When me and Kristen were both working on essays, we used to keep in touch using messenger. It seems like a slightly strange way of communicating with someone who lives a few doors away, but it allowed us both to preserve the illusion that were still working hard. It was near the end of the spring Reading Week – the University of Kent's term for a week where lectures were suspended so that students can frantically write their essays – and I was still a long way behind schedule. At about 11pm a message pinged up on my desktop that just said: ‘I can't see. please come over.’
I should explain at this point that migraines run in my family. My mum gets them from time to time, and when I was a kid my brother used to get these crazy ones that lasted for days and gave him strange hallucinations. I'd never had one at this point in my life, but I knew what they were and how they progressed. As a result, my reaction to the news that my girlfriend had gone blind was one of concern rather than panic. Unfortunately, Kristen had no such prior experience, and had recently heard that a relative had suffered an aneurism. She was getting increasingly panicky as her vision reduced down to a little circle of blurry light in the centre of her eye.
I was pretty sure that what Kristen was experiencing was a regular migraine, but I didn't want to be the one who had to explain to her parents that their daughter’s head had exploded. I dialled the number for the university infirmary, although I wasn't entirely sure that such a thing existed, and explained the situation. They confirmed that they did indeed exist, and told me to bring Kristen over so they could check on her.
The infirmary was over in Eliot College, about 20 minutes walk from Kristen's house. To this day I'm not entirely sure where in the building the infirmary was – both Eliot and Rutherford colleges were built on strange, eccentric floor plans that don't seem to obey the normal laws of physics. I was still frequently getting lost looking for lecture rooms even in my final year. We walked all the way over there with Kristen clinging onto my shoulder and me calling out various obstacles as we approached them. Given that it was chucking-out time at the campus bars, no-one gave a second glance to someone leading their partner though campus with cries of ‘step!’ ‘kerb!’ ‘gravel!’
In the infirmary a nurse gave Kristen some more painkillers and led her to a dark room with a bed. I was allowed to stick around, and settled myself in the chair next to the bed. For the next few hours I sat there stroking her head with one hand and trying to write notes for my essay with the other. Unsurprisingly, the notes I wrote in the infirmary were completely useless, if nothing else, because I can't write legibly in the dark.
At about 1am Kristen’s eyesight had come back, and she was feeling a little better. We walked back to Homestall and I set her up in my room so I could keep an eye on her. We talked for a while but she soon fell asleep. I turned the brightness on my monitor right down and went back to my work. A few hours later she was woken up by her phone ringing. It was her mom, who had come off work to a barrage of panicky text messages from her daughter and was understandably worried. Kristen explained what had happened, paused for a few moments, and then passed the phone to me.
This was the first time I'd ever spoken to a member of Kristen's family, and I don't think I made the best impression. Well meaning, caring, but more than a bit simple. Karen thanked me for getting Kristen over to the infirmary, and for staying with her until she felt ok. I stammered awkwardly and turned bright pink (luckily she couldn't see that bit). I've never been good at parents, or praise.
I fell asleep with my face on the keyboard an hour later, having brought the essay up the required length to hand in later that day. I doubted that it would be given a passing mark, but it actually did quite well. By a bizarre stroke of luck, my lecturer – probably under the influence of too much coffee – misread my argument as something much more coherent than it was. In her notes she even talked about its interesting subtext (I wouldn't know subtext if you hit me with it) and praised the validity of a point that, looking back, I am sure I never made.