Ruby drove off and parked in a side street some way from the central offices before picking up her own phone and calling Sally’s number.
“Hi honeybunch. How are you?”
Ruby smiled. Sally’s mobile was never far from her fingertips and she knew at a glance who was calling. “I’ve had an interesting morning in Human Resources. Some very unhappy bunnies in there, and three naughty women who don’t seem to be doing much in the way of genuine work. Three of them spent all morning putting together a dating profile for the one who got dumped on her wedding night.”
“Really! On her wedding night! Why?”
“Rumour has it she turned into a bridezilla, and by that time she and her new husband had gone through the months of preparation, and a horrendously expensive and tacky wedding. It culminated in a night of bickering in the honeymoon suite at Heathrow, non-consummation and the bridegroom running off with his ticket to the Dominican Republic after cashing hers in and stealing her passport so that she couldn’t follow him!”
“Ouch! What happened next?”
“She spent her own honeymoon money on a boob job, her husband came back with a glorious sun tan, and resumed his position in the Highways department. He wants nothing more to do with her and has taken all the best wedding presents. Her side of the family are demanding that he return the presents, but he says that he deserves them after all the pain and strain leading up to the wedding.”
Sally giggled. “Where did you get all this from?”
“I was sitting opposite nice Peter, you remember, he was seconded out of customer relations for six months and worked next door to us.”
“Oh yes, I remember him. He was sweet. What on earth is he doing in HR?”
“Another secondment. Looked to me like he was doing all the work for the three witches, as well as his own stuff. He seems absolutely petrified by them and they have Mandy just where they want her too. Apparently, Mark was working there but he complained to Mandy about the workload and got demoted to the post-room.”
“The post-room! Where that mad woman works? That woman that staples everything together and annoys the scanning department?”
“The very one. Anyway, I have to get back to the office and pick up some lunch. Margaret came over to make an announcement about her new assistant head of Human Resources. His name is Gavin Slime, and he is very hot on data protection and confidentiality in his department. Margaret also gave me a telling off for hot desking in HR. She was wearing the dead cat jacket.”
“Oh no! Not the one with the manky fur collar. It really smells. I don’t think she’s ever had it dry cleaned.”
“I nearly forgot. Remember Joanna?”
“I will never forget her. Uses her big blue eyes to get other people to do her work for her.”
“She is going to be Slime’s secretary.”
“That’s going to be an interesting combination. Be careful Ruby.”
“Will do. I’ll call you tonight on the landline. Take care.”
Sally was becoming accustomed to being at home. It gave her more time with her husband Ed and sons, and their dog who had been rescued from the animal shelter. They had acquired the dog in the aftermath of Sally’s book being published, and social media threats from some of her colleagues who recognised some of their more unpleasant characteristics once they were in print. Or had those characteristics pointed out by gloating colleagues.
The last of Sally’s cats had died peacefully on a sunny path in the garden, and having promised her youngest that he could have a dog once the cats had all departed, they began to search for their ideal dog. They spotted Perro on the web page and decided that he was the dog for them; a cross between a black flat-coated retriever and a German Shepherd dog, with big bright eyes. It was love at first sight and after nailing up a nine-foot trellis round the garden and installing two large iron gates to keep Perro in, and the neighbourhood cats out, they bought him home.
He proved to be extremely affectionate and loyal to the family but had a profound dislike for postmen, delivery men, joggers, cyclists and refuse collectors, especially if they were wearing high visibility jackets. For Sally; still wary after her brush with one of her ex-managers when shopping in the local supermarket, Perro represented safety and protection. He was very defensive of her, and knowing that Perro would terrify any would-be burglar or angry colleague, she no longer felt fearful when her husband was out of the house.
Her days should have been spent in tidying up her disorganised home, cooking meals for her family, and taking the dog for long walks. John’s departure, and the subsequent decision to sack her without notice or compensation, had meant that most of her time was occupied with photocopying statements, tracking down emails, and identifying the relevant legislation and procedures that her employers did not seem to be aware of.
There were days of sunshine however, when she and her husband would put the dog in the car and drive off to a beach somewhere, or a high hill, or a riverbank. Anywhere really that didn’t leave them exposed to the endless round of letters and telephone calls that bedevilled them at home.
One such letter had instructed Sally that with the exception of Ruby, she was not allowed to have anything to do with any employees of the local authority, nor was she permitted to enter any premises belonging to the local authority. A liaison officer was appointed who, despite being a very nice person, was completely inept and had never held such a role before. Sally did her homework and pointed out to the nice lady that under Human Rights legislation, she had the right to freedom of expression, and the right to a private and family life, which basically meant that she could talk to anyone she liked, and go anywhere she wanted to because she hadn’t actually committed any crimes.
Sally checked this all out with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS for short) and an equally nice lady from ACAS snorted with derision and said “Oh no, not another local authority overstepping the limits of their powers!” Sally had quoted this back to the liaison officer who reported it to a senior manager who, puffed up with a sense of her own importance, had been very cross with Sally and told her that she didn’t know what she was talking about.
Sally begged to differ.
The more Sally delved, the more she discovered about the unworkable policies and ill-thought-out procedures that the local authority were using – or not using in many cases. The same names cropped up in the properties sections of the electronic copies of these policies; people who Sally wasn’t sure actually had the training or experience to be belting out procedures that their colleagues should be following.
Sufficient to say, the names of the three witches of Ruby’s morning acquaintance put in a regular appearance and most of what they had written was full of grammar errors and spelling mistakes. Despite this, some of the documents containing the worst errors had already been passed by senior management and circulated to everyone employed by the local authority.
Browsing her way through a particularly dire document; Sally was disturbed by a knock on the front door and the resultant barking and growling from a wary Perro. Shutting him the front room, she ran out to the kitchen door and opened it to find her favourite nephew Ben standing there, with a bunch of freesias in his outstretched hand.
“Ben! Darling! How wonderful to see you! Come in! Your mum said you’d finished Uni and were looking around for something lucrative. Are you scared of or allergic to dogs?”
He shook his head and grinned. “Don’t think so. I like dogs. How big is the Hound of the Baskervilles in the next room?”
“Perro? Oh, he’s an absolute sweetie really. I’ll just get you one of his favourite treats and then I’ll introduce you. Can you take off your jacket and hang it up in here please? There’s rather a lot of luminous green and Perro doesn’t do high vis.”
Ben hung his coat on the rack, hiding it behind Sally’s purple duffle coat. She handed him a long and foul-smelling dog chew that she had dug out of a pack on the breakfast bar, and motioned him to stand behind her as she opened the door to the living room. Perro burst out like a bullet from a gun, his gums drawn back in a menacing growl.
“Look Perro!” Sally cried. “Here’s Ben and he’s got a nice treat for you.”
The dog stopped in his tracks, cocked his head to one side and sat down. Ben handed him the chew, patted him on the head, and gingerly stepped over him to follow Sally into the living room and sit down next to her on the sofa. He held out the freesias to her again. She took them and smiled.
“My favourite. Did you remember, or was this the idea of your very clever mum?”
“Ah – Mum reminded me. She said that I ought to bring a sweetener because you might not like what I have to say.”
Sally grimaced. “And that is?”
“I’ve got a job. In a Human Resources department.”
“Ben! That’s wonderful! When do you start?”
“Next Monday. I will be an acting business manager; initially on a six-month trial but if I get through the probationary period, I become a full business manager on a permanent contract.”
“Where are you working then? From home or near Uni?”
“Ah – neither. This is the bit that you won’t like. I’ve got a job working for your old local authority. Don’t be angry! I’m going into this with my eyes wide open and who knows – I may even be able to help you in some way.”
Sally was on her feet and pacing; Perro followed her closely, confused by her obvious agitation and looking between her and Ben for reassurance.
“They’ll chew you up and spit you out in bubbles Ben!” she said, “these are ruthless people. If they find out that you know me your life won’t be worth living! Thank goodness we have different surnames and you take after your father’s side of the family rather than my lot!”
Ben grinned. “Calm down! There’s no way anyone can trace the relationship between us. It will be fine. I’m looking forward to a bit of cut and thrust anyway. Uni was getting very pedestrian.”
“Where are you going to live?” Sally sat back down on the sofa and Perro jumped up beside her, his paw protectively on her knee.
“You remember Simon? We shared a house together in my second year. He’s living about ten miles away from here in his own two bed-roomed flat. We’ve kept in contact and he has a room free so I’ll be staying with him for now – maybe permanently. He has his own gym downstairs; I can work out console myself with fit women in tight leggings and sports tops.”
“Joke! He’s very serious about what he does and doesn’t drink – much. I’ll be perfectly safe. Any chance of a cup of coffee now?”
“Of course, darling, I’m a rubbish hostess. I think I’ve recovered from the shock now anyway. We’ll have to let Ruby know though.”
“My very dear friend, ex-colleague and official representative. My eyes and ears within the council, although they do their best to hide things from her. She’s not popular within the department, but fortunately she works in training and answers to more sympathetic managers than the bunch I’ve had to deal with. Strangely enough she was using a desk in HR just this morning and says that the department is in disarray. Who interviewed you?”
“A big chap called Michael and a strange-looking woman called Margaret.”
“Michael asked the kind of pseudo-psychological questions that we covered in year one of my degree. Not challenging. Margaret on the other hand asked some very personal questions and I had to advise her that they weren’t relevant to the job or my suitability. Michael had to agree with me, and that shut her up effectively.”
“Black mark there, Ben. I’m surprised you got the job. Mad Margaret does not take kindly to being corrected, as I know to my cost.”
“Is she really mad?”
“Another example of alliteration, she is also known as miserable, moaning and manky. What was she wearing?”
“Something black; I could only see the top half. A sort of black jacket with a black fur collar. I shook hands with them both before leaving and there was a strange whiff coming off Margaret.”
“Her favourite jacket, and one that she wears when she wants to make an impact.”
“As a cat killer?”
“I wouldn’t put anything passed her. She is married to Desmond, the nicest man in the world barring your Uncle Ed; goodness knows why they are still together because she bullies him unmercifully at work and at home.”
“You seem to know him well?”
“Desmond used to pop into the office to take Margaret out for lunch. He was usually early and she was inevitably late, so we used to chat until we hear the sound of her high-heeled boots clipping along the corridor. He’d dive into her office and I keep my head down until Margaret appeared and I could tell her that Desmond was waiting in her office. He has a dream about moving to the US and living a hippy lifestyle on Venice Beach. Not at all what Margaret wants.”
“Well, I’ve done my homework and read your book cover to cover. I didn’t see anyone that resembled Margaret though.”
“She was away working for the health authority at the time; a year’s secondment that gave her delusions of power, but ended dead on schedule with a thank you card and a bunch of flowers. She didn’t make many friends there either. Otherwise I might have had to increase the size of my list to include her. Be careful Ben!”
“I will. I need to sort out my love life as well.”
“Melissa doesn’t want to move up here. She is currently torn between her job and a London social life, and being with me in a rented two-bedroomed flat share over a gym in the frozen North.”
“Distance lends enchantment? Don’t give up on her yet Ben. It’s a big decision to make and you have to survive the six-month probation yet.”
“I’d better get back and finish my unpacking. I just wanted you to know before Mum got on the phone. Or has she?”
“Not yet. She is obviously showing self-restraint, so I’ll give her a call and confirm that you’ve made contact. Come to dinner tomorrow night? I’ll make chilli and you can meet Ruby. She’ll make a wonderful ally and bring you up to speed on the machinations of your future employers.”
“I love chilli! With garlic bread or rice?”
“Both if you want. Come over about seven?”
“Definitely. I shall bring red wine as well.”
Sally gave him a hug and showed him out of the door; staying to watch him drive off before she returned to the front room and picked up the phone to call her sister.