A Country Never Visited – Week 17 of the 52 week short story challenge

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Assembled at the train station on a sunny July day; bowed under the weight of rucksacks and tents and all doing their best to look cool and avoid being hugged by their attendant parents.

They were a motley crew.

Four boys and two girls with an intermingling of relationships that had already raised parental eyebrows. Trisha and Lea were best friends, which was just as well because Lea was now going out with Colin, who had been Trisha’s first ever boyfriend. Trisha had started going out with Tim just before Christmas but by New Year she had dumped Tim for his best friend Wayne. They remained friends despite this because Tim was a nice guy.

The sixth member of the group was Kevin, Wayne’s cousin and the only real birdwatcher in the group, although Tim, Wayne and Trisha did at least have their twitcher’s cards on them and a list of birds and animals they were on the lookout for.

In the early planning stages of this trip there had been brave and foolhardy ideas about hitchhiking the 450 miles north but the mothers of the two sixteen year old girls felt that they were being permissive enough in allowing them to spend a whole fortnight camping with four eighteen year old boys.

Seats were booked on a train to Waterloo; tube stations identified in order to get them to Kings Cross station where they would board a train for Aviemore and an eleven and a half hour journey in the relative comfort of a reserved compartment.

It would have been comfortable if Trisha and Wayne hadn’t spent the previous day sunning themselves at an outdoor pool. Trisha had fallen asleep and woke up to find that her entire left side was turning lobster-red. Wayne had been slightly better covered and it was only his legs that were burnt.

Sitting down hurt. Walking with a heavy rucksack on sunburnt shoulders hurt. Trying to avoid contact with humans or carriage walls in a small compartment filled with people and luggage was impossible. Trisha and Wayne were not known for their good humour anyway but pain and anxiety made their situation worse.

It had all seemed so exciting. Going to another country – okay, so it was Scotland and joined onto the end of England – but it was still unknown territory. Kevin and Wayne had come up with the idea of visiting the Cairngorms. Although only a half-hearted birdwatcher, Trisha did not want to be left behind and neither did Tim. The idea of her daughter going away with three boys met with resistance from Trisha’s mother but Lea came to the rescue and Colin, kind calm and reasonable Colin who had no interest in birds, deer or even camping, agreed to accompany her.

Trisha had some doubts about Lea and Colin joining them. She had quite liked the idea of having all three boys to herself so having to share the experience with Lea irked a little. Trisha’s interest in Colin was far removed from romance now but would Lea start making passes at her current boyfriend?

Wayne was more handsome, more intelligent and very attentive. Perhaps too attentive at times. Perhaps veering into possessiveness occasionally, and of late he had shown signs of the angry outbursts inherited – or learned  – from both his parents.

Wayne’s mother was prone to throwing things when angry: saucepans, plates, knives, any projectile that came to hand. His father was more of slow burner whose ire was inflamed by alcohol  and whose temper led to at least one night in a cell to cool off. Trisha’s arms had already been coloured with bruises from Wayne’s controlling hands but she pushed those incidents to the back of her mind because she loved him – and she knew that he loved her because that’s what he said when he saw the bruises.

It wasn’t bruises that were bothering her now though. She had grabbed a window seat thinking that the padded arm rest would be less painful against her sunburn. It was fine while she was awake but the long journey and a restless night meant that she kept dozing off and banging against the unpadded wall.  Wayne sat next to her with a silent Tim reading NME because he thought it made him look like a musician – which he wasn’t. Lea had nabbed the other window seat, Colin dozed happily by her side and Kevin, his nose buried in his bird guide, was oblivious to everyone and everything.

Trisha woke in pain as the train went round a bend and Wayne’s full weight fell against her. She pushed him away angrily. Confused by sleep, he started to argue but the presence of four other people stopped him and he moved an inch away from Trisha and crossed his arms like a sulking child.

By the time they passed over the border, tempers in the compartment were simmering. It was too dark to read by the tiny interior lights and too dark to look at scenery. The others did their best to doze but Wayne and Trisha couldn’t get comfortable and were snapping edgily at each other.

Eventually Trisha could take no more and stepping over outstretched legs, she went in search of the toilet.

It was occupied.

She rested her head against the cool of the windowpane. Standing up – even with a full bladder – was less painful and irritating than being back in the compartment. The sun was coming up and being able to see the beauty of the mountains and trees at last, had a calming effect on her.

The toilet door opened and a man came out.

‘I’d give it a few minutes if I were you.’ he said with a grin as he walked back down the corridor.

Torn between holding her breath and having an embarrassing accident, Trisha chose the former and filling her lungs, dashed into the toilet.

It was a relief on many levels when she got back out to the corridor again. Reluctant to return to a compartment of sleeping or grumpy companions, she carried on looking out at the scenery. The train stopped for signals and there, barely feet from the track, was a squirrel. Not just any squirrel but a red squirrel. Her first.

The sight made her incredibly happy. Especially because she was the only one of the group to see the squirrel. She turned round and saw a bleary-eyed Kevin emerging from the toilet.

‘Kev! Look! A red squirrel!’

He rushed over to the window, even then, taking care not to get too close unless he bumped into her sunburn. They looked at the squirrel, and the squirrel looked back. It was a magic moment.

The engine started up again and the resultant noise made the squirrel bolt for the safety of the trees. Kevin looked at his watch.

‘We should be arriving at Aviemore in about twenty minutes. I suppose we’d better wake up the others up.’

‘Do we have to?’ said Trisha.

Kevin, reasonable and sensible as always, pulled a bus timetable out of his pocket.

‘The first bus to the campsite leaves at ten o’clock. I think we’ll all be much happier once we’ve had something to eat and stretched our legs. The station buffet should be open when we get in.’

Trisha smiled and followed him back to the compartment. She woke Wayne with a gentle kiss on top of his head. Showing rare self-control, she sat down next to him while an excited Kevin told everyone about the red squirrel.

‘Trisha spotted it first.’ he said. ‘We’re really here. It must be a good omen. Just think, ospreys, golden eagles, dippers, even ptarmigan if we can get up on to the mountain.’

HIs enthusiasm did the trick and the thought of breakfast and the final leg of their trip  to the campsite galvanised even a tired and sullen Wayne.

The station buffet was open – just  – and fairly basic but the food was hot and there was coffee to wake them up.

The bus trip out to the campsite was uncomfortably bumpy; they weren’t the only campers and there wasn’t much room for all the luggage in the boot. It overflowed into the aisle and fell against Wayne’s sunburnt legs so that he was gritting his teeth by the time they arrived.

It was worth it though. The campsite was at the foot of the Cairngorms; well supplied with toilets and showers, a shop selling food and mementos, and the three pitches they had reserved were grassy and level. The sun shone and tents went up quickly – mostly due to Kevin’s expertise and the compliance of Colin and Tim. Wayne argued about everything  –  because he could – Trisha and Lea sat on a blanket and looked at the scenery having decided that this was the most practical help they could offer.

Looking back years later, Trisha remembered seeing the ospreys after a long, hot trek to Loch Garten. She remembered sitting by a waterfall watching the dippers. It was blissfully cool under the trees by the river’s side. There was the happiness of time spent at Loch an Eilein on the hottest day of the year when they were all feeling lazy and content, mellow on cheap cider, bread and cheese from the camp site shop.

They never made it up the mountain; the golden eagles stayed hidden and by the end of the fortnight entente was no longer cordiale.

Lea and Trisha fell out. Fuelled by cheap cider, Trisha decided  that not content with taking up with Colin, Lea was after Wayne as well. Wayne, equally fuelled, felt that Colin and Tim were after Trisha. Tim and Colin were confused. Lea took it out on Colin. Kevin – who had come for a lovely bird watching holiday and not to be surrounded by anger and jealousy – was sad and disillusioned. They had to tough it out because their tickets were booked and none of them had enough money to buy another ticket.

The journey home at the end of the fortnight was worse than the original trip; none of them wanted to spend nearly twelve hours in the same small train compartment with hastily packed tents and rucksacks. Tim and Kevin were the only people on speaking terms. Trisha was wearing her hair down in order to hide the black eye and swollen cheek. Wayne made no attempt to cover up the livid scratches left by Trisha’s nails after he punched her when she wouldn’t shut up.

They were rescued at the journey’s end by their parents and taken home with piles of dirty washing. Goodbyes were short and definitely not sweet.

Trisha and Wayne’s relationship continued for another couple of weeks until he decided that head butting her was the only way to get her to behave. His mother had suggested a good slap, his father had suggested getting engaged. Trisha’s mother looked her daughter squarely in the eye and told her she was worth far more than this.

Wayne shouted, threatened and cried when Trisha ended it. She lost contact with Tim and Kevin as a consequence because they were Wayne’s friends after all. In the rush of getting things sorted out so that she could start at college to do her ‘A’ levels, Trisha lost contact with Lea and Colin too.

There were lessons learnt in that other country; it was a place of great beauty and Trisha had no regrets about going there. Perhaps, if the six of them hadn’t gone on holiday together it might have taken longer for Wayne’s violence to emerge. Perhaps, Trisha would have borne more than the bruises, bumps and black eyes.

Many years later she heard that Wayne had married. That he had children and a wife who often wore her hair long to hide the black eyes and the bruises.

She saw the red squirrel though. She had to go to another country but she saw the red squirrel.

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Gunshot – Week 16 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I don’t remember being afraid of guns and soldiers when I was young; they didn’t really feature much in our household where the only relics of warfare were my father’s medals and the replica knives he brought back as a memento of his time spent with the Ghurkhas. These were kept locked away; only emerging on special occasions and accompanied by tales of life in the Marines. My father instilled in us a love of all things spicy and an appreciation of thunderstorms. When there was a really good storm he would wake us up and draw back the curtains so that we could enjoy it too. Hot chocolate with a dash of rum sent me back to sleep. Adding curry powder to everything savoury caused issues  when I started school and found the food extremely bland – except for the time when I found a dead bluebottle in the mashed potato and threw up over the dinner lady’s shoes.

My husband, on the other hand, had grown up in a house with a large garden, bordered on one side by a lake. There were plenty of opportunities to take pot shots at the encroaching rat population with his airgun. I was particularly impressed with his shooting prowess when we visited the funfair and he routinely won fluffy toys and key rings for me – despite that fact that  the gun sights were usually off.

We had to sell one of his airguns when we married and bought our first house together; there were more important items to spend money on and the only rats around us were human.

I confess. On one occasion when a group of local youth were standing ominously outside our front gate playing with matches, I fetched the air gun and stood in front of the window nonchalantly polishing the wooden stock. I didn’t point it at them – I didn’t even know where the steel pellets were kept but it seemed that the sight of me with a gun in my hand was enough to see them off.

They came back in the middle of the night and set fire to the gate.

I was well and truly told off by my husband when I confessed to him later. He didn’t tell me where the pellets were.

Our eldest son was born in 1993 and I acquired a fear of all things violent; the world was full of bombs, knives and guns and it was my job as a mother to protect him from them.

My husband was working 250 miles away from home by the time our baby boy was six months old. We took him to see his first Father Christmas in a northern town.  I asked the quite credibly-bearded Santa not to give our son any toy guns, soldiers or swords.

He looked at me and smiled, rather sadly.

‘We have lost children in this town because of violence. We don’t give weapons to our children.’

When the present was unwrapped we found a small pale green and white squeaky toy bus. Our baby boy loved it and I still have it twenty-two years later, in pride of place on a high shelf.

We relocated to the northern town and our second son was born. We made friends and attended birthday and Christmas parties. I did my best to buy non-violent presents; books, craft materials, non-gender-specific toys and the occasional noisy (but musical) toy when I was feeling a little devilish. Our eldest son displayed no interest in weaponry and war; he read enthusiastically and became a part of the Gameboy generation. Our youngest showed a distressing obsession with finding objects to shoot with; sticks, carrots, crayons. He didn’t discriminate.

I made sure that every party invitation I sent out contained a polite but unequivocal request to refrain from giving the boys any war related presents. It worked with nearly all our friends; the one exception being a self-proclaimed ‘free-spirit’ who wrapped up a battalion of cheap plastic soldiers for my baby boy – because she wouldn’t be ‘dictated’ to by anyone.

A small temper tantrum started to emerge as I spirited the offending present away. I was prepared for this and had a small pre-wrapped and much-desired present at the ready in order to ward off his evil eye. I caught the smirk on her face as my small boy started to wobble but the smirk turned to a scowl as he greeted his replacement present with more satisfaction.

I didn’t invite her or her children to any further parties. Her children have matured. She hasn’t.

Our boys grew; the eldest involved himself in the world of Pokémon whilst his brother’s obsession with weapons of violence expanded in many directions. A trip to Lindisfarne that was supposed to be spiritual and life-enhancing was something of a failure as one boy spent his time pursuing a Jigglypuff and the other embraced the marauding Viking way of life and demanded a wooden sword from the National Trust shop.

By the time he was into double figures, constant nagging caused the airgun (and the pellets) to accompany us on a visit south to my husband’s childhood home. All four of us indulged in a spot of target shooting in the garden; I retired injured from the kick of the gun, our eldest retired with Gameboy withdrawal symptoms. My husband and our youngest carried on shooting.

It transpired that the boy had a natural bent for shooting stuff.

The desire to destroy did not dissipate.

On one particular birthday the boy asked if he could have his birthday money – just so that he could hold it for a while. Trusting as we were, we said yes and the little horror went off and spent it on a replica gun that a friend was selling. It wasn’t an airgun; it used small white plastic balls as  ammunition.

A far better option than airgun pellets – or so I thought. Mothering Sunday was a couple of days after the boy’s birthday and I discovered just how much the repellent pellets (now known as BBs) hurt when they hit you in the neck.

‘It was an accident Mum- honest!’

Whilst his older brother stayed true to Gameboys and computers, the boy expanded his BB gun collection. We had hoped in vain that he would grow out of it and we would be left with the job of flogging off his weaponry. He was temporarily distracted by paintball but whilst his father developed an interest in the sport, the boy acquired more BB guns and with it the ability to buy up broken guns, rebuild them and sell them on to other army dreamers at an impressive profit.

He went through a spate of attending Airsoft events; groups of males dressed in a wide variety of camouflage kit, running around abandoned military sites and shooting each other. I have been banned from collecting him from these events due to the fact that I can’t help sniggering at middle-aged men dressed in black combat gear and huge boots who strut around trying to look dangerous – and failing.

The boy is very conscientious about the rules and regulations. All guns are kept in their cases and covered up in the boot of the car when being transported. Some of them are very realistic and could give rise to fears of terrorism should they be spotted by a passerby.  When not stalking other Airsoftees, he and a friend have access to a secure area of land where – if they wanted to – they could shoot hapless bunnies. They haven’t shot any yet and prefer to demolish innocent cans and containers instead.

One of our garage windows took a direct hit when he was testing a new gun out of the bathroom window, and our patio is spattered with paintball splodges and environmentally unfriendly plastic BBs that hurt like hell when you tread on them in bare feet.

There is a corpulent pigeon that lurks beneath the fat ball container  in the fir tree, waiting for fallen seeds from the Dunnock flock who frequent it. The boy has sworn to exterminate it but so far it has been too quick for him.

Of late he has expressed a desire to join the army – but only in the intelligence corps – he has no intention of being cannon fodder. Do we still have cannons?

He is twenty-one and a man, now so he has to make his own choices in life.

There is a song by Al Stewart that has been running through my head since I started writing this.

‘Shot hit the night, a bullet lodged in his brain.

He must have died instantly, he felt no pain.

As the crowd turned to go, a man was heard to say

“Oh, he must have had it coming to him anyway.”‘

I can’t like the sound of gunshots.

 

Performance – The Cradle Song 1977 – Week 15 of the 52 week short story challenge

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The scene is set.

An elegant Regency-style room with huge shuttered windows that looks out onto terraced lawns and rhododendron bushes.

A group of first-year drama students, mainly female, seated in incongruously modern plastic chairs in a semi-circle clutching small books with soft blue paper covers. The door opens  and all heads turn to see the vision that is their director. In turn, he peers at them over his half-moon spectacles, adjusts his cravat and perches on the edge of the table placed in front of the group.

‘Well,’ he says, his eagle-like glare sweeping the room. ‘ You seem like a pretty mixed bunch. I see that you all have a copy of the play you are going to perform at the end of term. Your performance will take place in this room in front of the rest of the students and the other directors. We don’t let you loose in the theatre yet unless we are desperate for extras in our crowd scenes. I have a list of your names here and as I know nothing else about you, I would like you to read some of the script as indicated. For those who may not have come across this obscure little play by an equally obscure little Spanish author, it has not been chosen for its merit but because the majority of parts are female, we have a good stock of habits in wardrobe and I personally prefer it to ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ by Lorca which is the other old warhorse that gets trotted out periodically when we have a glut of female students.’

He pauses for effect and scans his audience. Blank faces. A tough crowd. He sighs and fans his face with a copy of the script.

‘In  a nutshell; a baby girl gets dumped at a convent and is adopted by the local doctor and brought up by the nuns. Sister Joanna forms an unhealthy attachment for the girl now named Teresa. Not surprisingly, Teresa grows up with a desire to leave the convent and is swept off her feet by the charming Antonio. We jump over the years to the day that she turns 18 and goes off to be married. There are four male parts so one of you boys will be the stage manager. I am not looking for impeccable diction or RSC-level acting at this stage. If you have a  regional or cultural accent  do please try to overcome it so that I can understand you.  We will start at this end.’

The read through begins.

THE CRADLE SONG

GREGORIO MARTINEZ SIERRA

 CHARACTERS

Sister Joanna of the Cross, 18 years of age.

Teresa, aged 18.

The Prioress, aged 40.

The Vicaress, aged 40.

The Mistress of Novices, aged 36.

Sister Marcella, aged 19.

Sister Maria Jesus, aged 19.

Sister Sagrario, aged 18.

Sister Inez, aged 50.

Sister Tornera, aged 30.

The Doctor, aged 60.

Antonio, aged 25.

The Poet.

A Countryman.

Also a Lay Sister, Two Monitors and several other Nuns, as desired.

 Most of the students have already checked the cast list and skim-read the script to see which parts are the best. With one eye on the passage they have been asked to read and the other on their director, their progress is interrupted regularly by the director telling them to skip certain parts and pass on to a designated page with more interesting dialogue. The director’s pen scribbles next to the names on his list and the students try to work out from his reaction, whether they have done well or badly.

Some people are asked to read another section and those who aren’t feel unsure as to whether this is because of their poor performance or because the person being asked to read again has messed up the first time.

The director’s expressions are impossible to analyse; not because he is inscrutable but because his face contorts through the whole range of manufactured emotions as he scribbles on his list.

At last the torture is at an end. The director gets up and walks round the table in order to sit behind it on the rather grand carved wooden throne already placed there. He steeples his fingers, elbows leaning on the table and his list in front of him, peering over his spectacles as his eyes move from one end of the semi-circle to the other. He is a master at drawing out the suspense.

‘Boys! Stand up and sit down once you are cast. You – tall lad with blond hair – you have an unfortunate glottal stop so you will be the stage manager. Small Scottish person – your accent is virtually unintelligible so you can be the Countryman; he doesn’t have much to say and none of it is important anyway. Pretty boy in the blue shirt – you will be our Antonio but you will have to be a bit more butch dear, an 18 year girl needs to fall in love with you. Older chap with the designer stubble – grow a beard and you will be a passable Doctor if we grey you up a bit and add some lines. Last man standing – you will be our Poet and you have some lovely lines to deliver so let’s see if we can do something to iron out your Brummie accent.’

The last of the boys sits down. The female students stand up.

‘Okay girls. I am glad to see that you are not all innocent 18 year olds. Take no notice of the ages of the characters on the cast list, the only one who has to look young is Teresa. She ages from a baby to a teenager. Don’t worry, we have a swaddled baby doll for the start of the play. We don’t let students play with real babies. Now, you with the short brown hair. You look about 12 so you will be Teresa. Try to stay looking sweet and innocent dear however many debauched parties you attend. Older woman at the end – you are my Prioress. Girl with the gold-rimmed specs – you look as if you could be a bit severe so you are the Vicaress – keep the specs on. Chubby girl from Yorkshire – Mistress of Novices. Girl next to you with the dramatically crossed legs – Sister Joanna – I have a feeling that you can rise to the challenge of emoting to order. Those left standing – there are five sisters with strange Spanish names left and Senor Sierra gives us some latitude to add nuns and lay sisters as desired so all seven of you will wear a habit and have very little to say. Everybody happy? Probably not but I am not in the business of making students happy. It doesn’t happen in the real theatre so you’d better start learning how to cope with disappointment now. Class over, I need a lie down. Go out in the garden and start learning your lines.’

He sweeps out of the room as swiftly as he had swept in.

The students who have sizeable roles try not to look too smug. The seven sisters and the stage manager do their best not to look too upset.

As the performance date approaches; lines are learned, those who had slushy diction are given extra speech exercises and stage make-up classes focus on the unsubtle art of aging. The director in charge of the wardrobe department kits the students out in their white habits and wimples, with suitably rustic outfits for the Doctor, Antonio and the Countryman. The Poet preens in his dinner suit and dicky bow.

Rehearsals are an education. The Prioress has no problem with being serenely in charge, the Mistress of Novices clucks her way around the spare nuns and Sister Joanna over-acts to her heart’s content, often leaving poor Teresa bruised from her enthusiastic embraces. The girl in the gold-rimmed spectacles delivers the lines of the Vicaress sternly –  as directed.

The director asks Joanna to rein it in a bit.

He stands in front of the Vicaress as she delivers her closing speech. He frowns.

‘TOO unemotional dearie. Could you manage to squeeze out the teeniest tear for me during that last speech? You could borrow some from Joanna, she has them in spades.’

‘I’ll do it for the performance.’ says the girl with the gold-rimmed spectacles.

The director looks dubious.

‘I’ve heard that before and I’ve witnessed many a failure. I’ll believe it when I see it but the whole play hinges on that tear.’

No pressure then.

On the day of the performance the Regency Room is packed.

Watching from the room next door, the students try to quell their butterflies. Joanna delivers very audible deep-breathing and speech exercises that make everyone else feel a bit inadequate.  The girl in the gold-rimmed glasses wishes that she could have done her part without spectacles so that she didn’t have to see the audience.

It doesn’t go too badly in the end. Everyone plays their part and Joanna emotes and acts everyone else off the stage until the closing moments.

[All make ready to go out sadly. The Vicaress sensing the situation, to her mind demoralizing, feels it to be her duty to provide a remedy. She, too, is greatly moved, but making a supreme effort to control herself’.]

VICARESS. One moment. I have observed of late . . . that some … in the prayer . . . have not been marking sufficiently the pauses in the middle of the lines, while on the other hand, they drag out the last words interminably. Be careful of this, for your Reverences know that the beauty of the office lies in rightly marking the pauses, and in avoiding undue emphasis on the end of the phrase. Let us go there.

[The Nuns file out slowly. Sister Joanna of the Cross unnoticed, remains alone. With a cry, she falls upon her knees beside an empty chair.]

 The girl in the gold-rimmed spectacles pulls it off. She delivers her last speech, stony-faced with one single tear rolling slowly down her cheek. Controlled emotion in no way diminished by the fact that Joanna is having hysterics over the empty chair vacated by Teresa.

Make-up and habits are left in the dressing rooms as the cast return to have coffee and biscuits with their audience. Joanna remains in the dressing room trying to control her emotions and cover up her red-rimmed eyes. When no one comes looking for her she sidles into the room and picks up a cup of cold coffee. One of the directors tells her that she looked like a bent banana and that she needs to learn more self-control in future.

The director of the play gives a brief but approving pat to the shoulder of the girl with the gold-rimmed spectacles.  Another director, who is also the deputy principal of the college, smiles at the girl and congratulates her.

‘I’ve seen that play so many times over the years but no one else managed to produce that tear so effectively. You did well.’

It is a lesson learned.

Don’t be deterred by people who tell you that you can’t achieve something when you believe that you can.

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A Villain’s Perspective – Week 14 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I should have known that she meant trouble for me. There was something about that bird that really wound me up; she really knew how to push my buttons.

I was fresh out of college and in my first job when I met her. It was at an induction course for new staff and I was scheduled to do part of the health and safety briefing. I was a bit nervous when I saw the sea of faces in front of me but I got through it and handed over to Joanne; technically my senior, who was going to talk about safety at work.

Unfortunately for Joanne, she decided to wear a pair of high-heeled shoes that would never meet H & S standards; she fell off them on her way to the stage and had to be helped to reception for a check from a first aider – who was due to give his own talk half an hour later.

I went back and delivered Joanne’s talk and in order to fill out the time I asked if there were any questions.

Bad idea.

A hand shot up.

‘Health and safety regulations apply to all staff, don’t they?’ She didn’t look sarky as she said this.

I nodded.

‘So, all staff should be wearing clothing and footwear appropriate to the work environment, shouldn’t they?’

Slow on the uptake, I nodded again.

‘I’m sure we are all very sympathetic about the young lady’s unfortunate accident, but if she had complied with regulations as you suggest…’

The sarky bird laughed. They all laughed. I blushed. My confidence gone, I looked helplessly at my boss Carl. He came on stage and gestured for me to leave. He joined in the laughter and apologised but pointed out that he couldn’t have had a better example to emphasise the importance of adhering to health and safety regulations if he’d tried.

I felt gutted. He had them in the palm of his hand. He was on my hit list and so was the sarky bird in the audience.

I didn’t even have to try to get rid of Joanne; she was demoted to the post room and I was bumped up to Carl’s deputy. Not much of a promotion considering there was just the two of us, a secretary and two work experience girls, but I was on my way.

Getting rid of Carl was complicated; people liked him and he had worked for the company for ten years. He was getting complacent though, happy to leave much of the work to me and the clerical staff. I soon had them all eating out of my hand; I knew the importance of turning on the charm.

After a few months of surreptitious cancelling and rescheduling of orders, meetings and training, Carl’s star was sinking and he accepted a sideways position into another branch of the company when it was suggested that he had lost his grip on the whole facilities issue. He never found out that I was the one who had sabotaged his work.

They interviewed me for Carl’s job and not surprisingly, I got it. He gave me a brilliant reference. Fool.

My next goal was to build up my very small team into something more impressive. It wasn’t hard; a mastered the art of being extremely accommodating to senior managers and effective at saving money. Why pay out for professionals when you can get it done on the cheap and earn yourself extra brownie points? The building janitors came under my remit now and I used them to carry out maintenance and delivery jobs that had been contracted out previously.

Okay, so they weren’t that good at carpentry and the shelves and worktops they put up were a bit dodgy, but they could paint walls, move office furniture and weren’t averse to a bit of unofficial work after hours if given sufficient sweeteners.

One of the work experience girls had taken quite a shine to me – and I fancied her too. I waited until she had gone back to school and turned sixteen before I made our relationship official of course; knocking off underage schoolgirls in office hours would not have gone down well – however tempted I was. She wasn’t terribly bright and had made a hash up of every office job I gave her but she was tall, blonde, very attractive and could be relied upon to do as she was told. My ideal woman.

The retirement of the canteen manager gave me my next opportunity to increase my empire. I would have responsibility for a cook, three kitchen assistants and a healthy budget to play with.

Saving money in the canteen was child’s play. I found a cheaper food supplier and changed the menus. The cook objected to the poor food quality and handed in her notice. The company marched on its stomach and as a consequence a replacement cook who didn’t care too much about good ingredients was appointed.

Most of the staff  were happy with chips; with fish and mushy peas on Fridays, sausages, burgers or pies during the rest of the week. I made sure that there was cheap salad available as I had already experienced the pointlessness of taking on the stroppy vegetarians.

My child bride and I got married – she was eighteen and pregnant by this time.

There were a few people who weren’t deceived by my charms; if they were on the same management level as me or lower, I did my best to undermine them. I was getting good at this game. Most senior managers realised that I was an asset to be used to their advantage; there were a couple who were cool and distant in their dealings with me. I was very careful not to cross them.

By the time I came across the sarky bird from the induction again, I had a son and a daughter, and a wife who was bored with being at home. She got suspicious when I took to working later than usual. She wasn’t that daft; there was a seventeen-year old cleaner who had added spice to my life. We would meet up for swift but exciting sex in a disused office when the building was deserted.

At about the time my wife was getting to be an unnecessary irritation, a new project team moved into the building. I was told to find temporary accommodation for them and ultimately an office – or two – as the team expanded. I was called in to a meeting with the senior manager in charge of the team and his team members – one of whom was the sarky bird from the induction.

‘Goodness me Adrian!’ she said. ‘Haven’t you risen up the ladder since the last time I saw you!’

I blushed and the other occupants of the room demanded to know what she was talking about.

She told them; she built up the story enough to make me look a total prat. They all laughed, not with me but at me and the sarky bird rose up to the top of my hit list.

After that, it was war. I did my best to make life as awkward for her and her snotty team but each time I did, she managed to put a halt to my plans.

The most embarrassing and potentially damaging thing she did was to grass me up to HR.

I had arranged for my wife to work in my office in the mornings – on a temporary basis – we used her maiden name because you weren’t supposed to have a spouse working for you. This had been a happy arrangement for about a month when I got a call from HR asking me when I had interviewed for a temporary office assistant, how many others had been interviewed and was it just a coincidence that the new employee and I had the same address?

It was a close thing. I could have been demoted or even lost my job but with a bit of careful briefing, my wife and I told a good story about her depression and her need to be out of the house again. I blamed my ‘bending’ of the HR rules on my love and concern for my family.

Success.

My wife was transferred to another office, and though she was still on a temporary contract, she was kept busy there during the mornings and I didn’t have the trouble of finding her meaningless jobs to do. That was someone else’s problem now.

I had no proof that it was the sarky bird that dobbed me in but the fact that she and her team members seemed to find me a constant source of amusement, and refused to treat me with the respect I deserved, that was enough proof for me.

It was war.

Trouble was, it was war on both sides.

My wife found out about my after-hours meetings with the office cleaner. A friend of a friend of the sarky bird in her new team told her and my life was hell at home and a work for a while. I had to sack the cleaner – which upset the other cleaning and janitorial staff. My wife went on strike when I came home from work and it took shedloads of expensive presents to get back in her good books. She really wasn’t as stupid as I thought she was.

Further cuts had to be made in the budget and it was decided that we would close the office building down and move the staff to a more central location.. We received a good offer for the land if the building was demolished and the new office building was only half-occupied so there was plenty of room there.

I got two of the most expensive estimates I could find for moving the furniture and equipment the three miles into town. Then I undercut them drastically by using our own janitors, hiring a couple of white vans, some large plastic crates and getting the staff to pack up their own offices.

Not surprisingly, senior management jumped at the chance of doing things on the cheap. We had a bit of a near miss when it was alleged that we had bats in the roof of the building though. As they were a protected species we couldn’t get the building demolished until the relevant inspectors had been in.

The crates arrived and were stacked up in the corridors. I got one of my staff to draw up a rota as to which office was moving and when. I saved more money by reusing the crates and going into the new offices to ensure that the staff were pulling their weight and unpacking quickly.

The bats turned out to be temporary residents so there was even more reason to get everyone moved and smash the building down.

There were more opportunities for promotion in the new building. I just had to pull this office move off first.

The sarky bird had moved on to another team; just to add salt to the wound, she had been appointed to a job that my wife had been turned down for. This new  team inundated me with demands; room for larger desks because of health and safety issues, storage for confidential files, an accessible meeting room – the list just grew and grew.

A few more cracks appeared in my master plan. I had told the staff to put as much as possible in their pedestal drawers – this meant that I needed fewer crates. The drawers had very small wheels however and the combination of ham-fisted janitors, bumpy car parks and tiny wheels meant that there was a large casualty rate amongst the pedestals – which cost a great deal to replace.

Then there was an accident.

Someone – and no one ever owned up to it – left a crate in an office doorway. A member of staff tripped over it and broke their ankle. I got my secretary to send out an email telling staff not to block doorways and corridors with crates so I couldn’t be held responsible.

We were down to the last week of the move. I was shoving a large desk up the corridor on my own when the sarky bird walked past.

‘Adrian! You should know better than to be moving heavy furniture on your own. Health and safety regulations! You wouldn’t want to have another accident on your conscience now would you?’

I growled.

She sniggered and went back to her office.

The final crates were stacked outside her office. Maybe the crates were piled a bit high but we were in a hurry.

There was another accident.

The sarky bird’s manager told her to get a crate down from the stacks to pack away some specific equipment. As she lifted the crate free from the stack, another one fell on her foot and damaged her toe.

I did my best to cover my back again but senior management laid the blame at my door – and at the door of her manager. They suspended her on a number of allegations regarding the disclosure of information about the workplace but as the accident led to her being off work for more than nine months the Health and Safety Executive had to be involved and all the allegations were dropped – apart from the allegation that she made sarky comments about senior managers – me included.

The upshot of it was that the company had to accept full responsibility for the accident and pay damages to the sarky bird. She also got a reference and pay in lieu of notice. I got demoted, and my wife got a job that she hated so much that she took it out on me at work and at home.

Okay. Other people lost their jobs because of me. Other people got injured. Senior managers stepped aside and laid the blame at my door and instead of being grateful for my having saved them a great deal of money, they also blamed me for the damaged pedestals and low morale amongst the janitorial staff.

I don’t think of myself as a villain.

I blame the sarky bird.

smiley toe