Higher Ed

Tessa McWatt


“Robin?” Olivia mumbles. Oi. But he won’t hear; he’s got those wanna-hide shoulders hunched over the row of chocolate in the far aisle. Robin. If she could steal Robin, right, she’d give him to her mum, she would, because he would make her lighten up; his words would open her. Instead there’s Ed, and what is she to do with him? Right. Six days now, six days it’s been since finding him. Edward of the lonely dead. Edward like a rabbit in a highbeam when he first saw her; Edward whose life’s work has been to bury the unknown, unloved, unmoneyed people of Barking and Dagenham. Ed. Her dad.

 Olivia makes a sound with her tongue. It’s cicada-like, not the sucking of teeth that her mate Jasmine has perfected in wishing she’d been born a Jamaican. This sound is not hip, not hop. It’s a sigh in reverse. 

“May I have some aspirin?” she asks the cashier. One foot, then the next, back and forth, gotta slow everything down. Right. The spindly woman, who looks like she is already a mum of many even though maybe only twenty-five years old, turns to the shelves behind her and reaches for the yellow Anadin pack, turns back, slides it on the counter and waits—like a mother would—for Olivia to sort through her change for £1.20. 

“Spindly,” Olivia says, under her breath. The woman looks up at her with don’t-mess-with-me eyes like rectangles. Olivia holds on to other words—tattoo, milk, nicotine—takes the box of aspirin and leaves the shop. She sees Robin retreat down the atrium. Robin’s walk is like a bird’s, even though she’s never seen a robin walking, but he bops like something that is used to flying instead. Robin is a bebop bird. And Robin is the only bloke on the planet who has seen her cry. 

Right. She weaves through the people in the atrium—the fat, the small, the smelly, the limping, the arrogant—every one of them in last-minute coffee-and-sweets-buying mode to keep them awake through class. Their choice is limited; Thames Gateway U has been branded. The dinner ladies from last year look sad in their new brown uniforms and baseball caps. The new cafeteria food is sadder than they are. Sad and Sadder: a Netflix blockbuster. Olivia is on the student union committee that has been lobbying the governors against outsourcing to corporations for months now, but times such as they are is all she hears. Does no one see what’s happening here? Right. She lowers her eyes to avoid the faces, the sadder than sad, dumber than dumb, bleaker than bleak. Don’t take it all on yourself, Robin had said. How not to? She weaves through the bodies, weaves like that girl’s hair, like that man’s jacket, like this boy’s lies he’s telling his girlfriend, and like that boy’s flying Paralympic-style wheelchair. She heads towards the finance office. Maybe today the panting, pink-faced man will tell her when the last loan instalment will appear in her account. Her debt is already five times what she planned when all of this started. You can always ask for help, Robin said. If and when she becomes a solicitor will she really have chosen correctly over becoming Lara Croft instead? Right, but the law, really? The wheelchair boy is stuck—another thing she has to get sorted, so that being at this uni in a wheelchair gets easier than being a tuna in a can. Sorry. Right. She speeds up. 
Who will bury these people?
Two and a half years of law school but there are questions they have not taught her to answer. All these questions she’s now in the habit of asking. She adjusts the satchel on her shoulder—books, court decisions—and pushes through. Who will bury them? 

“Lonely,” she says, slipped out like all the other words these days, like fish from a hand. She is going to be a rubbish lawyer. One foot in front of the other heading out of the atrium. There’s fog. Something clangs against metal, like a stay against a mast. She dips her chin into her scarf. In the square she searches for Robin. There’s a man with wild hair like his, but that one walks like a zombie. Students stand in clusters in front of the Watson Building where she’s headed. Smokers, listeners, worriers, huddlers. One of them could be Nasar. Nasar’s last message said: hop u r fine. When I meet u first time it was like a dream. I like to have a friend like u trust me if u agree to start good friendship pleas text me. I really like you . . . !!! Nasar.

Higher Ed Tessa McWatt