Tess counted the banknotes slowly, licking a finger, flicking each with a crisp snap, in what Georgia considered a professional manner. She nodded, resealing the envelope and stashing it away in her handbag.
“OK,” she agreed. “I’ll be there tomorrow for the picture.”
That was all the way back in February. Now, the shops all wore Christmas decorations and Georgia was milling around the quadrangle chewing cuticles, waiting for Tess to show up. Georgia had barely scraped through her first two years of university and a friend of her tutor offered her an ‘easy out’ for her third and final year.
Doors would open on the hour, allowing entry to stragglers for another half an hour only, before remaining barred shut for the duration of the examination. Georgia checked her phone again. Good reception and plenty of battery remained.
Nothing. No text, no missed calls, empty voicemail. No woman arriving with a face that matched the university ID card in Georgia’s quivering fingers.
Tess still had five minutes to sneak in amid the initial rush.
They’d agreed on a figure; Tess demanding her payment up-front. Georgia was able to cruise through the year, knowing that the older woman would sit her final exams in her place. Georgia could spend a little less time on the books, and a bit more time enjoying student life, albeit subsidised by making sandwiches for the endless stream of businessmen and tradesmen who marked their daily eleven ‘til two migration through the sub hut. The only difference, she’d imagined, was the leering businessmen in their crisp, expensive suits were probably out-earned by the leering tradies in their dirty, hi-vis polo shirts.
Georgia couldn’t chance running into a friend or acquaintance from last years’ class if an impostor claimed to be her. But she’d paid a lot of money, and they checked ID’s on the door.
In the distance, that very door had now opened and the gathered throng slowly melted through it. It was the right room – she recognised lots of faces.
Half an hour remained.
Georgia’s nerves dissolved after three minutes.
“Hi, this is, ah, Tess,” said the voicemail greeting, ignoring Georgia’s cursing. “If you’re listening to this message : Caitlyn, Krissie, Georgia, Natasha, Emily, Jen or Karen, hi. You wanted my assistance to get through uni. Grab a pencil and make yourself comfy – here’s my sage wisdom for you all.”
No no no no hell no. She’s putting the price up.
The recording of Tess laughed.
“You’ve probably guessed. My name’s not really Tess. First rule of business : keep some enticement back for the end. If you don’t owe me anything, why on Earth would I bother turning up today? I can’t pretend to be all of you. But I like you all, so here’s my helpful advice to you girls… you’ve enrolled in university to learn and you’ve paid for my knowledge, after all. Do it yourself. There are no shortcuts in this world. Pass your exams yourselves.”
Now Georgia laughed – but hollow. Here was a lesson she should’ve learned independently, and much younger than twenty-one, too.
“What can you do? Dob me in?” Tess mocked. “You girls wanted to cheat your way through university. I have done nothing to facilitate that. You approached me.”
Why did she spend so little time studying and revising, and so much time making stupid sandwiches, being hit on by stupid businessmen and stupid tradies? It was over, like…
Weird Wendy shot across the quad, open brown housecoat and bright green scarf flapping behind her. With scarcely a nod to Georgia, she quickened her pace, running for the doorway in the distance. Wendy boasted a new hairstyle and colour every two weeks, and changed rare-earth magnetic facial piercing and temporary tattoos like no-one’s business. She’d have so many inside pockets hidden in that coat that no invigilator could possibly check them all.
Women’s ID cards were less-heavily scrutinised than their male counterparts. Wendy could add fifteen or remove five years with make-up and fashion accessories, and the decision was made before Tess had finished her voicemail greeting for a phone number that was already abandoned.
Georgia was in and out of the university pharmacy in a flash, a weeks’ worth of salary of sandwich-making slapped down on the counter for a heap of make-up she’d only wear the once. Given enough time, she could vaguely pass for the photo on her identity card – particularly if she looked like a panicked student running twenty-five minutes late for her final examinations.
At least the ‘panicked student’ part would be easy to pull off.
University was meant to prepare her for life, and Georgia was truly ready for her first after-university job, via her tutor. But to accomplish that, she first needed to pass her exams.
An invigilator on the door peered at the identity card and grudgingly admitted Georgia, but not before turning her attention to her phone; frowning that Georgia was clearly interrupting her class-mates, almost thirty minutes into their final tests. Georgia had listened to the message several times now, and was using it for motivation. The voice was signing off.
“Ready for the real world,” said the girl who called herself Tess.
“Ready for the real world,” thought Georgia, switching the phone off, and taking her seat.