Important Steps

Tony hovered behind Simon’s chair for several seconds. He bobbed to the left, then to the right, trying to move gently into Simon’s eye-line, but Simon’s view was fixed firmly on his screen, which was filled with a complex series of XML commands. Simon was muttering inaudibly as he scrolled slowly down the page. He was wearing his noise-cancelling headphones. Eventually, Tony tapped him gently on the left shoulder.

Simon reacted as though he’d been punched. He rose about three inches out of his chair, twisting to the left as he did so, and then froze. “Fucking hell, Tony, what’re you trying to do to me?”

Tony took a step back. “I just came to talk to you.”

“Well, give me a bit of warning next time. Good thing I wasn’t in the middle of a game of Assassin’s Creed.  I might have been so in the moment, I’d have taken a swing at you.” Simon mimed an uppercut.

“I did try to…” Tony tailed off. “Anyway, I just came to…”

Before he could finish the sentence, Simon had taken off his headphones and jumped out of his chair. Turning his back on Tony, he paced towards the opposite end of the large open plan office. Tony stared after him. Nobody else in the room took any notice.

When he got to the door, Simon turned, and strode back towards Tony. “Might as well get a few steps in, since I’ve been interrupted anyway,” he said. “Keep talking.”

Tony turned towards the door he’d used to come into the room, following Simon’s progress. As Simon returned, he tried again. “I just wanted to…” Again, he tailed off as Simon headed back to the far end of the room. On the next pass through, Simon paused. “You can walk with me, if you like.”

Tony fell into step with him. “Well. I just wanted to ask you about yesterday’s meeting.”

Simon glanced at his wrist. “Just a sec. I need to…two six two oh, 80 for the return, I need to do another four, no, five, runs.”


“Forty paces for the whole room, I need to get up to three thousand steps before I sit down again, I’m on two six two oh, no, two six two two, now, so I need to do another five, well, four and a half now, runs up and down the room.”

“Oh. When you say you need to get up to three thousand…?”

Simon waved his wrist at Tony. He was wearing what looked like a large wristband, or a small watch. “FitBit.” he said. “I need to do twelve thousand steps today, or I’ll fall behind in the league table.”

“League table?”

“I’m in a league, with other people I know, we’ve got a target of sixty thousandsteps each for the week, first one wins a pint, but I’ve got behind. This bloody integration with timetabling. I never get a break to walk.”

The mention of integration reminded Tony what he’d come in for. He parked the league table for another occasion. “Anyway, Simon, I came in to ask you about the Student Record System meeting.”

“Oh? The stakeholder one? Went alright, didn’t it?”

“Um, yes, I guess so, but I wanted to ask you if you thought we should maybe put in some extra sessions, to explain some of the decisions in a bit more detail?”

Simon slowed down. “How do you mean?”

“Well, I thought that, maybe, we should consider providing some sessions, to, er, explain some of the, er, jarg…the terminology that the suppliers might use. To help people to engage more.”

Simon checked his wrist. “Just one more for now. I’m not sure I follow, Tony. I don’t see how it could be any simpler. These are all intelligent people, you know. They work for a university, and I wouldn’t want to patronise them.” He shook his head gently.

They were approaching Simon’s desk again. Simon sat down. He looked at his other wrist. “Christ, is that the time? I need to be somewhere else. Um, I don’t really think there’s an issue here, Tony. I’ve only asked them to list their current as-is integrations for the moment. We’ll introduce things slowly. Are you sure you’re not inventing a problem?” As he spoke, he was shutting down his laptop and unplugging all of the cables. He put the laptop into a sleeve and stood up. He checked his wrist again. “Great, I’ll get at least another 800 in going over to Registry. Got to go. See you at the next meeting.”

Tony watched him go. He sighed deeply. What a waste of time. Although he’d apparently walked three hundred and eighty steps. Was that a good thing?


Impostor Syndrome

Niall took a few moments to pack away his stuff at the end of the meeting. He was feeling a little disorientated, and he knew it was his own fault. He’d tuned out of Simon’s presentation pretty early on, and had spent most of the meeting sorting out his emails. He suspected that he wasn’t the only one. He tried vaguely to remember what the key points of the presentation had been. Something about planning out a process…mappings? As is? To be? He couldn’t understand why none of it had seemed to sink in. He sighed.

Simon was deep in conversation with Tony. Niall signalled ‘goodbye’ as he left the room, and mouthed ‘Thanks, Simon’. He received a gracious wave in return.

In the corridor, Jenny was waiting for him.

“Niall.” She sounded anxious. “Have you got a minute?”

“Can we walk and talk? I need to get back to the office. We’re processing timetabling requests for next year.”

Jenny made a sympathetic gesture. “How’re you getting on with actually getting them in?”

“Oh well. You know. Not that many people have met the deadline.”

“Tell me about it. I’m still waiting for a massive course specification from Marine Engineering, with I don’t know how many routes and options, and the panel is in two weeks.” She sighed. “I don’t think they realise how much work we have to do to actually get their documents into shape.”

They continued silently for a couple of steps.

Niall broke the silence. “Anyway, Jenny, that probably wasn’t what you wanted to talk to me about, was it? Was it about the records system?”

“Oh. Yes.” She paused for a moment. “The thing is.” She stopped again. “The thing is, Niall, I didn’t understand anything about what’s going on. I don’t think I should be on that group. I feel so stupid. I thought we were going to look at what the manufacturers have got available, and then pick a system that has the features we need.”

“That’s what I thought, too. Isn’t that it?”  Niall wondered if he’d been more tuned out than he’d realised.

“I don’t think so.” Jenny stopped for a moment and opened her notebook, which she’d been carrying in her hand. “Look at my notes.”

Niall took the book from her. The page was filled with what looked like scraps of text. Overleaf were a couple of half-finished diagrams which seemed to have been partially copied from the screen. Simon had skipped through his slides fairly quickly.

Taken as a whole, there was no sense to it at all. On the other hand, it was a pretty accurate reflection of his own impressions of the meeting.

He shrugged. “To be honest, I’m not really sure what today was meant to achieve. It was just a kick-off, wasn’t it? Maybe we’ll get to grips with it at the next meeting.” He handed the notebook back.

“What about our homework?”


“That’s what Simon called it. Weren’t you listening?”

Niall shrugged again. “I might have tuned out for a while.”

“He said we needed to…” Jenny opened the notebook and read from one of the pages. “To go back and consult with colleagues, and make a top two list of the integrations in the as-is system that we couldn’t live without.” She looked at Niall. “What’s an integration? What’s the as-is system?”

Niall glanced at his watch. “Look, Jenny, I really need to get back. I don’t know what he wants us to do either. I’m sure it will all get clarified. Shall we just wait for the meeting notes to be circulated, and then work from there?”

Jenny didn’t reply.

Niall waited for a moment, then gave a little wave and strode off.

Jenny was still standing in the atrium, clutching her notebook. She bit her lip.  She’d been so pleased to be invited onto this working group; it should have been great for her CV to contribute to an important project like this, and now it was obvious she was totally out of her depth.  She would never be worthy of progression to a more senior role. She set off slowly back to the office.

Back in the Student Spot, Niall ambled into the kitchen and put the kettle on. He felt a twinge of guilt. Why hadn’t he made it obvious to Jenny that he was also completely confused about Simon’s working group? Maybe that wasn’t just because he’d been doing other things during the meeting. Maybe the whole thing was a case of Emperor’s New Clothes?  Had everyone been sitting there wondering what the hell was going on, apart from Simon and Tony? Should someone say something before the whole project got any more bogged down in their worldview?

Just then, one of Niall’s team burst into the kitchen area. “Thank goodness you’re back, we were starting to panic!”

Niall raised an eyebrow. “Timetabling emergency?”

“Yes! How did you know?”

Niall turned towards the kettle to hide his face. “I couldn’t think what else would be causing you such concern. OK, I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Anna scuttled out. Niall filled his mug. He was still smiling. Timetabling emergency. As if. Honestly, his team couldn’t manage half an hour without him.

By the time he’d walked out into the main office, he’d forgotten all about Jenny, Simon, and the new student records system.


I have very bad feelings about this project. Can anyone help? if you can!

Student Record System rebuild

Inspired by a challenge from @RowlstoneS, the lovely people at Burston Central are going to renew their Student Records system. Exciting, or what? I’m not exactly sure how to make this amusing, but we’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, suggestions welcome in the comments box, or via @wadingtreacle on Twitter.

Simon looked round the table. He felt almost excited. His first significant development project since he’d arrived at Burston Central, and it was a corker: replacing the student records system. Mission-critical, stakeholder-sensitive, multi-platform, future-proof, enterprise class development*. If this wasn’t a passport to a Senior Applications Developer post, he didn’t know what was. Unconsciously, he stretched out the fingers of his left hand and pulled hard on them with his right, cracking his knuckles loudly. The conversation died away and everyone turned to look at him.

Simon returned to reality. It must be time to start. cleared his throat, and took a swig of water from his filter bottle. He glanced down at his checklist.

1. Welcome the task-and-finish group

He smiled broadly, but without sincerity, and launched into his introduction.
“Well, hello, everyone, and many thanks for giving up your valuable time to attend this inaugural meeting of the Student Records System Replacement Task-and-Finish Group. It’s lovely to see you all today to work on this critically important enterprise system.”
He was pleased to see that one or two people were already taking notes. Emboldened, he went slightly off-piste. “It’s not often that a big organisation like this gets a chance to really do a root-and-branch update of one of its underpinning technological systems and I’m sure we’re all going to work together with great synergy and, er, er….er, get the job done in style.”

He took another swig of his water and glanced at the checklist again.

2. Introductions

“Right, well, as you know, I’m relatively new here, so it would be great if we could just go round the room and introduce ourselves. Usual drill. Who are you, and why are you here?”
One or two people pressed their lips together at this. “Don’t be shy!” Simon had seen this kind of reticence in his previous job, working on customer relationship management for a large retailer. Some people were very nervous at being asked to contribute to big projects like this. He’d been like that himself, once.
He smiled encouragingly. “I’ll start, if you like. My name is Simon Edgerton, and I’m the senior applications analyst for registry services. I’ve been at Burston Central for about eighteen months, which I know makes me a very new boy by some standards.” He paused to allow for his joke to sink in. There was no perceptible response. “My role here is to co-ordinate the requirements of the UI, or user interface, and get those translated into some applications specifications for the new system.”

He looked to his left. “Shall we go clockwise?”
Shannon gave a self-conscious wave. “Hey, everyone. Shannon, Head of planning. I’m here to make sure that the new system collects the data we need for the HESA return.”
Simon looked a little sorrowful. “Shannon, sorry to pull you up in the first few minutes, but would you mind spelling out the acronym. Not everyone will be aware of what it is.”
Shannon raised her eyebrows slightly, and looked around the table. “Oh. Sorry. HESA is the Higher Education Statistical Agency. We’re legally obliged to send them data about our students and staff annually: the HESA return.”
Simon nodded encouragingly. “Brilliant, thanks, Shannon.” He looked at the next person to Shannon’s left.

“Anna, Head of Registry Services. We’re responsible for individual records in the system and making sure that all of the graduation information is correct.”

“Critically important, Anna, glad you could be here.” Simon’s gaze moved on.

“Niall, Professional Services. I’m here to provide input on the data input needs for new courses and modules.” Simon nodded slowly. He was already starting to look a little glazed.

“Jenny, Quality Officer from Faculty of Engineering. Here to explain how we approve new curricula elements.”

Simon brightened a little. “Great, so you’re going to be able to specify the workflows.” He nodded enthusiastically.

Jenny shrugged. “If you say so.”

“Yeah, workflows.” Simon noticed the blank looks around the table. “Well, we’ll get to those. All in good time!”. He smiled encouragingly and turned his attention to the next person.

“Gina, Head of Marketing. We need course information from the system to feed through into the prospectus.”

“Tony, applications interface architect. I’ve got an overview of all of the feeder and output applications which will need to interface into the new system.”

Simon nodded enthusiastically. “Brilliant. Key stuff, Tony. Glad you’re involved.”

Jenny put up her hand. “Um. Simon. Sorry to seem dim, but I didn’t really understand what Tony meant.”

Simon smiled kindly at her. “Fair enough, Jenny, fair enough. Well, Tony is responsible for making sure that all of the feeder and output applications will be adequately served by the new system. OK? I’m sure you’ll get up to speed with it all soon. OK, let’s keep going.”

Jenny’s eyes widened. She flicked her eyes round the table, but everyone was staring fixedly at Simon.

They moved on.

“Lawrence, Students’ Union President. Just keepin’ my eye on y’all, makin’ sure you don’t forget to put students at the centre of the system, y’all.” He put his thumbs up.

There were some weak smiles, and Simon dutifully provided a fake-sounding chuckle. “Good to have you with us, Lawrence. Just let us know if you don’t understand anything.”

Shannon winced. Lawrence was a systems engineering graduate. He would probably be better able to keep up than some of the others. He caught her eye and grinned. She felt sure he was plotting something. At least, she hoped so. Otherwise this group was going to be seriously tedious. She grinned back at him.


*thank you to for inspiration here

Christmas Presents

Seriously, are you still in the office? Even Geoff has managed to leave, even if he’s only got as far as Cheeky’s…

Parts one and two of this episode may help to make sense of this. Or maybe not.

Geoff carried the mugs over to the table. The Chengs had been talking to each other – he presumed in Chinese- while they waited, but they fell abruptly silent as he returned to the table.

“Thank you.” They spoke almost in unison. Both of them looked at the milky beverages.

Geoff wasn’t sure what to say. While he was thinking, he took a sip of his coffee. It was scalding hot. And disgusting. He winced.

“So, as you staying in Burston for long, Mr Cheng?”

“Ah, no, sadly, we’re going to London tomorrow.”

“Oh, that’s a pity.” Geoff wondered whether to follow up by asking whether Mr Cheng had had a chance to see much of Burston, but he couldn’t think of anything which Mr Cheng might have liked to visit.

“What will you be doing in London, then?”

Both of the Chengs smiled. “Shopping, museums, concerts.” said the father. “I’ve got tickets for a couple of shows, as well. I like the shows.”

“It’s a pity you weren’t here last week, for the University carol concert.” Geoff despised himself. No, it wasn’t a pity. He hadn’t even bothered attending himself. “Maybe next year.”

Mr Cheng inclined his head politely. “Yes, maybe.”

Cheng junior slurped his tea. Geoff was racking his brains. “So, how’s your first term at Burston Central been, Mr Cheng?”

As soon as the words were out of this mouth, he knew it was a high-risk strategy. He had no idea what was going on with the first years. The chances were, Mr Cheng’s first term had been crap. Or he was just trying to get enough marks to secure a move to Burston University, and hadn’t been anywhere except the library.

Cheng junior beamed. “I love it.”

Geoff didn’t manage to hide his surprise, but Cheng père was looking with pride at his son, and didn’t notice.

“It’s great. The tutors are nice, and they give me help, and the Chinese Society organises lots of things. The only thing I don’t like…” he tailed off. Here it comes, thought Geoff. “…the days are very short. I miss the daylight.”

Geoff stared at the earnest young man. He wondered if he’d misheard. Young Cheng did have a bit of an accent. But he couldn’t think of another word that sounded like ‘daylight’ that he could have mistaken it for. Delight? Possible. Dilate? Not a noun. Deloitte?

The Chengs were looking at him. He went for his first guess. “Oh, the days will be lengthening now. By the time you get back, we’ll be practically in the spring. Burston in the spring. You’ll love it.”

What the actual fuck was he saying? Nobody enjoyed Burston in the spring. It rained all the time. Why the hell was he here, sitting in an appalling little café with two complete strangers, talking complete crap? How had things come to this? He was sure that the other heads of department, the rest of the so-called Burston Resistance Movement, were sitting in a nice pub somewhere together, sinking pints, bantering, enjoying themselves. Definitely enjoying themselves.

Geoff had a moment of clarity. He’d forgotten how to enjoy himself, that was the problem. He needed to have some fun. Take a bit of ‘me-time’. Nobody ever thought about what he wanted to do, did they? His staff were too demanding. They couldn’t do anything without him, and they never wanted to do anything for him. The University Exec had no idea how hard his job was. They put far too much pressure on heads of department. Initiative this. Initiative that. Target-driven. Sort your NSS scores out. Improve retention. Nobody ever told them how they were supposed to do it. And his wife seemed to have given up on him. She didn’t even complain when he said he’d be working late, again. Even the BRM. They’d stitched him up like a kipper with the sit-in. Bastards.

Geoff pressed his lips together. Nobody appreciated him. His eyes misted over.

“Are you ok, Professor Sanders?” Cheng Shan had put a hand on his arm.

Geoff blinked and tried to focus on him. Pull yourself together, Geoff. “Oh. Yes. Sorry. I was just thinking about…” what had he been talking about? Oh, yes. “…spring in Burston. The flowers. The blossom. The new hope.”

Mr Cheng was nodding vigorously. “Oh yes. Spring is marvellous. That’s why we have spring festival, what you call Chinese New Year. In fact, you must visit us for New Year!”

Geoff had recovered. “I’d love to.” OK, he could do this. A bit of chit-chat, then he’d need to get home. He knew he wouldn’t be going to China. But he could pretend.

Mr Cheng was listing the delights of spring in Shanghai. Geoff smiled and nodded, adding the odd encouraging comment. He could definitely do this.

Eventually, Shan tapped his father on the hand and said something in Chinese. Mr Cheng looked behind him. The woman at the counter was noisily tidying up and wiping down the surfaces. Cheng looked at his watch. “Yes, you’re right, Shen. Closing time. We must go.” He looked at Geoff. “We have a dinner reservation, anyway. Would you like to join us, Professor Sanders?”

“I’m terribly sorry, my wife will be expecting me.”

“Of course, we’ve already kept you too long.”

“No, no, it’s been a pleasure. Lovely to meet you.” Geoff was already calculating the chances of getting to the station for the next train home. Slim, but if he got a wiggle on…Mr Cheng was holding out a business card. “Thank you. Er, I don’t have one on me, but…”

“No problem, Professor Sanders. I know where to find you.” Mr Cheng winked at him.

Geoff wasn’t sure how to respond to this. Mr Cheng continued. “I’ll get my personal assistant to contact you about the visit.”

Geoff put out his right hand. “Marvellous. Marvellous. That would be marvellous.”

“And I’m thinking about making a donation to the department. We can talk about that when you come to Shanghai.”

“Marvellous. Lovely idea.”

“A new lab, maybe? Anyway, think about what might be useful.”

Geoff was still shaking Mr Cheng’s hand. He was struggling to process what was being said, again. New lab? He must have misheard. But no obvious alternative presented itself. New lamb? New lav? He let go.

“That sounds very generous.”

Mr Cheng waved his hand. “If Shen is happy, I’m happy.”

They all gathered up their coats and bags. Shen took the mugs over to the counter. He beamed at the woman. The corners of her mouth twitched up slightly. Pouring the contents of the mugs in the sink, she complained. “Summat wrong with the tea?”

“Oh, no. We were just distracted. It was lovely.” Shen smiled again. “I’ll come again.”

The woman shrugged.

Outside Cheeky’s, Geoff stuck out his hand again. “Lovely to meet you, Me Cheng.” he said, again. “Have a lovely evening, and enjoy London.”

Geoff stood for a moment outside Cheeky’s, wondering if he’d imagined the whole encounter. But if it were real, what a coup!  Were donations REFfable? This could really give him some kudos.He grinned to himself.

The Chengs were about fifty yards away when he realised that he needed to go in the same direction as the Chengs to get to the station. He’d have to go a very long way round not to bump into them again. Bugger.


Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. For a cheesy novella about sessional staff, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email:

A trip out

Still in the office? Here’s part two of a three part special focusing on poor old Geoff. Part one is here.

The mysterious visitors had left. Geoff resumed his pacing.

As he crossed the room, he realised that there was a scrap of paper by the door which hadn’t been there before. He bent over to pick it up. It was torn from a notebook.

“Professor Sanders, I came to introduce my daddy and to wish you happy holidays. My daddy would like to meet you. He is here from Hong Kong.” It was signed Cheng Shan, with a phone number. There were a lot of students in biology, and normally Geoff wouldn’t have known who any of them were, but this name rang a bell. Was that the student whose father was said to be unbelievably wealthy, a Hong Kong financier or something? It was assumed that he’d applied to Burston Central by mistake, instead of the University of Burston, but nobody had dared to ask. Other than that, Geoff knew nothing about him.

He stepped over to the window. He could see two figures just emerging from the tower block and walking towards the park. Why not? It was a good excuse not to go home. He switched on the office light, and picked up the phone.

“Mr Cheng?”

“Dr Sanders here. You just put a note through my door?”

“Ha, ha. Of course I’m still here! Lots to do. I must have just stepped out for a moment.”

“Always switch the lights off when I leave the room. Can’t have the biology department wasting precious resources!”

“Yes, well, anyway. I just called to say that I’d be delighted to meet your father. Would you like to come up? Or I’d be pleased to take you for a drink somewhere?”

“Well, of course, tea, whatever. Where are you now?”

Geoff could see the two figures standing at the entrance to the park. Even from this height, he thought he could see them shivering.

“Oh, that’s great. Not far away! Can you hang on for a moment, and I’ll come down to you? Why not just pop back into the building? ”

“Perfect. See you in a minute.”

Geoff hung up. He opened the top drawer of the desk and took out a packet of mints. He popped one into his mouth, then put the packet into his pocket. He’d possibly had more whisky than one mint would mask.

He had a quick look round the office. Was there anything he needed for the holidays? He looked at his laptop. No. It could stay there. He picked up his coat and keys, kicked the desk drawer again, to no effect, and left the room.

Downstairs, there was no sign of any security staff. The student and his father were standing in the semi-dark near to the revolving doors. They looked cold. Geoff advanced towards them, holding out his hand. “Mr Cheng, lovely to see you again. And this is your father, also Mr Cheng, I presume?”

The student shook his hand limply. He looked surprised. As well he might – Geoff had probably passed him dozens of times in the corridor without showing any signs of acknowledgement, or welcome. “Yes, sir, professor, I present you my father, Mr Cheng. Visiting.”

“Quite so, quite so.” Geoff shook hands vigorously with Mr Cheng.

He looked carefully at Geoff. “Nice to meet you, Professor.”

“Oh, call me Geoff. We aren’t too formal here! And I’m not a professor, anyway, just a humble doctor,” he added, almost sotto voce.

“Geoff. Fine. I am Cheng-Gong.”

“Cheng-Gong.” Repeated Geoff. “Marvellous. Lovely to meet you. How are you finding Burston?”

“Cold.” Mr Cheng shivered, as if to emphasise the point.

“Oh dear. Well, it is winter. Shall we go and find somewhere for a cup of tea?”

“I wouldn’t like to keep you from your work, er, Geoff.”

“Oh, I was just about to leave anyway. It’s quiet at this time of year.”

“So I see.” Mr Cheng looked up at the darkened building.

“Yes, well, it’s good for everyone to get a break. My team work so hard all term.”

Mr Cheng said nothing. Geoff wondered if he’d raised an eyebrow, but it was quite dark. Difficult to be sure.

“Let’s go.” Geoff led the way out of the building. There was no catering on campus on Christmas Eve. He paused outside the building and looked up and down the street. Burger bars. Fried chicken shops. Convenience stores.  Not really what he was looking for. He walked past these establishments every day on his way to the station, but never really registered them. Why would he go out of the office for coffee, when he could make his own at a fraction of the price?

Where would be suitable? He vaguely remembered someone in the department mentioning a place down Challoner Street. Chicky’s? Cheeky’s? Smiling at the Chengs, he put out his arm in an encouraging gesture, and ushered them towards the main road.

Challoner Street was dimly lit, but he could see the café about half-way down. He led the Chengs confidently to the door and thrust it open, ushering them inside with a magnanimous gesture. A bell clanged somewhere as the door opened. His face fell as he looked around the room. He hadn’t realise that such places still existed. The orange plastic chairs surfaced dim memories of Wimpy Bars from his childhood.

Not for the first time, he marvelled at the difference between Burston city centre and Rumchester, where he lived. Twenty minutes on the train, and it was like another world. Rumchester was bursting with chi-chi coffee bars, each serving their own special blend of estate coffees to be sipped whilst installed on fine leather sofas reading an uncreased copy of your choice of broadsheet, or using the free wifi to catch up on Buzzfeed on your iPad.

The Chengs were looking at him. He gestured them towards the nearest table. There were no other customers, but the bell had summoned a woman to the counter. Behind her, he could hear a TV.

Geoff recovered himself. “Thought you might like to see a bit of local charm. Famous for its coffee.” He laughed nervously. “What can I get you? My treat.”

Mr Cheng looked carefully at him, as though trying to decide if Geoff was mocking them. Then he looked at the counter area. “I think I’ll have tea. Same for you, Shan?”

His son nodded.

“Great. I think I’ll try the famous coffee.” Geoff took the two paces to the counter with great decision. He smiled at the woman. “Two teas, please, and one black coffee.”

She nodded, and picked up a kettle, filled it, and switched it on. Geoff watched as she took three mugs from a shelf. She put tea bags in two of them, and a teaspoon of instant coffee in the third. The kettle boiled. She filled the mugs, stirred them all, extracted the tea bags, and then added generous quantities of milk to each. Geoff opened his mouth to say something about the coffee, but it was too late.

“There you go. Three pounds, please.”

Geoff fished in his pocket for change. He wondered if he’d stepped into a timewarp.

Part three is here.

What’s it all for?

Should you be unlucky enough still to be stuck in your office for the rest of the week, here’s part one of a three part special, focusing on poor old Geoff.

It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve. Burston had been shrouded in grey gloom all day. One or two office windows were lit in the tower block at Burston Central University, but it was almost completely dark. A few stray pieces of tinsel in some of the admin offices occasionally caught the light from passing cars on the overpass, and occasionally a corridor light came on for a brief period, presumably as an occupant sprinted to the toilet, or to the lift. Apart from these sporadic interludes, the building looked as though it had been long deserted, perhaps as a prelude to demolition.

Up on the tenth floor, Geoff paced the floor of his unlit office. His office was quite small. Four small paces were enough to take him from one end to the other. Twelve paces made a little circuit round the desk, if he made a little shimmy to squeeze through the gap between the filing cabinet and the desk. From time to time he paused to sip from his glass. There was really nothing important for him to finish off. He could easily have gone home, knew that he should have gone home, but he couldn’t quite face it. Carol would be at fever pitch with arrangements for cooking Christmas dinner. He checked his watch. According to Delia, it was now T-23 hours, and she should probably be stuffing the turkey by now, or something. He wondered how she was managing to do that and keep an eye on her father, who had arrived a week earlier and had been roaming restlessly around the house looking for DIY jobs. As he had done for the last thirty years, he had been making it clear that he didn’t think much of Geoff’s skills in that area. If anything, age was loosening his inhibitions. Geoff thought that Carol should defend him a bit more, rather than nodding when her father made a comment about standards slipping since his day. She said that he was just an old man, and she was just humouring him, but Geoff was starting to think that she secretly agreed.

Even if he did go home, he wouldn’t be able to slump in front of the TV as he usually did, because his father-in-law had taken possession of the remote control. He had chosen the ‘Gold’ channel and spent hours every day watching seventies’ sitcoms of dubious political correctness.

So Geoff had come unnecessarily into work instead, pleading the cares of a Head of Department. But there was nobody around. No emails to answer. No decisions which couldn’t wait until January. Instead he was pacing the floor of the office, thinking about his job and the way it was going.  He paused for another sip of whisky. He looked around the office. It was horrible. OK, it was a corner office, so it had two sets of windows, which would have made it light, if Burston were not usually shrouded in cloud. It was north-facing, so he was spared the gentle cooking effect experienced by those on the other side of the building on the rare occasions the sun emerged.  He supposed that was a good point. On the whole, though, it was gloomy, and it really was horrid. The cheap padded plastic chairs, which were meant to create a less formal space for chats with his team were ugly. The desk and filing cabinet were crammed in, and neither was big enough for him, so there were papers and folders always piled up waiting for something else to be removed to make space for them. Every now and then a pile toppled over, and he had to spend ages trying to make sense of it all again.

When he’d been an undergraduate, even a postgrad, Heads of Department had had secretaries to come and magic papers away. Their offices were spacious, yet cosy. Usually on the ground floor in some listed building, with a fireplace. Maybe a rug in front of the fire. Maybe someone to come in and light the fire, too. There would have been proper wooden bookcases, sofas for guests, and probably a drinks cabinet for sherry to offer those guests. Over sherry, he and the guests could have solved a problem or two of biology. Maybe a Nobel prize would have resulted.

No matter that his fantasy office was probably from a CP Snow novel set in an era long before his. He was trapped in this cell, ten floors up, with draughty aluminium window-frames and venetian blinds which didn’t seem to have been cleaned for twenty years.

Geoff was feeling very sorry for himself. He didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want to be Head of Biology. It had been a horrible year. Alison had left. The new joint course leaders didn’t know their proverbials from their elbows, and quality procedures had changed so much, he had absolutely no idea where they were going wrong. Jan had nearly caused utter disaster with the third years, and just before the bloody NSS as well. Not to mention that parent who was a solicitor picking up on the regs cock-up, and then the appalling son trying to bribe him to find more marks.

The University had issued even more incomprehensible edicts than usual. And to cap it all, Chris had nearly got them into the most horrendous Health and Safety trouble by trying to cover up a phage attack in the labs. And had trashed quite a few experiments in the process. If Chris hadn’t redeemed himself by getting the University’s only 3* rating in the REF, that could have been a lot more difficult to sort out.

Oh God, he felt so trapped. What was the point of this job? Of the department? There was nothing to look forward to any more. NSS results never went up. The REF result was crap, no matter how much the marketing department tried to spin it as a success. All of the good students left after a year and went to the University of Burston, unless they were completely lacking in ambition. His staff were a complete shower.

The glass was empty. He walked over to his desk and bent over the bottom drawer, where he kept the bottle. It was stuck – the furniture was all cheap crap. He put the glass down and knelt down on behind the desk so that he could pull at the drawer with both hands.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Geoff froze. Who the hell could that be? He could have sworn there was nobody in. Lucky he hadn’t put the light on. He stayed put. Putting his head back a little, he could see that the corridor light had come on and he could see two figures through the frosted glass set into the door – it was about the only perk of being a Head of Department, having frosted glass instead of clear glass.

He heard voices, but couldn’t quite catch what they were saying. Then there was a slight rustle, and the figures moved away. He sat back on the floor for a moment. When the corridor lights had gone out again, he resumed his efforts to open the drawer. Inevitably, it came free with a jerk. There was probably a joke lurking there about the parallel with his department, but he felt too gloomy to smile even to himself. He poured another generous measure – he was taking the train home – and kicked the drawer to close it. It stuck open. He kicked it again, this time in irritation. Bugger it.

Parts two and three are here.

On the twelfth day of Christmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas
My VC sent to me:
Twelve Students Striking
Eleven TEF Measures
Ten New Professors
Nine Heads of Service
Eight Interventions
Seven Senior Staff
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university

Geoff looked longingly at the cupboard next to his desk. It would be impossible to open the door discreetly, never mind extract the bottle, pour a drink, knock it back and hide the evidence. He sighed heavily.

“What’s up, prof?”

Geoff looked wearily at his nemesis. “What’s up? What’s up? I don’t know. Maybe the sun?”

Quentin looked quizzically at him. “You’re not making much sense, prof. Come on, get in the spirit.”

Geoff turned and looked out of the window. The lights of Burston spread away from the tenth floor office. Far below, the blue lights of an ambulance sped past. They were too high to hear the siren.

At the foot of the Burston Central University central building, he could see a couple of black-uniformed figures standing in a small group with three or four men in suits. He very much hoped it was Security planning his rescue.

There were twelve students in his office. The last time he’d seen that many students all together was at an induction session years ago, before he’d delegated pep talks to his course leaders.

They took up a ridiculous amount of space in the office. And they smelled unpleasant. The great smells of Lynx, or Sure, were layered over bodies which hadn’t had time for a shower in the morning. The fustiness of clothes which had been considered clean enough to be worn until the end of term, rather than bother with the over-priced launderette. Boxes of pizza strewn over the floor – to be fair, those had smelled pretty good when they arrived, but now the remains were congealing, and an unpleasant mix of anchovy, ancient oregano and cheap cheese was making him feel slightly nauseous.

He banged on the window. Damn those architects in the seventies who’d thought we’d never have to open a window again. There was no response from below, but Quentin moved languidly over and placed a hand on his arm. “Easy, prof. You’re safe with us.”

This was all Julian’s fault. The ‘Burston Resistance Movement’ had met again. Different pub this time, a little further away from campus. As Julian said, seven senior members of staff being seen regularly in the same pub might attract attention. The Blacksmith’s Arms was on the edge of what students called ‘no-man’s land’. If they got the apostrophe in the right place.

Geoff had felt a little uncomfortable walking over. He hadn’t actually seen anyone else on the streets, but he was sure there were other people around. And if there were others, they weren’t wearing sensible shoes and a Berghaus anorak, or carrying a rucksack large enough for a laptop. He’d tried to walk purposefully, and fast.

Despite his best efforts to be a couple of minutes late, nobody else from the BRM had arrived yet. Geoff waited at the bar. Didn’t want to get hemmed in at the table again. There were no stools, so he leaned back onto the bar. His pulse rate began to return to normal. Sipping his pint, he thought he probably fitted in not too badly.

The front door opened, and Geoff turned to the sound, hopeful that it was his colleagues. As he did so, there was a slight feeling of resistance in his shoulder straps, followed by a slow tinkling as his rucksack gently propelled a tray piled with glasses along the bar.

“For fook’s sake,” the landlord dived sideways, managing to catch the tray and a couple of the glasses. “Ya twat. Watch what ya doing.”

Geoff stared hopelessly at the damage. “Oh God. I’m so sorry. Let me help.” He made as though to come round the bar.

“Na, ya’ve done enough already.” The landlord waved him away. “G’an siddown out o’t’way.”

Mortified, Geoff slunk off to the only large table and slid round to the corner. Without thinking, he drained his glass. Still no sign of the rest of the BRM. He couldn’t go back to the bar. He couldn’t sit there on his own any longer.  He didn’t want to walk back into Burston on his own. He sat hunched in the corner.

Long, long, minutes passed before the door burst open again and Julian and the other five members of the BRM tumbled in, laughing and jostling each other. They chattered noisily while they ordered their drinks. Nobody looked at Geoff.

Eventually, they were all served, and Julian turned to survey the room. Geoff raised a timid hand, and Julian beamed at him. “There he is! Brilliant!”

Geoff absorbed some of the glow of the group as they made their way over to his table and settled themselves on either side of him. He wished he’d got himself another drink. He was hemmed in again.

Julian looked at his watch. “Right. We’re running a bit behind, so let’s get on.” As at the previous meeting, he leaned in a little, and lowered his voice. “OK. I’ve had an idea.”

“This has all gone too far. This restructure. Look at us.” He gestured round the group. “Seven senior staff. Do you think we’ve got a cat in hell’s chance of getting a look in to the research institutes?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “No. Because we’ve all been doing the thankless task of keeping the university running.” His colleagues nodded. “And saying the three teaching hub managers will be picked from the so-called highest-performing teaching departments. Well, fuck that. How’s it going to be measured?”

Geoff took this for a real question. “Um, didn’t the VC say that he’d be using the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework measures from the Green Paper?”

Julian had been waiting for this. He pounded his fist on the table. “Do you call that a measurement? Come on, Geoff. I thought you were a scientist.”

Geoff shrank back into his seat. Was he still a scientist? And anyway, how would he know anything about social science measures? Julian lowered his voice again. The fist-pounding had attracted some attention. “Look, this is all a pile of crap. National Student Survey, Graduate Employment Rates, Progression. They’re all proxy measures for teaching excellence, right? I mean, nobody knows what teaching excellence is, right?”

The BRM nodded collectively. Nobody was going to attempt another answer to Julian’s questions, which were now revealed to be rhetorical.

“Look, we can’t do anything about this. We’ve been castrated. Emasculated. Disempowered.”

In his intense state of anxiety, Geoff misheard the last word as ‘disembowelled’. He shrank back still further .

There were murmurs of ‘too true’, ‘bloody exec’, and ‘what happened to academic freedom?’

Julian continued. “We can’t do anything, but you know who can?”

Peter put his hand up. Julian indicated with a nod that he could speak. “The Senate?” he suggested.

It was just like QI. Julian was hoping for the wrong answers, so that he could sound a verbal klaxon. “The Senate? The Senate? Who’s on Senate?”

Geoff raised his hand a fraction. “I am.”

Julian spread his hands out, palm up. “Exactly. Exactly. What on earth could you do about all this?”

Geoff shook his head. “Nothing. Nothing.”

Julian’s use of the rhetorical device of repetition appeared to be infectious.

“So who can influence the VC?”

Nobody dared to make a suggestion.

“STUDENTS! The VC will have to listen to students.”

There was general assent around the table. Of course. Students had all the power nowadays. Academics counted for nothing in the consumerist world of modern higher education. Spoon-fed, cosseted, always put first.

Geoff didn’t join in with the murmurs of support. He never saw students getting much chance to speak at Senate. Sure, they were represented. Sure, there was an item marked ‘student agenda items’, but it was always about what was happening in the Students’ Union. They hardly ever spoke about any decisions Senate was taking, and when they did, the VC could be pretty sarcastic.

Geoff tuned out of the main discussion as he thought about what use students could possibly be in affecting the decisions of the University Executive. He couldn’t see it.

Julian was really getting under way now. “Let’s organise this where it has maximum impact. No good getting my students to do it, everyone knows that Sociology students will protest at the drop of a hat. We  need to pick a department where people will be more surprised, where there’ll be more press coverage, where we’ll get national attention.”

Geoff realised that the other six members of the BRM were looking at him.

“Biology!” Julian said in triumph. “Biology! Nobody expects militant biologists!”

At that moment, Geoff realised that he’d been set up.

And now, here he was, trapped in his office with twelve smelly students. If the inactivity below was anything to go by, there was no press coverage, no national attention, nobody who was actually bothered. Well, maybe his wife was bothered, but it was more likely that she thought he was working late, or in the pub. She’d probably say it served him right for not ever telling her when he was going to be late back. The students had ‘borrowed’ his phone and unplugged his computer when they’d ‘stormed’ his office according to Julian’s plan, so he didn’t really know if anyone was looking for him. The pizza delivery man hadn’t encountered any security staff on his way up. Nobody had knocked on the door to offer to negotiate. The little group downstairs might just be having a chat.

He sighed. It could be a long night. Maybe he could talk to the students about teaching excellence.

That was the twelfth day. The singing is over. But will Geoff remain in his office until the University shuts down on 24 December? It depends whether those students have booked Advance tickets to go home, probably.