Advent Episode 8: Worries

Bob had successfully suppressed any further thoughts of his meeting with the VC when he got back to his office, and even when he’d got home, helped by the best part of a bottle of wine. After all, the VC hadn’t actually said what he wanted Bob to do.

But he had woken in a cold sweat at 2.30am. In the middle of the night, without the distractions to his thinking offered in his office, he had no choice but to admit to himself that it looked as though he had no choice but to be involved, and that it seemed likely that it might be quite a major involvement.

Alan had shared with him some draft publicity material:

“We are broadening our offer to a different group. At University College of North Burston, you are only paying for tuition. Maybe you are more debt-averse than the traditional student, or want to earn as you learn. UCNB is the place for you! You will be able to continue with part-time or full-time jobs, live at home and keep up with family responsibilities, while equipping themselves with top quality higher-level qualifications. Courses will have their own dedicated tutors, and classes will have a maximum of 25 students, and tutorials no more than five.”

Bob wondered how this was all going to work for something like the Advanced Taxation course. You needed tutors who’d really studied the legislation, had time to do it, could argue both sides of a knife-edge case. But Alan had been talking about bringing people in from industry. All very well if they were from one of the Top Five firms, but there was no way UCNB was going to pay their hourly rates, not at a Staff-Student Ratio of 1 to 5 anyway. And they certainly wouldn’t come for the prestige.

He couldn’t see how this wasn’t going to be a deeply inferior institution. It was hardly going to lead to a full graduate experience. Why not just have technical training for accountancy rather than pretend to offer a more critical kind of qualification? And it was good for accountancy students to be forced to be close up to people from other disciplines, even if they weren’t particularly known for joining a wide range of societies. He didn’t think the societies would be much of a loss, but he did think he would miss walking across the park and wondering what on earth this latest installation from the School of Art was meant to represent.

Bob had been forced to take a teaching qualification when he first joined Burston Central. It had been a bit of a slog but a few things had stuck in his mind, and one of them was the debate they’d had about what a university was.  Most of it had been poorly reasoned stuff but he had remembered one thing that he’d read, partly because it seemed implausibly fanciful, but also partly because he quite liked it:

“Perhaps understanding the university is like potholing: one finds oneself in darkness and in some difficulty, with little room for manoeuvre (the parameters are set) but then a little light opens and, following that light, one finds oneself suddenly in a large and extraordinary clearing.  The university is seen afresh, with new possibilities, even wonder.“

It wasn’t the kind of thing he thought about much, but just occasionally, when the number of extensions seemed particularly large and the lack of engagement particularly dispiriting, it was nice to think that there was something more to it than the rounds of meetings, marks entry, lost kettles and car parking woes.

University College of North Burston? It was a monstrous idea.

He wasn’t entirely convinced that the meeting with the VC had really happened. It was too far-fetched. He wondered about discussing it with someone else, but not only was it far-fetched, it was also vague. It would just sound as though he wanted to boast about talking to the VC, and had made up a ludicrous-sounding story. At least, that’s what he’d think if anyone said it to him. He resolved to keep it to himself. Perhaps it would all go away.

What were the chances that Alan had called lots of people in to see the VC and sworn them all to secrecy? Of course, it was just about possible that everyone else in the building had received similar treatment, and they were all wandering around pretending not to know anything. But on the balance of probabilities, he had to admit to himself that it seemed unlikely. He’d been put in an impossible position: accept the task, or be in the firing line for redundancy.

Not for the first time on a sleepless night, he reviewed his departure options. The problem was that at 47, he couldn’t really retire, unless he was really ill – which given the probably state of his blood pressure at that instant, wasn’t that unlikely, but it wouldn’t be an enjoyable retirement.

He couldn’t go back into accountancy. Six years as an academic meant he was somewhat out of date. He would have to go back to a more junior role; nobody would take him on. He’d meant to keep up with practice, maybe a day a week, but somehow the academic job had just taken over…it was as much as he could do to make sure he was up to date with the law and the professional body regulations.

Bob turned restlessly. Luckily, there was nobody else in the house for him to disturb. As a forensic accountant, he’d worked such crazy hours, and travelled so much, he never really seemed to meet anyone. The only people he met, apart from colleagues, were those he was investigating. They didn’t usually want to get to know him any better. He’d thought that going into academia would improve his social life and give him more time ‘for himself’.

Fat chance. The rest of his department were almost like clones of himself and he never met anyone else, except students. Everyone was really busy all day and nobody even went out for a drink after work, which even the accountants had managed.

He kept in sporadic touch with ex-colleagues from the big firm he’d worked for, but a lot of them had been transferred out of the area, so he only met up with them occasionally. He supposed he should join a choir or a dancing class or something, but he was just too tired when he got home from work.

Having moved on from the immediate worry about his new role to his more familiar anxieties, eventually Bob’s confused and anxious thoughts subsided and he drifted back to sleep.


Alison woke up with a start. Derek wasn’t there, and it seemed to be quite light for a November morning. She leaned over for her phone to check the time. “Shit!” she muttered, leaping out of bed “shit, shit, shit. Why didn’t you wake me up?”

She grabbed her dressing-gown and ran down the stairs. Emma and Ben were scuttling round filling their school bags, while Derek was clearing up cups and bowls. John Humphries harangued a politician.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?”  repeated Alison, at just-below-maximum volume.

Derek looked both hurt, and angelic: “I thought I’d let you sleep, as you were so restless in the night….sorry, did you need to get in early for anything special?”.

Alison considered this, and consulted the diary on her phone. “Um. No. I suppose it was just general panic about being so much later than usual” she said, sheepishly.

Derek smiled angelically again. “OK, well sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea. The kids have got themselves ready”.

Alison sat down heavily. She still felt befuddled; she couldn’t quite remember why she felt so stressed.

“Byeeeee” yelled Emma and Ben from the hallway, and the front door slammed before either of them had time to reply. They both turned towards the sound with the ingrained instant panic response of parents who aren’t quite used to their children being old enough to leave the house on their own.

“So did you think any more about that poor guy, what’s his name, Jim? John? George?”.

“Gareth. Gareth Jones” replied Alison, automatically. She remembered now. “No. Like I told you, I’ve never actually met him. Shit. I’m going to have to sort out his classes. Geoff will have a fit if we cancel them”

“Well, he can’t help it. You can’t teach a class if you’re dead.” Derek pointed out.

“No, but nobody cares about the reasons; we just have to stick to the ‘no class cancellation’ policy whatever’s happened” replied Alison, rather shortly. Derek worked for the council. He didn’t really understand how modern universities worked. He thought it was all just the same as it had been thirty years ago when he was a student….

She reached for her laptop and logged in to the Virtual Learning Environment to look up Gareth Jones’s classes. Shit and double shit. He had a class at 10am.

“Here you are” said Derek, putting down a cup of tea.

“Thanks, but I haven’t got time” she snapped, as though it was all Derek’s fault “I’ll have to cover Jones’s class. Cell biology. Shit. I wonder if I’ve got any old notes?” she continued to mutter. She jumped up and left the room.  Ten minutes later, she reappeared in the kitchen, showered and dressed, and gulped down the tea, which Derek had wisely left in the same place.

“Sorry. Thanks. I’d better run. I’ll probably be late, everything is going to be thrown out by the extra class, plus I’ll have loads of sorting out to do to get cover.”

“OK” said Derek “That’s ok, I’ll be back at the usual time. Emma’s got volleyball tonight, hasn’t she? I’ll sort it out. Poor guy” he added “what did he die of?”

Alison looked at him, blankly. “I have absolutely no idea” she said “God, that’s really callous of me, isn’t it?”

She sat down again, looking slightly shocked. “God. I didn’t even ask the policeman. He must think I’m awful. Some poor guy, who is connected to me, has died, and I didn’t even show the slightest bit of interest in who he was or how he died, or whether his family is upset, or anything…in fact, I think the policeman said he hadn’t traced the next of kin. That’s awful, isn’t it?”

Derek put his hands on her shoulders. “Well. As you say, you didn’t know him. That does seem a bit weird though, to be honest. He taught on your course, and you’d never met him? How did you know he was ok to teach the students, you know, not a complete nutter? Don’t you have to see them teach?”

Alison waved her hand vaguely. “Nasreen Birch said he was ok, so, I took her word for it. He’d been on a couple of teaching courses, he sent me through his plans for the term, it’s a pretty basic course….” No point in trying to explain the oddities of casual Higher Education recruitment now. She got up again. “I must go and sort things out. I’ll phone the policeman again later to see if he’s got any more information.”


Follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of the screen to get new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: A Vision of the Future

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One thought on “Advent Episode 8: Worries

  1. Pingback: Advent Episode 7: An Inspector Calls | Wading through Treacle

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