Food for Thought
Some days are big days. Some days are small days. Some days are just ordinary days. Being able to tell what sort of a day you faced was a skill that William Fletcher-Jones prided himself on.
“Knowing your day is about planning and efficiency and that means to know yourself.”
This was William’s favourite little mantra which he often repeated to himself and to others. As a person who was fundamentally a Christian but had a soft spot for Buddhism, he was a man who placed a great deal of importance on all that he did and said. Looking around the breakfast table he nodded contently to himself. There before him sat his son, Theodore, his daughter, Matilda, and his wife, Margaret Fletcher-Jones, this was the family he had fathered and nurtured and of them, he took great pride.
Theodore, Theo to his friends but always Theodore at home, was just finishing his A-levels and his predictions gave him a good chance of Cambridge and a career in chemistry. After 17 years this was a young man who knew the meaning of self-discipline and application. William was very happy that Theodore never wore jeans and was always turned out smartly. The result of a solid private schooling and a home life centred around education, good manners and an understanding of moral values from an early age.
Matilda was Theodore’s equal in all respects. Though she was two years younger than her brother she too had been brought up to put away all childishness in favour of moral and intellectual development. An accomplished musician already, she played violin and piano both to grade 6 and had a passion for Schönberg which spoke volumes for her artistic and intellectual maturity. An attractive young lady at 14 who knew how to dress in the most proper and appropriate of styles. Just like her mother.
Margaret was the hearth of William Fletcher-Jones’s family manor. A woman of refinement, intelligence and dignity, she never seemed to put a foot wrong or use a word without an importance in doing so. In the local community, she was a highly respected General Practitioner, she saw herself as a solid old-school country style doctor even though she was the head of a thoroughly modern practice. If there was one person William could absolutely rely on to keep up appearances and present the family as respectable people then it was Margaret.
“Big day today.” William said. “A very big day and I foresee a lot of possibilities for us if everything goes well.”
“I am sure it will all go well William,” Margaret replied in her soft ephemeral voice which slipped through the air in a way to avoid any effect of turbulence. “You have worked hard enough, you know what you are doing and you are much respected in your field.”
William brought his hands up to his bow tie and gave it an equilateral tug to ensure what he thought of as its crispness of look. This was his favourite lemon yellow bow worn with a white shirt, framed by a pale green corduroy jacket which itself was set off by a purple handkerchief in the breast pocket. He was in his best academic attire today, highly polished black Oxfords at the foot of grey flannel trousers holding a precision crease and held up by fire engine red bracers. This was not just his standard uniform but the highest level of refinement of the style he had made his distinctive own ever since he began to study for a PhD thirty years previously.
“What time is the meeting?” asked Margaret.
“Their C.E.O. is coming to the University for 10 to meet with the Chancellor. I have been invited to join them at 10.30 and then we will leave to go to one of the small lecture theatres where I will present my results to an invited group from the foundation.”
“Wonderful William, I am sure everything will go well.” Margaret smiled and cocked her head gently to one side. “Now I have to leave as I have surgery at 9 so please excuse me.”
William waved his left hand to indicate that this was acceptable and all was well.
“Come, children, finish up and get in the car please.”
The children said nothing, they never spoke at the table unless asked a direct question. They knew the drill, they sat and ate their breakfast and they could read, school books only. Once they had eaten their muesli, drunk their fresh orange juice and eaten an apple or a pear, they would leave the table, gather coats and bags and go and sit in the car ready for their mother to drop them off at the school.
William watched as they left the dining room and felt a certain sense of satisfaction. He had a family he could justly be proud of and whilst not being over emotional about things he did like the sense of approval he felt in watching them all go about the business of life. An odd thought came across his mind, for a moment he saw in his memory the face of his father and that image was accompanied by a scene.
There, for a moment, he found himself to be a young lad sitting at breakfast with his father and mother. He was an only child and that, he felt, gave him a great advantage in life insomuch as that all the energies of his parents to see him grow into an adult were focused on him alone. Theodore Fletcher-Jones senior, now deceased, was a city banker who worked in the square mile of London’s financial centre. He was a man of absolute punctuality in all things and even in his final years in the 1990’s he wore the old uniform of the city elite; blue suit, white shirt, regimental tie and bowler hat. Mother was a housewife and on every village committee it was possible to attend. William allowed himself an unusual sigh.
“They were fine people. Yes, fine people and I am sure they would approve of the way their grandchildren are going.” he thought to himself and threw down his linen napkin, stood up and made to leave. Mrs Edwards would be arriving soon to tidy up and see to the house and William did not really want to cross paths with the hired help. She was a nice enough woman in herself, reliable and trustworthy but she did like to talk and, like most people of her type, such conversation lacked depth, was mostly unnecessary and proved a tedious experience for someone like William.
As he walked out into the hallway he could see the shape of Mrs Edwards through the glass in the front door.
“She’s early.” he thought and reached out to snatch up his keys from the table by the door where they were always placed on entry. The front door opened and there was all five feet six inches of a rounded pudding of a woman wrapped in a thick overcoat.
“Good morning Professor,” she mumbled amiably.
“Afraid I can’t stop Mrs Edwards, in a bit of a dash, important meeting today and just can’t be late.” William blurted as he squeezed himself around the woman in as gentlemanly a fashion as he could manage.
“Oh right you are then, off you go, don’t mind me.” said Mrs Edwards and she trotted into her chores closing the door behind her.
William had sat himself in his Jaguar, his sleek, black statement of power and authority. BBC radio four came re-assuringly along to ease the six-mile journey into the University. Reversing out of his drive into the small country lane which led down to the centre of the village, William smiled to himself.
“Close one there with Mrs Edwards.”
The journey into work was never particularly stressful and as the faculty head, he enjoyed a privileged parking space almost outside the faculty front door. There was even a nameplate there to denote his place; Professor Fletcher-Jones, Faculty Head, Department of Neuro-Science.
William hopped briskly out of his beloved Jaguar. This was a spring morning and everything seemed bright and vibrant. The University grounds were well manicured and set off the old buildings of this prestigious educational establishment to its finest grandeur. Being there, being at an institution of such renown and distinction rather lent something more than being an academic to the sense of status William enjoyed. Somehow he felt completely in control of his own life in a way he had never seen the need to question or even try to understand. This sense of self-purpose also enabled his feeling of being a leader, to be the captain of his particular ship and this charge of being in command also felt quite natural within his skin.
“Here he comes. Look lively now.” snapped Carmichael the senior porter who manned the front desk with a ferocious military precision. He was a tall thin man with a face lined like a major railway junction. Retirement age had probably passed him by but he clung on to the only authority he possessed in his life with a grim determination which comes from the fear of being rendered ordinary and powerless by the passing of time. In his blue porter’s uniform decorated with slim insignia denoting his top grade of rank, he liked to march about his day. His focus of attention was any opportunity to bully or castigate his juniors, especially those he took a personal dislike to. Whilst this unpleasant character was a tyrant in his own small kingdom, in the face of any perceived senior authority he presented a charming subservience which only comes from years of knowing your place.
Carmichael’s place was to marshal the delivery of mail, oversee the management of the cleaning operations and organise the dispensation of University facilities within the faculty building; in other words, manage the bookings of rooms and halls. On his word the work roster of nearly fifty staff depended. Plum jobs were in his gift, overtime was only available with his approval and employment and promotion saw his word as final. Carmichael had power in the unfortunate lives of others and if anyone did not jump when he said jump then the senior porter’s retribution would be swift and the offence not easily forgotten.
All of this power the thin, gnarled old man dispensed with an air of military practice and authority. Only for closest confidants were the secret details of his life in ‘the regiment’ disclosed. Whilst everyone knew he was a military man no-one actually knew the full history of his time before he joined the porterage more than twenty years previously. The real truth he kept close as he became practised at building a persona which was a mask hiding the nature of his beast.
As a nightclub bouncer, his early career had flourished due to his deviousness rather than any physical prowess. In his pocket, he had a cosh and on his knuckles he had brass. There was nothing he enjoyed more than giving a late night drunk a proper pasting and this was how he came to be in the army. One night one of the punters inside the club was stumbling around annoying people but not being aggressive in any way, just a bloody nuisance. Carmichael and his partner dragged him out of the club and in a side alley, after having sent his partner back inside, the cosh came out and the brass broke nose and jaw. This was an animal beating and the more he could hear the squelchy impact through soft tissue to the crunch of bones the more he liked it. He cannot remember stopping but he knew the punter was hardly breathing and definitely not moving when he left him in the alley.
The night finished and Carmichael went home, got into his bed and slept easily through until late morning. As he sat with his usual mug of tea, a couple of slices of toast and a slice of his mother’s homemade pork pie, he listened to the radio. Local radio was his taste, it was just a bland nothingness to him, a regularity of inane drivel punctuated by local news stories. There was nothing faceless about the news item which stirred in him a sudden fear that morning. A man had been found in an alleyway during the night and taken to hospital where he was in a coma in intensive care and described as being in a critical condition. The police had commented that they thought it was possibly a robbery that had been extremely violent and were appealing for witnesses.
Days passed and the police started making enquiries at the club but no-one said anything, they never spoke to the police in those days even if they did know something. Carmichael could tell that some in the club suspected him but his reputation was such that no-one would face him with a direct question. In truth, they all preferred not to know anything which might in any way place them in what they called ‘a position’. After a week the man remained in intensive care and news bulletins about his condition hinted at attempted murder as a charge the police were pursuing. If he died then, of course, it would go to a murder prosecution. This was enough for Neil ‘Lanky’ Carmichael, he told the club he was moving north and quit his job and then took a train south to Portsmouth where he eventually enlisted in the marines.
As a natural bully boy Lanky Carmichael knew how to survive the marine training and in quick time he learnt all the tricks and skives which helped to keep him out of any real danger. He had thrown in his lot with the NCO’s and made himself available for sorting out the wheat from the chaff. In time he made Lance Corporal, the most junior of the NCO ranks, and he had found his way into stores and administration. Unfortunately for Lanky, this was just a temptation he could not avoid and when some missing inventory was found in his possession he was given the choice of a court-martial or to leave with immediate effect. The problem for the Marine Corps was that the crime was so low level that it was a waste of resource going through the proper channels and no-one fancied the paperwork. They just kicked him out the back door.
Not quite four years, two spent in stores, was all the military Carmichael had experience of. Out in the civilian world, there was no way he could stick with an ordinary job so he applied to join the police. This was in the late 1970’s when the checking of a military career was not something the force did in any serious detail. For almost the next twenty years Carmichael struggled along as a member of ‘The Job’ without the brain or discipline to complete a sergeants exam. He never got caught out for all of the questionable practices he had going with doormen of the local clubs and he was well connected to the members of the force who were more interested in pound notes than the rule of law. In truth, it was all petty as Carmichael never had the stomach for anything like independent bravery. As long as he was occasionally intimidating members of the public and catching a £50 note here and there, he was happy.
He made his twenty years of service which entitled him to retire on a pension and he took that option the very first day it was open to him. Only five fellow officers turned up for his leaving drink but Carmichael consoled himself with the idea that these were the only true blokes on The Job anyway. The truth was that these men shared their company as they shared their own lack of ethics, morals or substance. This was a barrel scrapped of all but the bad apples.
Once outside the institutional safety net of first the marines and then the police, Carmichael struggled for a while. He had money, he had a home, he had a car but he had no friends, he had no social life and he had no means of creating any meaningful connections with those around him. That was when he saw the advert for a University porter. The job attracted him for several reasons but mainly because it gave him something to do and it appeared a cushy number.
At most of the top ranking Universities, the role of porter is seen as very suitable for those coming out of the military or the police. The powers that be consider such individuals, people who never attained high rank, as perfect material to man the battlements of academia and act as the bulldogs at the front gate. Carmichael found a home and found one where the management chain of command in the porterage was populated by people like him. They may not have been as corrupt as he was, they may not have been as devious as he was but they were all men who needed a status and power base which they could fit within their psyches. Carmichael knuckled down to play the game as it was expected to be played.
Over the years he adopted the persona of a military man, one who expected discipline and precision. He found he could subsume his other nefarious skills into this role and in truth, now that he was older, he just wanted a quiet life and the chance to exert a sense of his own importance over other people. In a predictable fashion, he climbed the ladder into the top slot with a consummate ease. As he performed the role of the ex-military man slowly his mind absorbed the story as memory and he became his own myth. No-one questioned him because he so obviously was what he claimed to be, he acted it out in his every mannerism. It was not that he was made for the part but more that he made himself into the part. When a man is filled with a cavernous emptiness of the spirit it is easy to sculpt the shell to any external appearance as there is little gravity of thought or purpose to drag at the mould and deform it. The shell was all he had.
William Fletcher-Jones strode in through the front door and on past the porter’s desk with great authority. The faculty of Neuro-Science was one of the oldest faculties of the subject in the United Kingdom. As a faculty head, old ‘FJ’, as Carmichael referred to him in the privacy of the porter’s lodge, was a powerful figure but once this status was compounded by the various boards and committees he sat on then he was truly one of the grand wizards in the University’s magical academic castle.
“Good morning Professor.” Carmichael had verbally saluted as Fletcher-Jones walked by.
“Carmichael.” was all that ‘FJ’ was prepared to offer in acknowledgement but that was more than enough for the head porter. In his construct of social reality, that the professor had said his name was a courtesy and for him to have said anything more would have been a demeaning of the academic’s high status. The fact that the professor acknowledged his existence was enough to stiffen the spine of Lanky Carmichael.
William almost leapt up the steps of the very grand central staircase and took the sweep to the left side of the building to the first floor where his office was situated. A first-floor office was one of the great prizes of a powerful academic career. The more stairs you had to climb to get to your office physically meant the more stairs you had to climb metaphorically in the promotion race. The higher the physical location the lower the status, it was as simple as that.
In this world of Universities the attainment of status is the key to power and the pursuit of unquestionable authority, in many ways, is more important than any intellectual achievements. In the new, shiny world of the University business model, high office is open to those who know how to play the game more than it is to those who are drivers of original thinking or intellectual accomplishment. This is a model of the world in which mediocrity of character and purpose are substantial assets in a career. This is a world where bean counters are demi-gods whilst heretics and questioners are demonic influences disturbing the status quo. This is the University industry in the 21st century.
In the industrial processing of funding units, as students are referred to, the business of the University is to obtain income streams. Fees from the funding units are a part of the cake mixture but the really quality ingredients are research grants and endowments. Any academic pulling in a cash flow is on the path to career success but only as long as he or she is ‘one of us’. This ‘one of us’ club membership is an essential component of character in the ruthless hierarchical politics of the University faculties. If lessor ability in intellectual performance
is no hindrance to career progression then it follows that allowing any critical voice near the levers of power could be disastrous for some of those already pulling on one.
Anyone gifted with a powerful ability to critically think is not what is needed to run and manage a University. Such a person could question the management decisions, propose unrealistic efficiencies or, god forbid, promote new models of structure and evaluation. In a conservative institution like a University, and there is no more conservative institution than this, a safe pair of hands is always what is required and there were none safer than Professor Fletcher-Jones.
William entered his office and thought to himself, “This is going to be a big day.”. He could not help smiling as he took his place at his rather grand desk. The room itself was not overly large but generous enough to hold important meetings in with four or maybe five colleagues all sitting in a comfortable space. The walls were oak panelled and from the picture, rail hung various certificates and commendations, some with photographs of ‘FJ’, some without, all of which promoted a visible authority of the man in the chair.
There was a comfortable couch and two armchairs gathered around a lower level coffee table with enough width and length to allow papers and other documents to be spread upon its surface. The large window behind the desk looked out at a magnificent long view down University Drive. Three cabinets, glass-fronted, held particular assortments of glittering objects; one for glasses and bone china cups, one for silver cups, awards and medals and the third for an assortment of photographs in silver frames showing the professor meeting important people.
All of this display was underpinned by a thick, dark blue pile carpet which gave a softness of step that was almost spongy whenever you walked across its surface. The smell of the oak panels, the scent of the daily vacuumed carpet gave the room a deeply settled synaesthesia of establishment.
William picked up his desk telephone and spoke with his secretary.
Ms Lofthatch had been working for him for four years and understood his routines perfectly. Of course, she was not exclusively his secretary but then again she was not shared with another academic or management person. Ms Lofthatch ran a small team of admin staff who dealt with the various departmental needs, officially she was the faculty administration manager, unofficially she was his personal secretary.
After a few minutes, Lofthatch knocked on William’s door and entered. She was a woman of few distinguishable features in dress, manner and physicality. The type of person who is hard to describe and most usually covered by some statement like, “…you know, rather ordinary looking…”. Her clothing was more about practicality than any possible sense of style, usually the sort of dresses worn by a very much older woman made from fabrics which failed to hold any definition or vibrancy of colour. Lofthatch had long dark hair which she wore tied into a ponytail at the back of her head. The tie itself was the cheapest form of elastic hair band it would be possible to find. She bore no variation, she exhibited no creative sense and she displayed no profound articulacy.
Lofthatch was of average height and average weight and anyone lost for a definition of the word average would probably find it easier to say, “… you know, like Lofthatch…”. William was not even sure of her first name, all he knew was that it began with an ‘L’ as he had seen her sign letters and documents in that manner. Whatever her nature or appearance Ms Lofthatch was universally respected as a brilliant administrator and a first-rate line manager. She always completed the tasks allotted to her, she never asked questions, she never rocked the boat and in four years she had neither been late for work nor had a single day off sick. If she were actually a robot, a matter William had occasionally considered in humour when talking to Margaret, she could not have been a better member of staff.
Lofthatch was carrying a tray holding a pot of filter coffee, a small jug of single cream and some bourbon biscuits. This was the professor’s standard ‘first thing’ in the morning requirement. She set the tray down on his desk and then went to the cabinet to fetch one cup, one saucer and a small silver spoon. The spoon was not for sugar, the professor never took sugar, it was to stir the cream into the coffee and turn its deep black into a smooth brown.
“Thank you Ms Lofthatch,” William said in his politest manner. “Dr Mason will be arriving shortly, would you be so kind as to show her in the moment she arrives please.”
“Yes professor, of course.” responded the efficient secretary and she turned and quietly left the office.
Dr Mason was the lead of Fletcher-Jones’s research team for the Rigel Foundation’s project. In fact, she was part of the Foundation rather than the University and came as a condition of the funding. Fletcher-Jones had never heard of her before she started as his lead research manager, he found no published papers, no articles and no books by her other than a PhD thesis. That had been completed at Yale and was in cybernetic programming, he hadn’t bothered to read it.
All further enquiries about Dr Mason led to dead ends, no-one he knew had any idea who she was, he spoke with all the right people on the other side of the pond and yet no-one there had even met her. Her PhD had been completed on a distance learning basis and her interaction with her supervisor was over a video link. All that supervisor could say was that the work itself was good but not particularly insightful. He added that he didn’t think she was really ‘one of us’, a bit of a lone wolf and probably someone Fletcher-Jones would have to handle on a tight leash.
After the Yale PhD, it would appear that the Rigel Foundation engaged Dr Mason as their own head of research and everything she produced was held inside the Foundation, nothing of her work had ever been published by them. Mason had been with the Foundation for eight years before she turned up on the project Fletcher-Jones had won from Rigel. At first, he tried to resist the imposition of an outsider on the work of the project, especially at such an important position as his immediate junior. Effectively she was in control of the research on a day to day basis and whilst that suited Fletcher-Jones in many ways he would prefer to have someone he knew in charge, a safe pair of hands, someone who knew how to play the game.
However, all such considerations were swept simply away in view of the fact that the research grant was not just generous, it was the largest in the history of UK Neuro-Science research. Not just the largest but massive beyond all previous benchmarks. In addition to this funding, the Rigel Foundation had offered to be the benefactor to the University for the construction of a new school building subject to the research project producing the results they were looking for.
As the Vice-Chancellor had said over sherry at the time, “Well William, I am sure that you would like to be the person who brought into the University the funding of over £450 million to build a new school. From what I understand from Rigel they are willing to not only build the infrastructure but also fund its ongoing development. I don’t have to tell you what we all think of this. You simply do not have enough cap to put the feathers into.”
Consequently, Dr Mason came on board and much to William’s surprise he found, after a period of adjustment, that she slotted in perfectly. In fact, she was extremely comfortable to be around and, in his role as project lead, there was not one suggestion or management direction he wanted to establish which she had any objection to. In fact, he could not remember her being anything less than positive to all of his insights. She turned out to be an excellent team player and a first-rate research manager.
There was a knock on the door and in walked Dr Mason. She was a tall woman, about six feet three inches, with short cropped black hair and a quite beautiful round, creaseless face. Possessed of a tendency to smile, she exuded a warmth of personality that gently seduced rather than hotly excited. In all her movements there was a grace and elegance which made it appear as though her whole body was a fluid in motion. The proportions of her body spoke of beauty and balance, all in all, Dr Mason appeared to have been kissed by angels at birth.
Around this female perfection, her choice of clothing gave her a sophistication that Ms Lofthouse was the antithesis of. Always of high quality, always fitting perfectly and always discrete in style and modest in presentation, Dr Mason dressed like royalty.
“Ahh, Dr Mason, come in, come in.” Fletcher-Jones warmed, “Are you ready for the big day?”
Dr Mason coughed. Well, it was not quite a cough but more of a low growl in her throat. William had noticed this behaviour in her over the years of the project and wondered if she had some sort of genetic abnormality. Perhaps it was like the myth of the Persian carpet; that there is always one imperfect knot for to create something perfect in total is an affront in the eyes of Allah.
“I believe that today will be a unique experience for all involved Professor.” she responded.
“Indeed, indeed.” Fletcher-Jones said and gently turned over the thought of a knighthood in his mind. For William, the idea that a knighthood could be well within his grasp created an anxiety. Receiving such an honour would raise him above even the high status he held now, Sir William Fletcher-Jones rather than just Professor Fletcher-Jones, this was not a trifle, this was a recognition of social superiority which, in his mind, he richly deserved.
Dr Mason coughed some more and the chivalrous professor leaned forward and offered her a throat pastille. He had been getting them in especially for her over the years and she appeared to like the blackcurrant flavoured ones. Dr Mason coughed some more and leaned forward to accept the lozenge.
“Thank you professor.” she smiled and popped the sweet into her mouth.
“Have we got the presentation in place. Are you happy with everything?” William asked and instinctively put his hands up to tug at his yellow bow tie and make sure it was straight.
Dr Mason coughed a little more and then replied, “Everything is in order, everything is in place. All of the tech team know the job and our rehearsal yesterday went well.” She smiled. “ A shame you could not be there but no-one can help a clash of schedules.”
“Ah yes, well I have faith in you Dr Mason and I am sure you can handle everything with the same competence and ability you have shown throughout the project.”
William tried not to blush as he remembered his day at the golf course with the Vice Chancellor. They had enjoyed a fine lunch, much celebratory discussion and more than one bottle of fine wine.
Dr Mason coughed again.
“That must be very irritating that cough of yours,” William observed. “strange isn’t it, perhaps you have some sort of sensitivity of the throat or perhaps an allergy?”
Mason regained her composure and replied, “ I am afraid it is something I have had all my life. It’s not a cold or anything like that, sometimes I just can’t help it. I try hard not to but sometimes, as I say, I just can’t help it.”
“About our research?” William returned to the project. “ I have read through the results and it is all very interesting but one thing puzzles me, and if I may say so the Vice-Chancellor, and that is we can’t quite see how the Rigel Foundation benefit from the work.”
William shifted in his chair.
“ I am not actually sure how they would intend to employ the results.”
Dr Mason blushed a little. William noticed the blush as it was something he had never seen before, Mason was always so assured.
“Well as you know Professor, I am head of research at Rigel so I do have some insight on this issue but it is a matter of protocol.”
“How so?” enquired William.
“Well it is simply that it is not my place to disclose the Foundation’s position, it would be,” she hesitated, “ beyond my pay grade and besides I do not know the full picture anyway. I am sure that Degran Smertov will put you in the full picture, and hopefully myself as well, at some point after the presentation.”
The mention of the Rigel Foundation’s C.E.O. brought a nod from William. Ordinarily, the situation where his junior knew more about the project than he did would have been intolerable. However, and for reasons he found very difficult to actually to put his finger on and express, Dr Mason made him feel totally comfortable with the situation. There was something about her that brought out a certain confidence in his situation. She always acted appropriately and well, she knew how to play the game. She might have actually known a bit more than he did about the purpose of the research but she never allowed that knowledge to stand between them or even rise as an issue within their working dynamic. She always deferred to his higher status on the project and she always spoke well and in the most appropriate ways.
“I like her.” he thought, “ The fact that she recognises her place within Rigel is a good sign. This indicates that she knows her place at the University as well. She’s a good subordinate officer and understands both propriety and diplomacy.”
Dr Mason coughed again, apologised and asked to be excused so she could attend to some final arrangements. William agreed and she left him with his thoughts.
When Professor William Fletcher-Jones was first approached by a representative of the Rigel Foundation about the project he could not believe his good fortune. Even at the very beginning, it was clear that this was going to be a major funding contract and that meant he could see his tenure out to retirement with absolute security. In fact, he remembered, his very first impression was that there could easily be a knighthood in this. As was usual it was the job of the Vice Chancellor to establish the credibility of the Rigel Foundation and set into play all questions about probity and ethics. The various committees within the University were tasked with their due diligence remits and structural referencing for the project. As this work went on the Vice Chancellor made independent enquiries with the right sort of people in America about the nature and history of the Foundation. Nobody wanted to see the University caught up in any scandal or difficult relationships. Besides, if there were any ‘issues’ then they would have to work to contain them especially when such a large amount of money was involved.
“This sort of funding doesn’t come along every day you know William. In fact, I have never seen anything like it. But we have to be careful, if there are any skeletons in this particular cupboard then we need to know where and how we can bury the bones.”
William remembered those words of the Vice-Chancellor from right at the very beginning. He also recalled that he described quite eloquently how the Ethics Committee works to “iron out” any really difficult issues.
“Their job is not so much to question ethics more to provide a set of ethics that will stand up if questions are asked at a later date.”
At the very beginning, after weeks and months, a picture of the Rigel Foundation emerged but it was quite an odd story. Originally formed in the United States in 1944 it was an organisation set up with monies from Swiss banks. The initial funding was for $20 million which was a considerable investment and that it was managed so easily at a time of global conflict also appeared as a special feature. This was a private organisation whose ownership was obscured from the very beginning by use of companies in other jurisdictions, what are now known as tax havens. There was a board of very worthy Americans, worthy and supremely connected, who took very substantial retainers for their role as figureheads. From this initial position, the business of the Rigel Foundation developed.
At the outset, two areas of the economy were targeted for investment, healthcare and food production. Looking back these were two very shrewd areas to go into. In a post-war scenario, every possibility existed for massive increases in food production for a victorious population. Equally, any coming prosperity accruing to the victor nation would empower a need for healthcare provision. Investigation and enquiry demonstrated that by the mid-1960’s the Rigel Foundation had become, very quietly, one of the biggest commercial operations not just in America but globally.
Despite the commercial success of the organisation they never appeared in any public situation. They never got involved in politics, they never employed lobbyists and they never advertised anything about themselves except at their brand ownership levels. As the list of brands ultimately owned and controlled by Rigel emerged, not without the Vice Chancellor calling in some favours from very close and powerful relationships in the American Universities, it was surprising to see that the Foundation appeared to be touching everyone’s life in one way or another.
In the area of food production, the Foundation had established long vertical development through the sector. From farms and fertiliser production to food processing units, to packaging, storage and distribution and on through to sales and product marketing. In Europe, the U.S.A., Africa, South America, India and there was even some suggestion that Rigel had a presence in China, across the continents the same vertical corporate development had been constructed. The same was also true in the healthcare sector.
The Rigel Foundation had vertical chains from pharmaceutical development and production to clinics, to hospitals, even to hospice care and funeral provision. The coverage was
comprehensive. You could actually be born, live and die within the oversight and management of the Rigel Foundation. Your health and well being and your dietary intake, it was possible, could all be supplied by the organisation; you would never leave their branding.
In the history of Rigel, there were no scandals to be found, there were no skeletons to be dug up, nobody had a bad word to say about the organisation. Even in their operations with employees and their corporate effect on local communities, the Rigel Foundation managed its affairs with sound ethics and a sensitivity to needs other than there own on both individual and community levels. In many senses, this was an organisation which deeply cared about the future of humanity and appeared to blend corporate need with social responsibility.
What made Rigel an even more ideal partner for the University was that, despite its size and most unusually in that context, there was absolutely no trace to anything to do with the arms industry, weapon production, military economies or even militia and policing provisions. Everything was about food production and health care and that was it.
There was only one question which really emerged when the due diligence was finally compiled. This was a bit of a strange question but it was fundamental to the research project itself. In fact, it was exactly the research project which was the question.
“What do you think of this research brief William.” asked the Vice Chancellor one afternoon before the University finally agreed to take on the project.
“Well the mapping of the human brain is not exactly ground breaking work however the comprehensive approach they are adopting is quite interesting. I suppose that no-one has tried such an in depth analysis before because of the cost but this does not seem to be a problem for Rigel.”
“Quite so but forgive me, I am just a humble Vice Chancellor, how exactly is it a faculty of Neuro-Science suits this brief so well William?”
Professor Fletcher-Jones straightened up a little and quickly tugged at his bow tie. “Well ‘VP’, Neuro-Science as a faculty contains quite a range of disciplines and a multiplicity of expertise. If you are going to mount a wide ranging investigation into a topic like the human brain and how it operates then our faculty allows that topic to be approached from a wide range of angels.”
William smiled and let out a smile sigh of satisfaction.
“The implications of most research grants and endowments are that a PhD here or there can be written, a research stream can be followed by doctoral colleagues or a new thesis can be explored, tested and proven or disproven. All of these tasks would be the usual target of any specific funding proposal but only individually.”
“I see.” said the Vice Chancellor.
“The funding is historic for one reason and that is that Rigel are effectively proposing to take over the whole faculty, to fund and use all of the resources, to establish research parameters in every department and with every working colleague in the faculty. This is completely unheard of.”
“You mean that what they are proposing is more like a corporate acquisition of our whole faculty?”
“In a manner of speaking but perhaps it is better to see it more as a buy out of the whole facility for a specific research purpose over a designated period of time. A grand project if you like.”
William had nodded to himself, the idea of a grand project with himself at its head, yes, he liked that idea. To his knowledge no-one had ever tried such a proposal.
“How would this impact on other members of the faculty though? Could there be objections?”
“Ahh, a good question and one I have given thought to.”
“Objections William, could there be objections?”
“Well yes, I suppose some members might object to having their own research, ahem, let us say, re-directed and possibly even redefined.”
“Things could go that far?”
“Why yes, if you read through Rigel’s proposal in detail they are really buying the management right to dictate research in all departments.”
“They state as much in the proposal?”
“Well not stated outright but the implications are there in black and white. The Rigel Foundation will allocate research objectives across the faculty and everyone will have to come on board.”
The Vice Chancellor was beginning to worry. Bringing this funding into the University may not be as easy as he had anticipated. He felt certain that some of the faculty’s members would object to being redirected as Fletcher-Jones had put it. That could mean trouble and that could be bad for the University in many ways including putting this funding at risk.
“In this situation do you think we can back up a commitment to this project in the way this Rigel Foundation wants it to play out?”
“Correctly managed, well I cannot see an issue.” William responded confidently, “As I have said, I have given the matter some thought.”
“Well let’s hear those thoughts William, please, there is a lot at stake and no time to hesitate.”
The rebuke stung William but he brushed it aside. Obviously the Vice Chancellor was worried about losing millions of pounds in research investment and that made him tetchy. However, as William was sure he could handle the issue, that, he decided, put him in the driving seat and he always liked to feel his hands on the steering wheel of the faculty.
“The key to the issue is the money.” William began, “The money not just as a resource coming in but as a management tool within the faculty. By my own estimation the sums they are proposing represent a 50% increase in funding across the board; in every department to every key faculty member. 50% that is, if we were to share the funding out equally. Equity though is not necessary and I believe that Rigel understand that and this is why they are proposing that the faculty board receive a lump sum which they then use to deliver the research projects from each department.”
“That’s right, they are not setting any boundaries on the funding award by department. I see how this could work now.”
“Yes, it is quite simple isn’t it. Those academics who are able to abandon their own intellectual pursuit of their existing research objectives for the needs of the project can be rewarded with say a 15% increase in their budget. In the current climate and with a guarantee of that funding being maintained over a minimum of a five year period, a 15% increase is a substantial incentive and could even allow for a personal bonus structure during the lifetime of the project.”
“Interesting, but what about those who may see their own research lines, which may be the work of years, being compromised by the needs of the project?”
“Well that will simply be a matter of management.” William lowered his chin to bring his face right down and then lifted his eyes to the top of their sockets. This was a move he normally reserved for any junior he wanted to intellectually intimidate however he felt so much in control of this situation that for a moment he forgot who he was talking to. “Ahem,” he coughed and raised his face, “ There are two possible ways we can go with any resistance to the project.”
William brought up his left hand and let it slip gently sideways.
“On the one hand we have a pot of money with which we may be able to ‘buy out’ any objections. By paying 15% to those willing to jump on board we leave a very healthy 35% in the kitty in every department so to speak. Because the faculty board will be the only place where the full amount of the award will be centred then each department need not know that an even split would amount to that 50% increase.”
“But are the department heads not represented on the faculty board and wont they know about the full extent of the award in that case?” asked the Vice Chancellor.
William let his left hand drop completely and let out a small chuckle.
“Well Vice Chancellor, I would suggest that for a project of this enormity it would be wise to set up a steering committee to administer it. We could easily argue that the project is of such a magnitude that burdening the whole faculty board with its remit could damage the ordinary every day obligations of that board. We could stress that the work on the steering committee would be expected to be performed in addition to all other University obligations and warn that we would expect members to give a lot of their free time to its management. This should act as a deterrent as in the initial stages the full faculty board will not be aware of the details of the project or the implications of not being on the steering committee.”
“ I like your thinking William. I can see how you managed to get to the top post in your faculty; good strategic thinking, able employment of strategy and, no doubt, the cultivation of key allies. You are a University man through and through.”
“Thank you Vice Chancellor.” William acknowledged. “To continue, a private word to a few well chosen colleagues, those who know how to play the game, and we will have our steering committee. Whilst their dedication to duty would be gratis I am sure that within the budgets we would have in play they could easily be rewarded in their role as departmental heads.”
“This all looks achievable William but whilst we may be able to buy out some of the academic staff there are always those who will cause trouble. A few probably but even one on a project like this could prove difficult and especially if they are prone to write articles that the media like to publish.”
William raised his right hand and began to let it fall slowly.
“The contrary elements are probably more easily dealt with,” William spoke with complete ease. “they will have no real political power base within the faculty and they will be standing against colleagues who will all be expecting a financial benefit from the project going through. In short, they will be isolated and treated as unwelcome rebels.”
The Vice-Chancellor nodded with a smile. No-one more than he knew how University faculties worked and the power politics at play within all decisions made by their boards and committees. Outsiders tend towards the romantic notion perpetrated in films of the eccentric in a white lab coat, the genius professor always seeking the best intellectual outcome. The popular construction of the academic was one of intellectual integrity and dedication to knowledge but he always saw faculties as something like a barrel of crabs. All the crabs are trying to get to the top and jump out of the barrel but all of the other crabs are grabbing and holding them back. Only the ablest at dealing with the other crabs makes the top and that is very rarely the one with the most intellectual integrity. University faculties make the world of party politics look like a playpen by comparison.
“Even so William, a difficult character could create problems.”
“Well, isolation is only the setting in which they will find themselves. In addition to that day to day situation, we can also look not just at cutting their existing budgets but we can move any rebels upstairs, right up to the loft in fact, after all the Rigel project will take precedence and it will have first choice of the resource base. We can place the rebels in a position where we can basically end their tenure in effect if not in reality. All paths forward will be blocked to them, we can increase the administrative burden on them and cut their funding year on year. They will either have a breakdown or jump ship and I really don’t care which is which if they choose to stand in the way of the project.”
“A ruthless streak as well.” noted the Vice Chancellor to himself. “ Professor Fetcher-Jones is definitely made of the right stuff to see this project through and bring home the plaudits as well as the cash for the University.”
“As we will not be sharing any of the Rigel budget with the malcontents we will then have the means to recruit fresh blood to replace the objectors, proceed with the project and further marginalise them to all but meaninglessness.”
“As you quite astutely said, the money is the key to the management issues.”
“Quite so, quite so.” said William feeling very pleased with his performance.
“However there is one other concern.” added the Vice Chancellor, “ Not so much of a concern really I suppose but more of an area of doubt.”
“And what may that be?” asked the Professor, “Perhaps I can shed some light on the situation.”
“Well yes, if anyone can then I am sure it is you because my doubt is about the nature of the research. Not that important really but I would like your perspective on it.”
“Please, fire away.”
“Well, it just strikes me as very odd in the whole. I feel a certain discomfort because, and probably this is just my own misunderstanding and lack of knowledge in the field, but why would a corporate involved with health care and food production but nothing else be wanting to develop a Neuro-Science research programme of such a magnitude? I am not even sure what all of this research is about or why they need a whole faculty to perform it.”
William puffed himself up as much as he could and gently nodded towards the Vice Chancellor. This was going to call for some deft footwork because the questions being asked were ones he had a small concern about. However, when the game was for such high stakes, especially in his own career and reputation, such questions are more to be disposed of rather than answered. After all, the due diligence into the Rigel Foundation had turned up nothing but five-star credibility.
“I don’t want to come across as patronising in any way Vice Chancellor but what exactly do you know about Neuro-Science as a subject and how that translates into the academic architecture of the faculty?”
“Well I am a humble lawyer by training,” the Vice-Chancellor said, “My own career path is in practice as a barrister, a foray into the corporate world and then onto the education sector after a short stint with an N.G.O.. I have to admit I have never been anywhere near Neuro-Science so please, enlighten me.”
“Most people tend to think of Neuro-Science as the study of the brain but this is not exactly correct. The Neuro element derives from the Greek word neuron and that means nerve; consequently, Neuro-Science is a study of the nervous system and that is more than just the brain. A Neuro-Science faculty is a very broad church and incorporates a range of disciplines and approaches which all study the workings of not just how we construct our thinking but how the whole system of communication within the body actually operates. We look at the construction of nerves, their purpose and functions, how those purposes and functions operate and how we can create an encyclopedic knowledge of the components and functions of the whole nervous system.”
“Interesting.” said the Vice-Chancellor merely for the purpose of saying something.
“I am keeping away from a more complex description and just laying out a very general understanding.”
‘Thank you, I appreciate that.” the Vice Chancellor replied.
“In a faculty, there are many operations being performed. We have anatomy, biochemistry, molecular biology, the study of neural circuits and the physiological understanding of neurons and all of these components are supplemented by relationships with pharmacology, psychology and medicine in general. A Neuro-Science faculty is a very dynamic organisation and this may be why Rigel are looking to take control of the whole research agenda.”
“What do you mean, I mean what exactly are you trying to say.”
“Well in the field it is usual that Neuro-Science departments across the globe collaborate with each other on specific areas. No one faculty will dominate across the subject but rather, like most other faculties, is part of a network of research. This network means that in any one faculty a whole range of different research objectives are in operation. But what if Rigel is looking for outcomes to very specific questions and they want to contain the intellectual property as much as possible. This appears to me to be a reason why an organisation like Rigel would look at creating one centre in which it can research broadly on a very targeted set of questions and prevent any seepage of their investment out into a wider network.”
“Again, very interesting but has anyone ever tried such a move before?”
William shook his head slowly and purposefully. “This project is unprecedented. The initial guarantee is to provide funding for a minimum of five years, a project of this nature would be very unlikely to be anywhere near solid results for at least ten years and the likelihood is that we are looking at a twenty-year programme. The cost of such a research programme has to be in the hundreds of millions of pounds and that scale begs the immediate question about what exactly Rigel get out of such a commitment. After all, they are not a charity and have a track record of growth and development which is all about profits.”
“I can see the logic of your thinking William, the fact they are proposing to add to the research programme by building a new state of the art school on the campus does support your insight but at this level of investment the profit expectation must be phenomenal.”
“Astronomical I would say.” William retorted.
“And that is what I do not understand.” the Vice Chancellor was concerned. “What exactly is the connection between an organisation with a history in healthcare provision and food production and a groundbreaking research programme into Neuro-Science? It is easy to think that this is compatible with the healthcare aspect of their operation but even so, they run hospitals, clinics, pharmaceuticals, they even have funeral parlours and crematoriums, their involvement in health care appears more about structural economics than scientific research. And then, again, Neuro-Science, what exactly is their objective. It all appears quite cloudy to me.”
“I have to agree. Looking at their research briefs for the initial period it would appear that they are trying to establish some sort of detailed and definitive working model of the functions and operations of the human brain.”
“But don’t we already have a good understanding of how our brain works?” asked the Vice Chancellor.
“There have been terrific advances in the field but, in truth, not only do we understand very little about key areas such as consciousness and emotions, it is also the case that we do not know what further questions will be exposed by future research. In other words what we do know is probably a low percentage of what there is to know and the total can be known only when we can frame the right questions to ask. So, in short, no we do not have a good understanding of how our brain works we just have an acceptable working model and a lot of questions to ask or be
discovered. In a sense, the Rigel Foundation are effectively buying out our Neuro-Science faculty to ask and uncover those questions as a single centralised effort.”
The Vice-Chancellor looked dumbfounded. “This doesn’t make any sense to me, I still cannot see what it is they get out of all of this.”
“In truth neither can I,” William said. “but what does that actually matter. I am sure that the ethics of the research will be confirmed and that an ethical pathway will be devised for the delivery according to the needs of Rigel. There is no precedent really for the University to make a judgement about the ethics of any future use of the research outcomes, that surely is not part of our remit even if we saw it as a desirable function which I am sure we do not.”
“This is just about the real world I suppose.” said the Vice-Chancellor, “We as a University have a business model, we have a product we can sell and someone is bidding for the biggest purchase of intellectual property ever seen in corporate history. Not only can we sell the faculty to such a project but in this real world, we would be fools not to. If they don’t buy us then they will buy someone else, the reward is so high that the questions are really not pertinent.”
“Quite so.” agreed Professor Fletcher-Jones as he felt his knighthood become an ever more substantive possibility. “And in such an environment, with the responsibilities of such a groundbreaking corporate association, there can be no argument about the remuneration required by the officials of the University. Surely in such an environment, it would have to be equal to the levels within industry and the corporate world.”
This conversation years previously had been the final element in the decision to go with the Rigel Foundation proposals and commit a whole faculty to one corporate objective. There were some objectors in the early stages but those who didn’t succumb to improved salaries and pensions packages were shuffled away to the lofts and eventually assisted in finding other employment. Professor Fletcher-Jones managed the project’s inception just in the way he had suggested to the Vice Chancellor. The Rigel Foundation succeeded in the first ever buy out of a whole faculty, lock stock and barrel, in the history of University funding in the UK. That was twelve years before William’s big day, the big day when he would present the early conclusions to the CEO of Rigel.
“Knowing your day is about planning and efficiency and that means to know yourself.” William said to himself as he stood up to leave his office and join the Chancellor and Degran Smertov for an informal sherry before the presentation.
Dame Mary Wheaton had a prestigious career before she became Chancellor of the University. After being head girl at Cheltenham Ladies College and then she took a star first in Chemistry at Clare College, Cambridge. Her talents led her into a career in the diplomatic service which saw her take roles at the United Nations initially before working through the ranks to become the Ambassador to New Zealand. After five years of service in that role she returned to the UK and left the diplomatic corps to take up a position as the head of a charity dedicated to supporting the poorest of single-parent families. In this work, she took what was a small charity and turned it into a large organisation with a wider role around social deprivation. For these works, she was awarded Dame of the British Empire to follow the M.B.E. she held for her diplomatic work.
After her ennoblement, she retired from the Chief Executive role she had mostly created herself at the charity and took up the offer of being Chancellor of the University. The University Chancellorship is mostly the role of being a figurehead and suits those with honed diplomatic skills and able to bring an established network of connections to the post. This differs from the Vice-Chancellorship which is much more a pro-active business role and requires a more hands-on approach to the development and growth of the University as a business. Dame Mary was more to do with respectable promotion of the University as an institution and to be a representative at important functions as well as a balanced voice in the media and in the national education debate. In these tasks, she excelled.
Professor William Fletcher-Jones entered the reception before the Chancellor’s chamber. A secretary at a desk greeted him, stood up and escorted him to the chamber door which she knocked on twice, opened and said most respectfully, “Professor Fletcher-Jones Chancellor.” and then opened the door wide at which point William strode into the chamber.
“Ah William, so pleased you could join us. Sherry?” The Chancellor spoke with the most velvet of charm and presented a softness of character which would have made an Arch-Bishop weep with joy.
“Thank you Chancellor, a dry one if you have it.”
“Please, this is informal, call me Mary. Please do.”
She turned to a sideboard of great antiquity on which rested three decanters two of sherry, dry and sweet and one of brandy. Taking a delicate cut crystal glass she poured a good measure of a light, almost clear liquid and offered it across to him.
“You have met Degran so I assume no introductions are necessary, as I have said this is just an informal chat, no stiff collars required.”
“I know William quite well,…” Degran said in a gentle American accent trimmed of all hardness and shaped by a northeastern landscape. “…if not actually so much on a personal level certainly through the excellent reports I have received from Dr Mason.”
Ordinarily, William would have objected to a junior underneath him in the hierarchy reporting back on his work and character to the sponsor but for some reason, he did not actually seem to care about this. In fact, it only flickered in his mind for a moment before any possibility towards resentment evaporated in the warmth of Degran Smertov’s greeting.
“Shall we sit?” suggested Dame Mary indicating towards three very comfortable leather armchairs.
The three sat down and in some ways that evened out the height difference as the American was a good six feet six tall which was further accentuated by what could only be described as a magnificent head of dark blonde hair.
“Great chairs, are they Chesterfields?” asked Degran.
“Actually, I can’t really say. They were here before I arrived and I never thought to seek out their provenance.” said Dame Mary with something close to a schoolgirl giggle.
“Well whatever they are they are certainly comfortable.” replied Degran. Then he turned to William. “How’s the family, you have a son and a daughter I believe, Theodore and Matilda isn’t it?”
“Yes William, how are they doing.” added the Chancellor.
The conversation turned to prospects of Cambridge for Theodore and hopes for the Royal College of Music for Matilda. There were some soft approval noises shared by all three and Dame Mary offered to add to Theodore’s reference should William feel it would be helpful. Everyone was playing nice, everyone was being nice and they all felt like they were equals sharing views and opinions on matters of little importance. That is exactly how the middle class play the game, nothing contentious, nothing too challenging, no harshness of tone, no colour of language, just the most blandness of nice that it is possible to create.
Of course behind this charade, the truth was actually very much different. In terms of status, Degran Smertov held all of the cards. He was immensely personally wealthy on a scale the other two people in the room could hardly imagine let alone conceive of. In addition, he was the head of a global economic power that was The Rigel Foundation and as such could, would and did meet with heads of state in any and every nation at his own request. In strictly practical terms he was a benefactor to the University of which Dame Mary was the figurehead and so her position was most certainly to facilitate his needs. As for William, well besides not being Sir William, he was also effectively an employee of an institution at which Dame Mary was the most senior figure. Despite the pretence, everyone in the room knew their place in the hierarchy and all appearances of an informal meeting were merely a covering narrative to obscure the fact that they were formally recognising each other’s status.
This status had been clearly established with the question about William’s children. He would never have dreamed of asking Degran or Mary about their own personal family situation, such an approach would be far too intrusive and personal when looking up the hierarchy. Merely by openly posing the question and using the children’s names, Degran Smertov was actually asserting his seniority and authority in the most subtle of ways. Dame Mary recognized this immediately and played her cards alongside Degran’s show of trumps with an offer of a reference. All William could do was accept his status as it was made plain to him.
There was no room for offence to be taken because that is definitely not how you play the game. In this world of power politics to display a wound is to create an identity of ‘victim’. A victim is not someone destined either to survive or to progress. In this world, you have to accept your place because only when you do that can you demand from all of those you perceive to be below you to accept their place. That’s how the game is played, that is the game and it is a ruthless game with little option for anyone who does not participate. In the lack of an option is forged the fear of ever being excluded from the game and it is that fear more than anything else which bonds a middle class to its role in the maintenance and preservation of hierarchy. In that state of paranoia, those who play the game are always wary of any outsider and will test them and
place obstacles in their path long before they will ever start to accept them into any part of the game.
The conversation continued with talk about nothing in particular. As the situation was nominally informal nothing of any import or depth of meaning should be approached. Questions of Degran were restricted to what he thought about the U.K., how his flight was coming over, if he had any plans for sightseeing, everything mundane, nothing of any substance. In this format it was Dame Mary’s task to frame the conversation and protect it from any controversy or contention, it was William’s task to be there, nod, add small meaningless observations and agree with and support any answers Degran chose to provide.
“I’ve always wanted to see Scotland. I have never been you know.” said Degran casually.
“Oh, you must. Do go, it is a wonderful place and the people are quite charming and very friendly.” oozed Dame Mary.
The mistake here would have been for William to start to talk about his holidays in Scotland, he went every Easter break, or even worse tell anecdotes from his own adventures there.
“Yes, Degran, Scotland is a wonderful place to visit and there is so much to do and see. If you can make the time I am sure you will enjoy it.” said William in a perfectly pitched obsequiousness. The use of the first name was perfectly acceptable because status had been established early on and Dame Mary had allowed her own first name to be used. In this sense, the pretence of the informal was not breached.
In such a manner do all informal gatherings serve the purpose of their construction. Informal does not mean laissez-faire or allow for any form of laxity, if anything, an informal event is a much harder part of the game to play because it requires what is labelled ‘social skills’. Informality is a space in which these skills are displayed and the chance is available for everyone involved to ascertain who sits where in the pecking order. This is the human animal’s equivalent of what is called in our family of great apes ‘a grooming session’.
Amongst our fellow family members, the Gorillas, Orang-utans, Chimpanzees and Bonobos, a peaceful space will find a large family group sitting around picking the lice out of each other’s hair. Only in human society is this done metaphorically and with a glass of sherry in hand, otherwise there is no difference in the activities or their purpose. Informal gatherings are the chance to see who has the most ‘lice’ and who needs to be picked most whilst making clear who picks where in the order of importance.
Someone as important as Degran Smertov will always find himself surrounded by two or three lice pickers in any gathering. These people will form an access barrier so that lower orders of status cannot make direct contact with Degran. They would first have to pick their way through a path towards the top and find a way to enter into a picking session with one of those around Degran. These lice pickers who guard Degran are very careful not to let an aspiring lice picker too easy an access or their own favoured position could be jeopardised.
Of course, it would only take the entrance into the informal situation of a major top-level royal personage to see Degran turn into a lice picker himself. From such figures devolves the most important status and that is social acceptance at the very top table. A top-level royal will never pick lice because they do not see anyone higher than themselves and to pick lice would be to demean their own status and devalue the role of a monarchy. At this pinnacle of the human animal grooming culture is formed the manners and behaviours which form the core values from which the whole social status structure is defined.
This was why William was happy playing the game with his sherry glass in hand, he could see that he was getting closer to the top, he was beginning to see his knighthood and that meant he would be put in a position to pick some very important lice and have himself attended to by a whole raft of subservient subalterns for the rest of his life. In pieces of shiny metal hanging on ribbons, with gilded chains around their necks, in obscure antique clothes and with diamond encrusted crosses, rods and orbs are to be found the visual artefacts of the culture of status at its most powerful expression. You can turn up at a top restaurant in a golden Ferrari but you will always have to wait for the Lords and Ladies to be seated before you are shown to a table.
“Oh dear, is that the time. I am afraid we should really move on to the presentation now. Oh, what a shame, I was so enjoying our pleasant chat.” said Dame Mary and all agreed on how cordial and insightful their private conversation had been and hoped it may continue at another time.
In a small lecture theatre, the presentation of the results of the project in its first twelve years was delivered. Dame Mary opened the presentation with the relevant acknowledgement of all the players and their roles. She then handed over to Degran Smertov who thanked all in attendance, spoke of The Rigel Foundation vision and eulogised about the importance of groundbreaking relationships between business and Universities. The floor was then left to Professor Fletcher-Jones who gave a fully prepared speech which he had been rehearsing for weeks before his bedroom wardrobe mirror.
William’s speech addressed in very general terms the areas of research, something small about the new methodologies evolved and exciting innovations in techniques. He spoke with great enthusiasm about the model of devolving a whole faculty to one great purpose, the focus on one specific research outcome. The leader of the project, the respected University professor, then went on to announce that as a result of the work the team were building a scanning programme which could precisely identify what any one human being was thinking. This great achievement had been the result of the coordination of all the different research strands in all the different departments and whilst the results had yet to be published internationally or to the peer level beyond the Rigel Foundation project, the Foundation itself had employed its own members to ‘independently’ of the faculty, verify and confirm the results.
This breakthrough, triumphed Professor Fletcher-Jones, was a game changer in the course of human history. The implications to the criminal justice system, to politics, to education, to almost every activity of human life, were as profound as the discovery of fire, as era defining as the Renaissance and as important an event in the evolution of the human species as walking upright or creating artificial intelligence. As he closed his speech with thanks he felt that not only was his knighthood assured but he could realistically expect at least the possibility of a nomination for a Nobel prize.
There was a lot of coughing in the audience as the applause washed around the room. Everyone was invited to move on to the senior common room restaurant where a celebratory meal had been prepared. Only eight department heads, the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor had been invited to represent the University at the presentation and meal. The remainder of the audience, twenty individuals in all, were members of the Rigel Foundation. They actually stuck out as a group because they were all, as far as William could see, above six feet in height. Dr Mason was included in the Rigel group and William noticed how well she fitted in with them. They all appeared to share a particularly elegant style of clothing, they were all people of unusual beauty of countenance and they all moved with a grace of purpose which seemed relaxed and very natural to them.
Thankfully Fletcher-Jones had brought his blackcurrant throat lozenges along because Dr Mason had occasion to cough several times during the meal. Strangely it seemed that many of those from the Foundation shared this particular abnormality. He wondered if there was something about their upbringing or the environment they worked in at the foundation which gave rise to an allergic reaction but it was a thought which didn’t seem to stick with him as he worked his way through the meal.
Once the eating and general conversation around the tables was dying away in the growing depth of afternoon, Dr Mason stood up and on behalf of Degran Smertov and the Rigel Foundation thanked everyone for establishing the success of the project and announced that the board of the Foundation had agreed to keep the project working for as long as was necessary. She said that she could see no particular cut off date. Mason also stated that she had been asked by Degran Smertov to formally announce that he intended to start discussions on the building of the new school and that it was hoped that construction would begin sometime within the next two years.
There was a generous round of applause and much coughing as glasses were raised and a mood of celebration seemed to sweep amongst the diners. Dr Mason waited for the excitement to subside and then spoke quite seriously.
“Degran Smertov and the board of the Rigel Foundation have also requested that all details of our research, its expansion and the building of the new school remain as knowledge solely within the domain of the faculty and foundation. At the outset, everyone has signed confidentiality agreements and it is expected that in these matters everyone will abide by their obligations. You will all appreciate the depth and impact of our results and therefore you will all understand the risks of moving ahead publicly and professionally without being absolutely sure of a strategy going forward. We are equally sure and have confidence in the fact that the great team in the faculty have no interest in seeing any damage coming to the University or their own careers as a result of impatience
or premature announcements.”
There was a general murmur of agreement around the table.
“Finally, the board of the Rigel Corporation have also agreed to a one-off bonus payment to the University representatives around this table in recognition of your dedication and commitment. You will each receive a £100,000 payment which will be constructed as individual endowment trusts for the benefit of your families. Our lawyers believe that this should mitigate against any tax liability.”
This news brought out broad smiles amongst the University members. They all agreed it was a clever move and perfectly appropriate considering the importance of their work and what its potential for the country will be going forward.
As everyone made to leave Dr Mason went over to sit next to Professor Fletcher-Jones in a recently vacated seat.
“Professor, may I have a word?” she asked quite congenially.
“Certainly Dr Mason, how may I help?”
“I have been asked by Degran to discretely invite you to join a meeting with us if you would be so kind.” she said softly.
William felt a surge of adrenalin and his eyes widened.
“Please,” Mason continued, “would you not let anyone else know about this, this will be a private matter between you and the core members of Rigel, all of whom are here.”.
William instinctively pulled at his bow tie, his mind was reeling at this invitation. This was something special, this was a privilege, this was possibly one of the most important moments in his career, to be asked to be in some sort of meeting with the elite of Rigel, even the Chancellor or Vice Chancellor had never been that far into the organisation.
Dr Mason coughed a little and said, “Yes, this is something quite special and not something Rigel would usually do. However they all want to meet you and discuss the project in greater detail and I am almost certain that they will have some good news for you.”
William happily agreed and, as requested, waited until all the other University members had left by means of the ruse of pretending to be talking to Dr Mason about the project. As she was his junior and they had been the two key people responsible for the delivery of the work the other members saw nothing strange in this and had no desire to stay and engage with them. They all had other places to be and for most of them that was to take the rest of the day off and go home or whatever else suited them.
“Shall we go?” asked Dr Mason once the room had cleared of everyone but themselves. William stood up and walked away from the table. “Please follow me, we have a car booked to meet us out front.”
“We are meeting off campus?” asked William.
“Yes, there is an exclusive hotel booked, we have taken it over so there will only be Rigel Foundation people there and yourself. Privacy will be very important in these discussions.” Dr Mason explained.
If William had felt excitement before it was nothing to the growing self importance he was experiencing with this news.
At the porter’s desk Carmichael was delivering a reprimand to a young member of the cleaning staff in the most withering of tones. He had a particular dislike of this person, she was much too jolly and gave off the air of what he disparagingly called a ‘free spirit’.
“This is a serious job with serious responsibilities Miss.” he snapped, “You are not on X factor, you are not a star, you are not an entertainer, you are just a cleaning woman nothing more. Do you understand?”
The young girl did not understand, she was close to tears. Carmichael could see the water forming in her eyes and felt the warm glow of his authority at work.
“You are not to sing when you are working, this is not a place for singing, this is a University and there are important people that work here and you are to keep the place clean for them.”
His voice was sharp and incisive, it carried a deliberately constructed resentment which acted like a rough saw carving through the young girl’s emotions.
“And don’t start crying, tears don’t work with me Miss, you are just pathetic. Now get back to work and no singing, no humming and not so much as a whistle from you, just get scrubbing these floors.”
The girl fled away with tears streaming down her face. Carmichael allowed himself a grin as soon as she turned her back. He knew all about that young lady. She was a single parent of a young boy of 6. He was a half caste, disgusting as far as the senior porter was concerned. The girl was working on minimum wage and lived with her mum who was a bit of an invalid. Probably drawing state benefits as far as Carmichael saw it and it was his belief that the mother was probably swinging the lead, feigning disability or something. They were those type of people, low life, people of no importance whatsoever. No doubt she would be coming to him looking for some overtime as usual, well she wont be getting any this month. That’ll teach her to go around the place with such a cheerful attitude. She was a worker, she was on minimum wage, nothing for her to be cheerful about and he was certain this was a lesson he would make sure she learnt. She had to know her place and stick to it.
Carmichael heard the footsteps coming down the staircase and turned. There was Professor Fletcher-Jones and that Dr Mason. He didn’t like Dr Mason and always felt uncomfortable if not actually threatened by her. There was something about that woman that wasn’t right, she wasn’t English for a start and she was taller than he was which he always found irritating in a woman, it meant she could look him in the eye with consummate ease. But there was something more about her and he found it difficult to really identify that ‘something’.
“She’s a wrong-un.” he murmured as the two academics reached the foot of the stairs. Dr Mason stared directly at Carmichael as she walked with William towards the desk.
“Leaving for the day Professor?” the head porter enquired cordially.
“Actually yes and if you could be so kind as to let my secretary know that I will be out for the remainder I would be grateful Carmichael, there’s a good chap.” William said without dropping a pace as he passed the porter’s desk.
“No problem sir, consider it done.” responded Carmichael as he watched the two slip out through the front door and disappear into the car park. “A proper gentleman that Fletcher-Jones,” he thought, “you can always tell a proper gentleman, they know how to behave.”. Immediately after that thought he felt the sharp pain in his chest. Raising his hands up and scratching at his shirt he scrabbled around trying to loosen his tie. A sharp slicing dagger stabbed quickly at his chest and he felt everything go dark around him just before his dead body collapsed to the floor.
No-one had noticed this sudden event, everyone had been looking the other way or absorbed in one task or another. The corpse of Carmichael lay prone behind the desk and obscured from view by the design of the porter’s station. No-one discovered the body for over an hour but the daily comings and goings went on regardless.
That he was not at the desk had no effect on the workings of the University, the fact he was no longer alive had no discernible effect on anything much in particular. Perhaps the only meaning of Carmichael’s life was its importance to Carmichael and now he was dead there was no importance about his life. All he left behind was a sense of relief amongst those who had been forced by circumstance to engage and work with him. Certainly for the academics he was just a porter. If ever there had been a wanton waste of human flesh then that profligacy was Neil ‘Lanky’ Carmichael.
Ten days later a funeral was held. One of the porters attended to represent the University and a £50 wreath sat on the coffin paid for by the University. No-one else was there except the coffin carriers from the undertaking firm. An estate agent had been to Carmichael’s one bedroom flat on the instruction of a solicitor. As he opened the door a strong repugnant smell wreaked out his nostrils. He stepped back and then, grimacing, moved into the flat.
On looking around he found a lounge with a well hoovered carpet, a large armchair which extended out so the occupant could stretch out with his feet supported. There was a gas fire in an old tiled fireplace, nothing on its mantel. On the wall was a large style latest digital television attached to which was a full cinema experience sound system. There was nothing on the walls, no pictures, no ornaments but there was one of the cheapest forms of G-plan style furniture; a bookcase with cupboard below in a cheap brown colour.
On the bookshelf there was just one book, a scrapbook. The estate agent leafed through the pages and found newspaper cuttings. They were all reports of criminal cases in the courts and whilst he didn’t really take much notice of them as he leafed through there was something which caught his eye. Leafing back to check he realised that in all of these cases the defendant was pleading ‘not guilty’. The other point of note was that in each report there was the name of P.C. Carmichael in a role as a witness for the prosecution.
The bedroom was equally as bleak and made the estate agent shudder as the source of the smell became obvious. A dead cat stretched out on the floor in a corner. This was the only individual feature of the room otherwise it was an emptiness of anything more than a bed, neatly made up with sheets, blankets and pillows, and one wardrobe in which hung a porter’s uniform, one blue suit, two pairs of brown trousers with three draws containing two white shirts, several blue tee shirts and an assortment of underwear and socks. At the base of the wardrobe was a pair of lace up black shoes, a pair of trainers and a pair of house slippers. The emptiness of it all screamed at the agent and he shuddered again as he left to check the bathroom.
As with every other space the bathroom was spotlessly clean but of a very old design. Nothing to see and he didn’t bother to check the wall cabinet with its cracked front mirror. He moved straight into the kitchen.
There was a washing machine, with a clothes drying rack slide in beside it.
There was a microwave and there was a very old style of gas cooker, again all was spotlessly clean. In the centre of the kitchen was an old style formica top table with fold down sides. On it was a radio, probably from the 1980’s by the look of its design. A simple chair was pushed in under the table and by its legs was a cat bowl, empty save for a small amount of dried and caked cat food at the rim. Looking back towards the sink he noticed something on the window sill. There was a picture frame and inside it was an old faded black and white picture of a woman, pretty frumpy looking, probably about forty to fifty years of age. On the drainer of the sink was, upturned, one mug, one small plate, one large plate, a bowl, one knife, one fork, a teaspoon and a desert spoon.
The estate agent left and didn’t bother looking inside the fridge or the cupboards, he had seen enough. Later that day he drafted a letter to the lawyer stating that the property was worth £250,000 in the current market and that he would expect to sell it quickly if it was placed for sale around £235,000. There were no relatives to be found and the only reason the lawyer was involved was that Carmichael had placed a will with him. The content of that document was simple, there was no mortgage on the property and all proceeds, after funeral costs, were to go to a designated cat sanctuary charity. Within a month of Carmichael’s death, the property was sold for £220,000 in a private sale arranged with the agreement of the lawyer so that the estate could be tied up quickly.
The lawyer took his charges for administration of the will and the conveyancing, all of which he set at the top possible price. The estate agent took his full commission on the sale and the new owner, the lawyer, a long-standing buy-to-let client of the estate agent, took possession. Within months the flat had been gutted and re-fitted and a young couple had moved in for a more than healthy rent. The cat charity received £185,000 for which they were well pleased and for insurance purposes, the refurbished flat was insured for £280,000 as was deemed at that time to be its market value.
All that was left of Carmichael six months after his death was contained in a memory of a lanky, unpleasant man standing at a porter’s counter in a University. Within a year even that memory had disappeared. No-one cried, no-one missed anything, no-one remembered for Carmichael’s life was empty of any meaning other than his status as a head porter.
Outside the faculty, in the University car park Professor Fletcher-Jones was completely unaware of the death of Carmichael. He was looking around for the car to take him to his meeting with the board of the Rigel Foundation. He was about to turn and ask Dr Mason what was happening when a sleek black Mercedes stretch limousine glided into the car park and stopped next to him.
“Shall we go” suggested Dr Mason as she opened the door.
William slipped inside and stretched out his legs. This was all very American and he wondered why they loved these stretch limos as they called them. They seemed brash, overstated and lacking in any sort of subtlety.
“We hired this because it was useful to transport the board members backwards and forwards,” said Mason. “but I think we also used one of these because the board members find them funny, sort of comical, and they all enjoy a grand sense of humour.”
“Yes, I think I understand.” William agreed. “Myself, I prefer the more regal style of a Rolls Royce or a Bentley, I feel they have more class and are of a better standard than ordinary saloons stretched to be something they really are not.”
“I’m sorry Professor, may I have another of your throat lozenges?”
“Of course, I only ever started getting them for you.”
Mason coughed again and slipped the lozenge into her mouth.
The journey to the hotel took about twelve minutes. An old lodge style of a manor house, Grey’s Hotel, as it was called, was a classic upmarket English country establishment. Set in substantial and mature grounds, a long gravel drive swept up to a low bank on which sat the building. A mock Tudor style with large bay windows, French doors onto slabbed patio and a red tiled acutely sloping roof in which were set two separate stacks of chimneys. The day was fresh with puffy cumulonimbus exploding in slow motion across the sky and through which gaps they allowed, streams of bright sunlight streaked down to the ground.
Inside the reception area was an old oak counter and oak panelled walls into which were set a series of double wall lights with orangey yellow fabric light shades obscuring the bulbs. The Professor was greeted by Degran Smertov himself. Gone was the hidden formality of the informal gathering with the Chancellor, there was a lightness about the Rigel Foundation C.E.O. which was completely unexpected, an almost natural jolliness.
“William, you don’t mind if I call you William do you?” Degran asked and to William, this appeared to be totally sincere and not part of any game playing.
“No, of course not.” he replied.
“Good, now we are out of the University you must also call me Degran, I insist.”
“Alright Degran, I wouldn’t want to be rude.”
“No, no, of course not, let me take you through, the board are all eager to see you.”
William’s confidence in himself could not have been higher. Somehow he felt that he was being truly recognised in a manner he had always felt he was worthy of. He did not see himself as an arrogant man or someone who was prideful, it was more that he had worked hard all his life and dedicated himself to always doing the right thing. As his father used to say, “Life is not about pleasure William, it is a serious business and the sooner you put away childhood and be an adult the better you will be for it.”.
In many ways that advice had been the beacon in his life. He had studied hard at school, gone to the best of Universities where he applied himself to his studies with a focus which denied the frivolous activities some of the other undergraduates got involved in. Some would sneer at him because he had his hair cut traditionally short, he took to wearing corduroy jackets in his late teens and he always stood in proper leather shoes, never plimsolls or trainers. Whilst others went to pubs and parties the young William attended debates and discussion groups. At the time he felt like he was an adult not a youth, in fact, he remembered feeling like an adult since he left his primary education. He could not remember being a youth or even feel or understand what being young actually felt like.
Obviously, he gained a first class degree and went straight into postgraduate studies and on to his doctorate. After four years he had attained that status and became a University lecturer, progressing to a reader and starting on the career path which ultimately led him to the head of the faculty. William was completely unaware that he had never been beyond the safe confines of the University creche. He knew nothing of life outside of the academic swaddling. He had never been a youth, he had never enjoyed a wild thought, a fantastic pleasure, a bitter defeat or even an uncontrolled emotion.
William Fletcher-Jones was 55 years old and his make up was completely serious, his life a litany of badge collecting triumphs but all of this had come at the cost of never having experienced anything about emotional development. He was both emotionally retarded and emotionally underdeveloped and this fundamental lack of experience had been so absent in his life that he was utterly unaware he was incomplete. More insidiously he was completely unaware that other people were emotionally developed or even sensitive to feelings. The one event in his life which may have brought out a more whole and rounded human being, falling in love and getting married, was a trojan horse of an affair.
Mrs Margaret Cynthia Fletcher-Jones was a fellow traveller in the unemotional world of the intellectual development which makes people such as they. She too was pushed by her parents into a world where appearance and status are the primary reasons for life. She too lived for her school studies, went to University, straight into medical school and out as a G.P. without any real youth.
When they met and fell in love they did not understand that it was not love it was just mutual recognition. How could they understand love, it was an emotion and those were things they generally steered clear of. All they had discovered was a partner in seriousness, someone they could live with, work with and build a responsible career and family with.
True, they did have a sex life but they were not really any good at it because they just did not know how to let themselves go. Emotionally they were both spoilt children unable to handle their own feelings and so they retreated into lives of regularity, certainty and known places and positions. They became what they were always groomed to be, a respectable couple, pillars of a local community, professionals and absolutely the right sort of people to be relied upon.
William strolled into the lounge of Grey’s Hotel with the confidence of a man who believed that he had always done the right thing in life. He looked around at the gathered faces knowing that he had built a solid career and achieved great things in his life. In this moment he felt certain that his sacrifices would be recognised and his true status appreciated. He was, he felt, in the most important moment in his life.
When everyone had stopped coughing and William had sat in a large comfortable armchair Degran spoke.
“William, we have invited you here today because we have decided that we want to reveal to you and you alone the precise meaning and future use of the research you have so ably managed on behalf of the Rigel Foundation.”
“This is it.” thought William,
“I am being brought in to the future and being made a part of what will be going on.”
“Yes William,” Degran continued, “You are most certainly going to be part of something not many other people will ever know about.”
The feeling of his knighthood close at hand came into William’s mind again. He was a man about to collect the laurels of victory.
There was some coughing coming from one or two members of Rigel. It seemed to go on a bit but Degran raised a hand to signal it needed to be quelled and quelled it was.
“Yes, we have good news. This New Years honours list will include your name and you will soon be Professor Sir William Fletcher-Jones. That is guaranteed.”
William was almost at the point of tears. He wondered how Degran could know this information so far in advance.
“I said guaranteed because we have a certain influence, this long overdue honour has already been arranged and no-one will stand in its way.”
William suddenly felt quite peculiar. He felt as though he was awakening from a drowsy state he had been unaware he had been in. There was something very odd happening but he couldn’t quite identify what it was. He wanted to ask a question but he could not quite remember what that question was.
“You probably want to ask how it is I seem to know what you are thinking William.” said Degran with a very warm smile.
William made to speak but Degran held out a finger to indicate him to stop.
“I will explain all William…
In a small room high in the lofts of the Neuro-Science faculty Dr Lee O’Shaunessy sat typing into a laptop. She was a psychologist and had been at the faculty since before the arrival of the Rigel Foundation. She had been working for years on her research and the arrival of the Foundation failed to impress her. There was no possibility she was going to allow an outside corporate dictate her research field and no amount of money could buy her out. She was not in any way the compliant type.
In line with the management plan, she was isolated and ostracized, which was not very difficult as many in the faculty disliked her. She didn’t play the game, she wasn’t ‘one of us’ and she asked too many critical questions. More damning than anything though was that she had been a mature student, late to University life.
O’Shaunessy had been a single mother, abused by a violent man and was most certainly working class. The biggest problem was that she was cleverer than all of those around her. They despised that more than anything else, how could someone so uncouth, so uncultured possibly be part of the academic system. That could never be allowed and every effort was made to place obstacles in her path. But a woman who had been hospitalised by a drunken abuser, raped and beaten, a woman who had been forced to fight for her survival and the survival of her small daughter, a woman who had needed to hold down part-time jobs whilst raising a child and studying up to a PhD, was not someone who couldn’t fight a war.
Lee O’Shaunessy never played the game by any rules but her own. They had moved her up to the loft, they had cut her budgets to the bone, they had loaded her with administration, they had increased her teaching roles and she took them all on. She was not going anywhere, she was staying put because she knew she had to stay put. Lee O’Shaunessy was a very fine psychologist, it could be possible to say that she was exemplary in a subject area which is filled with emotionally unstable people working as compensation for their own issues. She was a stable character grounded in solid practice and theory able to bring to bear a forceful critique to any problem.
Lee O’Shaunessy had a problem, a big problem. That problem was Dr Mason. There was something deeply problematic about that woman for O’Shaunessy. This was not female intuition, this was knowledge born of a deep understanding of human psychology and Dr Mason’s psychology was all wrong. For the past twelve years, O’Shaunessy had been working quietly to uncover the truth about the Rigel Foundation, she found the whole Rigel project deeply suspicious and personally resented the idea of a corporate takeover of her research. She had dug her heels in, she had taken a stance, Lee O’Shaunessy had at first radicalised her resistance then ‘militarised’ her opposition. Lee O’Shaunessy had gone to war against the Rigel Foundation and the University.
There was a knock on O’Shaunessy’s door and, without waiting for a response, in walked Celeste, smiled and taken the seat Lee’s post-grad students used to sit at for supervisions. There hadn’t been a post-grad for seven years now, as Rigel had taken over the faculty no-one wanted supervision from an academic outside of the new structure of the institution.
“Ready to go?” asked Celeste with a very gentle soft voice.
“10 minutes to finish up.” replied Lee without looking up from her laptop.
“Mango smoothie?” Celeste smiled broadly.
“Lovely.” came the reply. “Can you pick up my tennis ball first, it’s over in the corner.” She pointed to the spot.
Celeste got up, picked up the tennis ball, placed it on the desk and left the office. There were four floors of stairs to go down to the canteen which was on the ground floor of the building. She danced and skipped down the steps like a child playing. In a swirl of brightly coloured skirt and the rattle of beads and bracelets, she looked like a shaman performing a ritual with her closely cropped fine ginger hair. Bouncing onto the ground floor she noticed that Carmichael was not at the porter’s counter. As unusual as that was, she didn’t mind the fact. The beast of a man wasn’t there, so what!
Celeste skipped into the canteen and waved at the young man behind the counter.
“Two mango smoothies!” he called out to her.
She nodded and laughed.
“Coming right up.”
Greg was only 18 and was working in the canteen to supplement his student loan for his degree course. Minimum wages of course and he had to put up with Lofty Carmichael but he remained a cheerful lad. Nevermore cheerful than when he saw Celeste coming into the canteen. She jiggled his hormones around within his youthful frame and he would do anything to get her attention.
Greg realised that she was probably too old for him, she must be at least 26 he thought. Age though, did not spoil in any way the beauty he saw in this woman. Perhaps the fact that she was clearly some sort of rampant ‘new age chick’ was a bit of an issue for an atheist biology student but those hormones just overrode all objections. Celeste was lean and tall and carried with her a sparkling happiness which she exuded like an incense stick perfuming a room.
“So, Greg…” she began, “what’s new in the world of biology?”
Greg was busy mixing the smoothies but he looked over his shoulder and said, “New species of Tardigrade discovered in Japan.”
“In the mountains?” asked Celeste.
“What’s funny?” asked Celeste.
“They are micro-animals, just about as small as you can get. You need a microscope or better to see them properly. They live in water. They are point zero five mils in size and can live for 60 years or more. Incredible creatures.”
“Not roaming about the mountains then!”
Greg turned around with two Mango smoothies in large cardboard cups. He put lids on them and handed them across to Celeste.
“No, more like splashing around in rivers or in the sea.”
“Thanks, Greg, you learn something new every day. Isn’t the universe just such a giving place.” and she turned and left.
Greg collected the payment from the counter where Celeste had left it, the exact money as always.
“Tardigrades!” said Celeste as she returned to Lee’s office, “ever hear of them?”
“Want to hear about them?”
“No, where’s my smoothie?”
Celeste walked over to the desk, placed one smoothie down and then with that free hand ran her fingers through Lee O’Shaunessy’s hair.
“Drink that and let’s go home.” she said, “You’ve done enough today surely.”
Lee looked up and nodded but with a strained look on her face.
“Why the face?” asked Celeste.
“Oh, I don’t know, sometimes I wonder if this is all worth the effort.”
“One of those days eh?”
Lee nodded, “Yes, one of those days.”
“Let’s get you home and I will give you a lavender oil massage.”
Lee started to drink her smoothie and sat right back in her chair.
“Bloody chair.” she thought.
Celeste had moved behind her and was gently rubbing her shoulders.
Lee sighed. “This Rigel Foundation is a hydra and there are so many heads it is impossible to see the body.”
“But you are getting close aren’t you.”
“Yes, after all these years I am now certain about Rigel’s intentions and an interesting point regarding its history.”
“You still haven’t found anything then?”
“There’s nothing to find, prior to 1944 there is nothing. No Rigel, no people, no history, nothing to do with Rigel physical, related, associated, people or anything, nothing existed before 1944. They just popped out of thin air.”
Lee and Celeste left the office and made their way along the dimly lit landing. The loft rooms at the top of the building lacked any refinement and even the landing floor was bare wood. Lee O’Shaunessy was the last one left. At the beginning, a few had stood against Rigel’s takeover and they had all slowly, one by one, found themselves in the attic rooms. Everyone could see what was going on and resistance was eroded quickly in most.
“Lee, I have a mortgage to pay and a family to look after. I just had to find another job.” one colleague told her as he left. She’d called him a ‘wanker’ but she didn’t really mean it, she understood, her words were just her own frustration.
The pressure to leave was intensified with the workloads being placed on the dissenters and two went for early retirement. As the whittling process worked its way through the spirit of the last of them, the university let
it be known that any taking another post would get an excellent reference and that reference was only available for one year. That broke them. In final conversations, some had tried to convince Lee that she should move on but she was a stubborn individual and had a passion for what she believed was morality. Besides, she had one advantage, one small advantage that made the University’s position more difficult than with the other dissenters.
Celeste and Lee came to the porter’s lift. This was used to transport stores and materials up and down the building and was not to be used by staff or students. Celeste pulled the door open and a big wide space opened up. Lee rolled her chair inside and Celeste closed the door behind them.
The University had been compelled to provide Lee with special dispensation to use the cargo lift otherwise they couldn’t move her up to the attic rooms. They also had to have the University insurance adjusted to recognise this situation.
“A few months of going up and down in a cargo lift and she will soon move on.” said Professor Fletcher-Jones when asked about the insurance expenditure by the services committee. That was eleven years previously and it was a small pebble in the sandal every time the services committee approved the renewal of the insurance.
Celeste had made a comment in the beginning about it being undignified travelling in a cargo lift but Lee just laughed.
“It’s undignified being in a chair, it’s undignified having your bowels manually evacuated and it’s bloody undignified the way some people treat you every day but travelling in this lift is my choice and my battle.”
Lee rolled her chair out into the porter’s storage area. She stopped suddenly.
“Quick, turn around, turn around quickly.” Lee said urgently.
She and Celeste then headed off down a corridor.
“Poppy?” said Celeste with a slight grin.
“Bloody woman,” said Lee, “She is a damn curse. She has her nose into everything and I think she has made me a pet project. I had her in my bloody office for forty minutes the other day trying to get me to sign up for some damn conference she is organising. Bloody woman!”
She and Celeste then made their way through another corridor and eventually came out in the main lobby. People were coming and going and there seemed to be some sort of urgency in the air.
“Oh hell, no!” said Lee as she saw Elspeth Poppy Turnbull walking over towards her. Elspeth was fidgeting and twitching as she walked, she never stopped all those small movements of eyebrows and fingers which were orchestrated to emit the impression of urgency and seriousness in every second of her waking life. She had opinions on every possible event, happening, subject and story and those opinions had not so much to be shared with others as spread thickly and unsparingly over their own thoughts. Her belief in the absolute certainty of her own knowledge was surprising considering that she never listened to anything anyone else said. You could not have a conversation with Elspeth, you just had to bunker down and let the torrent wash over you. Any attempt to speak or make a point was just ignored or vaguely nodded at but mostly taken as an opportunity for Elspeth to draw breath.
“Oh, it’s terrible news, just terrible.” Elspeth started talking a good two metres before getting close to Lee and Celeste.
“You have heard of course, but what can be done, it’s just dreadful news, I am sure you agree.”
All the time the woman was looking at Celeste.
“He didn’t smoke and he wasn’t really a drinker so it has to be genetic, I mean sixty-eight is no age for a man these days. He just dropped dead, just fell, right there…”
She pointed back behind herself towards the porter’s counter without turning her head away.
“…straight down, bang, gone. Well, I say gone but how can we know really. I mean they only found him ten minutes ago. Who can say how long he had been there. Perhaps he didn’t die straight away, perhaps he was struggling, trying to get help. Oh, how awful…”
“Elspeth!” snapped Lee, “Who are you talking about and can you please look at me not my carer when you are talking to me.”
Elspeth pulled her chin in at the really hard crack in Lee’s tone. Looked down at Lee, raised her eyebrows and continued.
“Well no age at all really, I don’t know, how old was Mr Carmichael, who can say…”
“Carmichael is dead?” said Lee.
“They just found him behind the porter’s counter, just lying there, poor man, has to be his heart, surely his heart but it could have been a stroke.”
“Elspeth, will you please shut up.”
“Yes, far too young to die like that, far too young…”
Lee rolled herself past Elspeth and managed to dig her in the thigh with her elbow as she went.
“Oi,” said Elspeth.
“Sorry.” said Lee and rolled on towards the porter’s counter. Celeste followed. One of the junior porters came forward towards them with his arms spread wide out,
“Best not to come this way Dr O’Shaunessy, we haven’t got the body out yet. Can you go around the other side of the counter please.”
“Out of my way, the ramp is on this side and I am coming through.”
The young porter looked embarrassed as he realised his mistake and simply stepped back. There were only four steps down to the level of the front doors and in truth, Celeste could easily have taken the wheelchair safely down them but Lee wasn’t going to pass up a chance to get a good look at Carmichael, dead and cold.
Lee and Celeste moved forward to a point where they could see the body of the head porter lying flat out behind the desk. Carmichael’s face was contorted into a grim picture of struggle and pain. Clearly, he hadn’t dropped dead instantly, he had been through moments of realisation, he had tasted fear and he had tried to fight what was happening to him, if only briefly. All of this was written onto his face and frozen into place at the moment of extinction.
Lee noted that there appeared to be a pool of water around the middle of the corpse and there was the distinct smell of excreta. Carmichael had lost his bowels completely in the final moment and he was lying in his own filth.
Lee nodded and turned to Celeste, “Let’s go.”
Neither said anything more on the way out, into the car park, into the car, driving back home and then entering their ground floor flat.
As they got inside it was Celeste who spoke first.
“What am I always saying about karma?”
Lee looked at her and laughed. “She’s a bitch isn’t she!”
Lee whooped and spun her chair around in the lounge. “What goes around comes around.”
“What goes around comes around.” repeated Celeste.
“Get a bottle out, we need to celebrate.”
Celeste went to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of Müller-Thurgau, two good glasses and a packet of Chocolate Digestives.
Placing them all on the lounge table, she turned to a sideboard and opened a drawer from which she took a matchbox. On the table, there were two candlesticks with essential oil candles in them. She lit them respectfully, poured two glasses of wine, opened the packet of Chocolate Digestives and then gave one glass to Lee and raised her own.
“What the universe gives, the universe takes back.” she proposed.
“One fucking shit man less and the planet just got lighter.” responded Lee.
Carmichael had despised Dr O’Shaunessy and her lesbian airhead lover who called herself Celeste. These were two of the sort of women who Lanky thought were really just a couple of whores. Just because she’s in a wheelchair, so his thinking went, doesn’t mean she has the right to talk to me in the way she does. This was a real problem for Carmichael because, ordinarily, O’Shaunessy was an academic, a Doctor, one of his superiors to whom he looked for approval and validation. That she was just a bitch towards him was a festering resentment that in other circumstances would have seen her get more than a slap.
“But that’s really it isn’t it,“ he consoled himself, “she is just a fucking bitch, a bloody woman who thinks she is better than a man.”
Only two weeks before his death O’Shaunessy had driven into him with that bloody wheelchair and actually pressed his legs up against the wall. Carmichael struggled with all his will to stop punching her lights out right there and then. She pinned him against the wall and then threatened him. Threatened him, Lanky Carmichael. That was the worst of it, having a cripple bitch threaten to, what was it she said, “… take your fucking kneecaps out and put you in a wheelchair.”. She even punched his knee and it bloody hurt. Thankfully there was no-one around to see this because that would have been the end, he would have lost it and then she would have been sorry, very sorry indeed. He spent the rest of the day and the evening imaging what he could have done to her and praising himself for being so restrained.
“Lee.” Celeste said.
“What is it my pretty?” Lee replied and wrapped an arm around her waist.
“Can we go out tonight?”
“We always go out.”
“No, I mean out, out, I mean let’s go and have a pub meal. I fancy a big salad and a steak.” Celeste said in the voice of a very young girl.
Lee looked at her. She was just so beautiful. Her bright natural ginger hair cropped closely around her face, her brown eyes, a small smudge of a nose and those delicate lips that would shatter if kissed with any meaningful passion. Being in love with another human being always allows you to see beauties others may not see but few would deny that Celeste had been touched by Aphrodite at birth.
Lee leaned forward and kissed Celeste on her stomach. A gentle nuzzle of a kiss filled with tenderness and her hands held her thighs connecting an erotic energy both shared with each other.
“Ok, you get me to the gym and after we will go to the Case is Altered and get some protein and greens inside us.”
Celeste leaned down and kissed Lee on the head. “I love you.” she whispered.
I love you too.” responded Lee O’Shaunessy.
One of the problems with being in a wheelchair is that it is easy to let your body lose all fitness. Just because someone has lost the use of their legs does not mean that their arms and body does not need looking after. You have to work on therapy to try and keep your leg muscles in shape so Celeste would take Lee through a series of manipulations designed to help maintain some sort of leg health. But the upper body work was all down to Lee.
Using frames and bars she would start with pull-ups, she could move to a mat and do a form of press ups. Most of her work was with body weight but she also had a routine of bench presses and could use a lot of the gym machines, when adjusted, from her wheelchair.
For Lee, keeping fit and being gym active was another part of how she maintained her dignity. Ordinary people, very ordinary people, just do not even begin to think of someone with a physical disability and in a wheelchair as a person let alone someone who can engage in a whole range of physical activities. Even in the age of the para-Olympics, and Lee hated them not because of the competitors but because yet again “we come second.” and she never liked being second in anything, even with disabled sport attaining a higher media profile, she found that people, ordinary people, return to their usual blindness once the closing ceremony has finished.
Celeste and Lee went to the gym every weekday night, it was their routine. At weekends, Saturday and Sunday morning were all about the gym and training. They always had an in-joke together about theirs being a healthy relationship. The relationship had the element of care that Celeste provided to Lee but then Lee brought home a good salary, she had a tenure at the University and that meant regular, guaranteed employment, even with the threat of the Rigel Foundation. Celeste was more than a lover, she was more than a wife and she was more than a carer, the two women actually considered themselves to be symbiotic. They had joined their lives together in a connectivity that few partnerships really ever get the chance of, they lived, worked and breathed together as one. Lee recognised that this had only evolved because of her physical loss, the need which that created could only be filled with trust and on that trust all else was standing.
Celeste lifted Lee out of her sports chair and through the fall of water onto the seat in the shower. She had switched the shower on first and made sure the temperature was perfect before exposing Lee to it. They were both chatting and laughing as Celeste soaped Lee and Lee soaped her. Lee didn’t have to wash Celeste in the same way that Celeste had to wash her but in doing so she retained an equality; they were two women washing each other rather than a carer washing a disabled person. This had just evolved, in truth Lee could do most of the shower washing herself but together it was just part of their routine.
Lee looked at Celeste’s nakedness for a moment. She had such a perfect body and being just over six feet tall she looked every part an elite athlete. Her muscle tone, her breasts, her legs, her arms, all were perfectly proportioned and balanced. Lee realised that two women in a shower together could be seen in an erotic context and whilst eroticism was a central part of their personal relationship, this process of post work-out showering was absolutely devoid of any such connection. As a psychologist, she found this interesting. They were able to engage in an activity which undoubtedly could be erotic, they were both erotic individuals and yet this routine was just that, a routine.
“Why is it the process of routine erodes eroticism.” she thought. “Why do couples lose their passion for each other when sex becomes routine. What is it about routine that dries out desire and passion?”
Her professional area of interest was nothing to do with sexuality and she knew little more than basic textbook stuff about the topic. People often think, especially psychologists, that being a psychologist means to understand all of the workings of the human psyche but in reality, it means having an expertise in one area. Lee O’Shaunessy was an expert on the topic of violence with a specialisation in male violence towards women. In that field, she was one of the best. Exactly the wrong sort of academic for a load of men from an international corporation and a university faculty to tell her what her research should be.
They were showered and changed and in the car heading towards their favourite pub, The Case is Altered. This was one of those big classic English pubs with roaring open log fire in the winter and fine evenings beside the river in the summer. The journey took about fifteen minutes from the gym as the pub lay down a country lane just beyond the city limits. Celeste was driving and Lee remembered that she had only had a small amount of wine earlier.
She smiled, “Crafty cow,” she thought, “she gave me a big glass to soften me up and only had a sip herself because she knew she was going to be driving.” Normally they would walk to the gym as they lived quite centrally in the small provincial city. Most things they could walk to, even the university if the weather was good. Though they did tend to drive into work because that left Celeste with the car for the day to go and do other things.
As they patiently negotiated the series of traffic lights which managed the inner city flows, Lee remembered the sight of Carmichael lying in his own filth. She thought that this was an analogy of his whole life, a life of filth. A few weeks previously she had seen him bullying one young woman who worked in the canteen. This was a nasty, vicious form of verbal assault and Carmichael was clearly enjoying himself, disgustingly she even remembered the feeling that he was getting some sort of sexual gratification out of this intimidation. Lee waited for the right moment, she had to make sure that no-one was around, that no-one would see her threaten and assault another member of staff. She waited until the coast was clear and then she took action.
Carmichael was taken completely by surprise as she wheeled straight into him and rammed him up against the wall. That must have hurt him, she knew that, she meant that. As much as he got gratification by intimidation of others Lee wondered just how castrated he felt to be physically threatened by a woman and not just a woman but a disabled woman. She remembered the fear in his eyes, she thought he was going to wet himself. He was scared and he had every right to be. He could see in her that she was not messing around, she told him she would kneecap him and he could see that she meant it. She remembered tapping him on the kneecap as she said it, she thought she caught the nerve perfectly. She told him that if ever she saw him doing that to a woman again she would put him in a wheelchair and then she rolled off right over his toes.
They arrived at the pub and found it was reasonably busy but they managed to get a table outside by the river bank. The evening was not that cold, for England, and there was a gas heater next to the table so they were warm enough. Celeste was always concerned about the cold and Lee. Poor blood circulation and lack of feeling in parts of the body can quite dangerously expose someone like Lee to the effects of cold. Celeste tried to manage the situation as best as possible but Lee could be very difficult at times. If anyone tried to put a blanket on her legs she would explode.
“I’m not a fucking cripple.” she would scream.
Her meaning was all about the loading and prejudice contained in that word cripple. The word comes with a heavy bias and ignorance and carries with it an image of a person in a wheelchair with a tartan blanket over their legs. Lee insisted on being treated as a person at all time and every time, she was not going to be labelled, abused or ignored by anybody and if anyone tried there would be a fight. Dr Lee O’Shaunessy would go head to head with anyone.
As they waited for their meals, they had both ordered fillet steak, rare, with salad and vegetables, they sat in silence looking out at the river and to the fields beyond. This was one of those magic late spring evenings when the sky’s pale canvass is streaked with the red hues of a sinking sun. Puffy banks of cloud smear the blue and refract the silent slide of light through the spectrum of the day’s decay. Flocks of birds flap and squawk their way to roost in dark woods, rustling hedgerows and plain. The river, wide and shaped into place with earthen banks, swirled in pools and rippled along its course whilst a pair of swans swam against the flow with their cygnets in search of small eatings before night closed in.
In the background, Lee and Celeste could hear a low and rumbling murmur of the small conversations going on around them. This was peaceful, this was a place far from the routine day, this was the littoral space between society and nature, a sanctuary in which nothing should impose and silent meditation of what is natural feeds the soul. But humans cannot be trusted with such a sacred space.
“Hello love!” said the bloke as he sidled over to the table where Lee and Celeste were sitting. “You waiting for someone or can I join you?”
The man did not wait for a response but sat on the edge of the table looking at Celeste and with his back to Lee. His two friends stood a few feet further back holding pints of lager and moving backwards and forwards, up and down, side to side, they just couldn’t stand still as they postured against each other.
Celeste looked across to Lee and shook her head.
“What’s up love, are you too good for me or what?”
Lee had moved her chair forward and jammed the armrests under the table. This gave her firm leverage and a secure base.
Her right hand then shot forward and grabbed at the man’s belt, gripped it tightly and as he turned to see what was happening she pulled him clean off of the table and he sprawled onto the floor throwing his pint all over himself.
The two friends looked down, looked up, looked down again and tried very hard to understand what had just happened.
“What the fuck!” shouted the wet bloke on the floor. “What the fuck!” He was stuck with those words for a minute and then he looked and saw Lee backing her chair out a bit from under the table. “What the fuck!” he screamed.
“Yes, I heard you the first time.” said Lee, “now clear off and leave us alone.”
“What the fuck.” the bloke shouted again and started to get up with clear aggressive intent. His progress was blocked by Jeremy. He had just appeared from nowhere and stepped in between Lee and the now standing bloke.
“Let’s calm down now lads,” Jeremy said with a very gentle tone and looking one by one in the eyes each of the three as he spoke.
“come on, I’ll buy you another pint and we can leave the ladies in peace.”
“What the fuck!” said the bloke, now much more calmly. He was looking around and pulling his sopping wet tee-shirt away from his skin with one hand as his other hand held the empty glass.
“You’ll dry up mate.” said Jeremy, “Come on, let’s get you another pint.”
Normally the three friends would have already started throwing fists in such circumstances but Jeremy’s presence was an obvious deterrent. His calm, re-assuring tone did help but a physique which spoke of a lifetime of weight training was ultimately convincing. Jeremy was a bodybuilder, dedicated to it, he had a neck that would embarrass an oak trunk, muscles that were so large and well defined over his dark black skin that he seemed inhuman.
The lads dispersed back towards the bar. Jeremy followed them but not before looking over his shoulder and saying, “OK Lee?”
“I had it under control.” snapped Lee.
“I know you did, I just didn’t want to see the lads hurt.” and he walked away shepherding the blokes away.
“I was worried about you then.” Celeste said, “That’s why I was saying no, don’t do it. I could have taken care of it.”
“Pretty thing, don’t be dense, you are not dense, you are not stupid. A drunken man sat on my table, his back to me and starts trying to hit on my wife. What on earth did you think was going to happen next? You knew what would happen, it was the only thing that was going to happen.”
“I know, let’s not let it spoil our evening eh?” Celeste said and smiled. Inside she loved the fact that Lee was so uncompromising, there was something powerful in the feeling that her woman would always be there to defend her whether she needed it or not.
In the bar, Jeremy, good to his word had bought not just a pint to replace the spilt beer but a pint each for the friends. He was talking to them in a very amiable manner and keeping everything calm. He was trained in this practice, Jeremy was a professional nightclub doorman. Not the sort of idiot bouncer like Carmichael was but a professional employed by upmarket establishments to not just prevent trouble but to be able to manage situations so that violence did not break out and ruin the reputation of the venue. Men like Jeremy were paid well for their skills. On the visual level no-one really fancied tangling with him and once he backed that up with reasonableness, softly spoken conversation and a general good humour, he was always in control of the situation.
“Lads, I can trust you to leave the ladies alone now eh?” Jeremy said with a big smile. “They’re my friends and they just want to be left alone. That’s ok isn’t it?” Another big smile.
“But she was bang out of order dragging me off the table like that man.” said the bloke. “Bang out of order.”
“Perhaps she was a little hasty…”
“A little fucking hasty, there was no call for that…”
“Perhaps, maybe but you did sit on their table and try to chat up her wife.” Another smile. “What would you do if some bloke came along, sat at your table and tried to chat up your partner?”
“Wife, what do you mean wife?” said the bloke.
“They’re dykes, they’re fucking lesbos.” said one of his mates.
“Fanny lickers!” responded the wet bloke. “Ahh that explains it, shame, I could have straightened her out no problem. Probably could have done both of them even if the other one’s in a wheelchair. That would have cured them.”
“Now guys, come on, let’s try and be a bit more respectful shall we,” said Jeremy. “the ladies are entitled to their life as you are entitled to yours. Let’s try and live together and be nice to each other eh!”
“Lesbos,” said the wet bloke, “no wonder she didn’t go for me.”
“Ok, whatever,” Jeremy spoke now with a very subtle firmness in his voice, “but may I suggest that you just keep clear of the ladies and leave them alone. That’s ok with you isn’t it, after all, they are not really your type are they?” A very big smile followed and the blokes all laughed and wandered off assuring Jeremy they weren’t interested in perverts.
Jeremy wasn’t convinced these idiots would let it go but he had to go to work and so he finished his orange juice, went back to his two friends he had come to the pub with and said goodbye. As he walked out he passed Lee and Celeste and said goodnight whilst wishing them a pleasant evening. Celeste thanked him for his help and Lee told him not to be so quick to interfere. He laughed, he smiled and he left.
Jeremy had known Lee and Celeste for years because they used the same gym. He knew just how good Lee was at Taekwondo. Apparently, she had been a master of that martial art before her accident, not just that art form but also she had worked in other disciplines. After she recovered from the car crash, so the story went, she fought off depression by returning to the gym. There she started to develop her own techniques working from her chair and also from the floor. She was not just good, she was definitely dangerous. Jeremy smiled.
Lee and Celeste had enjoyed a good slab of protein and a delicious salad with a generous portion of steamed vegetables. They loved sitting by the river and having a meal, it was their own little treat. Just the two of them together, the countryside and good food, for Lee this was the perfect way to separate her thoughts from the challenges of work.
The car park was around the back of the pub and sectioned into two areas both enclosed by a small wood. As they walked into the second section where their car was parked the three blokes appeared.
“How do you cure a lesbo Frank?” the wet bloke said to one of his mates.
Jeremy was nearly at work now. He knew that Lee could be dangerous but it was Celeste who was more of an enigma. He shook his head and laughed.
“That woman is really gone with the fairies, total new age crap with beads and essential oils and all that ‘the universe shall provide’ bullshit.” He laughed out loud again.
He had never known she was 36 until the last year, he always thought she was under 30. Dam, she just looked so good. The strange thing was that they both had the same birthday, Lee was ten years older than Celeste. The only way he knew that was that the gym came under new management in the previous year and as a result, they decided to present members with a cake on their birthdays. Someone in PR or HR or whatever had come up with that idea. Consequently, on the 20th of August last, two cakes were presented to Lee and Celeste. Lee wasn’t impressed but Celeste loved it. Lee was less impressed when Celeste accidentally let their ages out. Jeremy laughed just at the memory of what Lee said to Celeste then.
“That Celeste, she’s a story and that is a fact.” Jeremy thought, “She looks like an angel and everyone makes the mistake, they all do it. It’s all that new age shit.” He started laughing at these thoughts, he just could not help himself. He was chuckling as he got out of his car, still letting out a giggle as he neared the club.
“What’s up man? What’s the grin?” asked Roly, one of the other doormen, as Jeremy entered the club. That just made him laugh even more.
“What is it guy?” demanded Roly half laughing himself as he wanted to share whatever the joke was.
“Celeste bro, you know, Celeste, I was just thinking about her.”
Roly knew Celeste, they all knew Celeste, and Lee, they all trained down the gym.
“What, the one who is into kama and stuff?” said Roly not really asking just identifying the fact he knew her.
“That mad bitch whoz seriously fit.”
“Yeah Roly, Celeste, the cage fighter.”
“She’s de one who leaves em bleeding like jam and says it’s their karma!”
“That’s the one,” said Jeremy, “That’s the one.”
“Well, what’s so funny man?”
Jeremy then told Roly about the three blokes in the pub trying to hit on Lee and Celeste.
“No, geezer, no way…” Roly screamed in a fit of his own giggles.
“An you left ’em there with those women.” he took a moment to draw breath as Jeremy held onto the side of the staff counter trying to keep himself upright as the laughter drained him.
“You left ’em there, bro, that’s harsh, harsh man, harsh.”
They both took a moment to try and rein it all in. Sucking in air, trying not to look each other in the eye, drawing their bodies up straight.
“Do ya think…” Roly asked and that was it, they both exploded in laughter.
Jeremy tried to let the words out but they only came in little bits.
“I warned………I warned….. I told them bro, I told them.”
“You said what?”
“I told ’em…..said….leave…the..ladies….”
That word ladies floored the pair again and tears were pouring over their faces. They put their arms around each other and hugged in a desperate attempt to join forces and recover.
The door opened and in walked two men and two young women. They had come through with purpose but then ground to a full stop on seeing the two bouncers hugging each other. The girls started laughing. Jeremy and Roly looked around, for a moment they half pulled apart and tried to straighten up but that was just too much. They looked at the girls, they looked at the men, they looked at each other and just erupted into raucous howls like a couple of wolves driven mad by the moon. Waving the night clubbers past, they clung back onto each other again.
“They were right wankers mate,” said Jeremy once they had laughed it out. “I could see in their eyes that when I said leave the ladies alone they weren’t going to.”
Jeremy tapped Roly on the shoulders with his right hand two or three times.
“They just didn’t get it. They thought I was saving Lee and Celeste from them.” Jeremy sighed long and loud. “Even though a woman in a wheelchair had thrown a grown man to the ground and soaked him with his own pint man!”
“Oooooo” said Roly with a nasty wince on his face.
“With his own pint man, poured it all over himself and thought that was an accident.”
“Oooooooooo.” wailed Roly, “No way.”
“She took him out with one move an I could see, I could see man.”
“What, tell me, this is bad shit.”
“I could see that Lee and Celeste were sort of arguing, you know, without saying anything, they was sort of fighting over who was going to sort these geezers out and Celeste was pissed that Lee did it.”
“I see it bro, I really see it, for real.”
“Oh yeah, for real man. I stepped up and got them out before they got in way too deep.”
They had recovered their composure now. This was serious. They were looking each other in the eye and shaking their heads in disbelief. They both pulled at their jackets, straightened themselves to present a professional front for the evening. Jeremy and Roly on the door and in the club, everyone knew the place was safe, these were not men to play about with, they were real professionals at their craft. They moved into position in front of the doors. The punters would be streaming in once the pubs shut.
“You think…?” asked Roly in a quiet voice without looking at Jeremy.
“Oh yeah man, for sure they were real wankers, they will go after them again, for sure.”
Perhaps it took about ten minutes, maybe fifteen but they had to retreat to the toilets, splash cold water over their faces. The management went in to see what the hell was going on and just got laughed at.
“How do you cure a lesbo Frank?” the wet bloke said to one of his mates.