In the three minutes before the half in rows and columns, adjusting the table or folding our hands, looking up at the adults turning to the clock sometimes dozing at the half and it flying past, sitting we wait. Only our shoulders and heads are above the lake of time flowing past, looking down we see ourselves sitting submerged, the silver lake moving past, aging them all alike there in that room in three minutes like never before or again.
And imagining to see them all rowed there in those minutes, in all the rooms to the left and the right in Elvet Riverside; in Earth Sciences the same time streaming through the windows with the streaming sunlight, lighting their still backs and on another day the fall of the rain over Maiden Castle accompanying the time before half past nine, and waltzing over the underflowing river to those growing old in Caedmon Hall and all those on Claypath walking and lifting and turning in the morning without exams and not stressed for one week but for most of the weeks of the year and those dying at 9.28 in the morning on a sunny day and in the rain on a prawn boat off Thailand at 15.29 and on this long day 6th of June seventy years ago on the strand of France at 6.30 in the morning when they were washed ashore at twenty, and their friends flying back seventy years later at ninety to cry, and at 2.30 in the middle of the night on Easter Island the stone faces look out to the sea as it withdraws and returns, and with a last ironic baleful look at the invigilators looking sternly back, we may begin.
After exactly an hour and a half, I hear many pages turn behind me, as if they had all come together to make me nervous at 11 in the morning by finishing their first essay timed to the minute and me only halfway through and changing my course right in the middle of it.
And the girl that sat in front of me the last time we were in this room and looked at me in distaste when she found me here still has taken off her jumper and her top is cut sharply especially at the back so I have a purple bra clasp in front of my nose now and her white top constantly rippling is making it difficult to concentrate and then I stay for a few seconds now almost a minute in the middle of my purple patch should I write that joke about sex I ask, do I need to draw added attention to the words ‘they never truly come together’ in this essay about sexual mismatching, do they really want that, well it depends who’s reading it but on balance I mean really they probably don’t.
With fifteen minutes remaining, as the man says the words, the ink stops flowing from my fountain pen and I calmly take up the spare cartridge, put it down calmly to unscrew the nib of the pen, but my fingers too wet with sweat to get a proper grip on the surface panicking now ripping the old cartridge out and the new one not fitting crushing it in, ink all over my hands which I like because it looks like I’ve been busy creating today but the cartridge not fitting and no ink flowing anywhere at all and now the nib being bent in my pain in my hand from the nib, wet with ink and sweat, throwing the red fountain pen aside, picking up my emergency bic, which is much thicker and my letters now overflowing the line boundaries grossly for a few minutes before the half is tolled.
Late in the day, ‘How did it go?’
‘It went all right.’