Authors: Tom Sharpe
It was Enrolment Week at the Tech. Henry Wilt sat at a table in Room 467 and stared into the
face of the earnest woman opposite him and tried to look interested.
'Well, there is a vacancy in Rapid Reading on Monday evenings,' he said. 'If you'll just fill
in the form over there...' He waved vaguely in the direction of the window but the woman was not
to be fobbed off.
'I would like to know a little more about it. I mean it does help, doesn't it?'
'Help?' said Wilt refusing to be drawn into sharing her enthusiasm for self-improvement 'It
depends what you mean by help.'
'My problem has always been that I'm such a slow reader I can't remember what the beginning of
a book was about by the time I've finished it,' said the woman. 'My husband says I'm practically
She smiled forlornly and implied a breaking marriage which Wilt could save by encouraging her
to spend her Monday evenings away from home and the rest of the week reading books rapidly. Wilt
doubted the therapy and tried to shift the burden of counselling somewhere else.
'Perhaps you would be better off taking Literary Appreciation,' he suggested.
'I did that last year and Mr Fogerty was wonderful. He said I had potential.'
Stifling the impulse to tell her that Mr Fogerty's notion of potential had nothing to do with
literature and was more physical in its emphasis though what the hell he could see in this
earnest creature was a mystery Wilt surrendered.
The purpose of Rapid Reading.' he said going into the patter, 'is to improve your reading
skills both in speed and retention of what you have read. You will find that you concentrate more
the faster you go and that...'
He went on for five minutes delivering the set speech he had learnt by heart over four years
of enrolling potential Rapid Readers. In front of him the woman changed visibly. This was what
she had come to hear, the gospel of evening-class improvement. By the time Wilt had finished and
she had filled in the form there was a new buoyancy about her.
There was less about Wilt. He sat on for the rest of the two hours listening to other similar
conversations at other tables and wondering how the devil Bill Paschendaele managed to maintain
his proselytizing fervour for An Introduction To Fenland Sub-Culture after twenty years. The
fellow positively glowed with enthusiasm. Wilt shuddered and enrolled six more Rapid Readers with
a lack of interest that was calculated to dishearten all but the most fanatical. In the intervals
he thanked God he didn't have to teach the subject any longer and was simply there to lead the
sheep into the fold. As Head of Liberal Studies Wilt had passed beyond the Evening Classes into
the realm of timetables, committees, memoranda, wondering which of his staff was going to have a
nervous breakdown next, and the occasional lecture to Foreign Students. He had Mayfield to thank
for the latter. While the rest of the Tech had been badly affected by financial cuts, the Foreign
Students paid for themselves and Dr Mayfield, now Head of Academic Development, had created an
empire of Arabs, Swedes, Germans, South Americans and even several Japanese who marched from one
lecture room to another pursuing an understanding of the English language and, more impossibly,
English Culture and Customs, a hodge-podge of lectures which came under the heading of Advanced
English For Foreigners. Wilt's contribution was a weekly discourse on British Family Life which
afforded him the opportunity to discuss his own family life with a freedom and frankness which
would have infuriated Eva and embarrassed Wilt himself had he not known that his students lacked
the insight to understand what he was telling them. The discrepancy between Wilt's appearance and
the facts had baffled even his closest friends. In front of eighty foreigners he was assured of
anonymity. He was assured of anonymity, period. Sitting in Room 467 Wilt could while away the
time speculating on the ironies of life.
In room after room, on floor above floor, in departments all over the Tech, lecturers sat at
tables, people asked questions, received concerned answers and finally filled in the forms that
ensured that lecturers would keep their jobs for at least another year. Wilt would keep his for
ever. Liberal Studies couldn't fail for lack of students. The Education Act saw to that. Day
Release Apprentices had to have their weekly hour of progressive opinions whether they liked it
or not. Wilt was safe, and if it hadn't been for the boredom he would have been a happy man. The
boredom and Eva.
Not that Eva was boring. Now that she had the quads to look after Eva Wilt's enthusiasms had
widened to include every 'Alternative' under the sun. Alternative Medicine alternated with
Alternative Gardening and Alternative Nutrition and even Various Alternative Religions so that
Wilt, coming home from each day's lack of choice at the Tech, could never be sure what was in
store for him except that it was not what it had been the night before. About the only constant
was the din made by the quads. Wilt's four daughters had taken after their mother. Where Eva was
enthusiastic and energetic they were inexhaustible and quadrupled her multiple enthusiasms. To
avoid arriving home before they were in bed Wilt had taken to walking to and from the Tech and
was resolutely unselfish about using the car. To add to his problems, Eva had inherited a legacy
from an aunt and since Wilt's salary had doubled they had moved from Parkview Avenue to
Willington Road and a large house in a large garden. The Wilts had moved up the social scale. It
was not an improvement, in Wilt's opinion, and there were days when he hankered for the old times
when Eva's enthusiasms had been slightly muted by what the neighbours might think. Now, as the
mother of four and the matron of a mansion, she no longer cared. A dreadful self-confidence had
And so at the end of his two hours Wilt took his register of new students to the office and
wandered along the corridor of the Administration Block towards the stairs. He was going down
when Peter Braintree joined him.
'I've just enrolled fifteen landlubbers for Nautical Navigation. What about that to start the
year off with a bang?'
'The bang starts tomorrow with Mayfield's bloody course board meeting,' said Wilt. Tonight was
as nothing. I tried to dissuade several insistent women and four pimply youths from taking Rapid
Reading and failed. I wonder we don't run a course on how to solve The Times crossword puzzle in
fifteen minutes flat. It would probably boost their confidence more than beating the track record
for Paradise Lost.'
They went downstairs and crossed the hall where Miss Pansak was still recruiting for
'Makes me feel like a beer,' said Braintree. Wilt nodded. Anything to delay going home.
Outside, stragglers were still coming in and cars were parked densely along Post Road.
'What sort of time did you have in France?' asked Braintree.
'The sort of time you would expect with Eva and the brood in a tent. We were asked to leave
the first camp site after Samantha had let down the guy ropes on two tents. It wouldn't have been
so bad if the woman inside one hadn't had asthma. That was on the Loire. In La Vendee we were
stuck next to a German who had fought on the Russian front and was suffering from shell-shock. I
don't know if you've ever been woken in the night by a man screaming about Flammenwerfern but I
can tell you it's unnerving. That time we moved on without being asked.'
'I thought you were going down to the Dordogne. Eva told Betty she'd been reading a book about
three rivers and it was simply enthralling.'
The reading may have been but the rivers weren't,' said Wilt, 'not the one we were next to. It
rained and of course Eva had to have the tent in what amounted to a tributary. It was bad enough
putting the thing up dry. Weighed a ton then, but moving it out of a flashflood up a hundred
yards of bramble banks at twelve o'clock at night when the damned thing was sodden.' Wilt
stopped. The memory was too much for him.
'And I suppose it went on raining,' said Braintree sympathetically 'That's been our
'It did,' said Wilt. 'For five whole days. After that we moved into a hotel.'
'Best thing to do. You can eat decent meals and sleep in comfort.'
'You can perhaps. We couldn't. Not after Samantha shat in the bidet, I wondered what the
stench was sometime around 2 a.m. Anyway let's talk about something civilized.'
They went into The Pig In A Poke and ordered pints.
'Of course all men are selfish,' said Mavis Mottram as she and Eva sat in the kitchen at
Willington Road. 'Patrick hardly ever gets home until after eight and he always has an excuse
about the Open University It's nothing of the sort, or if it is it's some divorcee student who
wants extra coition. Not that I mind any longer. I said to him the other night, 'If you want to
make a fool of yourself running after other women that's your affair but don't think I'm going to
take it lying down. You can go your way and I'll go mine.'
'What did he say to that?' Eva asked, testing the steam iron and starting on the quads'
'Oh just something stupid about not wanting it standing up anyway. Men are so coarse. I can't
think why we bother with them.'
'I sometimes wish Henry was a bit coarser,' said Eva pensively 'He always was lethargic but
now he claims he's too tired because he walks to the Tech every day. It's six miles so I suppose
he could be.'
'I can think of another reason,' said Mavis bitterly. 'Still waters etcetera...'
'Not with Henry. I'd know. Besides, ever since the quads were born he's been very
'Yes, but what's he been thoughtful about? That's what you have to ask yourself, Eva.'
'I meant he's been considerate to me. He gets up at seven and brings me tea in bed and at
night he always makes me Horlicks.
'If Patrick started acting like that I'd be very suspicious,' said Mavis. 'It doesn't sound
'It doesn't, does it, but that's Henry all over. He's really kind. The only thing is he isn't
very masterful. He says it's because he's surrounded by five women and he knows when he's
'If you go ahead with this au pair girl plan that will make six,' said Mavis.
'Irmgard isn't a proper au pair girl. She's renting the top-floor, flat and says she'll help
around the house whenever she can.'
'Which, if the Everards' experience with their Finn is anything to go by, will be never. She
stayed in bed till twelve and practically ate them out of house and home.'
'Finns are different,' said Eva. 'Irmgard is German. I met her at the Van Donkens' World Cup
Protest Party. You know they raised nearly a hundred and twenty pounds for the Tortured
'I didn't think there were any Tupamaros in Argentina any more. I thought they had all been
killed off by the army.'
'These are the ones who escaped,' said Eva. 'Anyway I met Miss Mueller and mentioned that we
had this top flat and she was ever so eager to have it. She'll do all her own cooking and
'Things? Did you ask her what things she had in mind?
'Well, not exactly, but she says she wants to study a lot and she's very keen on physical
'And what does Henry have to say about her?' asked Mavis moving closer to her real
'I haven't told him yet. You know what he's like about having other people in the house, but I
thought if she stays in the flat in the evenings and keeps out of his way...'
'Eva dear,' said Mavis with advanced sincerity, 'I know this is none of my business but aren't
you tempting fate just a little?'
'I can't see how. I mean it's such a good arrangement. She can baby-sit when we want to go
out, and the house is far too big for us and nobody ever goes up to the flat.'
They will with her up there. You'll have all sorts of people coming through the house and
she's bound to have a record player. They all do.'
'Even if she does we won't hear it. 'I've ordered rush matting from Soales and I went up the
other day with the transistor and you can hardly hear a thing.'
'Well, it's your affair, dear, but if I had an au pair girl in the house with Patrick around
I'd want to be able to hear some things.'
'I thought you said you'd told Patrick he could do what he liked?'
'I didn't say in my house,' said Mavis. 'He can do what he likes elsewhere but if I ever
caught him playing Casanova at home he'd live to regret it.'
'Well, Henry is different. I don't suppose he will even notice her.' said Eva complacently.
'I've told her he's very quiet and home-loving and she says all she wants is peace and quiet
With the private thought that Miss Irmgard Mueller was going to find living in the same house
as Eva and the quads neither peaceful nor quiet, Mavis finished her coffee and got up to go. 'All
the same I would keep an eye on Henry,' she said. 'He may be different but I wouldn't trust a man
further than I could throw him. And my experience of foreign students is that they come over here
to do a lot more than learn the English language.'