The Lorenzos, plus Miles’ new girlfriend Tanja, and Jay, a scientist friend of Douglas’s from some other science department which Ren didn’t quite catch, are at The Head of Steam, a railway-themed pub in the city centre. Railway-themed pubs are quite common in Grayvington, due to Grayvington’s important railway heritage, or Important Railway Heritage, to give it its proper name, although as far as Ren can see, the history of rail in Grayvington is no different to a dozen other towns. It just seems to be, he thinks, something for the town and University to latch onto to make themselves seem more important, as there isn’t much else to boast about. The University even has a graphic of a steam engine as its logo, despite the fact that the University itself has never had any involvement in railways, either in practice or research, for the whole of its existence, until five years ago when it decided to start pouring money into research on solar-powered railways. The University now has now a Solar Railway Institute, headquartered away from Greenwood Glade and Baron Heights, in one of the old toy factories in Tinfields.
Toymaking is the only other claim to fame that Grayvington has. It started in the 1880s, with Rollinsons, highly successful makers of toy soldiers, doll’s houses, rocking horses, jigsaw puzzles, Noah’s Arks and sailing boats. Then in the 1920s Gambols was formed by three ex-employees of Rollinson’s. They made, inter alia, model railways, toy cars and children’s bikes, initially of high quality, and then of diminishing quality, until eventually all the manufacturing was moved to Taiwan in the 1960s, before the firm eventually went bust in the 1970s. Rollinson’s itself never survived the loss of three of its best employees, and it was sold off in 1935, and incorporated into a Sheffield toy firm who moved all its employees and useful machines up north.
Grayvington’s third great, if great is the word, toy company was Bonkers Toys, established in the late 1940s, makers of all sorts of poor quality novelties, magic sets, X-ray specs, itching powders, as well as their own comic, Sausage Gravy. The best that can be said for Sausage Gravy is that it has its fans, including Ren.
The town and the University are less keen on proclaiming this other heritage, if heritage is the word, for their own, perhaps because they don’t like being called Toytown, the nickname that is sometimes given to the city and the University by their rivals. Tinfields, the fashionable inner-city suburb that contains all the old toy factories and offices, now converted into trendy apartments, offices and restaurants, is better known to the locals as The Toy District, while the large, desirable houses in the posh suburb of Cownmouth, which were built by the toy barons at the height of their profit (and usually just before their downhill slide began), are known as the Toy Mansions.
The Lorenzos are socialising on a Sunday night because Lily was away on Friday and Saturday night in London visiting her boyfriend Jason, the soon-to-be-Professor. Ren reminds himself not to make any, or too many, digs at Jason, as he has been doing in the last few weeks. Sarcastic remarks won’t break them up, but they could make it obvious that Ren is carrying a torch for Lily, and he doesn’t want to seem sad, or put Lily off him.
He has, of course, looked Jason up on the internet, and while Jason’s intellectual performance is credible, at least as credible as a man who writes about phony garbage like the economics of climate change can be, he seems somewhat lacking, if his picture is anything to go by, in the ‘Cor blimey’ sphere. He can’t imagine Lily staring at Jason’s tight jeans and feeling a little shaky. He can’t imagine Jason roistering ‘til the early hours, then carrying Lily off to bed over his shoulder and giving her a good seeing-to. It’s easier to imagine Lily carrying him off to bed over her shoulder. And him being unconscious when he’s thrown onto the bed. And whimpering when Lily tries to wake him up.
The conversation has turned to the TITE. This is a topic that Tanja does not enjoy, while Jay, Douglas’s friend, who has an annoyingly loud voice, relishes the fact that he joined the University the year before TITE was brought in.
‘Speaking of TITE,’ says Douglas, ‘our group project is not getting far. We need to have a proper meet up and do some work on it, and not just go off to the bar instead like we have the last few weeks.’
‘Look, about that,’ says Ren.
‘What?’ says Douglas.
‘I might as well tell you now. I’m going to pull out of TITE. It’s just a bunch of cock. I’m not wasting my time on any more of it.’
‘Will they even let you pull out?’
‘I don’t see how they can stop me. And I’ve had a closer look at my contract. It doesn’t say that I have to complete TITE within the probationary period. It doesn’t say I have to pass it. It just says that I have to undertake it. Now, the word “undertake” is a bit vague. If you look at dictionary definitions it’s not at all clear that it means the same as “complete”. One definite meaning it has is to begin something, as opposed to completing it. So legally I don’t think the University can insist that I must complete TITE to get probation, as long as I’ve started it. Which I have. I’m just going to suspend my enrolment for a while. You should all do the same too. Don’t waste any more of your time listening to Balderstone’s drivel.’
The other academics look uneasily at one another.
‘I don’t know if it’s wise to piss the University off,’ says Jay in a voice that Ren wishes was about a hundred decibels quieter. ‘There are other ways they could make trouble for you.’
‘I think I’ll stay on the course, says Douglas. ‘Just want to get it over and done with.’
‘Me too,’ says Lily.
‘Modern academics are such cowards,’ says Ren, shaking his head. ‘Well, I hope you all enjoy the company of that nice Mr Balderstone for the rest of the academic year, as he puts his cock into your ear every week. And the Panopticon fascists. Not to mention the grisly Wetlands. You’ll learn a lot from all of them. Perhaps you should have them all around for tea sometime, and they can tell you off some more, and point out more things wrong with you.’
‘But the group project is going so well,’ says Miles with a smile.
‘Yeah, sorry I won’t be able to contribute to that, but in fact you’ll be better off without me, as I can’t write the sort of shit that’s required. I just can’t do it.’
‘Neither can we,’ says Lily.
‘Maybe Jay could join you instead.’
‘No fucking fear,’ says Jay, in a booming voice that echoes across the half-empty pub, which is full of metallic railway paraphernalia, as though he’s trying to bring it all to life so it can transport his voice to Scotland in order that the people there can hear him say ‘No fucking fear’ as well.
‘Well,’ says Ren, who swears he can hear tiny ‘fucking fear’ flutter echoes still bouncing around, ‘all the Head of Department complaints are due to be made to University management, so maybe the course will be better next year, or the year after.’
‘I’ve got to give it to you, you are a hard-core bastard,’ says Miles. ‘Leaving the course will go down like a cup of cold sick with Balderstone, especially on top of the complaints you’ve organised.’
‘Hope he doesn’t take it out on us,’ says Douglas.
‘He wouldn’t dare now that he’s under the microscope,’ says Ren. ‘He’ll be in the doo-doo if he tries that. Kapshar and the other Heads are pissed off with his course, partly for being a load of shite, and partly because it takes so much time away from their new lecturers, without teaching them anything useful. Even your big shithead Sadler is on side.’
‘Is this what academic life is really like?’ asks Tanja. ‘It seems like a war zone. I thought artists were bad.’
‘A war?’ says Ren. ‘By academic standards this is a small skirmish.’
Ren isn’t that happy about discussing these matters in front of Tanja, but he can hardly ask her to leave, as this is a social, not a work, get-together. He goes off to the bar and gets a round of drinks for everyone, and comes back with some proper pork scratchings.
‘Hey look, they have real scratchings here. Great pub,’ he says.
‘You and your blinking pork scratchings,’ says Miles. ‘Is that your main criteria for a pub? Whether it has proper pork scratchings? What about the lack of good ale here?’
‘Do I have a beard? I couldn’t give a flying Scotsman about ale. I’ve told you, to me it all tastes like it’s been soaking with some old socks for three years in a tub in the basement, and sometimes the landlord pisses in it. You look at some of those landlords of the real ale pubs you go to, and you tell me that they don’t look exactly like the sort of person who would do that. Or maybe they bathe in it. Once a year, mind. Most of them look like that’s about as often as they wash.’
‘I think they toss in all the old cigarette butts every night as well,’ says Douglas.
‘There you go,’ says Ren. ‘He’s a physicist. He knows all about this science stuff.’
‘Just because you drink like a girl,’ says Miles, indicating Ren’s lager.
‘Hey,’ says Lily, who is drinking ale.
‘All right, you drink like a poof,’ says Miles.
‘Hey,’ says Jay, who is also drinking ale.
‘There you go Miles, you’re the one drinking like a girl and a poof. Hoist by your own petard. You’ll have clean Jay’s steam whistle later on tonight.’
‘Hey,’ says Tanja, half-heartedly, after a little pause. This sort of banter isn’t really her thing, but she feels obliged to join in.
‘Don’t worry, I’m sure Jay will let you watch,’ says Ren.