Damage Limitation

Justin Marks may have unwittingly publicised his university’s involvement with ‘The Blob’. He is waiting for the VC’s rage to descend upon him.


Justin picked up the phone and dialled his PA’s number. He heard it ringing in the next office, but she didn’t answer. His lip curled. Nobody there. Just when he needed help. He scribbled a note on a Post-it and walked to the door. He usually left it open, to encourage staff to come to him with interesting stories and so on. That had never happened, but he felt it was an important signal of his approachability.

He put his head gingerly out into the corridor and looked each way. No sign of anyone. He scurried out of his own office and into Paula’s. The door was unlocked; she couldn’t be far away. Probably at the multi-function device. He stuck the Post-it onto her keyboard and returned to his office as discreetly as he could. He shut the door firmly behind him, and quietly turned the lock.

He managed to pull the offending story from the University website. Luckily, his daily email digest didn’t go out till midday – carefully timed for people to enjoy over lunch – so he was able to edit it, although it looked a bit thin today without his star story. He checked that his phone was diverted to Paula’s. There wasn’t anything else he could do. He sat chewing his nails and Googling ‘constructive dismissal’ on his phone. Not using the University wi-fi, though.

The long morning wore on. Justin jumped every time the phone rang in his PA’s office, next to him, but his own phone stayed silent. At around 11.30, the phone rang again, and he heard Paula get up and walk round to his door. He froze. She knocked twice, then tried the door handle. She went back to her office, said something, and put the phone down.  He tried to remember whether she had a key to his office. Probably not. But maybe.

The panic he’d felt when she came to the door had shaken him. It would look ridiculous if he was found skulking in a locked office. It was only a job. And he was bursting for the loo. How could he get out of there with dignity? If he could hear Paula, she could hear him. He’d have to wait till she went somewhere, and then pretend to come back in while she was out. He smiled. Problem solved. He crossed his legs and opened up an important looking document on his computer. Just in case she did have a key.

He sat listening. Surely Paula would need to go to the loo at some point? Time dragged. He wished he hadn’t thought about the loo. He tried to think about something else. Not The Blob, though. He never wanted to hear from the Department of Education again. He wondered if they all wore sandals and socks.

Eventually, he heard Paula’s chair being moved back and she walked across the room. She came out into the corridor, knocked again at his door, then continued down the corridor in the direction of the Ladies loo. He thanked God, or the architect, for having placed the Ladies and the Gents loos at opposite ends of the buildings, however inconvenient it actually was when one found oneself at the wrong end. He crept up to the door, unlocked it, and opened it very cautiously. He looked to the right. Paula was just disappearing out of sight. Phew. He hurried out of his office without looking to the left.

His way was barred.

“Justin! Found you at last!”

Justin’s heart sank.

“Thought I’d better come down here myself,” continued the Vice Chancellor, “as you seem to be rather elusive this morning.”

The jovial tone of the earlier meeting was gone, replaced by a steely threat.

Justin summoned up all of his courage. “Um. Just on my way to answer a call of nature, Vice Chancellor. Sorry, did you want to speak to me urgently?”

“I did. I think we have a very serious problem on our hands, Justin.”

“Could I just, er, pop to the loo, Vice Chancellor? So I can concentrate properly? Haha.”

Calculating that the VC couldn’t possibly deny this request, he ducked past Bill and sped off down the corridor as fast as he could manage without actually running.

“Shouldn’t leave it till the last minute, young man!” boomed the VC’s voice. “I’ll wait in your office.”

Justin waved an arm behind him without looking back.

Once inside the Gents, he leaned against the wall and tried to stop himself shaking. “Deep breaths.” he said to himself. “It’s only a job. He TOLD you to make maximum press use of any research. He TOLD you not to go checking everything with him, that you were paid enough to make decisions on your own. Nobody’s died.”

That thought sobered him up. Maybe someone had died. He hoped not. That was one of the worst parts of his job, actually, co-ordinating response when a student or a member of staff had, um, departed unexpectedly.  In fact, he reminded himself, Bill couldn’t possibly know about The Blob unless he’d read a newspaper online, the chances of which were vanishingly small, according to his reasoning of only two hours previously.

Still trembling, he unzipped and stood in front of the urinal. He couldn’t help flinching in anticipation of Bill bursting through the door to see why he was taking so long.

The door did open, but in a normal way. It was just one of the guys from the marketing office. Justin nodded at him and zipped up. Hopefully the VC wouldn’t stay long, and he’d be able to come back.

He hurried back down the corridor, still desperate to pee, and now worried about what documents the VC might find on his logged-in computer. By the time he got back to the office, he was trembling again. He stopped outside the door and took a deep breath, then forced a big smile. “Vice Chancellor. Sorry about that, got waylaid.”

Bill was not sitting, as Justin had feared, behind the desk, but in one of the visitor’s chairs. To Justin’s surprise, he didn’t look angry. In fact, he looked almost worried.

“Right, Justin, I’ll get straight to the point. We’ve got a big problem.”

“If it’s about the Blob, Vice Chancellor…”

Bill looked at him as though he was mad. “The Blob? What the hell are you on about?” Justin felt his shoulders slump in relief. Clearly the VC had forgotten his earlier amusement about other universities having Marxist educators.

“I’ve had an email from the Times Higher. It’s their annual VC salary humiliation this week, and they want to know why my salary is one of the five highest. I need a good answer.”

Justin wasn’t sure what to say. He plumped for the obsequious. “I’m sure you’re worth every penny, Vice Chancellor.”

Bill looked at him scathingly. “I’m sure that’s not in dispute within the university, young man. But I need a well crafted response.  Here’s what they sent me.” He passed over the printout of an email from Jack Grove. Justin skimmed over it, wincing slightly. ‘…Burston Central in the bottom five of the THES ratings… doesn’t your performance actually merit being the bottom five for pay…why did you get a bonus last year…how could your 20% increase in pension contributions be explained…twice the pay of the Prime Minister…’

Justin gave a big sigh, partly of relief. Barraclough was never going to see the light of day. His brain switched to information management mode. He looked up. “OK, Vice Chancellor. Now, obviously I’m not party to the Governors’ decision-making on pay, but we could do with one or two quotes from their committee minutes to explain their thinking on your value. Also, the whole Prime Minister comparison is spurious  – for one you aren’t a politician responsible to voters, haha, and for another, this isn’t technically a public body. So we can dismiss that. Do I have your permission to see the relevant minutes of the Remuneration Committee?”

Bill nodded. He actually looked quite worried. Justin tried to stop himself grinning. That wasn’t appropriate.

“OK, leave it with me.” He leaned forward over his desk, trying to look reassuring. Should he pat the VC on the arm? Maybe not.

Bill still sat there.

Justin stood up. “I’ll get on to it right away, Vice Chancellor.” He went and opened the door.

Bill took the hint.

As soon as he had gone, Justin sprinted back to the loos. Now that the imminent danger posed by his apparent support of The Blob has passed, he felt a lot better. In fact, he could see some definite possibilities in this situation.

On his way back, he put his head round Paula’s door. “There you are, Justin, where…”

He interrupted her before she could lecture him on the morning’s apparent absence. “Urgent job, Paula. Phone the clerk to the governors and ask her for the minutes of the remuneration committee for the last, er, four years. Tell her Bill said it was ok.”

Paula stared at him. They never had urgent jobs in Campus Communications.

“Is that a problem, Paula?”

“Oh, no. Of course not. I was just…” she tailed off. “I’ll get right on to it.”

Justin went back to his office. What a difference a couple of hours could make. He was sure ‘Campus Communications’ needed a Director, rather than a mere Head, and this was going to prove it.


Wading Through Treacle fictionalises the stuff in HE which you couldn’t make up. You can 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 Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email, too: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

All characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, unless it says otherwise.

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One thought on “Damage Limitation

  1. Pingback: An aside… | Wading through Treacle

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