Naomi sat in the comforting languishment of Newnham gardensNaomi Fester with permssion for Varsity

The tidal rush of Cambridge life is addictive. One is jostled through essays and questions, meetings and lectures, seminars and extracurriculars – and even (God forbid!) social engagements. The student is tossed to-and-fro in crashing waves, tugging at the main sails and guided by the bright North Star, the gleaming light of “a bit of down-time” at the end of term. By the end of May week, this had made me uneasy and self-pitying. Staying in Cambridge for chapel choir should have provided a glimmer of hope, promising relaxing mornings and nothing-to-dos. Yet, like the sailor, I found myself pulled to the siren song of a relentless term-time pulse, reluctant to find my land-legs. Dwelling on this strangely addictive seasickness has helped me navigate the withdrawal from Cambridge since.

Zooming out

Left languishing, I have found myself surprised by how consoling aloneness can be. Sitting solitary, in the Botanic Gardens, I relish the rustle of leaves humming descant to the giggles of infants playing, chasing nothing-in-particulars in the midday sun. They run between trees that creak and among grasses that whisper secrets too soft for busy children, shimmering gossip too wild for the city thrum. Traffic sighs its rhythmic sigh, but in front of me – for me, it seems – sway swathes of lazy purple and agitated streamers of yellow and orange.

I expected that, any minute, I would feel alone; not just alone, but lonely. I expected that, with not a single word owed to a supervisor, no stringent revision routine to follow and no “God-forbidden” social plans, I would be hollow and starkly exposed. A mould of productivity with nothing to cram inside. Such is the academic hustle-culture to which so many of us are accustomed.

The leaves hum, kids giggle, trees creak, grasses gossip

But time, in a place so usually battling each minute, was let loose like an excited bee at the opening of a window. The leaves hum, kids giggle, trees creak, grasses gossip, and the swathes and streamers all seem to bring my view back into perspective. I’ve unwillingly taken my eye away from the spyglass that magnifies the essays, the lectures, the exams; in doing so, I’ve turned my gaze to what is happening around me, now. At some point – perhaps when the sunlight pouring through my window in the mornings stopped making me wince with the loss of sleep – time began to slow and glow warmly, flooding the crevices of life that have been, in term-time, sorely neglected.

Looking Up

"Chapel has been a still solace, in these slothful days"Naomi Fester with permission for Varsity

Being in chapel has been a still solace, in these slothful days. Here, I seem a transient jigsaw piece in the abiding architecture. Indifferent beams glower down at expressionless pews, the stark stone holds its breath as if waiting, anticipating. Dust spangles the air, suspended perfectly at the top of the breath, in the lazily blinking gaze of a setting sun. And then, we sing. Voices reaching into the indifference, filling the empty seats with melody, making the ancient building sigh, disturbing the air, moving the motes to life, to dance, in the golden light. Each vowel makes the stone bulge, an inhalation, each consonant a sharp heartbeat that fills and centres. A heartbeat that makes time all the more filling. Here there is a sense of being a part of something beyond myself, something living and transcendent; not God perhaps, but something. All this from the darkly gilded choir stalls of a familiar evensong rehearsal.

Bagel breakfasts


Mountain View

Notebook: Champagne and socialism in the Carolean age

As I eat my simple bagel breakfasts, tucked into the hard window-seat of my room in Clough, I realise my own heartbeat seems full at the moment. A deep, constant bass note that underscores the day, the hour, the minute; I can feel it now, reminding me of myself, letting me romanticise the under-toasting of bagels and copious overspreading of cream cheese. Breathing a deep breath, I feel a strange peace at the doughy smell. I am taking time. Not exactly “down time”, but time in which I am immersed, fully and unapologetically. Being “in” time – not like handing in work “just in time” (at 4:49 pm perhaps, for a 5:00 pm deadline) or arriving for a meeting “in time” (looking harassed and bedraggled, naturally). In time, as in feeling the currents around you, and tasting its salt; not battling the waves but surging with them, surely and calmly lapping the shoreline, and feeling every moment.

Simple pleasures, like those fairly beige breakfasts, have been a reminder of what’s important, of what sense of time I want to hang on to. The feeling of turning a page; of peeling a tangerine; the release of that first morning stretch; of sleeping on clean sheets and the first sip of coffee; and of singing too loudly, and the sound of water, and the scent of honeysuckle at my window, and dust in the air, and trees talking and bagels with too much topping. I want to anchor myself to these small happinesses and chart a new course through the addictive Cambridge swell – to somewhere in tune with time.