Georgina was sitting on the train and looking at a young couple in front of her. He, with his hair slicked backwards, thick eyebrows, which changed direction in the middle and three, barely perceptible wrinkles adorning his forehead, reminded her of the old movie stars James Dean or Alain Delon. She, with her crow-black hair and dark make-up on porcelain skin, which rendered her a bit otherworldly, also looked like a movie star, although Georgina wasn’t able to pinpoint her to specific character or film. They were a beautiful couple. However, the way the young woman tried to draw his attention to her, while he was immersed in his mobile phone, suggested that their relationship would not last. Georgina knew such situations from her own past, when she was craving male attention, while he was preoccupied with something else: himself, basically. Gadgets had changed, mobiles replaced PCs, but men remained the same; at least the seemingly attractive men on whom she wasted her best years.

After a while, she got bored with observing the couple and started to read a short story, randomly chosen from a thick volume by Vladimir Nabokov. This was a book recommended to her by her friend Tony on the account of creating a very precise, tactile universe, making one feel a part of its world. Maybe it was true, but so far she was rather bored with the long descriptions of nature and the life of aristocrats in pre-revolutionary Russia or Berlin, where these people later settled. This was not because the stories were bad, but because she lacked a literary education. The alternative was Game of Thrones, which her son was devouring, or 50 Shades of Grey, which her friend Lucy described as ‘so bad that it makes even a shop assistant feel like a literary critic,’ but she felt these books were not for her either, being somewhat too crude. She would have to ask Tony for more suggestions, to point her to a kind of contemporary Nabokov, writing about the England of today and without descriptions of nature. She was sure he knew at least a handful of such writers.

Georgina had known Tony for over 20 years. She was one year older than him, but they had the same PhD supervisor and they started their academic careers about the same time. However, he progressed quickly and became the youngest professor in his discipline, getting this title when he was only 34, while she was slowed down by three children, two divorces and what looked like a lack of focus or ambition. But she also got her chair eventually, just before her 50th birthday. Tony and Georgina rarely discussed personal matters, but she felt close to him and she liked talking to him at conferences or when they visited each other’s institutions. Apart from being a true expert in his field, he seemed to know many things about literature, music, food, wine, sport; everything, really, which eluded her. She saw him as somebody belonging to bygone times: the last bon vivant in a world where there was no space left for autonomous pursuits. Because she liked him so much, it made her sad to think that he was unsuccessful in his personal life, being single and childless. Of course, there are people, especially academics, who are fulfilled precisely because they do not carry the burden of family and can devote themselves entirely to their studies, but he was not this type. He was yearning for family life, indeed more than she ever did. This was detectable in the way he told her about his nephews, whom he took for holidays, even when they were small. This also made Georgina sad because neither of her ex-husbands or other men in her life were such ‘new men.’ They all regarded her career of secondary importance to theirs and left her with the bulk of the housework.

She was thinking about this on her way to Tony’s university, where she was supposed to examine one of his PhD students. It might have looked like a favour to a friend, but the thesis was excellent, as everything Tony did, be it writing academic papers, teaching, or supervising students, so she was sure her professional integrity would not suffer. In the meantime, the beautiful couple got off the train and it was getting darker. Georgina caught her own reflection in the window. She still looked attractive and relatively young, despite not doing much to improve her appearance, as proved by the fact that in her forties she had some lovers who were younger than her. But now all of them had left and it occurred to her that she might give Tony a chance. Speaking objectively, he was the least attractive man in her life, being overweight, having the puffy face of an overgrown baby and clothes belonging to a different decade. But these things could be taken care of and ultimately were not that important. Perhaps she would ask Tony if he wanted to accompany her and her youngest son on a vacation to Crete. Given that he liked children so much and was not blessed with any of his own, it should be a pleasure for him. Once on holiday together, things would take the right course. Georgina was congratulating herself for her cunning plan, regretting only that never before did she treat Tony as a potential match. She was thinking about the supper she would have this evening with Tony and the internal examiner. Normally such pre-viva meals were tedious, therefore sometimes she arrived late to avoid them, but this time she felt excited, thinking about the casual way she would propose to Tony this ‘family trip.’

In the hotel, Georgina changed her clothes, putting on a black dress with a red scarf and sprinkling herself with her recent discovery, which was a perfume named ‘Death Decay.’ She thought that its lily of the valley smell rendered her slightly goth, proving that there was a certain seductive mystery to her. She stood in front of the large mirror to make sure she looked good. She did, even better than some months before, thanks to losing weight and changing her hairstyle.

Georgina arrived in the restaurant ten minutes late to make sure that the other men were waiting for her. But there was only the other examiner, Sam, who explained that Tony would arrive a bit late. This was not like Tony and disappointed Georgina a bit. And then he came with a young woman. He hugged Georgina and said to her, ‘Let me introduce you to my fiancée Becky,’ and to Becky, ‘this is my oldest academic friend; we did our PhDs at the same university. You were probably a toddler then.’

Georgina smiled, but was uncomfortable. It felt like in one stroke she had lost a chance for romance and was reduced to an old hag. Becky, indeed, looked almost like a teenager, although it transpired later that she was the mother of a six-year-old daughter. In a tight purple dress with a silver pattern, long curly hair dyed in three different colours and dark makeup, not unlike the young woman on the train, she looked like a cross between a bride and a goth, rendering Georgina’s attempt at goth-ising herself invisible. It occurred to Georgina that Becky was in transition between her previous identity of a rebel and a bourgeois wife. Tony was also somewhat in transition, being dressed in his usual old-fashioned white shirt and grey tie, but wearing trendier shoes. Although the turn of events took Georgina aback, she was playing it well, being as entertaining as she was capable of, given her limited general knowledge. Luckily, Becky’s knowledge about wines, sport, and literature was even more limited, so it went quite well. At one point, Becky confessed that Georgina’s life was for her an inspiration, as she’d achieved a lot despite adverse circumstances. Becky also hoped for that, recently embarking on a postgraduate course. She did not conceal the fact that Tony was also part of her plan to improve her life: ‘I was doing shitty jobs all my life, never had enough money to go on holiday, and struggled as a single mum. Tony’s promised me this life is over.’ And then, turning to Tony, she said, ‘You are my treasure.’

Tony smiled, maybe embarrassed by Becky’s openness, but also seemed happy. After all, better to be loved for willing to take a girl out of misery than not be loved at all. He took Becky’s hand and said, ‘You are my treasure, too,’ and looked deep into her eyes. Georgina, who sat next to Tony, managed to see his reflection in Becky’s eye and it seemed that it was a different Tony, with a longer face and larger eyes.

The next day was the exam, which went smoothly, as expected. Georgina decided not to stay for lunch, only going for a coffee with the PhD candidate and Sam, who later took her to the departmental office, where the secretary scanned her train ticket and taxi receipt to claim travel expenses. The secretary was an oldish woman whom Georgina had met a couple of times before. She was always chatty, rightly assuming that Georgina was not a random visitor but Tony’s old friend. After complaining about the weather, she asked if she’d met Tony’s fiancée. When Georgina said ‘yes,’ she asked in the manner of a rhetorical question:

‘Are they not a beautiful couple?’

‘Yes, they are,’ replied Georgina, as obviously there was no other way to respond.

The following weekend, she met Lucy and told her about her academic friend with a girlfriend over 20 years his junior.

‘Old guys with young chicks make me sick and for more reasons than one. Firstly, this is pure exploitation. Secondly, this is such a cliché,’ Lucy said.

‘She did not feel exploited, this young woman,’ replied Georgina. ‘At worst, she felt well paid for her effort. Being with somebody your age is even more of a cliché and does not guarantee any success in love. Look at us. We were romantic, went for men our age, and ended up screwed over time and again.’

That evening, Georgina returned to Nabokov, as she forgot to ask Tony about Nabokov’s contemporary equivalents. She chose ‘Russian Beauty.’ It was better than some of his short stories she was trying to read on the train, as it had no poetic elaborations of sun reflections in puddles or magical shapes caused by melting icicles, but rather factual description of a Russian émigré woman living in Berlin. The woman was unhappy in love, but eventually married a decent older man and died in childbirth. The ending was in fact not too tragic, given that at the time being a poor spinster was worse than death. Still, Georgina was thinking that it was so much better to read about love and childbirth than experiencing them first hand. And then she moved onto another story.


This is an excerpt from Ewa Mazierska’s new short story collection, Love Cycles. You can purchase the book from Terror House Press here.