A Voyeur in the Foyer

The university feels empty this morning save for cleaners and janitorial staff wandering the halls. There are students in the building but they are all silently taking exams, which started half an hour ago. I decide to find a seat and read my book.

I walk over to the communal seating area outside the lecture theatres intending to sit on the sofa along the wall, but three men in blue overalls are sitting there chatting, so I instead perch on a nearby tall stool fixed to the floor at an oval lunch table. I can hear their conversation but I can’t seem to work out what it’s about, which is good: I can concentrate on my book.

Soon though a girl’s sobs and distressed declarations faintly echo through the hall. She must be behind a set of firedoors or inside one of the rooms. Her words are indecipherable but I think I recognise the conversation she is having.

Hinges creek and I can hear her voice more clearly as she walks down the corridor towards where I’m sitting. She passes from behind me into my line of sight and, accompanied by a man who I recognise as a lecturer from one of my second year classes, buys a bottle of coke from the vending machine with coins he hands to her. I hear broken phrases and can see she is crying: Somebody has died, she can’t concentrate, somebody told her to study everything on the course and she felt overwhelmed. The lecturer speaks in a whisper.

 

“Would you like something to eat? I can go and get you a banana or a sandwich if you like?”

She signals that she would like something to eat and he invites her to take a seat on one of the stools near me. He then quickly disappears up the corridor. So far the price of curtailing this conversation is £1.10 and what I assume is the packed lunch he is about to fetch from his office.

She sits on a stool with her feet swinging above the ground, clutching her bottle of coke with both hands, apparently reluctant to trust it to the table. She has bright blonde hair and a very pale face, but perhaps that’s the stress. I’m struck by how pretty she is and catch myself wondering whether she’ll say anything now that we’re sitting so close together in this big silent building. Perhaps I should take the initiative; she might want somebody to talk to. This notion collides in my mind with a suspicion as to my own motives. Do I think that because her emotional state is transparent, this is an opportunity to establish a rapport? How wrong of me it would be to cynically take advantage of the situation! I haven’t read a word for a couple of minutes now.

The lecturer returns with a sandwich and sits on a stool beside her.

“You should give it a try, lots of people surprise themselves by getting good marks in exams they think are too difficult. Could you answer any of the questions?”

 

“There were a couple I knew a bit about.”

 

“Look, I’ll have to tell the board of examiners that you were in no state to take the exam. You should finish eating and give it a try. I’ll need to get back in there now. Come on in when you’re feeling better, there’s still a lot of time left.”

 

He pats her slumped back he stands, before turning the corner and opening then closing a door.

 

She sits for a minute not eating or drinking on her stool.  I recognise what she is doing; I’ve done it too with essays and during study-leave before exams. She’s letting the passage of time make her decision for her. When a piece of work is daunting you can feel too weak to persevere but know that giving up is irrational while there’s still a chance of success. So you luxuriate in indecision until the clock informs you that the situation is now irretrievable and the decision has been made for you.

 

She should go back into the exam, I think to myself. The lecturer was hinting with his remark about the board of examiners that he and his colleagues would be generous in their marking of her paper. He can’t say it explicitly, but if she writes something- anything- he’ll endeavour to ensure it passes and she can come back next autumn. Her fear is making the wolf seem bigger. She’s probably a first or second year who doesn’t realise that markers have no desire to make you re-sit exams which they will then have to mark in the summer. I should tell her, as one who knows, before she makes the mistake of waiting too long.

 

“I do the same subject as you. You should go back in, the guy will mark your paper sympathetically. He doesn’t want to mark resits during his holiday.  All you need to do is pass, and they want that to happen. Don’t worry about the grade, it doesn’t matter.”

“These are my finals. There are no resits, and my grade does matter.”

 

I now realise that I am not sitting beside an emotionally incontinent first year whose pride has been hurt by a difficult exams paper, but a woman whose ambitions are collapsing. I can think of no mollifying response.

 

What was once a silence is now a dead conversation. What’s more, she knows that I had been listening to her and the lecturer. I had only been able to remain in my seat, inappropriately close to their private conversation, because I pretended to be engrossed in my book. I want to get up and leave, but I that would confirm her suspicion that I had been free to leave at any moment and refused to do so. I turn my eyes back to the book. I’m reading, that’s why I’m here. I can’t even remember what the characters had been doing before she arrived.

 

Nobody speaks. She knows I’m waiting her out.

 

She stands up, leaving the sandwich and bottle of coke, walks past me and follows the path taken by the lecturer. A door opens then closes.

 

I couldn’t create rapport and I couldn’t offer her any useful advice. I could, though, make her so uncomfortable that she was prepared to face a room of her classmates who had just witnessed her burst into tears.

 

Perhaps somebody needs to make me feel uncomfortable. After all, I’m only sitting here because I walked out of my exam too.

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