Monday, June 20, 2016

Whitlow & Boyle (Engineers) – 1998 short story

A Short Story from the May 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr Whitlow kept me waiting while he made a couple of phone calls and wrote something down in a ledger. I was used to this, it was deliberate, it happened every time I went for a job interview. I was beginning to understand the psychology behind it.

"So you want to work here do you?" he asked at last. Of course I didn't want to work there, but I had to work somewhere, so I nodded. He picked up a piece of paper from his desk and handed it to me. "You've worked a capstan lathe before, you say, draw me one." Astonished I told him I wasn't very good at drawing, but he insisted. "Draw me a capstan lathe."

About ten minutes later I handed the piece of paper back to him, and he studied it for what seemed like ages, turning it one way and then another, even upside-down. "This doesn't look anything like a capstan lathe."

"Well, as I said I'm not very good at drawing."

Mr Whitlow glared at me across his desk making me feel more than usually conscious of my appearance, of my black skirt and white blouse and the new handbag I'd bought for the occasion. I wondered if Mr Whitlow found it hard to imagine me clad in a greasy overall and a turban to protect my hair.

"How are your legs?" he asked. Thankfully he didn't seem to require an answer so I waited. "Any varicose veins?"

"I'm only twenty three," I replied with a nervous smile.

He waved a hand in the direction of a glass-panelled door in a corner of his office. "That lot out there, that's Doris on the back machine. Came in to see me only this morning." He mimicked, "'Could I have a sitting-down job today, Mr Whitlow, me varicose veins are playing me up?' Do they think this is a bloody holiday camp? There's Ethel with her bunions and corns and Vera with her aching leg joints, all of them wanting sitting-down jobs. So if you're wanting a sitting-down job, forget it. And this drawing is nothing like a capstan lathe."

Nettled, I told him I'd thought the vacancy was for a machine operator not for someone skilled in the art of drawing, but to my relief he ignored this feeble attempt to defend myself.

"What about family?"

"Yes, mother, father, four brothers."

Mr Whitlow picked up a pencil and stabbed it at the surface of his desk to emphasise his next words. "Don't get funny with me girl. Any children, babies, buns in the oven?"

"Oh no."

"Not in a union, are you?"

"The AEU," I told him proudly.

"Well, forget that, we're non-union here."

Employers always said that, I'd noticed, as though some power from on high had decreed a state of non-trade unionism for their particular company. Another much-used argument was that conditions in their factory were so good as to discount any justification for a union.

"There's a slump coming," continued Mr Whitlow, "and when it gets here me and my kind are going to have the pick of the workforce. Not only will there not be any sitting-down jobs there won't be any jobs at all and people like you will be begging for work."

I froze in my chair. I resented Mr Whitlow's class attitude to someone he believed was hardly in a position to retaliate. I thought about the boredom and misery of standing at a capstan lathe for nine hours a day and the pittance I would be likely to receive for this each week. I even began to feel that Mr Whitlow detected something in my manner (a kind of contempt perhaps) that made him speak to me in this way.

"Well if you want the job be here at a quarter to eight sharp on Monday morning."

"But I thought it was an eight o'clock start."

"It is, but there's queue at the clocking-in machine and anyone clocking in after eight loses an hour's pay. And then there's the time taken up in the cloakroom with all the titivating that goes on with you women. Christ knows why; you're all covered in machine oil by the end of the day. And you'll need an overall, we don't supply them and you're responsible for laundering too."

Suddenly my career as a capstan lathe operator seemed less attractive than ever before.

"There it is," said Mr Whitlow, "take it or leave it."

I rose to my feet, checked to see that my nylons' seams were straight and then headed for the door. There I turned to face him which as much dignity as I could muster.

"I'll leave it," I said.

Heather Ball


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