The Cold Light of Day
Bob was late. After his insomniac session, he had slept in, and so what with that and feeling too sluggish to cycle, by the time he’d done his convoluted bus journeys and got to campus, it was 9.15.
To his surprise, Alan was lurking in the corridor outside his office. Shit. The one day he was late, and the DVC had to be there. But Alan didn’t seem too bothered about the time.
“Ah, Bob!” he said, as though it was a huge surprise to meet him there, right outside Bob’s office. “Glad to have bumped into you”. He lowered his voice “have you had any chance to think about yesterday?” he whispered.
“Um. Well. Yes”, hedged Bob. For a moment, his heart leaped. Maybe it was all a mistake, and Alan was coming to tell him to think no more about it?
“Great. Have you got time for a quick coffee?” continued Alan.
Bob mentally checked his diary for the day, although he was still feeling a bit slow. “Sure” he said “shall we pop down to the canteen, er sorry, coffee bar?”
Alan looked around to see if there was anyone else in the corridor. “I know a little place just round the corner” he said “might be quieter there”.
Bob opened his mouth to point out that the building’s coffee bar would be quiet at this time in the morning, but thought better of it. He smiled weakly. “Sure” he repeated.
“It’s just down Challoner Street, Cheeky’s. Do you know it?” asked Alan. “Sure” said Bob again.
“OK, we should probably go separately, meet you there in 10 minutes.” Alan said, and dashed off, just as Martin and his fellow union rep, Janet, came out of the lift doors.
Bob was still standing outside the office, slack-jawed and processing the latest bizarre occurrence. Cheeky’s? What was wrong with the canteen? He forced himself to look relaxed and normal. “Forgot my key” he said, by way of explanation for standing outside the office. Martin and Janet were too preoccupied with their own concerns to have noticed anything odd.
“Was that the DVC?” Martin asked “What was he doing in this part of campus? Bloody hell, wish I’d realised it was him, I want to tell him what I think about this car parking. Janet and me, we were just planning our strategy for the meeting at lunchtime to discuss it. It’s a bloody disgrace.”
Janet nodded forcefully “One more erosion of our working rights. We’ll show them.” she agreed. “Are you coming to the meeting at lunchtime, Bob?”
“Um. Not sure yet, very busy” said Bob. “Got to go, need to see a student.” He didn’t even bother to go into the office, which Martin had just opened, but retraced his steps down the corridor towards the staircase.
As he walked down the six flights, he reviewed the situation again. It wasn’t much clearer than it had been at two-thirty that morning. He thought he knew three things:
- The university was setting up a college to offer the same degrees, but cheaper.
- He had been asked to ‘head up the project’.
- He wasn’t allowed to tell anyone.
If he’d been thinking properly like a forensic accountant yesterday, instead of like an anxious employee, he would have realised that there were some huge gaps in the information. It didn’t make any sense. He was just a fairly lowly senior lecturer, with no management responsibilities. Why would he head it up? Bob was experienced enough not to be flattered by the ‘offer’. Whilst he did have management experience, it had been in his previous role, which nobody here was interested in except insofar as he could teach students about it.
The only possible reasons to ask him would be
a) that it needed a forensic accountant (vanishingly small probability). Or
b) they thought he would be discreet. Or
c) they could threaten him with redundancy since he was too old to get another job, but too young to retire.
Bob felt his blood pressure rising as he reached the bottom of the staircase. It all felt like a bad campus novel.
He had to stop himself looking around the building atrium as he crossed it, to check who might be watching him. Who cared? Honestly…it was a university. He’d been in some much more dodgy environments in his previous working life. Whilst fiddling the books was usually small scale and pitiful, once or twice he’d had to do investigations in big companies where the fraud was on a huge scale. Those kinds of companies employed ‘special’ security staff in addition to their usual workforce. This was nothing. He could work this out. He straightened his shoulders and strode off down Challoner Street, suppressing all thoughts of threats, redundancies and secrets.
In Cheeky’s, Alan was sitting in a corner, hunched over a large hot chocolate in a paper cup. Bob went over to him and sat down. “Coffee?” asked Alan. “Just had one” said Bob by way of answer, although it wasn’t true.
“I like these” said Alan “wife makes me have low-fat milk at home. Can’t stand the stuff.” Bob said nothing.
Alan looked up. “About yesterday” he said. Bob felt a twinge of relief. Alan was going to tell him that the VC was having problems and that yesterday’s meeting was all a big mistake. He prepared to reassure Alan about his ability to keep it all confidential.
“Can you get me a detailed action plan by, say, tomorrow night?” Alan asked.
Bob looked blankly at him. “Plan?” he offered, as neutrally as he could manage.
“Plan for the business and accountancy courses for the new, er, project, of course” said Alan “We were so glad to get you on board yesterday, the VC and I were sure you were the right man for the job, and we’re not often wrong, are we? Hur hur”.
Bob felt slightly sick. “Ah yes. I didn’t realise you were going to move so quickly. What did you have in mind for the action plan?”
Alan looked at Bob as though he were slightly slow. “Bob. We picked you for this job because of your extensive industrial experience. I’m sure you can knock up a full action plan for the partnership in no time! Remember, the building is already sorted out, you just need to think about marketing, recruitment, admissions, induction, and all of that stuff. Piece of cake! If you need a bit more time, let’s say first thing Thursday morning?” Alan cocked his head slightly.
“Tell you what. If you’ve got half an hour free, I’ll take you to look at something.” Alan stood up and picked up his cup. Bob looked blankly at him. Now what? He couldn’t think of any response other than to follow.
A Vision of the Future
Alan led the way down Challoner Street and then turned left onto Exeter road. “Not too far” was the only explanation he offered. They continued up to the main bus station, about three-quarters of a mile from campus. Alan stopped outside the main doors to the Precinct building. There was a row of shops: One Stop, Paddy Power, Sam’s Plaice, Real Factory Outlet.
Bob looked up. Above the shops was a tatty looking office block. “OK, here we are” Alan said, fishing in his pocket for a huge set of keys. “Come on up” They went into the large reception area inside the office building.
“Hullo, Shiv” he nodded to the security guard sitting behind an over-sized desk. Shiv grunted and turned back to his screen. Bob could see a solitaire game reflected in Shiv’s glasses.
Alan strode over to the lifts. “Not much to see yet, of course, but a lick of paint here, a couple of partitions there, some new chairs and tables, it’ll be bloody great”.
Bob didn’t have a clue what was going on, but kept his special inscrutable investigative accountant face on. Maybe this could be quite good fun. Six years in a University, and he’d forgotten how surprising the ‘real world’ could be.
The lift stopped at the second floor and they got out. “Here you are” said Alan, waving his arm towards a vast open plan area, empty but for an abandoned and overflowing waste paper basket and a broken chair in the far corner. The speckled lino tiles were scuffed; some were missing, others were ragged. The paint may once have been white. Or off-white.
Bob walked towards the windows: standard sixties squares, set in decrepit-looking frames with crumbling putty. He looked out onto the bus station. It was raining. He turned back to Alan, who was looking expectantly at him.
“Well? What do you think?”
“Um. Interesting.” tried Bob, as though a student had just answered one of his easiest accountancy questions with a completely wrong answer. He didn’t like giving completely negative feedback.
“We’ll build you and the other leaders your own offices, of course. And this will make a great teaching space. Open plan, team-teaching, latest technology, coffee area at the end.” Alan looked around, clearly seeing the room full of purposeful students.
Bob realised what Alan was talking about. This was going to be the new campus for the University College of Burston. He closed his eyes. Team-teaching. In his mind, the room had suddenly filled with noisy students who couldn’t find a seat and weren’t sure which lecturer at which end of the room to listen to. There were no admin staff in sight. There was one of those weird conveyor-belts-with-a-letter-box for posting assignments, like the system in the library for returning books. The portable data projectors wouldn’t sit straight on the wobbly desks in front of the fold-out screens, and there was a cacophony of noise from the simultaneous lectures, coffee machines, mobile phones, and grumbling staff and students.
He sighed. He opened his eyes. Alan was looking expectantly at him. “Um. Interesting” he said again. “How many students did you say?” he added, realising that he needed to show an interest if he was to find out any more.
“Oh, details” said Alan, waving his arm across the room again, airily. “small and select to begin with”
“How about admin staff?” persisted Bob. “Technical staff?”
“Oh, we’ll be all digital down here, Bob. Efficient! Modern!” Alan clearly felt this was sufficient in the way of answer. He crushed his empty cup and aimed it towards the waste paper basket. It hit the top and bounced off. “Bulls-eye! Anyhow, mustn’t keep you any longer, know you’ve got a plan to write!”
Shit. Bob had suppressed all thought of the plan. The whole situation was looking both more real and more ridiculous. Had he, at any stage, agreed to being involved in it? He honestly couldn’t remember. He followed Alan back to the lift. They descended in silence.
When they got outside, Alan turned to him “Right. Got another appointment in town. I’ll let you get on. Thursday morning OK for the plan?” Without waiting for an answer, Alan turned and headed off towards the main shopping street.
Bob walked slowly back towards campus. He reviewed his list of ‘knowns’. Did he know any more? Not really. How was he going to write a plan?
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