8. Office Politics :-(

“DING DONG, DING DONG …. DING DONG, DING DONG” came the deafening sound of church bells from my cell phone. “Oh no” I thought, as I tried to peal open my eyelids. My eyes felt like they had spent the night under a giant hairdryer. I looked around me, and for a fleeting moment I thought I was still in my parent’s house in Maine.

‘Shit!’ I shouted, I’d fallen asleep on the sofa, with a half-empty wine glass in front of me and my clothes from the night before on. I must have been so tired that I just slept right through. Having only got about five hours sleep, it did not bode well for my first day back at work. At least I had the free run of the house and shower, with the others away. I got up, gave myself a shake and thought ‘right, first I need to choose what I’m going to wear; then I can work backwards from there’.

I got out the ironing board and started straightening out a light grey tweed pencil skirt with a soft blue check. It had been washed just before I went away and left to dry, taking on the shape of the wooden drying rail during that time. Rushing, I also found a fitted black blouse from the cupboard, which I told myself was ok without being ironed; mainly to save time, and perhaps partly because it was still a little dark in the apartment with the curtains drawn, so it did actually look fine at the time. I carefully draped the clothes over the back of a breakfast bar chair in the kitchen, before jumping in the shower.

Before I knew it I was on the subway, patting out the then evident creases in my blouse (in the hope that human touch and will alone might cure them) and hurtling towards the office. Towards Miriam I thought, towards her whims and her moodswings. I could only hope that she had had a good christmas with her boyfriend. If she hadn’t we were all going to get it. And I took my portion of getting it less well than the others, perhaps because I felt that I deserved it the least.

Miriam was the Editor in Chief of New England Interiors, the home design magazine that I had worked at for the past five years. Miriam made sure there was no single Deputy or Managing Editor, as in other magazines. That would just be someone to bite at her heels, someone who could hold themselves out to the Board as a younger, more able, more dynamic, and (most frighteningly) ‘cheaper’ successor. Instead, Miriam had carved her areas of responsibility broadly into three parts and allocated one portion to each of three ‘Section Editors’, of which I was one.

Each of the Section Editors had a small team of staff who could generate and screen articles and features. Being a relatively small publication, we also personally handled one large advertising account each. This format saved one big salary from the normal hierarchy of management, which was popular with the Board, but made the Section Editor’s jobs particularly difficult, as we had to act as both Section Editor and Managing Editor in our areas. Our work went straight to Miriam, and there was no other filter. Of course she never had time to properly oversee our day to day work, so we all knew who would be blamed if something slipped into print which the Board then felt shouldn’t have. It would not be Miriam!

Miriam’s job was to run the magazine but her style of doing so was to arrange everything entirely to maximise her own personal success and benefit, as opposed to that of the company or any of its other employees. I had seen a report recently which concluded that people who often rise to the top within businesses are not in fact the best. They are often, instead, those with a only basic or middling level of competence but combined with a psychotic personality. This certainly explained Miriam. She was not bad at her job, nor did she excel at it; most of the remarkable ideas and acclaimed work we had produced in the last few years was down to other Members of staff, although with Miriam as the only connection between the staff on the ground and the Board, the story they were given would I’m sure have been different.

Her decisions were not necessarily wrong, but they often seemed whimsical, and sometimes designed merely to embarrass or overrule others for the sake of it. One sub-editor, Racheal, who had come from a magazine in London (‘Old England interiors’ we used to joke) was so good, and got so much credit for her articles in the maintstream press, that the Board had suggested she might like to attend their next meeting with Miriam. To give a more global perspective on some of their strategy decisions in business planning. Miriam smiled and agreed at this ‘fabulous’ suggestion, I was told by Jen, who used to take the minutes at Board meetings. She then returned to the office with the intention of destroying Rachael as soon as humanly possible. Never with one killer blow – that would have been too obvious. Instead with a constant, drip feed of rejection and derision. It was described by one other others as just constantly pulling the rug out from beneath her feet, so she didn’t want to stand there anymore.

We were never sure how conscious Miriam was of what she was doing, but to anyone else it seemed as clear as day. And she must have asked herself the question at some point, especially as the employee in question had spectacularly resigned during one weekly editors’ meeting. In what had become one of the cult stories from the office, Rachael had stood up and said, in the crispest English schoolmistress tone – “Miriam, you are the most capricious bitch I have ever met. When the recruitment agent offered me this job he said that he thought I would be great for it as I could handle working in tough environments. But this environment isn’t tough, it’s just bullshit. Take your job and shove it up your arse.”.

One of the guys from the IT Department had told me that Capricious was the most googled word in the firm that day. I do remember seeing a great deal of nodding of heads behind screens, which was no doubt not a coincidence. For many it was one of the best things that had ever happened. Rachael had confronted Miriam in the way most of us could only dream of doing. There was a lot of talk, probably peddled by Miriam, that it was because she had come in from London thinking she was better than everyone else. And she could’t take criticism.

But I had got to know Rachael in her few months at the firm and I personally knew it was less about being English and more about being married to a an Equities Trader at Societe Generale. She didn’t really need the job, she didn’t need the money and so Miriam had chosen the wrong girl to treat unreasonably. Rachael had gone on to launch her own boutique interiors website, providing an online 3D interior-design service to high-end clients in the City. It seemed to be doing quite well. I went to the launch party, but as discreetly as possible, as Miriam would have had it in for me had she known. Ever since her spectacular resignation, Miriam and her cronies had referred to her as Crazy Rachael, and although you didn’t have to use this epithet yourself, mentioning anything of the success of RachaelHindmarsh@Home would have been career suicide at New England Interiors.

One of the often quoted causes of Miriam’s hyper-bitch persona was her never having had children. She had a boyfriend, a long-term boyfriend, but not a husband. And god help anyone who made the error of asking about her ‘husband’. The rumour was that he was a bit of a waster, a former DJ and a bit of an addict, who hung around her just for the money. Ostensibly out of work, he was normally said to be recording music or working on a concert abroad, but he never really seemed to be achieving anything tangible. At about 46 Miriam was now probably past any chance of marriage or children, and the repercussions of this were for everyone else to bear. Especially anyone who was married, or had children.

One poor trainee, who was about 24 and as cute as someone from an old Cola advert, came back from holiday one day to announce excitedly that her boyfriend of only two years had proposed to her. Miriam said nothing at the time, but quickly changed the subject back to business and then within two days she had gone. We only seen her crying in conversation with HR, in one of the glass-walled meeting rooms. An insider told me the official reason was spending too much time gossiping with others. Allegedly it had been noticed by Board Members who had visited the office one day, and was not the sort of impression we wanted to give. Of course it was almost certainly Miriam who had taken objection to the subject of the chatting, as opposed to the chatting in itself.

When I arrived at the office on the second of January, Miriam was already there. She was almost always the first one in the office. Her PA, Jen, who sat in front of her office smiled and said “Hi”.

I said “How’s Miriam?”

“Erm”. She held her hand out flat and quivered it, pulling a face to suggest she could not yet decide what way it was going to go.

“A big meeting has been called for 9.30am. She wants to see everyone. Apparently there were some developments over Christmas, about advertising – Bad. And there are some results on the Christmas special which are very good. So I’m not sure if anyone is going to get the box treatment yet, but we’ll see.” Jen said, raising her eyebrows.

The ‘box treatment’ was the term for when Miriam decided she wanted to get rid of someone. At some point during a meeting with someone, Miriam would emerge with them and ask Jenny to “get a box for x, so they can gather their things”. Miriam knew that people knew about this, and never were the victims spared the indignity of packing their personal items in front of their colleagues. One girl apparently once told Miriam she would get her own box, but Miriam asked Jen to get one regardless.

Of course when this whole scenario took place, no one could actually crowd around the leaving employee to ask what was happening. Miriam’s room was glass walled, looking out over the office, and anyone who knew Miriam well enough knew that even a light gust of breeze in the wrong direction could turn her against you for life. So those packing boxes invariably did so in solitary and in silence, whilst others mimed ‘call me’ or ‘we’ll Skype later’ when they spotted that Miriam’s back was turned.

I recall Miriam taking a holiday once, but only once. And even then, she quite inexplicably turned up at the office on the Thursday afternoon. She made some excuse that she was between trips and had agreed to take a call, but we all knew that her little surprise visit was probably just to check up on everyone. I knew this only too well because I had been out at a meeting with a contributor, to finalise a big editorial for the next issue at the time, and when I got back Miriam was furious and called me into her office.

“In all the years you have worked here, you have never been out to lunch until 4pm, it is disgraceful that choose the week when I am on holiday to do so. And with friends! Do you think I am stupid?”

I was in such a state of shock that I was shaking. I had been ready to ask her about how her holiday was going and here I was waiting on Jenny to arrive with a box.

“But, I wasn’t at lunch” I rattled out, “I haven’t actually had any lunch today, I was at Arthur Mulrennan’s studio, finishing this”. I chucked a bunch of copy and Mulrennan brochures on the table.

“This is the big piece I have been working on for weeks and we’re pretty much there now.”

Miriam got up from her seat and flicked through the pages briefly. “Oh, I love this, she said pointing to a green cushion with a geometric pattern”. Like all psychopaths, she had an inhuman ability to turn emotions on or off like a tap, and expected others to be able to do the same.

“Well. I did think it was a little out of character” Miriam said, looking through then glass at someone in the office.

“Who told you that I was at lunch with friends?” I asked.

“Oh, Claudia mentioned something … but I think she’s stressed, because she’s got so much on. Don’t mention it to her, as it must have been my mistake. Look, I’m heading off again, and will be in as normal from Monday. If you need me, you can reach me on my cell phone.”

As I walked out of Miriam’s office, I couldn’t resist staring at Claudia, who pretended not to see me. What a fucking bitch, I thought. I know Miriam was giving her the benefit of the doubt, but she clearly knew that I was working and made up some story to cause me maximum damage in Miriam’s eyes. If she hadn’t mentioned it to me, I would have just incurred the damage, never knowing about it. It could have effected my pay or anything. I had to do something about it this time!

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