By the time I handed this in it was already week 3 and the class was beginning to settle down quite nicely from Frank’s point of view. No one showed any signs of leaving, and by effectively dividing us into two groups, writers and non-writers, he was able to fit everyone somewhere on to the spectrum of activities he devised for us.
As far as any actual teaching went, he was seriously light on that. His mantra was that ’writers write’, and he never deviated very far from it. Other than recommending a few books for us to read that set out the mechanics of plot construction, dialogue, and so on, he spent all his time using the material we produced as the basis for our evening discussions.
Janice was first in line for Frank’s attention again. At his suggestion she had given her original idea a new direction by killing off one of the other girls being filmed. The question now was whether it was an accident, suicide or a murder.
I said it might make it more interesting if the dead girl was newly pregnant and everybody thought the T.V. director was the father, but this could just be a red herring to put everyone off the track of the real killer. She liked that idea.
Frank then read bits of my stuff out again, and asked the rest of the class for ideas on the way the story could be taken forward. Most hadn’t a clue, but Janice made the point that if I was thinking of developing these ideas into a book, the Major wasn’t suitable to be the main lead. I hadn’t thought anywhere near that far ahead, but she had a point. The two scenes I’d written could form the starting point for a novel, and if Jeffrey Archer could do it, why not me?
‘I think Thwaite is really funny,’ she said. ‘But no normal woman would fancy him. What we need is a more romantic figure to identify with, someone like Rochester, or Darcy.’
‘Right.’ I said.
‘How about using that course organiser you mentioned?’
‘That’s a good idea,’ said Frank. ‘It would give the story a chance to grow organically. Maybe develop a momentum of its own.’
‘Thanks.’ I said to her. ‘You’re not just a perfect face after all.’
That did my cause no harm at all.
Frank noticed this and glowered at me. ‘But this guy is going to have to carry your whole novel,’ he said. ‘you’ll have to make him really convincing if the thing is going to stand up.’
Back at my desk again the following weekend, I ploughed through the pile of his recommended reading and realised their advice boiled down to just one thing really, ‘write about what you know.’ So the obvious thing to do was to make this key character I had to develop stick as close to myself as possible. He could be my age, have my background, and have made the same mistakes as me. Then, as failure has to be funnier than success, I could use my own biggest one to get him up and running.
What I had done, just a few years previously, was go spectacularly bust by trying to start a business without enough capital. This guy would do the same. That would lead to him also to losing his home to the bank and his wife divorcing him, as happened to me. Then he would find himself on the dole and having to live in crummy digs until he got his act together again which, as I distinctly remember, was certainly no fun at all.
There had to be all sorts of comic possibilities somewhere in that lot.
The way forward then for him would be getting himself a degree of some sort, as I did, and using that to lever himself back into solvency.
So far so good, but I didn’t want to make the thing too auto-biographical,
I therefore decided it would be a good idea not to set the story in today’s world, but to put it back in time into the Seventies.
That had other advantages too. Life was so much simpler then. We just had the IRA to worry about, not Al Qaeda, and there was no Tony Blair sanctimoniously invading places. Instead Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, and whoever happened to be General Secretary of the T.U.C at the time was running the country for him.
Best of all there was no such thing as Political Correctness then, so I could write my story pretty much any way I liked
Then this man I needed to become Janice’s Rochester or Darcy, suddenly popped into my mind and introduced himself.
‘The name is Arnstruther. Ken Arnstruther.’
I started getting him down on paper straight away.
Everyone’s existence has to have its lowest point sometime or other, and Ken could pinpoint his exactly. It was
5. 30am on the 15th of March 1971. His business had gone bust, he was divorced, flat broke, and had a string of creditors after him. Finally, to round off this introspective tour rather neatly, he faced the fact that this day, the ‘Ides of March’ was also the morning of his fortieth birthday. He wasn’t even young anymore. If ever there was a time for the Fates he so believed in to intervene on his behalf, this had to be it.
When dawn did eventually come it was fittingly not up to much anyway. The rain still poured down relentlessly as it had done all night, though now it was whipped against the narrow skylight in the attic roof by a sharp wind giving promise of another freezing cold day. In the gradually strengthening light Ken could see the water driven in through a crack in the window dripping down to miss the tin he’d put there the night before to catch it.
He realised he ought to get up and do something about the spreading patch of damp on the grubby carpet, but he just couldn’t be bothered any more. It was all very depressing really, and Ken let out a sigh as he tried to re-arrange his long body more comfortably on his sagging mattress. Even this dismal hole he was hiding out in wasn’t likely to be available to him much longer. He was behind with his rent and he couldn’t see himself getting away with that state of affairs for very much longer.
Then a light knock on his door did at least seem to signal some change in his immediate circumstances and Ken hardly had time to register someone was outside before it opened and his landlady’s daughter waddled in.
Mavis Davis was a couple of years older than Ken, and a couple of stone heavier as well, which was not to her advantage given that she was only just over five feet tall.
‘Good morning,’ she said.
‘Good morning,’ said Ken, hastily withdrawing his bare feet and burrowing himself under the bedclothes as far as he could. One of his forced economies lately was to wear as little laundry as possible.
‘I’ve brought your post.’
‘Post!!!’ said Ken, sitting up in alarm. Post was the last thing he wanted to get after all the efforts he’d made to keep his whereabouts secret.
‘That’s right,’ said Mavis, eying his hairy chest appreciatively. ‘ Me mam thought it would be nice for you to have it as soon as it came.’
‘Thanks,’ said Ken automatically, still bothered about which of his creditors must have found out where he was.
Mavis continued staring, shifting her weight nervously from one foot to another until it became obvious she had something else to say and was having difficulty bringing herself to say it. His first thought was she’d been told to give him his marching orders and was finding the job embarrassing.
‘If it’s about the rent……’ he began, but before he could get any further she managed to summon up the courage to unburden herself.
‘Happy birthday,’ she blurted out. Then, with a sudden crimson blush, she put his post on the bedside table and was gone from the room almost as quickly as she’d first appeared.
For the first few moments Ken thought his lack of food over the last few days was causing him to hallucinate. Room service was not a normal feature of the Davis establishment, especially when the room being serviced was at the top of four flights of stairs.
Then there was the fact that Mavis knew it was his birthday, and would bother to acknowledge it. They’d barely exchanged a word since he’d been there. It was all very odd. But the small parcel Mavis had brought him was still lying there as proof that she had indeed toiled up the stairs on his behalf, and it all clearly had to have something to do with that.
It turned out to be a cardboard cylinder big enough to hold a picture or maybe a rolled map of some sort, and gingerly picking it up he found it was covered in birthday greetings stickers. This at least explained how Mavis came to know today was his birthday.
The really good news was that the damned thing clearly wasn’t from anyone he owed money to. They certainly weren’t sentimental enough to be sending him anything other than some more writs. So who had sent it?
The answer was Grimes, Grimes, Palethorpe and Grimes his solicitors, the only people who were aware of his whereabouts, though they normally only sent him monthly reminders of their own outstanding account, and they were under very strict instructions not to forward anything else to him that was not to his advantage.
In the case of this package though, Mr Palethorpe thought it might be a gift Ken would wish to receive. Though being a cautious man he did take the precaution of seeking a second opinion on the matter from the senior Grimes of the partnership, and then added the appropriate charge to his client’s account for this consultation, before sending it on to him.
Ken slowly broke open the seals still wondering what it was all about. Since his parents died he doubted more than one other person even knew when his birthday was, and she had no real cause to remember it. Not for the first time in his life though, Ken was wrong. His ex wife Kate had remembered and the package was from her. Knowing he had fallen on hard times, but not how hard, she was doing her best to cheer him up on his fortieth birthday. Her best wishes were scrawled in lipstick on the card inside and she had sprinkled the whole lot with his favourite brand of her perfume just for good measure.
He couldn’t help but smile. The fact she should take the trouble to send him a present even though they were now well and truly divorced was, with hindsight, typical of her. She had been unpredictable since the moment he first saw her at an Earls Court Motor Show where she had languished, not over-dressed, across the bonnet of an Alfa Romeo sports car. That was in his more affluent days, and he bought the car there and then as a means of impressing her. Like the car though, their marriage promised more than it delivered and both broke down soon after, culminating in an amicable decision by both of them that they really were not ready to consider settling down permanently with anyone just yet, particularly not with each other.
Still he wouldn’t have minded finding Kate inside the envelope to help cheer him up as well at that moment, though her extravagancies would be something he would have difficulty in coping with just then. Still she was a generous soul, he had to say that for her, and if she knew how low he had now fallen she would be the first to give him everything she had to help him get back up again. It was just a pity his male chauvinism would not allow him to take that as an easy route out of his predicament. His pride insisted that having got himself into this mess, he now get himself out of it as well.
The gift itself, when he finally finished stripping of all the outer layers of paper she had carefully wrapped it in to tease him, turned out to be the roll of cardboard he expected, and it did seem to enclose a print of some sort. With luck it might even be valuable enough for him to sell off in a pub so he could get himself a meal and a few cigarettes. Even if it wasn’t worth anything, then something to hang over his bed would be better than the mouldering purple grapes wallpaper surrounding him on all sides at the moment.
But in making this guess he vastly underrated Kate’s originality. It was neither a print, expensive or otherwise, nor a reproduction ancient map of his home town, which was another of his guesses. It turned out instead to be a large and really quite imposingly ornate imitation vellum scroll, proclaiming in gilt lettering, some at least an inch high, that he, KENNETH ROBERT ARNSTRUTHER, had been awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the World Academic College, Kerrytown, Yuma, and henceforth would be entitled to be known as ‘DOCTOR KENNETH ROBERT ARNSTRUTHER’ at all times.
A heavy wax seal, accompanied by several imposing signatures executed in flawless calligraphy as if by medieval hands, further attested to the legitimacy of his new distinction.
The final touch was a small printed attachment to the document certifying that this was one of a special limited edition of their deluxe hand-blocked degrees, and pointing out he could earn himself a £10 rebate on any further diplomas he bought from them, or for each additional scholar he introduced.
The accompanying note from Kate explained she couldn’t resist getting it for him when she’d seen it advertised in ‘Private Eye’, and pointed out it might even come in handy for him one day if ever he did push his luck too far and find himself in need of a qualification of some sort.
Ken couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer incongruity of it, even allowing for the unintended appropriateness of his present circumstances.
The gift was well up to her usual standard of novelty and he became increasingly amused as he read the literature that went with it.
Under the heading ‘Instructions for the Use of Your Degree’, the World Academic College Authorities made the point that they were a properly constituted body and legally entitled to award their degrees to whomsoever they chose.
It just so happened at the moment they were choosing to award them to anyone who sent in the appropriate amount of cash either on their own, or anybody else’s behalf, thus following the principle already used by established by universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, of giving out their Ph.Ds to business men clever enough to slip them a backhander in the shape of another college, a new library building or a largish telescope.
The world Academic College also pointed out it was operating in line with the newly inaugurated British Open University, who were committed to admitting students with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever. Even total illiterates were not to be turned away, their money being as welcome as that of anyone else to this pioneering institution. The instructions went on to explain that because of the College’s belief in the open ended and continuing nature of the learning process, the subject of the doctorate was left blank, as it was felt that recipients of sufficient sagacity to avail themselves of this opportunity could safely be left to fill that part of it in for themselves.
It was as brilliant a gimmick in its way of adding style without content as putting the holes in doughnuts, and Ken took off his imaginary mortar board to whoever it was who had first thought of it. Then he couldn’t resist doing what everyone else who has ever been awarded a degree couldn’t resist doing either; he tried it out. Getting out of bed and going across to the yellowing mirror, which gave his features an appropriately sepulchral tinge, he adopted what he thought to be a suitably learned stance and declaimed out loud to his reflection, ‘Doctor Kenneth Robert Arnstruther, I presume?’
‘Oooo. Yes,’ answered a voice.
The shock of getting a reply, half mentally conditioned as he was already to being on the end of a practical joke, made him spin round to see where it was coming from.
‘Something wrong,’ asked Mavis, coming into the room again and catching sight of his contorted features.
There was indeed. He was stark naked.
‘I knocked,’ lied Mavis, her gaze continuing as unperturbed as his was not. ‘But with you talking you mustn’t have heard me’.
Ken wished the W.A.C.K.Y. had at least sent him a replica college scarf or a mortar board to cover his embarrassment, but it hadn’t, so he had to make his way as rapidly as possible past Mavis to grab a pillow instead. ‘What do you want?’ he yelled.
‘Me mam’s sent you up a bit of breakfast,’ said Mavis, putting down the tray she was carrying. ‘An’ after you’ve had that, I’ll be back to change your sheets.’
‘What !!!’ said Ken, stunned.
‘You should have said you was a medical man right off, then we would have known wouldn’t we?’ said Mavis.
‘Medical man?’ said Ken, not comprehending.
‘Yes,’ she said, beginning to back awkwardly out as if leaving the presence of royalty. ‘Me mam says she’ll have a word with you about that when you come down,’ and with that she waddled out again, leaving Ken to wonder just what on earth was going on.
Breakfast being served in his room was unthinkable. He didn’t pay for any meals in this place, and a notice on the back of his door said ’No food to be consumed on these premises’ plainly enough.
He’d even fantasized that was why there were so many false teeth stains soaked indelibly into the top of his bedside table, maybe their owners had died of malnutrition and lain there for a couple of weeks before anyone noticed the extra smell.
It took a moment or two for the penny to drop, then another look at the wrapping paper on his present was enough to show why what had happened, had happened. Kate, keen to be the first one to use the title she had bought him, had sent it addressed to ‘Doctor R.K. Arnstruther’, so allowing the eagle eyed Mrs Gwladys Davis downstairs to register his new status even before he had noticed it himself.
It didn’t then need much more deductive work on his part to realise that to Mrs Davis anyone who was a doctor was a doctor, plain and simple. If told there were people entitled to be called doctor who weren’t real doctors at all she would simply have either not believed them, or put it down to perverts trying to take advantage of simple souls like herself and her daughter Mavis. Furthermore, the social standing of having a doctor residing in one’s establishment would constitute a big plus for Glwadys Davis. It would be one in the eye for all the other local harridan landladies playing Bingo with her at the old The Mecca Ballroom round the corner.
Such a catch would be well worth buttering up to he guessed as, with a certain satisfaction at hoisting them with their own petard, he reached out to make a start on the free breakfast he’d just been provided with.
His birthday wasn’t turning out to be too bad after all.
As far as this basic diagnosis went it was correct. What Ken could not be expected to realise was that his landlady, as crafty as all the Welsh are reputed to be, was already several moves ahead of him in this particular game. There truly is no such thing as a free lunch, or a free breakfast come to that. Gwladys, in her search for an explanation for what had just happened and with a lifetime’s experience of dodgy tenants, had already put enough twos and twos together to come up with a solution complex enough to run into double figures.
Looked at from her side, her ideas were understandable. She was already suspicious of someone boarding with her who was as well spoken, well mannered and well dressed as Ken. Notwithstanding he only had one suit, it was of very good quality. Mrs Davis was also aware of the fact his only previous mail had come from a solicitor’s office. Her interesting conclusion that whereas Grimes, Palethorpe, Grimes, and Grimes had always addressed him as plain ‘Mr’ Arnstruther, this parcel forwarded to him by them from someone else and revealing him to be really Doctor Arnstruther, meant something very fishy was going on.
Not having a very complicated mind, the first and obvious explanation of what it could be was that he was involved in the sort of trouble members of the medical profession often get involved in, by using their privileged position to tell women to take their clothes off, so they can have their way with them in the privacy of their surgeries, and getting paid for doing it too. Her Sunday newspaper was full of cases like that.
She then further deduced he was hiding away in her place, incommunicado to all but his legal people, until the heat was off. The final proof of all this to her was the expensive perfume his parcel was steeped in, so there had to be a woman involved hadn’t there?
All that being so, she felt it would be very foolish of her not to use this situation to try to solve a problem of her own that was getting larger year by year……. her daughter Mavis.
Mrs Davis, in spite of her outward appearance, was human. She loved her now not so little girl as much as any mother could, and given that Mavis was not a ‘full shilling’ as the locals put it, she was understandably very protective of her. The problem as she saw it was that when she was eventually called to join the late Mr Davis again, there would be no one to look after her only offspring. The likelihood then would be some con man taking up with her until he’d got his hands on the deeds of this boarding house and that would be that. He’d sell it, bugger off with the proceeds, and the poor girl would be left destitute. The most urgent need in her own life time then, was to get her daughter safely married off, by fair means or foul, to some respectable person who would carry on the burden of looking after her.
It wasn’t an easy task she realised, and if the truth were known she’d lately almost given up any hope of succeeding. But suddenly, miraculously, there might be just such a person upstairs, someone nice and blackmailable, who could fit the bill perfectly.
Reviewing now all the various promising elements of this revelation of Ken’s‘ real identity, and with her aspirations reinforced by a particularly favourable deposit of the tea leaves in her cup that very morning, Mrs Davis lost no time in coming to the conclusion that her long wait to get her daughter fixed up might soon be over. She realised it was still a long shot of course, but she still reasoned, reasonably enough, that stranger things happened in the papers every day, so why shouldn’t something like that happen to her for once.
Mavis, when it was all carefully and slowly explained to her, was quite taken with the idea. The only difficulty she foresaw, which she didn’t mention to her mother, who never listened to what she said anyway, was what if, as her mam said, doctors weren’t allowed to do to a woman what her mam said men always wanted to do to women, was a woman who was a doctor’s wife counted as a woman or not?
Because if she was, and the doctor couldn’t, it would be a pity really as all the other girls at school had reckoned sex was nothing like the awful thing her mam told her it was. That lot never seemed to get enough of it behind the bike sheds then, and were still all at it now, judging by all the babies they were pushing around. After all her mam kept going on about her eating peanut butter too, and she liked that well enough.
Either way, she agreed with the idea of having a husband. It would be really nice to have someone else to go out to the Bingo with, and perhaps he’d even just watch his own card and wouldn’t be going on at her all the time when she missed a few numbers, like her mother did.
Back in his room Ken was working his way steadily through his meal. On his side he’d already decided he’d be foolish not to take every possible advantage of the mistake the Davis’s were making while his good fortune lasted. For instance, that sheet change Mavis had promised him would be very acceptable. Happily he was unaware that changing his sheets meant exactly that. Clean ones being unobtainable in that establishment without due notice, Mavis intended to do the next best thing by simply swapping hers for his. But this little detail was neither here nor there, given the pace of the developments already taking place four floors below him. Before he even had chance to finish his burnt toast Mavis was back in the room again, panting with the exertion of climbing all those stairs for the third time that morning, but all set to fire the first shot in her mother’s campaign get Ken firmly within their grasp.
Catching him in still bed for warmth and comfort, she went across and leaned over to surround him with sufficient of her cleavage to make any escape from her impossible without committing indecent assault.
‘I got something in my eye,’ she said, ‘Can you get it out for me doctor?’
It was a small enough request. Little return indeed for all her efforts in toiling up and down so often on his behalf, and Ken did feel genuinely sorry for Mavis. It wasn’t her fault she was as she was, and she must have plenty to put up with from that formidable mother of hers.
Nevertheless this would have been the proper time to make it clear to both of them that he was not medically qualified and could only comply with her request on the basis of one human being doing another human being a simple human kindness. But the lure of more free breakfasts and the possibility of no more hassle about his rent arrears proved just too strong.
‘O.K.’ He said, and leaning forward he took the proffered grubby handkerchief and surveyed the problem. A quick inspection of her eye revealed the large foreign body Mrs Davis had carefully inserted in it just a few minutes earlier, and a quick swipe soon removed it.
‘ Oooo that’s lovely,’ said Mavis, as whatever it was fell quietly into his egg.
‘Ta very much’.
It was from that moment then of missed opportunity to put the record straight, once and for all, that Ken could be said to have strayed from the straight and narrow path we are all supposed to tread at all times, and turned off instead on to the broad and winding one, leading to more and more trouble, that most of us are more familiar with.
That further trouble wasn’t long in coming looking for him either. Breakfast over and with his sheets swapped as promised, Mrs Davis made a point of being on hand by the front door as he made his way to go out for the day as usual.
‘Good morning,’ she said, offering the first smile he had ever seen on that craggy face.
To look at she was simply a much larger version of her daughter, but there was an obvious air of cunning about her too. It was her eyes really. Small and glaring, they remained boring into his for the length of any conversation he had with her.
‘Good morning,’ said Ken, not knowing quite what else he should say.
She remained impassive, placed so that he would have to push up against her to get past, and waiting for him to say something else. ‘Er, thanks for the breakfast, I enjoyed it,’ he said finally.
‘Good,’ she said ‘and it wasn’t just a one off birthday treat for you Doctor. Mavis will be bringing some up every morning from now on.’
‘No, really, there’s no need,’ said Ken, already beginning to feel slightly uneasy about his situation.
Nonsense,’ said Mrs Davis. ‘The exercise will be good for her. You’ll know that right enough, being a man of your profession, and I reckon you could do with a good breakfast inside you to start your day.’ She looked at him pointedly, ‘Seems to me very much like you’ve been neglecting yourself lately’.’
That was true; his clothes were beginning to hang off him. ‘It was kind of you all the same.’
‘There’ll be no charge. We’ll just reckon it as part of your rent. Bed and breakfast from now on eh? And don’t you be worrying about those arrears of yours either. A man of your standing has got to be good for a bit of credit now hasn’t he?’
‘Er, yes,’ said Ken,‘I suppose so.’
‘We’ve all had our hard times, and you’re free to settle up whenever it suits you and not a moment before. Now I can’t say fairer than that can I?’ she said shrewdly.
Indeed she couldn’t, and despite his slight inner forebodings Ken couldn’t help but be grateful for the respite from his other creditors it gave him, and he really didn’t fancy being reduced to sleeping rough. ’That’s very civil of you Mrs Davis,’ he said.
‘We’ll say no more about all for the moment then,’ she said, standing aside to allow him through. ‘Have a good day doctor,’ and with that parting shot she disappeared back into her own sitting room.
Striding along the street outside Ken could hardly believe his luck. O.K. there might be price to pay for it all later, but if she wanted to use him as some sort of ‘loss leader’ to maybe attract better clients, then he could live with that. This harmless doctor thing would all be put right as soon as he had scraped enough cash together to pay her off and move on to decent lodgings. It could just be passed off as a bit of a misunderstanding then, and they could all have a laugh about it.
It is remarkable really how quickly people can adapt to sudden changes in their circumstances. Within weeks a working class winner of the Lottery can be behaving as eccentrically and extravagantly as any earl with generations of idiocy bred into him. Ken was no exception to this rule.
The new regime at the Davis household soon took an increasing hold on his life and almost before he realised it he was acting in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few short days before.
Mavis made it easier for him because of her shyness. In spite of her mother’s explicit instructions that she should make herself as agreeable to him as possible, she was too much in awe of all he was supposed to be, to do anything other than act as a sort of unpaid servant to him.
So the main thrust of Mrs Davis’s plan initially remained hidden from him. In retrospect he realised this lulled him into a false sense of security.
Mrs Davis reasoned that if by any lucky chance he was suspended, in danger of being struck off the medical register for dodgy behaviour of one kind or another, or already was struck off, then it would increase their hold on him if she could get him to to treat her and Mavis at a time when he wasn’t entitled to treat anyone. Removing the dirt in her daughter’s eye was only the thin end of a wedge she intended thickening at all possible speed.
Ken therefore soon found himself manoeuvred into giving them advice about the headaches and stomach upsets to which the two ladies suddenly became prone. No more than any other reasonable person would give of course, but like a previous fictional doctor he soon found the Hyde side of the character playing an increasingly large part in his affairs. The Davis’s were both long time hypochondriacs anyway, and they revelled in the attentions he was called on to give them, from dandruff at one end, to in-growing toe nails at the other, not to mention flatulence’s in between. The pair of them steadily forced more and more of themselves before him for scrutiny and diagnosis, so it became less and less possible for him to start suddenly refusing their requests.
The thing that kept him going, was his firm belief that this breathing space he’d been given was there for a purpose. Maybe his guardian angel had taken a knock recently, just like he had, and needed a bit of time to get his cloud sorted out before giving him a lift again.
But as the days continued to slip by without any ideas emerging to start him back on his way up again, or any opportunity to improve his situation presenting itself, he began to despair. And the web Mrs Davis was spinning round him grew tighter and tighter. Could it be his fates were just playing a game with him, throwing a frayed rope to a drowning man?
When the inspiration he was waiting for did finally come it took him completely by surprise, and he felt the same way the Flemings must have done when the ideas for Penicillin and James Bond came to them.
He was in the commercial sector of the local reference library at the time, getting a free look at the newspapers to see if there was anything in them that might be of interest to him. The ‘Job Vacancies’ sections were of no use of course. He had never been a ‘wage slave’ since he stopped being an office boy, and had no intention of ever becoming one again if he could possibly help it. His attention was therefore focused on the ‘business opportunities’ pages, where there was hopefully some real money to be made.
His presence there did not go unnoticed. These reading rooms of provincial libraries are small worlds, usually only inhabited by the same bunch of unemployable old codgers just in for the central heating, so the regularity of his attendance soon attracted the attention of the assistant librarian. She would be a reasonable looking girl if she came out from behind her large glasses, which fact soon attracted his attention too.
Before long pleasantries were exchanged and she was naturally interested in why he, obviously not a tramp or layabout, was coming in so frequently. Ken, seeking to distance himself from the rest of her regulars, and gain a bit of kudos in her eyes had come up with a cover story and once launched on to his tale was surprised how easily it seemed to roll off his tongue.
‘The name’s Arnstruther,’ he said ‘ Doctor Arnstruther actually. I’m ah, a government consultant, researching into small business activity for the Department of Trade and Industry. It’s all bit confidential actually. We don’t want anything to get out before ….’
‘Green paper stage?’ said the assistant, who knew about such things.
‘Exactly,’ said Ken wondering what on earth that was.
‘Gosh,’ she said. ‘The most exciting thing I get to do is fine someone for a late return. Anything I can do to help just let me know.’
‘Thanks,’ said Ken’ ‘Who shall I ask for?’
‘Penny,’ she said ‘Penny Smithers.’
He’d been without the benefit of female company for some time now, so there was plenty she could have done to help him, but lacking the means to even buy her a cup of coffee there was nothing he could do about it at the moment.
‘It’s good of you to offer Penny,’ he said, “I may call you Penny may I?’
‘Oh yes Doctor,’ she said warmly.
‘No, please, it’s Ken to my friends,’ he said, though he had to admit hearing her use his title did bring a certain amount of music to his ears.
‘Very well, Ken it is then,’ she said, giving him another encouraging smile.
Definitely an invitation to get his feet under the table there he thought, and suitable cheered by the progress he’d made with her he wandered off to his usual seat by a radiator to bury himself yet again in the esoteric world of men on the make.
The opportunities open to him this particular morning, were very much run of the mill stuff. Thousands of yards of super fast selling fabrics the advertiser was unable to shift himself were available at a bargain price, and there was enough fire damaged stock on the market to make Ken think there must be someone with a large furnace somewhere singeing the stuff especially for the purpose. Not to mention failing shops, commission only work and endless opportunities for ‘door to door’ salesmen. It was all so predictably depressing he found his attention wandering involuntarily to the next table where two young men he had never seen in there before, were conversing in the sort of whispers used in libraries, where normal speech is very much frowned on.
As his ears gradually tuned into their muted conversation he learned they were friends from their teacher training college days, whose meeting this day was a chance reunion.
The one with the deeper voice seemingly had done very well, landing a lecturing job in the business studies department of the local university. The other one was just teaching geography in a comprehensive school.
These two facts were of no real interest to Ken, but what did catch his attention was the difference in attitude between them. The brasher one was happily laying it on with a trowel about the interest and importance of the research work he was doing, but instead of taking it all with the large pinch of salt it undoubtedly called for, the other one was lapping it up.
Lecturing and teaching, said the lecturer, were entirely different things. One was concerned with the advancement of knowledge conducted as part of the job; the other with the mere reiteration of last year’s teaching material.
The teacher agreed, and even went so far as to say that what he and his colleagues at the comprehensive really would like would be an opportunity to attend university type seminars again, like they used to do as students, so they could keep up with any advances in knowledge in their field.
‘Doesn’t your education office lay on training courses like that?’ asked the other one.
‘I’ve never seen any advertised,’ said the teacher
‘Now you mention it, there used to be lots of requests on the University notice boards for people to tutor on them, but there haven’t been any lately.’
‘Money must be getting tight I guess,’ said the teacher ‘and they probably don’t want us taking time off to attend them.’
‘You could be right. They still do have training officers though don’t they? So there must be money for them to use somewhere in the system.’
‘I suppose so.’
News of unspent money in the vicinity of an unsatisfied demand was just the sort of thing Ken was on the lookout for, and he leaned forward eagerly to get as much more information about it as he could.
Unfortunately Penny Smithers chose that moment to appear on the scene. ‘Would you mind going somewhere else to hold your conversation,’ she hissed to the two men ‘This is a reference library and Dr Arnstruther here is engaged on research work of national importance.’
‘Sorry,’ said the teacher, the easily more abashed of the pair.
‘There is a coffee shop just across the street,’ she said “you could hold the rest of your conversation there.’
‘It’s alright, really it is,’ said Ken, wanting to hear more. But both of them were up on their feet now.
‘We were about to go anyway,’ said the lecturer, wanting to make it clear he wasn’t to be pushed around by someone as low in the pecking order as Penny.
Ken could only seethe inwardly as the two of them then made their way out together.
‘They had no right to be disturbing you like that,’ said Penny, glad of the chance of doing him this small favour.
‘They were no trouble, really they weren’t,’ he said
‘You’re the kindly sort who would say that whether they were or they weren’t,’ she gushed, mentally deciding to try to master contact lenses again, now that she had him as an incentive for improving her appearance.
But the fragmented conversation Ken had just overheard proved just sufficient to start his mind mulling over the opportunity it might present to him. By the time he had settled himself down again, the seed of the idea just planted in his mind had already grown to beanstalk proportions, and he was already half way up it in search of the pile of cash he thought might well be waiting for him at the top.
What was to stop him using his toy town degree to organise just such a course as that teacher wanted. He could hire some lecturers for it like the twit he’d just been listening to. The trick then would be to lay it on at a weekend to get round the problem of taking the teachers away from their classroom duties, maybe then a whole classroom full of them would come flooding on to it. Getting the money out of those unused training budgets shouldn’t be too difficult either. A few visiting cards and fancy brochures printed with ‘Dr Kenneth R. Arnstruther’ prominently displayed on them should do the trick. No one ever bothered to check out things like that, and these Town Hall types are experts at not getting value for money, and if that approach failed he could always go back to first principles and bung a few quid in their direction to clinch matters.
The thing to do was to make sure those attending the course were looked after properly. They’d be the ones to spread the word about how good it all was, so as to attract repeat business. Therefore it mightn’t be a bad idea to hold it in some nice select hotel, maybe by the seaside somewhere. And at this time of year, just out of season, he’d be able to get a good rate for bringing them business when they would otherwise be empty. It could really be the start of a new career for him.
There had to be a few problems he couldn’t foresee at this stage, so he’d start off with a smallish pilot course first, just to get everything going on the right lines, then go on to develop the idea to its full potential. The main cost would be the tutors, and the beauty of that was he would be dealing with academics there, and they hadn’t a clue when it came to commercial matters. It simply couldn’t be simpler.
It was almost as good a business opportunity as the first double- sided nude jigsaw.
Napoleon said the best ideas only take about a minute to formulate, and he was right. Within that time span Ken had decided to call himself a ‘Consultant Educationalist’, designed his visiting card, and was well into mentally drafting the fancy literature he would need. He would also want a decent accommodation address in the centre of town. It wouldn’t cost all that much, and as soon as he started getting his hands on the deposit he’d ask to reserve places on the course, he’d be in funds again.
Then he came down to earth. He wasn’t likely to get any of that lot on tick, and all he had in his pocket at that moment was the piece of toast he’d sneaked out with him from his breakfast that morning. It could be his lunch or his dinner, but either way it was not negotiable currency.
It is at times like these when the really hard decisions in a man’s life have to be taken, that his true stature is revealed. George Washington found he couldn’t tell a lie, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton found they could. Ken realised he now had a Rubicon of his own to cross and quite surprised himself at the speed he got over it without so much as getting anything wet in the process. His sudden need for stake money was more than enough to sweep all other considerations aside. Gone instantly was his life long resolve to always stand on his own feet and never accept a handout from anyone ever. His contempt for welfare state benefits had previously been total, but not any more. Easing his conscience by reasoning he would only be using the money for business purposes and not simply to live on, he made the decision to ‘sign on’ and claim the cash that was fairly due to him after all the years he had spent stamping his own National Insurance cards.
What is more, he would do it that very morning.