Advent Episode 2: The Last Straw

Bob was staring blankly at his computer screen. He was finding it difficult to concentrate. Martin hadn’t been too happy about the broken kettle. He was sitting muttering to himself, nursing a super-sized Americano which Bob had gone down to get for him from the coffee shop.

Bob was answering emails from students about the assignment which was due in at 5pm. He was trying very, very hard not to think about Alan’s frankly bizarre behaviour in the toilets that morning. He just wanted to come to work, teach students, do his paperwork, and go home.

He didn’t expect the job to be stress-free, and he didn’t mind working long hours, but he did expect it to be reasonably predictable and, well, safe. Being a forensic accountant had been fine, while he was sitting analysing files, but he’d never really enjoyed having to confront people at the sessions where he presented his findings, or, worse, had to ask them why documents were missing or didn’t tally with each other. The rules had been clear enough, and he was good at auditing. He could just never get to grips with the general deviousness of some of the clients.

University life, by contrast, was pretty straightforward. People thought they were creative and original, but they worked within well-defined parameters. The year was tightly structured. There were clear rules of behaviour and most people stuck to them. Annual appraisals didn’t have numbers on, but were based on vague objectives which were subject to a wide range of gentle interpretations.

Students did the same kinds of things every year, made the same kinds of excuses, dipped in performance at the same times of the year, sometimes made the same kinds of startling progress, and were generally, or at least on the average, charming.

Staff were usually courteous to one another. Hardly anyone raised their voices, which was nice, even if perhaps there was sometimes rather too much muttering. People covered classes for each other when someone was sick, or needed to attend the nativity play, or got a paper accepted at a special conference.  He liked it here.

He’d never heard of anyone else being ambushed in the toilets by senior management. So why had it happened to him?

His phone rang. He was almost relieved when it turned out to be a student. An extension request, perhaps?

“This really is the last straw…” spluttered Martin. He reached for a tissue to wipe flecks of coffee from his keyboard and reread the email which had just landed in his inbox.

To: allstaff@burstu.ac.uk

From: Justin Marks, head of campus communications

Subject: Car Parking Charges

All staff will be aware of the University’s commitment to Sustainable Development. As part of this policy, we are committed to encouraging staff to travel to campus by public transport. We will therefore be introducing a charge for car parking with effect from 1 January. Charges will be competitive compared with other local facilities at £8 per day, or £35 for a full week…

Martin didn’t bother to read the sections on subsidised rail season tickets, bus concessions or the provision of extra bicycle racks. He continued to fume, more or less silently. The rules of office-sharing dictated that they should try to be quiet when the other was on the phone. Bob was involved in a protracted conversation.

“I’m terribly sorry to hear about your grandmother”, repeated Bob, “and if you’d like to collect a Mitigating Circumstances form from the Student Support Office…” he tailed off. A pained expression crossed his face and the sound of noisy sobs could be heard through the receiver.

“From the Student Support Office”, he continued, “and submit it together with any supporting evidence by Friday,” – he speeded up – “itwillbeconsideredbythepanelwhowilldecideifyoucanbe givenanextension for the assignment. Now, I have another call waiting, so I’ll confirm this to you in an email, and I really do offer my deepest sympathies on your bereavement. Goodbye”. He replaced the receiver, then took it off the hook again and turned back to his computer.  He sighed.

Martin had been simmering as he waited for Bob to finish on the phone. “HAVE YOU SEEN THE LATEST?” Bob looked up, guardedly.  “Um…probably not”, he ventured. “I was just trying to remember whether that was the student who’d already claimed special extensions for grandparental bereavements or not. What have I missed?” He wasn’t sure that he wanted to know.

Martin didn’t really let him finish the sentence before continuing “CAR PARKING!” he shouted. “They’re even going to charge us to come to work now!” Bob located and opened the car parking email in his own inbox. He read it through carefully.

“Oh dear. And they’re going to reduce the number of places, too. Didn’t you say it was already difficult to park unless you get in before seven-thirty?”

Bob cycled to work most days. If it was very wet he took two buses instead. He had no real idea of whether it was difficult to park or not. Still, he felt an instinctive sympathy for the reaction the email had provoked in his colleague. Martin complained regularly about the difficulties of driving into work and finding somewhere to park when he’d arrived. He often arrived in the office slightly out of breath and pink-cheeked, as though he had run to work. Actually, the effect would have been produced by sitting in his car and getting angry with the nameless idiots blocking his way and taking his parking space.

“It’s all right for you. You don’t drive to work. What am I supposed to do? Well, if they don’t want me to come in to work, I’ll just work from home more. Let’s see how they like that! I wonder what the union has to say about this?”

He bent over the keyboard and started tapping frantically.

Bob sighed again and turned back to his own computer, remembering that he’d promised to email the bereaved student with confirmation of the arrangements for requesting an extension.

He supposed it must be fairer to make all of the students apply for extensions in the same way, using the same forms, but it did seem to be a lot more hassle than just agreeing on the spot to a student who sounded genuinely upset. It felt so impersonal. And Sally Smith was such a nice genuine sort of girl. It seemed cruel to make her prove her grandmother had died when she was obviously so upset. He was still trying to remember if she’d asked for an extension for that before. It didn’t mean she was cheating. She did have four grandparents. Had had, anyway.

He sighed yet again. He had a class at two and he hadn’t yet managed to nip out for anything to eat.

There was a loud knock at the door. Both men stiffened slightly. Martin hissed “ssh…they might go away”. They sat motionless for a few seconds. There was a second knock, more hesitant this time, and then the person outside tried the door handle tentatively. The door was locked. There was a short silence, followed by some rustling outside, and then a note appeared under the door.

The building was too noisy to distinguish footsteps retreating down the corridor, but after a decent interval had passed, Martin went over and picked up the note. “Dr Barker”, he read aloud “Hah! It’s for you, Bob. I told you it was a good move to put that dark paper over the window in the door. We’d never get any work done if they could see in.” He passed the note to Bob and went back to his email to the departmental union rep.

Bob unfolded the scrap of lined paper “Dr Barker”, he read “came to c u 2day, but ur not in. I need an extension cos my housemate was sick. Susie B.” Bob looked deeply pained. He turned back to the computer.

Susie B? He had 127 students in the class which had an assignment deadline that day. He knew the names of about 42, he reckoned. This one didn’t ring a bell. He brought up the student records programme, highlighted the relevant class, and searched on First Name: Su*. Susan, Susanne, Suzanne, Sue…good. Only one whose surname began with ‘B’. Susanne Brough.

He started an email, then stopped again. He couldn’t send it right this minute, as it would be obvious that he had actually been in his office when she put the note under the door. Then he started again – he could have been in the loo, couldn’t he? Or gone for a sandwich? That reminded him – what time was it? He looked at the clock in the corner of the screen. One-forty. Time for a quick sandwich before the lecture? Probably not. His stomach rumbled in protest.

He realised that he wouldn’t have time to get food after the lecture either. He’d have to go straight to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s office. His sigh could probably be heard in the next corridor. He forced himself to concentrate on what he was doing right now.

He finished the email which redirected Susie B to the appropriate part of the university website to apply for mitigating circumstances, pointing out gently that a friend’s illness wasn’t usually considered a good enough reason, and sent it. What was the modern equivalent of paper-pushing? Email-sneaking?

Shit! Shit! Shit!  Ten to two, and he hadn’t got all his stuff together for the lecture. Handouts? Notes? Where were they? He pulled the USB disk from its slot, ignoring the sanctimonious message about properly ejecting it, gathered up a pile of likely looking papers and headed for the door. Martin was still composing his email to the union, muttering quietly to himself as he typed, deleted and retyped.

Bob sighed again as he turned the lock with his little finger, then pushed down the door handle with his elbow and edged the door towards him, getting a foot in between it and the frame so that he could force his way out without dropping anything.

He emerged from the haven of the office, bearing his armfuls of material as though they were a shield to protect him from the parries of barbarian hordes. “Into the fray,” he muttered melodramatically to himself, as he dodged and weaved through the cheerful crowd of undergraduates.


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: Fighting Back.

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3 thoughts on “Advent Episode 2: The Last Straw

  1. If there is one thing that brings together huge forces of discontent and an appetite for infinitely long arguments, it is university car parking. There must be some way of harnessing this force…..

  2. Pingback: Advent Episode 1: Is Nowhere Safe? | Wading through Treacle

  3. Pingback: Awards | Wading through Treacle

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