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The Vice-Chancellor’s personal assistant had managed to briefly recapture him. It was late morning and she had fastened on to the Professor as he was rattling down a corridor, midway between one strategy reassessment and another. He was now due to schmooze with Warwick University’s Senate but she told him that this bunch could wait.

“You will want to hear about the latest case. A female student named Lucy.”

Professor Croft looked temporarily alert and interested, as he always did whenever anybody came up to him with a fresh problem. He was an administrator for whom everything was a priority and of which every one of them was at the top of his list. “Ah, this is the third case?”

“The fourteenth” she replied evenly.

“Goodness? The fourteenth?”

“The fourteenth this morning,” she added, with a kind of chiding emphasis. “We’ve actually had to wheel her into your office.”

“Gracious, wheel her?” The Vice-Chancellor was immediately hurrying off to see and she had to hurry after him. This current trouble amongst the students was rather like ivy, she reflected. You kept on saying that you would prune it until one day you realised that your entire house had disappeared.

There was an intense, almost holy stillness in the Vice-Chancellor’s office. Lucy was perched motionlessly in the comfortable visitors’ chair, with her body hemmed upright between firm cushions. The two porters who had decanted her off her trolley and into this chair now stood waiting in a corner of the room. Each of them was wearing vast leather gloves that made them look like falconers.

The Vice-Chancellor was about to pull another chair up beside Lucy but he then worried that she might grow hysterical. So he instead seated himself behind his desk, at a distance of several feet.

“Lucy,” he began gently. “You are one of these students who is…” He had to search wildly to locate a word that would sound sensible enough on his lips. He decided upon “indisposed.”

She shivered and for an awestruck moment he wondered whether she could still talk. To his relief, however, a thin voice issued from within her insanely transfixed face.

“I am made of glass.”

Professor Croft gazed at her. Next, he was panicking that he had been gazing at her for slightly too long and that the conversation had stopped. “Er, when did you become unwell, Lucy?”

“Yesterday. After my tutorial on Aphra Behn.”

This was interesting. All of the students who were made of glass were undergraduates in the Humanities departments.

“And Lucy, are the appropriate measures being taken across campus to accommodate all of your needs? You are, after all, paying nine thousa…”

“I am paying nine thousand pounds per year,” the glass girl croaked petulantly.

“Indeed, so we need lots of scatter cushions. We also need people to wheel you about. What else do we need?”

“Straws,” her reedy voice insisted. “I can only slot a straw through my glass lips. To suck purée through.”

The Vice-Chancellor had heard that these students were generally fine if they stayed on campus. Out on the streets of Coventry, they quickly became distraught. As they inched down the streets, they were terrified that if they stepped too near to the houses, a slate might drop from a roof on to their heads, shattering them instantly. But if they stepped too near to the road, the vibrations from a passing bus or lorry might cause tiny cracks to appear across their glass skin.

“And what about the emotional implications of being made from glass?” Professor Croft pursued. “How has your mental health been affected?”

“My mental health is being placed under extreme strain,” Lucy announced menacingly.

“Oh dear, well we are monitoring this situation going forward. We are doing everything that we can to ensure that all of the learning pods, tutorial stations and lecture halls will be… er… padded?” Was “padded” the right word these days? Warwick University was committed to using appropriate language to refer to this current outbreak of glass. Looking down at his notes, the Professor saw that seven members of staff – albeit merely the littler people who mopped the floors and made the coffees – had been suspended for uttering inappropriate remarks about the glass students. A member of the housekeeping team had called one glass boy “as loopy as a fruit bat.” This was clearly discriminatory language that was no longer acceptable when referring to university service users with ongoing mental health needs.

In truth, Professor Croft knew that as a younger man he might have been more sanguine or sardonic about Lucy. A recent experience had, however, opened up a dazzling beam of empathy into her circumstances. The Vice-Chancellor suffered from haemorrhoids. The excruciating pain that caused him to grovel shapelessly on his bathroom floor, wretched with self-disgust and probing ever onwards with ointment on a lollipop stick towards the molten core of the agony… well this wincing sensitivity was presumably what Lucy felt over her whole body.

“Lucy, it is so valuable to have experienced this interaction with you this morni…” Suddenly his P.A. was speaking rapidly through the intercom. The Vice-Chancellor had just received an email that required his urgent attention.

He swiped about amongst his phone until he was in his inbox. He opened the relevant message and found himself studying what appeared to be screenshots of a group chat on Whatsapp. He scanned for a moment and it seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary. A fairly normal conversation amongst some sniggering adolescents. The Professor smiled – one of them was named Captain Fartsalot. Next, Professor Croft had looked back at his email and seen that there was presently a petition that was calling for these students to be suspended from the university. It had been signed by over 67,000 people.

He returned to the screenshots again to see if he could fathom what was meant to be so objectionable. Then, awfully, it came to him:

“Going on a pub crawl tonight. We’re gonna smash a load of glass bottles and maybe some brittle glass girls too.”

“This’ll teach them – smash ‘em all to smithereens!”

“Hard to be so stuck up when your pussy’s in pieces!”

The Professor was sickened all the way down to his squirming toes. He had been once so ill that his body had gone into shock. Shock is a word we can use quite loosely, but for any who have had it medically, you know that it has a profound physical effect. It is why we use the term in wider language. But the shock effect that he felt on seeing those comments was different to the shock induced by his illness.

One part of him felt it deeply but another knew that it was obviously a performance and basically bogus. He had a small model of a cartoon dog stuck on the dashboard of his car that wagged its head whenever sunlight fell over it. Now the Professor was about to join in a similar moral wagging across the breadth of the university.

He threw a hasty, guilty look across his desk at Lucy and saw that she was watching him with eyes that were definitely not glassy.

“This is why I am meeting with you. These students are highly dangerous.”

The Professor could not help glancing back at the screenshots, with their immature silliness and those childish yellow smiley faces strewn everywhere. “Dangerous – really?”

In being made of glass, this girl could hardly nod but she seemed to shiver impatiently all over. “I am outraged and upset that my safety on campus is being disregarded for the future of privileged students.” She looked as stern and zealous as a militiaman does when arriving at a genocide. The Vice-Chancellor had been on the verge of attempting to suggest that this group chat was probably a harmless joke, but the words melted in his mouth like warm ice-cream. He tried another tack.

“Lucy, I know that these words are very distressing for you… and for your fellow students who are made of glass… but saying that you want to “smash” a bottle isn’t actually a criminal offence.”

“Yes it is. It’s harassment, intimidation – it’s a death threat!” Lucy’s glasswork squealed and squeaked fragily. The Professor gritted his teeth.

“Outside of the university,” the Professor pressed, “in a police station or in a criminal court, this isn’t going to go anywhere. It would be viewed almost as a fuss over nothing.” He made sure to make it sound as though the world outside the university was deplorably uncaring, as though he was grieving alongside Lucy.

“This is inappropriate,” Lucy snapped. The Vice-Chancellor was aghast – for the first time in several decades he was being given orders. He briefly plummeted lost and spinning, dethroned in the universe. “If these boys are not suspended, there will be a new petition. To suspend you! Now please place me back on my trolley.”

It took a moment for the Vice-Chancellor to grasp that Lucy had been addressing the porters. In speaking to these menial staff, she had not in any resepect varied the voice that she had been using with him.

By the afternoon, Professor Croft had hit upon a plan. Craftily, he thought that if he could sow sufficient confusion and disruption, two of the worst offenders, Ryan Allison and Tom Dignum, might somehow agree to leave Warwick University voluntarily. He hoped that they would do this without resorting to any lawsuits that would inevitably go badly for the university in the long term. He summoned the two boys to his office and informed them that they had let the university down and themselves as well. Suspending them was a shame, he reeled off breezily and without any sympathy secure enough for them to cling on to. They should reflect upon what they had done, etcetera.

Both had mumbled and scowled. He had snuck a quick look at them as they had left his office. He had expected to see the dull piggy eyes and empurpled faces of “privileged” boys from the shires. But these two figures had looked curiously blank and flattened and hunted, like foxes that are trimmed to their barest reflexes and seeking the gap in the hedgerow, the get-out under the fence.

The Vice-Chancellor was ready to return to his schmoozing. He had an important discussion with the Senate about implementing the next stage of his strategic vision and bolstering the value statements for their overall mission wellbeing. All at once, though, there was a distant alarm going off and voices scrambling thickly in his intercom. All the luxurious excitement of an emergency!

One of the suspended boys had been seen stalking towards the Student Union building. He had been carrying a slingshot and some pebbles – the sort of device that had been once used to fell Goliath.

“This is an emergency call across the campus for all staff to make themselves available. We have to evacuate over a hundred students to safety.”

The Professor fixed his P.A. on the other end of the phone. Had the police been called? She replied that they had and they hadn’t. The university had been unable to explain to the police what exact crime was being committed. The police could not understand why experienced educators could not confiscate a slingshot off a lone student.

In the forecourt of the Student Union building there was escalating hysteria. Some of the students had been laden on to trolleys – some of the occupied trolleys had been stranded in the road whilst the staff raced to help new students on to more trolleys – amazingly, some staff were being suspended, in the middle of the crisis, for jocularity – whilst some of the more frightened students were edging or wobbling away from the group evacuation in search of individual shelter. The air was so thick with cries and screams that it seemed to strangely recall the innocent pulsing of crickets on a warm summer’s night in the Mediterranean.

As the Vice-Chancellor approached this deafening mayhem, he caught sight of Lucy on its very outskirts. She had shuffled off her own trolley and she was waddling frantically towards the cover of some nearby trees. Then he saw the male student with the slingshot striding amongst the hysterical students and taunting them. This boy swung up to Lucy and aimed his slingshot at her face. It was empty but as the sling plopped soundlessly over her head, she screeched with a deep unearthly terror that almost froze the Professor into glass himself.

The student stamped his foot in annoyance. “For fuck’s sake, you moron, you are not made of glass! Look at you! Have you not eyes that can see that your own skin is not made of glass? Have you not hands to claw me with, feet to kick me in the balls with, teeth to bite me with? You are simply not that delicate! This is maddening!

For a split-second, their eyes met. Two pairs of eyes, both of them looking peculiarly naked and frank in this accidental alighting. Lucy looked into the male student’s eyes and they did not appear as fierce as she would have imagined. The student looked into Lucy’s eyes and he equally did not see some radical vulnerability that was alien to his own soul. Perhaps if they had gazed for a split-second longer, then they might have reached some sympathy or understanding. But the Vice-Chancellor barged right in. If the students could sort out all of their own problems for themselves, as adults, then they would not need his gigantic bureaucracy, with its strategic visions, its proliferating tiers of concrete and its ravenous expense.

He ducked down and fished for the slingshot and untwined it from the student’s fingers. “You are suspended from the campus!” he bellowed, once up again. “You must leave immediately!”

After an hour, there was no trace left of this harrowing scene. The trolleys had gone back and forth in a constant circuit to transfer the students to a special padded auditorium in the basement of the Student Union. Hard hats and luminescent jackets had been issued to every student who was huddled into this officially-designated “safe space.” Next, thousands of very soft and weightlessly fluffy kittens had been released into the auditorium to slink about mazily, like lice on a cowhide, to alleviate the students’ stress levels. Despite the day’s drama, the health-and-safety incident book had logged only a handful of minor cracks.

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