By Isobel Maxwell
Time has a different meaning in Cambridge. I have a feeling it has always been this way. Even before the university was founded, I like to think that the fens were the sort of rip-van-winkle place that, ripe with miasma, would slow minutes to years and speed years into the space of seconds. The result is that the eight to ten weeks that make up the term – the short time we are given here – pass simultaneously in moments and yet seem to take years to go by. Last year I stuffed so much into Michaelmas term that, back home and recounting ‘what I did in my first term’ over the Christmas dinner table my brother laughed and refused to believe me – and my mother looked worried and asked if I needed to take a break. Perhaps my actions were inadvisable, but Cambridge presented too tempting an opportunity not to take up; here was a place where the day runs on hyperdrive, and here I am to race along with it. I come from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere; nothing ever happens. I often joke that people go there to die. Sometimes I feel dead, being there; or if not dead, then caught in that same hovering place that dead people seem to exist in when you remember them, frozen in the activity of memory. Moving slowly, as if in honey. Days there are slow, weeks are slow, years are slow. Being in Cambridge, I could swear my heart beats faster. If I were to live here I think I would probably die young of a worn out ventricle. Perhaps I’d learn to ignore the pace and find my own. Perhaps I’d find a happy place in the middle and learn to cope; but I don’t make the mistake of optimism often.
Before, I couldn’t help feeling guilty in Cambridge. Like the buildings, guilt seemed a part of the city. Guilt over time: lost time, wasted time, stolen time. I felt guilty for time spent sitting in rooms drinking tea and talking, time that I was aware was chipped from the edges of lunchtimes and between supervisions and lectures and essays and the library. I felt guilty for time wasted not drinking tea and talking, usually whilst sitting in supervisions or lectures or essays or in the library. I used to sit there, in our historic library, simmering in the light of the stained glass and the steady wash of guilt that enveloped and subsumed any concentration and good intentions I might possibly have arrived with. Balance is not something I felt able to maintain here, and yet – sometime during Lent – I came to cherish that chaos. If Cambridge refused to keep to normal pace, normal time, I didn’t need to learn balance. I would outrun the clock. I was racing.
But here we are. If I was naïve enough to believe that Cambridge was a force of nature, I’ve been proved wrong. It wasn’t unchangeable. Time has frozen, paused, blurred, become soupy and strange. There are new rules. I am no longer on hyperdrive but am hovering in the way I used to in Gloucestershire. Things are moving in a different way, have flipped. There are less opportunities now, to sit and talk; everyone rushes around, literally wearing masks covering their face up to their eyes in the sense that now is not a time to stand around and talk. It isn’t safe, it isn’t sensible, it isn’t the right thing to be doing. And yet I find myself slipping between hours spent in my room, unsure of what I was doing. Where did the minutes go? Can I get them back? Where did I put them? How did I use them? I’m beginning to feel hard done by, as though my life is being stolen from me. Perhaps I am making up for all the time I stole last year.
And yet, I can’t fairly pretend that things are catastrophic. There are still moments that remind me of the point of it all. I have begun sleeping in the bed of a boy who I am in love with. We stay up past our bedtime and watch The Office when we should be watching lectures or reading books. In the snatches between layers of sleep I wake and I see his face, lit by the lamps that stay on all night, though there are no clubbing kids to guide home. Or I water my plants on my windowsill, notice new pale circles on the leaves or outcroppings. I take clandestine trips to Sainsbury’s and think about Ginsberg and O’Hara and oranges. I catch the breeze over the river.
It is moments like this when Cambridge works its magic and I feel the clock flicker; a moment like that lasts the whole day. Perhaps there were always moments like that to be found, but I was so busy I never had a chance to notice them. I am, now. Even if nothing else, I am noticing the moments, and the new movement of time.