The tiny blue sports car nudged into the parking slot at the very end of the line of cars. Hardly a parking, it was more of an awkward little space left between the pavement and a tree. The occupant reached over, scooping her leather hold all off the passenger seat. She didn’t need anything bigger today; no books required this afternoon. Good show I have this little car, not the Fortuner dad wanted me to have, she thought. No nipping into small first year parking slots with that great boat, at this time of the afternoon.
Her mum of course. Mum, the beautiful airhead. She’d opened her huge eyes at her husband and said, “But darling. You KNOW I can’t get into those tiny little parking spaces in your car without having several goes at it.”
Her husband had smiled indulgently without stating the obvious, “Yes, but that’s YOU.”
Smiling at the memory, the driver looked at herself in the rear view mirror. She adjusted the combs pushed into her curls, checked her teeth had no lipstick stuck to them and climbed out of her car.
Her mum and her dad. Two very different creatures and yet such a good match. Dad with his high powered job, the “man of few words,” persona, and her mum…well no one could accuse her of being a woman of few words. She had a job. Of sorts, as she often added. How could something that gave her so much pleasure be a job? It was easy, she often said, to be an interior designer, all she need do is close her eyes and she could ‘see’ the finished room, house. Wrapping herself around her husband, she would tell people how lucky she was to have a wonderful man who allowed her to have a career. And, she often added patting his cheek, one who did her accounts for her.
Her dad would smile down at his wife. Run his knuckles along her jawline.
Chanel. A perfect name. Soft, elegant, fragrant.
Her mum, her biggest admirer.
Her Mum never said a word when she went through her “emo/goth” stage, nor when she went through her “ragged” stage. Dressed in her beautiful clothes, it was as if she hadn’t noticed her daughter trailing along in ratty takkies or dirty tee shirts.
Hoping to upset her or at least shake her mother’s inevitable championing, she asked if she could pierce her nose.
“Yes,” Chanel had breathed enthusiastically. “A cute little diamond stud. And make sure you put it close enough to the edge you can put a ring in it. A gold ring with a little emerald embedded will look lovely.” Her mum had been properly annoyed when the school refused to allow her to wear it and the hole closed over.
Adjusting her short skirt she started across the familiar Wits University car park. End of anonymity, she thought. She had been happy to hide out in first year. Second year, her father said, would be different. The lecturers would know their students, now there were only thirty or so of them instead of the thousands crowding into the first year labs.
“Don’t complain” he had said. “It’s the failing first-years who pay for the rest of your degree. The more that fail the better, and it costs no more for the university to have one thousand than it does to have two thousand crammed into lecture halls.”
Mostly, graduate students teach first-years, not the Prof. Bored and arrogant, they had slouched around, handed out the syllabus, and considered their job complete. And most of her classmates were a bunch of morons. It’s no wonder they all failed she thought, smiling at the car-park guard as usual. Her dad’s advice had been to work on her own if she could, or try to mitigate as many of their errors in group situations, if she couldn’t.
Her mum never gave her advice, ever. It was as if she thought her daughter too perfect to need it. No, “stand up straight” from Chanel, or “take that off at once.” Instead she always stood straight herself, dressed to kill. She apologised when people bumped into her, smiled at counter staff and thanked waiters at table. Perhaps inwardly she had cringed at her daughter’s black Goth dresses or itched to wash her face, but she never had. And she had won out in the end. Walking across the Wits campus, her daughter wore well cut, elegant clothing with matching accessories. Often when they sauntered together along malls or into shops, people thought, “Not hard to guess where she got her legs from. Or her dress sense.”
The Chemistry Prof, feet on his desk glanced at his watch. He’d scheduled this ‘get together’ for half four in order for him to make his normal gym session. One of the younger Profs at the University of the Witwatersrand, he liked to keep trim. It didn’t occur to him that whilst 4.30pm was convenient for him, it may be less so for his students if they had not been at uni that day.
When he finally accepted he had become a professional student and that he liked the academic life enough to remain and lecture, he’d promised himself, he would keep fit, look after his body. So many of his fellow academics looked like academics. Anaemic; thin or fat depending on their predilections. In the case of the women, unattractive. Austere. Defensive. Well, in the science department anyway. Several of the female Profs in the psychology department were lookers. So were some of their students, he thought with a smirk. Maybe he was stupid to have chosen chemistry.
He picked up the heap of exam papers off the corner of his desk. Flicking through, he looked at the names of the top twenty five students. Only a smattering of girls, as usual. Last year he taught only one girl, Philippa or Phil as she insisted he call her, who might as well have been a guy. Fat, bottle glasses, sullen. She was anti-social and a terrible team worker. Of course names these days were strange. So many could be a boy or a girl. Robin, Sam, Max.
Flicking through the papers he stopped at one that could only be a girl. Imogene. Yes, definitely a girl he thought, with a sigh. He guessed she shouldn’t have been named Imogene at all. The Imogene in his mind’s eye had curly dark hair and sparkling eyes. A wide flashing smile. She walked confidently, her shoulders back. Flirted.
Of course holding their day old daughter, parents couldn’t know how she would turn out. They couldn’t know that their Imogene may grow up requiring glasses, and do Chemistry at university level. He made a mental note that if he ever married one of his students or fellow lecturers, he should keep in mind that their daughter would likely end up in a Chemistry lab. Better call her Clare. Or Judy, he thought with a smile.
He liked meeting his new students. These top twenty five would make up the core of his class for next year and some would carry on to post graduate study with him. His research students. Looking at Imogene’s paper once more, he decided she would head them all. Nearly full marks he noticed and flicking through the booklet he recognised an excellent brain and, unusual in the science department, good English skills. Her writing was neat and legible, her answers concise. She didn’t need to waffle, she knew her stuff.
Glancing though the one way glass into the lab, he noticed a few students had arrived. All guys. All headed directly for the food and drinks, set up on the front bench. In the past he had given adequate time for everyone to begin eating and drinking. He wanted them to loosen up in familiar surroundings, before going out to meet each one. Matching a face, a name and a position in class. His graduate student had typed him a list. The Prof hunted about for it, eventually finding it under the heap of exam papers.
Yup, Imogene headed the list. 92%. He noticed a Lesley, about half way down at 76%. Could be a boy or a girl. The second position was 84%. Jake. Definitely a guy. The bottom position was Carey with 68%. He didn’t know if this was a girl’s name or a boys, but he did know it was a lower mark than the lowest last year. His eye was drawn back to the top of the list. To Imogene. He had never had a girl at the top of his class, even during his post graduate teaching days. He was looking forward to meeting her today.
Looking through his one way glass, he noticed more students milling about the eats table, two girls hovering outside the main group. One fat, one thin, with scraggly mousy hair, both wearing appalling outfits.
About to step down into his lab, he noticed the doors at the far end push open and a girl make her appearance. And boy, he thought, she knew how to make an appearance. She had the full attention of all the men, including himself.
Now this, was the Imogene of his dreams. Dark hair, high arched eyebrows. Well dressed, flamboyant even.
He watched her make her way along the lab, twisting and winding around the benches as if she had been there many times before. As she drew closer he saw she wore a burgundy wool dress, mid thigh with black tights and half boots.
Instead of leaving his office, he stood watching her reach the eats table, his eyebrows rising as she scooped a few on to a plate. Confident. Assured.
Was she one of those people who went from function to function, snaring something to eat? He had done it himself in his impoverished pre-grad days, but he had never heard of a girl who did. Especially one who looked like this. In his experience, girls avoided eating and she didn’t look as if she couldn’t afford to pay for a meal. She could probably get any one of the men surrounding her to buy her anything she wanted.
Puzzled, he studied her more carefully. She wore matching ivory: a huge chunky bracelet, that rode up and down her forearm as she ate and two combs nestled behind her ears. Her hair was otherwise unrestrained, cascading down to her shoulders in perfect ringlets, too perfect to be created by a hairdresser. No, her hair was naturally curly. She used her innate assets well, he thought, highlighting her large eyes with dark make up. Red lipstick emphasised pouty lips and a wide black belt, her trim waist.
This girl had balls. She had pushed into his chemistry lab, walked up to the group at the table, flashed them a wide, friendly smile and helped herself to his eats. And the guys at the table had smiled back, as if they knew her. They had parted, before closing around, engulfing her in their midst. They offered her a drink. Poured it. And she was clearly comfortable among them, smiling and chatting. She must be a rag deb or a cheerleader, the Prof guessed. Maybe a social science student they all knew.
Hand on the door, preparing to leave, his attention was diverted again, when the girl threw back her head and laughed at something one of the boys said. They all stared at her as if she had punched them in the gut. He too felt that tightening a man gets from a laugh like that. What a pity she wasn’t in his class next year; she was a tonic. What fun they would have with her livening up boring pracs or lectures. Imagine waiting in expectation for her to swish through his double swinging door each morning or watching her quick, little body move about his lab. Hearing that laugh at odd times throughout class.
Stepping out of his office, his “Everyone here?” was greeted with a few nods.
“Thanks for making the time to come this afternoon. I’m your Prof for next year, and I’ve been looking forward to meeting my second year Chemistry students.” He glanced at the girl in the burgundy dress, giving her time to gasp with an ‘oops…I’m in the wrong place’ sort of comment. When she didn’t, he crinkled the paper in his hand and added, “Since I will be taking many of your lectures next year, we had better start getting acquainted.”
A lanky boy, long hair tumbling over his face moved forward, his hand out. “Jake.”
Still the girl stood her ground, a smile curving her mouth. She held a glass of his wine casually in her hand, eyes on him, as if daring him to expose her.
Another boy put out his hand, and then the fat girl walked over and stuck hers at him. He matched her name; third from the bottom.
“Lesley,” said another boy, his hand out.
So, the Professor deduced, the skinny girl hiding out at the back of the bunch must be Imogene.
He moved towards her, greeting a few boys on his way. Short, she had her head down, peeking up at him through her lank hair. The Prof put out his hand and said, “So, you must be Imogene?”
“No,” he heard a voice behind him. He swung around, fast enough to surprise a few grins, quickly smothered. He found himself staring across at the girl in the burgundy dress, still surrounded by the group of male students. She pushed off from the lab bench and walked towards him, a smile curving her mouth. The smile widened, as she stopped in front of him and put her hand out.
“I’m Imogene,” she said.
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