Advent Episode 14: Escape Route?

Sheila was back in her office. Another meeting over. She put her laptop into the docking station. While it was booting up, she fished under the low table by the radiator for her kettle and went off to the ladies’ to fill it with water. You couldn’t get camomile tea in the coffee bar. She needed her kettle.

When she got back to the office she closed the door behind her and locked it quietly. She made the tea in her special mini-teapot which sat neatly over the cup and took it over to her desk.

She logged on to the computer, but didn’t open her email. Too much to do. She put  her headphones on and opened YouTube instead. Mahler’s symphony number 5 was bookmarked.

She loved this particular track. Every time she played it, she had a flashback to the first time she’d seen Educating Rita, when she was in the sixth form. She had laughed heartily, as intended, at Trish’s suggestion: “Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?”

Sheila would never have expected either to be working in a university or to be listening to Mahler thirty years later. It made her smile now.

She turned up the volume and got back to the notes for Corporate Liability. She’d done a quick fix in the meeting but she had a lot more work to do. She actually enjoyed doing this. There was always something new to bring to the topic. She didn’t mind updating it every year. She was just a little bit behind, that was all.

This year she was going to discuss the brewery which hadn’t maintained its pipework properly, and large flakes of rust had got into the product. Beerlines had been clogged in hundreds of pubs and cost thousands to clear out or replace, not to mention the claims from drinkers who might have unwittingly consumed smaller quantities.

It was a brilliant case study. Not only was it difficult to show who was liable – should the pipes have been expected to last longer? Should the directors have got involved with the maintenance schedule? – but also, nobody could prove whether they’d drunk the beer or not, as most pubs and clubs didn’t issue itemised receipts. Sheila stretched out her fingers a couple of times and got to work.

The Mahler ended about an hour later, just as she uploaded the last files to the online course. She lifted her head and stretched out her arms as the Health and Safety advisor had shown them to do. She lowered her arms slowly to the side, then repeated the stretch a couple of times. She took off the headphones and stood up. Too much camomile tea.

When she got back from the ladies, Sheila noticed a Post-it on her door.

Sheila. Call 9274

Sheila took the note and went back into the office. 9274? That wasn’t a number in her building. She went back to the computer and looked it up in the online directory. Unlisted. Strange. Oh well, it was a university, not an organisation of mass murderers. She dialled the number.

“Alan Chilcott speaking”

Sheila felt slightly panicked. Why did the Deputy Vice-Chancellor want to talk to her? She’d followed all the official procedures when she’d returned to work. She’d been genuinely ill. She had more or less caught up with the courses she taught. The students seemed happy.

“Um. Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Sheila Thompson here. I got a message to phone you?”

“Sheeeeila,” drawled Alan, “thank you for calling me back. I thought you must be off-site when I came up and found the office locked. But your Outlook calendar didn’t show anything.”

“I’ve been in my office all afternoon.” replied Sheila, somewhat defensively. “Perhaps I was at the ladies or something. Anyway, what can I do for you, Dep, er, Alan?” She made a mental tick in her notebook. Another assertiveness point gained.

“I was just wondering if we could have a quick word, Sheila. Do you know where Cheeky’s is?”

Sheila couldn’t quite see the connection between these two sentences.“Er. Yes..”

“OK, see you there in ten minutes? Thanks, Sheila.”

The line was cut. Sheila continued holding the receiver for a couple of seconds before she realised that Alan had made an appointment to meet her off-site, and had rung off. How strange. She supposed she’d agreed to go. She’d never actually met the Deputy Vice Chancellor. Although of course she knew who he was, and had heard him give various start-of-the-year pep talks and the like.

She sighed. Casting a longing glance at her almost-finished teaching notes for Corporate Liability, she put on her coat, picked up her notebook, locked the workstation and left the office, carefully locking the door behind her.

The ten minute walk down Challoner Street gave her a bit too much time to think. What had she done? Why was the DVC meeting her off-site? Had Bill complained about her? Had any students complained about her?

Oh God, had he seen her profile on that online dating site? She’d known it was stupid to sign up to that, even when Anita had persuaded her after one too many glasses of Chardonnay and even though she’d used a false name. Oh God, that would be what it was about. She felt a bit wobbly.

Just outside Cheeky’s, she stopped for a moment and leaned against the wall, even though it was drizzling and most people were walking very briskly. She opened the notebook at the back. Underneath the ‘you can’t change them’ maxim was written:  ‘think positive. Wait until you have all the information before panicking.’

“Think positive” she repeated to herself. “Think positive.”

Her mind went blank. What positive things might the DVC want to say to her? “Maybe he’s going to nominate you for a Teaching Award” she thought, trying to think of unlikely things.

She snorted, possibly out loud. She looked around quickly in case anyone was looking at her, but she didn’t seem to have attracted anyone’s attention. She carried on making a list of positive possibilities.

Maybe he’s going to offer you a new job. Maybe he’s mounting a disciplinary against Lilian, and he wants you as a witness? She smiled broadly at this idea. That would explain meeting off-campus, too. Shutting the notebook, she straightened her shoulders and marched into Cheeky’s like Wyatt Earp preparing for a showdown. Oh yes. Lilian on a disciplinary. Make my day.

Sheila had never been into Cheeky’s before. It was almost empty, and it didn’t look as though either of the two other clients was from the university. They were wearing overalls. High-vis jackets were slung over the backs of their chairs, and they were settling down to a mug of tea and a pile of toast each. Sheila felt quite out of place in her neat two-piece suit.

She crossed to the counter and ordered a coffee, catching sight of the menu just in time to stop herself from asking for a skinny latte. The price seemed very low. She hastily fished out a pound coin from her purse instead of the ten pound note that she’d already started to pull out.  The assistant passed her a huge mug of instant coffee with milk.

“Thanks” said Sheila, and went to sit down in the corner where she could see the door. She sat for a while, nursing the mug gently and continuing to try to push away negative reasons for her summons with ever-more-preposterous positive ones.

Soon, she was imagining Lilian in court for running a prostitution business from university premises, having promised the most attractive first years extra marks to participate.

“..but it was a win-win for them, counsel” Lilian was saying to the prosecution barrister “They got paid and they were going to do well in their course…”

Sheila snorted again, and the sound made her aware of her surroundings. The two builders or whatever they were didn’t seem to have noticed. Luckily, the radio was playing pretty loudly. She looked at her watch. It was at least half an hour since the Deputy Vice Chancellor had phoned her. Maybe it hadn’t been him at all? Maybe Lilian was playing an elaborate trick on her? She looked around again to check that Lilian wasn’t hiding anywhere, smirking at Sheila’s stupidity in believing that the DVC would actually want to see her.

Sheila felt a chill go through her. This was almost worse than the DVC wanting to see her. The DVC didn’t want to see her, it was all a horrible trick. She felt her pulse starting to increase. Of course the DVC didn’t want to meet her. Why would he? He didn’t have a clue who she was. They were all laughing at her. Everyone thought she was stupid. They all despised her. Lilian was just the ring-leader. Slightly desperately, she fished in her bag for the notebook and turned to the back page.

Just then, the door of Cheeky’s opened and Alan burst in. He scanned the room as though unsure of what he was looking for, and then walked over to Sheila’s table.

“Sheila Thompson?” he said “Er, yes” replied Sheila, still flustered and holding out her right hand whilst half-getting to her feet. Of course, she knew who the Deputy Vice chancellor was. She’d forgotten that he wouldn’t have a clue who she was.

“Pleased to meet you.” said Alan. “Sorry I’m late, got a bit waylaid en route. Can I get you a coffee?” he continued, despite the barely-touched mug in front of her.

“Er, no, I’m fine for the moment”

“Ok, I’ll just get myself one, then we can have a chat” Alan winked conspiratorially at her.

Sheila sank back into her chair. Her stomach was churning ominously. “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe” she repeated to herself.

Alan returned to the table with a big mug of hot chocolate. He added three sachets of sugar and stirred vigorously.

“So. Sheila” he said.

Sheila tried not to look too panicked.

“I’ve heard a lot about you.” She felt her pulse increasing again.

“Bill says that you’re very popular with students, and very reliable.”

This didn’t sound too bad. Maybe it was the teaching award nomination after all. Alan looked at her. He seemed to be waiting for a response. She wasn’t sure what, though. He hadn’t asked a question or anything.

“Er. Thank you” said Sheila. “That’s nice” she added, encouragingly.

Alan seemed to be very interested in his hot chocolate. Eventually he looked up. He leaned over the table towards Sheila. She controlled the urge to shrink back. She was hoping that it wasn’t anything to do with the dating site.

“This is highly confidential,” he said “are you able to give me your word you will keep it so?”

“er. Yes, Deputy Vice Chancellor, er, Alan. Of course. I’m a solicitor,” She added.

Alan looked confused.

“I’m used to client confidentiality” she explained.

“Oh. Yes. Of course. Well, anyway. Where was I?”

“Confidentiality” prompted Sheila.

“Oh. Yes.” He thought for a moment. “It’s about a new project I’d like you to take a lead on.”

Unwittingly, Sheila leaned forward. Maybe this was going to be interesting after all.


Back in her office, Sheila sat down at her desk. She opened her notebook and reviewed what Alan had told her.

Leading a new project for the university.

An exciting way to make legal education accessible to more students.

First of its kind in the country.

Ground-breaking.

Opportunity to shine.

Looking for special people.

Great reputation.

She smiled, picked up her pencil and added ‘Get away from Lilian’ to the list. A new start. She leaned back in her chair and started imagining the future.

True, the premises were a bit disappointing, but she’d been able to see what Alan meant about the renovations. A bit of investment would sort it out. She’d be able to plan her courses the way she wanted to, without any sniping from Lilian. She’d be able to ask some of her ex-colleagues who were still in practice to come in and talk to students. She’d be able to give lots of quick feedback and test pervasive skills like ethics throughout the course instead of pushing them all into a special skills course. It would be so much better.

A forceful rap on the door was immediately followed by the door opening suddenly. Lilian strode into the room.

“Sheila!”

Sheila jumped visibly, jerking forward from her comfortable position. She spun round in her office chair.

“Lilian! You made me jump. Is there a fire or something?” she turned quickly back to the desk and shut the notebook, which was still open on her desk.

Lilian watched her narrowly. “don’t be silly, Sheila. I did knock”.

Sheila sighed. “Well, what can I do for you? I’m quite busy”

“So I see” Lilian replied. “Well, I just wanted to sort out next week’s session with you.”

“Next week’s session? Which one?”

“Corporate liability, of course. I need to swap with you”

“Swap what?”

“I need to do next week’s session, and you can do mine the week after. I mean, could we swap next week’s session with the one after?” Lilian corrected herself.

“Lilian, I can’t do that. I’ve planned everything out for next week and I’ve just put lots of new resources up online. It will break the rhythm if they don’t get the session until the week after. I really can’t do that.”

“But Bill’s insisting that I go to the Diversity and Equalities meeting the week after. It’s terribly important. I told him you’d swap with me.”

“Lilian, it’s not good for the students to chop and change like that. Why can’t someone else go to the meeting?”

Sheila imagined Lilian in a boudoir. There was flock wallpaper, with a gold border running round the room. Lilian was wearing a blonde wig and false eyelashes,and was holding an old-fashioned white and gold phone receiver in her hand. Sheila shook herself. Had she been smiling? Probably not. Lilian was still waiting for something.

Sheila sighed. She certainly didn’t want to go to the Diversity and Equalities meeting. “Lilian, I really don’t approve of this. We have to put the students first,” she said, “but if there really isn’t an alternative, then alright”.

Lilian didn’t even look pleased. “It’s FOR the students, Sheila,” she said, righteously “we have to do Diversity and Equalities, you know.”

Sheila looked carefully at her. Lilian showed no trace of discomfiture. She must really believe that Sheila didn’t understand.

She sighed again.  “Well, who’s going to tell the students?” she asked. “and you’ll need to update the online area to get your notes up,” she added, remembering Lilian’s earlier sermon on the topic.

Lilian waved her arm “Sure” she said, vaguely. “right, better get on. See you later”.

She turned and left Sheila’s office. Sheila got up and closed the door. “Thanks so much for being accommodating, Sheila” she mouthed “I really appreciate your help”. She went back to the desk, still muttering to herself.

Sheila opened her notebook again and reread the notes from her meeting with Alan. She underlined ‘Get away from Lilian’, and turned the page.

To Do

Email Corporate Liability students about session changes

Back up online material

Remind Lilian to update her online material for rearranged session

Write plan for Alan

She leaned back. She realised that Alan had given her an exit strategy. She was really going to go for it.


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: Routine Enquiries

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One thought on “Advent Episode 14: Escape Route?

  1. Pingback: Advent Episode 13: A little problem with the regulations | Wading through Treacle

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