The Campus

by Nic Peard – an autobiographical piece

The Department looks out over an artificial lake and acres of marshland.

The marshland remains untouched for the most part. On some foggy, cold mornings, it seems like the marshland is only permitting the campus to come so far – or slowly stealing back. The lines blur. Nature bleeds into the site that once edged it out; even before lockdown, rabbits roamed free on the wide roads leading down to the lakefront, ready to flash at a moment’s notice into burrows on the green. I even saw a stoat one evening, looking out at me from a rabbit hole it certainly had no business being in, before it fled down a pipe.

When the seasons change, the urban wildlife stirs and then settles, dissolving back into the rhythm of the campus. The campus is famous for hosting aggressive waterfowl, but strangely it’s the pigeons that are my favourite. There are predators operating in the sky and on the ground, and the pigeons stick together on this campus in a way that I never saw them do in London. They flock, gathering in the recesses in the buildings just under rooftops, picking their way expertly through the spikes left there by an optimistic estate team. And when they’re startled, they take flight – brilliantly, together.

My office was on the first floor of the Department, which was perfect for viewing those flights. A cloud of shadows would dart across the wide windows out of the corner of my vision, and without fail I’d turn my head from my monitors to gape as they went by. Thirty pigeons together would go rushing by the window, casting the most wonderful shapes together before wheeling around to settle back in the building opposite. They weren’t swifts casting fantastic, flexing mirages in the sky, but their flight never ceased to thrill me, distracted for one moment from the tedium of button clicking, spreadsheet staring and emailing answering.

I’d feel like the last eight months would have been worth it if it meant I got to see those pigeons fly past that window again.

***

The view from the spare bedroom is… well. It isn’t terrible. It’s neatly proportioned, you have to give it that. Our garden and the hedge (both slightly overgrown) are portioned neatly with next door’s garden (not overgrown, very nice patio) and that’s all framed with a neat line of houses stretching diagonally back, right to left, over the suburbs. And it’s not as if I don’t have any sky – it’s just blotted in at the top, there. You can see it when you stand up and turn away from the screens, which I don’t do so much anymore. Too much to do.

It was such a mix of feelings at first. Being driven home by my line manager with my monitors in the boot of her car, threading wires down the back of the desk in the spare bedroom. I felt like a kid on holiday at first, being woken up in the middle of the night to catch a plane. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I was certainly thinking like a kid – playing a bit of make-believe to fend off the cold and burning fear rising faster in the pit of my stomach day by day.

The walls started to close in very fast after that. When news of national lockdown finally broke, my dad texted me. There’s little that fazes my father; pragmatic to the core, there’s no problem that doesn’t have a fix one way or another. Even if it’s a wrong one, or couldn’t possibly work, he never fails to offer a solution on the spot.

That evening, he texted me four words that drained the kiddy-holiday feel right out of me and opened the floodgates to that lurking, bubbling fear.

This is a nightmare.

Put bluntly, I was scared. I was so frightened that I would lose my job, that my partner would have nothing after their PhD, that they would die, that I would die, that my family, 400 miles away from me, would lose their jobs and then they would die, that we would all run out of food, that everything would fall apart, that nothing I had worked for would manifest and that it would all come undone in my hands, falling out between the gaps of my fingers like sand and there would be nothing. Nothing.

Put poetically, the pigeons I’d watched out of the window in my office froze in my mind’s eye. Suspended. Headed absolutely nowhere.

***

When we could be outside for more than an hour, I started walking to work. The moment that my nine-to-five had finished in the spare room, I would walk to the Department, and then come back home again afterward. It wasn’t as if there was anywhere else I could go. At that point, it was either claw back a sense of continuity or climb the walls.    

I took the same way that I always did – up the cycle path, through the new development, down the long road and onto the campus. I’d do a loop around the Department, (where I could see we’d left a window open) meander by the water’s edge and then head home back the way I came.

You might expect to hear that nature had reclaimed the campus in the absence of students and staff (wherein it turned out we were the virus this whole time, or whatever trite nonsense Twitter was comforting itself with) but that wouldn’t be quite right. It was true that it had been getting on just fine without us. While there was no ivy choking abandoned bike racks or wild boar roaming the car park, human life on the campus was certainly diminished. A fine layer of dust was settling on things. It was jarring to walk by windows to see office chairs with jackets still on their backs and mugs at the edge of desks which had been unoccupied for months. Walking around the Department, I could see through the glass doors that the big screens set up just before it all happened were still flashing fancy graphics. For no one.

But the swans had been busy.

The lake right by the campus had always been home to a trio of swans – a white pair who were in an on-again-off again thing with a black, single swan, who was known for chasing their cygnets off of the lake so he could have his partners to himself again. Well, other people’s children are really fucking annoying, one colleague had mused wryly to me when I’d started at the office and observed that year’s cygnets speed out of the reach of their menacing uncle, who was making attempts to chase them up the bank when their parents’ backs were turned.

Undeterred by their third’s objections to the matter, the white pair had nested again – but this time, they’d done so right by the lake’s edge. If you were careful and hung on to the railing, you probably could have touched it with your foot. Mr White Swan was very aware of this as I approached, and hissed at me as I came near. The flock of pigeons took off behind me, casting speeding shadows on the concrete path.

Black swan was nowhere to be seen.

Not mollified by my chummy murmur of you’re alright, mate, Mr White Swan folded his wings in a swan-huff as I turned to observe Mrs White Swan on the nest, who was also, understandably, not pleased to see me. She turned her head to narrow her beady eyes at me. I couldn’t see how many eggs she had then, but on future trips out to the Department I would count two huge eggs nestled up against each other in that picturesque spot among the reeds lining the edge of the lake. Starved for a little bit of logical connection between events, I immediately jumped to conclusions: would they have chosen to build their nest so close to an otherwise busy thoroughfare any other year? No, I didn’t think so. Finally – tangible, positive, proof of the circle of life sat in front of me. Things were out there persisting even though the human world had stopped. The swans at the Department were expecting, and there were reasons to keep going.

Mr and Mrs Swan tolerated the few snaps I took with my phone.

“This is great,” I said to them breathlessly. “This is really, really great.” I sent out the pictures at random to anyone I thought might like to see them. This genuinely made me weepy, one friend wrote back immediately. Thank you for this update.

***

I visited the swans several times over the ensuing weeks. I would pass by whoever was on the nest and ask them out loud for updates as if they could answer me, asking them to promise me that they were looking after the eggs and each other. I said to them that this was just going to be great and that it was going to help. We would all feel better when the babies were here. They would be the rising sun after a long dark night, and the light at the end of the tunnel made up of infection and death statistics.

As far as I know, both cygnets died.

More accurately, I think that one hatched and died, and its sibling died in its egg. That was all I could surmise on the day that I found out. One of the swans hissed from the reeds as I came near – not a preliminary warning like the first time I stumbled across them, but a real and truly unhappy demand that I back off. I couldn’t see either swan through the reeds, and then I rounded the corner to find the nest one egg down and the other unattended.

I looked back toward the reeds where I could only conclude the dead cygnet was, and back at the egg that its parents should be prepared to kill to protect – totally alone in its nest, and bared to the elements.

I sat down heavily on a bench nearby. “Oh, shit,” I said out loud. My voice got all thick. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

I came back once to the Department after that. Both of the swans had gone. The unhatched egg was still there. I watched a pair of moorhens clamber onto the abandoned nest, walk over the egg and hop off on the other side to go swimming through the reeds.

I did not come back to the campus for a long time.

***

I know why I latched onto the swans and the eggs as readily and intensely as I did, and took it so personally when the cygnets died. Every day was a bewildering spiral of anxiety and fear, and some days felt like I was waking up to another twenty-four-hour extension of an endless push forward. Every shove onward felt more and more futile. Like a lot of the population in early lockdown, I had vivid dreams, and would wake up in a deep panic I couldn’t fathom. On those days, I drifted between my office and my bed, haunting my own house rather than living in it.

It didn’t help, either, when the University started sending emails from HR that talked about voluntary options. The sector was headed down an infamous creek in a leaking boat and we might like to jump before we were pushed. I didn’t know what to do. Without a permanent contract and a partner about to finish their PhD and seek academic employment in the worst possible climate, I didn’t know what other choice I had other than to put in for voluntary severance in the hope that I could pay the rent for next year with the severance pay. My application did not mean that I was immune to redundancy, either – and so that endless push forward became a struggle toward a cliff-face I didn’t know was there until I stepped blindly over the edge. My application would ultimately be rejected and I would keep my job, but every morning I woke up anticipating a blow that was another day, a week, a month off.

Those swans and their babies were meant to have a beginning, middle and end that I was also being denied.

But I had forgotten about the pigeons.

Before the pandemic turned everything upside down, the pigeons outside of the Department window had been my own sign that things were not just persisting, but co-existing too. You could be inside, pressing buttons, and other things were taking flight and spreading their wings outside the office.

That isn’t to say that I hate my job and feel trapped in it. It was just the path I was walking down until a glowing exit sign came up where I would naturally step away, divert, and move on. And when I wasn’t walking, I was able to nurture and grow things that I’d pick up and carry with me until I was done walking for the day. Together, it felt like all the gears were grinding correctly, and things would take their logical course. One day in the not-too-distant future, I would not be in this office doing this. I would be doing something else that would come out of the things that I was doing outside of work and it would be what I really wanted to do, and it would be natural and good.

But all of that seemed to have vanished too, gone in a vacuum of months that blended into each other and days that seemed to each last ten thousand years. Everything that I had been working toward outside of the nine-to-five had gone up in smoke, with my immediate plans for the future as the kindling. But I needed something – anything – to punctuate these endless days. I started looking among the ruins of the structure of my life for meaning and purpose.

And I found it.  

Over lockdown, with the amateur dramatics group that had been the keystone to my existence before the pandemic, I directed and edited an audio drama. Two nights a week, we gathered together on Zoom calls to rehearse and record, figuring it out together and laughing the whole way through. Was it the same? Of course not – not even an approximate. But it was something, and we were grateful. We were grateful for the structure and purpose it gave all of us, and we basked in our persistence. Editing long into the night to get up the next morning, work, and then edit all over again felt like taking shuffling, baby steps down that path again in anticipation of a flickering exit sign.

Put simply, I found meaning through adapting to enormous circumstances, and worked a structure back into my life.

Put poetically, I had found a way to see the pigeons taking flight outside my window – by painting them on the glass.

***

My first walk back to campus after my time away was the week before the new student cohort was due to arrive and move into halls. Peering in through the glass doors of the Department itself, I could see new stickers on the floor and signs for one-way passages around the building. A great sheet of thick plastic had gone up between the lobby and the reception desk. I wouldn’t be back at the Department and at the office until January at the earliest, and I was okay with that. I hoped to come back when I could walk freely around the building again. 

I didn’t go to see the nest. The way was blocked by new building works, and I was grateful for it. I didn’t want to see what had become of the egg that had been left behind. Instead, I leant on the wooden railing nearby, braced against the incoming chill in a new coat. A trio of ducks saw me from the other side of the lake and came speeding over in the hope I had something to eat – not an unreasonable hope, since the corner shop at the top of campus sold bags of bird feed. They milled about by my spot at the edge, but dispersed when something much larger came over. My breath caught.

The black swan had come back.

“And where the bloody hell have you been?” I asked him as he eyed me side-ways. Of course, he didn’t answer, and it was none of my business anyway. I looked up across the lake, following the rippling trails of the departing ducks, and there they were too – Mr and Mrs White Swan, right over the way.

Just as I processed what I was seeing, the pigeons took flight from the building opposite. They curved spectacularly through the air, going right past my window in the Department. Standing outside, I could see them just as clearly as I had from the inside. The burst of brilliant activity was still such a thrill and I watched, beaming, as they looped around and settled back under the awnings where they’d flown from.

And I was inordinately glad.

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