Be Still


He was snowed under, to tell you the truth. A commercial law essay on the relationship between risk and frustration was kept at bay by the endless searching of his inbox. An email from Moonpig, reminded him that his ex-girlfriend’s birthday was coming up. Avoiding his work, he sat in the library surrounded by productive peers and their serious degrees.

He was in the “relaxed” section of the library, people smiling at their laptops, a stark contrast to level four, above him. An unspoken rule had made it the domain of dissertation writers; and academic pretenders, who he was sure hadn’t even read any Dickens… or any decent novel in their life. Then again, he reasoned, no one would be able to look at numbers for days on end if they had encountered any true exploration of the (painful) human condition.

Avoiding true thought and therefore pain; that’s the key. Oh, don’t be so melodramatic! His mum would probably say. The girl sat in front of him had bought a metal stand for her laptop, so she could keep her neck at a more comfortable angle. She had a stress ball that she was constantly groping; it was an obnoxious orange. Gone were the days of academics pouring over tiny print, surrounded by books that created a formidable ring around them and blocked out the world better than any headphones could.

He claimed music helped him work. His mum, a psychologist had explained it in terms of bandwidth? Some people (intelligent people she had assured him) required the mental stimulation of music to help them focus on their work. People had managed without it back in the day, but now apparently, he couldn’t concentrate five minutes without a change of song, rhythm and beat. It was this alone which helped stimulate his brain to the degree necessary for him to focus on commercial law.

Somewhere a man on the tannoy spoke tinnily to discuss important library matters; the interruption, he was sure, would require the attention of every student in the building, surely. He listened. Nope. Students removed their headphones only to be told that the library would shortly be closing at its normal time. He wondered how the speaker resisted chirping some nonsense down the microphone, using his power to distract the students in
the building for longer than ten seconds, to give them something of value to return to their student houses with, a tangible story that none of their friends would believe.

‘The speaker man told us to all go fuck ourselves and our inability to put cans of Redbull in the bin!’

‘The speaker man told us some joke about three nuns in a bath.’

No-one would believe them. Maybe it would be so quick that no one could record it. That’s the thing with today’s world, anything veering off the edge of ‘ok’ is immediately recorded to be held against you forever. You’ve got to be careful.

But maybe all the staff would already by gone so the speaker man wouldn’t lose his job. Maybe people would see the funny side of it? He was intrigued by how it all worked in any case. Where was this little man speaking to the hundreds of students from? Was he automated, just a figment of some past speech recorded to be played again and again. Was he even little? Mundane and pointless questions. Mysteries that were so much more interesting than commercial law.

He would go find out. Finally purposeful, he got up, leaving all but his phone at his desk. First point of call: reception. Outside was dark; he noticed as he walked past the windows. Time was a weird abstraction of reality in the library. If you couldn’t see any natural light, you’d quickly lose any grasp on it, like in an airport where people could have pints at 7am because it was actually 7pm. Fantastic! Peering through the Covid-preventing Perspex meant he could see the desk was empty. The speaker man must have been doing the rounds after making the announcement. There! A little microphone and big orange button next to it. Only isolated from him by the Perspex. No, wait, there’s a little door; or, well, normal sized. Unlocked. He went through.

Don’t people need motives to do things? Don’t acts like the one he was about to do require some sort of political impetus? ‘Vote communist!’ he shouted down the tannoy. Only joking – he had no political thoughts of any kind. He still had his phone in his hand, and his headphones on. They were noise cancelling. It was just him, the music and his tannoy. An old band, The Killers; they were his mum’s favourite.

Slowly, he removed his headphones. The music stopped. He pressed the orange button and static filled the library. Students looked up from their work expectant and slightly vexed at the prospect of another announcement, they still had a few minutes to pack up and leave, surely? Pressing play on his i-phone the small speakers started to play that song. He moved his phone closer to the microphone and suddenly the whole library was filled with music. He could feel it pressing against his face and clothes.

‘Be still and go on to bed
Nobody knows what lies ahead
Life is short to say the least [hah]
We’re in the belly of the beast

Be still.’

He left his phone propped against the tannoy and walked out of the library. The speakers were louder than he’d expected, and he could still hear the music outside as he walked aimlessly. He missed his mum, he’d obviously hated her service of ‘celebration’. Commercial law seemed stupid when faced with the reality of the human condition of constant goodbyes. He sat down on a bench opposite the library, cold and suddenly aware that he’d
left his coat. Students, started to pour out of the library. They were all smiling, slightly confused, but happy. The music carried on, flowing out of the open door with the throng of students. Pressing against them too. They walked home with a story.

It was such a meaningless act, to play the song his mum had written down for him when he’d left for university. He missed her, but when her song played around the library, she’d made four-hundred-odd academic robots feel something again.

Image Credit: Myra Kapur Dutta

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