Thursday, 6 December 2007

Like a lamb to the slaughter

I suppose the task fell to me because, of the nine of us in that room, I was the one who knew Sarah best.

We sat around the circular mahogany table and debated her future with the company. All of her strengths, and her weaknesses, were laid out in front of us and carefully dissected.

The weakest link in our team had to go. Sarah, it was decided after only half an hour of consideration, was that weakest link.

Her first day in the office stood out clearly in my mind. She arrived promptly, neat bobbed hair, small dark suit, wearing what my father would describe as ‘sensible’ heels, and she made for me, I think, because she thought I had a friendly appearance.

I took her under my wing. We got on well. I suppose I assumed a sort of big sister role with her. I offered her moral support and encouragement. She accepted, willingly, listening enthusiastically to tales of my early days with the company, all of three years ago.

After a week she gave me a spider plant for my desk. She had read a newspaper article which said they absorbed the negative ions given off by computers. These ions would make us ill, she said. We should all have a spider plant. And she brought one in and gave it to me.

She was shy at first, as new graduates often are, and answered the telephone with a timidity that I assumed would wear off after her first six months. Her work was neat, mostly presented on time, but lacked a spark of imagination that was so vital at Palmer, Westwood and Co. I waited; we all waited, for a flash of brilliance.

I helped her all I could. I think she regarded me as her mentor as well as a friend. She asked my advice and looked for support and for approval. I did my best to improve her confidence. I am good at that, I will admit.

I mean, look at Matt now, out brightest star and he started off as such a quiet boy – actually quietly ambitious would be more to the point. Ambitious, it seemed, to leap-frog – or should I say trample underfoot – his female colleagues to clamber up to the ranks of upper management. And to think that I helped him to do it. God! It still makes my blood boil! No way was I going to let that happen again. Sarah was never going to do that. She was not going to get the chance.

Yes, I did help her, but not as much as I had helped Matt. We did go for drinks after work; she did share confidences with me, and reveal her insecurities. But I filed the details away in my mind for future reference. I had learned my lesson the hard way. I thought the information might one day be useful and I was right. At the meeting I shamelessly revealed all her innermost insecurities to my management colleagues. I gave them the final damning evidence. Each nugget of information was a nail in the coffin of her career with our company.

As her fate was agreed by us all, Timothy Palmer, our suave managing director, turned to me, his bright new right-hand woman and said: “This is the job for you.”

Matt, damn him to hell nodded his approval. Everyone else agreed. They stared at me, those eight dark-suited neatly tie-knotted men, and decided I should have my first test as the newest recruit to the management team. The sentence was delivered and I was dispatched to stab my erstwhile friend in the back. The meeting broke up and, as I emerged from the boardroom, I sensed that all eyes were on me.

It is a small office. Everyone knows everybody else’s business. We socialise together, we are Godparents to each other’s children. We have even been known to go on holiday together – a week in Gran Canaria in February topped up our sun levels and built camaraderie. Blonde, sweet, pretty Sarah came out in hives in the sun, could not keep up with the consumption of alcohol and spent most of the week in the hotel room whimpering through illness and home sickness.

Other liaisons have happened too. I cannot deny those. It is bound to happen in a mixed office full of ambitions isn’t it?

As I said, we have a small office, open plan. My desk is on the far back corner of the room, facing the door, a short walk - but too long after that meeting - from the boardroom.

I like my desk. I like to be in a position where I can see everyone coming into the room and I can see all the other desks. My computer, telephone, neat pots of pens and paperclips and my spider plant, mark my territory.

Sarah sat two desks away from me to the right. The eyes of the rest of our 20-strong team watched me, hatchet woman, cross the room towards my victim. I felt decidedly uneasy as I approached her. She looked up at me and smiled brightly.

Since leaving the meeting my mind had been rehearsing this moment. What to say. Clichés hurried in. ‘We have decided to let you go’ – I vowed to avoid that one. I was anxious to show what I was made of. I was a knight hoping to win my spurs. This is a male-dominated business and I had something to prove. I had, by sacking Sarah, to show that a woman had the backbone, the nerve, the balls, if you like. And I knew they would be watching, I knew I had to do this well. A clean cut.

Sarah – there like a lamb waiting for the slaughter man. It was so absurd, I almost expected her to bleat.

‘Think, girl,’ I told myself. ‘Get a grip. This is work. This is your job, this is not personal.’

I took a breath.

“Sarah,” I said. “I have some bad news for you.”

It sounded fake and hollow. The words tasted unnatural in my mouth – foreign words I was unused to saying.

I became aware the office was collectively holding its breath, like the coliseum waiting for the gladiator’s kill. I had a stupid, ridiculous, urge to laugh. I always laugh at inappropriate moments – my grandfather’s funeral for example. I really did laugh then. It had seemed so absurd – granddad in a coffin. My first family funeral. I guffawed. I had thought to myself, surely this is a joke, yes? Nobody else had laughed. But that was years ago. Unlike then, I now quelled the urge.

I could not see him, but I could feel Timothy Palmer’s eyes on my back, covertly assessing the performance of his latest protégé.

Sarah’s face clouded. Her turn to look uneasy. Actually she looked shocked.

“Come and get a coffee,” I muttered and led her out of the office arena.

Later, as Sarah’s too tidy desk reproached me, Tim called me in to his office. He looked at me steadily, tapping his perfect white teeth with his fountain pen.

“I let her down gently…” I began. Tim did not comment. “She took it well, as well as can be expected…” Shut up, I scolded myself. Stay cool…

Tim regarded me levelly.

“I want you to take over the Vale account,” he said and went back to his report.

I left his office feeling triumphant. I tried not to let it show in my face. But, deep inside, I also felt horribly guilty.

To be absolutely truthful, which is not always wise in this business, Sarah had not taken the news well. She cried. She howled. She said the job had been all she had ever wanted. Over and over and over again.

Her parents had been so proud… sob… she thought she had been doing so well… sob… and, the killer blow, she said she had thought I was her friend. Already the past tense. I had been her friend. But if that was true, surely I would have known what to do faced with such grief?

Instead I felt awkward, embarrassed and totally inadequate. No wonder the men had not wanted to do this. Imagine how they would have felt! Tears at the office! There had been tears before, of course. I mean people’s pets die, relatives even. But I could not recall sacked people crying before. Maybe this was a female thing. Sarah knew me. I have been her friend, she thought. So, I suppose, she assumed she could cry like this in front of me. Would I have cried in the same circumstances? I cried when Matt was promoted above me. But not at the office. I cried on the bus on the way home, hot angry tears. By the time I got home I was so mad! I swore I would get even. Then I drank the best part of a bottle of vodka with a friend – a real friend, not Sarah – swore about Matt, even drunkenly contemplated some kind of voodoo wax effigy and pins… but I carried on. I took it on board, learned a lesson.

“I’ll help you,” I told Sarah, tugging handfuls of tissues out of the box. “References – whatever you need.”

She sobbed and snuffled and blew until her face was puffy and red. She looked a mess – blotchy face, dishevelled hair.

I became increasingly annoyed. I thought to myself, why was she going on so much? Why didn’t she just shut up, for God’s sake?

Actually, I did not think that. I said it. To her face. She reacted as if I had hit her. All the breath left her body in one big whoosh.

“Just dry your eyes, clear your desk and get out,” I heard this cold hard voice – my voice – say. She went.

I stayed by the coffee machine, collecting my thoughts for a few moments. Matt came around the corner, smirking.

“Atta girl,” he said.