By Mike Hickman
I’ll admit it came as a surprise to see it on the agenda. I had thought – perhaps we all had – that Ben had forgotten to ever ask; that it wasn’t part of his job description; that he had too much else to say about “content pillars” and other entirely meaningless concepts to be bothered by something so lacking in his usual soul-stultifying mundanity.
But there it was. The first item. After the usual “Everything you need to know today” that Ben insisted on leading with because it gave him a good half-hour warm up. It allowed us to tune into the soft Irish drone that Nancy and Mia went gooey over and, even if it didn’t have us on his side because, say, his sincerity was as doubtful as his dress sense, it passed the time. It wasn’t as if he was any good at scheduling agenda items, anyway. He’d put the AOB at 1 o’clock, at the point when the meeting was supposed to end, meaning we’d over-run because there was always more to be said. Things not on the agenda because he never asked what we wanted to talk about, and he always underestimated Nancy’s issues with her parking space and the size of her office. We’d over-run by half an hour and, because he’d got his stuff into the first hour, Ben would look pleased with himself. It was, in his terms, a “win”, if not the quick variety that obsessed him most.
Today’s agenda had landed in the email only an hour before we assembled in the boardroom. I couldn’t tell if the others had read it. They’d have presumed there was nothing of interest and, besides, it was always the same: Ben’s “everything you need to know today”, then progress reports, then lack of progress reports, then complaints about central University, then general whinging about everything else, then AOB. Every week, the same. Except this week.
I looked over at Mia, tried to make eye contact, saw her grimace at Nancy, gave up and looked back at Item 1 again. He really did want to do this, then. He’d let it ride this long and he really wanted to do this.
“So, right, yeah, everything you need to know today,” Ben said. He shot his cuffs, adjusted his bow tie, ran a hand through his Mr Teasy Weasy hair, and then gave us the beneficent smile of the over-promoted and under-employed Head of School.
Mia put her nail polish down, examining her nails under the light and sharing the fruits of her efforts with Colleen. Nancy, meanwhile, took out what looked frighteningly like a set of office floor plans from her satchel. I caught sight of the tape measure at the top of her bag. The prospect of a half hour overrun nudged the prospect of a three quarter of an hour overrun in the ribs and gave it a wink.
“I was on Zoom with him, and we all know he’s the big man,” Ben was saying, with occasional tweaks at the bow tie. “The big man of timetabling. And he was in – get this…” He gave Mia a wink and we let him away with it. “He was in his bedroom, or so it looked, and I’m cross with this fella and pitying him at the same time.” Ben laughed, shook his head. “But that’s by-the-by,” he added, a favourite phrase of his, “because he’s clearly not pulling down enough to keep him in clean sheets…”
Nancy cleared her throat. To be fair, the room still stank of nail polish.
“And while I’m on the subject of Ryan, he came to the VC meeting in a Burton’s suit. I ask you.”
Everything we needed to know this week was, then, going to be much the same as every week. Eventually, the room warmed, the laughter rumbled, there were comments about Admissions Hilary and the VC’s secretary and those skirts. Ben and his bonhomie, thought the room, no doubt approvingly. It beat a strict agenda, any day. Until item 1.
“So,” Ben said, leaning back in his chair, “as you know, the Wellness people have been onto me, so…” He peered at his own agenda as if it was the first time he’d seen the words. He smiled. He gave us his study in Sincere. “How are we all, then? We know the team is fabulous, of course. How are we all, personally?”
And he looked at me. And he wanted me to say How I Was after he had told us Everything We Needed to Know.
I took a deep breath, coughed at the chemical fumes, and straightened my own cheap tie.
“I’m fine,” I told him, “although, you know, I do find myself concerned about Nancy’s car park situation.”
Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including a 2018 play about Groucho Marx. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, the Blake-Jones Review, Bitchin’ Kitsch, the Cabinet of Heed, the Potato Soup Journal, and Red Fez.