Miranda was reading Daisy a letter from Regina. The next to last paragraph went like this: “I don’t know who they were expecting – certainly not a Big Black Woman from Brixton! I think they were hoping for a reincarnation of D H Lawrence! (someone actually asked me if I had ever met ‘the guy who wrote Lady Chatterley’s Somethingorother’) Anyway, they pictured a man – ‘cause they think lots of men writers from England have women’s names (like Evelyn Waugh – ‘Is he a she?’) - someone in tweeds who talks with a lisp, sexually a bit odd, if not a total poof, and funny in a dark sort of way – like the guy in the Nobakov novel who fancied little girls. Definitely not me!!! Not someone who looks like their cleaning lady! I thought I was going to New York. Nobody told me that ‘upstate’ meant a three hour drive from Manhattan! Nobody said the college would be full of Lilly-white kids who talk like characters out of the Simpsons!”
Miranda put down the letter and sighed – “She’ll be all right, don’t you think?”
Daisy lit up a fag. “Wouldn’t worry about Regina. She can take care of herself. But Americans aren’t noted for their sense of irony. Guns, yes – irony, not.”
A drop of water from a rusty pipe above fell onto Miranda’s desk splattering over some of her papers piled recklessly in disorganised stacks. She sighed again – her fifth of the day (but sighs were better than screams, she thought) - and then dutifully pushed the tarnished stack to the opposite side of the desk. The look on her face was one of stoic forbearance of the sort a prisoner in Cell Block H might adopt when told this would be home for the next thirty years and she could do fuck all about it.
Daisy looked up, focusing on another brownish drop oozing from the corroded pipe above. She watched the seepage grow fatter, clinging precariously to its death-defying perch. It appeared to be suspended in time. She blinked. It was as if the blinking of her eyes was a toggle switch releasing the tensile force that kept the drop up there while gravity had dictated otherwise. The drop fell onto Miranda’s desk with a rusty splat. In her mind it was like another drop of blood haemorrhaging from the ancient varicose veins that ran across the ceiling of Miranda’s subterranean office.
“ Can’t you get that fixed?” Daisy asked.
The expression on Miranda’s face changed. It was now the look of the all-suffering manageress who knew, like the Roman emperors of old, that her task was to oversee the collapse of civilisation. To pretend otherwise was futile. “God knows I’ve tried,” she said. It was one of those grand statements replete with metaphorical resonance that Daisy suspected went far beyond the rusty pipe business.
Miranda picked up Regina’s letter again and read the last part aloud: “ I didn’t get a chance to meet my replacement. Seems he’d already left by the time I arrived. But I gather he’s been somewhat misled. Thinks he’ll be ensconced in some ivy covered halls. What have you written him?
Miranda looked at Daisy. “Did you write to him?”
“No, why should I have written him?”
“Because I had asked you to.”
Daisy fumbled defensively with her cigarette. She looked both annoyed and slightly guilt-ridden. But annoyance far outweighed the guilt. “Maybe you had. But frankly it was a mile down on my list…”
“So you never got around to it.” Miranda was wearing her all-suffering look.
Even this slightest of chastisements brought out Daisy’s artillery to fire a warning shot across Miranda’s bow. “I had more important things to do…” She stubbed out her half finished cigarette onto a nearby saucer with more force than was required, twisting it ruthlessly until the strands of tobacco burst from the crushed paper cylinder.
Miranda ignored this minor tantrum and turned the tables once again by asking her chief advisor her help, “What are we going to do with him?”
“Who bloody asked him to come, Miranda?”
“Bloody Regina!” Daisy allowed herself a wry little smile, one that recognised the extreme folly that life sometimes presents. “She always gets what she wants, doesn’t she?”
Miranda looked down at the letter. “Well, she wanted to go to New York City…”
Catching herself in the throws of begrudging admiration for someone who at least tried to better her existence, Daisy lit another cigarette with the automatic movements of a true addict. She took a deep, narcotic puff, felt the pain of an invisible force pressing down on her chest and then the fresh flow of nicotine cleared her head again. “So that means we have to baby sit some displaced American?” She waved her hand leaving a trail of faint white smoke like vapour in the wake of a soaring plane. “Miranda, look around you for heaven’s sake!”
Miranda did look around and saw what she has seen for the last several years – a dark, damp hole that would have been condemned by Victorians as too vile for a workhouse. But it was all she had to do her job and in a strange and curious way she loved it. Not the dankness nor the hole but the job. And she loved that enough to suffer through the indignities of rusty pipes leaking on her papers, the mildew and the smells and all the other crap that went with it.
Just then the door to Miranda’s office burst open. A man appeared all in a twitter. His face – the face of a wounded child aged fifty plus – was both expressive and expressionless. The muscles of his mouth had been trained over the half century to give nothing away; his eyes, however, had never been properly disciplined, which is why, perhaps, he had ended up in this hell-hole rather than some more salubrious house of learning. He was trapped and he knew it. Everything about him said, “Help, get me out of here! I don’t belong in a place like this!” But no one listened to his pleas anymore, not even himself.
“Miranda! She’s done it again!” he shouted. His weasel-like eyes cried out for recognition. His pallid face, the colour of pre-cooked white bread, reminded her of the bank clerk who refused to cash her cheque that morning as she had left her identification at home being in a rush to cover a class for a colleague who was faking illness because she couldn’t bear to come in.
“What are we talking about, David? If you’re going to interrupt an important meeting you must be clear…”
Daisy took a puff on her cigarette, looked up at the leaky ceiling as she let out the smoke and smiled at Miranda’s ability to declaw the raging beasts who tried to waylay her either in the dankness of her office or lurched out from the shadows to accost her as she ventured to leave her dismal sanctuary.
“What am I talking about?” The exasperation driped from his voice like mouldy treacle. “I am talking about the same thing I was talking about last week and the week before. I am talking about that woman – the battle axe who has commandeered my room!”
Miranda recalled she has heard this tirade sometime before. But many and numerous tirades had gushed forth over the past week so it was hard to tell which tirade was which and what was from whom.
“Ah, yes,” she said. “Remind me again.”
The pre-cooked doughy face slapped itself with its own hand. “My Gawd!” The dough had started to bake, its colour changing from white to red.
Sensing an impending heart attack or at the very least a minor stroke, Miranda tried to calm him down. “David, you know we’ve had problems with room allocations because of the repairs…”
“The repairs that have been promised…”
The bread had started to burn. It threw its crusty arms into the air in supplication.
“Tell me, just in case I’ve missed something since the last World War. What does that have to do with the menopausal harlot who stole my classroom?”
“David!” she said, wagging a stern finger at him. “I won’t have you speaking about my staff in such a derogatory manner. I’ve warned you before!”
“Derogatory? Menopausal? Harlot? I thought you liked Shakespeare?”
Miranda closed her eyes, seeking the calm that her Buddhist mediation classes had promised would come to her salvation at times such as this. “We’re speaking of Joe, I take it.”
“She took it, you didn’t. Unless, that is, you gave her permission. Did you give her permission to usurp my classroom, Miranda? Because, if you did, I will kill you with my bare hands. I have just completed an Open University Course in the Japanese art of Kafamunga. My hands are classed as lethal weapons now.”
Looking at the dumpy figure of this sad little man, Miranda had to laugh. Self-deprecation was the saviour of every abused public-school boy, she suspected. “Joe has a class of 25 ESOL students,” she replied. “She can’t fit them all in B205. Your Access class has twelve. Why can’t you move them to A106 and let her have the larger room?”
“Because, as I said before, there are no windows in A106 and it stinks like a sewer.”
Miranda turns to Daisy who is watching the conversation with detached disinterest and says, “Does A106 smell that bad?”
Daisy shrugs and then disappears behind a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“I’ll tell you what,” Miranda says , turning back to David, who was still simmering on a slow but steady fire, “just go along with it this time and I’ll work something out for next week.”
“You told me that last week,” he reminded her.
She put a hand on his shoulder and watched him cringe. Laying hands on David wasn’t wise, but it was a quick way to get rid of him. “Trust me,” she said. Miranda made an honest distinction between sinful lies and lies of expedience. The first, she felt, took her to places she didn’t want to go; the second smoothed the passage to places she did.
He didn’t believe her, of course and went away in a huff. It’s only then Daisy re-emerged from her protective wall of gasified tobacco. “I don’t like that man,” she said, staring at the empty space that, to her, seemed to still contain his aura. “I wouldn’t be heartbroken if he decided to take that early retirement offer.”
“Shouldn’t be too hasty,” Miranda responded, looking down at her desk as she shuffled through a stack of dampish papers. “We’re lucky to have him.”
What Daisy liked about Miranda, could she admit it, was Miranda’s ability to shock even her – the least dewy-eyed of all the animals who ever trod the face of the earth (or so she sometimes felt in her hours of bleakness). “Why for bloody sake?” she managed to say after getting over the initial trauma of being hit by such a flatulent statement coming from the mouth of someone who so effectively eviscerated the very person she now defended.
“Because, despite everything, David knows his stuff,” Miranda said, opening a folder she had located beneath what appeared to be a mass of diverse items stacked helter-skelter atop one another. “You do know he’s a Cambridge graduate, don’t you?” she said looking up at the younger woman across from her who stared back, mouth agape.
“Miranda, what the bloody fuck does that mean – except that his language is totally inappropriate for the kind of students we get! Someone like David can’t get within twenty miles of their frames of reference!”
“That may be so, but he can teach to the syllabus and get them through their exams.”
“And half of them drop out because they see absolutely no point of entry, no way of personally connecting to the subject matter.” Daisy retorted, crushing the remains of her cigarette in the dish that contained the remnants of her last one and immediately lighting up another. “That’s not what we’re about, Miranda! And you bloody well know it! We’re about empowerment, not divide and conquer!”
Miranda either didn’t hear or didn’t want to get into it. More to the point, she was mentally redirected. “Found it!” she said pulling out from the folder a paper that appeared to be a letter which she quickly perused with a practiced eye that over the course of many, many years had been trained to search through miles and miles of extremely boring and tedious text for that snippet of useful information possibly hidden somewhere within.
“Oh, shit!” she said, dropping her hand and staring over at Daisy still fuming silently at the other side of the room.
“What?” Daisy responded, picki