I assist Prof by always being on his side and supporting him in any way I can. If other people have to be pricked and prodded out of his way then so be it.
‘Oh, do shut up Margaret, you don’t know anything about it,’ I snapped, craning my neck to see into Prof’s office. I couldn’t do any work, I sat fuming at my desk as Yvonne got his full attention and I was left out in the cold. When she was still in with Prof after ten minutes and it became clear that she wasn’t to be dismissed quickly, I pulled up her electronic file to see what I could find out. Pleasingly I discovered that she had a few hundred pounds in unpaid tuition fees outstanding on her account. A brief call to the student finance department soon put that right and as I was putting the phone down she came out of Prof’s office and gave me a horribly smug smile. I smiled back with genuine pleasure and wished her luck with her viva tomorrow, which wouldn’t go ahead now anyway if she didn’t pay her fees in full. That would be a nice panic for her later in the day. I envisaged the desperate phone calls to the bank, perhaps to her parents, the sleepless night agonising over whether the funds had gone through. ‘Hope it all goes well’, I added brightly and she gave me a puzzled little backward glance. Margaret opened her mouth to speak but the glacial look I gave her stopped her in her tracks and she turned back to her work tutting loudly.
This is what I do. I assist Prof by always being on his side and supporting him in any way I can. If other people have to be pricked and prodded out of his way then so be it. Prof’s well-being is my ultimate concern, not theirs. He needs time to focus on his writing and his research. That’s what’s important. That’s where he makes the difference and that’s where his genius lies. Not in helping doe-eyed girls with their dissertations or sorting out arguments about office size among middle aged academics who should have better things to worry about. He appreciates me, I know he does, and I have a very important place in his life. It works both ways though, and Prof ensures that I am made to feel special and that everyone else knows that I am his indispensable right-hand woman.
‘You are so good with the details, Sylvia,’ he always says, as he passes me another one of his stuffed plastic folders. ‘What would I do without you to look after me?’
There’s all the little things that show that he cares, not just the annual birthday lunch. For example, he always brings me a treat back from any meeting that he attends – a pack of biscuits perhaps, or a mini muffin (he doesn’t know I don’t eat them and I wouldn’t dream of hurting his feelings). I remember one day when I was sniffing and sneezing at my desk he came back from a senior management meeting with a ginger and lemon teabag in a paper envelope. He put it on my desk as he walked past saying, ‘here you go Sylvia, this might help your cold.’ I was so touched by his thoughtfulness. I just stared at the teabag and before I could say thank you, he was gone into his office. I know it’s silly and sentimental, but I still have that teabag. I have never opened it. I keep it in my bedside table drawer and sometimes, if I have had a particularly difficult day, I find it calming to take it out and breathe in its aroma before I go to sleep.
Every second Wednesday he treats me to what he calls a ‘working lunch’ in the staff canteen. We do talk about work mainly, but sometimes the conversation moves onto more personal territory and he tells me about what his boys have been up to or updates me on his father’s illness or his house extension. I always listen intently to whatever he wishes to share with me and try to provide supportive comments. Over the years I have heard a lot about his soon to be ex-wife, carefully hiding my glee beneath a concerned face when he has confided in me about her appalling behaviour. Prof also likes to tell me about his research and finds it incredibly helpful to use me as a sounding board as he thinks through his ideas. I am thrilled that he values my opinion, although I never have anything critical to say as he is way beyond me intellectually. I tell him how interesting I find his work and that’s why he has given me the honour of proof reading all his papers and book manuscripts before they go to the publishers. ‘You are so good with the details, Sylvia,’ he always says, as he passes me another one of his stuffed plastic folders. ‘What would I do without you to look after me?’ I hurry home looking forward to spending the evening immersing myself in Prof’s work, delighting in finding missing commas and correcting spelling mistakes, playing my small part in his superb contributions to the field of Educational Sociology. I don’t mind the extra hours I put in for free doing this for him. In fact, I enjoy it and it makes the time I am away from him easier to bear.