Part EIGHT: the story so far...
Henry has Toni write the lead story for University Focus, exposing the dead student fraud. Before sending the proofs to the printer, he puts Toni's byline on the story.
On Monday morning, Toni is enraged, but Henry convinces her not to kill him just before he walks into a door and gives himself two black eyes.
Meanwhile, the story has sparked intense media interest and a news conference is announced for the following day.
Toni arrives at Henry's flat the next morning to help him get ready, but while tidying up finds a copy of Gogol's Dead Souls that Dennis Strood gave to Henry. Appalled by his 1970s brown pinstriped suit, Toni nevertheless hands her boss a crash helmet and guides him to her bike.
Toni guided Henry into the office and took him directly to see the vice chancellor, with whom he had a briefing meeting at 0930 precisely. The vice chancellor thanked Toni, called her "young man", and took the university press officer by the elbow. "You've been in the wars I see. My, that's a with-it get-up," he said as he closed the door.
Mrs Van Weerbecke, who had come into the corridor to get a closer look at the stranger she had glimpsed in the rear-view mirror she kept on her desk, asked Toni who it was. Toni told her it was Henry. "He's looking a bit freaky and retro today," she said, and the poached halibut said darkly: "Back on the bottle, I suppose?" Toni protested that he had walked into a door, to which Van Weerbecke replied with an eloquent harrumph, and went back to her desk.
Toni took off her motorcycling clobber and waited at her desk for about 45 minutes until Henry appeared suddenly in the doorway and gave her a fright. "You are doing this a lot today," she scolded.
"What?" "Appearing in doorways and frightening me."
"I'm having to feel my way everywhere," he explained. "Shall we go to the Great Hall? Have you seen Dennis? What about the reg?" They called in on both as they made their slow progress to the Great Hall. Toni knocked at each's office, put her head around the door and reminded them to be ready five minutes before the start of the conference. Dennis Strood smiled broadly. He was wearing his best tweed suit and a very spectacular bow tie. His gold filling looked as though it had been newly burnished. Dr Ffrancis, by contrast, hardly looked up from his desk and replied only with a rather dismissive backhand wave that could well have meant "Go away I'm busy". He appeared to be reading a long letter, and had a fountain pen poised in his other hand. The Great Hall was situated in a mock-gothic structure in the centre of town that most strangers, on arriving in the city, took to be the cathedral. Toni guided Henry down the hill like the eyeless Samson in Gaza. Most of their conversation was of the "Watch out for the kerb - mind that dog turd" kind, until they got on to the last stretch of pavement before the great portal itself.
From there on Henry was more on familiar ground. As soon as he felt the marble floor beneath him, Henry's confidence grew and he began to pick up speed. They mounted the central staircase and arrived at the landing from which opened the triple entrance arches to the Great Hall itself.
Here the resemblance to a cathedral was even stronger than on the outside. Ranks of uncomfortable chairs stretched as far as the podium, and the towering case of the massive organ, on which Thadias Moncrieff FRCO thundered out the anthems at graduations. The rich stained-glass windows along the sides of the hall cast the usual dim, religious light, and below them, above tall oak panelling, hung the tattered banners of the various organisations that had had a hand in establishing the university at the beginning of the century. These included the Honourable Brotherhood of Tobacco Factors, the Mercers' Guild, and the Worshipful Lodge of Cutlers. The whole place, if you were of a mind to inquire into the history of it, positively reeked of civic pride gone mad.
However, none of those currently assembled there had a mind to inquire into any such thing. Around the front of the hall, though not too close, several camera crews had already cleared some space among the chairs for their tripods. There were already three in place, two of which were surmounted by huge video cameras. Bearded men, wearing sleeveless jackets covered in pockets, were peering into them. On the stage, several sets of lights had already been set up and were being tested. On the floor, sound men were crouching over small black suitcases, holding large furry microphones on long booms and listening to something or other on their headphones.
"Who's here?" asked Henry.
"Four telly crews," said Toni.
"Good. Anyone else?" "Nope."
"Well, early days yet. They'll be here," said Henry. "Just take me up on to the platform and sit me down. I'll hold court from there. You do the usual. Welcome them and take their names. Get this lot's names too. Have you ordered the light lunch I promised them?" "Yep. Sandwiches, white wine, red wine, fizzy water, O.J. and coffee. That's already here too. Yuk. The white wine will be nice and warm. Damn! I told them to chill it and bring it last! I'll kill those ****ing . . . " "Toni - don't bother," Henry said, suddenly sounding very solemn. "Remember - this is going to be very largely your show. We'll be up there, but you will be down here with them. Make sure they know who you are. Wear the badge. Your name will come up, so sit at the back. You should come out of this occasion a kind of minor celebrity. Also, watch out for our mystery guest - the one you reserved a place for. He'll be coming later - while the thing is still happening. I had a fax last night that suggested he would be here some time after 11.30. You will know him when he comes. Stand by the door. Listen to what happens. You will find that all is not quite as you thought. I expect there will be quite a sensation. They may well want to talk to you afterwards - get you to say something - especially the local radio. So be around. Don't go wandering off beating up caterers. I know you'd enjoy that better. But you have bigger fish to fry today."
Toni listened to this speech and stopped Henry in the aisle. "I saw a copy of Gogol's Dead Souls in your flat this morning. It was inscribed to you from Dennis Strood. Might this have any bearing on these mysteries, by any chance?" "It might. Well, it does actually."
"You are a devious bastard, Battersby."
"All will be for the best."
Toni looked him up and down. "Is there any reason why I should believe a man, especially one who looks like you do, when he says a thing like that?" asked Toni.
"Only if he loves you."
"Hmm. You have been in on this business right from the start, haven't you?" "Just get me on to the platform. All will be revealed."
"Mysterious prick," said Toni, taking him gently by the arm.
"The ever-feminine leads us on," quoted Henry.
"The only one who's being led on around here is me," muttered Toni.
Henry surveyed the fuzzy expanse of beige seating from behind his sunglasses and settled down. He was still the only person sitting on the podium. Toni had a go at the inconsequential female who came in to look at the catering arrangements, and watched her leave with all the white wine on a clattering trolley. Toni gave him the thumbs-up, which he was unable to see.
A few moments later, strangers with open raincoats and attache cases under their arms began to lurk sheepishly about the door. Henry had often wondered, when he began his career in public relations, why the press always turned up in open, general-purpose raincoats even when it was the middle of summer - until he realised that he used to do exactly the same. His own mackintosh had fortunately fallen to pieces after getting caught in a railway carriage door. Had its stitching been younger he might have ridden all the way to Milton Keynes on the outside of the 10.30 from Euston.
Toni took their names down and invited them to take seats near the podium. The first arrival, Archie MacDonald of The Guardian, made it about half way down the aisle and sat well back from the TV crews, who looked threateningly at him. Toni came up to tell him that The Guardian had sent their education correspondent instead of the regional reporter. Henry wondered how many others were doing likewise. Archie's long face, like a stretched owl, stared blankly at Henry and looked away from what he interpreted as a threatening stare.
During the next few minutes, several other education correspondents from the nationals put in their shifty appearances. They seemed to have all come on the same train, but been unaware of one another. Adair StClair of the Daily Telegraph, in his habitual pinstripe suit, was as tall and patrician as ever and waltzed straight in. Toni grabbed him by the elbow and nearly pulled him off his feet. Then there was dapper Jonathan McCreary of The Times, in a green suit, and mackintosh over his arm. These two wandered down, recognised their colleague from The Guardian and sat in a huddle. There they were soon joined by Hamilton Arthur of the Financial Times, his round lenses glinting in the sunbeams that broke through the high windows on one side of the hall. They were all reading copies of University Focus.
After a few moments, when they were settled, briefcases on laps and notebooks out, Archie MacDonald looked at the podium again and evidently said: "Good God, isn't that old Battersby up there in the shades?" whereupon they all stared, realised Archie was right and waved together. Henry, unaware of their greeting, sat motionless.
Various other hacklike persons appeared in dribs and drabs as the time approached 11.25. Of these Henry would have recognised but one, the youthful Miriam Faddyan, who wrote on education (and pets) for the Western Daily Press. The others mostly carried small tape recorders and microphones and were evidently from various radio stations. Then, at 11.29 precisely, a very tall man, every inch as lofty and superior-looking as Adair StClair, hove into view in the main doorway.
He bent down to whisper his name in Toni's ear, and she showed him to the reserved seat near the front before staring with dinner-plate eyes at Henry. Henry went on sitting motionlessly, like some Mafia boss. Toni shook her head and went back to her place by the doors.
Last to arrive were various assorted academics, passers-by, members of the senior administration, and the odd postgrad student with nothing better to do.
They were joined by two middle-aged women with shopping bags, who had evidently wandered in for a nose around, two members of the Fayrfax Singers, who were unaware that their dress rehearsal had been moved elsewhere, and a bag lady eating from a party pack of cheese and onion crisps.
At this point the stage door opened and out came Dennis Strood, followed by the registrar and Sir William Energlyn. Strood was perky and smiled at the crowd, allowing the sun to glint from his gold filling. Sir William walked - or rather processed - to his seat at the end of the table like a bishop holding the Eucharist. Dr Tegwyn Ffrancis scowled at the audience, which immediately ceased talking and began to pay attention. Biros were poised. Henry sensed the air of expectation and looked from side to side to make sure that all three speakers were happy for him to start the proceedings. Receiving unanimous nods from the blurred figures whose features he could barely discern, he turned to the hall. The lighting crews turned their lights on. The bearded cameramen in their pocket-encrusted gilets, peered into their eyepieces.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he began. "Thank you for coming to this rather hastily arranged press conference - and welcome particularly to the London press, whom we see down here in the Wild West all too infrequently. You will allow me to introduce the speakers. On the extreme left of the table is Sir William G. Energlyn, vice chancellor of the university and currently vice chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals."
The VC nodded gravely.
"Next we have the registrar, Dr Tegwyn Ffrancis . . . " Dr Francis made no motion, but went on scowling at the back of the hall.
". . . and finally Mr Dennis Strood, senior assistant registrar."
Dennis smiled broadly, sat up, said "Good morning!" brightly and folded his arms on the table.
"I shall call upon the vice chancellor to begin the conference. May I just remind everyone that everything said at this conference is on the record and for quotation. All relevant members of the university will be available for individual interview, should you wish. Please approach them directly at the end of the conference. A light lunch will be supplied at the back of the hall. Feel free to ask questions at any time. However, I shall be throwing the meeting open to general questions once the last speaker has finished. Vice chancellor . . . "
Sir William dragged the microphone across the table, which created a deafening noise like a mountain collapsing, followed by a piercing squeal. Then he stood up, and immediately sat down again. It was an inauspicious beginning for a man with ambitions to profile and presence, but he quickly regained composure, cleared his throat, forgot everything that his media trainers had told him and lapsed into lecturing mode.
"You have come here today as a result of a piece of news that appeared in a special edition of our university newsletter, University Focus." The VC held up his copy. "The appearance of this has somewhat - er - adumbrated - er - I mean anticipated - our planned announcement, which we have therefore brought forward to today. Indeed it is an excellent piece of journalism on which I congratulate its author, who is media assistant in our information office - Mr Tony - um - ," The VC put on his spectacles and adjusted his copy of University Focus before his eyes. "Mr Tony Yasushifish. You will all have met Mr Yasushifish on the way in.
"Mr - ah - Tony, during the course of his everyday work, stumbled upon evidence that led him to believe that someone in this university had been conspiring to maintain the names of deceased students on the university rolls. He followed this up - with quite dazzling journalistic flair - and wrote the piece that has left us with no alternative but to invite you all here today to tell you all about what we have been up to. Mr . . . " He looked again at the newsletter. "Mr Yagoosey****'s story, as you will be aware, reveals that deceased students have indeed been kept on our rolls, and that we have been continuing to claim their tuition fees. However, the purpose behind this deception, beyond the obvious implication that it involved some form of corruption, remained concealed from Mr - ah - the author. It is this purpose that we mean to reveal to you today. Er - hmm."
During this tedious preamble, Henry covered his face with his hands. Had he been able to see out from the cage of his fingers, he would have seen Toni sitting on the back row, her head in her hands, shaking from side to side.
"Some time ago," Sir William continued, "the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, of which, as you know, I am currently vice chairman, proposed that the current mechanisms for the funding of universities be reviewed and reformed. One of their proposals involved scrapping the current system, whereby local education authorities pay universities the tuition fees of students who come from their areas - fees which they must call down from central government. This mechanism seemed to vice chancellors to be unwieldy and unnecessarily bureaucratic, and prone, for these and other reasons, to - er - delay, error and potentially - fraud.
"Therefore, we in this university - without the knowledge of the CVCP I should add - decided to show that these fears were indeed correct, in the most dramatic and graphic way we knew how. We devised a scheme whereby the university would continue to claim the fees of students from England and Wales who die during their courses. It was our belief that the local authorities would not notice, would continue to draw down the money from central Government, and pass it on to us.
"In this supposition we were proved quite correct. We transferred those deceased students' names to a fictitious department, the department of gnostic studies. We claimed a fee equivalent to that for all classroom-based subjects. All this money we invested through the university's financial advisers, in a high-yield managed fund. More of this in a moment."
The VC paused and his face grew more solemn than ever.
"Things took a dramatic turn two years ago when a tragic accident occurred on our campus. Miss Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt, a most promising young woman, who was studying modern languages, was drowned when her bicycle veered into the Western Canal as she cycled home.
"We in the university were all greatly moved by this tragedy. And despite some early misunderstandings with Lamorna's family, we finally came to an arrangement with her father, His Honour Judge Marcus Wolff-Scheidt QC. We explained to him the nature of our scheme and he proposed to us that when the university was ready to announce publicly what it had been doing, he would undertake to place a matching sum of money into the accumulated fund. This fund would be named in memory of his daughter, and would be available to any student with physical or other disabilities at the university, who was in need of special assistance.
"This year, as you will have read in Mr - ah - in Tony's article, that the fund benefited to the tune of £10,000. Of course, by the cumulative nature of enrolment in the department of gnostic studies, this sum is an all-time record. However, the total now comes - with interest - to a little over £20,000. Judge Wolff-Scheidt, whom I am delighted to welcome here today, will now say a few words."
There was a gasp as the journalists present realised that the story was - to their amazement, for such a thing was so unusual - more interesting than they had imagined. The tall stranger stood up from his reserved seat and moved to the foot of the podium. The lighting men looked askance and tried to move their equipment as the cameras trained upon him. He stood with an air of great dignity, and held in his hand a small piece of paper. In this pause, Henry leant sideways and informed the VC that Toni was female. The VC seemed not to believe him at first, but took his word for it.
"Thank you, vice chancellor. My name is Marcus Wolff-Scheidt, and as you have heard, my darling daughter Lamorna was the victim of a tragic accident here two years ago. In her memory, I am delighted now to present the university with this cheque for £40,000 - to establish the fund - to be called the Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt Fund, in her memory. My late wife and I had our disagreements with the university and the local water company and many other bodies when we were, you will understand, in a state of inexpressible grief: grief that one we loved so much should have been taken from us in such a senseless way. But this new fund, I feel, will ensure that although I shall never see her again in this world; although her voice will never gladden her father's heart, and although I shall always wonder how things might have been had she not taken that fateful ride . . . " At this point the judge removed a red Paisley handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his eyes. " . . . This fund will ensure that she will not have died in vain. Now, students with disabilities will be able to pursue their studies in the knowledge that their special needs will be catered for, and that, should they require it, help is at hand. Help that our poor Lamorna - had not even the chance to cry for."
Fighting back his tears, the judge handed the cheque to the vice chancellor, who stooped to receive it from the platform. A deep reverential hush settled over the hall. Wolff-Scheidt returned to his seat and struggled manfully with his emotions.
Henry breathed in, whispered to the registrar, who shook his head. He then whispered to Dennis Strood, who accepted the invitation to speak eagerly.
"Er - I should just like to say," Dennis began, his broad smile revealing the gold tooth to great effect, "that I am proud to be associated with this wonderful scheme - which was all Henry Battersby's - er - I mean the vice chancellor's - idea. I realise that I am a mere administrator, in charge of dishing out money among the various departments, and that I can in no way claim any credit for devising the scheme. However, I complied with these (somewhat unorthodox) orders in full knowledge that this whole business was officially sanctioned - er - at the highest level. I have served this university for 23 years. Thank you."
Henry rolled his eyes - though only he knew it - and then threw the meeting open to questions.
For a moment nobody spoke. The bag lady, who had finished her crisps, began to sing 'Riverboat Shuffle' and was silenced only when Toni gave her a plate of avocado and crispy bacon sandwiches.
A booming voice was heard at last. "StClair - Telegraph. So the university has been obtaining funds from the Government by deception - is that what you are saying?" "Number one!" Henry whispered.
"Yes," said the vice chancellor. "In order to demonstrate that it is possible and that the system is flawed."
"But you have been indulging in - forgive me - criminal activity?" "Number two!" Henry whispered again.
"We have still got the money."
"Don't you think that the Government might want its money back?" "Number three!"
"It might, and we shall be delighted to give it back if we are asked. The university will then reimburse the trust fund with an equivalent amount of its own. We shall ensure of course that full publicity is given to the Government's decision to deny our fund what is after all an extremely trifling sum."
"I am obliged to you."
"MacDonald - Guardian. Eh - what alternative is there to local education authorities paying this money?" "There are several. But our main object is to cut out local authorities."
"Why - because they are inefficient?" "Four b!" whispered Henry. The VC scanned down his list of stock answers.
"No, not necessarily. We do not wish to castigate them - it is not their fault. They are in an impossible position. They do not have the resources to administer the system adequately now that we have a much expanded higher education system in this country. We think a centralised body would do a better job in England and Wales, rather as the Scottish Office Education Department does in that country."
Henry sat back. The reference to Scotland was designed to go down well with Archie MacDonald, and it did. Next, Hamilton Arthur of the FT asked a very complex question about public expenditure on student fees and the total university-sector income from home undergraduate tuition, and the name of the university's financial advisers. Henry suggested he talk to Dennis Strood privately after the meeting. Everyone seemed to think this a good idea and breathed with relief.
Jonathan McCreary of The Times asked if the department of gnostic studies would now be disbanded and its students finally laid to rest. There was a ripple of amusement. Adair StClair wanted to know if the department had been given a rating by the funding council's academic assessors. This too caused amusement, although he appeared to be serious and looked offended when everyone laughed. The VC said that the existence of the department had not been revealed to the funding council, and that the scheme was such that they could not be expected to have discovered it on their own. StClair said he was obliged once more.
Then Ms Faddyan of the Western Daily Press asked about the investigation by the member of the information office staff. How had that come about?
Henry told the story of how the names of dead students had accidentally appeared on the proofs of the graduation rolls.
"I am sure," intervened the vice chancellor, "that Miss Juicywitch will be able to tell you more after the meeting."
"At what point did she suspect that something was amiss?" persisted the Faddyan. The radio people were now looking interested in this local angle.
"I think," said the VC, "that if you are interested in this aspect of the story, you would be advised to interview Miss Jaccuzzibitch afterwards. Er - is that right Henry?" Henry nodded. Toni, who had been pacing back and forth at the end of the aisle, now stopped and banged her head three times on the wall. Henry spoke after a pause. "If there are no more questions, I shall close the conference at this point," he said. "Refreshments are provided at the back for those who wish to stay. And we shall all hang around for you to interview us individually. Thank you."
The back doors opened and a trolley of white wine came in. The bag lady, who had finished her sandwiches and evidently was a Hoagy Carmichael fan, began to sing 'Ol' Buttermilk Sky'. Toni immediately descended upon all the journalists she could find, explaining how to spell her name and pointing out the byline in University Focus. And close on the heels of the catering woman pushing the drinks trolley came a procession of people who had nothing very much to do with the conference - including Entwhistle and Professor Eirfyl Alwyn Lelo.
All those on the podium, except Dr Ffrancis who stalked off, got up and walked down to the throng of people now gathering around the food and drink. Henry's progress was rather slower than the others, none of whom stayed behind to help him down the steps. Toni saw him crawl down them backwards on his hands and knees, but was herself surrounded by four journalists - Faddyan, two with microphones and one very good-looking young man with shiny blond hair and an engaging smile. They all went over to a quiet part of the hall, where Toni told them all about it.
When the Faddyan and radio interviewers had done, the young man with the nice hair asked her some questions.
"So you're a bodybuilder then?" he began. "South West Women's Amateur Champion - is that right? What do your boyfriends make of that?" "My - what? I - er - don't have any boyfriends . . . " "Oh - sorry. More fool them, eh?" Toni winced a little at this intended compliment but let it pass.
"Do you have a photo? A publicity shot or something?" "No."
"Oh well - never mind. I'm sure some local agency . . . " "Look - who are you writing for?" asked Toni.
"Oh - I'm a freelance. I don't know yet. It depends. On how the story writes. And who's interested. I'm just getting as much background as I can - you understand . . . " "Don't you want to know about my investigation?" "No - I got all that down when you were speaking to the radio bunch. Well - nice talking to you. I'll send you a copy of anything that comes out. You never know. Cheerio!" And so saying he left the hall.
Toni got up and wandered back to where the lunch was now in full swing. The bag lady had left, clutching a bottle of Pouilly Fume. Henry was laughing with Entwhistle, and was grabbing his head in imitation of him throwing his fit in Toni's office. Dennis Strood joined them and Henry imitated him clutching his computer monitor. All three laughed heartily. The vice chancellor, finding that nobody wanted to talk to him, was shaking hands with Judge Marcus Wolff-Scheidt, who waved goodbye and went to catch his train back to London.
Toni sidled up to Henry's group. They all stopped chatting and she said "You bastards". Strood and Entwhistle each beat a hasty and prudent retreat. "You cooked the entire thing, didn't you? You, Entwhistle, Strood, the VC - everybody?" Henry took a swig of his red wine.
"Well, I cannot claim quite as much credit as I have been getting," said Henry, swirling his glass. "The truth of the matter is rather less edifying."
"Oh good grief!" said Toni.
"Is there anyone listening?" Henry asked.
"Right. It all happened like this. About five years ago now, what happened to you happened to me. I was proofing the graduation lists and I saw the name of a student I remember had died that year. I looked into it, just as you did. I went to see Dennis Strood."
"Well?" "Dennis was not always the happy whimsical old buffer you see today. At that time his mother had just died - he used to live with her. And he also harboured ambitions - more fool him - of ascending to the post of registrar. At about the same time as his mother's death, he learned that Ffrancis had got the job. He felt depressed. He became, in fact, a disgruntled and embittered minor official.
"You see, he and Ffancis go back a long way. They were in college together. Dennis got the first - Ffrancis only got a lower second. But Ffrancis was the ambitious, ruthless one. They fetched up here together - first Dennis, then Ffrancis. Ffrancis was already above him, but when he got the registrar's job, Dennis thought his days were numbered. Ffrancis was going to get his revenge by making his life a misery."
"So Strood started a fiddle?" "He did. He is, as you know, a cultured cove. He had read Dead Souls and it gave him the idea. The accident with graduation rolls occurred because he had just been computerised. Dennis isn't very good at deception, but he knew enough not to be greedy. He reckoned that by the time he retired, the fraud would have boosted his pension by a few tens of thousands - at the most. It was just a little nest egg. Anyway, I confronted him with it and he immediately confessed. He didn't really have the nerve, and had been feeling agonies of guilt over the whole thing. He already regretted starting it. It was lucky I found him out - he might have done something - you know - stupid.
"Obviously, now that I knew, I couldn't sit back and do nothing. And the trouble with fraud is that you get hung just as effectively for a small one as a big one. Ffrancis would have sacked him on the spot. I didn't think he deserved that sort of treatment, so I started thinking about how we could get him out of his hole. I told him that one day we would have to come clean about it, having in the meantime kept all the money safe, but that we would have to think up some reasonably defensible reason why we had decided to fiddle the Goverment. We left it like that for a while. Then the Lamorna thing happened, and at about the same time, the statement from the Committee of Vice Chancellors gave me the idea of using it to demonstrate just how open to fraud the system was. That was the great PR moment of my life.
"But then I saw that we could actually make a case for keeping the money. If at the same time as announcing the scam, we also announced that we planned to do something sickeningly good with the proceeds, and if I could get the university to agree that it would replace the sum itself if the Government decided to claim the money back, we would stand a good chance of making this an even bigger PR coup than before.
"With the VC suddenly demanding profile and presence on the national stage, he was ready to be told about it all. I did this last week. That was the first occasion on which you called me a mysterious prick. It was tense, but he jumped at it. And of course, in the meantime I had also seen it as a way of sending you on the same voyage of discovery that I went on. I thought you might then stand a better chance of crossing the Rubicon into the media. So you got bolted on to the whole business as well. Then I nearly screwed it all up by going completely gaga over you."
They stood in silence for a minute.
"So you see, in Miss Hepburn's words, "Everything I did, I did was because I wanted to keep you near me so I just did the first thing that came into my head . . . " he quoted. "Now you hate me, don't you?" Toni smiled. It was a wonderful smile, resigned, but full of warmth and admiration. "Hate you? Why, I ought to thank you," she replied, putting a Cary Grant dimple in her chin with her finger, and putting her other hand on Henry's arm.
"You should?" "I've just realised that that was the best time I had in my whole life."
"It was?" "I never had a better time."
"Well in that case," said Henry, rather nervously, "that means you must - like me . . . " Henry began rocking ecstatically from side to side in imitation of Katharine Hepburn on her stepladder.
Toni didn't repeat Cary Grant's next line.
"Oh Toni - there's someone here you must meet. His name is Danvers Redmond. Can you see him? He's an ugly bastard, with long wavy hair and stubble."
A man answering that description, who was standing behind Henry, turned round.
"This is the ugly bastard speaking."
"Ah Danvers - there you are you bugger. You wanted to meet Miss Jaccuzzibitch. This is she."
They shook hands.
"Danvers is an old mate. He produces Severn Radio's weekly news review."
"The West This Week," said Danvers. "Or TW2 as we call it. Perhaps you know it?"
"Oh we know it all right," said Henry. "We call it Once Upon a Time in the West, don't we, Toni?" This joke seemed not to go down too well. Henry soldiered on. "Well anyway - Danvers is looking for a researcher to join the TW2 team. I sent your story from University Focus - said you were interested in that sort of thing . . . hope you don't mind - bit of a liberty, I know. Anyway - Danvers, why don't you take Toni away somewhere and talk it over? Do the time-honoured thing and buy her a ploughman's or something. She only drinks fizzy water, so it'll be a cheap round."
Danvers seemed less than heartbroken to leave Henry's society and invited Toni to lead the way. Toni gave a backward glance to her mentor and disappeared through the crowd. Gradually the throng began to thin. The VC left patting Henry on the back. At last he heard no more voices and assumed he was alone. He sat down to eat his last sandwich.
"Henry," said a voice. Henry looked up. Professor Lelo was standing over him. He was also holding a copy of University Focus, but unlike everyone else he was looking at the back page. On it was printed a piece of verse called 'Infernal Light' that bore his name, and which had been put there by Toni for lack of anything else to fill the space.
"I just wanted to say thank you. You're all right, Battersby, you sod, all right. And you've heard about that git Ffrancis?" "No - what about him?" "Oh good God, man, it's all over the place. Resigned!" "Resigned?" "Went to see Energlyn this morning. Told him he felt that he no longer had the confidence of the vice chancellor and so on, having had this going on for four years without his knowledge right in the middle of his bursar's office. He said he was minded to resign. VC said 'Sorry to see you go, but let's have it in writing'. Poor bastard didn't know what had hit him. I understand he was looking a bit green on the platform."
"Well, I wouldn't know. And he didn't say anything, so I couldn't tell if he sounded green . . ."
Lelo laughed. "Well, my boy, you might not have got yourself early retirement and a gagging clause like I suggested, but you got him at any rate. And therefore done a great service to us all. Well done, old chap - and thanks again!" Lelo slapped his knees, stood up and went to leave. Henry sat savouring the icing on the cake.
"Look Henry - are you OK? Do you need any help at all?" Henry said he would much appreciate being helped back to his office and showed Lelo his black eyes. "Walked into a door," he said.
"A likely story," said Lelo, taking his arm.
The afternoon passed peacefully enough. There were one or two calls, but otherwise nothing to disturb Henry's slumbers at his desk. He waited in the office in the hope that Toni might appear, but as evening came on he grew tired of waiting and made ready to leave.
As he turned to extinguish the lights, he noticed that her biking gear and the helmets had gone. She must have come in while he was asleep, and sneaked off. Henry felt a bit sad and wondered what life was going to be like without her.
Henry climbed into the minicab he had ordered, feeling depressed and let down. A great void had opened up in front of him - and he felt the prospect of another, even deeper one, ahead. He was as confident as he could be that the coverage next day would be conspicuous, and that it would probably be good. Maybe one or two of the quality dailies might even extend to a leader on government bureaucracy and waste, congratulating the university on catching the system out. He was happy that he had been able to use the whole scam to help Toni on her way. It was more than he had expected to achieve, and he had the satisfaction of killing two birds with the same projectile.
Four birds. He had also done himself no harm with the university, who might even come across with some performance-related pay. And he had unseated the miserable git. He had every reason to feel good. Yet victory, now that it had come, seemed hollow. He wondered about Danvers and Toni. Had they got on? He was sure they had. Toni had already handed in her notice. In less than a month she'd be gone for ever. He'd see her once or twice for a drink, now and then, or she might drop in for lunch and brighten his day. Then it would be down to Christmas cards and that would be that. Henry asked the cab to stop at the Cow and Snuffers, the nearest place to his lonely flat, and consumed two double Wild Turkeys before setting out again for home, on foot this time, along the kerbs he knew so well.
He let himself in through the front door and fumbled for the keys to his own. He turned the key in the lock and went in.
It was not until he had turned round from closing the door and had put the light on, that he something standing in the middle of the hall. He went over to it. It was a litre bottle of coconut oil. As he bent over to pick it up, and saw a bare foot edge into his restricted field of view. He followed the foot up, found it led to a leg, which led past an extremely small pair of posing briefs to a minutely detailed stomach. Everything else was where one would expect it to be.
"You never did ask me for those keys back, did you?" said Toni. "Have you been drinking?" "Just two big ones. Nothing I can't handle. You - er - got the job then?" "Get that oil," said Toni, and disappeared into the bedroom.
Toni woke next morning at 8.30. For a moment she worried about being late for work. But then she realised that she knew where her boss was. Henry was lying face down on the bed, one arm dangling to the floor, where Benson the cat was employing it in some form of attempted resuscitation. It wasn't working. Toni smiled to herself and wandered out into the hall. He hadn't been able to see her all night, and she had loved it.
She had heard the letter box flapping as she lay on the edge of sleep, and so she peered out into the entrance way. A newspaper, Henry's personal copy of The Sun, lay on the mat. She dashed out quickly, retrieved it and went back into the flat. There she found Henry's bathrobe, thought briefly about putting it on, decided against it, and wandered naked into the kitchen. There she prepared herself some herbal tea (which she had brought with her) and sat down to see what The Sun said that morning.
On page four her eyes rested on a picture of someone familiar winning a bodybuilding contest. The caption read "This hunky Lois Lane is her own Superman". She glanced at the headline.
SUPER-MISS ZAPS COLLEGE DEATH CULT Hunky muscle champ Toni, 24, is Lois Lane and Superman all in one. Fearless reporter for a university mag, two-ton Tone muscled her way into a secret death cult at one of our leading universities.
Toni told The Sun: "Finding names of dead students in the graduation list first put me on the scent." The bizarre cult has now been closed down.
Toni, who admits to having no boyfriends . . .
Henry, waking to a sound like wild animals being eviscerated in his kitchen, pulled the bedclothes quietly over his head.
The characters in Dead Clever bear no resemblance to persons living or dead.)
Ted Nield 1996