Authors: Tom Davies
Copyright Â© Tom Davies 2016
The right of Tom Davies to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the copyright holder.
Published under licence by Brown Dog Books and
The Self-Publishing Partnership, 7 Green Park Station, Bath BA1 1JB
ISBN printed book: 978-1-78545-115-7
ISBN e-book: 978-1-78545-116-4
Cover design by Kevin Rylands
Internal design by Andrew Easton
Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon CR0 4YY
Simon McGuire PhD drove the old MGB with imaginative zest. To hell with Schumacher if ever their steering wheels crossed. He roared through the traffic-calming chicane behind Woolworths, eased through the tight left-hander at NatWest corner and stamped his right foot to the floor en route to the Vice-Chancellor's residence. Action belied spirit. The VC was knocking on 60, looked 70 and probably felt 80. Any cocktail party of his would be like bingo night at the traffic wardens' rest home. He was quite right. Apart from starting a sequence of events that changed his life forever, nothing happened!
He parked amongst a dozen nondescript heaps of mostly-continental rubbish and scrunched through gravel to the seen-better-times door. It looked as if the VC might be as hard up as the university. A delightful woman took his arm. “You must beâ¦?”
“McGuire â¦ Simon McGuire â¦ from the Business School.”
“Of course you are. My husband, Stuart, has spoken of you. I'm Sally Mison.”
She took his hand in a cool grasp, which lasted longer than it ought, linked arms and led him to a room full of people and chatter. She pressed a glass on him, pointed to the nearest group and glided off to another latecomer.
“Bet that was a surprise,” said a familiar voice.
“Hi Chloe, lovely to see you!” He pecked the proffered cheek. “Is that really the VC's wife?”
“Second wife, actually. Used to be a model, I believe. Mind you, that must have been twenty years or more ago!”
“Thought you'd resolved to stop being bitchy.”
“I have, Simon, but only about those who are doing worse than me.”
“Who are all these people?”
“I only recognise a few. But you can be sure we've each been invited for a purpose. VC's are interventionist by nature and unscrupulous by habit.” “So much cynicism from one so young, lovely and clever; had a bad day â¦ month â¦ year?”
“You could say so. My teaching load's increased, budget's reduced by twenty-five per cent, and I'm being leaned on by my Dean to finish two research papers. On top of that, my publisher's demanded a manuscript in four more weeks or return of the advance royalty, which I've already spent.”
“Go on, you just need a bit of tender loving care.”
“In your dreams! Anyway, we'd better circulate, old Mison will be keeping a mental score sheet.” So saying, Chloe launched into social orbit, leaving him to do as he ought.
The contrast between the large room and the dingy exterior was striking. Funds had not been stinted. The embossed wall covering was complemented by colourful Impressionist reproductions. A dozen freestanding expensive lamps, like lighthouses on a foggy night, cast welcoming beams on passing guests. The deep carpet was scattered with Chinese rugs. The smell, joss sticks mingled with perfume and alcohol, combined to create a civilized haven. Its prime mover must surely be Sally Mison? How did the VC find the money to keep it all up?
For the next hour he joined and left little groups and their conversations. A few words and the occasional sentence registered. He sipped his drink, listened mostly, spoke sparingly and worried about the wellbeing of students in the intellectual care of the university. “So the Dean knows he can rely upon me.”â¦ “Yes, but can you rely on the Dean?” â¦ “Well he's promised, subject to funding.” â¦ “There you are then, that's what I mean!”
He moved onâ¦ “I suspect she's sleeping with her landlord.” â¦ “Well if I were he, I wouldn't bother waking her up, ha, ha, ha!”
In one group a serious woman from the Faculty of Human Sciences opined, “My research indicates that men are, after all, more sensitive than women in personal relationships, at work, it's just that they hide it for fear of being judged effeminate!”â¦ “How do you feel able to tell me this?” â¦ “Because I don't really think of you as a man.”
Simon was trying to get his head round this splendid piece of gratuitous rubbish when the Vice-Chancellor, like Count Dracula at sundown, materialised at his elbow. “I'm glad you've come, Dr McGuire, Simon. One doesn't get sufficient opportunities to meet our rising stars.”
“Thank you for inviting me, sir. It's a rare opportunity to join such distinguished company.” He saw the merest glimmer of a smile, quickly suppressed.
“The Senior Management Executive met the other day, Simon, and decided to establish a focus group. It's become necessary to aim for a higher level of financial independence from Government, both central and local. But we must do it well and professionally, and of course bear the costs within existing authorisations. After all we have considerable resources at our disposalâ¦” The dull monotone churned on.
Simon switched off. He'd once heard an antique âspeak-your-weight' machine in a seaside arcade, which not only advised you of your poundage but went on to forecast successes in love and career. It spoke for several minutes for a cost of six old pennies. He would have to be careful from here on not to refer to the VC as âthe talking weighing machine.'
“Your Dean of Faculty nominated you on the basis of your computer literacy, your knowledge of operational research techniques, your familiarity with the Internet and, not least, acknowledged enthusiasmâ¦”
These final revelations were an immediate attention grabber. So the Dean had come to the view that either he was under-loaded or could be better spared than any other Principal Lecturer. Damn cheek! No wonder he was off sick with a nervous breakdown. Still, with such poor perception maybe he'd never see his way back to sanity, and that would be the last of him.
The VC continued, “In fact, when I consider that your focus group includes a fiscal studies expert, an economist, a mathematician and a social scientist I'm very heartened towards a favourable, imaginative and ongoing solutionâ¦” He was gathering verbal impetus again. Simon half expected to be advised that his weight was 11 stone 12 pounds.
“Who's the economist, sir?”
“Oh yes, it's Chloe Hodgekiss. You were with her earlier.”
Simon was uplifted by the news but the VC returned to speaking of fiscal independence underpinning intellectual excellence and similar, sleep-inducing, stuff.
Five boring minutes later the VC was buttonholed by a sharp-suited man whose picture often graced the local free papers. Sir Maurice Steyne MP was Pucklebridge's representative in the House. More critically he was Chairman of the Board of Governors of Pucklebridge University. He was the main stockholder of the local football club and, it seemed, into many ventures where the sums of money had lots of noughts on their ends.
Simon, left again to his own amusement, roamed the edges of the room, viewing the VCs paintings and wondering how soon he might leave. The trouble with being ambitious and career-seeking was that you forfeited a corresponding measure of independence. He would be 30 next month. If he was to get much past Â£30,000 a year in the near future, he'd have to get some supplementary university duties or find a second source of income, the former option being within the gift of the VC.
He pondered, sipping the excellent Chablis, and became absorbed with a large Canaletto reproduction. Soul food he thought, wondering if it reflected the taste of the VC or his wife. One or two female guests cast speculative glances, as females often seemed to, at the intense looking, well-built young man. But on this particular evening he didn't notice.
Evenutally, people made farewells. Sally Mison made her way across the room. She was the ultimate fantasy: mature, high cheekbones, green eyes, blonde, five-foot eight, slimmish, large breasts and rounded bottom.
“Sorry to neglect you, Simon.” She exuded an elusive mixture of gin and Chanel, and stood close enough to transmit body heat. She was the most desirable woman he'd met in ages. He reflected on the possibilities.
“Don't worry; I can imagine your social obligations, Mrs. Mison. I'm delighted we've met and pleased to have had your attention twice! I've had a lovely evening,” he lied.
“How gallant! Do call me Sally. I'll walk you to your car.” She took his arm as they moved between the vehicles. At his car she paused, briefly clasped his hands and presented her cheek for the social farewell. She went further than the obligatory âmwhaaa' noise and brushed her lips across his cheek. “I hope we meet again soon,” she murmured. Then, with a final tantaliser of what he thought might be Chanel No 5, she was gone.
Simon plonked unsteadily into the driving seat, mused briefly about what might have been, turned the key and roared down the drive to the starting grid. This time he'd definitely âtake' Schumacher on the long straight between the factories and the railway embankment!
Janet McHale heard the growl of the old MGB when it was still two roads off. Oh dear, he's either angry or excited. She could divine his mood from his driving style. Tonight was definitely a grand prix punch-up sort of noise. Still, despite his fantasies, he was a remarkably kind and thoughtful young man, a landlady's ideal lodger really. Perhaps he'd meet a nice young girl at the university and calm down a bit. She put the milk bottles down on the step and waited until he swung into the drive, scattering the leaves, and shuddered to a stop.
“Hi Janet.” He leapt over the side of the car and busied himself with the tonneau cover.
“I'm just making my end-of-day cocoa, Simon, do you want to join me in the kitchen for a cup?”
“Love to, Janet.” He accurately surmised that she wanted a bit of company. “Just give me a minute.”
“Come through when you're ready.”
He was in his second year at the Uni as a Principal Lecturer and had been recommended to Janet by a senior colleague. Janet was the 60-ish widow of a former Dean. He'd died three years earlier, leaving her comfortable but isolated in her nice semi-detached Victorian villa. She was bright, young at heart, motherly to him and, despite friends and diverse interests, lonely. She rented Simon the upstairs and lived in the downstairs. It was good to have a man about the place. Notwithstanding the generation gap, they'd become good friends.
“How was old Mison's cocktail party, then?”
“Mostly a drag. He could bore for England, no bother at all.”
“The Vice-Chancellor's lot is a mixed blessing, Simon. He enjoys wide powers and considerable prestige. On the other hand there's a budget, which is a nightmare to balance, and a duplicitous Chairman of the Board. And then there's a much younger, beautiful wife with aspirations, expensive tastes and no doubt other demands which, although pleasurable, he might have difficulty meeting.”
Not for the first time, Simon was reminded that his landlady was well informed about Pucklebridge. It wasn't that she was nosy or interfering; she had, after all, once been a lecturer herself, and her husband a Dean of Faculty. And of course she still belonged to small groups and associations. Additionally she was endowed with considerable common sense and time to spare. He wondered how he might use all this to advantage.
“I met his wife briefly for the first time. She might be an interesting person.”
Janet's eyes twinkled briefly, but she took the bait. “The role of VC's consort also can be difficult. Caesar's wife and all that. She's probably a considerable asset to him. After all, in the immediate future, his destiny is hers, isn't it?”
He took the warning as kindly and changed tack. “What did you do today Janet?”
“I reviewed my share portfolio dear, mostly on the basis of yesterday's Financial Times. I revised sell targets and adjusted stop-loss levels. I'm not a big player, but it's great fun. After thirty years, it's good to have sufficient time to make a success of it.”
Stocks and shares was an interest to both of them. But their approach differed. She was inclined to pick stocks on the basis of value. She sent off for company reports and analysed balance sheets. When she bought, she looked for steady growth over a few years. Â£10,000 was a typical investment.
Simon, on the other hand, was into technical analysis. He had computer software that let him download share prices from the Internet and produce graphs and trends. He picked stocks he hoped would gain ten to fifteen per cent quickly and then sold them. His investment pool currently stood at around Â£12,000. He divided this between just two investments at any time.
“The trouble with me, Janet, is that as soon as I reach about fourteen thousand pounds, which is quite often, I draw off a couple of thou and spend it. I enjoy a better lifestyle but I'm not getting anywhere.”
“You will, dear. You've not yet sorted out your best route,” she offered enigmatically with a nice smile. “It's exciting to have lots of projects on the go, but real progress comes from focusing your talents and energy on a few key aims. Of course, you first have to crystallise those aims!”
He regarded her benignly. She really was a very nice person and a good friend. She reminded him of how his mother had been. She still had a good figure, only slightly thickened at the middle. The shortish hair, although grey, had plenty of bounce about it and was cut at four weekly intervals. She kept fit by daily walks. Her face, a little lined, was dominated by keen blue eyes, and her gentle mouth turned up at the corners. She painted her nails with clear varnish and wore a dab of Yardley's White Grass.
“I think you're right, Janet. While I was doing my first degree and then my doctorate the main targets were fairly obvious. After that it was a case of getting a job, and then another. But since then I've drifted into gratifying the whim of the month. Or, sometimes, the red hot passion of the moment!”
They talked of life in general for a few more minutes before he smiled, flushed a little and finished off his cocoa. “Think I'd better go and get ready for tomorrow. Monday's always busy.” If he'd looked back, he'd have seen a most unexpected expression.