What’s it all for?

Should you be unlucky enough still to be stuck in your office for the rest of the week, here’s part one of a three part special, focusing on poor old Geoff.


It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve. Burston had been shrouded in grey gloom all day. One or two office windows were lit in the tower block at Burston Central University, but it was almost completely dark. A few stray pieces of tinsel in some of the admin offices occasionally caught the light from passing cars on the overpass, and occasionally a corridor light came on for a brief period, presumably as an occupant sprinted to the toilet, or to the lift. Apart from these sporadic interludes, the building looked as though it had been long deserted, perhaps as a prelude to demolition.

Up on the tenth floor, Geoff paced the floor of his unlit office. His office was quite small. Four small paces were enough to take him from one end to the other. Twelve paces made a little circuit round the desk, if he made a little shimmy to squeeze through the gap between the filing cabinet and the desk. From time to time he paused to sip from his glass. There was really nothing important for him to finish off. He could easily have gone home, knew that he should have gone home, but he couldn’t quite face it. Carol would be at fever pitch with arrangements for cooking Christmas dinner. He checked his watch. According to Delia, it was now T-23 hours, and she should probably be stuffing the turkey by now, or something. He wondered how she was managing to do that and keep an eye on her father, who had arrived a week earlier and had been roaming restlessly around the house looking for DIY jobs. As he had done for the last thirty years, he had been making it clear that he didn’t think much of Geoff’s skills in that area. If anything, age was loosening his inhibitions. Geoff thought that Carol should defend him a bit more, rather than nodding when her father made a comment about standards slipping since his day. She said that he was just an old man, and she was just humouring him, but Geoff was starting to think that she secretly agreed.

Even if he did go home, he wouldn’t be able to slump in front of the TV as he usually did, because his father-in-law had taken possession of the remote control. He had chosen the ‘Gold’ channel and spent hours every day watching seventies’ sitcoms of dubious political correctness.

So Geoff had come unnecessarily into work instead, pleading the cares of a Head of Department. But there was nobody around. No emails to answer. No decisions which couldn’t wait until January. Instead he was pacing the floor of the office, thinking about his job and the way it was going.  He paused for another sip of whisky. He looked around the office. It was horrible. OK, it was a corner office, so it had two sets of windows, which would have made it light, if Burston were not usually shrouded in cloud. It was north-facing, so he was spared the gentle cooking effect experienced by those on the other side of the building on the rare occasions the sun emerged.  He supposed that was a good point. On the whole, though, it was gloomy, and it really was horrid. The cheap padded plastic chairs, which were meant to create a less formal space for chats with his team were ugly. The desk and filing cabinet were crammed in, and neither was big enough for him, so there were papers and folders always piled up waiting for something else to be removed to make space for them. Every now and then a pile toppled over, and he had to spend ages trying to make sense of it all again.

When he’d been an undergraduate, even a postgrad, Heads of Department had had secretaries to come and magic papers away. Their offices were spacious, yet cosy. Usually on the ground floor in some listed building, with a fireplace. Maybe a rug in front of the fire. Maybe someone to come in and light the fire, too. There would have been proper wooden bookcases, sofas for guests, and probably a drinks cabinet for sherry to offer those guests. Over sherry, he and the guests could have solved a problem or two of biology. Maybe a Nobel prize would have resulted.

No matter that his fantasy office was probably from a CP Snow novel set in an era long before his. He was trapped in this cell, ten floors up, with draughty aluminium window-frames and venetian blinds which didn’t seem to have been cleaned for twenty years.

Geoff was feeling very sorry for himself. He didn’t want to go home. He didn’t want to be Head of Biology. It had been a horrible year. Alison had left. The new joint course leaders didn’t know their proverbials from their elbows, and quality procedures had changed so much, he had absolutely no idea where they were going wrong. Jan had nearly caused utter disaster with the third years, and just before the bloody NSS as well. Not to mention that parent who was a solicitor picking up on the regs cock-up, and then the appalling son trying to bribe him to find more marks.

The University had issued even more incomprehensible edicts than usual. And to cap it all, Chris had nearly got them into the most horrendous Health and Safety trouble by trying to cover up a phage attack in the labs. And had trashed quite a few experiments in the process. If Chris hadn’t redeemed himself by getting the University’s only 3* rating in the REF, that could have been a lot more difficult to sort out.

Oh God, he felt so trapped. What was the point of this job? Of the department? There was nothing to look forward to any more. NSS results never went up. The REF result was crap, no matter how much the marketing department tried to spin it as a success. All of the good students left after a year and went to the University of Burston, unless they were completely lacking in ambition. His staff were a complete shower.

The glass was empty. He walked over to his desk and bent over the bottom drawer, where he kept the bottle. It was stuck – the furniture was all cheap crap. He put the glass down and knelt down on behind the desk so that he could pull at the drawer with both hands.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. Geoff froze. Who the hell could that be? He could have sworn there was nobody in. Lucky he hadn’t put the light on. He stayed put. Putting his head back a little, he could see that the corridor light had come on and he could see two figures through the frosted glass set into the door – it was about the only perk of being a Head of Department, having frosted glass instead of clear glass.

He heard voices, but couldn’t quite catch what they were saying. Then there was a slight rustle, and the figures moved away. He sat back on the floor for a moment. When the corridor lights had gone out again, he resumed his efforts to open the drawer. Inevitably, it came free with a jerk. There was probably a joke lurking there about the parallel with his department, but he felt too gloomy to smile even to himself. He poured another generous measure – he was taking the train home – and kicked the drawer to close it. It stuck open. He kicked it again, this time in irritation. Bugger it.


Parts two and three are here.

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2 thoughts on “What’s it all for?

  1. Pingback: Wading through Treacle

  2. Pingback: Wading through Treacle

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