Sunday, 10 February 2013

Office hours

Leslie DaFox’s office was strictly on a rental basis.  While he was teaching at the Camberwick Community Centre (easily identifiable from miles away by its ziggurat-style construction and Stalinist design ethic) he was granted an office, but the instant his contract expired the elite security force that he was increasingly suspecting came from the same school as the Okrana would lock him out and refuse him entry.  For the moment though, it was the middle of the term and the office was safely his.
It was astonishingly large.  His desk was three times the size he was used to, and as an experiment once he’d tried laying all of his students’ homework out on it, side by side in a neat paper matrix.  It had covered less than half of the available surface area.  His chair had arms, little extrusions on the rear legs to let you tilt it back safely, cushions (not one, but three!), a cup-holder(!) and an adjustable rear-view mirror on a little angle-arm.  There were five full-size bookcases lining the wall opposite his desk, it was a ten second walk from the door to his desk, and it was another three or four second walk from his desk to the windows.  The windows were the only real disappointment, being essentially glassed-over arrow slits, but the glass was rose-tinted and made the world outside look warm and friendly.  There were four filing cabinets, in one drawer of one of which he kept his students’ homework.  In an effort to make more use of the facilities he put his packed lunch in another drawer, and his satchel in a third, but he still worried that it looked like he wasn’t trying.
“This is impressive, Sir,” said Policeman Number 1, looking around him.  “Who did you murder to get this then, eh?”  He laughed in a heavy way that suggested he was really hoping that the clumsy question would elicit a confession from Leslie.
“Oh stop,” said Policeman Number 2.  “Mr. Fox is far too clever to admit to murdering anyone, aren’t you, Sir?”
Leslie said nothing, knowing that Policeman Number 2 was the more subtle of the pair but would still leap up and down like an excited puppy if he thought Leslie was admitting to not admitting to a crime.
“Sit down,” he said instead.  “My office hour starts in five minutes, so we will be here until that finishes.  Students may wish to come and visit and ask questions.  They will be asking questions of me, not you.  Let me repeat that.  They will be asking questions of me and not you.  You should not answer those questions no matter how tempting it might be.  They are here to learn.  You are here to harass me, make crude and lewd suggestions at inappropriate junctures, and waste tax-payers’ money.”
“Speaking of wasting tax-payers’ money,” said Policeman Number 2, “why do you have such a large office when you’re only teaching at a community college?  You could fit three of our offices in here, and that’s forty-eight officers.”
“I wish I knew,” said Leslie, sighing just a touch.  “There is something very odd about this place that I just can’t put my finger on.”
“What exactly is it you wish to put your finger on?”  Policeman Number 1 looked keen and attentive.
“You mean like employing a man who keeps murdering students in his lecture halls?  You can see why we have to be here in your office now, can’t you Sir?”
“Frankly, no.”  Leslie sat down in his chair and then remembered he needed homework from the filing cabinet.  He considered, briefly, asking one of the officers to get it but then decided that he didn’t want to have to explain how to operate a filing cabinet.  He stood up again.  “I’ve murdered no-one, you’ve never proven that I’ve even attacked someone, let along murdered them, and you persist in dogging me instead of conducting a serious investigation!  Good God, Miss Marple was more effective that your police force!”
“And who is she, please?”  Policeman Number 1 had produced his notebook and was writing the name down.  Leslie opened his mouth, but someone knocked on the door.
“Come in!” he shouted, and hauled the filing cabinet drawer open.
“Mr. daFox?”  He recognised the face of the student stood in the doorway looking scared, but he couldn’t remember his name.  The young man had the beginnings of a moustache, little cuts from shaving on his chin, watery grey eyes and a self-inflicted Justin Bieber haircut.
“Come in,” said Leslie.  “And tell these gentlemen your name so they don’t worry that you’re an accomplice.  Then ignore them as best as you can and sit down.  At my desk.”
“Uh, I’m Nigel,” said the young man.  “Nigel Parks.  Which chair, Sir?”  There were four chairs on the side of the desk opposite Leslie’s, and the policemen were picking from another twelve arrayed around the office.
“Any,” said Leslie, dextrous fingers finding Nigel’s last two submitted homeworks.  Neither had scored higher than a C.  “Now, I’ve got some homework to return to you, but first, do you have any other questions about the material we’re covering in class, the lectures in general, or… well, anything I suppose?”
“Why are there policemen following you around?”
Leslie smiled thinly and sat down.  He desperately wanted to say Because I’m an international playboy and suspected jewel thief but he was certain that both the student and the policemen would take him seriously.  It was like being in a badly-written sitcom – which by definition was not one of the ones he’d successfully written and sold in the seventies.  Three of his were still being re-run in Asia today.  “Apparently tax-payers have been over-paying and there’s a budget surplus,” he said.  “They come with the office.  Just ignore them, I do.”
“Oh,” said Nigel.  “Oh.  Well, in that case… er… I was wondering… when do we get to sleep with girls?”
Leslie took a closer look at Nigel, and in the process realised that the young man smelled of stale sweat and, if he wasn’t mistaken, camel.  Wet camel.
“This is a creative writing course,” he said.  “Sleeping with girls is part of the post-graduate syllabus, when you’ve actually written and sold something.  That class starts with an introduction to hygiene and aftershaves.”
“Oh.  Oh.  Well, is it still ok to sleep with boys in this class?”  Leslie’s jaw dropped before he could catch himself, so he desperately improvised it into a yawn.  “Only, Dave keeps telling me that we have to be sleeping with people if we’re real writers, and I think he’s kind of interested –“
Leslie leaned back in his chair, the extensions catching him and supporting him safely, and listened to a ten minute description of a love-life that would leave rabbits confused and frustrated.  At the end of it he reflected that he now had no idea what Nigel would or wouldn’t sleep with, and if he’d enjoy any of it anyway, and that this in no way made his, Leslie’s, life any better.
“Why don’t you write about this?” he said.  “Look, here’s your last homework.  Dreadful.  If I didn’t know you were paying for this course I’d think you were doing this deliberately to punish me.  Do you see on page two, that–“
“Excuse me?”  Policeman Number 2 held up a hand.
“What?” Leslie glared at him, using the same stare that had reduced his housekeeper to tears and impelled her to hide in the piles of wet laundry.
“Can he repeat everything after the bit about the tortoise, please?  We didn’t get it all down.”
“Sure,” said Nigel looking animated.  “Did you get the ketchup bottle–“
“Yes!” said the Policemen in unison.
“That’s kind of why we missed bits after that,” said Policeman Number 2.  “But we have to take notes on everything that’s said around you, Mr. daFox.”
Leslie’s palm slapped audibly against his face.
“Go on,” he said, his voice dull and lifeless.  “Tell them again.” 

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