wings, built in a mid-Victorian Gothic style. It’s a low building, only two floors, but it squats on the landscape as if it was much larger. It always seems to have a covering of frost, regardless of the weather elsewhere in the town or the in the real world. Through office windows near-blocked with frost-laden cobwebs, august academics can be seen shuffling papers, reading books, and writing treatises.
Walking up the path to get to the door, visitors must take care not to slip on the heavily iced steps and which extends inside along the corridor’s parquet floor. The only lights in the building are naked electric light-bulbs that swing slightly in an unfelt breeze. Voices drift from doors that line the corridors.
Behind at least one of the doors is a classroom, packed full of students making notes on a lecture delivered by a tall, thin man with milk-bottle glasses pushed up to the top of his nose. He stops frequently to push them back as they slip down. His voice is dry and crackling, the lecture boring and tedious. This scene is repeated behind countless other doors, by a range of similar lecturers in male, female, and others. Behind other doors sit small, cramped offices elderly men and women sit alone at desks surrounded by papers and dusty quartos, writing new piles of notes.
Everything is covered in either dust or frost, including the people, but none of them seems to notice nor to be cold. No one pays any attention to visitors, continuing on with their work or their studies. The only person who acknowledges the visitors is the secretary. She is found at the far end of the main corridor, a destination that feels as if its miles away by the time you reach it. A simple wooden door with a frosted piece of glass opens into a departmental office where the pale, pinched woman behind the desk will smile curtly, nods, and directs visitors to the catalogue. It is the size of a phonebook, with minuscule and cramped, and the secretary directs any inquisitive visitor to it for answers to their questions. The catalogue makes several references to a map, but no map can be found in the book or anywhere in the collage.
The catalog turns out to be a schedule of courses and lectures, but infuriatingly and frustratingly arranged in the order that the lectures are given rather than by subject or location. A random selection of the list looks like this:
“An examination of the adolescent dreams of Martin Suggs, mechanic, Ryde.”
“The movements of aphids in the garden of Theresa West, Cowes.”
“Exegesis of a domestic contretemps between Mr. and Ms. Scott, High Street, Newport.”
“Reader-response criticism of the book Iris Page (Cowes) never managed to write.”
“The dreams of pop idoldom of Jade Wright, nine year old, Yarmouth.”
The visitor can walk, randomly, through the college’s corridors for an hour or more, not really feeling the cold, pouring through the list, and never achieving anything. There is only one place that is barred to them, and that is a door found at the bottom of the sole set of stairs to a basement. The door is covered in chipped blue paint and there is a sign screwed on at eye level: Thesis Store. The door is never unlocked.