Bodies of knowledge

December 24, 2004

Voracia Storme mixes pleasure with the business of taking the University of the Dome to the top in Sally Feldman's tale, which was runner-up in our contest to write the opening chapter of a satirical campus novel for the 21st century

Voracia Storme, vice-chancellor of the University of the Dome, favoured a clean, lean management style. She had three rules. Answer emails immediately. Make wrong decisions rather than no decisions. And whoever you are with, give them your undivided attention. There had once been a fourth rule, long abandoned as unworkable: never ever mix business with pleasure.

As she stretched luxuriously along the length of her lover's body and reached a languid arm across his chest for her glass of champagne, she reflected yet again on the absurdity of rule four. Without its persistent violation, how could she ever have achieved her stunning successes? Dome was top of the league tables for the newly formulated fifth-tier universities. It was the most heavily sponsored academic institution in the land. And this evening, the Secretary of State for Education would announce that the Dome was a beacon of excellence, fulfilling all known Government objectives and therefore the fitting beneficiary of a gigantic £2 million a year to spread its best practice around the country.

"And so, ladies and gentlemen," muttered Felix Lambert into the pillow. "I want to emphasise that this award is not based on mere whim, nor on craven adherence to abstract policies. The University of the Dome has worked with businesses, with its local community, with policymakers and stakeholders..."

"Talking of stakeholders," gently interrupted Voracia, trickling a mouthful of bubbles down his loins.

"Don't distract me yet," murmured Felix, feeling himself stirring yet again under Voracia's expert fingers. "I want to be able to do this without notes. Sounds more sincere."

"Sincerity is a cultural construct," Voracia whispered in his ear as she slid back under the satin sheet. "A bit like sex, really."

Back at the campus on the curving stretch of the Thames beyond Greenwich, Hector Bovine was staring at a spreadsheet on his screen. Hector was almost always to be found staring at spreadsheets. It vexed him sometimes to remember that once he had been a teacher of English literature, a purveyor of fine language, an ambassador of culture.

That was before the long unhappy slide that had led to his present position. Initially he had only moved from a love of literature to a love of films and that had then led effortlessly to the wide boulevards of cultural studies, where he was immediately seduced by the exotic charms of French high theory. The fact that he never fully understood any of it only added to the thrill of liberation. The poststructuralists freed him from ever having to have a firm opinion of his own. They also liberated him from the absolutism of traditional disciplines and courses. He'd gone on to introduce modules on the dynamics of disco lighting, paradigmatic categorisations in wedding planning and the communication values inherent in lost-cat notices.

But Hector had missed a trick. He'd failed to notice an even newer, even more eclectic set of rivals coming up on his flank. Suddenly he found himself surrounded by digital artists, sound sculptors, plastic conceptualists, urban music commentators - all effortlessly forging clever and profitable partnerships with businesses keen to look cool by funding installations on Pot Noodles, vodka mixers and mobile texting.

Hector slid inexorably from research-active lecturer to teaching-only and then to teaching with additional administrative responsibilities. Finally, ignominiously, he was branded "administration-only". And that was where he remained. When the University of the Dome was established, taking over the original thrice-failed Millennium construct and building out of it in eccentric circles, Hector found himself director of resources (planning and spending), with additional responsibility for timetabling and room bookings.

Hector it was who had to persuade the library to take over the running of the canteen and coffee shop "because food is a learning resource, too".

Hector was the one who explained to an angry cohort of physiotherapists why the university saw fit to provide them with blow-up dolls rather than skeletons. And it was Hector who deflected the union from that strike about anomalies in differentials by explaining that the money that had been set aside for harmonisation had been donated to animal rights.

It was a thankless job really, he reflected, squinting at the screen. How could anyone possibly fit 2,000 undergraduate media students into ludicrous globular studios that could fit only 50? But it was Dome's curious configurations that turned out to be its trump card, just as Voracia had predicted. "Our entire campus is a branding opportunity," she would enthuse. And then, warming to her theme: "We'll be the first university to offer modular marketing. You can sponsor a wall, a wing, a window - build up credits until you've cornered a whole site to optimise the uniqueness of your proposition."

From the start, investors had flocked in, loving the chance that the bulbous annexes and circular studios offered them to place logos on the mushroom-like roofs, visible to all passing air traffic. The view these days was a carnival of brand names: the Morgan Stanley Statistical Analysis Suite, complete with built-in casino for croupier coursework; the Monsanto Bioscience Wing; the NCP Behavioural Traffic Laboratory, with its accompanying funded chair in parking studies; and the Beckham Speech Therapy Centre. Despite the roaring triumph of Dome's income-generation policy, Hector still occasionally tried to draw attention to the impracticality of those weird curving walls, their sheer unsuitability for delivering a higher education curriculum. But he never got a chance. You rarely got a chance with Voracia. That was one of the irritating and glorious facts about her. She brooked no objections when she was fixed on a vision. It was like being hypnotised.

For years Hector had worshipped her from afar. Now that he was working so closely with her, seeing her every day, he was hopelessly, crazily in love with her.

He glanced down sadly at his carefully ironed Levis, the finely striped Armani shirt he thought would sharpen his image but somehow strained over his waistline, revealing too nakedly the few hairs poking out of a chalk-white chest. Hector's hair, thinning and silvering now, seemed to droop in sympathy with his shoulders. He could never tell her. Never even hint at his feelings for the most glamorous woman he'd ever encountered.

The woman with an Oriental shimmer to her olive cheeks; a suggestion of Egyptian hauteur in her chiselled cheekbones and glossy black hair; an almost Aboriginal lope to her endless legs. She seemed the perfect amalgam of every part of the world; even the clinging fabrics she wore managed to blend designer elegance with ethnic challenge.

How could he even think of letting her guess how he longed to crush her in his arms, spread her backwards over the photocopier and show her how perfectly their contrasting orientations could meld into transgendrification? She'd only purse her perfect lips and dissolve into scornful, mellifluous laughter.

Laughter tinkled and roared over the clinking glasses upriver in the aggressively postmodern conference hall of the new Transatlantic Hotel.

This vast, cavernous space was built for the echo of self-praise and the snapping of professional backbiting. Bill Stately of Stately Powers Inc downed his third glass of mediocre Medoc and picked his 17th canape from a passing tray. Like the other 16, it crumbled in his hand and scattered filo crumbs, sticky with a mess of spinach, down his extremely expensive, extremely buff silk suit.

Tall, powerfully built, florid of face and slightly too large for his clothes and his surroundings, Bill had never really quite got used to being obscenely rich. He'd only recently stopped boasting of his northern roots and his pride in plain-speaking after he'd begun to notice people's eyes glazing over. He'd once caught an otherwise delightful young futures analyst guffawing into her "Asset Stripper" embroidered handkerchief when he mentioned his simple tastes and humble roots over the caviar at Ramsay's.

Bill had married well. Genevieve, blonde, mildly aristocratic, 20 years his junior and an excellent mother to their three girls, sat on several of the Stately subsidiary boards, exercising some quietly astute judgements while maintaining a polite disdain for her husband and an amiable lack of concern about his absences. And these were becoming increasingly erratic of late.

Bill had made his original fortune in cement, gone on to property and then gradually began to build up a publishing concern that was rapidly turning into an empire. Bill enjoyed the influence he could now wield in high places, but he wasn't obsessed with power. He liked the glamour, the money, the people he met.

Especially one person. Ever since he'd encountered her at a Business for Better Bottom Lines lunch two years ago, Bill had been besotted with Voracia Storme. She was vivacious, passionate, beautiful - and this improbable creature appeared to be effortlessly running a £120 million university with a workforce of about 3,000 stroppy ne'er-do-wells.

That, to him, was almost sexier than her deep, rippling voice and her tantalising hips.

No wonder he followed her meekly to her chauffeur-driven Jaguar and from there to a discreet penthouse suite, where she proceeded to strip off his too-tight pinstripe suit and suck his bloated, grateful cock until he groaned into her and took himself to heaven.

And no wonder that, soon after that, the University of the Dome became the proud recipient of the Stately Magazine Wing, a fully sponsored journalism resource complete with newsroom, printing facilities and rafts of Stately branded computers. There were even two Stately scholarships for students of promise.

One of these favoured beings now politely approached him and introduced himself. Tarik Kaz had arrived from Tunisia just over a year ago. His roots were uncertain, his credentials for admission on to the journalism masters programme even hazier. Someone had had the idea that he had first-hand experience of terrorism. No one could determine whether as combatant or victim. But lecturers who have been away too long from the hothouse excitement of the newsroom like to come up against the odd taste of danger, however vicarious. Voracia had first encountered him when he wrote to complain to her about racism. She'd demanded to see him, skirted over his discontents and listened instead to his stories of hide-outs among rebels, how he managed to become embedded with the British Army in the Gulf while claiming to be working for al-Jazeera, tantalising references to victims of torture and mangled corpses. Voracia wasn't sure how they had become tortured and mangled, but didn't like to probe too far. Tarik was, in due course, awarded a Stately scholarship for the duration of his degree and was a student guest at tonight's ceremony. You never knew when an experienced fighting man might come in useful.

So here he was, sidling up to the great sponsor himself and asking very politely to shake his hand. Tarik had socialist ideals and expensive tastes. He sipped his champagne and thanked Bill for his generosity. He wondered whether he might perhaps have the chance of some work experience on War Pictures magazine.

Bill nodded abstractedly, looking over Tarik's right shoulder as influential men are apt to do when in the presence of the young and unconnected. He was searching for a pair of unmissable legs, for the swish of silk and the waft of Poison that always announced the arrival of Voracia Storme. She should be here by now and Bill could barely wait. It had been nearly two weeks and he was aching for her.

Huddled into another part of the crowd were Felix Lambert's chief aide, his personal secretary and a harassed-looking young woman from the Department for Education press office. All of them were checking their watches obsessively, tapping into their mobiles and visibly beginning to fret. Here they were in a throng of 800 members of the great and the good. All there to celebrate the achievements of the great partnership of commerce and education that was the fifth-tier university sector. All there to honour those who had made this visionary fifth way possible. All there to hear the Secretary of State himself announce the winner of the top university award in a speech poised to splash across the front pages.

But where was he?

"Oh God," groaned Felix in an ecstasy of anguish. "Oh Jesus, oh my God."

Voracia was straddled across him, riding him with a delicious, slow, knowing control that made him want to scream, to explode into her as she rose and fell in calculated, tight balletic motion. His breaths became shorter, more urgent, his craggy face suffused with a mounting blush that seemed to turn from pink to red to purple. Until suddenly, without warning, he grasped her feverishly by the buttocks, slammed hard into her with a choking frenzy, then with a gasp of what might have been pain or despair or paradise, he jerked back on to the bed and remained still. Too still.

Totally still, never to move again.

Sally Feldman is head of the School of Media, Arts and Design at Westminster University.

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