Advent Episode 4: Not as anonymous as he thought

After his lecture, Bob made his way up to the sixth floor. He’d never been up there before. The Deputy Vice Chancellor’s office was well signed from the lift, with some rather ornate looking wooden boards, lettered in gold. They didn’t really match the rest of the décor: the usual sixties office block look of scuffed off-white paint and grey woodwork.  Bob went through an ante-room, empty but for what looked like a secretary’s desk, a filing cabinet and a couple of plastic chairs. The door to the next office was open. He knocked timidly. “Come in!” boomed a loud voice.

“Bob” Alan looked up. “Thanks for coming in. Come and sit down. Coffee?”

“Um. No thanks, Deputy Vice-Chancellor. I’ve just had one”. Not true, but he just wanted to get this over with.

Alan looked slightly disappointed. “Oh. OK, I’ll wait then.”

“Don’t wait on my account “ Bob protested. “It’s just that I’ve just… “ he tailed off.

Alan forgot about the coffee as quickly as he’d thought of it. “Never mind about that, Bob. I expect you’re wondering why I asked you to come up:”

Bob looked neutral. “Um. Yes.”

“You’re going to love this, Bob. It’s so exciting”. Bob relaxed slightly. At least Alan thought it was good news. It probably wasn’t about job cuts, then.

Alan drew himself up. “The Vice Chancellor has asked me to oversee an exciting new development. It’s all part of our commitment to ensure that we continue to support the local community and encourage more people to go to university.” he declared, speeding up as he got near to the end of the string of platitudes.

In spite of his suspicion that Alan wasn’t entirely committed to all of these great things, Bob started to feel a bit more interested.

“So,” Alan continued “we’ve decided to scope out a really innovative idea to bring Higher Education to more local people. Now, this is in the nature of a special mission. Hur hur!”

Bob winced at the addition of the conspiratorial titter. There was a bit too much effort going into this performance. Alan was starting to remind him of a dissembling client from his industry days.

“So. This is strictly confidential. Are you in? Hur Hur !”

Bob blinked. “Um. Well, I’m not sure what it involves yet.”

Alan waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, we can get into details later, Bob. The main thing today is to find out whether you’re with us or not. The VC asked me to find someone special, and I immediately thought of you.” He looked slightly aggrieved. “I was sure you’d be interested, especially with all these rumours of cuts and everything. You were my first choice for this special mission. Hur hur” he added, rather disconsolately.

Bob felt very confused. What on earth was going on? His investigative antenna were starting to prick up, although they seemed to have been rusted by years out of industry. He needed to sharpen up. He made a quick reckoning:

  1. Chummy, but with an undercurrent of threat.
  2. ‘Exciting project’, but somehow clandestine.
  3. Says he’s picked me specially, but can’t possibly know me from Adam.
  4. Talks about the VC as though he’s a mate, but clearly terrified of him.

It really didn’t make sense. He realised that Alan was waiting for him to say something. Searching for a distraction, his eye was drawn to the strange overflowing heap on the corner of the desk. Scrunched up papers, apple cores, sandwich wrappers, disposable cups…

Alan followed his gaze. “It’s these new desk-top tidies that we’ve got instead of bins” he said defensively. “I reckon it must cost more for me to walk down the corridor to empty it than we save in rubbish disposal costs. Senior managers emptying their own bins! Ha!”

Bob opened his mouth to explain that the tidies were meant to help with recycling, and needed to be emptied regularly to stop the ‘wet waste’ contaminating the paper. He closed it again in the nick of time. Alan was a member of the Vice Chancellor’s Senior Executive Group. He must be fully aware of all of the green policies.  It was obvious that he was just having his own dirty protest about this particular one.

He’d better change the subject.

He tried to look focused. “Well, Alan, maybe you could tell me a bit more about what you’d like me to do.” he hedged. “It sounds awfully exciting” he added, encouragingly.

“Good man! I knew you’d be a perfect choice! Right, let’s pop straight up and give Bill the good news. He’s waiting for us.” Alan levered himself up and bustled round the desk.

Bob followed in his wake. What on earth was going on?

They left the Deputy Vice Chancellor’s office and hurried down the corridor to the Vice Chancellor’s suite. Alan was still prattling about secret missions and right men for the jobs.

Alan opened the door with a flourish, sweeping his gaze around the room and resting on the VC’s personal assistant, who didn’t look up. “Hello Phyllis. How are you today? He’s expecting us, I think” he said cheerily, as he continued across Phyllis’ office.

Phyllis waited until he was half way across, then said crisply “He’ll be ready in a minute, Alan, Take a seat.” Alan sat down, looking deflated.

Phyllis relented slightly. “Can I get you both a coffee while you’re waiting?”

“Yes please, Phyllis. Milk, two sugars.” Alan sounded quite meek.

She looked at Bob. “Oh, no, thank you. Just had one” he said, weakly. Actually he now felt in dire need of a stimulant of some kind. Phyllis just nodded and looked back at her computer. “He won’t be long” she said, starting to type.

Bob sat down and looked around the anteroom. Not too ostentatious – the same cheap office furniture as any departmental office, really. A bit more spacious, of course; it was rare to see an expanse of carpet these days. Most offices were shared between two and three people. It was usually difficult to squeeze between filing cabinets and bookcases.

He felt obscurely pleased by this lack of luxury in the VC’s suite. It made the right impression in times of economic difficulty. If he’d been auditing, it would have made a good start.

He realised that these musings on the interior décor were an effective distraction from the very serious worries which were trying to push its way up through his thinking: what was he being asked to do and why was it secret and why was it so important that he was being threatened with ‘departure’ if he didn’t go along with it?

It couldn’t be anything illegal; universities were struggling a bit, but things hadn’t got that bad. What was that weird phrase which had appeared in the last VC’s pep email, ‘There must be no slippage’?

He’d puzzled over that for days. It had an unfortunate echo of Stalin’s famous radio broadcast ‘there must be no room in our ranks for whimperers and cowards, for panic-mongers and deserters…’ Did whatever this was involve keeping his job at the expense of others? Perhaps he would be asked to denounce colleagues who didn’t ‘perform according to the standards expected by the institution’?

He twisted the strap of his rucksack tightly. Surely not. It wasn’t anything to do with him, if people cancelled lectures week after week and the Head of Department didn’t notice. Or if they locked the door of their offices so that students couldn’t bother them? Or marked systematically at 10% below their colleagues and when challenged, said that the others could dumb down all they liked but they were keeping to standards?

He realised that the rucksack strap was twisted into a tight rope. He let go of it and forced himself to breathe slowly. He tried to think like an investigator.

Alan didn’t notice his discomfort. He looked as though he had his own worries.

This is an HE advent calendar for 2012. If you would like to find out what happens next at Burston Central, why not sign up for email updates when a new post is published, or follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter? Tomorrow’s episode: A Secret Project.

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