The day Phillip had been nominated for the most promising new lecturer in Economics, Marketing or Related Disciplines, Carol had not come to his door. The day he’d learned about the distinction for his MA, Carol had not come to his door. And the day he got the, in her opinion, not long-awaited enough promotion to Head of Department, Carol went home early with a migraine before calling in sick for the next fortnight. So it would be fair to say that he wasn’t expecting her to knock ten minutes into the start of the new term. He wasn’t expecting her to poke her head into the room before he’d had chance to sit down, hide the photographs under his blotter, and rub the Blu-tack from his fingers.
If Carol had seen Phillip attending to the wall planner, she didn’t mention it. Neither did she do her usual thing of complaining about the size of his office in comparison to her poky cupboard. Complaints that usually involved reference to years of service; that sought to make Phillip aware how lucky he’d been to get to his position so many years before his time. When he hadn’t… Now, how had she put it at the Christmas do last year? When he hadn’t lived.
Carol was, in fact, smiling a full-on, perhaps even genuine smile. One that reached the crow’s feet around eyes that were never brighter than when she had an “observation” to make.
“Look at you,” she said.
Of all the things that could have been directed at Phillip that early September morning, this was about the worst.
“Good morning, Carol,” he replied, remembering that the personal should never get in the way of the professional, even when loathing was involved.
“Look at you,” she said again.
Now, Carol wasn’t a woman to repeat herself. If a student dared to ask her for clarification of even the most arcane of teaching points, they would be lucky not to have their hearing mocked. But now she was offering up a repetition on her own account. And smiling. And pointing. At Phillip’s stomach.
“Yes…” he said. He brushed down the front of the new jumper. It had been so hard to choose one. He’d left it until five minutes before M & S closed the previous evening. It was lucky he had remembered the need for new outfits for the new term. And for the new him. For what he had to wear now.
“What was it?” she asked. “Stomach staples? Is that what they’re called?”
Of course she couldn’t manage to get all the way to a third sentence without an outright insult. But she was still smiling in that perturbing, disturbing fashion that, the more it persisted, raised the awful prospect that she was – what? – pleased for him at what he had lost? Or was letting him know how disgusted she had been by his girth on every previous occasion she had seen him on campus?
“No,” Phillip said, borrowing a smile of his own from one of the photographs still accidentally left face up on the desk in front of him. A situation he quickly remedied. “Weight Watchers.”
Carol shut the door behind her and stepped the three and a half steps towards the corner of Phillip’s desk. Three and half steps too many, in her opinion. Her own office door collided with her desk when she opened it. Twenty-five years she’d put in, said her letter of protest to Estates. As if they cared. Twenty-five years of whatever the University wanted from her, all while dealing with so much else in her life, and she couldn’t even open her door without wiping out her desk.
“That’s a hell of a loss for Weight Watchers.”
Was her lack of trust in them or in him? Phillip knew that Carol had been to some diet club or other, on top of her CrossFit and her Pilates and her every other excuse for staying on campus as late as possible.
“A hell of a loss,” Phillip repeated. He watched as Carol, for the first time since coming in, glanced around to see what else might be different. He saw her look at the wall planner. But she’d have said, wouldn’t she? If she’d known what he had taken down. She couldn’t have resisted mentioning how very bare April through to August now looked up there.
“Not too much, I hope?” Phillip said, directing the smile up at Carol with enough force for her to step back and appraise him all over again.
“Oh, no. It’s good, Phillip. It really is. Takes years off you. Years. Which is so often the idea, isn’t it?”
And now they were both of them looking up at the wall planner. Over the course of spring into summer, asterisks had given way to initials and initials had given way to occasional arcane notes – venues, say, or specific moments, so many with photographic evidence pinned alongside. More for him than for anyone else to notice, he’d told himself before the break. So he could prove it had all happened. So he could prove to himself that it was possible for him to have that life.
And now he was left with pinholes and smudges. And the ink on his fingers that he only noticed when smoothing down his jumper. “Well, thank you for dropping by, Carol,” he said. “And a happy new academic year to you, too.”
Her smile spread. “Oh, I wouldn’t have missed marking an achievement like this, Phillip.” She patted him gently on the shoulder. “Forget your promotions and your MAs. What really matters is the learning people can see. There’s no faking that, is there?”
And, of course, Phillip agreed with her, watching her retreat back out of the office, and listening for the sound, moments later, of her own door slamming repeatedly into the corner of her desk before it finally opened.