Universities are mysterious places. You may work in one for years and think you’ve seen everything, then suddenly things happen that challenge credibility. This could be because for most academics, the line between sanity and lunacy is decidedly fuzzy.
In universities, you’ll find scientific geniuses who cannot boil an egg, philosophers who haven’t read a word written after the Second World War, biologists whose offices are so disgusting the cleaners won’t go in and countless self-indulgent spoilers who never publish anything because they’re too busy writing long, bitchy emails complaining about how over-worked they are.
I was trying to adjust to having to teach courses I know nothing about because the old lags in my department are pulling endless sickies, when Brian the Anxious put his head around my door and said he had a big favour to ask. “I am here to plead with you, Gloria,” he said in his most whingeing voice, which he seems to think is attractive.
I despise men who do that number, my ex having been a master of the winsome whine, but I let Brian hold the floor because I was a bit curious, I admit. Did he want me to take on yet another Chinese postgraduate student who can’t string an English sentence together, or was he about to give me another batch of personal tutees because the old lags’ absence had left them unsupervised? Whatever he wanted, I knew it wouldn’t be good.
But even I was stunned when he finally got round to popping the question: would I agree to become his deputy head of department? He had consulted a lot of people, of course, and my name was the one that sprang to everybody’s lips.
“Gloria is who we need in times like these,” he claimed they all had said. “She has the strength and energy to step in and resolve this crisis.”
“What crisis?” I asked, playing for time while I processed this news. Brian the Anxious looked more worried than ever, and gabbled on about colleagues being ill, about the massive workload of the other two professors, about the pressure he was under to improve performance, about how the very future of the department was at risk.
So there it was! All the idle buggers who do the absolute minimum and invent illnesses when the going gets a bit tough, all the people who have knifed me in the back more times than I’ve had hot dinners, are now apparently saying I am Gloria the Glorious, the Joan of Arc of the history department. I feigned disinterest and told Brian I would need time to think it over.
Actually, the time I needed was to draw up my list of conditions – a pay rise, a guarantee of sabbatical leave, money to go to a conference in California next spring and some of the departmental secretary’s time so I can get my book properly formatted, if I ever finish it. Brian agreed to everything and threw in the promise of a research assistant as well, if we can manage to recruit a postgraduate who can actually write in English. I also made him swear that the endless bad jokes about my tobacco habit should stop, and the huge anti-smoking poster in the corridor outside my office should be removed. He was a bit more reluctant about that, since he prides himself on his PC credentials, but he gave in in the end.
So here I am, deputy head of department, which will look quite good on my CV should any jobs ever materialise in a university a bit further up the rankings. I cancelled my next lecture as a little treat to myself and went out for a walk. The only place you can smoke these days is in the open air, and there are still a few green corners around our campus that aren’t being dug up or haven’t had prefabs erected on them, so I puffed off cheerily.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t got very far when a monsoon began, so I sheltered under one of the trees that had survived the vice-chancellor’s Open Vista Strategy. A few wet student smokers gathered around me, and we were huddling together when suddenly there was a crash of leaves above our heads and something heavy hit me on the shoulder. I let out a scream and we all bent down to see what the missile was. It turned out to be a squirrel, dead as a doornail, and on close examination it appeared to have only three legs.
I pondered all afternoon on this. Had the squirrel been dead before it fell, or did it die on impact with my shoulder-blade? And how had it lost a leg? Was the fact of my being struck by a dead squirrel under a tree outside the admin building a random occurrence, or had it been planted by the anti-smoking brigade on purpose? I shall have to watch my step now I am walking down the corridors of power, I can tell.
Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.