Short Stories about Working Life
The Health and Safety at Work Act: Reasons to be Grateful (11 June 2016)
A Grasshopper Mind (30 June 2016)
There May be Trouble Ahead (17 May 2016)
The Health and Safety at Work Act: Reasons to be Grateful
Ironically, just as punk rockers began gobbing on their audiences in the mid 1970s, the original Health and Safety at Work Act was passed. Before that, there was no legal framework to prevent involuntary contact with human body fluids in the workplace.
Dr Lucy Gosling taught applied biology at one of the many suburban Technical Colleges that existed before polytechnics or new universities were invented. She kept a rather strange diary. She logged many of her body functions, for instance all her periods and their duration were meticulously recorded, as was the quality of her sexual activity with her partner Adrian.
Apart from weekly supermarket runs, she also recorded every object she bought, together with notes on where she bought it and how much she paid for it. All her personal possessions and most items of her clothing were archived like saleroom catalogues.
One morning early in the spring term Lucy was walking past the departmental Preparation Room when Jo Mulholland came out, waving the class preparation request sheet Lucy had put in the previous afternoon.
“Dr Gosling, … Dr Gosling” Jo was the most junior technician in the department and did not dare use Lucy’s Christian name.
“Yes Jo?” said Lucy. Jo was looking at the class sheet, somewhat puzzled.
“Dr Gosling, this is your sheet for tomorrow afternoon’s biochemistry class. I can see all the reagents and quantities and so on I’d expect for urine analysis …but the funny thing is …. I can’t see you’ve asked for any mock urine to do the analysis on? Maybe you forgot to put it down and I’ll make it up anyway. But how much do you want and what sugar and protein concentrations do you need?
“That’s all right Jo. Oddly enough I actually have a fair bit left over from yesterday’s exercise in the fridge in my room. I thought I’d use that”.
“Oh …. OK…. Are you sure? It’s really no trouble to make up some more..”
“Jo, that’s kind, but the left-over stuff will be fine”.
Jo smiled and went back into the prep room. It seemed odd. How had Dr Gosling got left-over material when she didn’t remember making anything up for Monday’s class? But Jo had too much else to get on with to worry about it now.
On the half dozen occasions that Lucy ran urine analysis with various classes for the rest of that term, she never asked for any mock urine, yet there was always plenty available. Jo noticed but it didn’t seem important enough to discuss with anyone.
Reproductive physiology was another subject on the syllabus. Here practical work involved the study of reproductive cells and their origin. For the female side, pre-prepared sections cut through mammal ovaries, stained and mounted on glass slides were needed, usually bought from professional suppliers. But male spermatozoa were easier. A local agricultural AI Lab provided samples of bull semen so that students could see living spermatozoa under the microscope.
When Lucy’s practical class on mammalian reproduction came up, the prep sheet went to Imelda. It asked for demonstration slides but Imelda noticed that the student instruction sheet also covered examination of spermatozoa, but nowhere had Lucy specified any bull semen. She came into Lucy’s office the day before the practical.
“About this reproduction stuff with your class tomorrow. I’ve got all the slides but I see you are looking at spermatozoa as well. You haven’t asked for any semen. Do you want me to get some from the AI lab, although at this short notice it may be too late?”
“That’s OK Imelda. My boyfriend Adrian is working with the Agricultural Advisory Service and can provide tomorrow’s material”.
“Oh .. . OK” said Imelda and tramped back to her lair in the prep room.
In the class Lucy produced a test tube of dilute semen kept cold in an ice beaker and the students took a drop or two onto slides to look at the spermatozoa, which moved briskly as the fluid warmed in the microscope lights. Liam looked very carefully at his slide and called out, “Lucy, …. Dr Gosling”.
Lucy went over, “Yes Liam?”
“You said this was bull semen right?”
“Well, I don’t think so”.
“What do you mean Liam?
“I worked over at the AI unit for a couple of months in the summer. Got to look at a lot of bull semen one way and another. This is not from a bull.”
Lucy coloured violently.
“I don’t know what you mean. This all came from the AI unit.”
Liam looked straight at her.
“I don’t think so.”
“It must be Liam, where else could it have come from?”
“Dr Gosling,” said Liam, “I put it to you that this is human semen and these little chaps were tossed off, so to speak, from a specimen of Homo sapiens.”
Liam had spoken loudly enough for his bench and the next to hear what he said. Surprised, shocked, and amused heads looked up.
“Dr Gosling!” shrieked Fran as she pushed her stool back violently from the bench, “that’s really unsavoury.”
Liam sat staring at her with folded arms, “Where did you get this from Lucy?”
Phil, the class clown, said in a stage whisper, “well there’s a good reason for a hand job in the cause of science. Do you think she’d let us give some?” The class burst out laughing.
There was no standing it. Uproar followed. Lucy bolted for her office, her handbag, her coat, and ran out of the building. She never went back. Afterwards Jo and Imelda compared notes. They reckoned Lucy had been using her own urine all term and had then found her own source of semen.
Ribald stories circulated about Lucy and Adrian, most of them not far from the truth. Lucy had indeed pleasured Adrian at lunchtime into a plastic kitchen funnel (from the local Habitat branch; price two shillings) and collected the fluid into an eggcup (undecorated bone China bought in a tat shop in Warwick; one and sixpence). From there she had poured it into a plastic College-issue disposable test tube (not logged in Lucy’s catalogue) placed on ice in a porcelain teacup (a nice specimen of 1920s Spode, with an elaborate floral decoration and gold highlights, obtained with two matching saucers; three shillings). This cup with its iced tube she had taken back to the College and suitably diluted its contents. She had almost forgotten to refill the freezer ice tray at the flat the night before, which would have ruined the whole thing. At room temperature spermatozoa would not have survived long enough to be of any use.
Lucy resigned before she could be dismissed. A month later she and Adrian were gone (in different directions) from their flat. Lucy never went back to teaching. She re-trained in alternative psychotherapy and did quite well for herself. Adrian took to smoking cannabis in a big way and suffered from erectile dysfunction. Doctors connected the two activities (cannabis smoking and a flaccid willy) but no one ever really managed to treat it, mainly because cannabis wasn’t the main problem (though it didn’t help). His psychological difficulty was shame from Lucy’s escapades with his body fluid. Ironically erectile dysfunction was a problem that Lucy the psychotherapist was rather good at treating, but Adrian never did have occasion to visit her in her second career.
A Grasshopper Mind
With the new job came a new office and he was excited. This time he had it all to himself and he could see that it might solve a long-running source of domestic tension as well. In the long run, though, it did not turn out that way and eventually the local paper had a sad story about the county’s unluckiest bookworm to tell.
Up until this appointment he had always shared an office. For him this had a major drawback; he could not do serious work with colleagues around. He needed to concentrate on technical reading and thinking for a jumbled career in teaching and journalism. In the early days he had done all his significant work at home on the kitchen table while later on he improvised study space in hallways and stairwells. He needed books, large numbers of books, which steadily accumulated at home, flooding out of the study areas and colonising swathes of general living space, which really annoyed the most significant family member. While the children would cheerfully share a table with him to do their homework, the other adult found him a serious impediment to satisfactory home life. He was in the way; his books cluttered the place up, he was permanently distracted.
But this time he’d cracked it. The post was sufficiently senior to justify its own office although it was a shabby room with wonky tables, soiled office chairs, non-matching filing cabinets, a telephone handset a decade out of fashion and a malfunctioning personal computer. But it also had three whole walls covered with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Once he had filled the shelves with books this would be (at last) a space truly suitable for proper work. It had taken a long time to arrive in paradise but it was better to enter heaven late than never to get there at all.
‘We could have some of these shelves taken away,’ suggested Angela, the Head of Department’s PA, on his second day, ‘Professor Sturridge had any amount of books. They were a bit oppressive to be honest.’
‘No, I’d like to keep the shelves please,’ he replied.
Just as he acquired the new job, with the children grown up, the significant other decreed it was time to downsize to a smaller house. If he could move the domestic library into his new working environment where it belonged he anticipated a valuable easing of long-running tensions. So he shifted all work-related books from home to office in a series of Sunday morning car trips. After a few weeks the shelves were once again stuffed with books.
‘Gosh,’ said Angela, ‘it’s almost like old Strurridge never left!’
Well not really, if she had looked closely Angela would have seen that the two collections were very different. Sturridge had been an expert in a narrow academic field while the new occupant was an academic tourist. The shelves no longer held a focused collection of reference books and monographs, but a sequence of literary strata embedded with the fossilized remains of the new man’s past enthusiasms.
While these enthusiasms might have passed into history, he still loved his esoteric collection of books and spent time contemplating their breadth and taking down examples to relive half-forgotten pleasures. The mixture contained botanical Floras with broken spines and loose pages, interspersed with tattered school zoology textbooks, all set about with ancient popular science books. There was a mixed bag of texts on physiology and a sprinkling of monographs on immunology, which snuggled up to collections of teaching resources in applied science. Mildewed tomes on the nature of technology mixed promiscuously with treatises on the history of genetics, revelries on the theory of evolution, tortuous texts on the sociology of science, and brief pamphlets on social science research methods. There were paperbacks on educational practice, a deal of stuff on theories of communication, threnodies on journalism, and a fair number of other odds and sods drawn from the more obscure byways of academia. For most observers the transposed library looked like an unsatisfactory tasting menu of out-of-date sources beneath a heavy coating of dust. But he found it constantly fascinating.
And things were certainly better at home and they stayed that way for quite a while. But all good things come to an end. There was redevelopment and redeployment at work. He had to move office several times, on each occasion to a cosier space. Each in turn had fewer bookshelves. Reluctantly he sold or gave away a lot of books but could never quite cut their number to fit the reduced shelving. A steady trickle found their way back home again. And all the while fresh strata of interest were laid down faster than the old ones eroded away. Inevitably there were again tensions with the most significant family member as books once invaded all available space in the house.
Her friends saw how this distressed her and pretended to worry that she might actually carry out a threat she made increasingly often, to pull a rack of overloaded shelves onto her head and expire gracefully beneath their weight. That would surely wake him up to realize the error of his ways? But, in fact, something else happened instead. It was he who was discovered one morning lifeless beneath a collapsed set of overloaded shelving. The local press reported the case as the accidental death of a hopelessly addicted bookworm. No-one thought to examine carefully the state of the screw fixings that had held the shelves to the wall. If they had, the Clarion might have been able to tell a much more interesting story.
The most significant family member had all his books removed pretty fast. In public she claimed it was because they reminded her too strongly of his absence. Her friends claimed that this showed how fond of him she had been. Privately, though, they all knew or guessed the truth. If there is a moral to this story it must be that if a grasshopper rubs his legs against his wing-cases so assiduously that he irritates the surrounding wild life, the local songbirds are bound to eat him.
There May be Trouble Ahead
Yesterday morning the bloody car wouldn’t start for no reason that I could see. There was no frost, no rain and the air was dry but nothing would fire it up. Luckily old Dobson from three doors down was home and jump-started me from his van. This was the first time the motor has played up since the trauma of the first day of term. After that it has been fine for over a month. I should have realized the repeat failure was another omen then I might have been better prepared for the nasty day ahead. I am beginning to think cars are clairvoyant and can see the black ice up in front of them.
When it wouldn’t start on the first day of term I already knew I was in for a rough time. Teaching your first college class with no proper training is always going to knot the bowels. Teaching your first class in a subject where you have absolutely no confidence just makes it worse. On paper I’d done two years of a chemistry degree so I couldn’t really refuse to teach an elementary chemistry course. But I’d only scraped through by dint of memorizing a vanishingly small number of key facts. I don’t really know any chemistry at all. But somehow I got through that first session and since then things have, thank goodness, improved quite quickly. As long as I manage to keep a few steps ahead of the class I have enough confidence to get through lecture sessions. I can mug up the textbook faster than the class. They’ve got more interesting things to do.
But practical sessions are something else. I’ve never actually worked in a laboratory so I’m short of a chunk of experience I ought to have. Sure, I’ve carried out most of the procedures I have to run now as an undergraduate but I didn’t design them or set them up. I haven’t developed as much confidence with practical work as I have with rabbiting on in class. To make things worse I’m teaching technical courses. The students come to the college on day-release from their jobs as technicians. Working in laboratories is what they do all day and get paid for.
So I’m still apprehensive about practical sessions and pretty dependent on the college technicians. They do all the prep work making up solutions, cutting sections, dissecting out tissues and so on. All I have to do is get the specifications right and they do the rest. They know I’m pretty green but most of them are kind enough to point out my mistakes before classes run. I don’t like being so dependent but I’m very grateful and have come to like them a lot.
Except for Geoff that is. I’m actually afraid of Geoff. He’s a tall, gangly youth with black hair and black eyes, probably about my age. He’s cocky, probably with good reason. He’s in the Deputy Head of Department’s good books and already doing some of her evening teaching sessions for her. He has got his eye on a teaching post and with Angela behind him it won’t be long before he gets one. He has no compunction about telling teaching staff when he thinks they’re wrong. Where my knowledge of chemistry is wafer thin, the subject is Geoff’s strong point. He can smell insecurity from several rooms away and homes in on it without mercy. I try to avoid him.
But yesterday my luck ran out. One of my prep sheets went to him for processing. I’d been worried that it might have done but hoped that it hadn’t. By mid-morning I knew he was doing it and that I was at his mercy but I couldn’t do a thing about it. I was busy through lunch time so didn’t get to the lab to check what was on the prep trolley until just before the afternoon session was due to start.
When I saw that trolley I felt queasy. What was on it didn’t look like what I had ordered. That was because it wasn’t. Geoff himself had the afternoon off so he’d left me a note in his spidery scrawl. It told me that he didn’t approve of the method I intended using, surprisingly out-of-date he thought. So he’d put out the stuff for a better one. He was sure I must be familiar with it. But if I needed a refresher, it was set out in a way that even I could understand on page two hundred and twenty six of the larger Tomkins book. He felt sure I must have a copy and anyway there was one on reference in the library. I could, of course, have borrowed his but regrettably he needed it at home.
I didn’t know the method. I don’t possess a copy of Tomkins. It was much too late to refer to the library copy. I felt thoroughly skewered. For a couple of minutes it was like the first day of term all over again, only worse as I didn’t have any idea what to do. And then the class came in, noisy, optimistic and reasonably eager as usual. As a delaying tactic I called the roll slowly, making some lengthy enquiries about the one absentee. That all took the best part of four minutes and I still had no idea what to do.
There was only one option, confess and jump, hoping someone in the room happened to know the method. I covered my tracks a bit by saying the technical staff had made a mistake and put out materials for the wrong method. Did anyone happen to know the one they’d put out in error? As luck would have it someone did. Jock Hamilton rescued me. He’d been on a short course where they’d used the method and had a copy of the protocol in his bag. He even wrote it out on the board for the others to copy. Heads went down, solutions were mixed, optical densities were read, results were recorded. Everything worked OK. I bought Jock a couple of pints afterwards, it was the least I could do. But when I got into the car to go home I was completely drained. No problems starting it though. It spat into life at the first turn of the key.
It started OK this morning as well. Just before lunch I happened to pass Geoff in the corridor. I guess he had heard that everything had gone well and I hadn’t been humiliated. He didn’t say anything but gave me a meaningful look. I just raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t caught me in his trap but I’m still a bit shocked that he could have done what he did. But I’m not quite so afraid of him as I was.
I had an evening class today so did not manage to leave the college until nearly nine o’clock. My car was still behaving itself but as I came out onto the slip road from the car park, I had to dodge past a vehicle parked halfway up the curb. In the rear view mirror I saw that the figure hunched under the bonnet was Geoff. I didn’t stop. It wouldn’t have helped if I had, I’d left my tool kit at home. I’ll turn this into a small scientific experiment to see whether Geoff’s car knew something about the rest of his evening that he didn’t. I’ll try to find out tomorrow what the serious problem was that I predict will be waiting for him when he gets home.