Recommendations 1: Professional experience

Bob was making good headway on the marking. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but he was almost enjoying it. Not in itself, because it was a very boring exam task which had produced 173 almost identical answers. More because it made him feel in contact with the students. Which was a bit weird, because it was only looking at their papers, and he didn’t even know any of them, but it was sort of evidence of progress. The University College hadn’t been quite the same. The numbers had been so small, and things were kind of incremental there; a proper first year group showed a lot more evidence of change. Or something. Anyway, he was happy to be back in the department, even if he had copped for covering Harry’s exam marking while he was off sick. And he’d known that would probably happen. Harry was always off sick in May and June.

He was listening to Bob Dylan. He becamse aware of a slight noise behind him. Oh God. He hadn’t been singing along, had he? He draped the headphones around his neck and turned round. His Head of Department was hovering behind him.

“Sorry, Gordon. Was I disturbing you?”

Gordon looked confused. “Sorry. No. What? Sorry to disturb you. I can see you’re up to the eyes in it.” He waved at the two piles of exam booklets.

Bob followed the gesture with his eyes. “Oh, no. That’s fine. They aren’t going anywhere. I’m probably ready for a break anyway. Coffee?”

“Why not.”

Bob led the way.

Gordon looked round the little kitchen area. The shelves held a surprising variety of jars of coffee and boxes of tea bags, all carefully labelled. There were a few notices on the walls.


“Your mother doesn’t live here. Wash your own cup AND SPOON.” That one had appended to it, in red biro “But somebody sexist does live here. Everyone should wash their own cup, wherever they are”

“Please get rid of your milk on Fridays”

“My son is doing a sponsored litter-pick on Sunday, could you sponsor him? You can sign below and leave the money in the jar underneath”.

“Union meeting 2pm Wednesday, to discuss management restrictions on notices in open plan offices”

“I haven’t been in here for a while. It’s quite cosy, isn’t it?”

“Home from home, Gordon. Milk and sugar?”

“Just milk, please.”

Bob handed him the mug. “Cheers.”

“Anyway, Gordon. Did you just want to have a look at the kitchen, or was there something in particular?”

Gordon looked blank for a moment.

“Oh. Yes.” He looked at the hand which wasn’t holding the mug. “Must have put it down somewhere.” He backtracked to Bob’s desk. “Here it is.” He picked up a slim document, branded in Higher Education Academy colours, and handed it to Bob. “Student Experience Survey 2015. Go to page 5.”

Bob opened the booklet. Gordon leaned over and pointed at the second graph on the page. “Look at that. It says students value industry and professional experience the most, more than teaching and research.”

“That’s interesting.” Bob was thinking about how he could use the information to encourage his colleagues to develop more links with employers. It was bloody difficult trying to get them to engage with the profession. Some of them had no idea how much practice had changed in the last ten years, particularly on the financial advice side. He scanned the back page of the executive summary. Not a massive sample, but maybe it was robust enough. He’d have to check out the full methodology.

Gordon seemed to be waiting for more of a response. “Yes, well, I think it’s more than interesting. Do you see what ammunition this gives us with the VC?”

Bob was at a loss. “Um. Well…”

“Because we’ve got so many professional qualified academics. Just what students say they want. And yet the VC is always nagging us to do more research. ‘Get more people in the REF,’ he says. Well, that isn’t what the students want. This shows it. We’ve got a different skillset in this department.”

Bob thought that this was a bit of a leap. “Well, there are benefits to being research-active,” he started.

“Yes, yes, I’m not saying there aren’t.” Gordon took the report back from him. “I’m just saying that we can take the pressure off a bit, and focus on those industry credentials.”

Bob sighed to himself. “True. Well, I’ll make sure I incorporate the findings into my student experience plan for next year. So we can build on those credentials. OK?”

Gordon looked mollified. “Yes, good idea. In the meantime, I’m going to get an appointment with the VC to ask him to stop banging on about research and start promoting professionalism.” He drained the mug and put it in the sink. “Right, I’m going straight off to ask Phyllis for an appointment.”

He turned right out of the kitchen. Bob stood still for a moment. Ten seconds later, he passed the kitchen entrance, going in the opposite direction. He glanced at Bob. “Haha. Forgot which office I was in. The door’s the other way on this side, isn’t it?”

Bob gave a polite smile. “We all do it.”

Gordon hadn’t waited for a response. Bob heard the electronic lock click on the main door.

He turned to the sink and washed and dried the two cups. He smiled to himself. You couldn’t knock Gordon for trying, but he didn’t think the VC was going to give up on research that easily.


Unconditional Offers

Bob stretched and looked around. He looked at his watch. Two o’clock. He’d managed to get a surprising amount done. Maybe open plan offices weren’t so bad after all. Ajay was quiet, and had even made him a cup of drinkable coffee earlier in the day. He had been aware of other people outside of their little pod, but nothing had really disturbed him. Not bad.

He stood up. “Coffee, Ajay?”

“Sure. Black, one sugar, please.”

Bob went through into the kitchen. Nobody looked up as he passed their pods. Fair enough. It wasn’t as though they’d been in and out of each other’s offices in the old building. Maybe tuning out was the best way to cope with life in the pods.

When he walked back through to his pod, Vanessa and Nawaz had returned. They were whispering loudly to each other. Bob passed a mug to Ajay, and cleared his throat. “Hello…” he paused. It wasn’t really appropriate to say ‘ladies’, was it? “…colleagues,” that was better, “Nice to see you again, and find out that we’re neighbours.”

They both looked up, and actually seemed quite pleased to see him. “Hi, Bob,” said Nawaz. “Good to have you back.”

“Thanks. What’s new?” It was just a social question. If anything had been new, he was pretty sure that Martin would have sent several emails round the department by now, explaining why nobody should go along with it.

They looked at each other.

“You won’t believe this.” Vanessa leaned towards him and looked conspiratorial.

Bob sat down and wheeled his desk chair closer to the women. Ajay, catching the scent of a break from the routine, did the same.

“We’ve just got back from an outreach visit to La Sainte Union college.”

“Oh yes?” Bob wondered what could be so surprising. It seemed an unlikely place for gossip to emerge.

“The head of sixth form took us to one side. She asked us if we were prepared to negotiate over our offers for this year.”

“But surely they’ve already gone out?”

“Yes, of course, but apparently some other places have been making unconditional offers, and she said she might be tempted to stop recommending us if we didn’t do the same.”

“Unconditional offers? We’ve always done that.”  Bob wondered what all of the fuss was about.

“Not before people have done their A levels, we haven’t.”

“Well, no, of course not…” Bob tailed off. “You mean, just saying students can come, whatever their results? Even if they fail?”

Nawaz nodded vigorously. “Yep. Well. That sounds weird. Maybe they have to get Es. I don’t know. Anyway, the point is that she was basically trying to blackmail us into changing our offers.”

“We can’t do that, can we?” Vanessa sounded as though she was genuinely asking him for a deciding opinion.

Bob tried not to look surprised at the tone of her voice. Was that what responsibility for the student experience meant? Being expected to offer decisive opinions on anything which might affect students? Actually, he did have some thoughts on this, having handled admissions for the University College of North Burston for a couple of years. “Um.  It doesn’t seem very wise to me. I thought we were trying to increase the number of UCAS points we expected from students. It’s a league table indicator. And if they haven’t passed, how will they have the basic knowledge they need to start on the degree?”

“No, I mean, we can’t change offers we’ve already put out, can we?”

“No, no, not till Clearing, anyway, but that’s not the point, is it? We’ve got to think about standards. And the student experience.”

Vanessa looked disappointed. “That’s what I thought. So that’s five students, maybe more, that we’re going to lose. We always get students from there.”

“Well, maybe that would be for the best. Come on, we don’t want to join the race to the bottom, do we?”

Nawaz sighed. “Maybe not. But what if everyone else does it, and we’re the only ones holding out for BBB? And how could it be the race to the bottom, if the University of Burston is doing it?”

“They are? Really? God.” He lapsed into silence for a few seconds. “I see your point. But still…don’t we have other things to offer?” He frowned.

The others said nothing. The four of them sat, with their wheeled chairs pulled together in a pod pow-wow, trying to think what it was that was distinctive about Burston Central. Proximity was a big draw, and the fact that they didn’t ask for such high grades as the University of Burston. If both of those factors had been removed, it was hard to say what would be the reason for coming to their department.

As if by common accord, they spun on their chairs and looked hard at their respective screens. And as if by magic, an email alert flashed up in the bottom corner of each one.


From: Justin Marks, Head of Campus Communications

Subject: Burston Central leads the way with admissions

Once again, Burston Central is innovating. You may have heard about some Russell Group universities making unconditional offers to certain students who’ve been predicted to get particularly high grades. I’m pleased to announce that the University Executive Group has agreed a special Burston Central approach to admissions which will position us perfectly in the new market. We know that predicted grades aren’t always that reliable, so we’ve decided to use another measure to decide whether to make an unconditional offer: the number of interesting extra-curricular activities partaken by the applicant. We’re looking for students with a wide range of interests! This should boost the number of applications AND bring us students who already have a headstart on their employability skills. It’s a win-win for BC.


Bob pushed his chair back slowly, as if the screen was throwing out a repulsive force field. The email made absolutely no sense. Of all the weird things he’d seen at Burston Central, this had to be the least comprehensible. He turned, almost in synchronisation with the three others. They formed a circle and looked at each other. Nobody spoke.

Bob opened his mouth. No sound came out. He closed it again.

Four pings signalled the arrival of another all-staff email. In unison, they each turned back to their own computers.


From: Janice Burton, Vice Chancellor

Subject: Unconditional Offers

Please disregard the previous all-staff email, sent by Mr Marks. This was sent accidentally while Mr Marks was testing a new computerised press release writing tool. I just want to make it clear that with my new drive on standards, we will be increasing the value of our offers, rather than removing them.

Bob looked at his watch. It was only 3.30. He swivelled towards the others again and cleared his throat. They spun in unison.

“Pub?” Bob didn’t think he’d ever invited his colleagues out for a drink before – except Sheila, and she was different.

Without saying a word, the other three shut down their computers, gathered up their bags, and stood up. They left the office in silence.

Bob smiled as he held the door for the others. His pod had bonded.

New role, new responsibilities.

By eight o’clock, Bob had packed away his stuff and managed to force the empty box into the recycling container in the kitchen. He hadn’t seen anyone else yet, though he’d heard the main door open and shut a couple of times. The strange arrangement of dividers, boxing everyone into their little pods of four, meant that you had to get up to see what was happening elsewhere in the office. In contrast, the four desks did feel rather close together, as if you’d know too much about what was happening in the area. He drew his elbows in involuntarily.

He had popped in to see the office previously, but it had been Easter vacation, and hardly anyone had been around,. He’d forgotten to ask who else was in his group of four. He hoped one of them wasn’t Martin. Not that he had anything against Martin. It was just that it had been hard enough getting any work done when the two of them shared a reasonably-sized office.

He sighed at the thought. He knew Martin meant well. And it was vital that somebody stood up for people’s rights. It was just that he didn’t always think that Martin picked the most important things to stand up for.

At least he’d missed the election buildup, if not Martin’s analysis of the fallout.

Bob plugged in his laptop and started to look at the university policies on student experience. He wasn’t really sure what his new role was going to be. The new head of department had been rather vague about it. “All the departments are having an academic lead for Student Experience” he’d said, “You can talk to the woman in Marketing and PR about it, she’ll tell you where things are up to, um, what’s her name, now…”

Bob had later found her name, and emailed her, but she hadn’t replied.

Trouble was, there wasn’t any actual named university policy on ‘student experience’. And pretty much every other policy probably had some impact on student experience, so you’d have to fit in with all of them. What the hell was the student experience, anyway? He thought he’d understood it when he’d been offered the job, but now he couldn’t get a grip on any part of the concept. Where to start? He began to doodle a kind of mind map.

Bob was surprised, a while later, to be disturbed by a loud throat -clearing just behind him. He turned round to see one of his ex-students standing at the next desk. For a moment, Bob wondered how he’d got into the office. Then he put the face and the name together. Ajay. Of course. He’d spoken to him on the phone, when Ajay was covering his teaching while he was on secondment, but not seen him for years.

“Hi, Bob. Sorry if I disturbed you. I just wanted to say hello, and welcome back.”

Bob smiled. “Ajay. Hi. Good to see you. I didn’t hear you coming in.”

“You seemed to be quite absorbed. I wasn’t sure whether to disturb you”

“Oh. Well, that’s good. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to work in here. But it looks as though I might!”

“It’s pretty quiet today. Everyone’s marking at home, I think. Anyway, I’ll let you get on. Just thought I’d say hello. I’m just next to you, here.”

Ajay sat down at the next desk. There was about a metre between their chairs.

Bob leaned over. “Great. It’s good to see you again. And thanks for holding the fort while I was away.”

Ajay smiled shyly. “No problem. I enjoyed it. Bit of a baptism of fire, but it’s been interesting.”

“I heard they’d managed to keep you on. Glad me coming back hasn’t put you out of a job.”

“Well. It’s still only temporary. No permanent posts unless you’ve got a PhD.”

Bob made a sign of commiseration. There weren’t too many experienced accountants who could teach on the professional courses and who had a PhD. He was glad he’d been appointed before the new rules came in. “Are you going to do one?”

Ajay sighed. “I guess so. I’ve got to finish the PGCHE first.”

Bob gave a wry grin. “Don’t tell me. You’re not enjoying the reflective portfolio.”

“Good guess.” Ajay paused. “I don’t know why. I suppose we’re just trained to record the facts, in accountancy. I can’t see how what I think about my teaching is particularly relevant to anyone except me.”

Bob grinned more widely. “You’re bringing back painful memories! I did manage to pass it, though. Tell you what, I’ll bring you mine to have a look at.”

“Would you? Thanks, Bob. It’s due in a month or so, and I just don’t know where to start.”

Bob laughed at that. “Wasn’t the point of the portfolio that you were filling it in all year?”

“Well, I’ve been keeping my lesson plans and stuff…but I don’t really know what else is needed.”

“God, don’t look at me, I haven’t even thought about any of that stuff since I finished it.” Bob wondered if that was really true. Surely something had gone in? Nothing came to mind. He shrugged. “OK, I’ll try to remember it tomorrow.”

Bob looked behind them. “So, who usually sits over here?”

“Vanessa and Nawaz. They’re both part-time. I don’t see much of them.”

Bob tried not to look pleased. “Oh. I’m so used to sharing with Martin, I assumed he’d be in this pod.”

Ajay looked a bit uncomfortable. “Um. He’s got a desk by the window, in the corner. He was just on the other side, actually, but, um, he ended up moving.”

Bob decided not to ask more questions. Martin could definitely be relied on to tell the story from his own special perspective. “Well, it’s good to be sitting next to you, Ajay. I’d better get back to this.” He waved vaguely towards at his desk.

They smiled at each other and returned to their invisible bubbles.

Bob found that he hadn’t got the slightest idea what he’d meant by any of the scrawls in front of him. He scrunched up the paper and prepared to start again. Student experience. Student experience in accountancy. Students, experienced in accountancy study. Students’ experiences aggregated into an amorphous blob. He sighed.

Was there any chance of anyone getting responsibility for the staff experience?

Back in the Bosom

The glass lift shot up to the sixth floor. Bob didn’t even have time to gape at the terrifying drop into the atrium before he was stepping out of the lift, putting his box down, and fumbling in his pocket for the floor plan which showed him how to get to his new office. He looked around him. This new building was a lot nicer than the old tower block, but it was a bit confusing. Everything was grey, with miniscule little labels on the doors, as though the architect had thrown a tantrum about spoiling the lines or offering any kind of contrasting colours for the signage. Never mind thinking about the needs of middle-aged academics who wore bifocals, and needed large fonts. He wondered idly if architects were subject to the Disability Discrimination Act.

The old building, 1960s public architecture at its most functional, had just had long corridors down the middle of a very long, tall rectangle, with doors to the left or right. Here, there was a tessellated arrangement of glass-fronted rooms, moving away from the central atrium. He had been in before, to see where his office was, but he’d been walking with a colleague, and hadn’t really registered the route. He consulted his map. He should turn left from the lift, then right, then left again, then his office door should be on the right. Picking up the box, he set off. Left, right, left, right.

Actually, it was pretty straightforward. He wondered what his colleagues had been complaining about in the plethora of angry emails which followed the official moving-in to the new building. Finding the office, loathing the open plan arrangement, no space for all their stuff, the office was too hot, the office was too cold, the office was inaccessible to students…he had been expecting the worst. He put the box down again and swiped his ID card through the reader next to the door. He heard the lock click, slightly to his surprise – he hadn’t really expected ‘the system’ to be updated with his details yet, but maybe it had never actually registered his secondment. More likely. Opening the door, he stuck his foot in it while he turned to pick up the box. The large office was also confusing, with a lot of room dividers and bookcases separating the desks, giving an illusion of privacy. He tracked around for a couple of minutes until he recognised the area he’d been allocated.

Dumping the box on the empty desk, he sat down and looked at the blank space divider in front of him. He smiled to himself. Setting up the University College of North Burston had been fun, but he’d known all along it was a whimsical interlude. With the departure of the Deputy Vice Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor who’d championed the idea, plus the imminent removal of Student Number Controls, there was no point in running a sideshow to try to leverage the system. Better to build student numbers back in the university, where, in all honesty, students would get a better deal. Bigger class sizes, yes, but he thought that was balanced the advantages of a permanent staff and support infrastructure, and even some research-led teaching. He had been pretty relieved when his plan to relinquish the students and the premises to Burston FE college, or BUF, as it was now branded, had been accepted. The University had recouped its minimal investment in the project. The second year students had been promised a transfer into the final year at Burston Central if they wanted it, so he’d probably be seeing plenty of them. And on top of that, he’d been promoted to Principal Lecturer for Student Experience in the department. He was quite happy to be back in the Accountancy department.

It was still early, and nobody else was in the office. At least, he didn’t think they were. It was harder to tell than he would have expected. He unpacked his box. He’d brought in four ‘University College of North Burston’ mugs, and he took them to the office kitchen area. A kitchen! After all of the fuss over kettles he’d endured when he shared an office with Martin. There were no kettles in the kitchen, though, just some kind of hidden device which dispensed almost-boiling water, or ice-cold water, if you preferred. He put the mugs on the shelf, wondering if anyone would notice. His foray into the semi-private sector seemed to have gone relatively un-noticed by his colleagues. Even Martin hadn’t said too much about casualisation, privatisation and thin ends of wedges. Well, everyone had their own concerns. He wondered if anyone would notice he was back, or if they’d really noticed he’d been away.

He made a cup of instant coffee and took it back to his desk. Plenty of time to get sorted out before anyone else came in.

Maybe I missed Bob and Sheila, or maybe HE just wasn’t making me cross enough, or i’d run out of daft things to fictionalise, I don’t know. Is there anything more ridiculous than a dormant blog? Why isn’t it just deleted? From an author’s perspective, I can’t understand why anyone still visits it, but oddly, they do (could be some kind of bot checking for updates, of course). This is just a bit of a filler to explain why Bob is back. However, I have a feeling that the teaching REF is going to set me off again…do let me know if you spot any idiocies.

Reposted from earlier in the year: The Bunker

Bob looked up from his screen and stretched his arms out. It was eight o’clock in the morning, and he’d been sitting there for an hour and a half already. He smiled over at Sheila, who was sitting on the other side of the double desk. She didn’t notice. She was writing in her notebook.

They were sitting in a tiny room with no windows. There was just about space for the two desks pushed together, two filing cabinets, and a small occasional table for the kettle and two mugs. It wasn’t the most promising location for the great white hope of Burston Central University. But Bob thought it was fitting. At the moment, only he and Sheila were working on the project. They didn’t need any more space, and as an ex-forensic accountant, he approved of the parsimony being shown at this stage in the project. Later on they’d need to demonstrate their financial backing, and they had a guarantee of half a million pounds of investment from the VC’s special projects fund.

Sheila looked up. “Everything alright?”

“Yes, boss. Just thinking about resource allocation for the refurbishments.”  He tugged on an imaginary forelock. They both smiled.

“I’m just trying to get this recruitment strategy thought through.” Sheila said. “We’re going to have to advertise vacancies fairly soon, or we won’t be able to get admissions going in time. But once we do that, the whole thing’s going to go public.”

Bob grimaced. The plan to set up the new University College of North Burston was pretty well developed, but the timings they were working to were all disrupted by the secrecy of the project.

The door handle was pressed down and there was a thud outside. They both started. It was pretty quiet in the basement and nobody but them ever usually came into the office. They held meetings off-site, or up in the Vice Chancellor’s suite. The door burst open.

“Bloody hell, what’s wrong with that door?” Bill Noakes was in the room, breathing heavily.

“It sticks, Vice Chancellor.”

“So I see. Bloody hell, you want to get that seen to.”

“We’re sort of used to it.” Sheila was usually cool around the VC. She didn’t like him much, and unlike Bob, she wasn’t intimidated by him. “What a pleasant surprise, Vice Chancellor. We don’t usually see you down here.” Actually, they’d never seen him down there. She was surprised that he knew there was a basement.

“What? Oh, yes.“ The VC looked round, as though he’d mislaid something. He turned slightly and put an arm back out into the corridor. “This is Steve.”  He pulled someone into the room.

It was now rather crowded in the tiny office. Bob and Sheila stood up automatically to greet the new arrival. Steve looked to be in his mid-thirties, neatly dressed in an inexpensive suit and a plain tie. He had a small rucksack.

Bob put out his hand. “Bob. Nice to meet you.”

Sheila did likewise. They all turned to the VC expectantly.

“Er, Steve’s going to help you out with the UCNB project. He’ll be working on an international angle.” Bill fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper torn from his notebook. “Franchising, new business model, available to new markets.” he added. He shoved the piece of paper into Bob’s hand.

“Right, better get off, interviewing for the new DVC today, mustn’t be late.” The VC squeezed past Steve and disappeared.  Bob and Sheila looked at Steve.

“I’ll go and find another chair.” Bob put the paper in his pocket and also squeezed past Steve, who hadn’t moved from the doorway, and followed the VC out into the corridor. Bill was already over at the lift, which was still at the basement floor. He gave Bob a slight wave and stepped firmly inside. Bob sighed and headed off in the opposite direction. There were a couple of chairs down by the laundry room. They’d seen better days. He leaned experimentally on the one which looked stronger. It seemed safe enough.

Back in the office, Sheila had got the kettle on and had managed to get Steve to sit down in Bob’s chair.

“Bob, this isn’t Steve. It’s Stefan.”

Bob automatically stuck his hand out again. “Hello, Stefan. Nice to meet you.”

Stefan nodded at him.

Sheila handed Stefan a cup of instant coffee. “Milk? Sugar?”

He shook his head.

Bob wondered if he could speak at all. Although Sheila must have managed to talk to him. He sat down on the new chair and waited.

“Stefan was the manager at Subway, Bob.”

He looked at her blankly.

“You know, the one down Challoner street, down from Cheeky’s. The sandwich place. You know, Subway, the sandwich chain.”

Bob finally understood what kind of subway was being discussed. “I thought it was closing down.”

“Yes, that’s why Stefan is here.”

Stefan took a sip of his coffee, and winced.

Bob felt none the wiser. What was the connection between the University College of North Burston and the manager of a failed sandwich shop? “Oh.” he offered.

Sheila smiled at him. “No, I haven’t a clue either.”

Bob felt relieved. He pulled the VC’s piece of paper out of his pocket. It was headed ‘new international strategy’, in terrible handwriting. There were two columns. One was headed Subway, and underneath, it said:  raw ingredients, recipes, Health and Safety, training manuals, marketing information.

The other column was headed Burston Central. Its column included teaching materials, regulations, and degree certification.

“Any clarification there?” Sheila put her hand out for the piece of paper.

Bob handed it over. Subway. Universities. International. “Not sure. Yes. Maybe. I wonder if the VC is thinking about franchising.”

Stefan nodded vigorously. “Franchising. Yes. Subway is franchise.”

Bob tried to place the accent. Eastern European?

Sheila shrugged. “God knows what it’s all about. But we could do with some help around here. Stefan, do you have a CV?”

“Of course.” Stefan bent over and took a neat folder out of his backpack and passed it to Sheila.

She flicked through it. “Has the Vice Chancellor seen this, Stefan?”

He shook his head. “No. He said no need. Could see my special skills.”

Sheila rolled her eyes. “OK. Did he give you a contract or anything?”

“No, not yet. He said you would sort out.”

“OK. How about a job title? And when did he say you could start?”

“Special Project Assistant. Grade 6. Now.”

Sheila wasn’t sure whether Stefan was a man of few words, or whether his English was limited, or whether he was just feeling out of his depth. Or all three. His CV was actually pretty impressive, if the translation was accurate. First degree in economics from the University of Warsaw, classification A1* – she presumed that was good. Masters in enterprise development, worked as a management consultant to small companies for ten years after graduation. Then it looked as though he’d come to the UK in 2009, and then things got a bit less graduate-like. Waiter, Assistant manager at a series of fast food places, followed by nine months at the local Subway. Not very relevant to a university.

She sighed. What was Bill playing at? She wouldn’t be able to talk to him today, if they were interviewing for Alan’s replacement.

Stefan was looking at her expectantly. She passed the CV over to Bob.

“Stefan. We’ll need to sort out a proper contract for you. And take up some references. There will be a probationary period of, er, three months. During that time, you’ll be working for Bob and me helping us out with our big project, and then we’ll see about this special, er, franchising project. How does that sound?”

Stefan shrugged his shoulders. “Sounds fine. I can start now.”

Sheila looked round the office. “Well, as you can see, we don’t have very much space at the moment. And you’ll need a contract, or you won’t be covered by our insurance. And I’ll need you to sign a confidentiality agreement. So it does need a bit of organisation. Is this contact information current?”

Stefan nodded.

“OK, I’ll get in touch with you tomorrow, with a view to you starting next week. How’s that?”

Stefan shrugged again. “OK.”

“I’ll need to see all of your qualification certificates, and your passport,” she continued.

Stefan took another folder from his rucksack. “All here.”

“Great,” said Sheila. “I’ll just go and copy these, that’ll be one less thing to sort out.”

She took the folder and stood up. “I’ll be about ten minutes. The copier’s on the first floor. Perhaps Bob will make you another coffee while you’re waiting.”

Stefan shook his head. “No thanks.”

Sheila left the office. There was a silence. Bob thought he’d better say something. “So, Stefan. How did you meet the Vice Chancellor?”

“Vice Chancellor?”

“Professor Noakes. The man who brought you down here.”

“Oh, Mester Noakes. He come in for Subs often. We chat sometimes. The other week, I tell him we are closing, and he says he has job for me. So I am here. ”

Bob wasn’t sure what to say. “What do you know about Burston Central University?”

Stefan shrugged. “Not so much. Big university. Many students. Not so good as other one maybe? Less money?”

Bob smiled. “Something like that. Here’s a prospectus.” He passed one over.

“Did you have a specialism when you were a management consultant?” Bob asked.

“Lot of general help for small businesses. Lot of small manufacturers supplying multinationals. Cultural context, western-style costing, accounting. And all that health and safety, ethical business, human resources. You know.”

Bob nodded at him. “Sounds interesting. Do you miss it?”

Stefan shrugged yet again. “Yes, a little. But it’s OK here. Different. “

Bob gave up. “I’m sure you’ll find this project very interesting, given your background. Sure you don’t want another coffee?”

Stefan shook his head. “Is there anything I can do before next week? I like to be busy.”

“I don’t think so. It’s a rather confidential project. I know it doesn’t look like much at the moment.” They both looked rather gloomily round the office.

Sheila came back in. she handed Stefan back his folder of qualifications. “That’s great, Stefan. Impressive qualifications. I’m sure we’re going to enjoy working with you.”

She looked meaningfully at Bob. He stood up. “Yes, just leave us to sort out the paperwork, Stefan, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next week.”

Stefan took the hint. He shook their hands and squeezed past them into the corridor. “I’ll see you to the main entrance.” Bob said. “It’s a bit of a rabbit warren down here.”

Sheila shut the door behind them and sat back down at her desk. There were times when she wondered if the Vice Chancellor was just having a huge joke at their expense. Or someone else’s expense.  She sighed and added Stefan to her ‘to-do’ list. Bill hadn’t told anyone in HR about their project yet, so she couldn’t sort it out with them. She’d have to put Stefan on a consultancy contract to start with. Well, that would cover the probationary period. By then, the company would be incorporated and they’d be able to issue their own contracts. She wondered if Bill had the slightest idea about the nuts and bolts of running a business.

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.

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Advent Episode 24: All’s Well That Ends Well

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.
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Advent Episode 20: It was an accident.

Sheila gestured to D I Bones to go through to the kitchen. She followed him dejectedly. Bob rose to his feet as D I Bones came in. “Sheila?”

D I Bones introduced himself to Bob. “And you are, sir?”

“Um. Bob Barker. I’m a colleague of Sheila’s. Sheila, are you alright?” He took her arm and led her back to her chair. “Sit down, Sheila.” His mind seemed clearer now, and it was working overtime. Was she in trouble with the police? Had he been in danger? Perhaps she was a notorious predator of some kind?

“D I Bones, Sheila seems to have had a bit of a shock. Could you tell me what’s going on?”

“Mr, Dr, Barker. I just wanted to ask Sheila a few questions. D I Bones was very interested in Sheila’s reaction to the mention of Gareth Jones. He never liked to jump to conclusions, but she did seem to have ‘guilty’ written all over her. “It’s confidential Mr, Dr Barker,” he added.

Bob stood up a bit straighter. “Mr. I’m sure Sheila won’t mind me staying to support her” he said, bravely. Sheila nodded. “Now, let’s all get comfortable. Would you like a drink, D I Bones?” He lifted the bottle of wine from the table.

“Coffee’d be good.” D I Bones replied. “Black, no sugar.”

“Right you are.” Bob turned confidently towards the kitchen worktops. He had no idea where anything was, of course. Everything was neatly put away, just as he liked it himself, but that didn’t help. He looked for the kettle. Shit. There was one of those espresso machines. He hadn’t a clue how to use it.

D I Bones was watching with interest. “Instant’s fine” he suggested.

“Right you are.” Bob tried the cupboard above the kettle. That’s where he would have kept the coffee. Bingo. Instant coffee, a variety of teas, and mugs. He  checked the water in the kettle and switched it on. He looked over at Sheila. She looked utterly dejected, and seemed to be oblivious to both of them. He smiled brightly at D I Bones. “Won’t be a minute.”

He looked back in the cupboard. Camomile tea? Wasn’t that good for calming people down? He got out a teabag and prepared one alongside D I Bones’ coffee.

“Sit down, D I Bones” he suggested. “Here you go. Sheila, I’ve made you a camomile tea” he added, a little more loudly. He touched her on the arm. She looked up at him, and then at the mug. “Camomile tea?”

D I Bones cleared his throat. “Mrs, Dr Thompson. You seemed rather upset when I mentioned Gareth. Perhaps you could tell me why?”

He was pleased with this opening. Neutral, not leading, not accusatory. Sheila didn’t look up. “I know I shouldn’t have done it” she said quietly. “I know I shouldn’t have let him provoke me so much. But I wasn’t very well, and something just snapped.”

Surreptitiously, D I Bones slid his notebook from his pocket and flipped it open. “Snapped?” he prompted her.

“Day after day. Week after week. I asked him to stop. But he just wouldn’t.” She still didn’t look up. “I just couldn’t take it any more.” She fell silent.

“How well did you know Gareth?”

“Every day, he was in my garden. Grubbing up my cuttings. Squashing the seedlings. Messing on the annuals.” D I Bones looked a bit worried. She sounded quite mad. Not to mention delusional. He wondered if she’d need to be Sectioned. Lilian had said she’d had a breakdown recently.

Bob looked sympathetic. He was a keen gardener and he knew how annoying it was when all your hard work was destroyed. His neighbour had really annoying cats. He reached out and took Sheila’s hand.

She looked up at this. “But I didn’t realise I was doing anything wrong. I just wanted to make him go away. It was only a little bit, in some meat I’d cooked him, to make him a bit sick. I suppose I didn’t calculate the dose properly.”

Bob withdrew his hand. He put the lid back on the casserole. “I’ll just pop this back in the oven.”

“Did he die in pain?” Sheila asked D I Bones.

“Er. I don’t think so. Probably not.” This wasn’t quite going as he’d expected. In all honesty, he’d been sure that Lilian was a crank. He just hadn’t wanted her complaining to the local paper about him, so he’d said he would come and sort it out straight away. She looked like the type to complain. “Do you understand the seriousness of this incident, Sheila?” he asked her gently.

She nodded.

“Before we go down to the station, I just want to check a couple of more urgent things with you. I haven’t yet been able to trace Gareth’s, er, family. Do you know how I can get in touch with them?”

She gestured to her left. “They live next door”. Not in Wales, then, thought D I Bones. That would make things easier. “Do you know their names?”

Sheila looked at him as though he was slightly dim. “Of course I do, they’re my neighbours. Reginald and Barbara.”

“Reginald and Barbara Jones” said D I Bones, as he made a note.

“no, Akala. Reginald and Barbara Akala” Sheila corrected him.

“Oh. OK.” D I Bones scribbled in his book. ‘Akala. Stepdad?’ He tried to decide what to do next.  He’d better go and see the neighbours. Sheila didn’t seem much of a threat, but he’d better not leave her here while he went next door to see the parents. He’d better call for backup. “If you’ll just excuse me for a moment, Sheila, er, Mr, Dr Barker, I just need something from the car.”

He opened the front door. Lilian was standing shivering on the top step.

“Mrs Hankin. I thought you were going to wait in the car.” Lilian burst past him. D I Bones followed her. This wasn’t quite what he’d intended.

“Did she do it? I knew it! I knew it!”

Sheila got to her feet, considerably more rapidly than her previous dejected appearance might have predicted. “Lilian? What are you doing here?”

“I know all about Gareth, Sheila, and I thought it was my civic duty to tell D I Bones. It was in your notebook!”

Sheila looked at her, utterly bewildered. “Gareth? Duty? Notebook?” A thought seemed to come to her. “Wait a minute. Detective Inspector? Since when does a Detective Inspector bother himself with a cat?”

“A cat?” the other three spoke in unison.

“Yes, next door’s cat. Gareth. He was constantly messing up my garden. It was really bothering me. You know, it was when I was ill. I couldn’t keep it in perspective.  They couldn’t seem to stop him. So I, so I put out a bit of food with some of my anti-depressants in to make him sick.” The three of them were staring at her.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him, in fact I didn’t know that I had, until you came round. I was a bit worried, though. I haven’t seen him for weeks. I didn’t mean to hurt him.” she repeated. “I’m very sorry.”

Bill seemed to recover first. “D I Bones. Are you investigating a cat?” The penny dropped. “Are you talking about the lecturer who was found dead in the woods?”

D I Bones nodded. “That’s my investigation.”

Bill turned to Sheila. “Sheila, do you know Gareth Jones? The biology lecturer who’s died?”

She shook her head. “No, Lilian mentioned it earlier. How sad. What happened to him?”

D I Bones pulled himself together. “I think we’ve got a bit confused. You’re right, Sheila. I don’t usually bother myself with cats.”

Sheila looked up “you mean. I’m not in trouble?”

“Well, it probably is an offence to poison a domestic pet,” suggested D I Bones, making a mental note to look that up later, “but I do have a more serious investigation on my hands. Perhaps Gareth the cat is alive and well? Let’s not worry about him, for the moment, anyway.”

Sheila looked relieved. She turned her head. “Lilian, what on earth are you doing in my house?”

Lilian had been standing slack-jawed in the middle of the kitchen. She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, but no sound emerged. She tried again. “I. I. I was just doing my civic duty” she mumbled.

Sheila narrowed her eyes. She seemed to have recovered a little. She stared at Lilian. The effect was quite powerful, although in fact she was trying to remember one of her mantras from the back of the notebook.  Be assertive. Assume you are right.  “Lilian. Let me get this straight. You stole my notebook. You copied it. You called the police.”

That didn’t seem to make sense. What was in her notebook that would have caused Lilian to call the police? It seemed to make sense to Lilian, however. She started to gabble. “You’d crossed his name out. You said you wanted to get rid of me. You’d got Bill on the list as well.”

Sheila crossed the room to her briefcase and took out her notebook. She flicked through the pages. “Oh dear, Lilian. You seem to have jumped to an unevidenced conclusion.” She shook her head sadly “I think you’ll find that I just wanted to get away from you. That’s not quite the same, is it? And there was me thinking that you taught Criminal Law. Innocent till proven guilty?”

Lilian seemed lost for words. Sheila continued, in a voice dripping with concern. “I’m sorry you saw my private notes. Perhaps they were a bit, um, crude. But finding you difficult to get on with doesn’t make me, um, a murderer. Does it?” She smiled at Lilian, looking as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Inside, she felt nothing but triumph. Take that, Lilian. She wished she could have recorded the whole speech for her counsellor.

The men were both transfixed. D I Bones was wondering if he’d stepped into a parallel world. In his experience, two people who hated each other this much would be tearing at each other’s hair by now. Bob had seen enough academic ‘discussions’ to know that there was a winner. He stepped forward and took Sheila’s hand.

For a moment, he wondered if he should raise it, in a sign to the others that the incident was over. He simply cleared his throat.

“Well, I’m glad that’s sorted out. I’m sure we’ll all be laughing about this tomorrow.” He didn’t sound amused, though. “Can I get anyone a drink?” he added, politely, but coolly.

D I Bones hadn’t touched his coffee. He looked at the mug. “Um. No. Thank you. I’d probably better get back to the office.”

Bob looked at Lilian.

“Um. No. I’d better get a lift back with you, D I Bones. I’ve left my car at the University.”

D I Bones sighed. “OK.” He looked as though he could think of quite a few better things to do than to give Lilian a lift.

“Fine” Bob headed for the front door. “We’ll get back to our meal, then. Nice to meet you,  D I Bones.” He shook the policeman’s hand. “Lilian.” He gave a slight nod in her direction. He was a very polite man.

He shut the door firmly behind them and went back into the kitchen. Sheila had sunk back into her chair, looking pretty shell-shocked. Bob went over and put his hand on her arm. She looked up at him.

At that moment, the ridiculousness of the whole incident hit them both and they collapsed into uncontrollable giggles. “The cat!” “The anti-depressants!” “Lilian!”

After a while Bob wiped his eyes. “I don’t know about you, but I need a drink” he said.

“There’s another bottle of wine in the fridge” Sheila said.

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 new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: Flat Inspection.