Lunch consists of unpleasant triangular sandwiches. The bread tastes like no bread he’s ever eaten before, not even cheap supermarket bread. Some sort of hardened industrial foam, perhaps, that’s been sprayed with a reagent earlier today to bring about some temporary softening. The fillings are possibly real food, but it’s hard to tell because they have been laid out by one of those TV science teachers who are determined to explain to kids just how much space there is between heavenly objects. There’s also a variety of brown objects that vaguely resemble food, and vaguely taste like food, if you’re engrossed in conversation and not paying much attention.
Much of the food, or ‘food’, is vegetarian, and there are ‘Vegetarian’ labels all over the platters, lest a poor vegetarian accidentally ingest the soul of a chicken, and be forced to undergo The Concrete Cure (there are some crimes that even non-retributivists can’t forgive). There are none of the passable chicken sticks he had the previous meeting. Only the bigwigs get to eat average quality food. To get chicken sticks at University you have to be a mediocre academic who has given up on research. Or be a professional – or to be more accurate, useless – bureaucrat who can’t get hired in the private sector. Then you get sandwiches made of real bread. Cheap supermarket bread, to be sure, but wheat-based, at least.
After lunch the meeting carries on, somewhat speeded up, and minus agenda item one, and minus Adelaide, who seems to have decided that turning up and sitting in silence for ninety minutes is as much as can reasonably be expected from her. After another hour they have got through seven more items. Derek and Tristram continue to act as though the sole purpose of the meeting is to make sport with one another. This is going to be a long forty years, thinks Ren. Time to check the academic job situation in Hawaii, perhaps.
At the current moment George is explaining why he thinks the Teaching Subcommittee needs to have an extra meeting in March.
‘The University’s Postgraduate Committee meets on March twenty-three, so if the Teaching Committee can meet a week or two before that they can discuss the issues that always come up in that meeting concerning funding. Last year we failed to…’
George stops talking, looking lost in memory.
‘We failed to what, George?’ says Robot.
Ren has no idea of what George is about to say, because he has not being paying attention to this agenda item. Or any of them, if truth be told. For the last twenty minutes he has been nodding off every few minutes, and then waking up as soon as he feels his head dropping, and all his attention has been focused on trying to stop himself falling asleep. No matter what he does, though, he can’t. He has tried pinching his legs with his fingers as hard as he can, but even that doesn’t prevent the constant nodding off. He’s tried singing songs in his head. He’s tried thinking about Lily naked to arouse himself. He’s even tried to scare himself with the idea that Robot will block his probation if he is seen to fall asleep in a staff meeting. None of those tactics have worked. The narcoleptic spells are relentless, and cannot be stopped. His urge to put his head down and sleep is becoming overwhelming.
He isn’t someone who normally suffers from narcolepsy. Today is just a combination of lack of sleep and extreme boredom. He wonders whether he should excuse himself, go to the bathroom, and throw cold water over his face.
‘George?’ says someone else.
‘We. Failed. To…’ says George, slowly. ‘Prepare.’
George’s head then does exactly what Ren’s head wants to do, which is to crash onto the desk in front of him. It’s almost like his and George’s head have a psychic link, and the overwhelming desire his head has to collapse has bullied George’s head into doing so first.
After a second of frozen horror, George rolls onto the floor, and pandemonium sets in, which is somewhat quelled when Martha Gelber, the building’s first aid person, takes charge, and the departmental administrator, Wendaline Clugston, runs off to phone an ambulance. There’s no danger of a narcoleptic episode now for Ren. George is unconscious and breathing heavily.
‘If this is just an issue with his oesophagus then I’d hate to see something serious happen to him,’ says Ren, who thinks no-one can possibly look this bad without something serious having happened to them.
Martha tells the rest of them to leave the room. The meeting is finally over.
‘Good old George,’ says Compton. ‘He took one for the team.’