Sheila and Bob were in Cheeky’s. They’d picked a table in the corner where they could both see the whole room, and had both chosen ‘soup of the day’ with a plain roll. They were both feeling a little awkward. Last night, they’d been allies against the forces of madness. This afternoon, they couldn’t help but remember that they hardly knew each other.
“So, how’s Lilian this morning?” Bob asked.
Good choice of topic. Sheila sniggered. “She’s phoned in sick.”
They both giggled, remembering Lilian’s meltdown.
“Still, it was a bit of a shock to find out that you’re a cat-murderer.” Bob sounded serious, but he was grinning. “You don’t look the type at all. Who’d have thought it?”
Sheila blushed. “Actually, I’m not. Gareth was back in the garden this morning.” She smiled ruefully, “I hate to admit it, but it was almost good to see him. I didn’t even chase him out. He can’t do much harm at this time of year.”
“That’s a relief.” Bob kept up the light-hearted tone. “I’d hate to be associated with a killer.” He went pink. “Professionally, that is.”
His face got redder. “er. That is, I don’t mean that I wouldn’t like any other kind of association….” He trailed off in confusion.
Sheila smiled and put her hand on his arm. “It’s alright. I knew what you meant. Now, speaking of professional association, how did you get on with Alan?”
Bob appreciated the change of subject. “Pretty well, I think. He seemed impressed by the projections, and the risk assessments. I told him he’d need to get an executive team in place quickly to keep a separation between the College and the University, so that HEFCE didn’t start asking awkward questions. And I emphasised the need for good governance structures, and suggested he employ a good corporate lawyer. I may have mentioned some of the dire consequences I’ve seen where companies have short-cut in that area. He was looking a bit pale. Hope I didn’t put him off the whole idea completely.”
Sheila smiled. “Not him – he’s far too scared of the VC to back out now. I’d say it was perfectly pitched. By the time I went to see him, he was going through the Yellow Pages looking for a firm of solicitors.” She giggled. “As if you’re going to find that kind of expertise in a phone book! It’s strictly word of mouth for the kind of work he needs.”
Sheila continue. “Anyway, he was perfectly primed for me to give him my plans with the proposed governance structures, arms-length connection to the university and HR structure. He looked almost as pleased as if the National Student Survey results had suddenly gone up.”
They both giggled at the thought of that unlikely occurrence.
“I told Alan that he needed a good Chief Exec and Chief Operating Officer in post straight away, and that they could be seconded to the new company for a limited period without going through normal University HR processes, as the company will be in the private sector and wouldn’t be subject to the same rules.” Bob said. “That’s right, isn’t it?” he added anxiously.
“Yes. No need to advertise openly. The UCNB will have new HR policies of its own. Of course, Burston Central will need to check the policies as part of its due diligence when accrediting the College’s courses, but that won’t affect people already in post. Plus the oversight will more be aimed at the policies for recruitment of teaching staff: how we know they’re competent, etc. Not so much at the appointment of the senior management team.”
Bob said “He asked me if I’d be interested in being Chief Exec.”
Sheila looked at him “and you said….?”
“I said no, I thought he needed someone with legal training for that. I was more qualified for the Chief Operating Officer role, if he was offering.”
They smiled at each other.
“Sounds as though we’ve given him plenty to think about.” Sheila mopped out the last of her soup with a piece of bread. “Has he asked you in to see the VC?”
“Yes. 10.30 tomorrow.”
“Interesting, Me too. I’ll look forward to meeting you!”
They smiled at each other again.
“I’d better get back to the office,” Bob said “I’ve got behind with my marking, with all of this extra excitement.”
“Yes, me too” said Sheila. “My students are getting worried about their beer pipes.”
Bob was puzzled, but decided not to ask what she was talking about. He wasn’t usually too keen on cryptic academic comments but in Sheila’s case, they often sounded quite good fun just as they were. Beer pipes? Law?
“Do you think it would be a good idea to meet up after work just to go over the plans again?” Sheila was asking. “We need to be pretty slick tomorrow, and we aren’t supposed to have seen each other’s plans, are we?”
Bob nodded. “Good idea. Um. Perhaps you’d like to come over to my place?” He hardly blushed at all as he made the offer. He was going to have to mark student work all weekend, but what the heck. Live a little!
D I Bones was singing. True, he was on a rather unpleasant mission, and perhaps singing wasn’t the most appropriate response, but on the other hand, it was a road trip. Four hours there, four hours back. On his own in the car. That called for some singing. He’d run through a few rock favourites by way of a warm-up. Perhaps he shouldn’t have wound down the window for the final chorus of ‘Bat out of Hell’ at those traffic lights. That poor old dear with the shopping trolley had got a bit of a fright. Lucky the car was unmarked. He didn’t need a reminder from the DCI about bringing Burston Met into disrepute with other forces. Now he was onto the power ballads. ‘Never mind, I’ll find, someone li-i-ike you,’ he yelled at the top of his voice. Pity Sandra hadn’t called him back yet.
He rolled into Prestatyn as ‘Bad Romance’ faded out. He switched off the car stereo and pulled over to fiddle with the GPS. He’d not had it plugged in on the way as he’d forgotten the charging cable. He entered the details for Beechacres Nursing Home. Damn. It was on the outskirts of town, on the road he’d come in on. He looked in the mirror and did an illegal U-turn. He wondered with interest if his standards were slipping in general, or if it was just this weird case.
Beechacres really was, surprisingly, an old house next to a beech copse, just as the name suggested. He’d been expecting a soulless council residential home with some wizened bushes in the car park. The beeches still had dried leaves clinging to them and the volume of the rustling sound they made was very noticeable as he got out and locked his car. He thought it was a bit eerie. Perhaps soulless, sound-insulated buildings were more appropriate after all?
There was an imposing front door. D I Bones rang the bell, ignoring the notice outside about acceptable visiting hours, and took out his warrant card.
He knew it would take a while for someone to come to the door. To be fair, they were probably busy doing whatever they needed to do outside visiting hours, but even if they weren’t, he was well aware that there were penalties for people who rang the bell when they weren’t supposed to. After several minutes, he rang the bell again. This time he heard footsteps after only a minute or so, and then some huffing and puffing as various bolts and locks were undone. He held up the warrant card.
“It’s not visit….” began the woman in nurse’s uniform who opened the door. She broke off as she saw the card. “Oh.”
“D I Bones. Burston Metropolitan Police. I’ve got an appointment with Matron Price.”
“Burston? This is Prestatyn. I don’t think any of our residents could have got up to anything that far away.” The nurse giggled. “What’s it about?”
“Is Matron Price here, Mrs, er..?” D I Bones was brisk. “I’m afraid it’s a confidential matter.”
“Oh.” the woman sounded disappointed. “Um. Yes. Please come this way.”
She motioned him to come in and then closed and locked the door. “Some of our residents like to wander.”
D I Bones didn’t take any notice. They continued across the entrance hall in silence. She stopped outside a door marked ‘Reception’ and leaned into the room. “D I Bones from Burston,Matron. Says he’s got an appointment.”
She nodded in response to whatever was said, then straightened up. “Here’s Matron, D I Bones. Bye now.”
D I Bones nodded at her and went into the office. She set off very slowly back across the hall.
Matron Price got up and shut the door of the office. She put out her hand to D I Bones. “Judith Price.”
They shook hands. “You said it was something to do with Mrs Jones’s son Gareth?”
“Yes. I was wondering if you know him at all?”
“Well, not very well, but I know who he is, of course. He comes most weekends to see her, but he hasn’t been for a few weeks. I was wondering where he’d got to, but, to be honest, I didn’t think too much about it. Mrs Jones didn’t really recognise him any more, and I know he was busy with his science. I was surprised he came as often as he did. Is something wrong? Is he in trouble with the police?”
D I Bones took out the photo of Gareth which the pathologist had done for him. “Is this him?”
“Looks like him. Oh dear. This is a PM photo, isn’t it?”
D I Bones nodded. “We’ve been struggling to get a positive identification. One of Gareth’s friends agreed it was him in the photo, but she didn’t seem to know him that well, so I was hoping to find someone who knew him better. Plus we needed to trace the next of kin. Sounds as though we might have finally managed it.”
“Well, possibly. But Mrs Jones isn’t in a position to identify him. Or be informed, really. She won’t understand. Probably just as well. What happened to him?”
D I Bones sighed. “we don’t really know yet. He was found in the woods. There’s no obvious cause of death.”
Matron Price took pity on him. “Maybe we can help a bit. Let’s have a cup of coffee and we can have a look through Mrs Jones’ records. She’s from round here. We should have her family doctor’s details, although we do use our own doctor for the home.”
D I Bones was in the car, and he was singing again. This time it was more about trying to cheer himself up. It looked as though he would be able to close the case, but the story was very dismal. The Jones’s family doctor had looked after Gareth since he was born. Gareth had never had any particular health problems, but his father had died suddenly at the age of forty-six, when Gareth was only two. The cause of death had been given as heart failure, but nothing had really shown up at the PM – some kind of heart condition had been an assumption. So although Gareth was much younger, it was possible that something similar had happened to him. The GP had mentioned Sudden Adult Death Syndrome – SADS – which explained Dr Choudhari’s cryptic note. The GP had also said that Mrs Jones had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s the year after Gareth had left home to go to University, and was now in need of full-time care.
The family doctor had offered to come and identify the body on Saturday, which was really very good of him. Matron Price would sort out a power of attorney for Mrs Jones and ask that person to organise Gareth’s funeral and Gareth’s flat and assets and so on. D I Bones just needed to do a report for the coroner and inform Social Services in Prestatyn, and he could close the file. He didn’t think any of Gareth’s colleagues needed to know any more. They could wait till the inquest if they were interested. Which didn’t seem very likely. Meanwhile, he still had his bottle of wine and his box set of The Killing to look forward to.
He pulled up in front of his neat modern apartment block just as his mobile rang. Unknown number. He pressed ‘Answer’.
“D I Bones.”
An Australian voice answered him “All right, mate? Got a body here for you, but it’s not dead yet.” Sandra Sharpe went off into paroxysms of giggles.
D I Bones smiled. Poor old Gareth. But at least something good might have come out of his enquiry.
Sheila, Bob and Alan were waiting outside Bill Noakes’ office. Alan was looking much more cheerful than he had done earlier in the week. He was holding the plans which Sheila and Bob had produced. He’d asked them both for digital copies and then he’d added his name to the front covers and printed them out on glossy paper and put them in nice bindings. Sheila and Bob were trying not to look at each other. Alan had ‘introduced them’ earlier and commented on how complementary their reports were. They’d both murmured something about that being a fortunate coincidence and it showing what a good idea it all was, but they were both worried about giggling at an inopportune moment. The last couple of days had been a bit giddy for both of them.
Without any obvious cue, Phyllis suddenly put up her head. “You can go in now.”
Alan jumped up. Bob and Sheila followed him into the VC’s office. Bill Noakes was sitting behind his cheap desk flicking through his own glossy copies of the plans. They were filled with Post-it notes. His three employees stood diffidently in front of him. “Sit down” he said, without looking up.
They obeyed. After another few minutes, he stuck a final Post-it note onto a page and finally looked at them. He seemed confused. Alan sprang up again. “Vice Chancellor, you remember Bob Barker, don’t you? From the Accountancy department. And this is Sheila er, er, from the Law department.”
Sheila stood up and put out her hand to the VC. “Sheila Thompson, Vice Chancellor. Pleased to meet you.”
Bill shook her hand reluctantly. Alan continued. “Bob and Sheila have been helping me with the UCNB plans, Bill. Been very glad of their industry expertise, in fact.”
Bill turned and stared witheringly at him. “That explains a lot.” Alan sat down again, crushed.
Bill looked down at the plans again. He took pity on Alan. “These plans are excellent.” The three others let out a collective sigh of relief. The entire institution craved the approval of the VC, and it wasn’t easy to come by. “I do have a few questions, though.”
Bob and Sheila leaned forward. This was their territory.
Later, in Cheeky’s, which Sheila was starting to think of as ‘their’ place, wiping out her memories of meeting Alan there when she’d been worried about the online dating debacle, they went over the meeting again.
“It was fantastic the way you handled the HR question,” Bob said. “I thought he was on to the contract issue, there. But you deflected him brilliantly.”
“And I liked the way you encouraged him to think about seconding a CEO who had a legal background!” Sheila was really pleased. “I hope you aren’t going to be a difficult employee, though, Mr Chief Operating Officer!”
They clinked coffee cups.
More pensively, Bob said “do you think Alan knew about his early retirement? He looked a bit surprised.”
Sheila shrugged. “It was very kind of you to suggest that with UCNB, he’d be going out on a high, though.” They both started laughing. Poor old Alan. The University College of North Burston really was the last straw for him.
In Geoff’s office, Alison was making a cup of coffee, although Geoff looked in need of something stronger. She realised that his kettle was in full view on a side table. Typical. One rule for middle managers, and another for everyone else. Exactly why she wouldn’t be sorry to leave all of this behind.
Geoff was looking bereft. “But Alison, think how bored you’ll be, stuck away on some little island miles from civilisation and with no meaningful work. I’m only thinking of you. It’s my duty to point these things out. It’s part of your professional development process.”
Alison swallowed hard. She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t get angry, or upset. Geoff had spent years making her feel that he was utterly dependent on her to run the Biology course, because she was so fantastic at her job. But the truth was, she had been a mug, and there was plenty of cannon fodder available to replace her. She was a battle casualty.
She forced herself to say, mildly, “Geoff. I’m not leaving till the end of the year. We’ve got plenty of time for succession planning. You know there are lots of skilful people in the department who are just waiting for their chance to drop a bit of research and do a bit more admin. What about Ingrid, or Dev?”
Geoff shook his head. “Oh, I don’t think we can have another woman as course leader. We need some stability now. If you’re all going to follow your husbands at the drop of a hat, where will we be?”
Alison once again decided to be kind, given Geoff’s distress. “Geoff. You need to get the best person for the job. I’ve been course leader for eight years. It’s long enough. But I think you’d better be careful about your opinions when you’re talking to anyone else,” she added, tartly.
Geoff had his head in his hands and was rocking gently in his chair. “It’s the last straw. The last straw.”
Alison tiptoed out of the room. At least Geoff had confirmed her decision. There was very little she would miss about Burston Central.
Wading Through Treacle is taking a break now, before things get any cheesier in Burston Central. If you’ve enjoyed reading Wading from Treacle, send me your ‘things you couldn’t make up’ for incorporation in the story in 2013.