The University of the Blackwall Tunnel

‘Yous all had a party and not told me?’

Phillip Jerome had cycled straight to work from a meeting. It was already 10.45am and the admissions desk of The South East London College of Art and Communication was directing its traffic; administrators incorrectly processed applications, invoices were sent on their various adventures, and emails chimed into inboxes from irate lecturers chasing late payments. It wasn’t really a meeting; he had stayed at his girlfriend’s — a twenty-three year old textiles student called Candida — and had sweated out all the old sex and Casillero del Diablo bombing down from Hoxton Square to Peckham Park Road. They started out as tutorials on how to navigate student housing benefit forms until eventually horniness and cynicism blossomed.

He was talking about the chocolate Rice Krispy cakes Bola had made for the other Finance Officers, and Jerome had almost sacrificed his for a dirty morning spoon; he made do with grabbing the small, triangular runt on the tin foil that had been abandoned by everyone else and its crowning Mini Egg pinched leaving a conspicuous oval indentation. The unexpected sugar windfall felt rejuvenating; sweetly soothing his ghostly hangover and compensating the lost calories from his heroic cycle, jumping the lights at Tower Bridge and destroying a 21 bus in a flat sprint down Borough High Street in the sheeting rain.

‘I’ll just check my emails and run down for a shower. Anyone after a tea?’

He plugged his iPod in to charge into a dusty stack of USB ports.

‘You’ll die of cold!’

Bola’s flirtatious mothering was gently filed away by Jerome as positive office ambiance.

‘I really enjoy it. If you get in the shower straight away you’ve nowt to worry about.’

His warming Yorkshire burr seemed to find its own when performatively non-complaining about weather. He privately finished off his Soulwax mix before nipping down to the changing rooms. After all of that it was practically lunch time anyway.

He really did have nothing to do. It was October in the 2006 autumn term and the main swathe of applications had been completed so the students had already started their Fresher’s term. It was manic around the summer and during UCAS clearing; the college would have to outsource some temps to man the phones and process the excess paperwork. But by now there was only the odd new latecomer to administrate and Jerome’s day was largely made up of attending meetings with Heads of Departments which he would usually sit out sending randy SMSs to Candida from his new Nokia.

His lack of ambition bothered him a bit back in his thirties. Friends were pairing up, getting married and moving up their respective ladders. He nearly left in the late Nineties; Head of the Admissions Office felt like a low ceiling, an easy but deadend job. But then he looked around at his friends; the estate agents and lawyers with the house and kids, with wives he no longer fancied and bed and Match of the Day. And the ‘creative’ ones; the ones who’d sacrificed relationships and stability for their bloody vision; the actors, the musicians — painfully keeping up their lonely crow’s feet grins in the face of never-ending potlessness. And then there was our Phil; permanent staff, permanent wage, permanent new intake of art school birds in student discount Topshop. He had long since sailed through his existential wobble with flying colours. Why look back now?

‘Am I seeing you at 4?’

Clive caught Jerome on his way back from a mid-afternoon Tesco run. He was the Dean of Admissions and had scheduled a meeting along with the Karen, the Head of Finance, which Jerome had failed to Import into his Outlook Calendar.

‘For me sins.’

Bugger. He’d forgotten about that. 4pm on a Friday? Are you having a laff? Is he having a laff? He was supposed to be in The Griffin by then.

His thoughts entered a quiet death spiral. Why did Clive want to meet with the Head of Finance? Had he lost someone’s student fees somewhere? Was it Jewsons about all that missing wood? Was it something to do with Candida — had her parents complained? Jerome had long since accepted that phoning it in and weeknight drinking came with the occasional bout of Fear, but this whitey was particularly brilliant. Besides, it was about to fuck up his weekend.

‘Karen, how are you, lovely?’ He went in with a hug. Then a good high-five-turned-clasp with Clive. Pre-emptively strike them with affection before their main assault of bad news. Act oblivious; look like you’re taking it seriously and say you won’t rest until you find out who’s responsible.

‘What’s happened?’

Clive laughed to himself. ‘No, no, nothing’s happened, just glad we caught you before you were all in the pub!’

They all laughed, Jerome overdid it a bit, but decided he didn’t care, he was airside. Clive was a pushover anyway, and this wasn’t even bad news. If art teachers were frustrated rock stars, Clive was a frustrated art teacher. He tried to dress down Friday but all of his shirts were the same.

‘We got a phone call from Transport for London,’ said Clive.

‘Was it about those red lights I jumped this morning?’

This was great stuff. Lovely, big airside laughs, even from Karen. Jerome momentarily thought about generously making love to the three-day-a-week divorcee before mentally doing up her blouse again.

‘No Phil,’ laughed Clive. ‘They’re doing a set of new classroom-based Situational Judgement tests for new Blackwall Tunnel maintenance workers. It’s basic psychometric exams, numeric reasoning and all that jazz. They’re looking for admin expertise… and your name came up.’

‘My fame does catch up with me sometimes.’

Not as great a laugh as before, but still good.

‘They’re looking for someone to organise it, oversee exam conditions and process all the papers like you would do normally. How is your workload at the minute?’

‘I might be able to move stuff around.’

‘We’d be happy to sign off a bit of time for this if you were interested. It could upskill you a bit.’

Jerome wasn’t particularly interested in being upskilled. He wanted to go to The Griffin. But his whole successful working life was built upon a careful, fraudulent can-do ambience. Saying ‘no’ could break the spell. And it could be a chance to take monster mornings off and get out of the office for a bit.

‘I’m in. Let’s get a meeting in Monday. No, actually Tuesday is better. Either of you fancy a jar?’

*

Jerome had mistimed his meeting. At the last minute he had skilfully spared himself Monday in case of his hangover, but the residue of Saturday night’s ecstasy prescribed for watching Candida’s friend’s band in New Cross had still given him a tired glow, that he could only nurture with a supermarket Meal Deal and an iPod until home time. It was Tuesday that was trickier; where his life appeared to be an unconquerably hopeless scene where Candida was remote, spoilt and childish, and he was an aching, over-the-hill fossil trapped by his terrible life decisions. He’d have to tough it out on his bike until Thursday when he could start to slowly boot up the weekend again. But for now he had to listen to Clive and another bloke talk about Bank Holiday closures hoping not to get asked any questions.

He embraced the site visit enthusiastically as it meant a 10.30am start and a not insignificant lie in. The tunnel, designed in the Victorian age for horse and carriage, zigzagged from side to side as the nags tended to bolt if they saw any daylight at the end. By the modern day it had garnered a reputation for out-of-date safety standards, and had planned closures for the coming 2006 Christmas Bank Holidays at refurbishment costs of around £70 million. The work included new concreting for pedestrian and bus access, ventilation fans for fires, and modern CCTV and communication systems to be installed. But at least Jerome’s comedown was easing off a bit.

He was due to meet a TFL Compliance Officer and Project Manager at the Southern Gatehouse, the listed Victorian brick building that overarched the reams of traffic entering the tunnel every day. The former was Hussein, a well-groomed twentysomething decked out in Moss Bross and a Bluetooth headset, and Steve St Ledger, whose turf they were clearly all on, and who Jerome wouldn’t even attempt to out-silverback. The three met on the patchy, litter-strewn verge of grass that veered adjacently with the carriageway heading out of the tunnel. Jerome had to navigate awkwardly up the pedestrian-hostile slip road until he could make out the two figures on top of the hill. They had told him to meet them at the Southern Gatehouse and there they were outside, Jerome realising he was dealing with a particularly literal set of instructions.

‘Alright lads,’ Jerome furiously rubbed his hands together. ‘Shall we nip inside?’ He nodded sideways towards the old Victorian building.

‘Ah, we don’t use that for anything. We’re meeting in there.’

Hussein pointed towards the green corrugated temporary hut. He tutted at an irritating blotch of mud speckles that had accrued around the cuff of his crisply pressed suit trousers.

‘Let’s get the kettle on Hussein.’ Steve nodded him indoors.

Perhaps the jewel in Jerome’s skillset was the ability to sit vacantly through important meetings and get away with it; he was able to clock in and out where people’s sentences inflected upwards, or where a vocal paragraph was affirmed by a second party, which offered the opportunity for a meaningless moan of agreement. If he had not been listening and the tone had sounded particularly negative, Jerome found the phrase ‘there’s no real justification for it’ as a bullet proof catch all. All this provided a robust auditorium to let his unlicensed daydreaming roam. He had to momentarily turn to his paperwork bundle in order to successfully frustrate a semi-erection envisioning Candida in her functional M&S multipack underwear, which were probably still bought by her parents at Christmas.

The meeting reminded him of the disappointment of not seeing inside the Southern Gatehouse. It was such an odd building. A Victorian, neo-gothic mixed brickwork archway that doubled as a miniaturised castle with four small turrets; a thumbnail tribute to medieval architecture that in the late 1800s felt the appropriate way to blaze into the 20th Century. By the end of the hour a loose grasp of Jerome’s responsibilities had bled in; process the applications of the tunnel repair workers, liaise with Greenwich Borough who were authorising the development, and organise and supervise the examination papers. Jerome never saw Steve St Ledger again; as Project Manager he was overseeing the whole tunnel development from a distance, and seemed to be pulled away by a constant source of crises emanating from his daughter’s private school. Jerome would continue to email Hussein who would tickbox all compliance issues; he was also meant to attend the classroom sessions but they both strategically agreed to excuse him of this mutual ballache.

Jerome had masterfully tethered himself to a luxuriously long leash which promised him a big lovely month of fuck all. He spent a lot of time rolling Golden Virginia outside the temporary hut as workers completed their papers until he eventually ran out of things to think about that were any more interesting than what he was actually doing. It was on that particularly overcast Thursday he decided to take a look inside the Southern Gatehouse.

Transport for London’s temporary hut sat awkwardly on the other side of the carriageway to the Gatehouse. Jerome had to walk up alongside the traffic southbound in order to cross the footbridge to come back on himself. The west side of the Gatehouse was the only way to enter it; it had a caged metal ladder that led to a landing and a tattered white door which had been bolted shut, as had access to the ladder below by a makeshift padlocked door panel. Discreetly as he could, Jerome crossed over to the Gatehouse to take a look at the ground level defences.

The graffiti-strewn woodchip panel guarding the ladder was a more recent addition than the padlocked door on the landing above, which appeared to be partly kicked in by vandals some years ago, hence the extra security required at ground level. Jerome realised the woodchip panel was completely immovable. It was an attempt at a permanent solution, whoever fastened it shut had no intention of ever opening it again. Jerome craned his foot up the panel’s padlock and hoisted himself audaciously upwards, grabbing onto the bottom of the ladder cage. He was able to completely bypass the rungs, eventually climbing to the top and swinging his leg over the top of the cage and onto the steps, whilst the rest was easy.

Up on top of the landing and faced with a rotting, padlocked door, Jerome was hideously exposed to anyone watching below, which sharply brought about what a thoughtless idea this really was. Panicked necessity brought invention, and he crouched down to feed his arm upwards into where door had been kicked in. He shook it, initially with modesty but with increasing violence as he became exponentially more self-conscious. As he leaned in with his shoulder weight, it all eventually broke open in his hands, and he crouched into the building in pain from the jagged edges of the splintering planks. Anyway, he was in.

Inside was pitch black and smelt of mildew, which reminded him of Candida’s student flat. He introduced some light with his backlit phone display; he looked around four rooms, a scullery, a nondescript living space and over on the east side were two bedrooms. Whoever designed it originally intended it to be lived in by a tunnel caretaker. It long had since ceased to function that way, and had last been attended to years ago, only being inspected to keep out some particularly imaginative illegal ravers. Jerome grinned to himself as he picked up some treasure; a copy of Scorchers, which appeared to be vintage pornography.

‘Random, here.’

Emboldened by the discovery, he climbed a mini-ladder up into the attic, where there appeared to be a toilet and a third bedroom. It also meant access to each of the four turrets. Jerome wiped the encrusted grime away from the window to take a look at the view of the cars streaming into the tunnel, Canary Wharf over to the west and the Millennium Dome up ahead. It was an impeccably proportioned relief of the London Docklands; expansive enough for the disarranged private architectures of the financial world to accumulate into an agreeable vista, whilst also intimate enough to accommodate the personal stories of individual drivers and inside office windows. A rotten door plank fell off below clattering onto some concrete and Jerome’s chest momentarily fireballed in shitting terror.

The Gatehouse of course would be a great place to cue up a weird bang with Candida. Jerome was a pro at the initial throes of dating, and was certainly less confident about the long-term survival traits of a meaningful relationship with a woman. The key to the early stages was plenty of variety in location, large superficial gestures and being prepared to pay the bill if she was like that. A trip to the Gatehouse had all the trappings of apparent thoughtfulness at a fraction of the price of Orange Wednesdays. He remembered he had a speckled tablet engraved with a miniature Stewie Griffin in his pocket that he could potentially split with Candida. He‘d been in his twenties during the Second Summer of Love, and could play an elder statesman of the dance floor role now rave was Nu again.

He met her at North Greenwich station which he now realised might make Candida believe they were going to the Dome. It had not served any sole purpose since New Labour’s inaugural exhibition in 2000 but occasionally hosted dance music events.

‘Can we not go to any of the usual pubs? Wanna talk away from any uni people.’

This was an unusual tone which alerted Jerome a bit. She usually was happy to go along with whatever plan he scraped together but this time she seemed to have an agenda of her own.

‘It’s a surprise, baby. You’ll love it.’

Jerome carefully ducked in for an affectionate nuzzle which was met by a consenting but rigid set of shoulders.

Jerome had tactically left the main door unlocked which just meant hoisting Candida over the panel blocking the ground level ladder. He haphazardly pushed her upwards, open-palming into her buttocks as she grabbed onto the ladder cage and wriggled herself in, screaming.

‘Don’t look down, just get up there!’

Jerome furtively looked around for anyone still working in the next-door cement mixing plant. The sheer calamity of getting her into the Gatehouse completely eclipsed the gesture but he reckoned that at least he was over the worst.

*

‘Phil, I’m not sure I can do this anymore.’

‘You’re fine now, I’ll help you back down.’

‘No, not this. Not tonight. Us. What even is this?’

‘I thought you liked older guys.’

‘I don’t care about that. It’s my last year. You work at the uni. I’m going to graduate, you know? Start my business.’

‘We can do all that, baby…’

We?’

Jerome had spent the last week trying to feel anything more than indifferent about her. Pulling focus on her, nursing the good memories, valiantly tugging himself off to all their favourite shags, especially during the trench of serotonin depletion. Trying to believe he had something there. At least he had certainty of feeling now. He felt bereft of something he was never sure he had. He looked around at Candida for something he hoped might be love, only finding a constellation of thigh freckles through her tights he hadn’t noticed before.

*

It would be a stretch to say that Jerome moped through the rest his TFL gig. He largely sat through the exams as he had done before. His iPod selections were a touch more morose, it was almost as if he was trying to bring on or maintain the heartbreak, as experiencing that rejection felt like truth and it was far better than facing the alternative. Facing the banality of never really connecting with someone and pinballing on to another unfamiliar pile of bones. It was fine, he’d get through it. He was breaking up for Christmas soon, anyway. He could go back up North.

‘Mr Jerome?’

Hussein was at the exam room door. Jerome silently excused himself and went to meet him outside.

‘Just thought I’d come and say goodbye and sign a few things off.’ Hussein passed him a Marlboro Light.

‘You done for Christmas?’

Hussein laughed to himself. ‘I’m Muslim mate, but I still get the days off, don’t I?’

Jerome appreciated the let off, besides they were both Northerners getting on down south.

‘Got uni myself as well. Bare exams in January. Online Business Development.’ He fidgeted with his Bluetooth headset.

‘You know you can get the tax off that if you’re still a student,’ Jerome pointed to his ear.

‘I’ll show you how to do it. Get you a laptop and all.’

Hussein awkwardly fist-bumped him in appreciation. ‘Nice one, man.’

‘Not worth it though, innit?’ said Hussein.

‘What isn’t?’

‘Uni. All of it. Paying three grand a year, I’m now earning more with TFL than I will do on a graduate salary.’

‘Why did you go then?’

‘Parents. First one in the family and all that. Proper proud Asian family.’

Hussein was right. Jerome had seen them all come over the last decade, the little princes and princesses that SLCAC has churned through, burning their student loans alive, the mini industries of bars, vintage shops and takeaways that popped up and down around the main college campus. It was a professionalised, monetised Rite of Passage, the life experience British middle classes expected for their children. Their parents had by and large the best of it, until grants were gradually dismantled and the funfair slowly started charging entrance fees, as the Conservatives and New Labour decided fifty percent of the population should go to college. Britain’s higher education institutions were still jewels in its crown, and they were jewels that fetched a generous wad at home and abroad.

‘See these lads in there,’ Hussein pointed to the last couple of tunnel workers who were still completing their papers.

‘Probably first exams they’ve done since GCSEs, maybe ever. They’re all be earning twice as much as me and you, at least.’

*

Jerome never really recaptured his knack for dossing in the weeks after that. Maybe it was a bit of the Candida hangover, but perhaps it was the glacial germination of his first ever business idea. He couldn’t get past how much money families ritualistically paid into institutions such as his, and therefore salaries such as his. The process was all ingrained with a closed industry of student loans and a national culture of easy lending that showed no signs of slowing down.

SLCAC was a partner institution of The University of the Thames Estuary. UTE formed from a merger between Plumstead College and Thamesmead Polytechnic, having been awarded university status by the Major government in 1992. In 2005, The Sunday Times University Guide ranked UTE 120th out of 121 accredited institutions able to award degree-level qualifications. As well as SLCAC, the university had three other colleges that could legally award its degrees; Dartford College of Music, Bexleyheath College and Sidcup Dance Academy. SLCAC was a mishmash of old printing and graphic design schools scattered across South East London, and was generally seen as the grungier, uglier sister to the local rival Goldsmiths. ‘Slacky’ regularly scored dismally in student satisfaction surveys often leading to heated exchanges and open mutiny from college professors in lecture theatres. The partner schools seemed to exist in permanent state of merging and conglomeration. What was to stop Jerome monetising an exam programme like he had overseen with Transport for London and outsourcing UTE degrees?

He would be able to add a small personal commission on a standard degree fee by virtue of ‘distance learning’; overseas students would be able to receive a UTE qualification by completing an entirely online course at home. This is how he would sell it to Clive and the rest of the University; it was essentially an old-fashioned foreign exchange programme. He would be able to build a website in house, attach to it a basic set menu of degree courses and start piping students in. It was a natural, digital progression of his responsibilities as Head of Admissions. His personal profit margin would come from registering the school to the government as a separate, but similarly-named, listed education body under UTE; The SLCAC Online School.

Jerome even set up shop in the Southern Gatehouse. The project lent itself to working remotely and Jerome had proven to be able to fulfil his usual duties from home most of the year anyway. After successfully training the TFL workers in time for Bank Holiday, he managed to fudge a reason to St Ledger as to why they could remain on site; Hussein’s presence meant that there was a compliance representative for the practical assessments and all the safety tests in the coming months. They didn’t really care either; the Gatehouse had been left empty for decades and it only took ten minutes for a maintenance worker to come and cut the padlocks. After that he was able to make the place his own, tidying and cleaning it better than his own flat and making one of the first-floor bedrooms liveable for late nights.

Electricity was re-booted to the building and with the liberal use of a university credit card he was able to set up an internet connection. Hussein became completely engrossed by the project and Jerome’s defacto business partner, paying visits any way he could and cutting compliance corners whenever they were needed. Getting online changed everything; they were able to run MSN Messenger with senior academics and lecturers, who after just one exchange Jerome was able to accredit to the new university. A modest but increasing number of students and revenue began to stream in, largely from Eastern European countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, and Slovenia. They would on the whole subscribe to short courses, summer schools and single year degrees for film, creative writing and business qualifications, and would enhance their employment prospects back home with a prestigious-sounding University of the Thames Estuary degree.

Anything that was largely non-practical and coursework driven could be curated into the online programme. Through the increasingly freewheeling scheme Jerome had found a creative soulmate; a part time lecturer to the university known for occasional television appearances and radical, contrarian politics. Martin Burwash was notorious for outrageous personal hygiene and two documentaries that would go on to forever haunt the late-night schedules; Herman Goering’s Burlesque Secrets and Dr Otto: The Nazi Super Octopus — two Channel 5 meditations inspiring ridicule from his own students. Maybe Burwash was an inattentive student of Foucault; not only believing history was a cookie jar to be ransacked but questioned the existence of any kind of oppressive jar. He ran a controversial course called Culture and Media in Modernity: 1850–2006 which was cited in a recent tabloid story about dumbing down and famously, ‘David Beckham Studies’. Essays submitted to his course included Portaloo Sunset: Futurism and New Fascist Urbanism in Modern Festival Toilets and Late Metrosexuality in post-Commonwealth Games Manchester, the latter which sparked the interest from the press hacks who gleefully pegged it to Becks.

The online school, which was essentially just a website run from Jerome’s laptop, was now a separate educational body to SLCAC that could award University of the Thames Estuary degrees. Organising tertiary education courses and examining them was still a substantial task, but largely fell into Jerome’s skillset. He had a realisation that success and opportunity in his professional life had slowly organised itself like sedimentary pressure on an inanimate rock, he had just stuck to one temporary job long enough he accidentally had specialised. That said, his entire youth and thirties seemed a high price to pay for being an occasional whizz with educational boards.

Burwash’s minor TV and tabloid exposure meant a small uptick in online applications throughout the following year. Jerome continued to ride the wave and indeed the reputation of UTE to its limits; citing Will Self and Slavoj Zizek as associate lecturers on the basis of single MSN Messenger print-offs. Despite the vague buzz around campus and the red top titillation, the commission being made by the vassal university was pretty negligible and not the big bucks Jerome and Hussein had hoped for. They had gained less than two hundred distance learning students and in their ‘commission’ not much more than that amount of money each.

‘You think those tunnel maintenance workers are still earning more than us Phil?’

‘I’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t.’

‘Couldn’t the online school offer more technical degrees? Practical qualifications, apprenticeships. Like the tunnel repair workers needed for TFL.’

‘That was a public body. You’re reliant on government contracts.’

‘A lot of money being made running NRSWA courses. The New Roads and Street Works Act. All the lads at TFL need one before working on the development.’

Jerome sighed. ‘We’re an Arts university.’

Moreover, it wasn’t that original an idea. The project and safety skills solutions market was a saturated one. A quick Googling revealed dense listings of online courses scrambling to provide examinations for health and safety or public highway maintenance. It was also a reputational game based on internal recommendations and winning a contract to educate a company’s workforce was understandably difficult. Jerome was bewildered by the jargon and felt like he was learning a new language. Worse, he was starting to get bored again.

‘I was speaking to one of the JCB operators yesterday,’ said Hussein.

Jerome moaned in acknowledgement. His attention had switched to marshalling an incrementally increasing cuboid snake from collapsing in on itself on his Nokia.

‘He works one of the excavators in the tunnel.’

Fuck it! Sorry.’

Jerome reloaded an infant serpent on his phone display.

‘Told me JCB just opened a factory in Pudong last year. That’s where the future is, I’m telling you.’

‘Where…’

‘China. It’s insane. Massive growth. Double digits GDP year on year. It’s insane, man.’

Jerome raised some polite eyebrows whilst he twitched his thumbs. He was vaguely aware of it in the news but the ripple effect of Chinese economic growth hadn’t quite reached the SLCAC Admissions office.

‘To keep up with the demand they’re going to need investment, infrastructure.’

‘Yeah I reckon…’

Hussein finally got Jerome’s begrudging attention. Anyway, it was impossible for his snake to progress further reasonably. He leaned over towards Hussein’s laptop.

It all unfolded in front of them. The Financial Times, The New Statesman, and South China Morning Post articles all beefing up Hussein’s facts with figures. China had just begun its 11th Five Year Plan, and it was rapidly accelerating by spending £170 billion on infrastructure, and probably embarking on the largest public works programme of anyone in world history. Tantalisingly for both of them, it had the world’s largest network of toll roads, and it was increasing 20% year on year. Opportunities for foreigners existed but were obscure, unless you had a vast amount of capital to invest or had a big contract in the region as JCB had. Otherwise, you were siphoning your way in through Dragon’s arse like everyone else.

That said, there had also been an accidental surge in Chinese students applying to UK universities, with a few dozen of the more unfortunate ones enrolling at Slacky at the start of the September term. Far Eastern families had found the application process easier than applying to American institutions after 9/11, and it was an area where Britain could still reputationally punch above its weight. What Jerome and Hussein had was a .co.uk homepage, the ability to award British university degrees and a Grade II listed building.

‘What if we could offer something like an engineering degree online?’’

Civil Engineering and programmes that provided qualifications in infrastructure was where they could benefit from the massive Chinese growth. Gaining the necessary degree accreditations and recognition from the necessary bodies and guilds would be largely impossible and take years, as would venturing into any other field of scientific or mathematical grounding where two plus two needed to make four, or someone died. They considered faking it; producing and selling counterfeit degrees in China and India and they had the industrial means to do it. Karen and Clive were certainly digital refugees but not that oblivious. Openly breaking the law on the website would be an aggressively unsustainable business plan.

Somewhat deflated and on a payday suicide mission to the boozer, Jerome had caught up with Martin Burwash at the Griffin pub quiz, and after a few Heinekens had told him everything there was to tell about China.

‘Could you not provide some kind of foundation learning to engineering. In a more discursive sense? One that focuses on broader themes of its history, or how it has been written about?’

‘Like essentially an Arts degree?’ probed Jerome, trying to look past Burwash’s blazer cuff resting in a puddle of lager and a small balcony of peanuts crevassing in the trouser material tenting above his crotch.

‘Precisely boy.’

And cometh the hour, cometh the man. After a few days Burwash had crafted him a masterpiece syllabus. A Bachelor’s Introduction to Civic Engineering was a Foundation Level Arts diploma marketed as a crucial English language bridging course for school leavers nervous about tackling a Civil Engineering degree. It was heavily orientated towards overseas students and written into Mandarin, with the unfortunate freelancing Slacky student translating modules such as Alternative Histories of the Pyramids, Highway Literature of the 18th Century, Colour Theory and Traffic Signalling, and perhaps Burwash’s ‘Lear’; Automotive Landscaping and Monetised Rest; Parking and Brutalism in the West Midlands 1948–1989. Burwash even threw in a demo link for the PC game Sim City 2000 as ‘required reading’. All of course, completely useless for any young graduate striding out confidently into a career in Chinese public highway infrastructure.

Phil and Hussein both agreed to invest their few hundred quid earnings into media buying in English-language publications in China. Curating a sense of prestige on the website could be done in an afternoon. A photography student was used to pull together some expansive shots of the Southern Gatehouse, which to a casual observer bore an exact resemblance to a Gothic entrance to a major redbrick university. There was even a History page to the website which told the tunnel’s story from the Victorian era to the present day. They could not get around the name; they now called themselves The University of the Blackwall Tunnel in the copy and fudged it in the small print.

It took several weeks to get going, but once the newspaper adverts were published, there was a dramatic surge in applicants. The thousands of RMB coming into the college Paypal became glaringly obvious, meaning Jerome had to temporarily house it in a private bank account which was patently illegal. China’s aggressive investment in infrastructure and chaotic growth was built upon cheap land and an abundance of competitive labour; Jerome could offer a keen Chinese engineering student a prestigious-looking letterhead with a university logo that looked like Hogwarts.

Hussein didn’t go back to university. He had founded his own one. He tempered his parents concerns by taking them out for lavish dinners and creatively describing the successful business model of the online school; like their Chinese clients, Hussein capitalised in the confusion of detail; he had succeeded through higher education, was earning an extraordinary amount of money and worked hard for it. His parents tried to listen and slowly pulled fire — he seemed to have done what they had asked of him but there was just some discrepancies about the order he had done it.

Phil Jerome also went home to Yorkshire. Making up for some lost time, taking his mother out to Café Rouge and successfully buying and cooking an entire roast chicken. There wasn’t much left to do up North. All of his friends had long since settled down and had children, he was a stranger even in his old local. So he decided to travel the world and run the University remotely; Kenya, Nairobi and who knows after that. Learning to climb, a spot of Ex-Pat rugby here and there. After logging back on after a weekend away on safari, he found several missed emails from Karen.

Many Chinese families had emailed her asking when graduation was taking place, as they would like to fly over to England and have their pictures taken at the Blackwall Tunnel. Clive and Karen had no idea about the Chinese enterprise, still loosely of the understanding that Jerome had merely created an online learning resource portal for overseas students. Suddenly the Skype chimes dipped in and out of his laptop speakers and Jerome had no time to think.

‘Phillip. What is the ‘University of the Blackwall Tunnel?’’

‘Just some marketing we did for the online courses in Shanghai. Daft, innit?’

‘Why have I had twenty Chinese families saying they’ve booked flights to Heathrow next month for ‘graduation’?

‘We’ve always had foreign students… can you forward me on the emails. I’m sure it’s just bad English…’

‘When you’re back in the UK call me, we really need to sit down with Clive and go through the numbers on this.’

*

Jerome tried to take in the gravity of the situation. But he actually found it quite difficult. Waiting in the Departure Lounge in Nairobi, on his laptop scrolling through the emails he had been forwarded. He momentarily considered again the skills SLCAC had in-house; he could offer hi-res green screen assets to the families so they could Photoshop their own graduation photos. As that particular idea collapsed on conception, he then flirted with not getting on the plane at all. Doing a runner. Besides, what if they found he had temporarily stashed the fees in his private account and shared it with Hussein? He wasn’t so keen for swapping long golden summers in Africa for HMP Gravesend. Then his gate number appeared, and he decided to go for it. Karen and Clive were pussycats, he just needed to get back home, see them face to face and smooth it all over with the old Phil Jerome charm.

He visited the Southern Gatehouse first before going to the Admissions Office, just in case there were anything overly implicating lying around. The pavement around the entrance was noticeably more populated than he had remembered. An Asian couple were taking photos by the entrance ladder, whilst a ‘graduate’ who had brought his own gown and mortar board was looking around incredulously as traffic rushed past him. Another family began to appear over on the patch of grass where drivers were throwing their rubbish and a bewildered father ducked a flying cigarette butt. Jerome changed direction and tried to walk away inconspicuously, but he was spotted by a set of parents who followed him angrily demanding answers to questions he could not understand. His phone lit up, it was Karen, who had just finished speaking to another student who was asking for £10,000 back. He quickly hung up, and began to break into a jog, following the reams of traffic heading into the tunnel.

It was illegal to access the tunnel by foot, although there was an emergency walkway which Jerome followed into, as the two concrete walls either side of him grew deeper and the sky disappeared up and over his head. He thought he could hear a road worker shout something at him but he pressed on anyway, drowning it out with the traffic and his face washing over in dark tangerine from the sodium lamps above. He skipped up some steps and down the gangway, around a hundred metres on, routinely grabbing the railing for support until he came to a doorway. He thought he could make out some sporadic flashing blue lights up ahead, but it could any number of things. On the door there was a notice, some paperwork with the TFL logo on it.

It was an ‘Application for License to Store Materials’ for a maintenance room. It was an officious piece of paperwork, one that had to be checked, ticked, signed off by both the Storage License Champion, and his line manager, the Area Works Manager. Jerome considered it for a moment; it seemed like an over compensatory piece of legislation, but then again, it’s the kind of practical paperwork that was probably needed. After all, anyone could put something in there. There’s got to be some rules. More noise outside; fucking, galloping hooves?? No. He stepped inside, creeping in some of the grimy orange half-light, and had a quick look around; a table, a cupboard (full of black wires), and metal stack of shelves, largely covered in dust but also a couple of dandruff flecks and unaccounted-for human hairs. Maybe he could make something of this, certainly not the worst night sleep he’d ever had. He thought he heard some shouting from outside, a bang on the door. Maybe the noise of the traffic had got to him after all that time living in the Gatehouse. What about here? Maybe he could live here until it all blew over.

Tall tales | The South East London College of Arts & Communication: 11 Short Stories is out now: https://amzn.to/2FdAxlh

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