Geoff looked around him carefully. No, nobody he recognised. Phew.
At the bar, he ordered a pint. “Dr Sanders!” said the girl behind the bar.
Not girl. Woman. Geoff corrected his thoughts, “Er. Yes. Er. Have we had the pleasure?”
“Oh, you won’t remember me.” She smiled at him. “I know how many people you see every day. I’m a second year in Biology. You came and talked to us at induction last year. Telling us all about the course, and all the important research in the department.”
Geoff smiled vaguely. “Of course. How are your studies going?”
“Oops, I’ll need to watch what I say, won’t I? Fine, thank you.” She giggled. “That’ll be three pounds sixty, please, Dr Sanders.”
Three sixty? Bloody hell, this place was expensive. Although he supposed he hadn’t been out for a while. Maybe that was how much a pint cost, these days.
He handed over a fiver. “Keep the change.”
“Are you sure? Thanks, Dr Sanders.” The woman beamed at him and turned to the till.
Geoff took a sip of his pint. He turned from the bar and scanned the room. Still nobody he knew, apart from the bar-maid, bar-person, whatever they were called nowadays. Damn. It was a pity she’d recognised him, but she probably wouldn’t recognise the others, so it would be ok. He started off towards a large table in the far corner which looked big enough for the group.
He settled himself so that he had a view of the room. God, it was pretty rank in here. He could be sitting at home on his nice, comfy sofa, enjoying the last few days of peace before his father-in-law arrived for Christmas. Why did people come out to pubs?
He tried not to think about the VC’s restructuring plans. He’d been there for years, surely he’d get a good payoff? He tried to tell himself that he didn’t really care either way. His department wasn’t being singled out, after all. Everybody was being thrown into the blender. Or cast into the corner. Or something.
He was half-way down the pint before the others arrived, in two clumps of three. The first group looked as morose as him, subdued, as though they hadn’t been talking to one another on the way over. Perhaps they’d just met at the door. Like him, they scanned the bar furtively, as though hoping not to see anyone they recognised. They each nodded as Geoff as they looked round the room, then ordered separately and in silence. As they made their way over to Geoff’s table, the second group came in. In contrast, they were boisterous, chatting loudly, and clearly making the bar-woman blush. One of them turned to the room as the orders were being placed. Catching Geoff’s eye, he mimed a glass being raised. Geoff’s pint seemed to have disappeared. He lifted the empty glass, and nodded. His colleague said something to the bar-maid, who looked over at Geoff, then pointed to one of the pumps. Geoff shuffled in his seat. So much for going incognito for this meeting.
Finally, all seven of them were seated round the table. Geoff decided to go easy on this second pint. God knows, he wasn’t really used to drinking beer. He could already feel an uncomfortable pressure in his bladder, and he was completely hemmed in. He took a sip, anyway.
A few pleasantries were exchanged, but gradually the group fell silent, and eyes turned to Julian, who appeared oblivious to the attention. He seemed to be downing his pint in one. The others watched as he drained the glass and slowly tipped his head back forward, opening his eyes and smiling broadly at his audience. “Good to see you all. Seven heads together, we don’t do it often enough. Great beer they have here. I needed that. Right, just let me get another one, then we’ll get started, shall we?” He managed to imply that the others were keeping him waiting. “Anyone for a top up?”
There was a collective shaking of heads.
They all watched as he crossed to the bar, striding between the tables and plonking his empty glass down forcefully on the sodden bar towels. He seemed to be keeping up a stream of banter as the person tending the bar was pulling his pint. When he looked back at their table, bending conspiratorially towards her and whispering, they all looked away hurriedly. The silence while they were all watching Julian became awkward as they looked at each other, searching for appropriate small talk. From the bar, they could hear hearty laughter.
Silence reigned at the table until Julian’s return.
Julian’s chair was exactly as he’d left it, set slightly away from the table, but he lifted it up and moved it slightly further away, before sitting down heavily, feet apart, and putting his pint down forcefully. He rubbed his hands. “Right, let’s get started, then.”
He looked around the table at his silent colleagues. “Cats got your tongues?” He grinned. “Never known you all be so quiet. Bet you’re wondering why I’ve set this meeting up.”
There were a couple of nods.
“Something to do with the restructure?” ventured Ramsi.
“Exactly.” Julian lowered his voice. “I hope I can trust all of you?”
Vigorous nods. Maybe Julian had some extra gossip.
“Are you all agreed that this restructure is ridiculous?” Nods which were almost enthusiastic; one guy – Geoff thought he might be the head of philosophy – even murmured ‘hear, hear’.
The seven of them were leaning perceptibly towards Julian now. He continued. “I think we need to organise a resistance movement.”
Geoff wasn’t sure that he’d heard properly. Julian was on the other side of the table from him, and he was practically whispering. He couldn’t have said that, it wasn’t a … “You know, like in the war, in France.” Julian added. “We need to look at this VC and the chair of Council as enemy invaders. They’re occupying our space. They’re going against everything we stand for in a university. They’re reducing scholarly activity to a market transaction. They’re undermining our values. We need to organise, brothers!” Julian had straightened gradually, and his speech had increased in volume, so that by the end of this call to arms he was sitting straight up, projecting his voice to the wall behind Geoff’s head. In response, the group had also moved away from their huddled positions, so that they too were sitting straight-backed, listening intently to their leader.
Julian glanced behind him to make sure that his last words hadn’t attracted attention. He lowered his voice again. “Are you with me?”
Ramsi shook his head slightly. “With you in what way?”
Julian waved his arm vaguely in the direction of the university. “Well, you know, with me, against the restructure.”
Ramsi shook his head more vigorously. “Do you have something concrete in mind? I’m sure we all agree it’s a bad idea, but what do you think we should do?”
Julian looked briefly at a loss. “Well, here we all are, seven representative members of senior staff, heads of department, I don’t want to dictate things to you, we need to make some democratic decisions.”
Harry stepped in. “We could think about what the Maquis did in the war?”
Ramsi looked at him. “Which war?”
“The second. Second world war. Sorry. Cultural assumptions. Anyway,” Harry sped on, “they tried to undermine the occupation, the German occupation, by trying to disrupt normal life. Blowing up railway lines, stealing jeeps, that sort of thing.”
Julian was nodding. “That’s it. We can’t be seen to be deliberately working against the Executive. Then we’d all lose our jobs, and that would be counter-productive, wouldn’t it? Our staff need us.”
Geoff wasn’t sure what to say. What the hell? What the? What?
He wasn’t very strong on history, but he wasn’t sure what the French Resistance had achieved. Hadn’t it needed D-Day to finish the war in France? And what did maquis mean?
There was a long silence. To cover it, everyone lifted their glasses and took a sip. It wasn’t a toast, but Julian gestured slightly with his glass. “To resistance.”
The others fixed their gazes on the table. Geoff was dying to go to the loo. How long before he could get away?
To be continued….