Advent Episode 19: Progress?

A super-bumper triple episode.

D I Bones was packing up to go home. It had been a completely wasted day. Despite numerous time-wasting calls from people who’d seen the article in the local paper, the sum total of his day was that he’d found out that Gareth Jones had probably come from Wales. He’d left a voicemail for Sandra Sharpe, but she hadn’t replied.  He sighed as he shut down the computer. Never mind, he’d have a nice quiet evening with a bottle of wine and his new box-set of The Killing.

His phone rang. He looked at it balefully. It wouldn’t be anything important, and he wanted to go and put an end to this futile working day. It could go to voicemail. On the other hand, maybe it was Sandra Sharpe. He picked up the receiver.

“Burston Metropolitan Police, D I Bones. How can I help you?” he put on his most helpful voice.

“This is Mrs Lilian Hankin, MA. From Burston Central University.”

“What can I do for you, Mrs Hankin?” asked D I Bones, wondering whether it was going to be important enough for him to get his notepad out.

“I have some critical information about the death of Gareth Jones,” said Lilian.

“What kind of information?” D I Bones replied, guardedly. She sounded a bit like another one of the cranks. That was the trouble with media reports. They brought out all of the nutters.

“I know who killed him!” declared Lilian. She cleared her throat. “Some information has come into my possession which identifies the perpetrator.”

Oh God, she really was a crank. “Mrs, er, Hankin, we have no reason to suspect foul play in the death of Dr Jones. It’s very kind of you to take an interest in the case, but at the moment we’re more concerned with tracing Dr Jones’ next of kin. Did you know Dr Jones, by any chance?”

Lilian dismissed this. “Of course not, he was in Biology. I’m in the Law department.”

“Oh.” D I Bones wasn’t sure what the right answer to this was. “Of course. Well, if there isn’t anything else..”

“Wait a minute. Don’t you need to see my evidence?”

D I Bones sighed. “What sort of evidence do you mean, Mrs Hankin?”

“There’s this woman in my department, she’s got problems, you know, mental problems, she’s been off with them. I don’t think she’s right yet. She’s been behaving really oddly and I found something very suspicious.”

D I Bones sighed audibly this time, and repeated the previous question. “What sort of evidence do you have, Mrs Hankin?”

“I can’t possibly tell you over the phone, D I Bones. I need to be careful. I have reason to believe I may be in danger myself.”

D I Bones thought about his box-set. The woman was obviously a crank, but it was the closest connection he’d had all week between his victim and anybody at Burston Central University. He supposed he’d have to follow it up.

“Could I come over and have a chat to you now, Mrs Hankin?” he said reluctantly.

“Oh yes, of course. Shall I meet you in the University coffee-shop? Do you know where it is? Just off the park?”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes” he said “I’m not in uniform, but I expect you’ll recognise me.”

“Don’t worry, D I Bones.” Lilian sounded on the verge of hysteria “I’m in the Law department, I’m used to seeing the long arm of the law. I’ll know who you are.”

D I Bones replaced the receiver and sighed longer and deeper than ever. This truly was the case from hell.

 The Weekly Therapy Session

Wednesday evening was Biology night out. Well, it had been once. Attendance had dwindled over the years. Older staff had left and new ones didn’t seem to be interested in what the hard core liked to call the weekly therapy session.

Alison slumped down into the chair. She didn’t say anything, but her body language showed a mixture of frustration and exhaustion. Silently, Heather poured a glass of wine from the bottle on the table and Alison took a large mouthful. “And how was your day?” enquired Tim, sardonically.

The combination of the wine, the change of scene and the company of people who would understand was help in itself. Alison managed a weak grin and said “Five and a half hours to moderate 50 pieces of work”.

Tim and Heather looked at each other. Five and a half hours? For two people? Admittedly they were quite substantial assignments, marked by a team of three, but they didn’t all need to be fully checked: a sample needed to be thoroughly reviewed and then they needed a quick look through the feedback sheets. Five and a half hours sounded more like double second marking with particular attention to crossing Ts and dotting Is.  Not what they’d expect to be necessary from experienced academics like Alison and Don.

Alison caught their glance. “Well, there weren’t actually five and a half hours of actually looking at the assignments” she corrected “We aren’t that inefficient.”

She grimaced. “We’d agreed to meet at 2pm, with the assignments. Don wasn’t ready then, because a dissertation student had come to see him at quarter to, and she was still in there explaining how she hadn’t been able to collect all of her planned data and what was she going to do to get finished on time and so on, so I went off to collect the assignments anyway. We’d asked all the other markers to submit their feedback sheets to the programmes office for us to collect, if they hadn’t done them electronically and emailed them to us. Sam had sent us the fifteen he’d done, bless him, but John and Sally still like to hand-write theirs, so I needed to get their feedback sheets from the office. But only Sally’s were there. I went to look for John.

“He was with a student, but when he’d finished, he said he hadn’t marked them yet. Apparently he hadn’t realised he had to download the submissions from the VLE, so he was waiting to be notified by the submissions office that he needed to collect them.”

Alison stopped for a gulp of wine. The others waited. It wasn’t a particularly interesting story, but they could tell that Alison needed to finish it.

“So, I gritted my teeth and went back up to the meeting room. Don was there by then, waiting for me to come back with the feedback sheets. We decided we’d better mark John’s – the feedback is due back to the students tomorrow, God knows why he didn’t think to chase them up – and then look at the rest. So we got our laptops out and downloaded eight each, and off we went. Luckily Sam had written a decent assignment brief and a detailed rubric, or we’d have been in real trouble with it – we haven’t taught that unit for a while. So that took us just over two hours, I think it was about quarter to five by then.  I went to get some coffees and then we got on to the moderating. Actually, that really didn’t take us too long, probably about an hour and a half – we spent some extra time on a couple of borderline cases – and then we just needed to complete the moderation sheets and put them under the door of the programmes office – everyone had gone home by then. Just as well I wasn’t entering the marks on the tablet computer, I presume you’ve all heard what’s happened to them? Anyway, thanks for the drink. What else have I missed today?”

Tim and Heather looked at each other. “Did you see the local rag today?” asked Tim.

“Um, let me think, I don’t think so,” replied Alison. “no, there wasn’t a spare one on the bus, and I was trying to finish something off anyway. Why?”

“Apparently we have er, a deceased colleague” Heather said, trying to break the news gently.

“Oh yes, Gareth Jones.” said Alison, off-handedly. “I did know about that. Shame.”

Tim and Heather frowned at each other. That wasn’t quite the reaction they had been expecting. They’d thought Alison would be upset.

“The police came to see me on Monday about it. Apparently he was found dead in a wood. And do you know, I went along to his Cell Biology class yesterday and they said they hadn’t seen him for three weeks. Can you believe that nobody told us? Terrible.”

She shook her head. “Good thing they weren’t third years. We’d never have been able to calm them down before they had to fill in the National Student Survey.”

She was fiddling with her phone. “Just let me send this to Derek, to let him know I’m running late.”

Heather leaned forward. “Alison. Gareth Jones is dead.”

Alison looked up. “I know, I’ve just been telling you. I’ve spent hours trying to find out if we’ve got any records on him, too. Advita said he’d never actually sent back his personal details form. God knows how he got paid at all, without that. But I don’t know any more than that. We’ll have to get somebody else in to do Cell Biology. Do you know anyone?”

She emptied her glass and stood up. “Sorry to love you and leave you, but I really do need to get home. Emma’s got some coursework due tomorrow. Thanks for the wine, guys. See you soon.”

Heather shared the rest of the bottle out between their glasses. They sat in silence for a moment, both looking at their drinks. “This can’t go on. Alison doesn’t seem to care about anything except just getting through the day. That poor guy, Gareth. What’s happening to us all?” Heather looked on the verge of tears.

“We’re all turning into target-obsessed automatons, only bothered about the next student survey result.” replied Tim, drily. “Did you know Gareth, then?”

“No, but, it just seems so sad. That we didn’t know him, and now he’s dead.” Heather realised that this wasn’t very coherent. She sniffed loudly and took a big slug of wine. Maybe it was better not to talk about it.

Dinner for Two

Bob was knocking on the door of a neat-looking terraced house in an unfamiliar part of Burston. He was wearing neatly pressed chinos, a checked shirt and a dark V necked sweater. He was holding a bottle of wine rather awkwardly in his left hand and trying to stop a slim folder from slipping out from under his arm while he knocked. He hoped Sheila liked white wine.

She opened the door. “Bob!” she leaned forward and pecked him on the cheek. He blushed. “Come on in.” Sheila stood aside and ushered him in.

Bob held out the bottle. He could feel that his face was a bit pink, and he simply couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Ooh, this is already chilled. Great. Would you like a glass?”

Bob nodded.

“Take a seat, Bob. No need to be polite.” she continued, as she took the bottle from him and went through to the kitchen to get some glasses. Bob sat down on the nearest chair, a comfy armchair with a view straight out through the French window into the back garden. It was dark outside, but there were a couple of coloured lights over the patio and he could see enough of the garden to see that it was well-kept. He got up and walked over to the window.

“Is that a Pittosporum. Sheila?” Sheila handed him a glass.

“Ooh, clever you. Yes, it’s a Silver Queen. Lovely winter interest. I’ve got a tenuifolium purpureum behind that, but it’s too dark to see it. You’ll have to come round in the daylight.” She smiled encouragingly at him.

Bob cleared his throat. “That would be nice. We can compare notes. I spend quite a bit of time in the garden myself.”

Sheila smiled at him again. “Well, sit down, Bob. How did you get on with your plan today?”

Bob looked blankly at her. The conversation seemed to be moving too fast for him. Plan for what? Coming to see her garden in the daylight? He felt his face reddening again.

“Sorry, I was thinking about the garden. Yes, the plan.” God, he sounded lame. What was wrong with him? He was perfectly used to talking to his colleagues, although this was the first time he’d actually been invited to someone’s house. And he’d only met Sheila today. She seemed harmless enough. Why was he so flustered?

He looked down at the folder which he’d put on the arm-rest of the chair, and remembered. “Not too bad, actually. Do you want to have a look?”

“Sure” said Sheila. She sat down on the sofa and patted the space next to her. “Bring it over here.”

Bob sat down gingerly on the sofa, leaving what he hoped was a suitable space between them. He didn’t want Sheila to think he was taking advantage. He took out his plan.

“OK, it’s in two parts. I’ve done a SWOT analysis, then I’ve written a full business plan which maximises the opportunities and addresses the weaknesses. I’m pretty sure it will do the job.”

Sheila took the slim report from him. “This looks great, so professional. Like a business consultant’s report.”

Bob gave a little smile. “Well, yes, perhaps I haven’t quite lost my touch.”

“Do you know, Bob, that would sound arrogant from a lot of my colleagues, but from you, it just sounds, you know, sweet.”

Bob blushed dark red and tried to hide his face behind his glass of wine.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” Sheila tapped him on the arm, “You should learn to accept a compliment gracefully. I learned that from counselling.” she added.

Bob remembered that she’d said she’d been off work for a long time with stress. He’d better not upset her. He couldn’t think of anything to say, though, so he just kept smiling.

Sheila smiled kindly at him. “It’s alright, Bob. I won’t bite, and I’m not going to crack up.”

Jesus, could she read his mind? Bob drained his glass.

Sheila leaned over her side of the sofa. Bob had a flash of panic. He didn’t know this woman. Maybe she had a weapon down there?

She straightened up, holding the bottle of wine in her hand. “I think it’s still cool enough” she said “probably not worth putting it in the fridge, at this rate.” She refilled their glasses. Bob blushed again, this time in embarrassment at his crazy thoughts.

“Now, here’s my bit.” She held out her own neatly presented folder. “This covers all of the student support, quality and HR issues”, she said. “I think it’s well stitched up. The students won’t be short-changed, and we won’t be out on our ears. Cheers.”  She raised her glass.

Bob flicked through her plan. “This is really impressive, Sheila.”

He was genuinely interested in what she’d produced. He forgot to be embarrassed to talk to her. “It’s clever to tie in the part-time staff like that – I bet nobody in HR will see the subtlety of that, or realise what the long-term commitment is. But if you don’t do it this way, we’ll never get any loyalty from the team. And I like this idea of a student contract. A minimum commitment which is legally binding on the UCNB. Clever. Do you think Alan will understand it?”

Sheila snorted. “Alan? No chance. This is the kind of thing that my corporate clients paid thousands per contract for. Alan’s only ever worked in a university. Bless him. He’s not used to people being devious.” She corrected herself. “Well, maybe he is, but not devious in this way. Devious in a way which he does understand. Oops, that didn’t make much sense, did it? The wine must have gone to my head.” She giggled. “You know what I mean, don’t you?”

They looked at each other for a moment. Co-conspirators, Bob thought. Although they were on the side of good, so was conspirator the right word?

Sheila stood up. “You must be hungry, Bob. I’ve made us something to eat. Come on through.” She led the way.

Bob was wondering how the wine had gone so quickly to his head. He wondered if Sheila had put something in his wine. Then he remembered that he’d skipped lunch to work on the plan. That must be it.

The table was laid simply, as though they were two old friends having an informal supper. “Sit anywhere, Bob. I hope this is OK,” Sheila said “it’s just what I would have had for myself. I didn’t have time to do anything special today, what with the plan and everything.”

“That’s great, Sheila. It’s really nice of you to invite me.” Bob meant this sincerely. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone outside the family had invited him into their home.

Sheila smiled at him again “Well, next time I’ll make a bit more effort.” They both blushed a little at that.

Bob sat down and Sheila turned to the stove. “All in one pot” she said, cheerily “it was easier.” She brought a casserole dish over to the table and put it on a mat. She lifted the lid. A heavenly smell rose. Bob’s mouth watered. “Sheila, that smells..”

Just then, there was a series of loud knocks at the door.

Sheila looked surprised. “That’s odd. I’m not expecting anyone.” She looked briefly at Bob as though he might be responsible for the intrusion.

He shrugged and looked towards the front door. “Would you like me to…?”

“Oh. No, sorry. I’ll just be a minute.”

Sheila put the chain on the door and opened it as far as it would go. The man on the doorstep held up an ID card. “D I Bones” he said. “Are you Sheila Thompson?”

“Um. Yes” said Sheila, closing the door and taking off the chain. She opened it properly. “What can I do for you, Detective Inspector?”

“I need to ask you a few questions about Gareth” he said. Sheila paled. “Gareth?” she said, weakly.

Follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: It was an accident.

2 thoughts on “Advent Episode 19: Progress?

  1. Pingback: Advent Episode 18: Secret Plans | Wading through Treacle

  2. Pingback: Musing and Marking | Wading through Treacle

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