Brave New World

The University College of North Burston was up and running. The space above the bus station had been completely transformed. The shabby glass-and-plasterboard partitions were gone, replaced with safety-glass dividers which could be wheeled around like hospital curtains. The stained and chipped paintwork had been replaced by smooth, shining surfaces, with broad strips of bright colour delineating different parts of the space. Furnishings were similarly colour-coded. Power and Ethernet sockets could be pulled down from moveable overhead gantries, so that tables could be used anywhere. Huge photographs of inspiring landscapes drew the eye. Over by the ‘food and beverage’ machines, a yellow beanbag ran the length of the wall. Sound-proofing protected the delicate ears of staff and students from the noise of the city centre.

Recruitment had been exactly on target. Thirty students for Marketing, thirty for Accounting and Finance.  Two nights a week for each group, 5pm-9pm, with tutorials at 8am, 12pm, 1pm and 4pm to fit in with people’s commutes to work or lunch hours. Sheila and Bob ran the admin for all of the tutorials themselves, using an advanced Customer Relations Management package which they’d tweaked slightly so that the students got input as customers and the tutors were like the sales reps. Way better than a sign-up sheet on the door. Especially when you didn’t have any doors.

Sheila sat at her desk in the blue area. It was 7am and the room was quiet. Bob had popped over to Cheeky’s to get them some coffee. She looked around the room. It was quite nice when it was empty, if a bit more like a prospectus than she would have thought possible. The noise and bustle of students brought it to life. It would make a perfect common room area. But for teaching?

She wasn’t sure how long the fixtures and fittings were going to stand up to heavy use. The overhead gantries had a slight tendency to snag – did that have the potential for a fire hazard? The wheeled dividers were pointless in all respects, since you could still see and hear, and thus be distracted by, what was happening in a neighbouring group. The noise of students dragging furniture around into different configurations  seemed to echo around the room. And the yellow beanbag had already gathered some rather disturbing stains, not to mention being slightly further from the bin than some people were willing to go with their paper cups nd chocolate wrappers.

This really wasn’t quite what she’d had in mind.  She was wondering if she’d been foolish in buying into the project. She’d been really taken with the idea of offering lower-priced flexible provision to students who would otherwise be unable to get a degree. She’d had no trouble setting up the spin-off company so that it didn’t exploit staff or students. The VC had given them a generous budget for start-up. It should have been perfect.

But. But. When the room filled with students at 4pm, she really wasn’t sure that it was what she’d hoped for. The room was too busy. The part-time staff they’d taken on didn’t really understand group work, and tended to revert to lecture style, despite the compulsory training she’d bought in from the Centre for Academic Practice. Although the sounds of the bus station were well screened, the acoustics of the room somehow magnified all of the furniture-scraping sounds of fidgeting students. She and Bob sat frozen at their desks whenever the tutors were speaking, in order not to distract students. Plus, one of them needed to stay until the last session had finished every night, to lock up.

But the main thing which was bothering her was the quality of the student experience. Surely getting a degree at evening class, on the cheap, was exactly what the last fifty years of higher education expansion had been trying to avoid? Wasn’t this more like a turn-of-the-twentieth century Workers Educational Association outpost offering University of London degrees than a modern university environment? Where was the buzz? What about the debating society? The sports clubs?  The bar? The personal development?

She felt obscurely guilty. What if this was just the thin end of the wedge for higher education?

What effect will the removal of Student Number Control have on this dismal project? To be continued…

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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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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Them and us

Sheila and Bob are still beavering away on their special project for the Vice Chancellor, but Sheila is about to pop back into that collegial setting, the Law Department.

Sheila got up and edged around the desk. It was even more cramped in their basement cubbyhole now that Stefan had joined them.

Bob looked up. “Going to get a coffee?” he asked, hopefully.

“No, I’m going to pop into the Law Department meeting. Just doing a bit of fact-finding, really. There was something on the agenda that caught my eye.”

Bob knew better than to ask her what it was. He was getting to know Sheila pretty well. She liked to process ideas and information on her own, and would share when she was ready, if there was anything to share.

“Will Lilian be there?” he asked, casually.

Sheila smiled at him. “Probably. But don’t worry, I won’t let her bother me. If I need to, I’ll just think about her and D I Bones.” They both smiled at the memory. Stefan looked quizzically at them, but neither of them bothered with an explanation. He turned back to his spreadsheets.

“OK, see you later.” said Bob. “Do you want a rescue call at any point?”

Sheila shook her head. “I think I’ll survive.”

She took the lift up to the fifth floor and joined some stragglers in the corridor heading towards the meeting.

“Hello stranger!” Pete’s false bonhomie hadn’t changed. “Slumming it, are we?”

Sheila smiled at him. “I’m only on secondment, Pete. I’m still a member of the department. Thought I’d come and catch up with things.”

“God, you’re mad. I wouldn’t come if I didn’t have to.” Pete’s shoulders slumped. “Worst afternoon of the term. Think of all the research I could be getting done instead.”

Sheila smiled to herself this time. Quite a few of her colleagues laboured under the delusion that they were international researchers trapped in the bodies of put-upon administrative slaves. “Indeed. But it’s always useful to find out what’s going on, isn’t it?”

Pete shrugged as they went into the room. “At least Owen gives us refreshments now, I suppose.” He accelerated towards the complimentary FairTrade tea and coffee at the end of the room.

Ignoring the melee around the coffee table, Sheila picked a seat on the same side of the table as the door. She put down her iPad and went over to Owen. “Hi, Owen. I presume it’s ok for me to join the meeting? I don’t want to get too far behind with departmental issues while I’m on secondment.”

Owen looked at her as though he couldn’t quite remember who she was, or perhaps as if he’d forgotten she was on secondment. “Of course, Sheila. I didn’t realise you were back at work. Always welcome.”

Sheila went back to her seat, shaking her head slightly. Idiot.

Pete came and sat next to her and put down his cup with great care. An unfeasibly large number of packaged biscuits was artfully arranged on the saucer. He removed them and stacked them up on the table. “So. Sheila. How’re things in the Special Projects office?”

“Oh, you know, pretty routine.” Sheila’s years as a solicitor had left her with considerable skills in stonewalling.

“Must make a nice change from here, though.” Pete looked around the table dejectedly. “Has anyone told you about Lilian’s – “ he was interrupted by Owen.

“Right, everyone, shall we make a start? As usual, we’ve got a very full agenda.”

The chatter around the tea and coffee subsided and the rest of the department moved over to the table. Sheila made a mental note to find out later about Lilian.

Owen waited for everyone to be finally settled. “Right, everyone. Thanks for coming. We’ve got a full agenda, so let’s crack on.” An air of gloom settled over the room as they bent to their papers and electronic devices.

There was an interminable item about marking. The departmental exams officer had put in a plea for colleagues to avoid using marks which ended in ‘9’. Despite a good presentation which concisely summarised the evidence for avoiding this, a clear explanation of the false sense of precision generated by the use of percentage marks and the irrelevance of averaging when grade bands were not of equal size, a predictable outrage had been unleashed in the room.

Harold raised his hand. Sheila sighed inwardly. She mouthed to herself what he would say. “I’ve been teaching for twenty-two years, and…”

“I’ve been marking for twenty-three years, and…” Sheila winced. A year out in her estimate. It was like being lost in time…

Harold had continued “and I am perfectly capable of marking to a single, even to half, of a percentage point…”

Sheila tuned out. They had the same discussion about once every two years. The exams officer was always a newish member of staff who was pleased to get some responsibility so soon, and had no idea of historical discussions.

Eventually Owen called a halt, with no decision being taken, and no chance of any change in practice.

He looked down at his agenda. “OK, folks. Next item: student business.” All eyes turned to the two student reps.

Charlie reddened slightly. He looked down at this notes. “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Charlie Burton and this is Sally Redman. We’re both in second year. We wanted to ask the department if you’d consider getting involved in a new initiative…”

“Tautology” muttered Harold, not sufficiently under his breath

Charlie went slightly redder, but continued bravely. “This initiative involves students and staff working together on course improvements. It’s a pilot project and we’d get help from the Students’ Union and the Centre for Academic Practice.”

Harold snorted loudly, and a few other people sniggered more discreetly. Owen frowned at them.

Charlie carried on reading. “As students are experts in being taught, this project aims to make best use of their expertise to enhance the curriculum.” He paused.

The use of the C word unleashed a torrent of comment.

“Students are here to be taught. How can they know what should be in the curriuclum?”

“Students do already contribute to enhancement. They fill in evaluation forms at the end of the year, and we act on that. They haven’t got time to do other things.”

“What can we learn from students? They’re here to learn from us!”

“I’ve been teaching for twenty-three years, are you saying that you’re an expert on my curriculum?”

Owen sat nodding. He made no effort to stop the outbursts, nor to manage the order in which people contributed. Charlie and Sally shrank down in their chairs. Eventually, the hubbub died down. Sheila raised her hand and waved it slightly.

Owen nodded at her. “Sheila.”

“Charlie. thank you. This does sound interesting. Could you tell us a little more about how it would actually work and what you think the remit of students might be?”

Charlie looked gratefully at her, and then returned to his notes. “We would never get involved in commenting on what is taught.” he read out.

“Should think not.” Harold.

“But we think that we have something to offer in terms of the mode of delivery and assessment structures…”

This time, it was the ‘A’ word which caused upset. Student involvement in assessment? Whatever next?

Sheila sighed. She had been missing the students lately, down in what she and Bob affectionately called the Bunker, but she really did not miss her colleagues very much.

Finally, Owen cleared his throat. “OK, folks. I think we need to move on. Anyone in favour of joining Charlie and Sally’s project, perhaps you can catch up with them after the meeting.”

They continued to the next item.

Charlie and Sally had gathered their papers together and sat through the rest of the meeting looking slightly dazed. At the end of the meeting, they rushed for the door. Sheila hurried after them.

“Charlie, hang on a minute.”

The two students turned round.

“I’m Sheila – I teach on the main law degree, but I’m on secondment at the moment on a special project. Listen, I thought your ideas sounded really interesting. Do you want to come for a coffee with me, and we can chat about it?”

They both looked as though it was the last thing they’d like to do.

“Come on. Sorry about my colleagues.” Sheila added, disloyally. “Sometimes they need some time to think about new ideas.” She looked at her watch. “Maybe a drink would be better? It it’s not too early for you?”

Charlie and Sally looked at each other and shrugged. “OK.”

What can we learn from students? Do leave your tips for the Burston Central academics.

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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.
You can still 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.

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.

Advent Episode 19: Progress?

A super-bumper triple episode.

D I Bones was packing up to go home. It had been a completely wasted day. Despite numerous time-wasting calls from people who’d seen the article in the local paper, the sum total of his day was that he’d found out that Gareth Jones had probably come from Wales. He’d left a voicemail for Sandra Sharpe, but she hadn’t replied.  He sighed as he shut down the computer. Never mind, he’d have a nice quiet evening with a bottle of wine and his new box-set of The Killing.

His phone rang. He looked at it balefully. It wouldn’t be anything important, and he wanted to go and put an end to this futile working day. It could go to voicemail. On the other hand, maybe it was Sandra Sharpe. He picked up the receiver.

“Burston Metropolitan Police, D I Bones. How can I help you?” he put on his most helpful voice.

“This is Mrs Lilian Hankin, MA. From Burston Central University.”

“What can I do for you, Mrs Hankin?” asked D I Bones, wondering whether it was going to be important enough for him to get his notepad out.

“I have some critical information about the death of Gareth Jones,” said Lilian.

“What kind of information?” D I Bones replied, guardedly. She sounded a bit like another one of the cranks. That was the trouble with media reports. They brought out all of the nutters.

“I know who killed him!” declared Lilian. She cleared her throat. “Some information has come into my possession which identifies the perpetrator.”

Oh God, she really was a crank. “Mrs, er, Hankin, we have no reason to suspect foul play in the death of Dr Jones. It’s very kind of you to take an interest in the case, but at the moment we’re more concerned with tracing Dr Jones’ next of kin. Did you know Dr Jones, by any chance?”

Lilian dismissed this. “Of course not, he was in Biology. I’m in the Law department.”

“Oh.” D I Bones wasn’t sure what the right answer to this was. “Of course. Well, if there isn’t anything else..”

“Wait a minute. Don’t you need to see my evidence?”

D I Bones sighed. “What sort of evidence do you mean, Mrs Hankin?”

“There’s this woman in my department, she’s got problems, you know, mental problems, she’s been off with them. I don’t think she’s right yet. She’s been behaving really oddly and I found something very suspicious.”

D I Bones sighed audibly this time, and repeated the previous question. “What sort of evidence do you have, Mrs Hankin?”

“I can’t possibly tell you over the phone, D I Bones. I need to be careful. I have reason to believe I may be in danger myself.”

D I Bones thought about his box-set. The woman was obviously a crank, but it was the closest connection he’d had all week between his victim and anybody at Burston Central University. He supposed he’d have to follow it up.

“Could I come over and have a chat to you now, Mrs Hankin?” he said reluctantly.

“Oh yes, of course. Shall I meet you in the University coffee-shop? Do you know where it is? Just off the park?”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes” he said “I’m not in uniform, but I expect you’ll recognise me.”

“Don’t worry, D I Bones.” Lilian sounded on the verge of hysteria “I’m in the Law department, I’m used to seeing the long arm of the law. I’ll know who you are.”

D I Bones replaced the receiver and sighed longer and deeper than ever. This truly was the case from hell.

 The Weekly Therapy Session

Wednesday evening was Biology night out. Well, it had been once. Attendance had dwindled over the years. Older staff had left and new ones didn’t seem to be interested in what the hard core liked to call the weekly therapy session.

Alison slumped down into the chair. She didn’t say anything, but her body language showed a mixture of frustration and exhaustion. Silently, Heather poured a glass of wine from the bottle on the table and Alison took a large mouthful. “And how was your day?” enquired Tim, sardonically.

The combination of the wine, the change of scene and the company of people who would understand was help in itself. Alison managed a weak grin and said “Five and a half hours to moderate 50 pieces of work”.

Tim and Heather looked at each other. Five and a half hours? For two people? Admittedly they were quite substantial assignments, marked by a team of three, but they didn’t all need to be fully checked: a sample needed to be thoroughly reviewed and then they needed a quick look through the feedback sheets. Five and a half hours sounded more like double second marking with particular attention to crossing Ts and dotting Is.  Not what they’d expect to be necessary from experienced academics like Alison and Don.

Alison caught their glance. “Well, there weren’t actually five and a half hours of actually looking at the assignments” she corrected “We aren’t that inefficient.”

She grimaced. “We’d agreed to meet at 2pm, with the assignments. Don wasn’t ready then, because a dissertation student had come to see him at quarter to, and she was still in there explaining how she hadn’t been able to collect all of her planned data and what was she going to do to get finished on time and so on, so I went off to collect the assignments anyway. We’d asked all the other markers to submit their feedback sheets to the programmes office for us to collect, if they hadn’t done them electronically and emailed them to us. Sam had sent us the fifteen he’d done, bless him, but John and Sally still like to hand-write theirs, so I needed to get their feedback sheets from the office. But only Sally’s were there. I went to look for John.

“He was with a student, but when he’d finished, he said he hadn’t marked them yet. Apparently he hadn’t realised he had to download the submissions from the VLE, so he was waiting to be notified by the submissions office that he needed to collect them.”

Alison stopped for a gulp of wine. The others waited. It wasn’t a particularly interesting story, but they could tell that Alison needed to finish it.

“So, I gritted my teeth and went back up to the meeting room. Don was there by then, waiting for me to come back with the feedback sheets. We decided we’d better mark John’s – the feedback is due back to the students tomorrow, God knows why he didn’t think to chase them up – and then look at the rest. So we got our laptops out and downloaded eight each, and off we went. Luckily Sam had written a decent assignment brief and a detailed rubric, or we’d have been in real trouble with it – we haven’t taught that unit for a while. So that took us just over two hours, I think it was about quarter to five by then.  I went to get some coffees and then we got on to the moderating. Actually, that really didn’t take us too long, probably about an hour and a half – we spent some extra time on a couple of borderline cases – and then we just needed to complete the moderation sheets and put them under the door of the programmes office – everyone had gone home by then. Just as well I wasn’t entering the marks on the tablet computer, I presume you’ve all heard what’s happened to them? Anyway, thanks for the drink. What else have I missed today?”

Tim and Heather looked at each other. “Did you see the local rag today?” asked Tim.

“Um, let me think, I don’t think so,” replied Alison. “no, there wasn’t a spare one on the bus, and I was trying to finish something off anyway. Why?”

“Apparently we have er, a deceased colleague” Heather said, trying to break the news gently.

“Oh yes, Gareth Jones.” said Alison, off-handedly. “I did know about that. Shame.”

Tim and Heather frowned at each other. That wasn’t quite the reaction they had been expecting. They’d thought Alison would be upset.

“The police came to see me on Monday about it. Apparently he was found dead in a wood. And do you know, I went along to his Cell Biology class yesterday and they said they hadn’t seen him for three weeks. Can you believe that nobody told us? Terrible.”

She shook her head. “Good thing they weren’t third years. We’d never have been able to calm them down before they had to fill in the National Student Survey.”

She was fiddling with her phone. “Just let me send this to Derek, to let him know I’m running late.”

Heather leaned forward. “Alison. Gareth Jones is dead.”

Alison looked up. “I know, I’ve just been telling you. I’ve spent hours trying to find out if we’ve got any records on him, too. Advita said he’d never actually sent back his personal details form. God knows how he got paid at all, without that. But I don’t know any more than that. We’ll have to get somebody else in to do Cell Biology. Do you know anyone?”

She emptied her glass and stood up. “Sorry to love you and leave you, but I really do need to get home. Emma’s got some coursework due tomorrow. Thanks for the wine, guys. See you soon.”

Heather shared the rest of the bottle out between their glasses. They sat in silence for a moment, both looking at their drinks. “This can’t go on. Alison doesn’t seem to care about anything except just getting through the day. That poor guy, Gareth. What’s happening to us all?” Heather looked on the verge of tears.

“We’re all turning into target-obsessed automatons, only bothered about the next student survey result.” replied Tim, drily. “Did you know Gareth, then?”

“No, but, it just seems so sad. That we didn’t know him, and now he’s dead.” Heather realised that this wasn’t very coherent. She sniffed loudly and took a big slug of wine. Maybe it was better not to talk about it.

Dinner for Two

Bob was knocking on the door of a neat-looking terraced house in an unfamiliar part of Burston. He was wearing neatly pressed chinos, a checked shirt and a dark V necked sweater. He was holding a bottle of wine rather awkwardly in his left hand and trying to stop a slim folder from slipping out from under his arm while he knocked. He hoped Sheila liked white wine.

She opened the door. “Bob!” she leaned forward and pecked him on the cheek. He blushed. “Come on in.” Sheila stood aside and ushered him in.

Bob held out the bottle. He could feel that his face was a bit pink, and he simply couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Ooh, this is already chilled. Great. Would you like a glass?”

Bob nodded.

“Take a seat, Bob. No need to be polite.” she continued, as she took the bottle from him and went through to the kitchen to get some glasses. Bob sat down on the nearest chair, a comfy armchair with a view straight out through the French window into the back garden. It was dark outside, but there were a couple of coloured lights over the patio and he could see enough of the garden to see that it was well-kept. He got up and walked over to the window.

“Is that a Pittosporum. Sheila?” Sheila handed him a glass.

“Ooh, clever you. Yes, it’s a Silver Queen. Lovely winter interest. I’ve got a tenuifolium purpureum behind that, but it’s too dark to see it. You’ll have to come round in the daylight.” She smiled encouragingly at him.

Bob cleared his throat. “That would be nice. We can compare notes. I spend quite a bit of time in the garden myself.”

Sheila smiled at him again. “Well, sit down, Bob. How did you get on with your plan today?”

Bob looked blankly at her. The conversation seemed to be moving too fast for him. Plan for what? Coming to see her garden in the daylight? He felt his face reddening again.

“Sorry, I was thinking about the garden. Yes, the plan.” God, he sounded lame. What was wrong with him? He was perfectly used to talking to his colleagues, although this was the first time he’d actually been invited to someone’s house. And he’d only met Sheila today. She seemed harmless enough. Why was he so flustered?

He looked down at the folder which he’d put on the arm-rest of the chair, and remembered. “Not too bad, actually. Do you want to have a look?”

“Sure” said Sheila. She sat down on the sofa and patted the space next to her. “Bring it over here.”

Bob sat down gingerly on the sofa, leaving what he hoped was a suitable space between them. He didn’t want Sheila to think he was taking advantage. He took out his plan.

“OK, it’s in two parts. I’ve done a SWOT analysis, then I’ve written a full business plan which maximises the opportunities and addresses the weaknesses. I’m pretty sure it will do the job.”

Sheila took the slim report from him. “This looks great, so professional. Like a business consultant’s report.”

Bob gave a little smile. “Well, yes, perhaps I haven’t quite lost my touch.”

“Do you know, Bob, that would sound arrogant from a lot of my colleagues, but from you, it just sounds, you know, sweet.”

Bob blushed dark red and tried to hide his face behind his glass of wine.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” Sheila tapped him on the arm, “You should learn to accept a compliment gracefully. I learned that from counselling.” she added.

Bob remembered that she’d said she’d been off work for a long time with stress. He’d better not upset her. He couldn’t think of anything to say, though, so he just kept smiling.

Sheila smiled kindly at him. “It’s alright, Bob. I won’t bite, and I’m not going to crack up.”

Jesus, could she read his mind? Bob drained his glass.

Sheila leaned over her side of the sofa. Bob had a flash of panic. He didn’t know this woman. Maybe she had a weapon down there?

She straightened up, holding the bottle of wine in her hand. “I think it’s still cool enough” she said “probably not worth putting it in the fridge, at this rate.” She refilled their glasses. Bob blushed again, this time in embarrassment at his crazy thoughts.

“Now, here’s my bit.” She held out her own neatly presented folder. “This covers all of the student support, quality and HR issues”, she said. “I think it’s well stitched up. The students won’t be short-changed, and we won’t be out on our ears. Cheers.”  She raised her glass.

Bob flicked through her plan. “This is really impressive, Sheila.”

He was genuinely interested in what she’d produced. He forgot to be embarrassed to talk to her. “It’s clever to tie in the part-time staff like that – I bet nobody in HR will see the subtlety of that, or realise what the long-term commitment is. But if you don’t do it this way, we’ll never get any loyalty from the team. And I like this idea of a student contract. A minimum commitment which is legally binding on the UCNB. Clever. Do you think Alan will understand it?”

Sheila snorted. “Alan? No chance. This is the kind of thing that my corporate clients paid thousands per contract for. Alan’s only ever worked in a university. Bless him. He’s not used to people being devious.” She corrected herself. “Well, maybe he is, but not devious in this way. Devious in a way which he does understand. Oops, that didn’t make much sense, did it? The wine must have gone to my head.” She giggled. “You know what I mean, don’t you?”

They looked at each other for a moment. Co-conspirators, Bob thought. Although they were on the side of good, so was conspirator the right word?

Sheila stood up. “You must be hungry, Bob. I’ve made us something to eat. Come on through.” She led the way.

Bob was wondering how the wine had gone so quickly to his head. He wondered if Sheila had put something in his wine. Then he remembered that he’d skipped lunch to work on the plan. That must be it.

The table was laid simply, as though they were two old friends having an informal supper. “Sit anywhere, Bob. I hope this is OK,” Sheila said “it’s just what I would have had for myself. I didn’t have time to do anything special today, what with the plan and everything.”

“That’s great, Sheila. It’s really nice of you to invite me.” Bob meant this sincerely. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone outside the family had invited him into their home.

Sheila smiled at him again “Well, next time I’ll make a bit more effort.” They both blushed a little at that.

Bob sat down and Sheila turned to the stove. “All in one pot” she said, cheerily “it was easier.” She brought a casserole dish over to the table and put it on a mat. She lifted the lid. A heavenly smell rose. Bob’s mouth watered. “Sheila, that smells..”

Just then, there was a series of loud knocks at the door.

Sheila looked surprised. “That’s odd. I’m not expecting anyone.” She looked briefly at Bob as though he might be responsible for the intrusion.

He shrugged and looked towards the front door. “Would you like me to…?”

“Oh. No, sorry. I’ll just be a minute.”

Sheila put the chain on the door and opened it as far as it would go. The man on the doorstep held up an ID card. “D I Bones” he said. “Are you Sheila Thompson?”

“Um. Yes” said Sheila, closing the door and taking off the chain. She opened it properly. “What can I do for you, Detective Inspector?”

“I need to ask you a few questions about Gareth” he said. Sheila paled. “Gareth?” she said, weakly.

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: It was an accident.

Advent Episode 18: Secret Plans

Bob was back in his office, trying very hard to block out Martin’s incessant phone calls on the topic of car parking. He was looking at the computer screen. He’d opened a new file and given it a title.

Accountancy in the UCNB

Then there were four headings: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. He thought about what Sheila had said to him. The whole notion was ridiculous, but for some reason the two of them had been picked for it. Sheila said she thought it wasn’t because anyone thought they were particularly good, but because they were easily bullied.

Bob had bristled a bit when she said that, because she didn’t know him, but on reflection he had to admit it was a plausible reason. Alan had mentioned the possibility of redundancies. Sheila said that Alan had brought up her sick leave when he’d ‘asked’ her to get involved. Of course it was outrageous behaviour, but as she said, who was going to believe someone who’d been off for months for a psychiatric illness against the DVC? What Alan hadn’t bargained for was that Sheila had got new weapons in her armoury.

Bob had been quite bewildered by then, but he thought it was something to do with assertiveness techniques rather than actual weapons. At least, he hoped so. He was actually quite keen to find out more about Sheila and her weapons. Academic life was getting surprising again. He tried to focus on the positives.

He started to type.

Strengths: Price; costs; experienced, committed staff; link to established university and its quality procedures

Weaknesses: no extra services associated with university; maybe seen as poor relation by students and employers; competition with main brand; no research input to courses

Opportunities: new in the market, unique offer

Threats: Difficulty in recruiting staff (poor relation); no proper market research?

He deleted the last sentence. He didn’t know about the market research. Perhaps there had been a lot. He looked up for a moment. He wasn’t very up to speed with marketing, but he’d had to have a passing knowledge when he was investigating accounts, to judge whether companies were doing what they liked to call imaginary marketing, that was to say, marketing without any intention of selling a product or service, but just to give the illusion of running a normal business. That was more on the money-laundering side of things. He’d been more of a specialist on tax avoidance and fraud.

So, who would be interested in the University College of North Burston? With the huge hike in fees, there were going to be some new marketing considerations. He jotted down some more notes.

  • New full-time students who are debt-averse,
  • Part-time students who want a cheaper option
  • Students who live at home and don’t need/want sports/community facilities

It was rather a dismal list. This wasn’t going to lead to a diverse, vibrant community of staff and students. Especially if the range of subjects offered was so limited. Law, Business, Accountancy. He glanced over to the window. Even though his view was blocked by Martin’s desk, he could still see glimpses of the Art building, festooned with orange and black banners which proclaimed themselves to be an anti-Halloween installation – it looked a bit ragged now, but it was still defiantly different. UCNB was just going to look like an office block. He sighed, and returned to his plan.

He had turned off his email alerts so that he could concentrate, but it was difficult to block out Martin, who was keeping up a low-level grumble. Martin put down the phone for the umpteenth time unlocked the screen-saver, and let out a delighted shriek. “Bob! Bob! Have you looked at the latest?” Bob sighed, saved, and switched to email.


From: Justin Marks, head of campus communications

Subject: tablet computers

Priority: urgent

All staff and students using the BurstU tablets, please return them to the nearest helpdesk immediately. A serious technical fault has been identified. Do not switch the tablets on.

Martin was chortling. “Ooh, I wonder what’s happened to them? Serves them right for setting up a scheme like that and not planning it properly.” Martin had been very upset not to be offered one of the new tablet computers. “I’ll phone Jerry over in Marketing Management, he’s got one. See what’s happened.”

Bob tried very hard to get back to his list, but despite himself, he couldn’t help but be drawn to Martin’s gleeful half-conversation.

“They did what? She didn’t! American flag? Where? Brilliant!”

Martin was clearly in heaven. Eventually he replaced the receiver and turned towards Bob. “You’ll never guess why those tablets have been recalled.” Bob waited, attentively. He knew from experience that he wasn’t actually required to have a guess.

“They’ve all been hacked. The university home page comes up with a porn picture, and the best bit is, someone’s photoshopped the VC’s head onto one of the, er, “ Martin searched for the right word “er, protagonists.”

Bob giggled. That was quite funny.

“No, actually, the best bit is that you can’t move off the home page. It’s stuck on the VC in action. Brilliant.” Martin guffawed. “It’s going to take them forever to sort that one out. I think they gave out four hundred and fifty of them.”

Bob smiled again and turned back to the screen. Martin was going to be occupied for a while, phoning round to tell people about the latest management disaster. It did raise an important issue about information services for UCNB, though. He’d better add out-sourcing to his plan.

Sheila was in her office on the other side of the park, looking at a similar file on her own computer. She was feeling pretty pleased with her plan. It had been a stroke of luck to meet Bob this morning. With her legal skills and his forensic accountancy experience, they were going to run rings around Alan Chilcott. She put her headphones on and started to type.

After two hours, she stretched. It was looking pretty good. Time to look at a printout. She saved the file and then sent it to print. As soon as she’d pressed the button, she realised that she’d have to run to the printer to collect it in case anyone else would see it. Everyone on her floor shared a printer, or multi-function device as the technical term would have it: printer, photocopier, scanner.

They weren’t allowed printers in their own offices. Something to do with the green policy? It was an absolute pain when everyone was trying to print stuff out ten minutes before class started. She hurried down the corridor and was relieved to see that there was nobody else hovering round the machine. She grabbed her plan and walked more slowly back to her office, flicking through the pages. It looked quite good. She liked to get the presentation right. She looked up. Surely she hadn’t left the door of her office open, even though she’d been in a hurry. She definitely hadn’t locked it, though. Shit. She’d left her bag in there and everything. She burst back into the room.

Lilian was standing over by the desk. “Sheila! I just popped in to see how you were getting on with, er, letting the students know about next week’s change of session.”

Sheila looked at her sharply. “I think we agreed that you’d be doing that, Lilian.”

“Really?” Lilian looked innocent. “I must be getting confused in my old age. Mind not working properly. Trouble up top.”

Sheila winced. “Well, that was what we agreed.” She stuck to her guns. “You need to put some materials up in the VLE as well. I’ve hidden the Corporate Liability stuff again, as it’ll be for the following week now. Don’t want to confuse them. Oh, bad luck about your tablet computer, by the way.”

Lilian looked only slightly put out. “By the way, Sheila,” Sheila wondered what was coming next. Had Lilian been invited to join Alan’s project as well?

“Did you hear about that poor lecturer being found dead?” She emphasised the last word.

“No,” replied Sheila “I’ve been really busy, I haven’t heard anything. Well, apart from that urgent message about tablet computers. Someone from Law?”

“No, no, no. Biology, I think. Terrible thing.”

Sheila looked at Lilian in surprise. She didn’t usually waste sentiment. “Did you know him, Lilian?” she asked, gently.

Lilian stared at her. “Don’t be silly, he was in Biology.” she said, as though that were sufficient explanation. “Well, ok, best be going.” she said, and she sidled out.

Sheila sat down. Something wasn’t quite right. Lilian wouldn’t normally have given in so quietly about the VLE stuff. Although maybe she was unaccountably touched by the death of whoever it was. She glanced at the computer. The screensaver was on, so Lilian hadn’t touched the mouse or keyboard. Hopefully she hadn’t seen what Sheila was working on, either. She’d need to be more careful about it, or maybe she could say it was a simulation she was developing to do with the students. Perfect. Nobody would query that.

So what was Lilian up to? Sheila had a sudden sinking feeling. There was something missing from her desk. Her Moleskine notebook. The notebook with all of her secret pep-messages. The one with the ‘advantages’ list for the secret project. Sheila jumped up and ran down the corridor. Lilian was standing at the multi-function device, photocopying something.

As Sheila reached her, she reached down to the little table next to the copier, and lifted up the notebook. “I thought this must be yours,” she said “you must have left it next to the copier.”

Sheila had gone slightly pale. “er, thanks, Lilian” she said, weakly. She walked slowly back up to her office. She was certain that she hadn’t taken the notebook to the copier. Certain. But why would Lilian have borrowed it, and then given it straight back? It didn’t make sense.

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: Progress?