Whenever Robert and I travel to Scotland, to our house in Aberdour, we go for a walk towards Kirkcaldy, where one can see seals lying on the rocks. Sometimes we are accompanied by a friend named Scott, who spent many years in the British base in Antarctica. He entertains us describing the lives of different types of seals. What all of them have in common, however, is that they are patriarchal. Dominant male seals take possession of their territory by forcing other male seals to lie down in submission and fight with those who dare to challenge their power. Once these macho males announce themselves as winners, female seals start climbing to the beaches, waiting to be impregnated. In this way, their life in harem begins. It is a slow and passive life: waiting for pups to be born, then feeding them and sleeping. They return to the sea only when their offspring is ready to live independently.
“Are there any female seals who choose independent life?” I asked Scott once.
“Yes, we identified and monitored two female seals who remained single, but we weren’t sure whether it was due to their ‘choice’ or some genetic defect.”
“Was there anything specific about them?”
“They were smaller and thinner than ordinary seals and their lives were shorter. Ordinary seals live about twenty years; the two single females didn’t reach their fifteenth birthday.”
“Maybe they got exhausted from their effort to sustain themselves or lacked purpose. We’ll never really know, as our ability to understand the animal world is limited.”
The image of the “Kirkcaldy seals” and Scott’s story come to my mind when I think about Lucy and Ben. I met Lucy, because it was my duty to take new academics in our department under my wing. She came across as naturally attractive, being tall, with naturally dark hair, dark eyes, long eyelashes, high cheekbones and a narrow nose which got even narrower when she was smiling. After half an hour or so I realised that she was a lookalike of Anni-Frid from ABBA, complete with her somewhat ratty smile. However, there was a whiff of neglect about Lucy. Neglect is typical for academics, for many it is a part of academic etiquette, as it is meant to demonstrate that one is not bothered about appearances. However, Lucy’s neglect wasn’t of this kind; it wasn’t performed, but reflected her letting herself go. The lack of care was compensated by her effort to stand out from the crowd. A sign of that was her hair made in buns, more suitable to a girl than a woman in her thirties; a long, knitted jumper, made of wool of different colours and thickness, and black heavy boots.
Lucy seemed to be pleasant and chatty. She also came across as very enthusiastic about her specialism, which was British medieval poetry. I saw it as a sign of her lack of experience, because with age, even if we maintain our passions, we realise that few people share them, while the rest are bored; therefore it’s best to keep these passions to ourselves and a small circle of fellow enthusiasts.
“What made you study such a subject?” I asked.
“It was partly a need to learn history and partly to prove that somebody like me, of working-class background, can excel in such an unpractical subject. Everybody around me told me ‘try to be a teacher,’ ‘try to be a doctor,’ ‘try to be an engineer,’ but I wanted to be a humanist.”
“People told me such things in my youth too, but my problem was that I lacked skills to become a doctor or an engineer, so I chose something easier and tried to be good at it. Still, the shame of failing to do something more useful and practical stayed with me,” I said.
“I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing. I’m proud of it.”
“Good for you,” I replied as I didn’t want to delve deeper into these matters.
During our first meeting Lucy told me that she was married to Ben, whom I should meet, because he was the “sweetest man on the planet” and because, being American, he didn’t know anybody in Lucy’s circle or indeed the whole of England. She also informed me that she used to work in one of the best American universities, but had to give up because of problems with her visa. She couldn’t renew it, despite being married to an American citizen. The issue was complicated, but ultimately it was a matter of money; if she had enough money, she could have stayed in the USA.
“They destroyed my life and the life which was inside of me,” she told me, without specifying who “they” were.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I was pregnant at the time and had a miscarriage. I’m sure that if I was less stressed at the time, I would have kept my baby.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied.
“Don’t feel sorry. You didn’t kill my child, these cruel bastards did.”
“At least you had a supportive partner,” I said, referring to Ben, whom she mentioned at the beginning of our conversation.
“Not really. My then husband wasn’t supportive at all, he added to my misery and we split. This added to my visa problems. Ben is my second husband.”
“Oh, I see,” I replied, slightly embarrassed. “How did you meet him?”
“Through a dating app. He visited me at my place first, then I went to his house. We liked each other and so we got married. He brought me good luck, as shortly after our wedding I got the job at this university. You have to meet him,” she repeated, “as he is super-nice. You will also see that you have much in common, as he is also a writer.”
“It will be my pleasure,” I replied.
The following week the three of us met for lunch. Seeing Ben for the first time took me aback as he looked weird. He was fat and it appeared as if his obesity impacted his mobility and his overall sense of balance. His arms, folded on his belly, looked short and legs rubbed against each other, slowing him down. He walked tilted to one side. His face was puffy and on the way to losing its distinctive features, to became a ball of fat, with eyes, nose and mouth stuck into it, as if they were fruit put into a pudding. His small, round eyes were constantly moving, as if he was unable to focus on anything. I was thinking that he would be more comfortable in water, the sea would liberate him, as it liberated seals. I felt awkward, looking at him, because he reminded me that no matter how I tried, I remained prejudiced against fat people, associating obesity with the lack of willpower.
Ben turned out to be friendly in an American sort of way, according to which every stranger is a friend. After exchanging some pleasantries and comparing the weather in the North of England with the part of Poland where I am from and different regions of the United States, I asked him what he was doing for a living, and he replied that he was doing nothing, as he was waiting for a British visa.
“What did you do before, in the States?” I asked.
“All sort of things, including being a taxi driver and a janitor. I was also unemployed for some time,” he replied.
I noticed that Lucy did not like my questions, which, no doubt, she treated as a sign of my narrow-mindedness. I wished I had better questions to ask, but nothing came to my mind. Ben didn’t mind me quizzing him, so I carried on:
“What will you plan to do when you finally get a visa?”
“I hope to finish my novel.”
“Oh,” I said. “What kind of novel?”
“A kind of post-capitalist dystopia, focused on climate change.”
“How does this dystopia manifest itself in your book?”
“Food insecurity, water shortages, soil erosion, racism, continuous riots, shootings.”
“You must be very concerned about the climate,” I said.
“Yes, I am.”
“What about you?” Lucy asked me, with a shade of hostility in her voice.
“Not much. I’m more worried about what would happen if radical ecologists had their way. ‘Save the Planet’ is euphemism for immiseration of the masses: no holidays abroad, no flights, shame for buying cheap clothes and increased control. That said, I wished we used less plastic and gave more space to animals.”
I said this at the same time as the waitress was bringing us food. It was a T-bone steak for Ben, spareribs for Lucy, and falafel and pita bread for me. I could call them out on their hypocrisy as meat-eating climate activists, but stopped paying attention to such behaviour and didn’t want to cause friction at the table. Ben was devouring his food with a speed which I’d never seen before. When I got half-way through my meal, he ordered another portion.
“This will save us cooking a dinner,” he explained to me.
I noticed that Lucy was unhappy with Ben, but I wasn’t sure whether it was because of his excessive appetite or because he was apologetic about it.
“You don’t like cooking?” I asked.
“I do, but it requires a lot of organisation and takes me away from my writing. I’d rather focus on my novel so that it is a success and eventually I can prove myself to Lucy.”
“You don’t need to prove anything to anybody,” replied Lucy, flaring her nostrils and making a slight noise with them.
“I know, but I want to,” replied Ben. I could see his effort in trying to fix his eyes on Lucy’s eyes. When he finally succeeded, her eyes were blank and it was time to leave.
Lucy and I met again about six weeks later, this time with two young academics from Holland, Arno and Martijn, visiting our university, but without Ben. By this point Lucy looked more like Ben. She put on weight and got his wobbly, seal-like walk.
Both visitors were handsome in an understated way and they talked about their lives matter-of-factly, as if failing to notice that it was full of success, complete with one having a doctor wife and another a lawyer and two naughty children each. I sensed that Lucy didn’t like them, unable to take my eyes from observing her discomfort, marked, again, by tensing of her nose muscles as she narrowed and widened her nostrils, pursing her lips and then opening them to breathe heavily, as if she wanted to change into a dragon blowing fire. I was so mesmerised by her expressions that I stopped listening to what they were talking about till I heard Lucy saying, “Well, I couldn’t get there even if I killed myself.”
“Have you ever tried to kill yourself?” asked Arno.
Lucy appeared to be taken aback by this question, as demonstrated by the fact that she needed a bit of time to find an answer.
“I was speaking figuratively. My point was that there is only so much you can achieve if you start from a certain point.”
“How do you know that?” carried on Arno.
“It’s obvious,” replied Lucy. “Who are the poor in this country? They are the children of poor people.”
“But many children of poor people go to the university and join the middle class. Your most successful writer, J.K. Rowling, was once a poor single mother,” said Martijn.
“You cannot choose an exception to undermine the rule,” said Lucy.
“You can, and the more exceptions, the weaker the rule,” replied Martijn. “The rule you provided is so full of exceptions that it’s not a rule at all.”
He took his phone out and googled to provide Lucy with data about social mobility in different European countries, comparing them with the United States, Japan and some African countries. She tried to protest, but he cut her off by saying, “If you are unable to think rationally, you shouldn’t work at the university.”
Lucy was fuming, but didn’t say anything and soon we parted ways, I with regret that I organised this meeting. A week later I tried to make up for it, inviting Lucy and Ben to a newly opened restaurant in our town, but she refused, claiming that Ben felt unwell. I didn’t ask her about the details and initially she didn’t reveal them, except for saying that he suffered from extreme mood swings. More time had passed and when I met her next at a university café, she was in a very militant mood. It felt as if she was trying to list all the injustices inflicted on humankind since the beginning of time and all manifestations she marched, petitions she signed and campaigns she joined to oppose these injustices. Although I wasn’t sure, I felt that this political activism was to do with Ben’s current state, as if she tried to outsource or dislocate his problems or hide it in a cloud of a greater misery.
“Do you think you will make a difference by all this activism?” I asked.
“No, but I want to send a message.”
“Won’t it be better to devote your energy to something more practical, like helping Ben in finding a job?”
“No. It’s because people are so preoccupied with their private affairs that nothing changes in the world or if it does, it changes for the worse. Plus, in this economic downturn it’s not possible to find a job.”
“Many people find jobs, if they are looking for them. If they don’t look, they don’t find them.”
“Who are you to lecture me?” asked Lucy.
I could remind her that some months previously she asked me to advise her on everything I found relevant, but I didn’t want to distress or humiliate her. Instead, I smiled awkwardly, said, “I wanted to be helpful,” paid for my coffee and left.
Several months later her contract expired and she left my university. As I was abroad at the time, I had no chance to say goodbye and lost track of her, given that I only had her university e-mail. Although her departure didn’t particularly bother me as, ultimately, I found her irritating, I kept thinking about her occasionally, particularly when observing Scottish seals. Sometimes I wondered how a cross of a seal and rat would look.
Three years later, however, I ran into Lucy. She sat next to me on a train to London. She had changed so much that I wasn’t sure if it was her. Her silly hairstyle had gone, replaced by a neat bob, most likely executed by some fashionable London hairdresser. She was also wearing a grey suit, although adorned with a colourful scarf and ethnic earrings. She looked as if she was en route to acquire a new identity, but wasn’t quite there.
While I wondered who this person was, she recognised me instantly and we started to talk. She was apologetic about not staying in touch, but explained herself to be going through a difficult stage in her life.
“What did you do after leaving the university?”
“I was looking for jobs in the academia, but really, everywhere. First, I worked as a waitress, then in a bookshop and finally in a bank, where I’m still working.”
“As a cashier?”
“No, in a communications department.”
“Oh. How do you find it?”
“Surprisingly, I like it. It gives me a new perspective on things and I was promoted recently. I am on the way from meeting my new team.”
“How is Ben?”
“I left him.”
“Really? I thought you were very devoted to him.”
“I was and this was really my main problem. He dragged me down. I realised that with him I will never advance, I will always struggle just to stay on the surface.”
“What happened to him?”
“He returned to the States and found a new girlfriend. I guess he will try to sponge off her, as he sponged off me. Sometimes I think that I should contact her and warn her, but after all, we are all responsible for our own lives.”
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over thirty of them in The Longshot Island, The Adelaide Magazine, The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Ragazine, BlazeVox, Red Fez, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef and Mystery Tribune, among others. In 2019 she publisher her first collection of short stories, Neighbours and Tourists (New York, Adelaide Books). Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.