Bob looked up from his screen and stretched his arms out. It was eight o’clock in the morning, and he’d been sitting there for an hour and a half already. He smiled over at Sheila, who was sitting on the other side of the double desk. She didn’t notice. She was writing in her notebook.
They were sitting in a tiny room with no windows. There was just about space for the two desks pushed together, two filing cabinets, and a small occasional table for the kettle and two mugs. It wasn’t the most promising location for the great white hope of Burston Central University. But Bob thought it was fitting. At the moment, only he and Sheila were working on the project. They didn’t need any more space, and as an ex-forensic accountant, he approved of the parsimony being shown at this stage in the project. Later on they’d need to demonstrate their financial backing, and they had a guarantee of half a million pounds of investment from the VC’s special projects fund.
Sheila looked up. “Everything alright?”
“Yes, boss. Just thinking about resource allocation for the refurbishments.” He tugged on an imaginary forelock. They both smiled.
“I’m just trying to get this recruitment strategy thought through.” Sheila said. “We’re going to have to advertise vacancies fairly soon, or we won’t be able to get admissions going in time. But once we do that, the whole thing’s going to go public.”
Bob grimaced. The plan to set up the new University College of North Burston was pretty well developed, but the timings they were working to were all disrupted by the secrecy of the project.
The door handle was pressed down and there was a thud outside. They both started. It was pretty quiet in the basement and nobody but them ever usually came into the office. They held meetings off-site, or up in the Vice Chancellor’s suite. The door burst open.
“Bloody hell, what’s wrong with that door?” Bill Noakes was in the room, breathing heavily.
“It sticks, Vice Chancellor.”
“So I see. Bloody hell, you want to get that seen to.”
“We’re sort of used to it.” Sheila was usually cool around the VC. She didn’t like him much, and unlike Bob, she wasn’t intimidated by him. “What a pleasant surprise, Vice Chancellor. We don’t usually see you down here.” Actually, they’d never seen him down there. She was surprised that he knew there was a basement.
“What? Oh, yes.“ The VC looked round, as though he’d mislaid something. He turned slightly and put an arm back out into the corridor. “This is Steve.” He pulled someone into the room.
It was now rather crowded in the tiny office. Bob and Sheila stood up automatically to greet the new arrival. Steve looked to be in his mid-thirties, neatly dressed in an inexpensive suit and a plain tie. He had a small rucksack.
Bob put out his hand. “Bob. Nice to meet you.”
Sheila did likewise. They all turned to the VC expectantly.
“Er, Steve’s going to help you out with the UCNB project. He’ll be working on an international angle.” Bill fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper torn from his notebook. “Franchising, new business model, available to new markets.” he added. He shoved the piece of paper into Bob’s hand.
“Right, better get off, interviewing for the new DVC today, mustn’t be late.” The VC squeezed past Steve and disappeared. Bob and Sheila looked at Steve.
“I’ll go and find another chair.” Bob put the paper in his pocket and also squeezed past Steve, who hadn’t moved from the doorway, and followed the VC out into the corridor. Bill was already over at the lift, which was still at the basement floor. He gave Bob a slight wave and stepped firmly inside. Bob sighed and headed off in the opposite direction. There were a couple of chairs down by the laundry room. They’d seen better days. He leaned experimentally on the one which looked stronger. It seemed safe enough.
Back in the office, Sheila had got the kettle on and had managed to get Steve to sit down in Bob’s chair.
“Bob, this isn’t Steve. It’s Stefan.”
Bob automatically stuck his hand out again. “Hello, Stefan. Nice to meet you.”
Stefan nodded at him.
Sheila handed Stefan a cup of instant coffee. “Milk? Sugar?”
He shook his head.
Bob wondered if he could speak at all. Although Sheila must have managed to talk to him. He sat down on the new chair and waited.
“Stefan was the manager at Subway, Bob.”
He looked at her blankly.
“You know, the one down Challoner street, down from Cheeky’s. The sandwich place. You know, Subway, the sandwich chain.”
Bob finally understood what kind of subway was being discussed. “I thought it was closing down.”
“Yes, that’s why Stefan is here.”
Stefan took a sip of his coffee, and winced.
Bob felt none the wiser. What was the connection between the University College of North Burston and the manager of a failed sandwich shop? “Oh.” he offered.
Sheila smiled at him. “No, I haven’t a clue either.”
Bob felt relieved. He pulled the VC’s piece of paper out of his pocket. It was headed ‘new international strategy’, in terrible handwriting. There were two columns. One was headed Subway, and underneath, it said: raw ingredients, recipes, Health and Safety, training manuals, marketing information.
The other column was headed Burston Central. Its column included teaching materials, regulations, and degree certification.
“Any clarification there?” Sheila put her hand out for the piece of paper.
Bob handed it over. Subway. Universities. International. “Not sure. Yes. Maybe. I wonder if the VC is thinking about franchising.”
Stefan nodded vigorously. “Franchising. Yes. Subway is franchise.”
Bob tried to place the accent. Eastern European?
Sheila shrugged. “God knows what it’s all about. But we could do with some help around here. Stefan, do you have a CV?”
“Of course.” Stefan bent over and took a neat folder out of his backpack and passed it to Sheila.
She flicked through it. “Has the Vice Chancellor seen this, Stefan?”
He shook his head. “No. He said no need. Could see my special skills.”
Sheila rolled her eyes. “OK. Did he give you a contract or anything?”
“No, not yet. He said you would sort out.”
“OK. How about a job title? And when did he say you could start?”
“Special Project Assistant. Grade 6. Now.”
Sheila wasn’t sure whether Stefan was a man of few words, or whether his English was limited, or whether he was just feeling out of his depth. Or all three. His CV was actually pretty impressive, if the translation was accurate. First degree in economics from the University of Warsaw, classification A1* – she presumed that was good. Masters in enterprise development, worked as a management consultant to small companies for ten years after graduation. Then it looked as though he’d come to the UK in 2009, and then things got a bit less graduate-like. Waiter, Assistant manager at a series of fast food places, followed by nine months at the local Subway. Not very relevant to a university.
She sighed. What was Bill playing at? She wouldn’t be able to talk to him today, if they were interviewing for Alan’s replacement.
Stefan was looking at her expectantly. She passed the CV over to Bob.
“Stefan. We’ll need to sort out a proper contract for you. And take up some references. There will be a probationary period of, er, three months. During that time, you’ll be working for Bob and me helping us out with our big project, and then we’ll see about this special, er, franchising project. How does that sound?”
Stefan shrugged his shoulders. “Sounds fine. I can start now.”
Sheila looked round the office. “Well, as you can see, we don’t have very much space at the moment. And you’ll need a contract, or you won’t be covered by our insurance. And I’ll need you to sign a confidentiality agreement. So it does need a bit of organisation. Is this contact information current?”
“OK, I’ll get in touch with you tomorrow, with a view to you starting next week. How’s that?”
Stefan shrugged again. “OK.”
“I’ll need to see all of your qualification certificates, and your passport,” she continued.
Stefan took another folder from his rucksack. “All here.”
“Great,” said Sheila. “I’ll just go and copy these, that’ll be one less thing to sort out.”
She took the folder and stood up. “I’ll be about ten minutes. The copier’s on the first floor. Perhaps Bob will make you another coffee while you’re waiting.”
Stefan shook his head. “No thanks.”
Sheila left the office. There was a silence. Bob thought he’d better say something. “So, Stefan. How did you meet the Vice Chancellor?”
“Professor Noakes. The man who brought you down here.”
“Oh, Mester Noakes. He come in for Subs often. We chat sometimes. The other week, I tell him we are closing, and he says he has job for me. So I am here. ”
Bob wasn’t sure what to say. “What do you know about Burston Central University?”
Stefan shrugged. “Not so much. Big university. Many students. Not so good as other one maybe? Less money?”
Bob smiled. “Something like that. Here’s a prospectus.” He passed one over.
“Did you have a specialism when you were a management consultant?” Bob asked.
“Lot of general help for small businesses. Lot of small manufacturers supplying multinationals. Cultural context, western-style costing, accounting. And all that health and safety, ethical business, human resources. You know.”
Bob nodded at him. “Sounds interesting. Do you miss it?”
Stefan shrugged yet again. “Yes, a little. But it’s OK here. Different. “
Bob gave up. “I’m sure you’ll find this project very interesting, given your background. Sure you don’t want another coffee?”
Stefan shook his head. “Is there anything I can do before next week? I like to be busy.”
“I don’t think so. It’s a rather confidential project. I know it doesn’t look like much at the moment.” They both looked rather gloomily round the office.
Sheila came back in. she handed Stefan back his folder of qualifications. “That’s great, Stefan. Impressive qualifications. I’m sure we’re going to enjoy working with you.”
She looked meaningfully at Bob. He stood up. “Yes, just leave us to sort out the paperwork, Stefan, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next week.”
Stefan took the hint. He shook their hands and squeezed past them into the corridor. “I’ll see you to the main entrance.” Bob said. “It’s a bit of a rabbit warren down here.”
Sheila shut the door behind them and sat back down at her desk. There were times when she wondered if the Vice Chancellor was just having a huge joke at their expense. Or someone else’s expense. She sighed and added Stefan to her ‘to-do’ list. Bill hadn’t told anyone in HR about their project yet, so she couldn’t sort it out with them. She’d have to put Stefan on a consultancy contract to start with. Well, that would cover the probationary period. By then, the company would be incorporated and they’d be able to issue their own contracts. She wondered if Bill had the slightest idea about the nuts and bolts of running a business.
Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. For last year’s advent calendar, see The Unknown Tutor.
Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email: email@example.com.