Seriously, are you still in the office? Even Geoff has managed to leave, even if he’s only got as far as Cheeky’s…
Geoff carried the mugs over to the table. The Chengs had been talking to each other – he presumed in Chinese- while they waited, but they fell abruptly silent as he returned to the table.
“Thank you.” They spoke almost in unison. Both of them looked at the milky beverages.
Geoff wasn’t sure what to say. While he was thinking, he took a sip of his coffee. It was scalding hot. And disgusting. He winced.
“So, as you staying in Burston for long, Mr Cheng?”
“Ah, no, sadly, we’re going to London tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s a pity.” Geoff wondered whether to follow up by asking whether Mr Cheng had had a chance to see much of Burston, but he couldn’t think of anything which Mr Cheng might have liked to visit.
“What will you be doing in London, then?”
Both of the Chengs smiled. “Shopping, museums, concerts.” said the father. “I’ve got tickets for a couple of shows, as well. I like the shows.”
“It’s a pity you weren’t here last week, for the University carol concert.” Geoff despised himself. No, it wasn’t a pity. He hadn’t even bothered attending himself. “Maybe next year.”
Mr Cheng inclined his head politely. “Yes, maybe.”
Cheng junior slurped his tea. Geoff was racking his brains. “So, how’s your first term at Burston Central been, Mr Cheng?”
As soon as the words were out of this mouth, he knew it was a high-risk strategy. He had no idea what was going on with the first years. The chances were, Mr Cheng’s first term had been crap. Or he was just trying to get enough marks to secure a move to Burston University, and hadn’t been anywhere except the library.
Cheng junior beamed. “I love it.”
Geoff didn’t manage to hide his surprise, but Cheng père was looking with pride at his son, and didn’t notice.
“It’s great. The tutors are nice, and they give me help, and the Chinese Society organises lots of things. The only thing I don’t like…” he tailed off. Here it comes, thought Geoff. “…the days are very short. I miss the daylight.”
Geoff stared at the earnest young man. He wondered if he’d misheard. Young Cheng did have a bit of an accent. But he couldn’t think of another word that sounded like ‘daylight’ that he could have mistaken it for. Delight? Possible. Dilate? Not a noun. Deloitte?
The Chengs were looking at him. He went for his first guess. “Oh, the days will be lengthening now. By the time you get back, we’ll be practically in the spring. Burston in the spring. You’ll love it.”
What the actual fuck was he saying? Nobody enjoyed Burston in the spring. It rained all the time. Why the hell was he here, sitting in an appalling little café with two complete strangers, talking complete crap? How had things come to this? He was sure that the other heads of department, the rest of the so-called Burston Resistance Movement, were sitting in a nice pub somewhere together, sinking pints, bantering, enjoying themselves. Definitely enjoying themselves.
Geoff had a moment of clarity. He’d forgotten how to enjoy himself, that was the problem. He needed to have some fun. Take a bit of ‘me-time’. Nobody ever thought about what he wanted to do, did they? His staff were too demanding. They couldn’t do anything without him, and they never wanted to do anything for him. The University Exec had no idea how hard his job was. They put far too much pressure on heads of department. Initiative this. Initiative that. Target-driven. Sort your NSS scores out. Improve retention. Nobody ever told them how they were supposed to do it. And his wife seemed to have given up on him. She didn’t even complain when he said he’d be working late, again. Even the BRM. They’d stitched him up like a kipper with the sit-in. Bastards.
Geoff pressed his lips together. Nobody appreciated him. His eyes misted over.
“Are you ok, Professor Sanders?” Cheng Shan had put a hand on his arm.
Geoff blinked and tried to focus on him. Pull yourself together, Geoff. “Oh. Yes. Sorry. I was just thinking about…” what had he been talking about? Oh, yes. “…spring in Burston. The flowers. The blossom. The new hope.”
Mr Cheng was nodding vigorously. “Oh yes. Spring is marvellous. That’s why we have spring festival, what you call Chinese New Year. In fact, you must visit us for New Year!”
Geoff had recovered. “I’d love to.” OK, he could do this. A bit of chit-chat, then he’d need to get home. He knew he wouldn’t be going to China. But he could pretend.
Mr Cheng was listing the delights of spring in Shanghai. Geoff smiled and nodded, adding the odd encouraging comment. He could definitely do this.
Eventually, Shan tapped his father on the hand and said something in Chinese. Mr Cheng looked behind him. The woman at the counter was noisily tidying up and wiping down the surfaces. Cheng looked at his watch. “Yes, you’re right, Shen. Closing time. We must go.” He looked at Geoff. “We have a dinner reservation, anyway. Would you like to join us, Professor Sanders?”
“I’m terribly sorry, my wife will be expecting me.”
“Of course, we’ve already kept you too long.”
“No, no, it’s been a pleasure. Lovely to meet you.” Geoff was already calculating the chances of getting to the station for the next train home. Slim, but if he got a wiggle on…Mr Cheng was holding out a business card. “Thank you. Er, I don’t have one on me, but…”
“No problem, Professor Sanders. I know where to find you.” Mr Cheng winked at him.
Geoff wasn’t sure how to respond to this. Mr Cheng continued. “I’ll get my personal assistant to contact you about the visit.”
Geoff put out his right hand. “Marvellous. Marvellous. That would be marvellous.”
“And I’m thinking about making a donation to the department. We can talk about that when you come to Shanghai.”
“Marvellous. Lovely idea.”
“A new lab, maybe? Anyway, think about what might be useful.”
Geoff was still shaking Mr Cheng’s hand. He was struggling to process what was being said, again. New lab? He must have misheard. But no obvious alternative presented itself. New lamb? New lav? He let go.
“That sounds very generous.”
Mr Cheng waved his hand. “If Shen is happy, I’m happy.”
They all gathered up their coats and bags. Shen took the mugs over to the counter. He beamed at the woman. The corners of her mouth twitched up slightly. Pouring the contents of the mugs in the sink, she complained. “Summat wrong with the tea?”
“Oh, no. We were just distracted. It was lovely.” Shen smiled again. “I’ll come again.”
The woman shrugged.
Outside Cheeky’s, Geoff stuck out his hand again. “Lovely to meet you, Me Cheng.” he said, again. “Have a lovely evening, and enjoy London.”
Geoff stood for a moment outside Cheeky’s, wondering if he’d imagined the whole encounter. But if it were real, what a coup! Were donations REFfable? This could really give him some kudos.He grinned to himself.
The Chengs were about fifty yards away when he realised that he needed to go in the same direction as the Chengs to get to the station. He’d have to go a very long way round not to bump into them again. Bugger.
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 a cheesy novella about sessional staff, see The Unknown Tutor.
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