Alison was entering grades into the student record system. The module leaders were supposed to do it themselves. On the old system, they’d entered them in a spreadsheet, then printed them out and given them to the admin team to enter. Of course, that had been a big waste of time, but now one or two of her colleagues didn’t think it was their job to enter marks into student records, and they either refused to do it, or made seemingly deliberate mistakes. She preferred to do them all herself, then she knew everything was done properly. So colleagues printed them out and gave them to her, and then she entered them. It saved time in the end.
Incoming text message. She sighed. It would be Derek. He was probably quite annoyed with her. She’d been late home every night for weeks. OK, last night hadn’t been entirely her fault. She sniggered at the thought of Geoff trapped in his office by a student. He really needed to get out more. He’d forgotten what it was like in the classroom.
‘Alison. I really need you to get back on time tonight. Derek.’
She sighed again. He didn’t need to add his name to every text. She knew they were from him. He could be surprisingly old-fashioned. She frowned. He must be in a bad mood. He hardly ever made a direct request. He was usually a bit more passive-aggressive, sending something like ‘hope to see you later :-)’
She looked at the list next to her. She’d really wanted to finish them off tonight. She was only half-way through, though, and it was taking ages. The main trouble with anonymous marking, in her view, was that entering the marks in the records when you just had a number, rather than a name, was surprisingly difficult. Everything needed to be double-checked.
Sod it. She picked up a red pen and put a line under the last mark she’d entered. Then she locked the list in her drawer. She picked up an article she planned to read that evening, the papers for tomorrow’s School employability committee meeting and her phone, and stuffed them all into her bag. She looked round for the tablet computer, then remembered that IT services still had it. She giggled at the thought of the locked screensaver.
Shut down computer, put on coat, lock office. She felt quite rebellious, although she was stll the last person left in the building. The corridor was dark. The auto-sensing lights usually came on just as she reached the lifts.
The bus was usually fairly quick at this time of night. She didn’t take the journal article out of her bag, but juts sat and stared out of the window. This part of Burston was lively at all hours. Students from both universities were out and about, there was a thriving street of curry restaurants, the Christmas lights were up. It was really quite a nice place to live.
She wondered why Derek was so keen for her to get home early. It really wasn’t like him. Lately he’d seemed to have given up altogether on commenting on her working hours. She realiy did feel guilty about it, but things had been so mad lately, she’d just had no choice. And this week, what with Geoff and the student doing her own sit-in, sorting out poor old Gareth, and Jan….
A nasty thought struck her. What if Derek had stopped mentioning her working hours because he’d basically given up on her? Maybe he’d met someone else who had a more conventional job? It would have to be someone at the council. Neither of them ever went anywhere else, other than her Wednesday evening with the team, and Derek knew how dull that was. She felt queasy. She couldn’t cope with that on top of everything else.
By the time she got home she was convinced that Derek was going to explain to her that he was leaving. Or maybe that he wanted her to leave, since he was the one keeping the household going. She felt physically sick. Oh, God. Her life was falling apart, and for what?
She let herself into the house. There was a fantastic smell of roasting vegetables. I the kitchen, the table was laid for two. With a cloth.
“Smells wonderful” Alison said. The kitchen was unusually tidy. “Um. Where are the kids?” She hung her coat over the back of one of the chairs.
“I let them have a takeaway and rented a DVD for them”
“Wow. They must be delighted. On a school night.” Alison was really starting to panic, but her voice sounded calm enough.
Derek passed her a glass of wine. “Sauvignon-Viognier. You like that.”
Alison smiled. “Do I?” Wine-tasting was one of Derek’s hobbies that she hadn’t quite managed to make time for. “When I retire” she always said. She took a sip. “Lovely. Just what I needed.”
“It’s almost ready. I was just waiting for you to put the tuna in.” Derek turned to the hob. “It’ll be five minutes.” While the oil was heating in the frying pan, he turned to the oven and took out a baking tray of roasted vegetables. He put them down on the table. “I think they’ll keep warm for long enough”. He smiled at her.
Alison was really confused. It was a lot of effort to go to if you were going to launch a bombshell. “Derek,” she started.
“Hang on, I can’t really hear you.” The extractor fan was on, and the tuna was sizzling. “Won’t be a sec.”
Alison took a big mouthful of wine. It wasn’t her birthday. Anyway, Emma and Ben would have been involved with that. It wasn’t their anniversary. Was it? No. They obviously weren’t expecting guests. She couldn’t think of anything else that might merit this level of effort, on a week-night at least. If Derek had something truly awful to announce – affair? Divorce? serious illness? Redundancy? – it wouldn’t be worth a lovely meal and tidy kitchen. Would it? Alison closed her eyes and tried to remember the last time they’d had any kind of conversation which wasn’t about children’s activities, school reports, shopping lists or what to do for that year’s holidays. Probably in the summer. On holiday. She sighed.
Derek put two plates down on the table and sat opposite her. “Wake up!”
She opened her eyes and smiled. “Just thinking.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I was just wondering what this lovely occasion was in aid of?”
Derek feigned shock. “Are you trying to pretend that you don’t get this service every night?” He looked hurt.
Alison laughed at him. “If only! I should have married a …” she couldn’t quite think of an acceptable way to end the sentence. “Anyway, it looks delicious. Thank you.”
“Finish your glass, you need a glass of Chinon with this.”
Alison did as she was told and Derek refilled the glass. She started to eat.
“OK. You’re right. There is something.” Alison looked at him. He smiled nervously. “The thing is. The thing is. I’ve been offered a job in the Isle of Wight.” He rushed out the last sentence.
“The Isle of Wight?”
“Yes. Deputy Chief Exec. of the council. Good moving package, rent allowance for six months, house prices down there are reasonable anyway, nice environment, low crime. Well, you know all that anyway. Great job.” He stopped abruptly, as though he’d come to the end of a rehearsed piece. Alison was gaping slightly.
She wasn’t quite sure where to start. How had he got a job like that without even mentioning it? It must have taken weeks of planning. But she decided on the personal. “We can’t do that. What about school?”
“There’s a good school there, Carisbrooke College. Emma says she’d quite like a fresh start for sixth form. You know she doesn’t quite fit in with the other girls in her class. She says at least she’d have a reason to be different if we moved down there. And she quite fancies the idea of surfing every weekend. Ben could do with a shake-up, too. You know his results have been slipping. I’m not so keen on those lads he’s been knocking about with. And the school there has a video games club. Programming, not just playing. He’d love it”
“You’ve talked to Emma about it already?” Alison dimly realised that this wasn’t the thing she should be focusing on, but somehow, just at this moment, it seemed the most outrageous part of the whole proposition.
Derek winced. “Um. She could see I was excited about something. And you weren’t there, so…” he tailed off. “so I thought I’d make an occasion of it when you were.”
Alison seemed lost for words. It really wasn’t what she’d been expecting. “And hang on” Derek said “my salary package is going to be really good. Like I said, house prices are reasonable, we won’t need a big mortgage. We can manage on one salary.” Before Alison had a chance to say anything, he continued at high speed. “I’m not suggesting that you give everything up. But I thought maybe you could just have a bit of a break, do some work on Martin’s fumer, furmer, whatever it is..”
“Martin’s Ramping-fumitory.” Alison corrected him.
Derek went on. “Yes, that one. It grows down there, doesn’t it? You could finish that paper you used to talk about. And the OU is recruiting part-time tutors for Biology in that region, I saw an advert in the Guardian. So you could do some teaching, but without all the stress you’ve got now.” Derek stopped again. “But eat up, it’s getting cold.”
Alison was still staring at him, open-mouthed. In the absence of any better idea, she obeyed the instruction. Quite a variety of things had been thrown at her this week. A dead colleague. Extra teaching to cover. A potentially huge assessment cock-up on her course. A broken computer. An appalling moderation session. Geoff’s student sit-in. Endless mark lists to enter. But that was basically a bad, but not untypical week. Home was usually a bit more predictable. This was so far out of left-field that she didn’t know what to think, or do.
Derek was looking anxiously across the table at her.
Her face suddenly crumpled and she started to weep, quietly.
Derek looked distraught. “Oh, shit. Alison, I’m sorry, it’s OK, we won’t do it.” He came round to her side of the table and put his arm round her. “Here” he reached over to the kitchen worktop and pulled off a piece of kitchen roll.
Tomorrow’s episode of the Wading Through Treacle Advent Calendar 2012 will be the last. (And a good thing too, it’s getting even cheesier!). You can still 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 updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send me accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too: email@example.com.
Tomorrow’s episode: ‘All’s well that ends well‘;