So then...

About Me

Welcome to my blog. My pen name is Eva James. I'm an aspiring writer paying the bills working as a legal secretary. Bullied by my boss in 2008, I looked for another job but the recession hit. Feeling trapped, I started this blog. Trevor Griffiths, legendary theatre, TV and film writer said at the outset, "I like the writing a lot: smart, cool, placed. If you were prepared/able to take your prick of a boss on, you'd marmelise him." I was unaware back then that it would catalogue one of the most extreme cases of workplace bullying in the UK. I've found another job, but am subject to a gagging order. I'm still blogging, of course. Just don't tell the lawyers!

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Who's Who

I should have done this first, but hey-ho. Before we go any further, here’s an essential introduction to a few key players in my office environment.

Howard is my boss. He’s a young-ish solicitor with a spiteful sense of humour and a catalogue of morbid obsessions. The only thing Howard encourages is my suicide. As he tested the banisters to see if they would hold my weight, I phoned around the temp agencies but was told, “There’s a recession on – keep your head down.” Keep my head down? Keeping my chin up is the hard part.

I could speak up but our firm is headed by Philip, a taciturn Glaswegian Company Director with an impossible temper. He has an incomprehensible accent and a penchant for kicking his cabinets. Complaints about the operation of his company get you fired.

By the CVs coming in - they know we haven’t a choice - we can be replaced by forty others. But if I have to sit in this hot seat five days a week then I want you with me. Perhaps you’ll be objective.

Maybe I’m being oversensitive. Maybe it is all right that when Howard last made me a cup of tea, he put the teabag down his trousers first.

See you soon

Eva x

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Office Routine

Let’s be honest, most offices are places of dull routine. My working day is much the same day in, day out, spent plugged into Howard's dulcet tones on audio-tape. I type away and drift off.
Howard's routine is a little different - his comedy routine that is. When I’m not listening to him on audio I can catch his spontaneous, live performance of Eva based repartee. Today the theme was my ex-husband and my lack of boyfriend.

“I’m not surprised your ex-husband left you, Eva. I mean, I can’t imagine what the man went through having to wake up and find you in the bed. Is that why he left? He couldn’t bring himself to touch you? Yuk!”

He got a few laughs. But less than usual. Also, the first time he pulled this routine I’d been embarrassed, but I’d heard it too often. Was I finally getting used to it? Was his routine getting, dare I say, boring?

I looked around the office as he continued. Most were zoned out working. Ollie's secretary yawned and stretched. Two solicitors were staring out the same window and the office junior was standing by the copier looking on the verge of dribbling. Howard's stand-up routine was getting stale. I was triumphant. Trouble was, I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Howard became louder and more animated until his audience woke up.

“So, Eva, tell us. Your ex-husband…was your marriage annulled or did he compromise with the sex thing on condition that he put a pillow over your face so he didn’t have to look at you? Eugh! How long has it been exactly?”

Then he told the Practice Manager he’d have a whip round to afford me a male prostitute - to put me out of my misery and stop me mentally raping him. Then I was accused of spiking his BBQ Pot Noodle with the date rape drug Rohipnol.

And so it went on…and on.

It was like that scene out of The Nutty Professor. The one where Professor Sherman takes the girl he fancies to a comedy club. Do you know the one I mean? The comedian makes fat jokes about Sherman, who tries to laugh it off. The comedian is crueller - the room is splitting their sides. Sherman’s smile fades. The comedian continues; the laughter continues. We know Sherman is humiliated and we feel for him. The comedian revs his routine up and asks the audience…‘Should I get him?” The audience yells, “Yes,” and screams for more.

Well, it was like that, minus a sympathetic TV audience.

I got in after work feeling really sorry for myself - not only because of the jokes, but because I was wrong. There are some routines you never get used to.

So I’ve decided to take control. I've just subscribed to I’m scared, but the only way to change someone else’s behaviour is to change your own. And maybe it’s about time my own routine changed. I’ll keep you posted.

Eva x

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

I wasn’t going to blog about the events last Sunday. It makes me more identifiable and I don’t want to be fired, but something I read on a charity on-line brochure is worthy of an extra blog. Worth the risk – I hope.

Our solicitors do a lot for charity; cycling across different parts of the world; trips to Africa to help villagers. Because they all drive in, more have now walked up Mount Kilimanjaro than have walked to work.

This year we’re raising money for Howard's charity, Cancer Research. Months ago, he threw himself into training for the half marathon, which took place last Sunday. Six of them entered as a corporate team (minimum of four per entry). Finishing times are combined and ranked against other teams. Last Thursday, when three dropped out, Howard needed a last minute volunteer to avert disaster.

It wasn’t going to be me. I might have considered it, but the last two weeks Howard's been running round the office like a gorilla saying, ”This is how Eva would run it – if she wasn’t so fat.”

He doesn’t know it, but I do run. Under HOWARD’S initial bullying campaign I couldn’t eat or sleep, but found running relaxed me. I got faster. The weight fell off and I slept better. I’ve only ever told the Office Manager and Ollie's secretary how I enjoy running, which is how Ollie's secretary innocently told the office I might be able save the day.

While Howard was in the gym over lunch, I was talked into bailing out the corporate team. Fair enough, I agreed, I’d do it. It felt good. I’d put my stress running to good use - for Howard's charity. He’d have to appreciate it.

“You what?” He shouted at reception, throwing down his gym kit. “Has she gone mad? She can’t bloody keep up with us. She’s massive.” He ran up to my desk.

“So, you’re running? The brain damage charity was last year. Can your run at your size?”
“I’m smaller than the three of you.” I said.
“Only in the chest area,” he said. 

Overnight, it became some sort of David and Goliath deal. Feeling the pressure, I spent £91.50 I didn’t have on a pair of Saucony trainers and Nike running socks. Secretaries wrote supportive comments on my corporate T-shirt. By Friday I was odds on favourite in a sweepstake to beat the guys. Howard and his colleagues were incensed. I considered not showing up for the race, but the Office Manager told me not to bother showing up for work if I lost.

On Sunday, Howard did a double take. He hadn’t realised how much weight I’d lost. I ignored the laughter as they took our team photo. When the race began, their tactic was clear. They ran so close behind me it was a miracle we didn’t trip. Howard kept up a stream of insults. Fortunately, I’d brought my MP3 player. I could only hear the occasional comment above the music:

“Boys, it looks like we’re chasing King Kong down a New York Street.”

At about the 10k marker Howard's insults were increasingly breathless and childish. I just tore on. I had a ton of Howard's insults in my head anyway. Remembering them whilst running made me run faster. The angrier I got the faster I ran. On finishing ahead of them, I narrowly avoided throwing up over this guy’s fancy dress costume. I had a respectable time of 1:46 and the others weren’t far behind.

Some of our colleagues shook my hand. “You wanted it more,” they said. “Good run”.

“Where’s Howard?” I asked. But he’d gone, disappeared into the crowd. I didn’t make a big thing of it. It had all got out of hand in the first place. On Monday, Howard explained he’d had a bottle of wine the night before. He hadn’t had time for as much training as he would have liked.

“It’s all right for you, you’ve got no life. I have to fit training around commitments,” he said.       
They posted our corporate time on the internet and we’d done well. We were respectably halfway up the leader-board, but something else on the site caught my attention. That morning our teammate had been asked to write a few paragraphs about our team for the charity’s on-line brochure. Writing with candour, he admitted they’d been horrible to me in the days before and during the race. They'd forced me to lead throughout. They’d run on my heels. Even with their behaviour, I’d gracefully beaten them. He wanted to take the opportunity to say well done and thank me for saving the day at the last minute.

There it all was, detailed on the charity website.

I understood he was trying to say sorry, but it felt the wrong place to say it. It didn’t reflect well on our firm. That I come out of it well is neither here nor there - it's the long run that concerns me most.

 See you tomorrow – for my Wednesday blog.

Eva x

Birds of a Feather

The week began with HOWARD voicing concern that my laziness eats into his profit costs. He ruins my reputation deliberately - saying it’s for my own good. HOWARD believes secretaries are like battery hens. Keep us on our toes or we’ll get bored and destructive.

I’m fortunate that I sit near enough the Practice Manager for her to see everything HOWARD does. She knows how hard I work and I can’t blame her for not confronting him about his bullying. I don't confront him either. She'd had a series of meetings with him about it when he first started, and soon admitted defeat. However, she did tell him to stay out of my top drawer when he rooted round again to see if I had any food.

“Green tea with lemon?” he said, holding the packet up. “Glad to see you’ve not forgotten your prostate just because of the sex change.”

That afternoon, when I volunteered to help a solicitor by doing some extra typing, Howard warned her not to expect much. This’ll teach you, I thought, as I set about clearing my name whilst clearing the backlog.

My efforts had the opposite effect. Job done, she and Howard called a meeting for the following morning. I was asked to account for how I’d worked so fast. What usually held me back? Was I on the phone? Was I doing too much admin? Hurt and defensive, I asked if the Office Manager could join us. I needed backup, especially when Howard had his brain wave.

“There’s a spare desk opposite me,” he said. “Eva should move there. Then I could keep a proper eye on her.”

There is a tiny, single desk less than four feet away from However. Hmm, Mr Fox wants to take Miss Chicken away to look after her. Good old Mr Fox. Nice, kind, thoughtful Mr Fox.

“Unless…and I can’t imagine why - Eva wouldn’t want to sit there?” The three of them stared at me across the table.

“Um…um…” I blinked at the Office Manager, willing her to keep me in her little flock.

“I don’t know about moving her away from the others,” said the Office Manager. “I’ll think about it.”

When word spread to the other secretaries that I was to have my own desk there was uproar. For some reason they thought I was being promoted. Only fee earners get a whole desk to themselves.  The Office Manager told Howard that, unfortunately, there was no way she could move me, given the upset caused.

“I’m bored,” Howard said later, scrabbling about again in my desk drawer. “What have we got today?” He opened my packet of homemade sandwiches and stuffed half a sandwich in his mouth. I sighed.

“You know what this is called, don’t you?” he said, chewing.

“What?” I said.

“It’s called bullying," he said with a smile.

I may be a chicken when it comes to standing up to Howard, but his theory about battery hens is misplaced. No-one is more bored and destructive than Howard. I guessed correctly that the Office Manager was behind the promotion misunderstanding. I may not have privacy where I sit, but I do know I’ve got safety in numbers. Us birds of a feather, we flock together.

See you mid-week. I'm posting on Wednesday evenings too.

Eva x

Race Day

This week, the firm’s kitchen notice boards have been covered in photos from last month’s major social event. You can’t get away from it. It’s the main subject on the firm’s internal 'intranet'. Every summer, Philip treats us all to a day at the races. We go insane with joy. The men enjoy it and Philip loves a flutter, but mostly it’s about dressing up. It’s not just any old day at the races. It’s Ascot - with grandstand hospitality, a five course lunch, full afternoon tea, free drinks at the bar and a glorious summer view over the racecourse.

Our Ascot day started perfectly. I felt like royalty as I sat down to champagne and canapés, or I did until my former boss sat down next to me. We’d hardly spoken since I’d been moved to work with Howard.

We’d been kind of suited. I thought we made a good team. She appreciated my enthusiasm and loyalty. However, to Howard these things were synonymous with one thing: Spaniels.

His ‘Springer Spaniel’ campaign was relentless. If my boss invited me to lunch, he’d ask which lamp-post I’d been tied to. He wondered how often she walked me. He’d try to get my attention with a whistle, whilst patting his thighs. His bully-spam included reference books like ‘How to Train your English Springer Spaniel’. He asked my preferences on Chappie and Pedigree Chum.

Combined with his other humiliations, having him in the background pretending to sit up and beg made me painfully self conscious. He took to panting with his tongue out. He re-enacted word for word conversations I’d had with my boss - with me portrayed as a dog. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but it bothered the hell out of me. My work rate plummeted, and the work piled up.

My boss had a meeting with me. Things had changed. She demanded to know why I wasn’t concentrating. I was put out. She knew why, like everyone else. At least be brave enough to say it, I thought. Instead, she asked for me to be transferred. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Howard's secretary to walk out.

My ex-boss noticed she hadn’t seen Howard and asked where he was.

“Yes,” said Philip overhearing, “Why isn’t he here?”

I explained that Howard had a prior family commitment. I didn’t add that my day was going to be more delightful for it.

As we tucked into Kent duck and dauphinoise potatoes, I thought about Philip and this big treat. Whilst Howard is difficult, Philip is worse. He’s got a hair-trigger temper. Let’s put it this way - there wouldn’t be a serious problem with Howard if there wasn’t a serious problem with Philip.

On the balcony, as my chiffon dress caught the afternoon breeze, I came to a conclusion. I watched the horses thundering round the bend and I laughed, spilling some of my Pimms, as my horse came first. I’d bet small, but I was happy. I finished the last high tea macaroon to celebrate.

My conclusion was this - if my trip to Ascot proves anything it’s that there is no excuse for making people unhappy. Even the most aggressive boss can make you feel like a princess if he wants to.

See you next week,

Eva x

War and Peace

I started the week making more typos than normal, allowing a delighted Howard to scrawl “FUCK U” in Biro across my letters and hand them back. “This shit is going in your personnel file,” he said.

The firm doesn’t keep personnel files. They’d only recently started appraisals. Howard's own appraisal was that morning. I wondered if Philip would mention the way Howard talked to me. When I asked him about what they’d discuss, it must have been on his mind too, because Howard did an impression of what he thought Philip might say.

‘Howard, my son. Do what you want to Eva. Say what you like to the girl. I don’t give a shit as long as you keep billing - as long as you keep the money coming in. Just don’t make her actually commit suicide for God’s sake. The firm can’t carry the legal action.”

Never a truer word spoken in jest.

I have to confess I’ve been a little distracted, hence the mistakes. If I’d had a personnel file for Howard to look at he might have guessed why. This week I turned 36. I’m not usually bothered by birthdays, but the fact I’m divorced, living in a bed-sit and working for Howard isn’t a fulfilment of a childhood dream.

I wasn’t ready for him to know and I don’t have a clue how Howard came to find out. I braced myself for one suicide joke after another.

Maybe it was his appraisal and he was worried they’d say something. Maybe he just sensed I was feeing pretty low as it was, and there was only so much I could take. On my birthday, when he gave me a card and a gift it was understated, without him taking the advantage to humiliate me.

“I bought you the most utilitarian card I could find,” he said. I thanked him, not really understanding his point. 

I took the present out of its gift bag. He said his wife had chosen them so if I didn’t like them I could blame her. It was a lovely pair of silver earrings. I thanked him.

Howard told the Office Manager to staple the gift receipt to my personnel file. When she asked why, he said, 'When they find her body tied to a railway line, minus a head, It'll prove I wasn't all bad before they send me down.'

As I said, the firm doesn’t bother with personnel files. Probably they can’t be bothered with the admin. Do you blame them? Mine and Howard's files would read like War and Peace.

See you next week,

Eva x

Back to School

Howard's been on about school this week. Maybe it’s the onset of Autumn. There’s a tell tale dry rustle in the stirring leaves, which are just beginning to fall. The breeze is cooler. Perhaps it’s because the traffic is worse now the children are back in school. Whatever it is, Howard's been thinking about my education.

“If you’d paid more attention in school you might have made more of yourself, Eva. You might be doing something like me.”

Howard had been a high-achieving maths brain-box in school: bright enough to be fast tracked through education. He’d developed a love of economics, but when a career’s advisor said that the law paid well, he’d switched. He was right about my academic record being a little different.

“I can just imagine your school reports,” he continued. “Eva is a sensitive child who keeps herself to herself. If only they knew how desperate for company you’d be as an adult. If they only knew you’d end up with fucking Attention Deficit Disorder because of a lack of human contact. If only they knew you’d end up rocking back and forth like a Romanian orphan.”

I resolved to handle it maturely; rise above it. I told him I wasn’t taking any notice.

“Toughening to the humiliation, eh? Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I still remember what you look like when you cry. It’s like watching Rolf Harris.”

He did an impression of me crying as if I were Rolf Harris, you know, doing that kind of hyperventilating breathing Rolf does when he paints. The clique of fee-earner ‘ladies that lunch,’ fell about laughing and asked what he was doing.

Howard continued his impression, shaking his shoulders for added effect and crying into his hands.

I laughed it off and acted as if I didn’t care. I told him he was unlikely to see me cry again.

I turned away from the fresh-out-of-law-school solicitors giggling at Howard's put downs and got back to work. He continued on with his 'Rolf Harris'. He reminded me of a schoolboy, clowning in the middle of the office in his white Asda shirt, black trousers and lace-up shoes.

“Next time I make you cry,” he promised, “I’m going to film it and put it on YouTube.”

No, I didn’t do so well academically. I hated school. I couldn’t wait to leave. And not a day goes by without Howard reminding me why.  

See you next week,

Eva x

Needs Must When the Devil Drives

This week the unthinkable happened. Howard gave me a lift home. The nearest I’d been to his car was last Christmas Eve. As I walked through the car park he tried to run me over. He was joking…I’m pretty sure he was joking - kind of.

Anyway, Howard needed me to work late. I told him I couldn’t - I had a doctor’s appointment and I had to go home first. He offered the lift as a bargaining tool, which I’d been too busy to think through.

A car can tell you a lot about a person, or at least how they look after it. You would have been appalled at the interior of Howards’s car. It’s never been cleaned. Old newspapers, magazines and flyers littered the seats. There was a smear of melted chocolate on the passenger seat and, equally, the sweet/stale smell of melted Dairy Milk in the air. Amongst the crap on the floor lay an old, dried tea bag and a scattering of what could have been toe nail clippings. There was a shrivelled walnut in the inside groove of the door handle. There were photos, gym clothes, office ties…It was both thought provoking and chaotic. Tracy Emin could have driven Howard's car through the doors of the Tate and won the Turner prize before switching off the engine.

“I’ve named her after you,” Howard said, patting the steering wheel. “She doesn’t work properly and looks like shit.”

Maybe it was being outside the grey neon florescent of the office, but in the evening sun I saw him in a different light. His shave was uneven; his shirt un-ironed. He looked tired. He didn’t wear a watch. Nor did he wear aftershave, unless that was the melted Dairy Milk smell. For the remainder of the journey he talked to me about normal things, like his job and our colleagues. I listened.

“What a surprise,” he said, pulling up at the block of flats I live in. “You live in fucking sheltered accommodation.”

I realised that, while he laughs at where I live and my lack of transport, he doesn’t exude the trappings of success either. These are recessionary times. His wife may be wearing the Prada trousers but, to afford them, the devil wears ASDA and drives a second hand SKODA.

And, as I chose not to tell him, his tax disc is two months out of date.

See you next week,

Eva x

A Drop in the Ocean

On my way to work, I ducked into M & S to avoid a sudden rainstorm. Out I came, 10 minutes later, with some of those buckets of chocolate rolls, cornflake cakes and flapjacks. We keep a couple of spare tins for cakes and biscuits and I felt it was about my turn to fill them up. “Dig in quick before the chocolate melts,” I told them. The sun had come out and our office gets stuffy by 12pm.

Howard was disgusted at my purchase - another classic example of my needy attention seeking.

“Why do you go to such ridiculous lengths to buy friends, Eva? You’ve got no friends here,” he reminded me. “They all fucking talk about you. I hear them. It’s funny.”

“Do they really?” I asked, hurt.

“Grow up,” he said.

The mobile blood donor unit had passed me, heading for the community centre, as I walked to work with my cakes.

“You’ll get massive!” he said. “While you’re in the van get them to check your blood for STDs. Your husband ran off with that woman, which means he slept round while he was with you. If his partner had 20 partners, and the people she slept with had 20 partners, then you’ll be riddled with infection. They’ll have to wash it down the drain to save your feelings. Check the gutter on your way out.”

I made it clear I didn’t have any STDs.

“Probably you’re right. Still, there’s only one thing they can do with blood like yours - and that’s stick it in black pudding. He did an impression of Greg Wallace off Masterchef, “Mmm, this black pudding reminds me of something…tastes like…hang on…it’ll come to me…yes, it’s odd. This black pudding tastes like lesbians.”

As the humidity rose by the second, it was like a different day. Leaving the office at lunch the sunshine was blinding as it bounced off the windows of the blood unit van in the distance. Before long, I’d drunk my squash and was lying on the cot, squeezing my fist to make the blood flow easier. In the background, a radio played Phil Collins’ Groovy Kind of Love; fans stirred the warm air; nurses reassured, blinds were half down to screen the sun. I moved nearer the window and looked up. I watched a plane, a million miles up, crawl across a cloudless sky.

I drifted. I don’t even remember them taking the tube out. My head swam when I stood up. I was faint. It could have been the hot afternoon, but I think it was knowing I had to go back. Suddenly, I couldn’t face an afternoon of ingratitude and insults. I wanted to stay in the van, or take the afternoon off. Anything other than go back there.

I sighed and pulled myself together. I reminded myself I had to have some sympathy for this man threatened by the simplest acts of kindness, who tarnished everything with his sarcasm and cynicism.

Back at my desk a few minutes before Howard was due from lunch, I knew I had time. I left a fresh cup of coffee waiting for him with a couple of cornflake cakes on a saucer. Of course, he’ll accuse me of stalking him. He’ll swear they taste like Rohipnol, he’ll probably report me to the PM again for sexual harassment.

These small gestures of friendship towards Howard are a lot like giving blood. It’s not comfortable, but I do it anyway. I like to think it does some good in the long run and I’m hoping, like the blood donation, it’s not just a drop in the ocean.

See you next week,

Eva x

All the Lonely People

This week, Howard has been singing Beatles songs or, more specifically, Eleanor Rigby. He assures me I'm very like her; a lonely and repressed loser who’ll never find another boyfriend.

I gave him a face that I keep in a jar by the door.

By Friday he had re-written and expanded the poignant third verse burial. He also substituted me for Eleanor. It goes as follows:-

I’m dead. It’s raining and the ham-fisted gravediggers slip in the mud, dropping my coffin into the hole and tipping the lid. My hideous corpse is exposed. The exhausted gravediggers take a tea break. I died of an obesity related illness so it was a heavy task. The rain worsens. Howard arrives to pay his respects. He notices, with some sadness, that he is there alone. The torrential rain gives Howard an urgent desire to relieve himself. He looks around for a bush to run behind – there are none in view; no trees either. He can’t hold on much longer. Where on earth can he go? Desperate, he looks down into the hole and unzips…

You get the picture.

Very creative, he’s been working on it all week. Truth is, I think Howard is the lonely one. Sure, he’s married, but the whole office knows he’s bullied at home. That’s why he spends so many hours at his desk. And it’s also why they forgive him his behaviour.

I think he’s a sociopath anyway, but don’t get me wrong. I’m not scared of Howard. I’m not scared of being just another Eleanor Rigby either. I suppose at the moment I’m scared of one thing. I’m scared of blogging to no-one and, like Father McKenzie, “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.”

I hope someone is reading.

Eva x
Bottom Swirl