When Ajay got back to the office, Martin was on the phone. Ajay nodded over to him. He sat down behind his desk and switched on the computer. As usual, Martin was talking very loudly, and as was often the case, he was outraged. Ajay had no choice but to overhear.
“Fucking cheek. They can’t suddenly bring it up now. They knew all about it when they employed me. This is just because I’m the Union rep, as usual.”
“No. No idea.”
“Yes. OK. I’ll keep you posted. See you at lunchtime.”
Ajay sighed. He knew that he was about to receive a recap of whatever it was that Martin was upset about. Martin put the phone down.
“Martin. Is everything OK?”
“Not really. Got a bit of bad news.”
Ajay realised that he was expected to look concerned. He felt really awkward. It was only four years since he’d graduated himself, and Martin had been one of his lecturers. If he was honest, Martin wasn’t one of his favourite tutors. He knew his subject OK, but he’d never seemed that interested in the students. You’d never go to him with a problem. Bob Barker was much more approachable. And now Martin expected him to listen to his confidences.
“Oh, dear. Well, if you’d rather not talk about it…”
“Oh, no, that’s OK. You’ll know soon enough anyway.”
Ajay sighed to himself. It had been worth a try.
“When you were a student, Ajay, were there any rumours about me?”
Ajay felt trapped. Martin probably wasn’t expecting him to say anything like lazy, uninterested, or out-of-date. “Er. Not really,” seemed like a safe answer.
“Well. A while ago. I got into a bit of bother. Nothing to do with work. For some reason, someone’s brought it up again. It’s because I’ve just been elected to Academic Board as employee representative, I reckon.”
Ajay wondered whether he could avoid asking what the ‘bit of bother’ was. He hoped so. He tried to be neutral. “Oh, dear. That seems unfair.”
“Unfair? You can say that again. It’s a conspiracy. The Vice Chancellor hates me.”
Ajay hadn’t been there for long enough to realise that the Vice Chancellor was unlikely to have any opinion of Martin whatsoever. “Really? That’s terrible.”
“It is. Well, he won’t get away with it. I’m going to phone the local paper myself.”
Ajay had spent the four years since graduation working for a big accountancy firm which avoided publicity like the plague. “Is that wise? Maybe it will just blow over? ”
Martin looked kindly at him, and shook his head slowly. “Nice idea, Ajay, but these guys are up to something. I don’t trust them. Actually, no, not the local paper, I’ll see if we can get something into the Times Higher.” He picked up the phone again.
“Suki? It’s Martin again. What do you think if we draft something for the Times Higher, about the attack on the democratic process? It could come from you, as branch chair.”
“OK, I’ll do it now and get something over to you.”
Without hanging up the receiver, he clicked on the recall button and redialled.
“Betty? Martin. Got a message for Gordon.”
“He’ll need to get someone to cover my classes this week. I can’t work with this threat hanging over me.” Martin winked at Ajay. Ajay pretended not to notice.
“OK, put me through.”
“Gordon. Not as busy as Betty thought?”
“I have to tell you that I’m absolutely devastated at the insinuations which are being made about me. You know what a reliable lecturer I am, and the, er, incident which is being brought up has never affected my performance.”
“I don’t know who’s brought it up, but you can’t expect me to teach with this going on. It’s harassment and I need to spend time preparing my defence.”
“It is a defence if I feel harassed, and I do.”
“Well, maybe it is nothing to do with you, but you’re going to need to get someone to cover for me, at least this week.”
“You’re summoning me?”
“It doesn’t sound like a friendly chat to me.”
“Alright then. Not today, though. Thursday?”
“That’s lunchtime. I’ve got a union meeting.”
“OK. Friday. 11.30.”
He put down the receiver. “Good.” He smirked. “They won’t have it all their own way.”
Ajay was completely flummoxed. What on earth could be going on? How come Martin was allowed to dictate so much to the head of department? That wouldn’t have happened at the accountancy firm. He was torn. He really wanted to find out what Martin was accused of now, but he didn’t want to appear too nosy. Also, maybe it was really personal, in which case it would be better for him not to know. Maybe he’d just finish off his teaching portfolio entry instead. He’d probably soon find out what it was all about. He started typing.
Down in the basement, Bob picked up the phone.
“Really? Petition? Well, I don’t know. Can you tell me a bit more about it?”
“Mmm. Well, send it over. See you.”
Bob put down the receiver. Sheila looked quizzically at him.
“Have you ever met Martin, my old office-mate?”
Sheila shook her head. “Don’t think so.”
“Well, he’s quite active in the union. And he’s just been elected staff rep on Academic Board.”
“That doesn’t explain a petition.”
“No. Quite. Let me go back a bit. About six years ago, actually, not long after I got here, Martin got into a bit of trouble.”
“With the management?”
“No. The police.”
Sheila raised her eyebrows.
“It wasn’t anything really bad. It was basically a domestic incident. Not that I think there’s anything trivial about those, of course,” he added, hastily, seeing Sheila’s eyebrows rising further. “His girlfriend dumped him. Martin found out she’d got another bloke, and he went over to her flat when she wasn’t in, and cut up all her clothes.”
Sheila looked as though she couldn’t decide whether to smirk or look disapproving.
“She realised it was him, called the police in, he got done for criminal damage. Community service sentence. The University tried to discipline him, but he managed to argue it was nothing to do with his work, so nothing came of it.”
“I suppose… not very good for the University’s reputation, though.”
“Well, no, but it soon blew over. The World Cup was on at the time, it was the summer, no students complained about him. Well, not about that, anyway. His modules don’t get very good ratings, but they don’t seem to be able to do anything about that, either.” Bob realised that he might sound a bit catty. “He’s a nice bloke, really.”
“Hmm. We can’t run an organisation based on people being nice.”
“Maybe not. But it doesn’t hurt if they are. Anyhow. Somehow, it’s all being dragged up again. ‘Violent lecturer elected to key decision-making body in University.’ It doesn’t sound good, does it?”
“Hmm. You weren’t thinking of involving him in the University College of North Burston?”
Bob flinched. “Certainly not. He’s nice, but he’s not the kind of teacher I had in mind.”
“We should be OK, then. At least we aren’t using the Burston Central name. I might just check with Bill what his damage limitation strategy is.” Sheila jotted something in her notebook. “Oh, and, Bob. Unless you really feel strongly about it, I think it would be best to keep out of it.” She looked at him.
Bob looked quizzically at her. “ Are you ordering me not to exercise my democratic rights, boss? I can just see the Union press release now ‘UCNB CEO rides roughshod over academic freedoms.”
Sheila laughed. “No, just giving you some advice. As I said, if you feel strongly…”
“Good advice. I think it will probably blow over again. It’s hardly edifying for anyone. It’s got to be a spent conviction by now, surely?”
“That’s five years, so it should be fine. But if he’s carried on working for the University all that time, then they can’t really bring it up again now anyway. They can’t do anything about the election, either, unless he misrepresented himself in some way. You’re right, it should blow over.”
They both went back to work.
Upstairs, Martin seemed to be doing his best to make sure that it didn’t all blow over.
All characters appearing in these works are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise.
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.