Advent Episode 15: Routine Enquiries

DI Bones was feeling very tetchy. Dr Choudhari had emailed the main findings of the post mortem report, but it wasn’t going to progress the enquiry much.

“Estimated date of death 10-12 days before discovery – awaiting detailed weather reports for temperature profile but may not get more detail. No obvious signs of injury. Heart: normal size. No underlying pathology. Samples sent to toxicology.”

It was looking like an overdose or something like it. Not a murder enquiry. Well, that was something. But he was no nearer to finding Gareth’s family.

Gareth Jones. There must be of thousands of them on the electoral roll. His father was probably called David, or Dafydd, or Dai, and the mother was bound to be called Mary. He sighed heavily.

He flipped to the next page in the very slim file. Nasreen Birch hadn’t called him back. Dr Fraser had given him the direct line number and he’d left a voicemail message. Why weren’t these academics ever at their desks?

He wondered if there was another way of contacting her. At Burston Central, he’d gone directly through the departmental office to find Dr Fraser. He Googled Nasreen Birch. At least that wasn’t a common name.

He was surprised to get hundreds of hits, but they did all seem to be about the same person. Conference presentations, publications, quotes….on the third page he found something which looked as though it might have biographical information and so possibly contact details.

Yes, the official University of Burston page for Nasreen Birch, illustrated with an glamorous photo. Alison Fraser didn’t look as though she’d wear lipstick, or the shirt opened just one button too far, even for an publicity shot. He forced his eyes away from the slightly surprising picture and scanned for more useful information. Same phone number as the one he’d already got, email address which he noted, no mention of who to contact if she was busy. He used the side menu to navigate back to the department structure and tried the ‘contact’ page. Phone number: university switchboard, email address He wondered if anyone would answer that one.

He dialled the university switchboard.

“University of Burston, your established destination, how may I help you?”

“Could I speak to the head administrator in the biotechnology department, please?”

“Sorry, sir, the what?”

He repeated the request.

“No sir, I heard you, I just don’t know what the head administrator is. I’ve never heard of that job before. Do you have a name?”

DI Bones felt tetchier than ever. “The main office for biotechnology? Someone to contact when the academics aren’t answering the phone?”

“Ah. I get you. Hold on while I put you through.”

A cheery voice started “Hello there!”

D I Bones started to say “hello, I’m..” but by the time he’d got that far, he realised that it was a recording.

“Did you know that the University of Burston was established in 1863? Since then we’ve contributed an estimated billion pounds to the local economy and been associated with three Nobel prize winners. Our research today is all focused on making life better for everyone.”

DI Bones thought sourly that a billion pounds wasn’t much over a hundred and fifty odd years, and wasn’t there a difference between knowing the prize winners and actually being one? Whatever happened to a tinny loop of Greensleeves while you were on hold? The voice continued telling him of the achievements of the University of Burston, but he’d stopped listening. Eventually, she was cut off in mid-sentence.

“Hello? Joan Garvill here.”

He tried to remember why he was there, sititng in his office with the phone held to his ear. “Er. Hello. This is Detective Inspector Bones, Burston Metropolitan Police. I was wondering if I could leave a message for Mrs, er, Professor Birch. It’s quite important.” He scribbled ‘Joan Garvill. Biotech dept?’ on his pad.

“Professor Birch? She’s out of the country, I’m afraid. But she’ll be checking her email,” said Mrs Garvill, very crisply, and as though she was answering a very frequent request.

Then her tone changed slightly. DI Bones was used to this. People were always curious about why a policeman was making enquiries, even if they were hugely annoyed with the person about who the enquiries were being made.

“Is it something I can help with?”  she added, with the air of someone terribly busy but who suddenly had all the time in the world to assist an important detective.

DI Bones weighed up the possibility of passing on key information in the case to somebody who shouldn’t know too much, or who might even be a suspect. He shrugged to himself. He didn’t even have a case and there was hardly anything important to pass on. At least at the other university, he’d had the payslip to justify making enquiries. They’d kept the details quiet just in case it was suspicious, but it wasn’t looking that way, so he might as well….

”DI Bones?” he realised that he’d been thinking for a fraction too long.

“What’s your role, Mrs, er, Garvill?”

“Senior team leader in the Biotechnology research support team”

“I see” replied DI Bones, frantically scribbling this down next to her name “Do you know when Professor Birch will be back in Burston?”

“Just a moment, I’ll check her diary.” DI Bones could hear clicks.

“It looks as though she’ll next be in the office a week on Thursday.”

DI Bones sighed. “Is there any way of getting in contact with her before that? A mobile number?”

“Well, I do have a number for emergencies, but she’s in Japan; there’s a bit of a time difference.”

“I’ll take it anyway. Thank you.”

There was a pause. DI Bones could hear keyboard clicks and sliding sounds which must be the mouse being moved around. He guessed that she’d put the receiver down on the desk.

“OK. Here you are.” Mrs Garvill recited the number. “Are you sure I can’t help you with anything?”

“Well, maybe you can. What is your exact role in the department, Mrs Garvill? I realise that I’ve got your job title,” he added hastily, “But what does this actually involve? Do you have anything to do with the, er, postdocs?” He really must ask someone what a postdoc was.

“Of course,” she said “I do all of the contracts and expenses and arrangements for them.”

“Oh, great. So. I was wondering if you knew Dr Gareth Jones at all?”

“Gareth? What do you want to know about him for?”

DI Bones felt relieved. At last, somebody who knew the deceased. “I’d rather not say just at the moment, Mrs Garvill. How well did, er, do you know him?”

“To be honest, not that well. He’s a very quiet lad. Keeps himself to himself, but a lot of these scientists are a bit quiet when they come in the office. Minds elsewhere, you know.”

DI Bones waited.

“He doesn’t work here any more, though, his contract came to an end in July. He said he was going to do some teaching down the road, you know, the other, er, university.”

“I see. What sort of a person was, er is, he?”

“I can’t really think of anything to tell you, to be honest. Keeps himself to himself” she repeated.

DI Bones sighed again. He didn’t think this was going to get him very far. He wondered if Mrs Garvill would be able to identify the body.

“Is there anyone else in the department who knew him well?” he asked “Anyone I could talk to about him?”

Mrs Garvill seemed to remember that she was talking to a policeman. “Can you tell me what this is about, anyway? What’s Gareth done?”

He sighed yet again. He might as well tell her. She obviously didn’t know him that well. “I’m afraid Dr Jones is deceased, madam, and I’m just making some routine enquiries about him”.

“Dead? Gareth? That’s terrible! How did it happen?”

“I’m not at liberty to say, Mrs Garvill. But I really would appreciate it if you could put me in touch with someone who knew him a little better.”

Mrs Garvill now seemed anxious to get him off the phone. “I think I’ll have to ask around, D I Bones. Can I take your contact details and get back to you?”

He passed them on and hung up after the usual pleasantries. He wasn’t too hopeful that this was going to get him any more information.

He sighed. Time for the local paper. He jotted down a few notes for a press release and turned back to his computer screen. There was a template for this on the intranet system. He called it up, entered some sparse details, and pressed send to pass it to the press office for release.

He checked his email to ensure he’d received a receipt for it. The search warrant for Gareth’s flat had come through. Well, that could wait till the morning. He called the duty desk to book a uniformed officer to help him with the search, and then closed down the computer. He was going home.

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: Dispirited


Advent Episode 14: Escape Route?

Sheila was back in her office. Another meeting over. She put her laptop into the docking station. While it was booting up, she fished under the low table by the radiator for her kettle and went off to the ladies’ to fill it with water. You couldn’t get camomile tea in the coffee bar. She needed her kettle.

When she got back to the office she closed the door behind her and locked it quietly. She made the tea in her special mini-teapot which sat neatly over the cup and took it over to her desk.

She logged on to the computer, but didn’t open her email. Too much to do. She put  her headphones on and opened YouTube instead. Mahler’s symphony number 5 was bookmarked.

She loved this particular track. Every time she played it, she had a flashback to the first time she’d seen Educating Rita, when she was in the sixth form. She had laughed heartily, as intended, at Trish’s suggestion: “Wouldn’t you just die without Mahler?”

Sheila would never have expected either to be working in a university or to be listening to Mahler thirty years later. It made her smile now.

She turned up the volume and got back to the notes for Corporate Liability. She’d done a quick fix in the meeting but she had a lot more work to do. She actually enjoyed doing this. There was always something new to bring to the topic. She didn’t mind updating it every year. She was just a little bit behind, that was all.

This year she was going to discuss the brewery which hadn’t maintained its pipework properly, and large flakes of rust had got into the product. Beerlines had been clogged in hundreds of pubs and cost thousands to clear out or replace, not to mention the claims from drinkers who might have unwittingly consumed smaller quantities.

It was a brilliant case study. Not only was it difficult to show who was liable – should the pipes have been expected to last longer? Should the directors have got involved with the maintenance schedule? – but also, nobody could prove whether they’d drunk the beer or not, as most pubs and clubs didn’t issue itemised receipts. Sheila stretched out her fingers a couple of times and got to work.

The Mahler ended about an hour later, just as she uploaded the last files to the online course. She lifted her head and stretched out her arms as the Health and Safety advisor had shown them to do. She lowered her arms slowly to the side, then repeated the stretch a couple of times. She took off the headphones and stood up. Too much camomile tea.

When she got back from the ladies, Sheila noticed a Post-it on her door.

Sheila. Call 9274

Sheila took the note and went back into the office. 9274? That wasn’t a number in her building. She went back to the computer and looked it up in the online directory. Unlisted. Strange. Oh well, it was a university, not an organisation of mass murderers. She dialled the number.

“Alan Chilcott speaking”

Sheila felt slightly panicked. Why did the Deputy Vice-Chancellor want to talk to her? She’d followed all the official procedures when she’d returned to work. She’d been genuinely ill. She had more or less caught up with the courses she taught. The students seemed happy.

“Um. Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Sheila Thompson here. I got a message to phone you?”

“Sheeeeila,” drawled Alan, “thank you for calling me back. I thought you must be off-site when I came up and found the office locked. But your Outlook calendar didn’t show anything.”

“I’ve been in my office all afternoon.” replied Sheila, somewhat defensively. “Perhaps I was at the ladies or something. Anyway, what can I do for you, Dep, er, Alan?” She made a mental tick in her notebook. Another assertiveness point gained.

“I was just wondering if we could have a quick word, Sheila. Do you know where Cheeky’s is?”

Sheila couldn’t quite see the connection between these two sentences.“Er. Yes..”

“OK, see you there in ten minutes? Thanks, Sheila.”

The line was cut. Sheila continued holding the receiver for a couple of seconds before she realised that Alan had made an appointment to meet her off-site, and had rung off. How strange. She supposed she’d agreed to go. She’d never actually met the Deputy Vice Chancellor. Although of course she knew who he was, and had heard him give various start-of-the-year pep talks and the like.

She sighed. Casting a longing glance at her almost-finished teaching notes for Corporate Liability, she put on her coat, picked up her notebook, locked the workstation and left the office, carefully locking the door behind her.

The ten minute walk down Challoner Street gave her a bit too much time to think. What had she done? Why was the DVC meeting her off-site? Had Bill complained about her? Had any students complained about her?

Oh God, had he seen her profile on that online dating site? She’d known it was stupid to sign up to that, even when Anita had persuaded her after one too many glasses of Chardonnay and even though she’d used a false name. Oh God, that would be what it was about. She felt a bit wobbly.

Just outside Cheeky’s, she stopped for a moment and leaned against the wall, even though it was drizzling and most people were walking very briskly. She opened the notebook at the back. Underneath the ‘you can’t change them’ maxim was written:  ‘think positive. Wait until you have all the information before panicking.’

“Think positive” she repeated to herself. “Think positive.”

Her mind went blank. What positive things might the DVC want to say to her? “Maybe he’s going to nominate you for a Teaching Award” she thought, trying to think of unlikely things.

She snorted, possibly out loud. She looked around quickly in case anyone was looking at her, but she didn’t seem to have attracted anyone’s attention. She carried on making a list of positive possibilities.

Maybe he’s going to offer you a new job. Maybe he’s mounting a disciplinary against Lilian, and he wants you as a witness? She smiled broadly at this idea. That would explain meeting off-campus, too. Shutting the notebook, she straightened her shoulders and marched into Cheeky’s like Wyatt Earp preparing for a showdown. Oh yes. Lilian on a disciplinary. Make my day.

Sheila had never been into Cheeky’s before. It was almost empty, and it didn’t look as though either of the two other clients was from the university. They were wearing overalls. High-vis jackets were slung over the backs of their chairs, and they were settling down to a mug of tea and a pile of toast each. Sheila felt quite out of place in her neat two-piece suit.

She crossed to the counter and ordered a coffee, catching sight of the menu just in time to stop herself from asking for a skinny latte. The price seemed very low. She hastily fished out a pound coin from her purse instead of the ten pound note that she’d already started to pull out.  The assistant passed her a huge mug of instant coffee with milk.

“Thanks” said Sheila, and went to sit down in the corner where she could see the door. She sat for a while, nursing the mug gently and continuing to try to push away negative reasons for her summons with ever-more-preposterous positive ones.

Soon, she was imagining Lilian in court for running a prostitution business from university premises, having promised the most attractive first years extra marks to participate.

“..but it was a win-win for them, counsel” Lilian was saying to the prosecution barrister “They got paid and they were going to do well in their course…”

Sheila snorted again, and the sound made her aware of her surroundings. The two builders or whatever they were didn’t seem to have noticed. Luckily, the radio was playing pretty loudly. She looked at her watch. It was at least half an hour since the Deputy Vice Chancellor had phoned her. Maybe it hadn’t been him at all? Maybe Lilian was playing an elaborate trick on her? She looked around again to check that Lilian wasn’t hiding anywhere, smirking at Sheila’s stupidity in believing that the DVC would actually want to see her.

Sheila felt a chill go through her. This was almost worse than the DVC wanting to see her. The DVC didn’t want to see her, it was all a horrible trick. She felt her pulse starting to increase. Of course the DVC didn’t want to meet her. Why would he? He didn’t have a clue who she was. They were all laughing at her. Everyone thought she was stupid. They all despised her. Lilian was just the ring-leader. Slightly desperately, she fished in her bag for the notebook and turned to the back page.

Just then, the door of Cheeky’s opened and Alan burst in. He scanned the room as though unsure of what he was looking for, and then walked over to Sheila’s table.

“Sheila Thompson?” he said “Er, yes” replied Sheila, still flustered and holding out her right hand whilst half-getting to her feet. Of course, she knew who the Deputy Vice chancellor was. She’d forgotten that he wouldn’t have a clue who she was.

“Pleased to meet you.” said Alan. “Sorry I’m late, got a bit waylaid en route. Can I get you a coffee?” he continued, despite the barely-touched mug in front of her.

“Er, no, I’m fine for the moment”

“Ok, I’ll just get myself one, then we can have a chat” Alan winked conspiratorially at her.

Sheila sank back into her chair. Her stomach was churning ominously. “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe” she repeated to herself.

Alan returned to the table with a big mug of hot chocolate. He added three sachets of sugar and stirred vigorously.

“So. Sheila” he said.

Sheila tried not to look too panicked.

“I’ve heard a lot about you.” She felt her pulse increasing again.

“Bill says that you’re very popular with students, and very reliable.”

This didn’t sound too bad. Maybe it was the teaching award nomination after all. Alan looked at her. He seemed to be waiting for a response. She wasn’t sure what, though. He hadn’t asked a question or anything.

“Er. Thank you” said Sheila. “That’s nice” she added, encouragingly.

Alan seemed to be very interested in his hot chocolate. Eventually he looked up. He leaned over the table towards Sheila. She controlled the urge to shrink back. She was hoping that it wasn’t anything to do with the dating site.

“This is highly confidential,” he said “are you able to give me your word you will keep it so?”

“er. Yes, Deputy Vice Chancellor, er, Alan. Of course. I’m a solicitor,” She added.

Alan looked confused.

“I’m used to client confidentiality” she explained.

“Oh. Yes. Of course. Well, anyway. Where was I?”

“Confidentiality” prompted Sheila.

“Oh. Yes.” He thought for a moment. “It’s about a new project I’d like you to take a lead on.”

Unwittingly, Sheila leaned forward. Maybe this was going to be interesting after all.

Back in her office, Sheila sat down at her desk. She opened her notebook and reviewed what Alan had told her.

Leading a new project for the university.

An exciting way to make legal education accessible to more students.

First of its kind in the country.


Opportunity to shine.

Looking for special people.

Great reputation.

She smiled, picked up her pencil and added ‘Get away from Lilian’ to the list. A new start. She leaned back in her chair and started imagining the future.

True, the premises were a bit disappointing, but she’d been able to see what Alan meant about the renovations. A bit of investment would sort it out. She’d be able to plan her courses the way she wanted to, without any sniping from Lilian. She’d be able to ask some of her ex-colleagues who were still in practice to come in and talk to students. She’d be able to give lots of quick feedback and test pervasive skills like ethics throughout the course instead of pushing them all into a special skills course. It would be so much better.

A forceful rap on the door was immediately followed by the door opening suddenly. Lilian strode into the room.


Sheila jumped visibly, jerking forward from her comfortable position. She spun round in her office chair.

“Lilian! You made me jump. Is there a fire or something?” she turned quickly back to the desk and shut the notebook, which was still open on her desk.

Lilian watched her narrowly. “don’t be silly, Sheila. I did knock”.

Sheila sighed. “Well, what can I do for you? I’m quite busy”

“So I see” Lilian replied. “Well, I just wanted to sort out next week’s session with you.”

“Next week’s session? Which one?”

“Corporate liability, of course. I need to swap with you”

“Swap what?”

“I need to do next week’s session, and you can do mine the week after. I mean, could we swap next week’s session with the one after?” Lilian corrected herself.

“Lilian, I can’t do that. I’ve planned everything out for next week and I’ve just put lots of new resources up online. It will break the rhythm if they don’t get the session until the week after. I really can’t do that.”

“But Bill’s insisting that I go to the Diversity and Equalities meeting the week after. It’s terribly important. I told him you’d swap with me.”

“Lilian, it’s not good for the students to chop and change like that. Why can’t someone else go to the meeting?”

Sheila imagined Lilian in a boudoir. There was flock wallpaper, with a gold border running round the room. Lilian was wearing a blonde wig and false eyelashes,and was holding an old-fashioned white and gold phone receiver in her hand. Sheila shook herself. Had she been smiling? Probably not. Lilian was still waiting for something.

Sheila sighed. She certainly didn’t want to go to the Diversity and Equalities meeting. “Lilian, I really don’t approve of this. We have to put the students first,” she said, “but if there really isn’t an alternative, then alright”.

Lilian didn’t even look pleased. “It’s FOR the students, Sheila,” she said, righteously “we have to do Diversity and Equalities, you know.”

Sheila looked carefully at her. Lilian showed no trace of discomfiture. She must really believe that Sheila didn’t understand.

She sighed again.  “Well, who’s going to tell the students?” she asked. “and you’ll need to update the online area to get your notes up,” she added, remembering Lilian’s earlier sermon on the topic.

Lilian waved her arm “Sure” she said, vaguely. “right, better get on. See you later”.

She turned and left Sheila’s office. Sheila got up and closed the door. “Thanks so much for being accommodating, Sheila” she mouthed “I really appreciate your help”. She went back to the desk, still muttering to herself.

Sheila opened her notebook again and reread the notes from her meeting with Alan. She underlined ‘Get away from Lilian’, and turned the page.

To Do

Email Corporate Liability students about session changes

Back up online material

Remind Lilian to update her online material for rearranged session

Write plan for Alan

She leaned back. She realised that Alan had given her an exit strategy. She was really going to go for it.

Follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of the screen to get new episodes by email. Tomorrow’s episode: Routine Enquiries

Advent Episode 13: A little problem with the regulations

Alison was back in her office, working her way through the usual rounds of emails. Requests for extensions. Invitations to staff development sessions. The University’s latest achievements. New research notifications. Excited queries about the latest teaching technique/trendy software from the various mailing lists she subscribed to, in the hope of keeping up to date. A new message arrived.

To: Alison Fraser

From: Geoff Sanders

Subject: Assessment Penalties

Priority: Urgent

Alison, can you call me as soon as you get this?


Alison sighed. Geoff had a passing interest in teaching and learning, specifically assessment. He often seemed to find time for a chat about novel approaches or the minutiae of the regulations. She lifted the phone.

“Geoff. Alison. You wanted to talk to me?”

“OK, I’ll come right down”

What on earth was wrong with Geoff? His fleeting curiosity about assessment didn’t usually require her to drop what she was doing and come down to his office. It was usually more a matter of being stuck in the corner with him on one of the rare occasions when refreshments were provided during a long meeting. She made for the stairs, keeping her head down slightly in case she was buttonholed on the way down the corridor.

“Dr Fraser!” called someone from behind her. She sighed and turned round, expecting a student. It was Alex. She managed a small, social smile. “Alex! How are you?”

“Fine thanks, Dr Fraser. Did you manage to get back to him?”

Alison frowned at him. “Sorry?”

“The Detective Inspector.”

“Oh, yes. Thanks, Alex.” replied Alison, vaguely. She could barely remember the message. “Yes, I called him back,” she added. “Got to go and see Geoff now, thanks again”

She turned and continued, leaving Alex standing in the corridor looking disappointed. She’d walked another twenty metres before she remembered that she’d meant to tell him about the capital letters in the note. And actually, she’d asked him to come and talk to her about timetabling. She’d completely forgotten. Damn. She turned round again, but Alex was heading back towards the admin office. She realised that she’d forgotten all about poor Gareth Jones again, and felt another twinge of anxiety about her own callousness.

When she got to Geoff’s office, he was hovering near the door as though he was waiting for her. Geoff could be a bit restless.

“Alison, thanks for coming down.” He closed the door carefully behind her. “Sit down,” he suggested, waving at a chair on the other side of his desk.

Alison felt uneasy. Geoff could be a bit restless, but he wasn’t usually jumpy, and they usually sat in the armchairs next to the window.

They both sat down. Geoff looked fixedly at his computer screen.

“Alison,” he started. There was a pause.

Alison started to feel a bit queasy. What was wrong with Geoff? Was he ill?

“Terrible news about Gareth Jones” she offered “Giving me all sorts of problems finding cover, too.”

Geoff looked at her blankly. “Gareth Jones?”

“The part-time lecturer who’s been found, er, who’s died.” Geoff continued to stare. It was clear that he had no idea what she was talking about.

“You spoke to Detective Inspector Bones about him.” prompted Alison.

“Bones. Did I?” replied Geoff, then seemed to pull himself together. “But that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about. I wanted to talk to you about the ‘Foundations of Biology’ course.”

“Oh, sure.” said Alison, confused by the change of topic.

“Have you checked the module handbook?” continued Geoff.

“Um. Probably.” Alison frantically tried to remember what she had and hadn’t seen this year. Foundations of Biology? Module leader was Jan Bowman. Jan had been teaching the same module, or variations of it, for donkeys’ years. She probably hadn’t checked the handbook this year, if she was honest. Jan was very reliable.

“I’m not sure, to tell you the truth, Geoff” she said “you know Jan is very reliable. I may not have looked at her stuff with the same care as, say…” she tailed off, thinking about Gareth Jones and Cell Biology module. She’d definitely checked that one. For what it was worth. It didn’t look as though any of it had been taught, and she still needed to sort it out.

Geoff was talking again. “Well, I think you should have done” he said, quite sharply.

Alison was feeling both queasy and confused. Geoff was usually very gentle. She’d never had any problems working with him. What was going on?

Geoff had jabbed at some buttons on the keyboard and his printer was clacking away in the corner. Once again, Alison’s thoughts were distracted. His own personal printer. Everyone else had to share the communal ‘multifunction device’ in the admin office. There was nothing worse than having to queue around that ten minutes before class started, waiting for your handouts to be printed whilst reams of committee documentation took priority. He didn’t even do any teaching.

“Look at this” Geoff waved the papers under her nose. She took them and flipped through the module handbook for Foundations of Biology.

“What am I looking for, Geoff?”

“Look at the assignment instructions.”  She turned to the last page of the handbook. The usual stuff. Put together your lab reports into a portfolio to be submitted on 14 January, submit to the coursework receipting office in a single document, no plastic folders, number the pages, don’t put your name on anything, guide 3000 words…she looked up, shaking her head slightly “Sorry Geoff, what am I looking for?” she repeated.

“Penalties!” Geoff almost spat out the word “Penalties!” he added, incredulously.

Note:  Your mark in this module will be capped if you do not behave properly. Late arrival at sessions, impoliteness, excessive questioning, disputes with the lecturer will all incur a cap of 10%.

“Oh, shit” Alison exclaimed involuntarily.

“Exactly. How did this happen?”

Alison looked up from the sheaf of papers. “Shit. I’ve got no idea. Jan is always so…”

“Reliable?” Geoff almost snarled at her.

Alison stared at him. “Hang on, Geoff. Are you blaming me for this?” She narrowed her eyes slightly. “Jan works for you. You’re her line manager. I just co-ordinate the teaching for the course. If she had a problem, I would have expected you to know about it.”

They stared at each other for a moment.

Alison continued “but that isn’t the issue right now, is it? How did you find out about this?”

Geoff blinked. “I had a phone call. From a parent. He said that his son had been told by Jan that anything he submitted would have an automatic 20% knocked off the mark. Apparently he was late to class one day because his flatmate was sick, and when she told him about the marks he was going to lose, he queried this with her, and she told him he’d lose another 10% for – and apparently I quote here – for insubordination.”

“Insubordination?” echoed Alison.  That wasn’t a word which was often heard on campus. “Oh, God. What else did this parent say?”

Geoff looked at Alison for a moment. “Mr Patel” he said “is a solicitor. He had managed to find the University’s regulations on the Quality Assurance Unit’s website – which is more than most of my staff seemed to manage” he added in a mutter.

Alison sat quietly. She had worked with Geoff for a long time. On the rare occasions when he talked about ‘my staff’ rather than ‘colleagues,’ it was usually better to sit quietly. “He pointed out to me in no uncertain terms that there did not seem to be any provision for penalties for behavioural matters. Mr Patel has suggested that he may be requesting a judicial review of the decision.”

“Oh, God. That’s terrible. What’s a judicial review?”

Geoff glared at her. “That’s not the point right now.”

Alison made a mental note to Google ‘judicial review’ as soon as she got back to the office. In fact, she wondered if she could get out her phone now and surreptitiously look it up. Geoff obviously didn’t know what it was either, but it sounded bad.

“The point now, Alison” Geoff emphasised the first syllable of her name in what she felt was a rather sinister way. Oh God, why couldn’t she concentrate on the main point.  “Is to sort this out before it goes any further. Obviously, the work hasn’t been handed in yet, so no penalties have been applied. It was an idle threat.”

“Yes, of course it was. Phew. No harm done.” Alison realised that she was gabbling, but she couldn’t for the life of her think what she was supposed to say or do. She was still trying to work out what it all meant.

Geoff had moved forward a little in his seat. He leaned over the desk towards her. “No. Harm. Done” he repeated. “Are you sure about that?”

Alison looked at him. She felt really queasy now. “Well…” she tailed off.

Geoff straightened his back, but was still leaning towards her. It was quite intimidating. “Let’s see” he said, as though considering a mathematical proof to which he already knew the solution, “Point number 1. Jan has taken the law into her own hands. Or if not the law, the regulations. Point number 2. The university has a disciplinary code to deal with poor behaviour. Point number 3. Assessment is carried out according to whether the student has achieved the intended learning outcomes, not whether the student is a charming member of the human race or not. Point number 4.”

Alison interrupted him. “Yes, Geoff, I understand, Jan has been rather naughty, but..”

Geoff looked quite cross now “Point number 4.” He continued “It appears that this has been going on for some time.”

Alison looked at him “what do you mean?”

“It means” he said, weightily, with the air of a detective who has spent several weeks investigating an unusual case “that last year’s handbook is identical to this year’s. Which means that Jan has done this before”.

“Oh, shit. That means that last year’s marks..” she tailed off.

“..May not be correct.” Geoff finished the sentence for her.

“Oh, shit”. Alison was no longer having trouble in concentrating on the main point. The implications of all of this were passing before her all too easily. An arbitrary application of a penalty to an unknown number of student marks. Decision of the exam board in doubt. Possibility that there were students who had failed and been thrown out because of arbitrary penalty. She was beginning to have an inkling of what a judicial review might be. Oh, shit.

Geoff had paused, presumably to let this all sink in. “Point number five.”

Oh, God. How could there be a point number five?

“Did you scan the last page of that module handbook by any chance?” Alison looked down at the papers in her hand and mechanically turned to the last page.

Note: Your mark may be increased if you show a special contribution to the class! Come and talk to me about what that might involve!

She felt worse than queasy now. Jan was lovely, everybody loved her, the students loved her, the admin staff loved her, the technical staff loved her….there couldn’t be anything really wrong with what she’d done, surely it was just a matter of interpretation. She looked back up.

Geoff was clearly waiting for a response. She cleared her throat gingerly. She could feel ripples of nausea rising and she didn’t want to make any sudden moves. “Um. OK. So. What do we need to do?”

“You,” replied Geoff “need to sort out this year’s module immediately. You’ll need to meet with the students and explain to them that there isn’t really a penalty..”

Alison interrupted him “But won’t that undermine Jan’s authority over the class?”

Geoff gave her a very hard look. This really wasn’t like him “You will explain that to them, and tell them to bring any queries directly to you. Then you’ll go back over last year’s records to see if there are any, er, anomalies in the marks for the whole cohort. ”

“What kind of anomalies?”

“Students who did particularly well or particularly badly in Foundations of Biology” said Geoff, speaking slowly, as though to a small child.

“with a view to what?” responded Alison, belligerently, as though she were in fact a small child, rather than a senior member of the Biology department. She realised what she sounded like, and took a sharp intake of breath.

“Geoff” she continued, more sweetly “aren’t you the chair of the exam board? Aren’t you responsible for the final marks? Didn’t you notice any ‘anomalies’ when you were going through them all? Shouldn’t you be the one to talk to Jan? You are her line manager, after all.”

Geoff looked very, very hard at her, and then sighed. He leaned away from Alison, sinking back down in his seat like a deflating balloon. They looked at each other warily.

“Come on, Geoff” Alison said, briskly “we need to pull together on this one. I’ll sort out the students, you talk to Jan.”

Geoff nodded weakly.

“Shall we phone the student’s father now and see if we can sort that out first?” He nodded again. “Come on, then. Where’s the number?”

Geoff turned his eyes down to his notebook, open on the desk. He dialled the most recent phone number on the page. Alison craned forward.

“Hello. May I speak to Mr Patel, please?” “It’s Professor Sanders from Burston Central University”

“Well, fairly urgent”

“Yes, I’ll hold”

Alison could hear ‘Greensleeves’ playing faintly and tinnilly through the handset. Greensleeves. She hadn’t heard that for a while. More likely to get Rihanna blasting at you these days.

She started making a mental list of things she’d need to do. Get onto the online course system and hide the handbook for Foundations of Biology. Make an appointment to talk to Jan – despite what she’d just said to Geoff, she’d need to sort out the course stuff. Check the timetable for Foundations and arrange to go in and talk to the students. Get admin to dig out last year’s transcripts. She sighed again. As if she didn’t have enough to do.

Geoff was talking again.

“Mr Patel. Good to talk to you again”

“I just wanted to thank you so much for bringing this little matter to my attention”

“Oh, I can assure you it’s a little matter. Our lecturer didn’t mean to worry anyone. She was just trying to make sure that the class was, er, with her, yes, with her at all times. Of course there would have been no application of any penalty. Ha! Ha! Of course not. As you yourself were able to tell me, that just wouldn’t be allowed in our regulations”.

Geoff paused for breath, giving Mr Patel the opportunity to speak. A pained expression appeared on Geoff’s face.

“Mr Patel, I do assure you that the University has complete control over its courses. I’m sure you’d agree with me that it’s important for academic freedom to have a good variety of staff.”

“Of course we know what’s going on”

“As chair of the exam board I can assure you that your son will not be in any way disadvantaged by his little, er, expression of opinion. Although you might like to remind him of our behaviour code when you’re talking to him,” Geoff added, in a clear attempt to regain some authority over the situation.

“No, Mr Patel, I’m sure this will never happen again. Once again, thank you so much for taking the trouble to contact me. Now, I’m sure you’re a very busy man and I won’t take up any more of your time. Hope to see you at graduation!”

Geoff hung up and turned back towards Alison. He looked drained.

Alison stood up. “Right, well, I’d better get to it. Shall I tell Jan to come and see you?”

Geoff looked as though he wanted to protest, but couldn’t quite remember why. He nodded, weakly. Alison made for the door. This clearly wasn’t over, but she really, really needed to get out of Geoff’s office. Instead of going back up to her room, she went down to the ground floor and walked out into the park. It was rather cold to be sitting on a bench, but she just needed five minutes in what passed for fresh air in the city centre. Her stomach was still protesting. She breathed deeply. Maybe it would all go away.

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: Escape Route?

Advent Episode 12: Collegiality

Sheila returned from her nine o’clock seminar feeling pretty pleased with herself. It wasn’t easy to get students to understand ratio. She thought she’d done really well to get a group of them to stand at the front and then to sift them out according to different principles, with less obvious ones being used each time. And it had been a master stroke to get them to imagine a pompous judge sitting at the bench and querying some of the more outlandish criteria. Earring in left ear. Hole in jeans. Shoelaces or slip-ons.

She’d worry about the stereotyping of the judge later on; in fact it was a good plan to build up an image of a male, late-middle-aged white judge now and then to challenge it later in the term. She made a note in the front of her new Moleskine notebook. It had gone much better than her old lecture, when she’d just read out the explanation and asked if anyone had any questions. She was on fire this year! Still smiling, she turned the notebook over and looked at the back pages.

1)    Gareth

2)    Lilian

3)    Bill

Her smile slipped a little. If anyone asked her, she’d be able to say it was just a note to remind her to contact them. And the other stuff in the back was for a lecture on academic writing. Avoiding clichés.

Ping! Email notification.

To: Sheila

From: Lilian

Subject: next week’s session for Criminal Law

Hope it’s alright Sheila, I noticed that you hadn’t ‘revealed’ the notes for next week’s session on corporate liability, so I’ve done it. Save you a job :-).



Sheila glowered at her computer screen. Of course it wasn’t alright. Those were last year’s notes which had been automatically copied across, and she hadn’t found time to go through them and update them yet, so she’d left everything hidden.  Now, the out-of-date ones were visible to the students.

She supposed that Lilian would accuse her of being unprofessional by not releasing the notes seven days in advance, as they’d all agreed to do. But she would have preferred that to the students thinking her unprofessional by having out of date notes. Plus, as Lilian well knew, she’d been off sick and it took time to catch up.

Her lip raised in a curl, she navigated to the university’s virtual learning environment. Her foot was tapping impatiently. Username, password, long, long list of modules…eventually she found her way to the Criminal Law module. Change status to ‘editor’. Page reloads. By now her foot was doing the Edinburgh tattoo.

Eventually, she got to the relevant page for the following week’s work. She clicked ‘hide’ next to the notes. Then she clicked through to the ‘tracking’ section to see if any students had actually looked at the notes since Lilian had revealed them. No. Good.

God. In the time she’d spent doing that, she could probably have updated the notes, she thought with a certain amount of exaggeration, and now there wasn’t time, she had to get to the staff meeting. No time to reply to Lilian either. That was probably just as well. She looked at the back pages of the notebook again.  “Revenge is a dish best served cold. Revenge is a dish..” she repeated desperately to herself. She picked up her laptop and notebook and set off down the corridor, still fuming.

Unconsciously, she twisted her face into an approximation of a fake simper and mouthed “Hope it’s alright. Save you a job” with a sneer and a sarcastic roll of the eyes.

Pete rounded the corner at that moment and looked at her warily. He was probably wondering if she was going to flip again.

“Hello, Sheila” he said, heartily. “Going to the staff meeting?”

Sheila took a deep breath. She was far too wound up for normal conversation. “Hi, Pete. Yes, sure, just popping to the Ladies first. See you in a minute. Save me a coffee!” she hurried off towards the loos, muttering to herself “breathe, breathe, breathe…”

Once safely in the Ladies, she locked herself in a cubicle and put down the seat, then sat down and took out her notebook, flipping it over and looking at the maxim pasted inside the back cover.“You can’t change them, but you can change the way that you react to them.”

She repeated it to herself several times. Then she closed her eyes briefly, inhaled deeply, and then stood up. She forced herself to smile. Ready to face the world. Or at least, ready to face a staff meeting.

When she got into the room, everyone else was still milling around the refreshments. Pete had been buttonholed by Lilian and was looking around with a slightly desperate air. “Sheila!” he called over to her. “I’ve got you a coffee!”

Her mouth felt dry. Bloody hell, wasn’t there anyone else he could have been talking to? Pete and Lilian stared at her as she walked towards them. Did she look strange? The walk across the room seemed to take an age, but in fact, within ten seconds she was standing next to Pete and Lilian, and raising a coffee cup to her mouth as though everything was normal.

“Thanks, Pete” she nodded to him. Lilian was carrying one of the new tablet computers which had been distributed to a select range of staff. She wondered why Lilian had been chosen to get one.

“Did you get my email, Sheila?” purred Lilian. Sheila marked a pause. “which one, Lilian?”

She’d learned to do passive-aggressive as well.

“The one about next week’s notes”.

“Oh yes, of course. Thank you SO much for the reminder, Lilian, I would have got very behind if you hadn’t told me”. Sheila looked and sounded angelic.

Lilian looked suspicious, and added “You do remember that we’d agreed to release all of the notes a week in advance, to allow students to prepare?”

“Of course I do.” Sheila replied “Such a good idea, and so helpful to those with disabilities who need the help of a screen reader or to have them printed on special paper. I was just running a bit behind still, you know, after been off sick for such a long time.” she pouted slightly and flapped her eyelashes unconvincingly at Pete.

He recoiled very slightly, but gamely joined the conversation “Yes!” He tried for a hearty tone. “It’s hard enough keeping up when you’re fit and well, but when you’re…”  He tailed off.

“Ready for the funny farm?” completed Sheila silently. At least, she hoped it was silently. You never knew, when you’d been ready for the funny farm.

Lilian looked puzzled. “Great, well, thanks” she said, tailing off. She wasn’t used to people being compliant. Sheila hoped that she was now wondering how to challenge poor, sick, brave Sheila any further on the issue.

Sheila had to stop herself giggling. She wondered if Lilian would bother to recheck the online learning site now, and if she did, what she would say when she discovered that Sheila had hidden the notes again.

This was actually fun. If only she’d thought of it before. After all of these years of being manipulated, she was now messing with people’s heads all on her own. LOL, as her nieces and nephews had forbidden her to say.

Pete was staring at her. Maybe she’d grinned openly. She flapped her eyelashes again and he looked away hastily.

Bill had been sitting at the head of the big table, shuffling papers and making throat-clearing noises for some time and now said quietly “Right then, ladies and gentlemen.”

Most of the women winced at this. Bill noticed and flushed slightly. “Er, colleagues.” he continued. “Shall we make a start?” he added, a little more loudly.

Dutifully, his team started to drift away from the flasks of hot water and sachets of FairTrade tea and coffee and take their places at the table. One or two took the opportunity to rush for a refill, as though this was the last opportunity for refreshments before a long expedition, rather than an admittedly tedious two, or possibly three, hour meeting.

When everyone was settled, Bill cleared his throat again. “Right then, everyone. Thanks for coming. We’ve got a full agenda this afternoon as usual, but I’ll try to be quick and get you out of here by three thirty.”

Eyes were rolled around the table. James and Gary ran a permanent sweepstake on the actual time that the meeting would end. Pete was in for 16:45. He could never decide whether it was worth the £10 he would win if it did drag on for that long. Bill got started on the agenda.

Sheila wasn’t listening, although she was tapping away on her laptop, hoping that the angle of the screen meant that her neighbours on either side wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t really taking notes from the meeting. In fact, she was updating the notes for the Criminal Law module.

She finished the edits and was waiting for them to upload to the online module area, when she noticed that there was silence. She looked up to find expectant eyes upon her and realised that Bill had spoken directly to her.

“Sorry, Bill, I was just capturing the last important point” she said brightly, “I didn’t catch that.”

“We were talking about Mitigating Factors.” he said, very gently “We wondered if you had a view on special arrangements for students with mental health issues”.

Sheila looked blankly at him. “Me? Well, not particularly” she started to say, then stopped. She realised with horror that he was asking her because she’d been off sick with stress for so long. Everyone round the table was looking at her, apparently waiting expectantly for the view of an expert on the topic.

Her mouth felt dry. “Er. Er.I don’t know enough about the issues, I’m afraid.”

Bill looked slightly surprised by this. She wondered if he was going to suggest that she stop being modest and share her expertise. He was still waiting for her to add something

“Don’t gabble. Don’t gabble. Don’t gabble” she repeated to herself. Hopefully silently. She stared beatifically back at Bill, and added a smile. “Perhaps you should ask the Student Services people who deal with disabled students?” she suggested.

One or two other people broke in at this point, perhaps trying to cover up Bill’s appalling faux pas with some loud alternative suggestions to address the issue. Sheila sat immobile, retaining her fixed grin and trying not to think about what had just happened. Now, at least, nobody was looking at her. In fact, they all seemed to be trying very hard not to.

The rest of the meeting passed in a bit of a blur. Eventually she was aware of the shuffling of papers and scraping of chairs. She bent her head, picked up her laptop and notebook, and forced herself to stand with everyone else.  She looked round. Everyone was heading for the door. They were still trying not to look at her.

Bill had scuttled first towards the door and was already almost out. He didn’t look round. Pete was not far behind him, almost at the door. There was a bit of a snarl-up as everyone tried to leave at once. Pete looked round and caught Sheila’s eye. A look of slight panic crossed his face, but he slowed and stepped to one side of the door, waiting for her to come over.

Sheila walked slowly over, dreading any further attention being drawn to her previous illness. “What did you think of that?” Pete started “I thought it was absolutely shocking.

Sheila looked at him “Well, it was a bit of a surprise.” she said “I suppose we should expect that kind of thing” she added, bravely “it can take time for people to catch up with the latest thinking.”

Pete didn’t seem to register this “I mean, how are we supposed to get to work if there aren’t enough car parking spaces?” he continued. “Another erosion of academic life.” he sighed heavily.

“mmm”  said Sheila, realising that Pete had no intention of mentioning the mental health issue. “Well, Pete, I’d better be getting on.” She nodded at him and walked purposefully towards the door. One foot in front of the other, that was the way. She kept going. Not much further to her office. She kept going.

When Sheila got to her office, she shut the door carefully and quietly turned the lock. She sat at her desk and opened up the notebook from the back.

1)    Gareth
2)    Lilian
3)    Bill

She took out her pen and added a double headed arrow, curving between ‘Lilian’ and ‘Bill’. Then she reached for the phone. She needed to book an urgent appointment with her counsellor.

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: A little problem with the regs.

Advent Episode 11: Known Unknowns

It was very noisy in the open plan office, and DI Bones was struggling to concentrate. In fact, he didn’t feel that he had much to concentrate on. He pulled over a piece of blank paper (actually the back of an old memo from HR about how to do ‘back to work’ interviews after someone had been off sick), and made a list of what he did have:

  1. a dead body, going for P.M. that morning
  2. a name – to be confirmed
  3. an address which the university HR department had just phoned him back with.

He was waiting for a warrant to search the address. Presumably there would be more information about Mr Jones there.  The PM report would also help, because at the moment, he had absolutely no idea how the guy had died. There was no point in opening a murder inquiry if it was natural causes; they’d been thorough at the scene so hopefully he had the forensic evidence if it did turn out to be foul play, but with the way things were at the moment he couldn’t ask for a full murder team when it looked like a straight up body in the woods, ie probably suicide. “Straight up? Body?” he deadpanned to himself.

He looked at number 2 again. Name. He put a question mark after the name. He had nobody to verify it. Nobody to identify the body. No family details. Employer had never met him.

He sighed and got out his notebook, flipping to last night’s meeting with Alison Fraser. What had she said? She’d said “someone had recommended him”. Someone? Someone? What the hell was wrong with him? Why hadn’t he asked who that ‘someone’ was?

He flipped back a couple more pages to find Alison Fraser’s phone number. God. He hadn’t even asked for her mobile number. He must have been more flummoxed than he thought by her complete indifference to the news that one of her team was dead.

He called the office again, and after a few rings, beeps and hesitations, the phone was answered “Biology Office. Alex here. How can I help you?”.

“Hello, Alex. May I leave a message for Dr Fraser, please?”


There was a pause “Go ahead” Alex added.

“Oh. OK. Please say that DI Bones called again, and could she phone me back urgently? 0208 654 2304. Thank you.”

“OK, Mr – er- DI Bones. Sure, I’ll do that. Is there anything else she needs to know?”. He could almost hear Alex’s desperation to find out more.

“No, that’s great. Thanks for your help again, Alex. Bye”. He rang off.

Alex jumped up from his seat and made his way through the open-plan office, message in hand. “Just going to put this on Dr Fraser’s door” he said to his supervisor as he went past her desk, and then, lowering his voice, “it’s that detective inspector again.”

Joan raised her eyebrows slightly and pulled the paper over towards her. Not much information there. “OK”, she said. “Can you remember where it is?”

Alex nodded. It was only his second week in the job. He had had no idea that being a university administrator would be so eventful. He set off, hoping that Dr Fraser would be in her office so he could hand the message over personally.

Joan sat back in her chair. It was probably nothing interesting: Alison Fraser wasn’t the type to get mixed up in anything dodgy, or weird. Most likely they’d been burgled, or maybe it was something to do with her kids. They were old enough now maybe to have got up to something they shouldn’t have. Or maybe the policeman was going to be a guest speaker on her course or something, some kind of forensics. Alison would have said something if it had been really big news.

She turned back to the pile of ‘mitigating circumstances forms’ which were stacked in her in-tray. There were a lot of assignment deadlines due, and a lot of students had waited till the last minute to ask for extensions. She picked the top one off the pile and opened up the spreadsheet file, immediately forgetting all about DI Bones.

Alison headed back to her office, already rehearsing in her mind how she was going to recount the whole story about Cell Biology to her colleagues. She did stumble a bit over the punchline – guess what, the AL was dead! Was she being callous? It all seemed surreal. She got back to her office to find a sticky note on the door:

alison. phone di bones. 0208 654 2304. alex.

She really must talk to Joan about talking to Alex about capital letters and punctuation. It wouldn’t make a good impression for anyone passing by and seeing that kind of thing in public view. She focused on the note itself. Shit. DI Bones again? Maybe this was last night’s message? No, she’d definitely taken that into her office. It was a new one. She picked up the phone.

“Hi, Alex, it’s Alison. Alison Fraser”.

“Fine thanks, and you?”.

“Alex, about the note on my door. I just wanted to ask you if that was the same message as last night, I mean is it a new one, or …”

“Oh. OK. Thanks. No, no, nothing to worry about, Alex. Well, actually, now I think of it, can you pop over to see me in about 10 minutes? Got a few timetabling things to sort out.”

“Well ok, check with Joan, then come along as soon as you can. Thanks”. She pressed the ‘end call’ button and immediately dialled DI Bones’ number.

“DI Bones? Dr Fraser here, Burston Central. You left me a message?”

“Yes. Thanks for calling back. We still can’t trace any relatives of Dr Jones. Did you say last night that somebody had recommended him to you? I wondered if we could see if that person knows any more about him.”

“Yes, he was recommended to me by Professor Birch, over at the University of Burston.”

“University of Burston? Isn’t that where you work?” DI Bones sounded puzzled.

“No, I’m at Burston Central University” Alison sighed. Of course Burston Central was just as good as ‘the other university’. Better, in some ways, if you took widening participation and value added into account, but she was used to people recalculating her status when they heard. Mostly at conferences, to be honest.

“Oops, sorry.” D I Bones seemed oblivious to the status thing. “Do you have any contact details for him?”

“Easy mistake to make, we’re only down the road from University of Burston, after all” Alison rolled out her usual response to the error. “Professor Birch, now, hold on while I look up HER phone number for you. Ah yes. Nasreen Birch, 0296 398475”.

“Thanks, that’s great.” D I Bones clearly didn’t realise he’d committed any academic gaffes.

“You’re welcome, D I Bones. Um. Before I ring off. Do you have any more information about how Dr Jones died? Or when he died? Because I went to cover his class this morning and the students said they hadn’t seen him for three weeks.”

“Sorry, Mrs, Dr, Fraser. We can’t reveal any further information at the moment to anyone who isn’t family. Now, unless you have any further information for the enquiry, I’d really better get on”

“Oh. I understand. OK. Well, if you need any more information, just let me know. And could you keep me in the picture?”

“I’ll do my best, Dr Fraser. Perhaps you could give me your mobile number, just in case?”

“My mobile? Yes, of course. Hang on” Alison scrabbled in her bag, “I can never remember the number” she said, realising as she said it how feeble that sounded. “Haha. I never phone myself. Here it is. 07265 777 632”. “no problem. I hope you manage to find out what happened. Bye”.

Alison turned to the module handbook for Cell Biology. The first assignment was scheduled for the last week of term. About three weeks. She supposed that she could postpone it, get them to submit it the first week back. But she probably wouldn’t have a replacement for Gareth by then, so she’d have to mark it, and she had sixty final year lab reports coming in that week too. Plus normal teaching load. Plus, the students would then not have much time between that assignment on the next one. But if she left the deadline as it was, how could they possibly get through the material in time? She could make the assignment easier. But that wouldn’t help anyone. The students would be behind for next year, the external examiner would notice and make some comment about dumbing down in his report, and she would just be laying herself open to all kinds of backhanded comments from the biochemistry team, not to mention that whole disappointed routine from Geoff. No, that wasn’t an option. Damn Gareth Jones. What was she going to do?

She got up to make herself a cup of tea. She had the kettle just tucked out of sight on the little table in the corner next to the bookcase. She put a teabag into her favourite cup, ‘Biologists do it with clones’ and looked out of the window, across the tiny park which was the only green space on the campus. It was a cold November day, and people weren’t hanging around in the park. They were mostly well wrapped up, hurrying between buildings, looking busy and purposeful. Alison smiled as she watched a young woman get off a bus and walk quickly towards the far halls of residence. She was clearly wearing last night’s clothes but was trying to look nonchalant as she headed for shower and a sleep. Some things never changed…

Alison felt a pang of conscience about the way she’d been thinking about her colleague, or employee, or whatever he had been. When did she get so callous and self-centred? Her heart should be bleeding for poor Gareth Jones. She poured boiling water onto the teabag. She wondered if she should be doing more to help DI Bones.  She turned round to the filing cabinet and opened the ‘first year’ drawer.

Maybe she’d put something about the part-timers into the ‘Cell Biology’ file? She flipped through. Gosh. It didn’t look as though she’d put anything into it for a couple of years. There was quite a lot of information about Benji Knight, who’d taught it a while ago. Alison grimaced as she remembered a bit more about him. He’d seemed ok to begin with, and the students had liked him, but he’d clearly had some ‘issues’ which had become more obvious as the year had progressed. Unfortunately it had turned out that he’d been taking up more and more of the lectures with delusional rants about the head of department and how he was victimising the part-time staff.

At least, Alison had presumed they were delusional. Anyway, things had come to a head when Benji had barred the door to the lecture theatre and prevented anybody else leaving. He’d said they should have a sit-in until their demands were met and they got proper value for money for their fees.

Alison sighed as she remembered all the work she’d had to do that year to prepare the students for their exams. Exams which Benji hadn’t bothered to set, but somehow nobody had noticed that until what they all now referred to as ‘the cell biology melt-down’ had happened. It had meant a lot of rushing around to sort it all out.

Come to think of it, Nasreen Birch had recommended Benji, too. She’d need to think about looking further afield for part-time staff next year. Assuming that the department didn’t finally find funds for a full-time lecturer. She hadn’t even bothered asking, the last couple of years. Well, at least this year the problems had emerged earlier. It was only November. Plenty of time to sort things out.

She put the file back. There wasn’t really much point in keeping paper files any more. She did everything by email. But she already knew that her emails to Gareth were just about times and places and so on. They didn’t get copies of any employment records. Not even CVs or contract information.

She went back over to the computer and looked up the number for the departmental HR advisor. Straight to voicemail. “Hello Advita, this is Alison Fraser in Biology. Could you call me back on 1127, please?” Then she returned to the problem of the first year Cell Biology assignment.

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: Collegiality 

Advent Episode 10: Into the Breach

Alison was sitting on the bus, her tablet computer on her lap. Nine twenty-five. Because she’d slept in, it was rush hour, and the bus was taking forever. She was trying to work out what Gareth Jones should have been doing at 10am so that she could at least cover some of the work the students might miss. But she didn’t have a 3G connection, and there was hardly anything on the tablet she could look at.  She’d have to wait to get to campus and a wifi connection. The bus crawled on. She ground her teeth in frustration.

Lecture theatre 4.11. 9.55am. Alison stood at the front, radiating a sense of triumph. She’d got to campus at nine forty-five, checked the room planner for Biology Basics, found out which room to go to, downloaded and skimmed through a PowerPoint file from the archive for an old but similar module and had sketched an outline introduction in her head as she walked to the class. She could have punched the air in delight at her own competence.

The lecture theatre was empty but for two students at the back. She switched the presenting equipment on and loaded up the PowerPoint slides. The doors opened and closed a couple of times while she was doing this, but it still sounded quiet.

When she straightened and looked up again, there were five students in the 100 seat theatre. She thought there should be around 65 in this group, but she couldn’t remember exactly. It was nine fifty-nine and all five were looking at her, not exactly expectantly, more with curiosity.

She cleared her throat. “Good Morning. Are you expecting a session on Cell Biology?”

A couple of the students nodded; the others continued to stare at her.

“Well. Dr Jones can’t be here this morning, so I’m going to cover this session. I’m sure you all remember me from induction, I’m Dr Fraser, the course leader”.

More staring. She blundered on. “According to the VLE, you should be up to this session on Plasma Membranes. Is that right?”. She paused, and looked directly at the nearest student.

“Um. I don’t know”. He looked down at his blank pad of paper.  “We haven’t really started yet.”

Alison looked at him. What was he talking about? It was week four of term. Had he misunderstood her question completely? “Where have you got up to with Dr Jones?” she prompted, more gently.

One of the students at the back of the room called over “We haven’t really done anything. Dr Jones only turned up for the first session.”

“You mean you haven’t seen him since” Alison calculated rapidly “the third of October?” The student shrugged, as if to say that she wasn’t sure of the exact date.

“The third of October…why didn’t you come and tell me?” Alison accused them all.

They stared back at her, stolidly refusing to take responsibility for something which clearly couldn’t be their fault.

“Dr Fraser.” One of the students was brave enough to answer. “We’re first years. We didn’t know what was going on. We thought maybe we’d made a mistake and there wasn’t a session every week, or something. At my school, we had an alternating timetable every week.

“We,” she looked round to include the rest of the attendees, “we just thought we’d keep coming until something happened. The others said there was no point.” Alison realised that she was gaping. She was struggling to process the information. It didn’t compute with her understanding of what had been going on in what was, after all, ‘her’ course, the course for which as course leader she was responsible. She needed to act.

She closed her mouth firmly and tried to look authoritative. The she opened it again, took a breath, then said. “OK. Well. I’m sorry that we didn’t know about this, or explain to you better how things work around here. I’m sorry that Dr Jones hasn’t been able to attend” she trailed off slightly, realising that she had no idea of how long Dr Jones had been dead and she couldn’t help wondering, if it had been a couple of weeks, what kind of condition the body would be in. Could be an interesting study for a cell biology course, in fact…

She shook herself again, aware of the still-curious faces,  “but here I am now to get things back on track. Now, I don’t think there’s much point in trying to run a full session today. There are hardly any of you here and it looks as though we’ll need to get back to the beginning of the module. What we’ll do is, what we’ll do is…we’ll schedule some extra classes so that you can catch up. I’ll teach you myself,” she added, recklessly, “so that I’m sure you’ve covered everything.

She recalculated her own timetable in her head. “Wednesday afternoons are usually good”, at least she’d be able to miss some of those dreary committee meetings with good excuse, “how about for you?”

“I play football on Wednesdays”

“I have to look after my baby sister”

“I’ve got a shift at work”,

“OK for me”

“Oh” said Alison “doesn’t sound too good. Tell you what, we’ll sort something out via email and then we can get everyone’s views. Now, is there anything you’d like me to talk to you about while I’m here?”


“Right” said Alison briskly “ok well there’s not too much point in us all staying here, I don’t want the rest of the class to miss out. Thank you for coming, though, and putting me in the picture. We’ll soon get this all sorted out.” She smiled brightly as she collected up her papers, shut down the PowerPoint and extracted her USB drive from the lecture theatre computer. The five students stood up rather uncertainly and, muttering thank yous, wandered out of the theatre. Alison looked at her watch. Ten past ten. She’d got most of her hour back – excellent. She pushed to one side a vague uneasiness about how the hell she was going to re-timetable the missed classes, and set off back to her office.

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: Known Unknowns

Advent Episode 9: A Vision of the Future

The Cold Light of Day

Bob was late. After his insomniac session, he had slept in, and so what with that and feeling too sluggish to cycle, by the time he’d done his convoluted bus journeys and got to campus, it was 9.15.

To his surprise, Alan was lurking in the corridor outside his office. Shit. The one day he was late, and the DVC had to be there. But Alan didn’t seem too bothered about the time.

“Ah, Bob!” he said, as though it was a huge surprise to meet him there, right outside Bob’s office. “Glad to have bumped into you”. He lowered his voice “have you had any chance to think about yesterday?” he whispered.

“Um. Well. Yes”, hedged Bob. For a moment, his heart leaped. Maybe it was all a mistake, and Alan was coming to tell him to think no more about it?

“Great. Have you got time for a quick coffee?” continued Alan.

Bob mentally checked his diary for the day, although he was still feeling a bit slow. “Sure” he said “shall we pop down to the canteen, er sorry, coffee bar?”

Alan looked around to see if there was anyone else in the corridor. “I know a little place just round the corner” he said “might be quieter there”.

Bob opened his mouth to point out that the building’s coffee bar would be quiet at this time in the morning, but thought better of it. He smiled weakly. “Sure” he repeated.

“It’s just down Challoner Street, Cheeky’s. Do you know it?” asked Alan. “Sure” said Bob again.

“OK, we should probably go separately, meet you there in 10 minutes.” Alan said, and dashed off, just as Martin and his fellow union rep, Janet, came out of the lift doors.

Bob was still standing outside the office, slack-jawed and processing the latest bizarre occurrence. Cheeky’s? What was wrong with the canteen? He forced himself to look relaxed and normal. “Forgot my key” he said, by way of explanation for standing outside the office. Martin and Janet were too preoccupied with their own concerns to have noticed anything odd.

“Was that the DVC?” Martin asked “What was he doing in this part of campus? Bloody hell, wish I’d realised it was him, I want to tell him what I think about this car parking. Janet and me, we were just planning our strategy for the meeting at lunchtime to discuss it. It’s a bloody disgrace.”

Janet nodded forcefully “One more erosion of our working rights. We’ll show them.” she agreed. “Are you coming to the meeting at lunchtime, Bob?”

“Um. Not sure yet, very busy” said Bob. “Got to go, need to see a student.” He didn’t even bother to go into the office, which Martin had just opened, but retraced his steps down the corridor towards the staircase.

As he walked down the six flights, he reviewed the situation again. It wasn’t much clearer than it had been at two-thirty that morning. He thought he knew three things:

  1. The university was setting up a college to offer the same degrees, but cheaper.
  2. He had been asked to ‘head up the project’.
  3. He wasn’t allowed to tell anyone.

If he’d been thinking properly like a forensic accountant yesterday, instead of like an anxious employee, he would have realised that there were some huge gaps in the information. It didn’t make any sense. He was just a fairly lowly senior lecturer, with no management responsibilities. Why would he head it up?  Bob was experienced enough not to be flattered by the ‘offer’. Whilst he did have management experience, it had been in his previous role, which nobody here was interested in except insofar as he could teach students about it.

The only possible reasons to ask him would be

a) that it needed a forensic accountant (vanishingly small probability). Or

b) they thought he would be discreet. Or

c) they could threaten him with redundancy since he was too old to get another job, but too young to retire.

Bob felt his blood pressure rising as he reached the bottom of the staircase. It all felt like a bad campus novel.

He had to stop himself looking around the building atrium as he crossed it, to check who might be watching him. Who cared? Honestly…it was a university. He’d been in some much more dodgy environments in his previous working life. Whilst fiddling the books was usually small scale and pitiful, once or twice he’d had to do investigations in big companies where the fraud was on a huge scale. Those kinds of companies employed ‘special’ security staff in addition to their usual workforce. This was nothing. He could work this out. He straightened his shoulders and strode off down Challoner Street, suppressing all thoughts of threats, redundancies and secrets.

In Cheeky’s, Alan was sitting in a corner, hunched over a large hot chocolate in a paper cup. Bob went over to him and sat down. “Coffee?” asked Alan. “Just had one” said Bob by way of answer, although it wasn’t true.

“I like these” said Alan “wife makes me have low-fat milk at home. Can’t stand the stuff.” Bob said nothing.

Alan looked up. “About yesterday” he said. Bob felt a twinge of relief. Alan was going to tell him that the VC was having problems and that yesterday’s meeting was all a big mistake. He prepared to reassure Alan about his ability to keep it all confidential.

“Can you get me a detailed action plan by, say, tomorrow night?” Alan asked.

Bob looked blankly at him. “Plan?” he offered, as neutrally as he could manage.

“Plan for the business and accountancy courses for the new, er, project, of course” said Alan “We were so glad to get you on board yesterday, the VC and I were sure you were the right man for the job, and we’re not often wrong, are we? Hur hur”.

Bob felt slightly sick. “Ah yes. I didn’t realise you were going to move so quickly. What did you have in mind for the action plan?”

Alan looked at Bob as though he were slightly slow. “Bob. We picked you for this job because of your extensive industrial experience. I’m sure you can knock up a full action plan for the partnership in no time! Remember, the building is already sorted out, you just need to think about marketing, recruitment, admissions, induction, and all of that stuff. Piece of cake! If you need a bit more time, let’s say first thing Thursday morning?” Alan cocked his head slightly.

“Tell you what. If you’ve got half an hour free, I’ll take you to look at something.” Alan stood up and picked up his cup. Bob looked blankly at him. Now what? He couldn’t think of any response other than to follow.

A Vision of the Future

Alan led the way down Challoner Street and then turned left onto Exeter road. “Not too far” was the only explanation he offered. They continued up to the main bus station, about three-quarters of a mile from campus. Alan stopped outside the main doors to the Precinct building. There was a row of shops: One Stop, Paddy Power, Sam’s Plaice, Real Factory Outlet.

Bob looked up. Above the shops was a tatty looking office block.  “OK, here we are” Alan said, fishing in his pocket for a huge set of keys.  “Come on up” They went into the large reception area inside the office building.

“Hullo, Shiv” he nodded to the security guard sitting behind an over-sized desk. Shiv grunted and turned back to his screen. Bob could see a solitaire game reflected in Shiv’s glasses.

Alan strode over to the lifts. “Not much to see yet, of course, but a lick of paint here, a couple of partitions there, some new chairs and tables, it’ll be bloody great”.

Bob didn’t have a clue what was going on, but kept his special inscrutable investigative accountant face on. Maybe this could be quite good fun. Six years in a University, and he’d forgotten how surprising the ‘real world’ could be.

The lift stopped at the second floor and they got out. “Here you are” said Alan, waving his arm towards a vast open plan area, empty but for an abandoned and overflowing waste paper basket and a broken chair in the far corner. The speckled lino tiles were scuffed; some were missing, others were ragged. The paint may once have been white. Or off-white.

Bob walked towards the windows: standard sixties squares, set in decrepit-looking frames with crumbling putty. He looked out onto the bus station. It was raining. He turned back to Alan, who was looking expectantly at him.

“Well? What do you think?”

“Um. Interesting.” tried Bob, as though a student had just answered one of his easiest accountancy questions with a completely wrong answer. He didn’t like giving completely negative feedback.

“We’ll build you and the other leaders your own offices, of course. And this will make a great teaching space. Open plan, team-teaching, latest technology, coffee area at the end.” Alan looked around, clearly seeing the room full of purposeful students.

Bob realised what Alan was talking about. This was going to be the new campus for the University College of Burston. He closed his eyes. Team-teaching. In his mind, the room had suddenly filled with noisy students who couldn’t find a seat and weren’t sure which lecturer at which end of the room to listen to. There were no admin staff in sight. There was one of those weird conveyor-belts-with-a-letter-box for posting assignments, like the system in the library for returning books. The portable data projectors wouldn’t sit straight on the wobbly desks in front of the fold-out screens, and there was a cacophony of noise from the simultaneous lectures, coffee machines, mobile phones, and grumbling staff and students.

He sighed. He opened his eyes. Alan was looking expectantly at him. “Um. Interesting” he said again. “How many students did you say?” he added, realising that he needed to show an interest if he was to find out any more.

“Oh, details” said Alan, waving his arm across the room again, airily. “small and select to begin with”

“How about admin staff?” persisted Bob. “Technical staff?”

“Oh, we’ll be all digital down here, Bob. Efficient! Modern!” Alan clearly felt this was sufficient in the way of answer. He crushed his empty cup and aimed it towards the waste paper basket. It hit the top and bounced off. “Bulls-eye! Anyhow, mustn’t keep you any longer, know you’ve got a plan to write!”

Shit. Bob had suppressed all thought of the plan. The whole situation was looking both more real and more ridiculous. Had he, at any stage, agreed to being involved in it? He honestly couldn’t remember. He followed Alan back to the lift. They descended in silence.

When they got outside, Alan turned to him “Right. Got another appointment in town. I’ll let you get on. Thursday morning OK for the plan?” Without waiting for an answer, Alan turned and headed off towards the main shopping street.

Bob walked slowly back towards campus. He reviewed his list of ‘knowns’. Did he know any more? Not really. How was he going to write a plan?

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: Into the Breach