My lecturer is reading out an Old English elegy. It’s about The Seafarer, tossed to the waves, enduring the elements. I heard the curlew’s sound instead of the laughter of men. Can you imagine the sea? She says. I can. Can you imagine the birds, circling overhead? She turns on a soundtrack of birdsong, and speaks over it. I can hear her syllables rolling like waves, overlapping with the cries of the curlew, seagulls, gannets. It soothes me into a state of drowsiness.
The words stop. I drag myself out of my reverie, move my hand to the mouse, and fiddle with the WiFi connection. It’s been playing up ever since that powercut. The lecturer’s face is frozen on screen, midspeech.
I feel, all of a sudden, very alone. Like an island, surrounded by cruel waves and mean birds. Anagenga, she said. That’s how the narrator of The Seafarer would have best described himself. It means lone walker, solitary one. I give up on the WiFi and turn to my notes instead. The rest of the lecture can wait.
I turn off my camera and my microphone, then realise that I forgot to exhale. So I do that. Then I yank my earbuds out and leave my laptop open on my desk like an unanswered question. Breathing is hard when you have to think about it.
Silence sounds different online. It’s not really silence: it’s the crackle of interference, the rustling as someone readjusts their camera. It’s the fact that I can see them, but I can’t really see them. What about her facial expressions; the incline of his chin; the way she twirls her hair around her finger when she’s nervous? I can’t pick up these clues anymore. I can’t really see them, not when they’re reduced to a collection of moving pixels.
So, how do we speak? We don’t. Not really. We just adjust our cameras, and pretend that it isn’t ironic that we’re doing a workshop on poetry, on silence, when the worst silence of all is ours.
Are you sure you want to leave this meeting? My computer asks me.
At the same time as seeing her on a Zoom call of twenty people - her face tiny among the squares - we’re messaging each other privately. This duality throws me off balance for a second, and I let it wash over me.
I dare you, she tells me, to slip a song lyric into the Zoom conversation. Make it look as casual as possible. See if anyone else notices.
I grin. She grins back, and somehow I know that it’s just for me. I’m waiting for the right moment, and suddenly it comes. I say it, and it feels silly and exhilarating. It’s funny how the smallest things can give you a rush of adrenaline.
She laughs, and in that moment, it’s just us. Everyone on the edge is out of focus.
Before lockdown, I was unhappy at university. Second term was drawing to an anticlimactic close, and I looked back on the experience from a sort of self-enforced distance. There were lots of things I didn’t want to reflect on: the messy breakdown of my relationship with my flatmates, frantically writing an essay at 2am, that one time I was left on my own in a nightclub.
In lots of ways, lockdown was a release from the unsavoury parts of university life. I didn’t have to live in my grimy student halls anymore, nor did I have to interact with people I didn’t like. University online is a pick-and-choose experience; if I don’t like what I see, I can simply log off, disconnect.
But life - real life - isn’t controlled by me. If I could filter out everything difficult, then I’d never grow. I’d live in comfort; I’d live in ignorance. I’m starting to learn that comfort and ignorance cross over frequently, and that they’re not my friends.
So, ironically, in an environment where my participation is dependent on the click of a button, I’ve learned to show up when things get hard. I’ve learned to reach out; to listen; to talk. It’s harder that way; it’s happier. It’s both things at once.