Henry spent an uncomfortable night trying to fight off the feeling of being hoist on his own petard. He kept reminding himself that despite this setback, the plan itself had worked like a charm. All those nights of tidying up and cleaning, the careful placing of the corset in the top drawer by Melissa's panties, the minicab cards, the sloppy videos . . . It was a peach. That the lie of putting his back out had come true merely lent the whole scam credibility. And he had not told her any lies, really. He really did iron Melissa's undergarments in moments of weakness. And the bottle of Wild Turkey didn't contain cold tea. He felt that after years of drift, he had begun to get a grip on the agenda.
Toni rang next morning as promised and took down a fairly unremarkable list of provisions. She also told him that she had tidied up, emptied nearly all the crates, and had her first row with Mrs Van Weerbecke. Apparently the v-c had been expecting him at 10.30.
"Yes. I was going to plead for some funds to do the place up a bit."
"Well in that case no problem. I had him in here this morning - at 10.35, just after my row with the poached halibut. He called me Toni - which I think he mentally spelt with a Y, because he wasn't condescending at all. He asked me to send you his best wishes."
"Then he muttered something about a lick of paint, and apologised that it hadn't been done already. The ragged-trousered are coming in tomorrow with emulsion and dust-sheets."
"Wonderful. I'll miss all the fumes."
"Jammy sod. Oh yes. There was a message from Dr Entwhistle - the new guy who reads out the names at the degree days? He came to tell me that the list for the order of ceremonies would be ready today. He's very nervous about it. I said you would proof it once I had merged it with the rest of the file. Shall I bring it round this evening? We could go through it together."
Henry readily agreed, added a few things to the shopping list and rang off.
He spent a long, hot, boring day. Benson the cat, looking rather put out that his master was at home, nevertheless spent it on the bed-covers, shedding black hair - an occupation so exhausting that at 3 o'clock he had to give it up and find less taxing things to do elsewhere. Henry found that the painkilling, muscle-relaxing, anti-inflammatory cocktail, when taken against medical advice with a slug of Wild Turkey, allowed him to lie flat and even walk about with his corset on. He wheeled the television into the bedroom and watched a Don Ameche double bill over cheese and crackers. He went to the bookcase, looked at the shelves full of creased paperbacks, and for no special reason took down a copy of Gogol's Dead Souls. But he didn't read. Instead he fell into a doze and dreamt about the unfortunate Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt.
It had been a terrible business. Her distraught parents had gone on the national news to make a tearful appeal. Henry had fielded the calls and visits from journalists and TV crews, who crawled all over the campus taking what they called "establishing shots", and recording pieces to camera in front of imposing university buildings. Then, two weeks later, police divers dragging the canal had found her, still on her bicycle, with the fatal rucksack of books on her back. (The homeless inadequate, whom the police had arrested the day before, was hastily and quietly released.) The mystery was solved, and the recriminations began.
Was it safe to have a canal on campus? More TV crews appeared, showing students cycling just as Lamorna had cycled, along the towpath. There were calls to have the thing closed, or filled in. The National Heritage lobby got up in arms. Meanwhile poor Lamorna, lively and intelligent student, so full of life, so cruelly cut off before fulfilling her enormous promise etc., was identified by her father in the local morgue. In the way of these things, he turned out to be a prominent lawyer and instituted proceedings against the university, the water authority, the city council, anyone. It was all very messy and costly. But in the end it came to nothing.
Henry dreamt that he was walking around the university, in pursuit of some urgent errand that he could not quite remember. He went to the main library, Senate House, the department of chemical engineering, the student union building, the senior common room, the senior common room bar, and one of the halls. At each place they were unable to help him. But each time, as he turned away, he caught sight of a young girl disappearing around a corner. He could not be sure, but it looked remarkably like Lamorna.
Each time, he followed her - only to find a deserted corridor. Then he was suddenly in another place, making the same vague inquiries, being turned away, and catching sight of a girl whose long wavy brown hair tumbled over her rucksack . . .
He woke with a start and found Toni staring down at him in the bed. She had a shopping bag in one hand and a large file of papers in the other. Under her arm she had two videos, which she let fall on the coverlet.
"I told them they were for you - they've charged them to your account because we're both regulars."
"Oh - thank you."
"Mind you - I had some trouble convincing them at first. I explained you were ill, and they said 'he must be'. Very odd."
Henry laughed feebly. "They are a strange bunch in there . . ."
"Yes. Anyway, here is the shopping. I'll go and put it away. What are your eating plans?" Henry gave a shrug.
"Mind if I cook, then? I brought my shopping too. You could share mine - poached chicken breasts with pasta and salad. That appeal? OK. Look - here are the proofs. We can do them later."
And so saying she strode off into the kitchen. Henry watched her go, pulled a face at the thought of poached chicken breasts and then turned his attention to the papers in the file.
The cover page was just the same as usual - the university name, the crest, the date. He turned to Page 2. List of the Senate Members Attending, Vice Chancellor at the top, Pro-Vice Chancellors next; the Registrar, the Members of Senate. Page 3. Processional. Music - Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 - Sir Edward Elgar. Played on the University Organ by Thadias Moncrieff FRCO, Organ Tutor in the School of Music. Henry groaned. Graduation Address and Speech of Welcome by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir William G. Energlyn entitled "The University as a Learning Community . . ." He groaned again. Page 4: Conferment of Honorary Degrees. Page 5: Conferment of Degrees - Faculty of Arts. Category 1 - Doctor of Philosophy. Category 2 - Master of Arts. Page 6 - Category 3, Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) . . . and so on through the faculties of Physical Science, Biological Science, Engineering and Technology . . . it seemed endless. And every year it got longer.
From the kitchen came sounds of the cat being fed and things being put away. He heard the tray being found and put on the table; pots being rummaged for and the kettle being boiled.
Lists of names in alphabetical order - page after page. He thought of all those proto-graduates, knowing they had passed, but not yet having their degrees because they had not yet experienced the laying on of W. G. Energlyn's sweaty hands. "Mystic-awful was the process," Henry muttered, shaking his head.
What bollocks it all was. Showbiz for parents. Why did anybody do anything in life? Vanity. And what did vanity so often entail? Wearing the gear.
Henry always found graduation ceremonies harrowing to watch, and avoided them. They were like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers: parents, coming to claim their own. All those emerging personalities suddenly submerged again by their old, vanished selves: all those three-year friendships coming abruptly to an end in a series of hurried final meetings in robing rooms and back corridors after endless drunken nights spent arguing the toss over the meaning of life. Keep in touch. Here's my home address. The dream shattered for another cohort. There was no freedom; only thraldom. First they had the double garage built. Then the extension. Then the granny flat. Then - the loft conversion for the kid. Their achievements were not theirs. They belonged to their parents.
Henry felt ill. The students he most admired were those who received their degrees in absentia. He leafed through the pages and read their names: Petra Abelson, Dominic Butler, Sarah Cartwright, Alice Chang, Lee Cheung . . .
The list of those not coming to the ceremony seemed, to Henry's experienced eye, to be much longer than usual, accounting for several sheets. He turned to the last one, his eyes scanning to the bottom the page: Marmaduke Zaccharias was last, after the Youngs, a few Yangs and a smattering of Yings. And there, under a long trail of Williamses, was Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt.
For a moment Henry stared at the page. He could hear Toni in the kitchen. He was aware of a cat entering the room licking its chops. A damned fly was having a quick panic on the window-pane. Henry tried to recall his sensations on learning that a student had ridden into the canal and drowned. He felt a terrible apprehension that something he might not be able to control was about to be unleashed.
When Toni returned, bearing her succulent poached breasts, Henry was still in a daze. He felt the tray on his stomach and pushed himself up in the bed.
"You all right?" Toni asked. "You look a bit ashen."
"Do I? Well as a matter of fact I have just seen a ghost. I'm sorry - I'm getting confused. It must be the drugs . . . Do I, or do I not, remember you telling me yesterday that you heard Entwhistle intoning the name of Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt?" Toni sat down on the bed. "I did - or I thought I did. I remember saying it was an amazing coincidence."
"Too right! Think - Lamorna was in the first year when she died. That was two - almost three years ago. It all happened just before you joined us. You came in the aftermath. Yes?"
"So that means that any Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt now graduating with an upper-second class degree in the arts faculty would have been in that faculty at the same time as the one who died."
Toni nodded again.
"How many Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidts do you suppose there are in the world?"
Toni laughed. "You're right. I must have misheard him. That name is graven on my vitals rather . . ."
"You were not mistaken. Unless, that is, the Wild Turkey is doing strange things with my metabolism. She's on the list. Tell me you can see it too."
Henry pulled the proof sheets from under the tray and handed them to Toni. He saw her dark eyes scan down the page - saw them stop, grow wide; saw her forehead tighten, and her short black hair bristle. A cold shiver passed between them.
Benson the cat stood in the doorway and howled.
Toni got up, turned to the kitchen and came back moments later with her plate. Henry noticed that her portion was about three times the size of his own, but thought it churlish to mention it. Benson hovered hopefully.
"Someone must have forgotten to take her off," said Toni after her first mouthful.
Henry rolled his chicken around, unable to taste a thing. Years of packet curry had completely shot his tastebuds.
"Being left unwittingly on the rolls doesn't earn you an upper second class degree - even in our place."
Toni chewed her food very carefully. Henry noticed that it was always exactly ten chews per mouthful. This Lamorna business was all too puzzling, and not a very good subject for light conversation. He decided to change the subject.
"So what films did you get?" "Pretty Woman and An Officer and a Gentleman."
"What?" "I said 'Oh good'. . ."
Toni smiled. "I looked at the ones you sent back and - well, I thought you would like those. I love Richard Gere, don't you?" "Well, I er, yes, sure . . ."
"I must have seen Pretty Woman ten times. And I cried when I first saw Officer and a Gentleman. We could watch one of them after," said Toni.
"I don't think of you as the weeping sort, somehow," said Henry, skilfully ignoring this suggestion.
"Well these days I just get dewy. Anyway, I didn't think of you as the Sleepless in Seattle kind."
"Really?" "No. More the Stitchless in Bangkok kind."
Henry swallowed hard. The last video he had actually watched had been called Asian Babes III go Ape. Perhaps he had better stick to work topics.
"So - how are we going to proceed with these proofs? Particularly, what are are we going to do about our graduating stiff?" "Well - we can check some this evening if you like - but actually there's no great rush. Entwhistle has done everything in double time. We don't have to send anything to print until - ooh - two weeks from now. So I can go to the dean of humanities or her head of department or someone and ask them. Unless you want to do it when you're better?" Henry thought for a moment, but not about that. He had assumed, since she had brought the proofs to his house, that there was great and pressing urgency about them. If there wasn't, and they could have waited, then that meant . . .
"What do you usually do in the evenings?" he asked. "I know almost nothing about you."
"I go to the gym some nights, then home, go for a run sometimes, cook, watch the telly, go to bed."
"No clubbing then? No long raucous evenings in the pub with the - er - girls?" "I get up too early. Anyway, I don't drink. Can't bear sitting there with a St Clements, watching everyone else get pissed."
"So when do you socialise?" "I don't socialise."
"You don't? What - not at all?" "Nah. People are such a mess. They don't think clearly, they don't look after themselves, they look awful, they dress badly, they don't wash, they talk bollocks. They want to get into your life and make it as much of a mess as their own. They need to drag you down because you make them feel bad."
"Being so perfect?" "Better than them, at least." Toni stabbed her fork into what remained of her second chicken breast and chewed it ten times precisely.
"So when do you meet your friends?" "I share a house with four filthy blokes."
"So who's that large blonde piece I see picking you up after work?" "Large blonde piece? Her name is Lotte. She's a research student in sport and fitness. She's my training partner. We go for runs, spot for one another twice a week at the gym, that sort of thing."
"So how did you meet her then?" "I put an ad in the smalls at the back of University Focus. Jesus, Henry, do you ever read those proofs I give you?" Ah, so perfect. And yet she liked to watch sloppy films about messy people with messy lives, getting out of control, not thinking clearly and talking bollocks. Henry looked her up and down and began to realise that very soon he could be in over his head.
In the end they did no work on the proofs at all. Toni produced some plain yoghurt, which Henry ate without enthusiasm, and went to put the dishes in the dishwasher. When she returned, Henry had looked again at the sheaf of papers and folded them in two.
"I wish we had one of those machines in our house," said Toni, with feeling.
Henry paid no attention. "Toni, If there's no hurry, I think we'd better clear up this Wolff-Scheidt thing before we go any further, don't you?" Toni nodded. "OK. I'll see Entwhistle tomorrow. It'll really put the wind up him."
"A nervous man."
"Much given to quivering. You know they call him Aspen in the registry?" "Somehow I can't see him standing on that platform reading out a thousand names in bold stentorian tones like old Crowther . . ."
They remembered the formidable, not to say terrifying Dr Crowther, senior assistant registrar: his gaunt frame, his crow-black gown, his thick black hair, his tiny black eyes, his beetling brows, transfixing the mums and dads as he intoned every name, no matter how exotic, faultlessly for hour after hour as the applause rose and fell with the procession of graduates, like a great ocean swell beating on the shore. It had been a class act, and the general feeling was that twittering Entwhistle didn't stand a hope in hell of following it. Unknown to everyone except the vice chancellor, the registrar and one of Entwhistle's helpers, plans had been laid for another to stand in should stage-fright finally get the better of him.
So, with the prospect of work removed, Henry and Toni settled down to watch An Officer and a Gentleman. Toni snuffled discreetly into a paper tissue when Richard Gere turned up at the factory to sweep her off her feet. Henry, anxious not to fall asleep, resisted the temptation to take a slug of the Wild Turkey.
At last, with the sound of the video rewinding, Toni rose from the floor where she had been sitting, packed up her stuff, asked Henry if there was anything she should do before she left, and receiving the answer no, waved and went. Henry listened to the gate close, heard her start her motorbike, closed his eyes and slept more soundly and contentedly than for many a year.
At five the following morning, Toni got up, dressed quickly in cycling gear, grabbed a pair of panniers and crept downstairs. After a low-bulk 1,000-calorie breakfast of concentrated complex carbs, all measured out the night before and laid neatly on the kitchen table, she washed her mug under the running tap and looked around for paper and pencil.
Finding both in a drawer full of pegs, she wrote, in large, unruly capitals, "MARK - WASH THIS SHIT UP OR I WILL KILL YOU". She pegged the note to the topmost saucepan standing in the sink, in which one or two baked beans bobbed listlessly, and went into the hall. There she clipped her panniers on to her mountain bike, and edged out of the house. Dawn was just breaking as she checked the covers on the beloved motorcycle standing on the front lawn. Satisfied that all was well, she set off on her morning ride.
It was her favourite part of the day. There was nobody about to clutter the world up and everything seemed unspoiled. With characteristic focus, she put her head down and pedalled - the idea being to work up a considerable sweat before getting to the gym, thus avoiding the need for time-wasting warm-up.
It was an ordinary morning. Concentrating on delts, traps and abs, her workout completed one quarter of the laborious weekly tour of her musculature. She felt satisfied as she showered alone. There had been no one else in that morning - Thursdays were always quiet for some reason, and Lotte was home in Germany. She liked it that way. Not only did nobody get in your way, but you could pose in the changing room mirror without feeling self-conscious. She did so, made a mental note about her earlier decision to do more with her obliques, changed, and set off for the senate building feeling mean and sexy.
It was a gentle four-minute cruise. She locked her bike in the racks, straightened her clothes, removed the panniers and her helmet, and rode up in the recently repaired lift. It was still early. Most of the administration were still putting out the cat and leaving home. She liked this part of the day too, because nobody was yet there to make life difficult. In the office she brewed up a flask of decaf, sat down with the mail she had collected from the front desk, and stared out at her new view.
The office was now in pretty good shape, and she felt happy about that. It had been her chance to get the place organised according to her exacting principles - without interference from Henry. He'd moan, but he'd get used to it. She wondered how he was feeling this morning, and when he would be back - to witness the transformations she had performed. She looked forward to that. A moment later she pulled herself up in surprise and, shaking her head as though to rid herself of dizziness, went to pour herself some unstimulating coffee.
Entwhistle would certainly not be in the building yet, she thought, and confirmed the fact with a telephone call. So she wrote her second note of the day. It had to be more polite than the last one, and she thought for a long time about how to phrase it. Dr Entwhistle was a man easily flummoxed, and she felt a gentle approach was required. First she wrote: "Dear Dr Entwhistle," which seemed a good start. As usual, once a start had been made, the rest came easily. She concluded: "We have reason to believe that this person has been dead for two years. Could you check?
Many thanks Toni (Jagusiewicz)."
She dotted the i's in her signature with girly circles, in the hope of minimising any perceived threat. Then, feeling she was at last getting the hang of this political thing that Henry had reproached her for lacking at her last appraisal, she took the proofs, and the note, to Dr Entwistle's office and placed it on his chair.
She took the long way back, avoiding the vice chancellor's office and any chance of meeting Mrs Van Weerbecke. The corridor was dark; the doors all closed. The aroma from her coffee machine filled the air. As a result of this detour, she encountered instead the registrar, who was opening up his office with a large bunch of keys attached to his monstrous grey flannel trousers by a gold umbilical.
Second most important man in the university, and first in his own estimation, Dr F. Tegwyn Ffrancis did not approve of the public relations office. This was largely because that appalling man Battersby - whom he would have sacked without delay had he the chance - was the only other person who reported directly to the vice chancellor. Moreover, he had his own budget. But Dr Ffrancis was a man who, unlike Toni, was not lacking in the politics department and kept these sorts of reflections for his close confederates only.
As he saw Toni approaching down the corridor he knew well who she was. He had read her personnel file. He had seen her student records. He knew where she lived, and what she did. He thought her picture in the local rag, with a large rosette clipped to the tiniest of shiny black bikini briefs, had brought the university into serious disrepute. But there it is. He was powerless. He had said so to the v-c, who had responded by moving the public relations office nearer.
This, the v-c told him, was in order that the two of them might "keep a closer eye on those two". But Dr Tegwyn Ffrancis suspected, and it rankled. Dr Ffrancis always suspected, and it always rankled. He still didn't trust this new v-c. He still felt he hadn't quite got him house-trained.
But he let none of this show as Toni approached. She smiled and nodded as she went by, while he gallantly raised his trilby hat, turning as he did so. There was a tearing noise from the general direction of his trousers. He had forgotten he was still attached to the door.
To the sound of muffled curses, Toni hurried back to the office and slammed the door so she could laugh. Here was something to tell Henry, she thought, with pleasure. And then for the second time that morning she stopped and felt surprised.
Then another surprise hit her. Her desk was covered in a blotted dustsheet, and several splattered ladders stood about the room. On another sheet near the window, an assortment of pots and brushes was assembled. And in Henry's room there were two men in overalls, who were now looking at her.
She stopped laughing immediately.
"So how am I supposed to work with my computer covered up in your filthy rags?" she demanded.
The two painters looked at one another and back. "Sorry love, we won't be long. Tell you what - we'll do your end first. Be finished by lunchtime. It's only the ceiling we need them dustsheets for."
She poured herself another decaff, sat down and threw the dustsheet off. What to do? She had to look busy now. So she phoned Dr Entwhistle. To her surprise he was in, and he sounded anxious. But then he usually did. She explained about Lamorna's unfortunate demise and how there simply couldn't be two students of the same age and name in the same faculty of the same university. Yes, yes, yes, he could see why, but it was very odd, very odd. He couldn't account for it at all.
She comforted him that there were two weeks before the printer's deadline. So he needn't hurry. Plenty of time.
Entwhistle, who took his responsibilities very seriously, seemed uncomforted. He would get on to it right away, he said. Toni put the phone down and sat back in her chair, watching the men at work and opening the post.
Thinking back over the events that were to follow, Toni was never sure how long it was exactly before the door burst open and Dr Entwhistle came through it wearing an expression of extreme agitation.
u II u Entwhistle was a gawky, ginger man. His thinning hair started just above one ear, cleared his bald pate by several centimetres and broke in a great wave over the other side. His ears were large and red and stuck out, accounting for his other nickname, which was Wingnut.
His face, like the rest of him, was thin and red. His scaly arms, covered with moles and profuse gingery hair, were flailing - sending up unpleasant odours from his armpits. He was wearing a blue shirt, and much of it was wringing wet. He flew in, stared at Toni - who stared back - and then began frantically rushing around from place to place, grabbing his head in distress. The painters, still in Henry's room, gathered at the doorway to witness in silence all their dustsheets being thrown on to the floor.
Once all the dustsheets lay about his feet, Dr Entwhistle froze, trembling in the middle of the room, not knowing where to turn next. He tried rushing towards Henry's office, but the painters squared up and barred his way. He returned to the middle of the room, obviously close to tears, uttering strange incoherent noises and tugging what remained of his hair.
"Can I help you at all?" said Toni, by now really proud of her emerging political nous.
"Where? Where? Where - the - they - proofs - the - lists I gave you - where?" he asked.
"Er - what are you asking me exactly?" "Where are the lists I gave you? The lists? The graduation lists? The ones I gave you? The ones I - oh God - I gave you. WHERE ARE THEY?" "You want the lists for the graduation booklet?" "YES YES YES!" "You've got them. I put them on your chair."
"NO NO NO! Not the - the paper - not them - I know I've got THEM . . . I mean the - the - DISK!" "The floppy?" "YES, for CHRIST'S SAKE, the floppy. Give it to me! Give it to me!"
This was too much for the distraught Entwhistle, who told Toni never to mind why, and asked why she couldn't just obey an order when she was given one. He wasn't about to let her bring this university into disrepute through her incompetence, and so she had better buck her ideas up if she wanted to keep her job, he added. Toni got the distinct impression he was quoting something that had been said to him a few moments before.
Suddenly Entwhistle ran towards her and reached for a box of diskettes. Toni grabbed his arm and squeezed it. Entwhistle stopped dead and whined.
"Touch a thing on my desk, you little ****, and I shall break your arm," she said, finally losing touch with the political thing she had been cultivating so successfully that morning. "Here is the disk you gave me." Toni, who had been holding the disk in her left hand all through this interview, proffered it between two fingers.
Entwhistle brightened, grasped it eagerly, went to leave, but found he couldn't. They stared one another in the eye for a moment, until Toni released his other arm. Entwhistle staggered, regained his balance, and left. The painters looked at each other, and looked back at Toni.
"What do you make of that then?" she said.
"We just paint the walls, love," they replied.
That was a turn and a half, even for Entwhistle," said Henry that evening, after hearing Toni's tale. He was sitting up in bed, propped up on cushions and pillows, admiring Toni's cycling gear - or rather what it suggested lay beneath.
"Don't mind me using your shower, do you?" she said as she carried her bag in the direction of the bathroom.
"Not at all. What's on the menu tonight?" Henry asked, experiencing the first tinge of regret that he hadn't taken that other flat with the en suite.
"Grilled turkey breasts with spinach and boiled new potatoes, followed by fruit salad."
As he listened to the shower and, subsequently, to the cooking, he re-ran the scene with Entwhistle as Toni had described it and chuckled. What Toni said about him, sounding as if he were quoting something that had just been said to him, rang very true. That was a fine piece of observation. Those were someone else's lines.
The smell of rat was still fresh in the air when Toni reappeared in T-shirt and baggies, carrying their meals on a tray. Once again, her plate was piled amazingly high for one so short, but once again he said nothing.
"One more day of this and I should be OK, I reckon," he said as they set to. Toni said: "Good".
"I can stand more or less straight now - without the corset" he went on, proudly. Toni chewed her food ten times and said: "Terrific".
"I don't think there's any real mystery here, do you?" Henry said at length, scratching his chest. Toni looked at him. "What?" she said.
"I think it's probably all pretty innocent - some simple cock-up probably."
Toni had stopped in mid-chew and lost count. "What do you mean, innocent?" "Eh?" said Henry in an absent-minded way. "You think there's a story, then?" "You bet I think there's a story."
"OK," said Henry, folding his hands on his stomach and sitting back. "Sell it to me. You wanted basic journalism training. I'm news editor. It's a heavy day and the paper's as tight as a drum and my ulcer is giving me hell."
Toni took another mouthful and thought for a minute. "OK. Entwhistle's new so he's out. But because he's new, he can't be expected to know what's going on. Somehow, accidentally, he does something wrong when he compiles those graduation lists."
"What?" "I don't know. Anyway, he goes and asks someone - someone who does know about it."
"What?" "The scam."
"What scam?" "Don't know. This person realises that he is in danger of being exposed. He gets all aggressive with Entwhistle, who reacts badly and goes into a blue funk. He's desperate to keep his job because he's a worm, and he comes to me to try to cover his traces, the little arsehole."
"Whom do you think he asked?" "Ffrancis. Only he would be able to talk to Entwhistle like that - apart from the v-c, who I don't think would and anyway, he wasn't in today. And Entwhistle wouldn't go over Ffrancis's head."
"So you think Ffrancis is hiding something?" "Definitely."
"And on the strength of this you want me to assign you time to look into it?" "Yes."
Toni hauled a very large gobbet of spinach into her mouth and chewed it with malice. "Why not?" "I follow your reasoning about Entwhistle going to Ffrancis. But you told me yourself that Ffrancis was in a foul temper after ripping his pants. Moreover, he has been at this university even longer than I have and remembers Lamorna Courtenay Wolff-Scheidt very well. After they found her body he went on Newsnight - without my permission - and took the line that students were adults and should be expected to look after themselves. A fine argument in the right context, but with a weeping mother sitting next to you, not so bright. He was crucified - twice. Once by Jeremy Paxman and then by me. The simple fact that somehow her name had got into the graduation lists would be quite enough to send him into orbit."
Toni knitted her brows and applied herself to loading in her major food groups.
"Well?" asked Henry after a few minutes.
"OK, OK, you're probably right."
Henry laughed and shook his head.
"What's so funny?" "You. Call yourself a journalist? You've just got to stage one - you think you have something. Stage two is selling it to the desk. You don't do that by folding up as soon as you meet a bit of scepticism. You've got to be dogged. Editors like journalists to be dogged. They don't care about fine prose. Tenacity is all."
Toni didn't like being called defeatist and her expression darkened further. She felt resentful at the university for trapping her in a job that wasn't going anywhere, and had begun to think that this might be one way of getting her own back. She also felt rather hurt that Henry had taken this line. She had been enjoying herself - it was like a counter-conspiracy; Henry and Toni contra mundum. And journalism was a sore topic.
"Well?" asked Henry.
They ate in frosty silence for a few minutes. Benson the cat tried to jump on to Toni's knee and received a clip round the ear and a mouthful of abuse. He stalked off with a backward look of reproach. In the end, Henry decided it was time to offer her a way out.
"What a pity you had to give him that disk back. If we still had that, then we could have had a closer look at that list. You never know. A list of names that long is a great place for ugly little facts to lurk . . . " Toni looked at him. "That's no problem," she said, through a mouthful of turkey breast. "I imported those lists on to my hard drive when I made the proofs we saw yesterday. The whole thing is still there as a merged file."
"It is?" "Sure."
"But he doesn't know that - Entwhistle, I mean."
"Entwhistle thinks he's got it all back. And when he gives me the new version, we can compare it with the original."
"Now you're talking!" said Henry. "OK - give it a bit longer. Come back when you think you've got something that will really stand up."
Toni's face brightened. Henry felt as though the sun had come out from behind a dark cloud and smiled back.
"There's still one thing you haven't given me though," said Henry. "Motive. Why should anyone try to graduate a dead student? Where does it get them? Who benefits?" "Don't know."
"Well, there's something to think about. Maybe those lists will help."
They ate the rest of their food happily. Toni went out to feed the cat and make up. Henry opened a cassette box and removed the tape of Pretty Woman.
Dead Clever continues next week The characters in Dead Clever bear no resemblance to persons living or dead.
Ted Nield 1996
This year, for the first time, The THES is serialising a book. Here is the second instalment of Dead Clever, a novel of campus life, whichThe THESis running in full over eight weeks.
It is the work of Ted Nield, one-time geologist, former freelance science writer, and press and public relations manager at the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals for nearly ten years. Dead Clever, his first novel, was written over a month last summer to inject some enjoyment into his professional life.
"There used to be some fun, but not anymore - things are extremely grim," he said.
Some aspects of the story are based on his experiences, though he makes the traditonal disclaimer about the relationship between his outlandishly named characters and people he knows. Some journalists who have a walk-on part may think they recognise themselves.