On Friday morning, I went for a walk with Anna around Cambridge. Only, Anna was on FaceTime, inside my phone, which I was holding up in my hand.
We started our walk in Market Square. For the three years we were at university here, we would cycle through this square almost, if not every, day: we would come here to buy flowers, fruits, and vegetables, and it would be the place to meet friends for lunch, or for wandering through alone, with breakfast.
Having left uni abruptly at the beginning of the Spring lockdown several months ago, we were now returning to this square, and to the town, for the first time. Neither of us, nor the many other graduates in our year, had undergone the conventional farewell rituals that the end of university brings with it: life had paused for a while and then jumped straight forward into the next section, without the bridge of graduation to close the gap between the two.
As we talked in the middle of the square, and I moved the camera around to show Anna the people moving between the stalls, the church on one side of the square, and the buildings binding its perimeters, we both felt a mixture of emotions, nostalgia, and also disconnection.
I walked with Anna through the streets branching off from the square, towards the Sainsbury’s on Sidney Street. This was the place we would both come to, along with the rest of the student population, for a big shop every few days. One of my first memories with Anna was cycling here together and filling up a basket with aubergines, couscous, tomatoes, and various other foods to cook together later that evening.
Anna asks me to take her to her old accommodation, just next to Jesus Green, one of the big open parks on the edge of the town centre. I follow the old route, past the Round Church and the Maypole, which we cycled along on our way to cooking at our accommodation or picnicking on the Green in warmer weather.
Anna and I stand opposite the windows of the rooms she once lived in. Although I am not sure if Anna can make it out through my phone camera, I can see faint, dark figures moving inside, merging with the reflections of the street.
Then, we walk on, along the river to Magdalene, back through the centre of town, and towards Anna’s old department, where she has asked me to take her to. As I walk with FaceTime open in my hand, I switch entirely from selfie mode to the external phone camera, so that Anna can see the various streets along which we are passing. Both looking at what we can see in the small image which my phone camera projects on the right of the screen, we point out to one another places familiar to us. There is our favourite dumplings stall, there is a shop we would both go into from time to time, there is the window of a mutual friend’s old room. As Anna and I observe these scenes around us together through my phone camera, I too think quietly of the memories I find flooding back as I look at the images. I sat my first Cambridge exam in that building there; there is my favourite ice-cream shop where I used to go for a treat most evenings in the summer terms; there is the church I would wander into in the evenings for moments of reflection and peace.
But as I look from the phone and observe the scenes around me with vision unmediated by the screen, I find that others are moving through the spaces Anna and I are so actively pasting over with our own memories. Someone else has taken up a window seat I would habitually sit in, in a cafe I once would have retreated to on rainy afternoons. Unfamiliar people leaf through the same books I would have browsed in the free time between lectures and supervisions.
I look back to the phone screen and continue to talk to Anna, taking her through the town. I realise then that, on this walk, the phone screen has become an opportunity for Anna and me to relive what once was, to recapture a time which has irrevocably and utterly passed away.
I am reminded of a practice popular on Instagram and other sites of comparing photographs ‘then and now’. Photographs taken in the same location are overlapped with one another. The only difference between them is that a significant lapse of time has occurred between their captures: a child stands in the same spot by the same elephants in a zoo as their mother stood in, decades ago. For the overlapping technique to work, the scene must be visually near-identical for the viewer to recognise that it is the same place, just a different time. Yet, in this ‘then and now’ process, the scene itself begins to alter as it splits from one whole into two splintered variations of itself. Time, different associations, and photography change a scene which was once visually objective into smaller, subjective, personal versions of itself. The world which held the zoo and the animals in the photograph with the mother is not the same world which holds her child and the elephants, decades later.
Cambridge is no longer ours: our version of it exists merely on the screen with Anna. We can mentally place our memories over it as we look through the camera, we can even literally photoshop and copy ourselves into the screenshots we take of the scenes around us as we talk. I walk back towards Market Square. We have revisited our old haunts, inhabited them for a few ghostly, fleeting moments, our past experiences almost made real. I always knew it would be like this, that is true.
But all of those months of lockdown, of sitting inside and waiting: how could time have moved on so quickly, that the home I once had has vanished, replaced with an impartial version of itself?
I have scheduled in a session of nostalgia today between 12 and 1 pm today. Just enough time between a submission deadline at 11.30 and my afternoon at Zoom school. I didn’t want to go up to Cambridge with Julia because the place unsettled me last time. It feels full of murky memories, unworked-out feelings, friendships half undone.
I’m desperately trying to construct a busy life for myself here in London but from 12 to 1 I decide to indulge in a whistle stop tour of my past life. I am perched on the inside of Julia’s hand, sipping my ginger tea on her iPhone screen. And Cambridge is shown to me through the safe distance of my computer screen.
In many ways it feels just like a normal chat with a friend. But we had built up this idea of conducting a virtual haunting of Cambridge as one of our many Viral Papers plans. Building up towards moments of excitement which culminate in us executing ideas is something Julia and I have always done together. We feed off each other’s enthusiasm and make small projects take on an excitement of their own through the approval of the other.
However, over the screen the ideas of depth, of nostalgia, of new ideas that might come from this experience of virtual revisiting feel hollow. I am poised with my pen but I don’t know if anything will come. I think that both Julia and I feel like we will unlock some connection to or revelation about the past by undertaking this common ritual. But through the screen I struggle to feel any special attachment to the sights she reveals to me.
What is it that I am hoping to feel or grasp hold of perched here in the palm of my friends hand? I enjoy bossing Julia around and directing the steps that she takes for me through the streets. She walks the route I know so well between Sainsburys and my old accommodation. I tell her where to point the camera and how to let me take a glimpse of my old bedroom window.
Although Julia diligently shows me my old room, the kitchen I shared, the entrance to my college and my favourite libraries and market stalls I don’t feel anything profound or acute. No deep memories, no uncovered feelings, no new associations or revelations. As Julia writes, there are now a set of strangers inhabiting the places which used to be mine. The spaces she shows me have no special imprint on them to mark them out as mine, once mine, inhabited by me.
But the whole thing becomes exciting as a way of experiencing a body through the virtual. Maybe this is how the space scientists directing probes on alien planets feel when they try and collect samples and photographic evidence. They have to inhabit the body of an alien and direct with computer controls the movements and sensory perceptions of another being thousands of miles away.
Julia is a different type of machine. She starts to take control of the journey as we approach a cluster of her favourite churches. This is my favourite part of the 1 hour slot I had made for ‘Nostalgia’. She shows me her favourite church and explains how it relates to the special shape of the poems of a 17thC poet she learned about. While I don’t discover anything new about my Cambridge I learn about how she relates to these spaces through her experiences. She tells me about missing going to the churches between supervisions. I feel like I can inhabit Julia’s world, riding frantically on a small bicycle through the streets of Cambridge as I so often used to see her whizzing past. Inside the palm of her hand I imagine Cambridge from an alien perspective. While I don’t unlock any of my own nostalgias, I learn about the Cambridge Julia loved.