Advent Episode 24: All’s Well That Ends Well

Sheila and Bob were in Cheeky’s. They’d picked a table in the corner where they could both see the whole room, and had both chosen ‘soup of the day’ with a plain roll. They were both feeling a little awkward. Last night, they’d been allies against the forces of madness. This afternoon, they couldn’t help but remember that they hardly knew each other.

“So, how’s Lilian this morning?” Bob asked.

Good choice of topic. Sheila sniggered. “She’s phoned in sick.”

They both giggled, remembering Lilian’s meltdown.

“Still, it was a bit of a shock to find out that you’re a cat-murderer.” Bob sounded serious, but he was grinning. “You don’t look the type at all. Who’d have thought it?”

Sheila blushed. “Actually, I’m not. Gareth was back in the garden this morning.” She smiled ruefully, “I hate to admit it, but it was almost good to see him. I didn’t even chase him out. He can’t do much harm at this time of year.”

“That’s a relief.” Bob kept up the light-hearted tone. “I’d hate to be associated with a killer.” He went pink. “Professionally, that is.”

His face got redder. “er. That is, I don’t mean that I wouldn’t like any other kind of association….” He trailed off in confusion.

Sheila smiled and put her hand on his arm. “It’s alright. I knew what you meant. Now, speaking of professional association, how did you get on with Alan?”

Bob appreciated the change of subject. “Pretty well, I think. He seemed impressed by the projections, and the risk assessments. I told him he’d need to get an executive team in place quickly to keep a separation between the College and the University, so that HEFCE didn’t start asking awkward questions. And I emphasised the need for good governance structures, and suggested he employ a good corporate lawyer. I may have mentioned some of the dire consequences I’ve seen where companies have short-cut in that area. He was looking a bit pale. Hope I didn’t put him off the whole idea completely.”

Sheila smiled. “Not him – he’s far too scared of the VC to back out now. I’d say it was perfectly pitched. By the time I went to see him, he was going through the Yellow Pages looking for a firm of solicitors.” She giggled. “As if you’re going to find that kind of expertise in a phone book! It’s strictly word of mouth for the kind of work he needs.”

Sheila continue. “Anyway, he was perfectly primed for me to give him my plans with the proposed governance structures, arms-length connection to the university and HR structure. He looked almost as pleased as if the National Student Survey results had suddenly gone up.”

They both giggled at the thought of that unlikely occurrence.

“I told Alan that he needed a good Chief Exec and Chief Operating Officer in post straight away, and that they could be seconded to the new company for a limited period without going through normal University HR processes, as the company will be in the private sector and wouldn’t be subject to the same rules.” Bob said. “That’s right, isn’t it?” he added anxiously.

“Yes. No need to advertise openly. The UCNB will have new HR policies of its own. Of course, Burston Central will need to check the policies as part of its due diligence when accrediting the College’s courses, but that won’t affect people already in post. Plus the oversight will more be aimed at the policies for recruitment of teaching staff: how we know they’re competent, etc. Not so much at the appointment of the senior management team.”

Bob said “He asked me if I’d be interested in being Chief Exec.”

Sheila looked at him “and you said….?”

“I said no, I thought he needed someone with legal training for that. I was more qualified for the Chief Operating Officer role, if he was offering.”

They smiled at each other.

“Sounds as though we’ve given him plenty to think about.” Sheila mopped out the last of her soup with a piece of bread. “Has he asked you in to see the VC?”

“Yes. 10.30 tomorrow.”

“Interesting, Me too. I’ll look forward to meeting you!”

They smiled at each other again.

“I’d better get back to the office,” Bob said “I’ve got behind with my marking, with all of this extra excitement.”

“Yes, me too” said Sheila. “My students are getting worried about their beer pipes.”

Bob was puzzled, but decided not to ask what she was talking about. He wasn’t usually too keen on cryptic academic comments but in Sheila’s case, they often sounded quite good fun just as they were. Beer pipes? Law?

“Do you think it would be a good idea to meet up after work just to go over the plans again?” Sheila was asking. “We need to be pretty slick tomorrow, and we aren’t supposed to have seen each other’s plans, are we?”

Bob nodded. “Good idea. Um. Perhaps you’d like to come over to my place?” He hardly blushed at all as he made the offer. He was going to have to mark student work all weekend, but what the heck. Live a little!

D I Bones was singing. True, he was on a rather unpleasant mission, and perhaps singing wasn’t the most appropriate response, but on the other hand, it was a road trip. Four hours there, four hours back. On his own in the car. That called for some singing. He’d run through a few rock favourites by way of a warm-up. Perhaps he shouldn’t have wound down the window for the final chorus of  ‘Bat out of Hell’ at those traffic lights. That poor old dear with the shopping trolley had got a bit of a fright. Lucky the car was unmarked. He didn’t need a reminder from the DCI about bringing Burston Met into disrepute with other forces. Now he was onto the power ballads. ‘Never mind, I’ll find, someone li-i-ike you,’ he yelled at the top of his voice. Pity Sandra hadn’t called him back yet.

He rolled into Prestatyn as ‘Bad Romance’ faded out. He switched off the car stereo and pulled over to fiddle with the GPS. He’d not had it plugged in on the way as he’d forgotten the charging cable. He entered the details for Beechacres Nursing Home. Damn. It was on the outskirts of town, on the road he’d come in on. He looked in the mirror and did an illegal U-turn. He wondered with interest if his standards were slipping in general, or if it was just this weird case.

Beechacres really was, surprisingly, an old house next to a beech copse, just as the name suggested. He’d been expecting a soulless council residential home with some wizened bushes in the car park. The beeches still had dried leaves clinging to them and the volume of the rustling sound they made was very noticeable as he got out and locked his car. He thought it was a bit eerie. Perhaps soulless, sound-insulated buildings were more appropriate after all?

There was an imposing front door. D I Bones rang the bell, ignoring the notice outside about acceptable visiting hours, and took out his warrant card.

He knew it would take a while for someone to come to the door. To be fair, they were probably busy doing whatever they needed to do outside visiting hours, but even if they weren’t, he was well aware that there were penalties for people who rang the bell when they weren’t supposed to. After several minutes, he rang the bell again. This time he heard footsteps after only a minute or so, and then some huffing and puffing as various bolts and locks were undone. He held up the warrant card.

“It’s not visit….” began the woman in nurse’s uniform who opened the door. She broke off as she saw the card. “Oh.”

“D I Bones. Burston Metropolitan Police. I’ve got an appointment with Matron Price.”

“Burston? This is Prestatyn. I don’t think any of our residents could have got up to anything that far away.” The nurse giggled. “What’s it about?”

“Is Matron Price here, Mrs, er..?” D I Bones was brisk. “I’m afraid it’s a confidential matter.”

“Oh.” the woman sounded disappointed. “Um. Yes. Please come this way.”

She motioned him to come in and then closed and locked the door. “Some of our residents like to wander.”

D I Bones didn’t take any notice. They continued across the entrance hall in silence. She stopped outside a door marked ‘Reception’ and leaned into the room. “D I Bones from Burston,Matron. Says he’s got an appointment.”

She nodded in response to whatever was said, then straightened up. “Here’s Matron, D I Bones. Bye now.”

D I Bones nodded at her and went into the office. She set off very slowly back across the hall.

Matron Price got up and shut the door of the office. She put out her hand to D I Bones. “Judith Price.”

They shook hands. “You said it was something to do with Mrs Jones’s son Gareth?”

“Yes. I was wondering if you know him at all?”

“Well, not very well, but I know who he is, of course. He comes most weekends to see her, but he hasn’t been for a few weeks. I was wondering where he’d got to, but, to be honest, I didn’t think too much about it. Mrs Jones didn’t really recognise him any more, and I know he was busy with his science. I was surprised he came as often as he did. Is something wrong? Is he in trouble with the police?”

D I Bones took out the photo of Gareth which the pathologist had done for him. “Is this him?”

“Looks like him. Oh dear. This is a PM photo, isn’t it?”

D I Bones nodded. “We’ve been struggling to get a positive identification. One of Gareth’s friends agreed it was him in the photo, but she didn’t seem to know him that well, so I was hoping to find someone who knew him better. Plus we needed to trace the next of kin. Sounds as though we might have finally managed it.”

“Well, possibly. But Mrs Jones isn’t in a position to identify him. Or be informed, really. She won’t understand. Probably just as well. What happened to him?”

D I Bones sighed. “we don’t really know yet. He was found in the woods. There’s no obvious cause of death.”

Matron Price took pity on him. “Maybe we can help a bit. Let’s have a cup of coffee and we can have a look through Mrs Jones’ records. She’s from round here. We should have her family doctor’s details, although we do use our own doctor for the home.”

D I Bones was in the car, and he was singing again. This time it was more about trying to cheer himself up. It looked as though he would be able to close the case, but the story was very dismal. The Jones’s family doctor had looked after Gareth since he was born. Gareth had never had any particular health problems, but his father had died suddenly at the age of forty-six, when Gareth was only two. The cause of death had been given as heart failure, but nothing had really shown up at the PM – some kind of heart condition had been an assumption. So although Gareth was much younger, it was possible that something similar had happened to him. The GP had mentioned Sudden Adult Death Syndrome – SADS – which explained Dr Choudhari’s cryptic note. The GP had also said that Mrs Jones had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s the year after Gareth had left home to go to University, and was now in need of full-time care.

The family doctor had offered to come and identify the body on Saturday, which was really very good of him. Matron Price would sort out a power of attorney for Mrs Jones and ask that person to organise Gareth’s funeral and Gareth’s flat and assets and so on. D I Bones just needed to do a report for the coroner and inform Social Services in Prestatyn, and he could close the file. He didn’t think any of Gareth’s colleagues needed to know any more. They could wait till the inquest if they were interested. Which didn’t seem very likely. Meanwhile, he still had his bottle of wine and his box set of The Killing to look forward to.

He pulled up in front of his neat modern apartment block just as his mobile rang. Unknown number. He pressed ‘Answer’.

“D I Bones.”

An Australian voice answered him “All right, mate? Got a body here for you, but it’s not dead yet.” Sandra Sharpe went off into paroxysms of giggles.

D I Bones smiled. Poor old Gareth. But at least something good might have come out of his enquiry.

Sheila, Bob and Alan were waiting outside Bill Noakes’ office. Alan was looking much more cheerful than he had done earlier in the week. He was holding the plans which Sheila and Bob had produced. He’d asked them both for digital copies and then he’d added his name to the front covers and printed them out on glossy paper and put them in nice bindings. Sheila and Bob were trying not to look at each other. Alan had ‘introduced them’ earlier and commented on how complementary their reports were. They’d both murmured something about that being a fortunate coincidence and it showing what a good idea it all was, but they were both worried about giggling at an inopportune moment. The last couple of days had been a bit giddy for both of them.

Without any obvious cue, Phyllis suddenly put up her head. “You can go in now.”

Alan jumped up. Bob and Sheila followed him into the VC’s office. Bill Noakes was sitting behind his cheap desk flicking through his own glossy copies of the plans. They were filled with Post-it notes. His three employees stood diffidently in front of him. “Sit down” he said, without looking up.

They obeyed. After another few minutes, he stuck a final Post-it note onto a page and finally looked at them. He seemed confused. Alan sprang up again. “Vice Chancellor, you remember Bob Barker, don’t you? From the Accountancy department. And this is Sheila er, er, from the Law department.”

Sheila stood up and put out her hand to the VC. “Sheila Thompson, Vice Chancellor. Pleased to meet you.”

Bill shook her hand reluctantly. Alan continued. “Bob and Sheila have been helping me with the UCNB plans, Bill. Been very glad of their industry expertise, in fact.”

Bill turned and stared witheringly at him. “That explains a lot.” Alan sat down again, crushed.

Bill looked down at the plans again. He took pity on Alan. “These plans are excellent.” The three others let out a collective sigh of relief. The entire institution craved the approval of the VC, and it wasn’t easy to come by. “I do have a few questions, though.”

Bob and Sheila leaned forward. This was their territory.

Later, in Cheeky’s, which Sheila was starting to think of as ‘their’ place, wiping out her memories of meeting Alan there when she’d been worried about the online dating debacle, they went over the meeting again.

“It was fantastic the way you handled the HR question,” Bob said. “I thought he was on to the contract issue, there. But you deflected him brilliantly.”

“And I liked the way you encouraged him to think about seconding a CEO who had a legal background!”  Sheila was really pleased. “I hope you aren’t going to be a difficult employee, though, Mr Chief Operating Officer!”

They clinked coffee cups.

More pensively, Bob said “do you think Alan knew about his early retirement? He looked a bit surprised.”

Sheila shrugged. “It was very kind of you to suggest that with UCNB, he’d be going out on a high, though.” They both started laughing. Poor old Alan. The University College of North Burston really was the last straw for him.

In Geoff’s office, Alison was making a cup of coffee, although Geoff looked in need of something stronger. She realised that his kettle was in full view on a side table. Typical. One rule for middle managers, and another for everyone else. Exactly why she wouldn’t be sorry to leave all of this behind.

Geoff was looking bereft. “But Alison, think how bored you’ll be, stuck away on some little island miles from civilisation and with no meaningful work. I’m only thinking of you. It’s my duty to point these things out. It’s part of your professional development process.”

Alison swallowed hard. She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t get angry, or upset. Geoff had spent years making her feel that he was utterly dependent on her to run the Biology course, because she was so fantastic at her job. But the truth was, she had been a mug, and there was plenty of cannon fodder available to replace her. She was a battle casualty.

She forced herself to say, mildly, “Geoff. I’m not leaving till the end of the year. We’ve got plenty of time for succession planning. You know there are lots of skilful people in the department who are just waiting for their chance to drop a bit of research and do a bit more admin. What about Ingrid, or Dev?”

Geoff shook his head. “Oh, I don’t think we can have another woman as course leader. We need some stability now. If you’re all going to follow your husbands at the drop of a hat, where will we be?”

Alison once again decided to be kind, given Geoff’s distress. “Geoff. You need to get the best person for the job. I’ve been course leader for eight years. It’s long enough. But I think you’d better be careful about your opinions when you’re talking to anyone else,” she added, tartly.

Geoff had his head in his hands and was rocking gently in his chair. “It’s the last straw. The last straw.”

Alison tiptoed out of the room. At least Geoff had confirmed her decision. There was very little she would miss about Burston Central.

Wading Through Treacle is taking a break now, before things get any cheesier in Burston Central. If you’ve enjoyed reading Wading from Treacle, send me your ‘things you couldn’t make up’ for incorporation in the story in 2013.
You can still 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.

Advent Episode 23: A Decent Proposal

Alison was entering grades into the student record system. The module leaders were supposed to do it themselves. On the old system, they’d entered them in a spreadsheet, then printed them out and given them to the admin team to enter. Of course, that had been a big waste of time, but now one or two of her colleagues didn’t think it was their job to enter marks into student records, and they either refused to do it, or made seemingly deliberate mistakes. She preferred to do them all herself, then she knew everything was done properly. So colleagues printed them out and gave them to her, and then she entered them. It saved time in the end.

Incoming text message. She sighed. It would be Derek. He was probably quite annoyed with her. She’d been late home every night for weeks. OK, last night hadn’t been entirely her fault. She sniggered at the thought of Geoff trapped in his office by a student. He really needed to get out more. He’d forgotten what it was like in the classroom.

‘Alison. I really need you to get back on time tonight. Derek.’

She sighed again. He didn’t need to add his name to every text. She knew they were from him. He could be surprisingly old-fashioned. She frowned. He must be in a bad mood. He hardly ever made a direct request. He was usually a bit more passive-aggressive, sending something like ‘hope to see you later :-)’

She looked at the list next to her. She’d really wanted to finish them off tonight. She was only half-way through, though, and it was taking ages. The main trouble with anonymous marking, in her view, was that entering the marks in the records when you just had a number, rather than a name, was surprisingly difficult. Everything needed to be double-checked.

Sod it. She picked up a red pen and put a line under the last mark she’d entered. Then she locked the list in her drawer. She picked up an article she planned to read that evening, the papers for tomorrow’s School employability committee meeting and her phone, and stuffed them all into her bag. She looked round for the tablet computer, then remembered that IT services still had it. She giggled at the thought of the locked screensaver.

Shut down computer, put on coat, lock office. She felt quite rebellious, although she was stll the last person left in the building. The corridor was dark. The auto-sensing lights usually came on just as she reached the lifts.

The bus was usually fairly quick at this time of night. She didn’t take the journal article out of her bag, but juts sat and stared out of the window. This part of Burston was lively at all hours. Students from both universities were out and about, there was a thriving street of curry restaurants, the Christmas lights were up. It was really quite a nice place to live.

She wondered why Derek was so keen for her to get home early. It really wasn’t like him. Lately he’d seemed to have given up altogether on commenting on her working hours.  She realiy did feel guilty about it, but things had been so mad lately, she’d just had no choice. And this week, what with Geoff and the student doing her own sit-in, sorting out poor old Gareth, and Jan….

A nasty thought struck her. What if Derek had stopped mentioning her working hours because he’d basically given up on her? Maybe he’d met someone else who had a more conventional job? It would have to be someone at the council. Neither of them ever went anywhere else, other than her Wednesday evening with the team, and Derek knew how dull that was. She felt queasy. She couldn’t cope with that on top of everything else.

By the time she got home she was convinced that Derek was going to explain to her that he was leaving. Or maybe that he wanted her to leave, since he was the one keeping the household going. She felt physically sick. Oh, God. Her life was falling apart, and for what?

She let herself into the house. There was a fantastic smell of roasting vegetables.  I the kitchen, the table was laid for two. With a cloth.

“Smells wonderful” Alison said. The kitchen was unusually tidy. “Um. Where are the kids?” She hung her coat over the back of one of the chairs.

“I let them have a takeaway and rented a DVD for them”

“Wow. They must be delighted. On a school night.” Alison was really starting to panic, but her voice sounded calm enough.

Derek passed her a glass of wine. “Sauvignon-Viognier. You like that.”

Alison smiled. “Do I?” Wine-tasting was one of Derek’s hobbies that she hadn’t quite managed to make time for. “When I retire” she always said. She took a sip. “Lovely. Just what I needed.”

“It’s almost ready. I was just waiting for you to put the tuna in.” Derek turned to the hob. “It’ll be five minutes.” While the oil was heating in the frying pan, he turned to the oven and took out a baking tray of roasted vegetables. He put them down on the table. “I think they’ll keep warm for long enough”. He smiled at her.

Alison was really confused. It was a lot of effort to go to if you were going to launch a bombshell. “Derek,” she started.

“Hang on, I can’t really hear you.” The extractor fan was on, and the tuna was sizzling. “Won’t be a sec.”

Alison took a big mouthful of wine. It wasn’t her birthday. Anyway, Emma and Ben would have been involved with that. It wasn’t their anniversary. Was it? No. They obviously weren’t expecting guests. She couldn’t think of anything else that might merit this level of effort, on a week-night at least. If Derek had something truly awful to announce – affair? Divorce? serious illness? Redundancy? – it wouldn’t be worth a lovely meal and tidy kitchen. Would it? Alison closed her eyes and tried to remember the last time they’d had any kind of conversation which wasn’t about children’s activities, school reports, shopping lists or what to do for that year’s holidays. Probably in the summer. On holiday. She sighed.

Derek put two plates down on the table and sat opposite her. “Wake up!”

She opened her eyes and smiled. “Just thinking.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“I was just wondering what this lovely occasion was in aid of?”

Derek feigned shock. “Are you trying to pretend that you don’t get this service every night?” He looked hurt.

Alison laughed at him. “If only! I should have married a …” she couldn’t quite think of an acceptable way to end the sentence. “Anyway, it looks delicious. Thank you.”

“Finish your glass, you need a glass of Chinon with this.”

Alison did as she was told and Derek refilled the glass. She started to eat.

“OK. You’re right. There is something.” Alison looked at him. He smiled nervously. “The thing is. The thing is. I’ve been offered a job in the Isle of Wight.” He rushed out the last sentence.

“The Isle of Wight?”

“Yes. Deputy Chief  Exec. of the council. Good moving package, rent allowance for six months, house prices down there are reasonable anyway, nice environment, low crime. Well, you know all that anyway. Great job.” He stopped abruptly, as though he’d come to the end of a rehearsed piece. Alison was gaping slightly.

She wasn’t quite sure where to start. How had he got a job like that without even mentioning it? It must have taken weeks of planning. But she decided on the personal. “We can’t do that. What about school?”

“There’s a good school there, Carisbrooke College. Emma says she’d quite like a fresh start for sixth form. You know she doesn’t quite fit in with the other girls in her class. She says at least she’d have a reason to be different if we moved down there. And she quite fancies the idea of surfing every weekend. Ben could do with a shake-up, too. You know his results have been slipping. I’m not so keen on those lads he’s been knocking about with. And the school there has a video games club. Programming, not just playing. He’d love it”

“You’ve talked to Emma about it already?” Alison dimly realised that this wasn’t the thing she should be focusing on, but somehow, just at this moment, it seemed the most outrageous part of the whole proposition.

Derek winced. “Um. She could see I was excited about something. And you weren’t there, so…” he tailed off. “so I thought I’d make an occasion of it when you were.”

Alison seemed lost for words. It really wasn’t what she’d been expecting. “And hang on” Derek said “my salary package is going to be really good. Like I said, house prices are reasonable, we won’t need a big mortgage. We can manage on one salary.” Before Alison had a chance to say anything, he continued at high speed. “I’m not suggesting that you give everything up. But I thought maybe you could just have a bit of a break, do some work on Martin’s fumer, furmer, whatever it is..”

“Martin’s Ramping-fumitory.” Alison corrected  him.

Derek went on. “Yes, that one. It  grows down there, doesn’t it? You could finish that paper you used to talk about. And the OU is recruiting part-time tutors for Biology in that region, I saw an advert in the Guardian. So you could do some teaching, but without all the stress you’ve got now.” Derek stopped again.  “But eat up, it’s getting cold.”

Alison was still staring at him, open-mouthed. In the absence of any better idea, she obeyed the instruction. Quite a variety of things had been thrown at her this week. A dead colleague. Extra teaching to cover. A potentially huge assessment cock-up on her course. A broken computer. An appalling moderation session. Geoff’s student sit-in. Endless mark lists to enter. But that was basically a bad, but not untypical week. Home was usually a bit more predictable. This was so far out of left-field that she didn’t know what to think, or do.

Derek was looking anxiously across the table at her.

Her face suddenly crumpled and she started to weep, quietly.

Derek looked distraught. “Oh, shit. Alison, I’m sorry, it’s OK, we won’t do it.” He came round to her side of the table and put his arm round her. “Here” he reached over to the kitchen worktop and pulled off a piece of kitchen roll.

Tomorrow’s episode of the Wading Through Treacle Advent Calendar 2012 will be the last. (And a good thing too, it’s getting even cheesier!). You can still 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. Feel free to send me accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too:

Tomorrow’s episode: ‘All’s well that ends well‘;

Advent Episode 22: Working the Phones

D I Bones was in no hurry to get back to work. He didn’t expect anything new to turn up on the investigation, and the only excitement he was likely to get all day was handing his weekly money to the lottery syndicate co-ordinator. And writing up some final reports from the last three cases, which the DCI had been mithering him for. He booted up the computer.

To: D I Bones

From: E Choudhari

Subject: G Jones, Deceased, Tox

Nothing in the tox results. Wondering about sads? Def. no foul play. Send you more later.

Sent from mobile

Even for the pathologist, this was cryptic. There was nothing more he could do until IT got back to him. He really hoped there was something of use on the computer, or the phone.

He sighed and opened up the file about Mrs J Alcock, deceased 24 October. At least that one had been straightforward.

The DCI was going to be pleased with him. He was up to date. With one case, at least. The phone rang.

“Kit here, IT Services.”

“Great, what have you got for me?”

“I’ve charged the phone and unlocked it. Do you want to come and get it, so you can check the directory? I can maybe do the browser stuff later. I know you wanted to find the contacts first.”

“Brilliant, thanks. I’ll be down in five minutes. Bye”

D I Bones came back up the stairs with the phone. It felt a bit like a hot potato. Either the phone would have contacts in it, which meant he would have to break the news of Gareth’s death to someone over the phone. Or it wouldn’t, and he would be no further on with the enquiry. He almost didn’t want to look.

He got back to his desk and opened his notebook. OK.

The phone was a fairly primitive smartphone. There was a photo background, a fairly generic landscape. D I Bones made a note. Might be somewhere important. Or he might have downloaded it from the internet just because he liked it. He realised that he was trying to avoid opening the contacts folder. He sighed. Come on.

There were six names in the list.

  • Alison Fraser
  • Chip
  • Mam
  • Nasreen
  • Pizza Planet
  • Sereena

Did he really only need to save six numbers? God. He checked his notebook. Alison – that was Alison Fraser. She didn’t know him. Sereena – that was Sereena Khan. She didn’t know much. Nasreen – that was Professor Birch. Still out of the country. That left ‘Mam’ and ‘Chip’. He really did not want to phone ‘Mam’ first. He didn’t really expect to find anything, because it was a mobile number, but he did a reverse lookup on Chip’s number, just in case. He hoped that wasn’t a takeaway too.  Nothing came up. For once, absence was a goHe dialled.

“Hello! You’re through to Charles Grosvenor. I can’t take your call right now, but leave a message and I’ll call you back!”. D I Bones followed the instruction and hung up. He still didn’t want to cal ‘Mam’. He had another idea.

“Mrs Garvill, this is DI Bones from Burston Met.”

“Fine, thanks. And you? ”

“Well not too great, to be honest with you. But that’s why I called you. It’s a bit of a long shot, but I was wondering if you knew anyone called Charles Grosvenor?”

“Oh that’s great. Any contact details?”

D I Bones scribbled down a number.

“Do you know when he’s due back?”

“Does he? OK. Fine. I’ll give it a go.”

“That’s really helpful, Mrs Garvill. No, Mr Grosvenor isn’t helping me with my enquiries. I just have reason to believe that he may be able to give me some information.”

“Well, I realise that it sounds like the same thing as helping with enquiries, but it really isn’t.”

“I’m afraid I need to get on, Mrs Garvill. Thank you so much for your help. Good bye.”

He pressed down and released the button and then dialled the number she’d given him. “Dr Charles Grosvenor, University of Burston. Please leave a message.”

“Dr Grosvenor. It’s Detective Inspector Bones from Burston Metropolitan Police. Could you call me back on 0208 654 2304. It’s rather urgent.”

He hung up. Fingers crossed.

Five minutes later, his phone rang.

“D I Bones, Burston Metropolitan Police.”

“Dr Grosvenor. Thanks for calling back so quickly.”

“Yes, Mrs Garvill told me you were at a conference, but that you’d be keeping an eye on your mail.”

“Yes, I’m sure. Well, I hope some of the sessions are interesting.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know much about adenoviruses, sir. But I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called.”

“Would I be right in thinking that you know a Dr Gareth Jones?”

“He hasn’t done anything, sir. At least, not that we know of.”

“Ha ha. I’m sure. Well, as I was saying, I did want to ask you about Dr Jones, sir. Were you friends with him?”

“Did I say were? I do apologise. But yes, Dr Jones is unfortunately deceased, sir.”

“I was hoping you might be able to help me find out, sir. Dr Jones’ death is currently unexplained. But I am more concerned at the moment with tracing his next of kin. Are you, er, familiar, with anybody in Dr Jones’ family, sir?”

“Gaga? Do you mean that Mrs Jones suffers from dementia, sir?”

“Fairies? I see. Is she in some kind of care home, then?”

“Oh. Well, that’s helpful. Do you have a first name, by any chance?”

“Any idea of where it might be?”

“OK. Thanks. Now, I do have some further questions for you about Dr Jones. Would it be possible for me to come and see you when you’re back in Burston? I’d rather do this face to face.”

“Tomorrow afternoon would actually be fine. Will you be back at the University?”

“Is that the main campus?”

“OK, I’ll come to Reception of Burley building. Does it have a door?”

“Just my little joke, sir. These university buildings can be different from places I’m used to.”

“Indeed, sir. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow, 2pm. Oh, and of course you can ignore the message I’ve left on your mobile phone. Good bye, sir.”

D I Bones rang off. His notebook hadn’t acquired much more. Mam Jones was demented and lived in a nursing home.  Chip hadn’t known where exactly, but he was pretty sure that  Gareth came from Prestatyn.  There was no point in trying ‘Mam’s’ mobile number in the contacts folder – it was a mobile, and she was ‘too far gone’ to answer, if Chip really knew about it.

D I Bones pulled up the directory enquiries website. Nursing homes in Prestatyn. How many could there be?


Second question. How many could have a resident called Mrs Jones?


Second question. How many could have a resident called Mrs Jones who might have a son called Gareth?


He went down to the canteen for a coffee and wandered back up to his desk. He’d have to get a bit smarter about it. He thought for a while, doodling on a bit of scrap paper. Then he realised the missing link.

Gareth was in his mid-twenties. Mrs Jones couldn’t be very old, so she must have quite early-onset dementia.  She couldn’t be older than in her late sixties. That should narrow things down. He started phoning the nursing homes again.

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 new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: A Decent Proposal.

Advent Episode 21: Flat Inspection and Squatter

 Flat Inspection

D I Bones woke up with a really bad headache. He would have liked nothing better than to phone in sick, but he needed to get into Gareth’s flat. He was expecting to see another note on his computer from uniform branch when he got in, but there was nothing new. At 9.25 he went down to reception. The duty sergeant grunted at him and gestured towards a PC standing by the desk. He looked very young.

“D I Bones. Are you detailed for the flat inspection?”

“Yes, sir. PC McIntyre. Sam.”

“OK, Sam. Let’s go. Have you got a car, or shall we go in mine?”

Sam held up a car key. “Got a patrol car booked out, sir. In case we need the kit.”

D I Bones held up the key to Gareth’s flat. “Don’t worry, Sam, we won’t need the enforcer this time. Saves on paperwork.”

Sam looked slightly disappointed. “Very good, sir.” D I Bones led the way out to the car park.

Gareth lived, or had lived, in an old warehouse which had been converted to small apartments intended for young professionals, not far from the city centre. They drove in silence. D I Bones was mulling over the previous night’s débacle. The thought of the paperwork was making him feel even worse. Why hadn’t he realised that Lilian was just another crank caller? It wasn’t as though he didn’t have plenty of experience with them. He supposed it was because she was a university lecturer. He didn’t think he’d met any before this week. Bloody hell. They were a strange bunch. There was that biology woman, Alison whatever, she wasn’t with it at all. The state of her kitchen! And her reaction to the news about Gareth was weird. He’d never, ever seen anyone so uninterested in a death. Sheila Thompson, his supposed suspect seemed pretty flaky. Nice house, though. The Bob character, fairly normal, but a bit, well, feeble? And as for Mrs Hankin… His head throbbed at the thought of their journey back from Sheila’s house. That woman was completely bonkers. He didn’t care if it was un-PC to say it. He shuddered.

“Shall I park here, sir?”   Sam had pulled up near the warehouse, next to an empty parking space. D I Bones opened his mouth to tell him to go up to the double yellows just by the main entrance, and then thought better of it. Maybe there were some new regulations about that. They weren’t in a particular hurry. “fine” he said.

“Do I need anything special from the car, sir?”

D I Bones shook his head. “Not really. Just gloves and a pack of evidence bags. The death isn’t suspicious. We just need to see if there’s a note, and we also need to track down next of kin. Looking for address books or whatever. Oh, maybe a mobile. He didn’t have one on him when he was found. I suppose it could have been nicked.”

“Who’d nick a mobile from a corpse, sir?”

D I Bones looked at him. He really was young. He didn’t bother to answer. “OK, well let’s get to it, PC MacIntyre.”

The lift was out of order. They trudged up to the fifth floor. “Bet you’re glad you’re not carrying the enforcer now,” D I Bones suggested. He was panting. Sam, however, seemed fine. He really was young. And fit.

Outside Gareth’s flat, D I Bones stopped and knocked loudly. “I thought the guy was dead, sir?”

“We don’t know for sure that he lived alone. I’ve tried calling the landline a few times. But you never know.”

Sam nodded, hopefully storing away a tip for future searches.

Nobody answered. D I Bones got out Gareth’s keys. He hoped they would fit. There was no actual evidence linking Gareth to the flat. The nearest to a confirmed identification had been Sereena’s glance at the post-mortem photo. Nobody else he’d spoken to had actually met him.

The keys worked. D I Bones realised that he’d been holding his breath. He gave a sigh of relief. That linked the body to the Gareth Jones who’d worked at University of Burston and who’d given this address to Mrs Garvill.

They both put on gloves, and went inside. The front door opened directly into the sitting-room. DI Bones scanned the room. It was sparsely furnished. One chair, medium-sized TV, coffee table, desk and small bookcase in one corner. Big window with a fake balcony. No pictures on the walls, but one slightly dog-eared poster for Coldplay, 2008 tour stuck up just a shade crookedly near the TV. It was very tidy. Or maybe sparse was a better word. D I Bones sighed. “You take this room, Sam. I’ll start with the bedroom.”

Back at the station, D I Bones flipped through his notes.

Items removed from apartment of Gareth Jones:

  1. Mobile phone, locked, and battery almost flat (Nokia, on bedside table)
  2. Laptop computer with charger (Toshiba, in messenger bag on the kitchen chair)

That was it. They hadn’t found anything else useful. No bank statements, no utility bills, no personal correspondence, just, nothing. The bedding and the towels looked as though they had been used. The toothbrush and shaving kit were used. But it looked as lived in as a hotel room.

He phoned the IT team. Maybe they’d find something useful on the computer. And they needed to unlock the mobile.


Alison looked at her watch. It couldn’t be so late, could it? She still had loads of things to do. The phone on her desk rang. ‘Geoff Sanders’ said the display. God, what now? She picked up the receiver. “Alison speaking.”

Geoff sounded upset. “Alison. Can you come straight to my office, please?”

“Is it really urgent, Geoff? I’m trying to finish up the course modification forms. They’ve got to be in by tomorrow.”

“Please, Alison. Please.” Was that a sob? She must have misheard. Geoff was permanently vague. He didn’t express any emotion about anything. Even yesterday, with that unpleasant incident with Jen and Mr Patel, he hadn’t really seemed bothered. He was just going through the motions. “OK.” she said, and hung up.

She locked her office and walked down the corridor. The lights came on just as she got to the stairs. As usual, she thought how handy the lighting system was for intruders. She went up one flight and turned left. The lights were already on up here. Geoff’s office was slightly recessed from the main corridor.  As she got nearer, she could hear voices. Odd. Who else would be around at this time of night? Like her, Geoff often worked late, but most of their colleagues were long gone by now.

She turned into the recess and stopped dead. An unfamiliar person was sitting in the doorway to Geoff’s room. She was leaning back against the frame, with her knees pressed to the other side. Alison frowned, then shrugged and stepped over her. “Geoff?”

Geoff was hunched over in his chair. “Alison.” He looked up at her. “Alison. Thank you for coming.” He sniffed loudly.

Alison felt exasperated by this behaviour. “Geoff” she repeated. “What did you want to see me for? I am quite busy.” Geoff gestured towards the door. “her.”

Alison turned back to the figure in the doorway. “What about her?”

Geoff looked incredulous. The problem was obvious. He leaned forward and whispered “I can’t get rid of her. I can’t go home.”

Alison saw no need to lower her voice. “What do you mean, you can’t get rid of her? Who is she, anyway?”

“She’s one of our students.” Geoff gestured at her to whisper. “She came to complain about the Cell Biology lectures being cancelled. She says she pays £9000 a year for this and she’s staying here till I teach her. She won’t go. ”

Alison stared at him. “Don’t be ridiculous, Geoff.” She went over to the student. “I’m Alison Fraser, the course leader. I gather you’ve got a problem with the course. Why don’t you tell me about it? What’s your name?”

The student looked defiantly up at her. “Sue. I’m not going till I get my Cell Biology course. I’ve paid for it and the lecturer never turns up. ”

“Sue. I can understand why you’re upset.” Alison used her special, calm, tone. “I know this isn’t the best way to start your course, but we have had a particular problem with Cell Biology, and I’ve spent the last two days trying to sort it out.”

Alison cursed to herself. One of the things on her job list that she hadn’t got to was to email all of the first year students to tell them what had happened and what she was going to do about it. She’d got Alex on the case with trying to find a timetable slot so she could catch up for them, but he hadn’t got back to her with anything yet.

“Now, why don’t you get up and I can explain it all to you? It’s a bit difficult to chat when you’re sitting on the floor.”

Sue glared at her. “I’m not going until I’ve got my course.” She repeated.

Alison turned back to Geoff, who was watching them, rapt. “How long has she been here, Geoff?”

He looked at his watch. “Since quarter to five.” Alison sighed. He really was ineffectual. She crouched down to Sue’s level.

“Sue. You’ve been sitting there for two hours. You must be really uncomfortable. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll get a cup of coffee, and I’ll explain what’s happened. You do know that your lecturer, Gareth, died very suddenly?”

Sue looked shocked. “Gareth? But he’s so young. How did it happen?”

Alison stood up and held out a hand to Sue. “Come on. I’ll take you for a coffee and I’ll tell you all about it. I’m sorry we haven’t let you know. We only found out on Monday ourselves, and we’ve been concentrating on finding a replacement.”

Sue took her hand and let herself be pulled up. Alison glanced round at Geoff. “I’ll take it from here, Geoff. See you tomorrow.”

“Mmm.” Geoff looked crushed. “Thanks” he added, quietly, as they left the room.

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 new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: Working the Phones

Advent Episode 20: It was an accident.

Sheila gestured to D I Bones to go through to the kitchen. She followed him dejectedly. Bob rose to his feet as D I Bones came in. “Sheila?”

D I Bones introduced himself to Bob. “And you are, sir?”

“Um. Bob Barker. I’m a colleague of Sheila’s. Sheila, are you alright?” He took her arm and led her back to her chair. “Sit down, Sheila.” His mind seemed clearer now, and it was working overtime. Was she in trouble with the police? Had he been in danger? Perhaps she was a notorious predator of some kind?

“D I Bones, Sheila seems to have had a bit of a shock. Could you tell me what’s going on?”

“Mr, Dr, Barker. I just wanted to ask Sheila a few questions. D I Bones was very interested in Sheila’s reaction to the mention of Gareth Jones. He never liked to jump to conclusions, but she did seem to have ‘guilty’ written all over her. “It’s confidential Mr, Dr Barker,” he added.

Bob stood up a bit straighter. “Mr. I’m sure Sheila won’t mind me staying to support her” he said, bravely. Sheila nodded. “Now, let’s all get comfortable. Would you like a drink, D I Bones?” He lifted the bottle of wine from the table.

“Coffee’d be good.” D I Bones replied. “Black, no sugar.”

“Right you are.” Bob turned confidently towards the kitchen worktops. He had no idea where anything was, of course. Everything was neatly put away, just as he liked it himself, but that didn’t help. He looked for the kettle. Shit. There was one of those espresso machines. He hadn’t a clue how to use it.

D I Bones was watching with interest. “Instant’s fine” he suggested.

“Right you are.” Bob tried the cupboard above the kettle. That’s where he would have kept the coffee. Bingo. Instant coffee, a variety of teas, and mugs. He  checked the water in the kettle and switched it on. He looked over at Sheila. She looked utterly dejected, and seemed to be oblivious to both of them. He smiled brightly at D I Bones. “Won’t be a minute.”

He looked back in the cupboard. Camomile tea? Wasn’t that good for calming people down? He got out a teabag and prepared one alongside D I Bones’ coffee.

“Sit down, D I Bones” he suggested. “Here you go. Sheila, I’ve made you a camomile tea” he added, a little more loudly. He touched her on the arm. She looked up at him, and then at the mug. “Camomile tea?”

D I Bones cleared his throat. “Mrs, Dr Thompson. You seemed rather upset when I mentioned Gareth. Perhaps you could tell me why?”

He was pleased with this opening. Neutral, not leading, not accusatory. Sheila didn’t look up. “I know I shouldn’t have done it” she said quietly. “I know I shouldn’t have let him provoke me so much. But I wasn’t very well, and something just snapped.”

Surreptitiously, D I Bones slid his notebook from his pocket and flipped it open. “Snapped?” he prompted her.

“Day after day. Week after week. I asked him to stop. But he just wouldn’t.” She still didn’t look up. “I just couldn’t take it any more.” She fell silent.

“How well did you know Gareth?”

“Every day, he was in my garden. Grubbing up my cuttings. Squashing the seedlings. Messing on the annuals.” D I Bones looked a bit worried. She sounded quite mad. Not to mention delusional. He wondered if she’d need to be Sectioned. Lilian had said she’d had a breakdown recently.

Bob looked sympathetic. He was a keen gardener and he knew how annoying it was when all your hard work was destroyed. His neighbour had really annoying cats. He reached out and took Sheila’s hand.

She looked up at this. “But I didn’t realise I was doing anything wrong. I just wanted to make him go away. It was only a little bit, in some meat I’d cooked him, to make him a bit sick. I suppose I didn’t calculate the dose properly.”

Bob withdrew his hand. He put the lid back on the casserole. “I’ll just pop this back in the oven.”

“Did he die in pain?” Sheila asked D I Bones.

“Er. I don’t think so. Probably not.” This wasn’t quite going as he’d expected. In all honesty, he’d been sure that Lilian was a crank. He just hadn’t wanted her complaining to the local paper about him, so he’d said he would come and sort it out straight away. She looked like the type to complain. “Do you understand the seriousness of this incident, Sheila?” he asked her gently.

She nodded.

“Before we go down to the station, I just want to check a couple of more urgent things with you. I haven’t yet been able to trace Gareth’s, er, family. Do you know how I can get in touch with them?”

She gestured to her left. “They live next door”. Not in Wales, then, thought D I Bones. That would make things easier. “Do you know their names?”

Sheila looked at him as though he was slightly dim. “Of course I do, they’re my neighbours. Reginald and Barbara.”

“Reginald and Barbara Jones” said D I Bones, as he made a note.

“no, Akala. Reginald and Barbara Akala” Sheila corrected him.

“Oh. OK.” D I Bones scribbled in his book. ‘Akala. Stepdad?’ He tried to decide what to do next.  He’d better go and see the neighbours. Sheila didn’t seem much of a threat, but he’d better not leave her here while he went next door to see the parents. He’d better call for backup. “If you’ll just excuse me for a moment, Sheila, er, Mr, Dr Barker, I just need something from the car.”

He opened the front door. Lilian was standing shivering on the top step.

“Mrs Hankin. I thought you were going to wait in the car.” Lilian burst past him. D I Bones followed her. This wasn’t quite what he’d intended.

“Did she do it? I knew it! I knew it!”

Sheila got to her feet, considerably more rapidly than her previous dejected appearance might have predicted. “Lilian? What are you doing here?”

“I know all about Gareth, Sheila, and I thought it was my civic duty to tell D I Bones. It was in your notebook!”

Sheila looked at her, utterly bewildered. “Gareth? Duty? Notebook?” A thought seemed to come to her. “Wait a minute. Detective Inspector? Since when does a Detective Inspector bother himself with a cat?”

“A cat?” the other three spoke in unison.

“Yes, next door’s cat. Gareth. He was constantly messing up my garden. It was really bothering me. You know, it was when I was ill. I couldn’t keep it in perspective.  They couldn’t seem to stop him. So I, so I put out a bit of food with some of my anti-depressants in to make him sick.” The three of them were staring at her.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him, in fact I didn’t know that I had, until you came round. I was a bit worried, though. I haven’t seen him for weeks. I didn’t mean to hurt him.” she repeated. “I’m very sorry.”

Bill seemed to recover first. “D I Bones. Are you investigating a cat?” The penny dropped. “Are you talking about the lecturer who was found dead in the woods?”

D I Bones nodded. “That’s my investigation.”

Bill turned to Sheila. “Sheila, do you know Gareth Jones? The biology lecturer who’s died?”

She shook her head. “No, Lilian mentioned it earlier. How sad. What happened to him?”

D I Bones pulled himself together. “I think we’ve got a bit confused. You’re right, Sheila. I don’t usually bother myself with cats.”

Sheila looked up “you mean. I’m not in trouble?”

“Well, it probably is an offence to poison a domestic pet,” suggested D I Bones, making a mental note to look that up later, “but I do have a more serious investigation on my hands. Perhaps Gareth the cat is alive and well? Let’s not worry about him, for the moment, anyway.”

Sheila looked relieved. She turned her head. “Lilian, what on earth are you doing in my house?”

Lilian had been standing slack-jawed in the middle of the kitchen. She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, but no sound emerged. She tried again. “I. I. I was just doing my civic duty” she mumbled.

Sheila narrowed her eyes. She seemed to have recovered a little. She stared at Lilian. The effect was quite powerful, although in fact she was trying to remember one of her mantras from the back of the notebook.  Be assertive. Assume you are right.  “Lilian. Let me get this straight. You stole my notebook. You copied it. You called the police.”

That didn’t seem to make sense. What was in her notebook that would have caused Lilian to call the police? It seemed to make sense to Lilian, however. She started to gabble. “You’d crossed his name out. You said you wanted to get rid of me. You’d got Bill on the list as well.”

Sheila crossed the room to her briefcase and took out her notebook. She flicked through the pages. “Oh dear, Lilian. You seem to have jumped to an unevidenced conclusion.” She shook her head sadly “I think you’ll find that I just wanted to get away from you. That’s not quite the same, is it? And there was me thinking that you taught Criminal Law. Innocent till proven guilty?”

Lilian seemed lost for words. Sheila continued, in a voice dripping with concern. “I’m sorry you saw my private notes. Perhaps they were a bit, um, crude. But finding you difficult to get on with doesn’t make me, um, a murderer. Does it?” She smiled at Lilian, looking as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Inside, she felt nothing but triumph. Take that, Lilian. She wished she could have recorded the whole speech for her counsellor.

The men were both transfixed. D I Bones was wondering if he’d stepped into a parallel world. In his experience, two people who hated each other this much would be tearing at each other’s hair by now. Bob had seen enough academic ‘discussions’ to know that there was a winner. He stepped forward and took Sheila’s hand.

For a moment, he wondered if he should raise it, in a sign to the others that the incident was over. He simply cleared his throat.

“Well, I’m glad that’s sorted out. I’m sure we’ll all be laughing about this tomorrow.” He didn’t sound amused, though. “Can I get anyone a drink?” he added, politely, but coolly.

D I Bones hadn’t touched his coffee. He looked at the mug. “Um. No. Thank you. I’d probably better get back to the office.”

Bob looked at Lilian.

“Um. No. I’d better get a lift back with you, D I Bones. I’ve left my car at the University.”

D I Bones sighed. “OK.” He looked as though he could think of quite a few better things to do than to give Lilian a lift.

“Fine” Bob headed for the front door. “We’ll get back to our meal, then. Nice to meet you,  D I Bones.” He shook the policeman’s hand. “Lilian.” He gave a slight nod in her direction. He was a very polite man.

He shut the door firmly behind them and went back into the kitchen. Sheila had sunk back into her chair, looking pretty shell-shocked. Bob went over and put his hand on her arm. She looked up at him.

At that moment, the ridiculousness of the whole incident hit them both and they collapsed into uncontrollable giggles. “The cat!” “The anti-depressants!” “Lilian!”

After a while Bob wiped his eyes. “I don’t know about you, but I need a drink” he said.

“There’s another bottle of wine in the fridge” Sheila said.

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 new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: Flat Inspection.

Advent Episode 19: Progress?

A super-bumper triple episode.

D I Bones was packing up to go home. It had been a completely wasted day. Despite numerous time-wasting calls from people who’d seen the article in the local paper, the sum total of his day was that he’d found out that Gareth Jones had probably come from Wales. He’d left a voicemail for Sandra Sharpe, but she hadn’t replied.  He sighed as he shut down the computer. Never mind, he’d have a nice quiet evening with a bottle of wine and his new box-set of The Killing.

His phone rang. He looked at it balefully. It wouldn’t be anything important, and he wanted to go and put an end to this futile working day. It could go to voicemail. On the other hand, maybe it was Sandra Sharpe. He picked up the receiver.

“Burston Metropolitan Police, D I Bones. How can I help you?” he put on his most helpful voice.

“This is Mrs Lilian Hankin, MA. From Burston Central University.”

“What can I do for you, Mrs Hankin?” asked D I Bones, wondering whether it was going to be important enough for him to get his notepad out.

“I have some critical information about the death of Gareth Jones,” said Lilian.

“What kind of information?” D I Bones replied, guardedly. She sounded a bit like another one of the cranks. That was the trouble with media reports. They brought out all of the nutters.

“I know who killed him!” declared Lilian. She cleared her throat. “Some information has come into my possession which identifies the perpetrator.”

Oh God, she really was a crank. “Mrs, er, Hankin, we have no reason to suspect foul play in the death of Dr Jones. It’s very kind of you to take an interest in the case, but at the moment we’re more concerned with tracing Dr Jones’ next of kin. Did you know Dr Jones, by any chance?”

Lilian dismissed this. “Of course not, he was in Biology. I’m in the Law department.”

“Oh.” D I Bones wasn’t sure what the right answer to this was. “Of course. Well, if there isn’t anything else..”

“Wait a minute. Don’t you need to see my evidence?”

D I Bones sighed. “What sort of evidence do you mean, Mrs Hankin?”

“There’s this woman in my department, she’s got problems, you know, mental problems, she’s been off with them. I don’t think she’s right yet. She’s been behaving really oddly and I found something very suspicious.”

D I Bones sighed audibly this time, and repeated the previous question. “What sort of evidence do you have, Mrs Hankin?”

“I can’t possibly tell you over the phone, D I Bones. I need to be careful. I have reason to believe I may be in danger myself.”

D I Bones thought about his box-set. The woman was obviously a crank, but it was the closest connection he’d had all week between his victim and anybody at Burston Central University. He supposed he’d have to follow it up.

“Could I come over and have a chat to you now, Mrs Hankin?” he said reluctantly.

“Oh yes, of course. Shall I meet you in the University coffee-shop? Do you know where it is? Just off the park?”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes” he said “I’m not in uniform, but I expect you’ll recognise me.”

“Don’t worry, D I Bones.” Lilian sounded on the verge of hysteria “I’m in the Law department, I’m used to seeing the long arm of the law. I’ll know who you are.”

D I Bones replaced the receiver and sighed longer and deeper than ever. This truly was the case from hell.

 The Weekly Therapy Session

Wednesday evening was Biology night out. Well, it had been once. Attendance had dwindled over the years. Older staff had left and new ones didn’t seem to be interested in what the hard core liked to call the weekly therapy session.

Alison slumped down into the chair. She didn’t say anything, but her body language showed a mixture of frustration and exhaustion. Silently, Heather poured a glass of wine from the bottle on the table and Alison took a large mouthful. “And how was your day?” enquired Tim, sardonically.

The combination of the wine, the change of scene and the company of people who would understand was help in itself. Alison managed a weak grin and said “Five and a half hours to moderate 50 pieces of work”.

Tim and Heather looked at each other. Five and a half hours? For two people? Admittedly they were quite substantial assignments, marked by a team of three, but they didn’t all need to be fully checked: a sample needed to be thoroughly reviewed and then they needed a quick look through the feedback sheets. Five and a half hours sounded more like double second marking with particular attention to crossing Ts and dotting Is.  Not what they’d expect to be necessary from experienced academics like Alison and Don.

Alison caught their glance. “Well, there weren’t actually five and a half hours of actually looking at the assignments” she corrected “We aren’t that inefficient.”

She grimaced. “We’d agreed to meet at 2pm, with the assignments. Don wasn’t ready then, because a dissertation student had come to see him at quarter to, and she was still in there explaining how she hadn’t been able to collect all of her planned data and what was she going to do to get finished on time and so on, so I went off to collect the assignments anyway. We’d asked all the other markers to submit their feedback sheets to the programmes office for us to collect, if they hadn’t done them electronically and emailed them to us. Sam had sent us the fifteen he’d done, bless him, but John and Sally still like to hand-write theirs, so I needed to get their feedback sheets from the office. But only Sally’s were there. I went to look for John.

“He was with a student, but when he’d finished, he said he hadn’t marked them yet. Apparently he hadn’t realised he had to download the submissions from the VLE, so he was waiting to be notified by the submissions office that he needed to collect them.”

Alison stopped for a gulp of wine. The others waited. It wasn’t a particularly interesting story, but they could tell that Alison needed to finish it.

“So, I gritted my teeth and went back up to the meeting room. Don was there by then, waiting for me to come back with the feedback sheets. We decided we’d better mark John’s – the feedback is due back to the students tomorrow, God knows why he didn’t think to chase them up – and then look at the rest. So we got our laptops out and downloaded eight each, and off we went. Luckily Sam had written a decent assignment brief and a detailed rubric, or we’d have been in real trouble with it – we haven’t taught that unit for a while. So that took us just over two hours, I think it was about quarter to five by then.  I went to get some coffees and then we got on to the moderating. Actually, that really didn’t take us too long, probably about an hour and a half – we spent some extra time on a couple of borderline cases – and then we just needed to complete the moderation sheets and put them under the door of the programmes office – everyone had gone home by then. Just as well I wasn’t entering the marks on the tablet computer, I presume you’ve all heard what’s happened to them? Anyway, thanks for the drink. What else have I missed today?”

Tim and Heather looked at each other. “Did you see the local rag today?” asked Tim.

“Um, let me think, I don’t think so,” replied Alison. “no, there wasn’t a spare one on the bus, and I was trying to finish something off anyway. Why?”

“Apparently we have er, a deceased colleague” Heather said, trying to break the news gently.

“Oh yes, Gareth Jones.” said Alison, off-handedly. “I did know about that. Shame.”

Tim and Heather frowned at each other. That wasn’t quite the reaction they had been expecting. They’d thought Alison would be upset.

“The police came to see me on Monday about it. Apparently he was found dead in a wood. And do you know, I went along to his Cell Biology class yesterday and they said they hadn’t seen him for three weeks. Can you believe that nobody told us? Terrible.”

She shook her head. “Good thing they weren’t third years. We’d never have been able to calm them down before they had to fill in the National Student Survey.”

She was fiddling with her phone. “Just let me send this to Derek, to let him know I’m running late.”

Heather leaned forward. “Alison. Gareth Jones is dead.”

Alison looked up. “I know, I’ve just been telling you. I’ve spent hours trying to find out if we’ve got any records on him, too. Advita said he’d never actually sent back his personal details form. God knows how he got paid at all, without that. But I don’t know any more than that. We’ll have to get somebody else in to do Cell Biology. Do you know anyone?”

She emptied her glass and stood up. “Sorry to love you and leave you, but I really do need to get home. Emma’s got some coursework due tomorrow. Thanks for the wine, guys. See you soon.”

Heather shared the rest of the bottle out between their glasses. They sat in silence for a moment, both looking at their drinks. “This can’t go on. Alison doesn’t seem to care about anything except just getting through the day. That poor guy, Gareth. What’s happening to us all?” Heather looked on the verge of tears.

“We’re all turning into target-obsessed automatons, only bothered about the next student survey result.” replied Tim, drily. “Did you know Gareth, then?”

“No, but, it just seems so sad. That we didn’t know him, and now he’s dead.” Heather realised that this wasn’t very coherent. She sniffed loudly and took a big slug of wine. Maybe it was better not to talk about it.

Dinner for Two

Bob was knocking on the door of a neat-looking terraced house in an unfamiliar part of Burston. He was wearing neatly pressed chinos, a checked shirt and a dark V necked sweater. He was holding a bottle of wine rather awkwardly in his left hand and trying to stop a slim folder from slipping out from under his arm while he knocked. He hoped Sheila liked white wine.

She opened the door. “Bob!” she leaned forward and pecked him on the cheek. He blushed. “Come on in.” Sheila stood aside and ushered him in.

Bob held out the bottle. He could feel that his face was a bit pink, and he simply couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Ooh, this is already chilled. Great. Would you like a glass?”

Bob nodded.

“Take a seat, Bob. No need to be polite.” she continued, as she took the bottle from him and went through to the kitchen to get some glasses. Bob sat down on the nearest chair, a comfy armchair with a view straight out through the French window into the back garden. It was dark outside, but there were a couple of coloured lights over the patio and he could see enough of the garden to see that it was well-kept. He got up and walked over to the window.

“Is that a Pittosporum. Sheila?” Sheila handed him a glass.

“Ooh, clever you. Yes, it’s a Silver Queen. Lovely winter interest. I’ve got a tenuifolium purpureum behind that, but it’s too dark to see it. You’ll have to come round in the daylight.” She smiled encouragingly at him.

Bob cleared his throat. “That would be nice. We can compare notes. I spend quite a bit of time in the garden myself.”

Sheila smiled at him again. “Well, sit down, Bob. How did you get on with your plan today?”

Bob looked blankly at her. The conversation seemed to be moving too fast for him. Plan for what? Coming to see her garden in the daylight? He felt his face reddening again.

“Sorry, I was thinking about the garden. Yes, the plan.” God, he sounded lame. What was wrong with him? He was perfectly used to talking to his colleagues, although this was the first time he’d actually been invited to someone’s house. And he’d only met Sheila today. She seemed harmless enough. Why was he so flustered?

He looked down at the folder which he’d put on the arm-rest of the chair, and remembered. “Not too bad, actually. Do you want to have a look?”

“Sure” said Sheila. She sat down on the sofa and patted the space next to her. “Bring it over here.”

Bob sat down gingerly on the sofa, leaving what he hoped was a suitable space between them. He didn’t want Sheila to think he was taking advantage. He took out his plan.

“OK, it’s in two parts. I’ve done a SWOT analysis, then I’ve written a full business plan which maximises the opportunities and addresses the weaknesses. I’m pretty sure it will do the job.”

Sheila took the slim report from him. “This looks great, so professional. Like a business consultant’s report.”

Bob gave a little smile. “Well, yes, perhaps I haven’t quite lost my touch.”

“Do you know, Bob, that would sound arrogant from a lot of my colleagues, but from you, it just sounds, you know, sweet.”

Bob blushed dark red and tried to hide his face behind his glass of wine.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” Sheila tapped him on the arm, “You should learn to accept a compliment gracefully. I learned that from counselling.” she added.

Bob remembered that she’d said she’d been off work for a long time with stress. He’d better not upset her. He couldn’t think of anything to say, though, so he just kept smiling.

Sheila smiled kindly at him. “It’s alright, Bob. I won’t bite, and I’m not going to crack up.”

Jesus, could she read his mind? Bob drained his glass.

Sheila leaned over her side of the sofa. Bob had a flash of panic. He didn’t know this woman. Maybe she had a weapon down there?

She straightened up, holding the bottle of wine in her hand. “I think it’s still cool enough” she said “probably not worth putting it in the fridge, at this rate.” She refilled their glasses. Bob blushed again, this time in embarrassment at his crazy thoughts.

“Now, here’s my bit.” She held out her own neatly presented folder. “This covers all of the student support, quality and HR issues”, she said. “I think it’s well stitched up. The students won’t be short-changed, and we won’t be out on our ears. Cheers.”  She raised her glass.

Bob flicked through her plan. “This is really impressive, Sheila.”

He was genuinely interested in what she’d produced. He forgot to be embarrassed to talk to her. “It’s clever to tie in the part-time staff like that – I bet nobody in HR will see the subtlety of that, or realise what the long-term commitment is. But if you don’t do it this way, we’ll never get any loyalty from the team. And I like this idea of a student contract. A minimum commitment which is legally binding on the UCNB. Clever. Do you think Alan will understand it?”

Sheila snorted. “Alan? No chance. This is the kind of thing that my corporate clients paid thousands per contract for. Alan’s only ever worked in a university. Bless him. He’s not used to people being devious.” She corrected herself. “Well, maybe he is, but not devious in this way. Devious in a way which he does understand. Oops, that didn’t make much sense, did it? The wine must have gone to my head.” She giggled. “You know what I mean, don’t you?”

They looked at each other for a moment. Co-conspirators, Bob thought. Although they were on the side of good, so was conspirator the right word?

Sheila stood up. “You must be hungry, Bob. I’ve made us something to eat. Come on through.” She led the way.

Bob was wondering how the wine had gone so quickly to his head. He wondered if Sheila had put something in his wine. Then he remembered that he’d skipped lunch to work on the plan. That must be it.

The table was laid simply, as though they were two old friends having an informal supper. “Sit anywhere, Bob. I hope this is OK,” Sheila said “it’s just what I would have had for myself. I didn’t have time to do anything special today, what with the plan and everything.”

“That’s great, Sheila. It’s really nice of you to invite me.” Bob meant this sincerely. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone outside the family had invited him into their home.

Sheila smiled at him again “Well, next time I’ll make a bit more effort.” They both blushed a little at that.

Bob sat down and Sheila turned to the stove. “All in one pot” she said, cheerily “it was easier.” She brought a casserole dish over to the table and put it on a mat. She lifted the lid. A heavenly smell rose. Bob’s mouth watered. “Sheila, that smells..”

Just then, there was a series of loud knocks at the door.

Sheila looked surprised. “That’s odd. I’m not expecting anyone.” She looked briefly at Bob as though he might be responsible for the intrusion.

He shrugged and looked towards the front door. “Would you like me to…?”

“Oh. No, sorry. I’ll just be a minute.”

Sheila put the chain on the door and opened it as far as it would go. The man on the doorstep held up an ID card. “D I Bones” he said. “Are you Sheila Thompson?”

“Um. Yes” said Sheila, closing the door and taking off the chain. She opened it properly. “What can I do for you, Detective Inspector?”

“I need to ask you a few questions about Gareth” he said. Sheila paled. “Gareth?” she said, weakly.

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 new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: It was an accident.

Advent Episode 18: Secret Plans

Bob was back in his office, trying very hard to block out Martin’s incessant phone calls on the topic of car parking. He was looking at the computer screen. He’d opened a new file and given it a title.

Accountancy in the UCNB

Then there were four headings: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. He thought about what Sheila had said to him. The whole notion was ridiculous, but for some reason the two of them had been picked for it. Sheila said she thought it wasn’t because anyone thought they were particularly good, but because they were easily bullied.

Bob had bristled a bit when she said that, because she didn’t know him, but on reflection he had to admit it was a plausible reason. Alan had mentioned the possibility of redundancies. Sheila said that Alan had brought up her sick leave when he’d ‘asked’ her to get involved. Of course it was outrageous behaviour, but as she said, who was going to believe someone who’d been off for months for a psychiatric illness against the DVC? What Alan hadn’t bargained for was that Sheila had got new weapons in her armoury.

Bob had been quite bewildered by then, but he thought it was something to do with assertiveness techniques rather than actual weapons. At least, he hoped so. He was actually quite keen to find out more about Sheila and her weapons. Academic life was getting surprising again. He tried to focus on the positives.

He started to type.

Strengths: Price; costs; experienced, committed staff; link to established university and its quality procedures

Weaknesses: no extra services associated with university; maybe seen as poor relation by students and employers; competition with main brand; no research input to courses

Opportunities: new in the market, unique offer

Threats: Difficulty in recruiting staff (poor relation); no proper market research?

He deleted the last sentence. He didn’t know about the market research. Perhaps there had been a lot. He looked up for a moment. He wasn’t very up to speed with marketing, but he’d had to have a passing knowledge when he was investigating accounts, to judge whether companies were doing what they liked to call imaginary marketing, that was to say, marketing without any intention of selling a product or service, but just to give the illusion of running a normal business. That was more on the money-laundering side of things. He’d been more of a specialist on tax avoidance and fraud.

So, who would be interested in the University College of North Burston? With the huge hike in fees, there were going to be some new marketing considerations. He jotted down some more notes.

  • New full-time students who are debt-averse,
  • Part-time students who want a cheaper option
  • Students who live at home and don’t need/want sports/community facilities

It was rather a dismal list. This wasn’t going to lead to a diverse, vibrant community of staff and students. Especially if the range of subjects offered was so limited. Law, Business, Accountancy. He glanced over to the window. Even though his view was blocked by Martin’s desk, he could still see glimpses of the Art building, festooned with orange and black banners which proclaimed themselves to be an anti-Halloween installation – it looked a bit ragged now, but it was still defiantly different. UCNB was just going to look like an office block. He sighed, and returned to his plan.

He had turned off his email alerts so that he could concentrate, but it was difficult to block out Martin, who was keeping up a low-level grumble. Martin put down the phone for the umpteenth time unlocked the screen-saver, and let out a delighted shriek. “Bob! Bob! Have you looked at the latest?” Bob sighed, saved, and switched to email.


From: Justin Marks, head of campus communications

Subject: tablet computers

Priority: urgent

All staff and students using the BurstU tablets, please return them to the nearest helpdesk immediately. A serious technical fault has been identified. Do not switch the tablets on.

Martin was chortling. “Ooh, I wonder what’s happened to them? Serves them right for setting up a scheme like that and not planning it properly.” Martin had been very upset not to be offered one of the new tablet computers. “I’ll phone Jerry over in Marketing Management, he’s got one. See what’s happened.”

Bob tried very hard to get back to his list, but despite himself, he couldn’t help but be drawn to Martin’s gleeful half-conversation.

“They did what? She didn’t! American flag? Where? Brilliant!”

Martin was clearly in heaven. Eventually he replaced the receiver and turned towards Bob. “You’ll never guess why those tablets have been recalled.” Bob waited, attentively. He knew from experience that he wasn’t actually required to have a guess.

“They’ve all been hacked. The university home page comes up with a porn picture, and the best bit is, someone’s photoshopped the VC’s head onto one of the, er, “ Martin searched for the right word “er, protagonists.”

Bob giggled. That was quite funny.

“No, actually, the best bit is that you can’t move off the home page. It’s stuck on the VC in action. Brilliant.” Martin guffawed. “It’s going to take them forever to sort that one out. I think they gave out four hundred and fifty of them.”

Bob smiled again and turned back to the screen. Martin was going to be occupied for a while, phoning round to tell people about the latest management disaster. It did raise an important issue about information services for UCNB, though. He’d better add out-sourcing to his plan.

Sheila was in her office on the other side of the park, looking at a similar file on her own computer. She was feeling pretty pleased with her plan. It had been a stroke of luck to meet Bob this morning. With her legal skills and his forensic accountancy experience, they were going to run rings around Alan Chilcott. She put her headphones on and started to type.

After two hours, she stretched. It was looking pretty good. Time to look at a printout. She saved the file and then sent it to print. As soon as she’d pressed the button, she realised that she’d have to run to the printer to collect it in case anyone else would see it. Everyone on her floor shared a printer, or multi-function device as the technical term would have it: printer, photocopier, scanner.

They weren’t allowed printers in their own offices. Something to do with the green policy? It was an absolute pain when everyone was trying to print stuff out ten minutes before class started. She hurried down the corridor and was relieved to see that there was nobody else hovering round the machine. She grabbed her plan and walked more slowly back to her office, flicking through the pages. It looked quite good. She liked to get the presentation right. She looked up. Surely she hadn’t left the door of her office open, even though she’d been in a hurry. She definitely hadn’t locked it, though. Shit. She’d left her bag in there and everything. She burst back into the room.

Lilian was standing over by the desk. “Sheila! I just popped in to see how you were getting on with, er, letting the students know about next week’s change of session.”

Sheila looked at her sharply. “I think we agreed that you’d be doing that, Lilian.”

“Really?” Lilian looked innocent. “I must be getting confused in my old age. Mind not working properly. Trouble up top.”

Sheila winced. “Well, that was what we agreed.” She stuck to her guns. “You need to put some materials up in the VLE as well. I’ve hidden the Corporate Liability stuff again, as it’ll be for the following week now. Don’t want to confuse them. Oh, bad luck about your tablet computer, by the way.”

Lilian looked only slightly put out. “By the way, Sheila,” Sheila wondered what was coming next. Had Lilian been invited to join Alan’s project as well?

“Did you hear about that poor lecturer being found dead?” She emphasised the last word.

“No,” replied Sheila “I’ve been really busy, I haven’t heard anything. Well, apart from that urgent message about tablet computers. Someone from Law?”

“No, no, no. Biology, I think. Terrible thing.”

Sheila looked at Lilian in surprise. She didn’t usually waste sentiment. “Did you know him, Lilian?” she asked, gently.

Lilian stared at her. “Don’t be silly, he was in Biology.” she said, as though that were sufficient explanation. “Well, ok, best be going.” she said, and she sidled out.

Sheila sat down. Something wasn’t quite right. Lilian wouldn’t normally have given in so quietly about the VLE stuff. Although maybe she was unaccountably touched by the death of whoever it was. She glanced at the computer. The screensaver was on, so Lilian hadn’t touched the mouse or keyboard. Hopefully she hadn’t seen what Sheila was working on, either. She’d need to be more careful about it, or maybe she could say it was a simulation she was developing to do with the students. Perfect. Nobody would query that.

So what was Lilian up to? Sheila had a sudden sinking feeling. There was something missing from her desk. Her Moleskine notebook. The notebook with all of her secret pep-messages. The one with the ‘advantages’ list for the secret project. Sheila jumped up and ran down the corridor. Lilian was standing at the multi-function device, photocopying something.

As Sheila reached her, she reached down to the little table next to the copier, and lifted up the notebook. “I thought this must be yours,” she said “you must have left it next to the copier.”

Sheila had gone slightly pale. “er, thanks, Lilian” she said, weakly. She walked slowly back up to her office. She was certain that she hadn’t taken the notebook to the copier. Certain. But why would Lilian have borrowed it, and then given it straight back? It didn’t make sense.

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 new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: Progress?