Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Office (1996 short story)

A Short Story from the August 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Soon after leaving school I worked for a short time in an office. One climbed a rickety staircase, opened a door and entered a world where very strange people dwelt. Mrs. Badcombe the wages clerk, Mr. Willis the accountant and Pamela the typist.

All day Pamela bashed away at her typewriter, clackety-clack, brown wage envelopes, and Mr. Willis had his own fountain pen and studied lists and ticked them and sometimes went to the other department upstairs and then came back and started to study lists and tick them again.

And me? I sat at a desk in Reception and filed mysterious items away under the wrong headings and worked the switchboard and got too friendly with the customers who often rang with their enquiries. Truth to tell I was only too pleased to find someone to talk to in that odd little place where SILENCE boomed out alongside the clackety-clack of Pamela’s machine, and if the people I chose to exchange words with were the firm's clients then it had never occurred to me that they were anything more than people, so that a little chat about some topic of the day seemed innocent enough.

Mr. Chubb the manager also dwelt there . . .  in another little office where Manager was writ large on his door. He invited me in one day to discuss my “behaviour”. I wasn’t ladylike, he told me. I had a very unpleasant habit of clattering up and down the stairs. My jocular way of dealing with clients on the phone was not to be borne, he told me. My mode of filing was unacceptable. But my worst sin by far was that I encouraged Mrs. Wilson, the office cleaner, to talk about her ailments and in particular her recent hysterectomy; not befitting a place of business, he told me.

I struggled to be ladylike, ever uncertain of what exactly that entailed. I avoided asking Mrs. Wilson about her operation and so, normally a cheerful soul, she went about her business sulking and I no longer got a mug of cocoa at tea-break. But my filing improved and I was given letters to type. (I had begun attending a Commercial College in the evenings at my own expense.) I even answered the phone in a more business-like way and put calls through to the other department immediately instead of detaining the clients to gossip. In fact, I was becoming just like the others and was worried about it.

One day I did a thing deemed to be more unforgivable than anything I had done to date. I referred to the boss Mr. Len Carter as "Len”. “One thing you will have to learn,” said Mr. Chubb,” . . . is that your superiors are never called by their first names.” Niggled at the distinction I retorted that I thought people were only "superior” by sheer virtue of the fact they possessed more money, more power or both. This remark brought on a silence that disturbed me by its intensity as Mr. Chubb regarded me with contempt. “I wonder,” he said softly. “1 wonder if Mr. Leonard Carter realises he is employing a communist.”

I did not settle easily into my new role as a communist, indeed, I felt that it had been thrust upon me. Office colleagues eyed me suspiciously and as time went by I grew withdrawn. I made typing errors and everybody complained about the tea I made on Mrs. Wilson’s days off.

Then one Friday I opened my wage packet, emptied it out onto my desk and found an extra threepenny piece amidst the cash. I must tell you that it never for one second occurred to return it to the wages clerk. My wage was paltry as it was and because I was a naive sixteen-year- old I really believed I had been awarded a pay-rise. I was foolish enough to entertain the notion that my new-found industriousness had been noted and rewarded. That was until Mr. Chubb emerged from his office.

“Miss Tweedie,” he asked. “Did you find a threepenny piece in your wage packet?” When I nodded his lip curled. "Then may I ask why it has not been returned to the Company?”

I tried to explain. I quickly realised that there was no indication of a pay-rise on my payslip. I felt confused but in no way guilty. Mr. Chubb extended his hand, palm upwards, “Come on, give it back, it’s not your property.” He returned to his office and I knew I had been tested and found wanting. Now not only was I a communist but a thief too.

I found myself another job and left L.E. Carter. Mr. Chubb said he hoped my future employer would find me satisfactory but he very much doubted it.

For the last time, I went down the rickety staircase making as much clatter as I could. But a year in that strange place had done something to my perception of the world. I no longer believed it was wise to speak honestly or to be friendly and outgoing. As a commodity in the workplace, I had failed miserably. I was too young then to realise that the workplace had failed me!

Heather Ball

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