Academic emergency

Geoff has arranged to meet Alison early in the morning to work out what’s happened in the Foundations of Biology course.


On Saturday morning, Alison and Emma left the house at nine-fifteen. Emma was only wearing one shoe, and was pulling a hoody over her head as she hopped towards the car.

“For God’s sake, Emma. I told you we were leaving early this morning.”

“I can’t help it if you mess up my routine. It’s all right for you, you’re going to be in a nice warm car. I’m going to be hanging around outside the gym. What am I supposed to do for fifteen minutes?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Emma. The gym will be open by the time we get there. You’ve got your phone, haven’t you? You can go on Facebook and complain about how unfair everything is.”

“Facebook? God, Mum, you have no idea.” Distracted by Alison’s untrendiness, Emma stopped complaining and took out the phone. She started tapping rapidly. Alison sighed. Emma was still typing when they pulled up outside the gym.

“OK. See you later.”

Emma looked up. There was nobody else in sight. “Mum, can’t you just wait a minute? It’s cold outside.”

“You’ll soon warm up when you start playing. Come on, I’ve got to get to work.”

Emma opened the car door, grumbling. “It’s always work first, isn’t it?”

Alison winced. “No, not always. But you’re going to play volleyball. Would you rather I stayed and watched?”

Emma recoiled. “No way. Only saddos’ parents stay for training.”

Her mother briefly contemplated a short lecture on inclusivity, but she really did need to go. “Well, there you are then. It’s a win-win for both of us. Have you got enough money for the bus?”

“Not sure. Only if I don’t get a drink afterwards.” Emma looked devastated at this idea. Alison sighed and scrabbled some coins out of the parking kitty, kept in the cup-holder between the seats. “Here you go. Text me when you get home. See you later.”

Just then, another car pulled up. Emma took the money and jumped out. She slammed the door and ran off to meet the other girl.

“See you later.” repeated Alison to herself, as she pulled off.

It was about ten past ten when she got to the University, and Geoff was jumping up and down outside the main building.

“About time, too. It’s freezing out here.”

“Geoff. I do have other commitments.”

“I did tell you this was an emergency. It’s not long until the exam boards. We’ll have to sort this out.”

They went round to the side of the building and rang the bell by the security door. The intercom crackled. “Yes?”

Geoff pressed the button marked ‘Talk’. “Professor ?? I emailed you last night to say I was coming in.” He let go of the button.

“Did you? I haven’t checked the email this morning. Too busy.”

There was a pause. Geoff pressed the button again. “Well, I did. And now I’m here. Got an emergency to deal with.”

“Emergency? Have you notified the police?”

“Not that kind of emergency. An academic emergency.”

An odd noise could be heard through the intercom. It was crackly, but it sounded remarkably like sniggering.

Eventually, the noise subsided and the door opened. A uniformed man stood in front of them. “An academic emergency. That’s a good one. Can I see your IDs?”

They both smiled politely and fished in their respective bags for lanyards. Flashing the badges in front of the guard, they started to head for the main atrium. “Hang on a minute. I need to make a note. Let’s see those cards.” He took their IDs and went back towards his small office.

Geoff and Alison stood silently in the small corridor. After a while, the guard returned, handed them the badges and said cheerfully “Pop in for a brew later if you like. The coffee shop isn’t open on Saturdays. And it gets a bit quiet around here. Always happy for a chat.”

Alison smiled at him politely and followed Geoff, who’d set off at a good pace without waiting for the end of the sentence. She felt almost sorry for the guard. Burston Central on a Bank Holiday weekend was a pretty dispiriting place to be. Especially when you were stuck there with Geoff, dealing with a ‘marking emergency’.

They continued in silence up to Geoff’s office. Once inside, Geoff unplugged the kettle and passed it to her. “Do you want to fill this, while I boot up the computer?”

Alison accepted the kettle. She stood for a moment looking at Geoff as he bustled round the desk and switched on the computer. Then she shrugged and went down the corridor to the Ladies. He probably didn’t mean anything by it. Thank God she was leaving.

When she got back to the office, Geoff was sitting at his desk staring at the opposite wall. She plugged in the kettle. “Got any clean mugs, Geoff?”

Geoff looked vaguely around the room. “Mugs?”

“Never mind.” Alison could see that there was a small collection of dirty mugs lined up on the very edge of Geoff’s large and overflowing desk. She collected up as many as she could and went off to the loos again. She was pretty sure Geoff wouldn’t have any washing-up liquid or cloths. She dumped the mugs and then went back to her own office to find a clean sponge. It would be a lot easier to have proper washing-up facilities. Not to mention more hygienic.

When she finally got back to Geoff’s office with her collection of clean mugs, Geoff was still staring at the wall. Alison wondered if he’d actually had some kind of seizure.

“Everything all right, Geoff?” She clattered the mugs down on the coffee table next to the kettle.

“What? Yes. Of course. Still waiting for this damn thing to boot up. Takes longer every day.” He looked at the screen. “Oh. OK. Here it is.”

“Tea or coffee?”

“What?” Geoff didn’t look up from the screen.

“Tea, or coffee?” Alison spoke with exaggerated slowness, as though to a non-native speaker.

Geoff didn’t seem to notice. “Oh. Um. Coffee. White, no sugar.”

“Have you got any milk?”

“Milk?”

“Yes, Geoff. Milk. To make the coffee white?”

“Oh. No.”

“Black coffee, then?”

Geoff looked up. “I suppose so.”

Alison inhaled deeply. “Here you are, then.”

She passed him a mug, and rescued her own tea bag. Black tea. Bleurgh.

She pulled a chair round to Geoff’s side of the desk. “OK. Let’s have a look at it.”

Geoff had just managed to get the student record system up on the screen. He scrabbled through the papers on his desk to try to find out where he’d written down the module code the previous day.

“Shit. I’ve got it here somewhere.”

“Foundations of Biology? 53926. Underscore, 12.”

Geoff raised his eyebrow, but said nothing. He typed it in.

A long list of student names and grades came up.

“Right. Now look what happens when I sort them by grade.” Geoff clicked at the top of one of the columns. “See? That’s what I put into Excel and sent you last night.”

“Yes. Well. I agree. It doesn’t look right.”

Geoff snorted. “Slight understatement.”

“There might be a good reason, Geoff.” Alison had no idea what that could possibly be. She extemporised. “It could have been an odd multiple choice test, or some marking criteria which, er, were narrow in the middle, or something.”

Geoff stared at her. “Narrow in the middle? What the hell does that mean?”

“Look, I don’t know.” Alison snapped at him. “We’ll have to look at, er, the assignment brief, and, er, a sample of the work.” She sighed. This was going to take ages.


Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. 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. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.

Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: wadingtreacle@gmail.com.

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