Back in the Bosom

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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A large university is holding an amnesty on electrical devices. Kettles are already banned at Burston Central, but those subversive academics have ways of managing the system. The only way for these kinds of rulings to be enforced is to move everyone out of their offices and into open-plan ‘facilities’….Martin is still outraged about last week’s re-leak of his embarrassing little problem. Wait till he hears about this.


To: allstaff@burstu.ac.uk

From: Justin Marks, head of campus communications

Subject: Office streamlining

As you are all aware, extensive building work will be taking place over the summer to provide modern working spaces in the main buildings. To prepare for the moves out of your offices, we recommend that you begin clearing the space now. Confidential waste such as uncollected student work, notes from meetings and student records should be collected into appropriate bags for secure destruction. Paper and card must be recycled: the facilities staff will be making regular checks of general refuse bins to ensure that only non-recyclables are present. Departments which consistently mix their waste will be fined!

Although these have been banned for some time, so should not be present on university premises, we have decided to hold an amnesty on small electrical items, which are no longer permitted as they may not be compliant with current safety standards. These may be placed in the collection boxes at reception desks. This includes calculators, non-standard computers, toasters, foot spas and hair straighteners. You know who you are! (and so does the Vice Chancellor!) !!!

Reminder: the plans for the building refit can be seen at this link. All office space will be closed from 1 May – 15 September inclusive, except for the Clearing Centre, which will be open as usual from 16 August – 30 September. Staff will need to find alternative working spaces (we recommend your home office!!) and check in every day with their line managers.

Martin couldn’t contain himself. “Do you know what this means?”

Ajay tried to look neutral. “Er…”

Martin wasn’t really expecting an answer. “This is the thick end of the wedge, this is. First they came for the smokers, and I wasn’t bothered because I don’t smoke. Then they came for the kettles, and I hid mine, at least I did until Bob dropped it in the bloody bogs and broke it. Now they’re after my hair dryer, and I’ve had enough.”

“Hair dryer?” Ajay knew he shouldn’t say anything, but he couldn’t help himself.

Martin gave him a withering look. “I was speaking figuratively, Ajay. Obviously I don’t need a hair dryer. It’s the principle of the thing.”

“Oh, yes. Principle.”

“This move to open plan offices, it’s all about control. They don’t want us to shut the door on anything, or anyone. Or heat up water clandestinely.”

Ajay felt lost. In the accountancy firm he’d worked in until a few weeks ago, all of the offices were open plan. Even the principals were in there, only with slightly bigger cubicles. There were no individual kettles. Or hair dryers, for that matter. Hair dryers? Martin was almost entirely bald.

Martin carried on. “How much is all this costing, that’s what I’d like to know? Plus, what am I going to do with all of this?” He waved his arm over geological layers of handouts, uncollected assignments, industry factsheets, annual reports, Christmas cards and (probably, if Ajay’s observations over the last couple of weeks could be extrapolated) rejected pizza crusts.

“How much of it do you think you’ll need to keep?”

Martin gave Ajay a hard stare. “It’s all essential, or I’d have got rid of it long ago, wouldn’t I?”

“Oh. Glad I’ve not got much to pack up yet.”

“Lucky you. Still, you can give me a hand.”

Ajay cursed to himself. Should have seen that coming. “Oh yes. Of course. Just let me know.”

“God, I haven’t got time to deal with this now. I’ve still got to sort out this business with Academic Board. Got a phone interview with someone from the Higher tomorrow.” Martin cheered up at the thought of airing his grievance more widely. “I’ll tell them all about this erosion of personal rights, as well.”

Ajay knew he’d never work out what Martin was going on about. “Sounds like it’ll make a good story.”

“Too right. They think they can impose a Fordist approach to education, but they’re wrong. We aren’t widgets.”

Ajay just nodded. It seemed safest. He wondered why Martin never mentioned students… maybe they were the widgets. Maybe the academics were the factory machinery, churning out widgets? In which case, open plan might make sense…easier to slot in replacement parts when necessary. He smiled to himself, pleased with his recall of first year economics.


Upstairs, in the Vice Chancellor’s suite, Phyllis was remonstrating with the Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor.

“He can’t see anyone. You’ll have to leave a message.”

“This IS urgent, Phyllis. It’s about the office reorganisations. The Union…”

Phyllis didn’t let Sam finish. “Well, you’ll have to sort it out, Sam. I can’t disturb him.”

Sam cast the office door one last, lingering, look, and left the room.

Behind the door, Bill Noakes was poring over the Times Higher Education World Rankings, which had been released the previous evening. University of Burston had dropped fifteen places. Excellent news. He made a note to send a commiserating note to his opposite number there.  He hadn’t expected that Burston Central would appear this time, but he wanted to make sure he was on top of the trends. Next year, with his franchising plans, things would be different….

 


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.

Ground-breaking.

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!”

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 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?”

“Sure”.

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.


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Advent Episode 2: The Last Straw

Bob was staring blankly at his computer screen. He was finding it difficult to concentrate. Martin hadn’t been too happy about the broken kettle. He was sitting muttering to himself, nursing a super-sized Americano which Bob had gone down to get for him from the coffee shop.

Bob was answering emails from students about the assignment which was due in at 5pm. He was trying very, very hard not to think about Alan’s frankly bizarre behaviour in the toilets that morning. He just wanted to come to work, teach students, do his paperwork, and go home.

He didn’t expect the job to be stress-free, and he didn’t mind working long hours, but he did expect it to be reasonably predictable and, well, safe. Being a forensic accountant had been fine, while he was sitting analysing files, but he’d never really enjoyed having to confront people at the sessions where he presented his findings, or, worse, had to ask them why documents were missing or didn’t tally with each other. The rules had been clear enough, and he was good at auditing. He could just never get to grips with the general deviousness of some of the clients.

University life, by contrast, was pretty straightforward. People thought they were creative and original, but they worked within well-defined parameters. The year was tightly structured. There were clear rules of behaviour and most people stuck to them. Annual appraisals didn’t have numbers on, but were based on vague objectives which were subject to a wide range of gentle interpretations.

Students did the same kinds of things every year, made the same kinds of excuses, dipped in performance at the same times of the year, sometimes made the same kinds of startling progress, and were generally, or at least on the average, charming.

Staff were usually courteous to one another. Hardly anyone raised their voices, which was nice, even if perhaps there was sometimes rather too much muttering. People covered classes for each other when someone was sick, or needed to attend the nativity play, or got a paper accepted at a special conference.  He liked it here.

He’d never heard of anyone else being ambushed in the toilets by senior management. So why had it happened to him?

His phone rang. He was almost relieved when it turned out to be a student. An extension request, perhaps?

“This really is the last straw…” spluttered Martin. He reached for a tissue to wipe flecks of coffee from his keyboard and reread the email which had just landed in his inbox.

To: allstaff@burstu.ac.uk

From: Justin Marks, head of campus communications

Subject: Car Parking Charges

All staff will be aware of the University’s commitment to Sustainable Development. As part of this policy, we are committed to encouraging staff to travel to campus by public transport. We will therefore be introducing a charge for car parking with effect from 1 January. Charges will be competitive compared with other local facilities at £8 per day, or £35 for a full week…

Martin didn’t bother to read the sections on subsidised rail season tickets, bus concessions or the provision of extra bicycle racks. He continued to fume, more or less silently. The rules of office-sharing dictated that they should try to be quiet when the other was on the phone. Bob was involved in a protracted conversation.

“I’m terribly sorry to hear about your grandmother”, repeated Bob, “and if you’d like to collect a Mitigating Circumstances form from the Student Support Office…” he tailed off. A pained expression crossed his face and the sound of noisy sobs could be heard through the receiver.

“From the Student Support Office”, he continued, “and submit it together with any supporting evidence by Friday,” – he speeded up – “itwillbeconsideredbythepanelwhowilldecideifyoucanbe givenanextension for the assignment. Now, I have another call waiting, so I’ll confirm this to you in an email, and I really do offer my deepest sympathies on your bereavement. Goodbye”. He replaced the receiver, then took it off the hook again and turned back to his computer.  He sighed.

Martin had been simmering as he waited for Bob to finish on the phone. “HAVE YOU SEEN THE LATEST?” Bob looked up, guardedly.  “Um…probably not”, he ventured. “I was just trying to remember whether that was the student who’d already claimed special extensions for grandparental bereavements or not. What have I missed?” He wasn’t sure that he wanted to know.

Martin didn’t really let him finish the sentence before continuing “CAR PARKING!” he shouted. “They’re even going to charge us to come to work now!” Bob located and opened the car parking email in his own inbox. He read it through carefully.

“Oh dear. And they’re going to reduce the number of places, too. Didn’t you say it was already difficult to park unless you get in before seven-thirty?”

Bob cycled to work most days. If it was very wet he took two buses instead. He had no real idea of whether it was difficult to park or not. Still, he felt an instinctive sympathy for the reaction the email had provoked in his colleague. Martin complained regularly about the difficulties of driving into work and finding somewhere to park when he’d arrived. He often arrived in the office slightly out of breath and pink-cheeked, as though he had run to work. Actually, the effect would have been produced by sitting in his car and getting angry with the nameless idiots blocking his way and taking his parking space.

“It’s all right for you. You don’t drive to work. What am I supposed to do? Well, if they don’t want me to come in to work, I’ll just work from home more. Let’s see how they like that! I wonder what the union has to say about this?”

He bent over the keyboard and started tapping frantically.

Bob sighed again and turned back to his own computer, remembering that he’d promised to email the bereaved student with confirmation of the arrangements for requesting an extension.

He supposed it must be fairer to make all of the students apply for extensions in the same way, using the same forms, but it did seem to be a lot more hassle than just agreeing on the spot to a student who sounded genuinely upset. It felt so impersonal. And Sally Smith was such a nice genuine sort of girl. It seemed cruel to make her prove her grandmother had died when she was obviously so upset. He was still trying to remember if she’d asked for an extension for that before. It didn’t mean she was cheating. She did have four grandparents. Had had, anyway.

He sighed yet again. He had a class at two and he hadn’t yet managed to nip out for anything to eat.

There was a loud knock at the door. Both men stiffened slightly. Martin hissed “ssh…they might go away”. They sat motionless for a few seconds. There was a second knock, more hesitant this time, and then the person outside tried the door handle tentatively. The door was locked. There was a short silence, followed by some rustling outside, and then a note appeared under the door.

The building was too noisy to distinguish footsteps retreating down the corridor, but after a decent interval had passed, Martin went over and picked up the note. “Dr Barker”, he read aloud “Hah! It’s for you, Bob. I told you it was a good move to put that dark paper over the window in the door. We’d never get any work done if they could see in.” He passed the note to Bob and went back to his email to the departmental union rep.

Bob unfolded the scrap of lined paper “Dr Barker”, he read “came to c u 2day, but ur not in. I need an extension cos my housemate was sick. Susie B.” Bob looked deeply pained. He turned back to the computer.

Susie B? He had 127 students in the class which had an assignment deadline that day. He knew the names of about 42, he reckoned. This one didn’t ring a bell. He brought up the student records programme, highlighted the relevant class, and searched on First Name: Su*. Susan, Susanne, Suzanne, Sue…good. Only one whose surname began with ‘B’. Susanne Brough.

He started an email, then stopped again. He couldn’t send it right this minute, as it would be obvious that he had actually been in his office when she put the note under the door. Then he started again – he could have been in the loo, couldn’t he? Or gone for a sandwich? That reminded him – what time was it? He looked at the clock in the corner of the screen. One-forty. Time for a quick sandwich before the lecture? Probably not. His stomach rumbled in protest.

He realised that he wouldn’t have time to get food after the lecture either. He’d have to go straight to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s office. His sigh could probably be heard in the next corridor. He forced himself to concentrate on what he was doing right now.

He finished the email which redirected Susie B to the appropriate part of the university website to apply for mitigating circumstances, pointing out gently that a friend’s illness wasn’t usually considered a good enough reason, and sent it. What was the modern equivalent of paper-pushing? Email-sneaking?

Shit! Shit! Shit!  Ten to two, and he hadn’t got all his stuff together for the lecture. Handouts? Notes? Where were they? He pulled the USB disk from its slot, ignoring the sanctimonious message about properly ejecting it, gathered up a pile of likely looking papers and headed for the door. Martin was still composing his email to the union, muttering quietly to himself as he typed, deleted and retyped.

Bob sighed again as he turned the lock with his little finger, then pushed down the door handle with his elbow and edged the door towards him, getting a foot in between it and the frame so that he could force his way out without dropping anything.

He emerged from the haven of the office, bearing his armfuls of material as though they were a shield to protect him from the parries of barbarian hordes. “Into the fray,” he muttered melodramatically to himself, as he dodged and weaved through the cheerful crowd of undergraduates.


This is an HE advent calendar for 2012. If you would like to find out what happens next at Burston Central, why not sign up for email updates when a new post is published, or follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter? Tomorrow’s episode: Fighting Back.

Advent Episode 1: Is Nowhere Safe?

Bob had come into work even earlier than usual, 7.30. He needed to have a bit of peace and quiet before Martin got in. He liked Martin, but Martin was the kind of person who made his presence felt, and it was hard to get on with anything serious while he was there.

The office was still chilly. The heating didn’t come on till eight. Bob got the kettle out of the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. They put it there each night before going home. Personal kettles were no longer allowed in offices. Martin said it was just another erosion of their employment rights, plus it was a way of forcing them to go and buy over-priced drinks from the coffee shop, where there was no privacy from students. The justifications about electrical safety and hygiene were completely spurious.

Bob rehearsed this argument to himself every morning as he made vile instant coffee.  He quite liked the coffee from the coffee shop, but it was a bit of a trek, and he had come to agree with Martin that it was important to keep some independence from the system. But he still didn’t like the idea that he was breaking the rules.

He took the kettle and peered out into the corridor – they’d agreed to be careful about letting other people know. The coast was clear, unsurprisingly at this time in the morning. He headed down the corridor towards the gents toilets.

He went in and started filling the kettle from the cold tap. The door opened. Figuring that normal etiquette applied, Bob didn’t turn round. He was also hoping that his body would mask the kettle. “Hur hur! I thought I saw you sneaking in here!”

“Sneaking?” thought Bob, “I wasn’t sneaking. I was walking completely normally”. He balanced  the kettle precariously on the basin and turned round.

It was the Deputy Vice Chancellor. Shit. “Er. Deputy Vice Chancellor, Alan!” he started “About the kettle…”

Alan ignored him. He was nonchalantly checking the empty cubicles. “Good” he said, turning back towards Bob. “Had a feeling you came in early, just thought I’d catch you.”

Bob was taken aback. He’d never actually met the Deputy Vice-Chancellor before. They certainly hadn’t been introduced. Obviously, he knew who Alan was, but he wouldn’t have expected the reverse to be true. Also, Alan didn’t have a reputation for this kind of chumminess. He felt very uneasy.

Bob waited. He wondered why the DVC wanted to see him. He tried to suppress thoughts about the kettle. This clearly wasn’t anything to do with the kettle. That was his own anxiety about petty rule-breaking.

“Great,” he said, hoping to encourage Alan to continue. “Um. What can I do for you?”

Alan looked around again conspiratorially, although there was absolutely nobody else in the toilet; there probably wasn’t anyone else in the building. He lowered his voice. “Can you come and see me later on? After two o’clock?”

“Um. I’ve got a lecture at two. I could come up after that?”

“OK, I’ll juggle a few things. And, Bob, this is highly confidential. Mum’s the word. Right, better get going. Remember, not a word to anyone” he briefly lifted his finger to his nose, then turned and opened the door cautiously. He peered out into the corridor, then turned and waved to Bob before striding off towards the lifts.

Bob turned back towards the basin, catching the kettle with his sleeve as he did so. It crashed to the floor, splitting into two cheap plastic pieces. He looked at it blankly, still trying to work out what was going on. What was he missing? There must be something he hadn’t understood. What was confidential? Some initiative which needed his special expertise in forensic accountancy? Cosying up to a new external partner the DVC had met at a function somewhere? Redundancies? It was probably safe to assume that there was no sexual element to the bizarre encounter. Although it was unusual for anybody to acknowledge anybody else in the Gents. He sighed heavily. He had enough to do today without worrying about the DVC.

He bent to pick up the pieces of the kettle. Well, at least they weren’t going to get into trouble now for having an illicit water-heating device in the office. One less thing to worry about. He smiled wryly. What was Martin going to say?


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: The Last Straw