Mr Smith's Promotion by Harry Downey
Monday morning. The office had slipped into its unhurried routine hushed voices, rustling paper, the occasional ring of a telephone and already after less than thirty minutes at their desks - anticipation of the tea-trolley. Over on the left, near one of the windows, Pete and Frank were having their usual post-weekend inquest on Saturdays game. It was the only point of real animation among the twenty people in the room, several of whom were day-dreaming and already looking forward to Friday evening. Nowhere were there signs of people hard at work, dedicated to helping their employers business succeed better due to their efforts. Newspaper editorials and Government exhortation spoke of the work ethic and export or die was a phrase heard a lot but no sign of it was apparent in an over-warm, comfortably furnished office.
For this was the nineteen-fifties and everyone in the three sections that made up the Cost Office knew that jobs were plentiful, dismissals were virtually unheard of and no-one need try too hard. Youd have to rape the Chairmans daughter to be sacked from here these days as one of them put it, then added and have you seen the Chairmans daughter? Certainly the younger clerks knew they could leave on Friday if they chose and be in work again within days. Only the few older men, with thoughts and plans firmly focussed on retirement, showed any form of interest or dedication to their employer. That is except for two men, sitting next to each other in the third file of desks. Each had his head down, apparently diligently applying himself to the pile of papers on his desk.
The two were Harold Smith and Sidney Jardine. Not that these first names were in common use in the office and most certainly neither would address the other that way. There was a feud between the two and each was formally Mister Smith or Mister Jardine when either spoke to or of the other. This was soon noticed by the others and in the office generally they were normally referred to as Mister Tweedledum and Mister Tweedledee with the two names being interchangeable. The names were almost inevitably from the office wags, especially Ken on the back row and young Arthur, the office boy. Young Arthur seemed never to be stuck for words about what he saw and heard around him, and his irreverent comments were usually regarded as apt, often funny, but sometimes going just too far. So, every now and then, young Arthur was gently reprimanded and reminded about showing more respect for his more senior colleagues. All very discreet and gentle, and just a minor ritual of its time that everyone recognised as such and ignored. After all, standards had to be maintained in this modern, post-war world.
The Tweedledum and Tweedledee names were apt. Even the most straight-laced old fogey in the office had to admit that. Like a pair of bookends was another comment, made as they stood there together, flanking the young woman from the Personnel Department who brought them up to their new home. Similar in height and build, both short and a little overweight, both around the fifty mark, clean-shaven, thinning grey hair liberally covered with grease carefully positioned to try to cover a shining scalp and both men customarily wearing the standard office uniform of the day three-piece suits in dark grey with a subdued striped tie, plain white shirt, and highly polished shoes. Even the horn-rimmed spectacles looked interchangeable.
They had arrived at the office about three months before. It was soon obvious that something was amiss between the two and that they had known each other previously. Whatever the problem was between them, they brought it with them, but whether they expected to be sitting just a foot or so from the other is very doubtful, and the rigid layout of the desks didnt allow any evasive action by either man. So, like new starters in offices the world over, they dutifully sat where they were placed and tried to ignore each other as far as they could.
New people moving into an established environment everywhere are watched - sometimes openly - sometimes not. Whichever way their new colleagues studied them, either blatantly or surreptitiously, the chilly atmosphere between the men couldnt be missed. Neither man showed any inclination to become close to anyone else in the office so no confidences were exchanged and everyone was left wondering just what it was all about. Even Edward, a long-time bachelor and known by all as a tireless gossip failed to find out the cause of the feud. Give me time, give me time. If theres a story there, then you all know Ted wont let you down.
The man who should have put an end to nonsense like this was Mr. Mathews. He was their Section Leader and their direct superior but his view never stated but clear was that as long as it doesnt interfere with the running of the Section why interfere? Young Arthur had noticed this and came up with the name of Nelson for Mr. Mathews. He used the term one day to old Mr. Foster, a man generally believed to be over a hundred and as he was always first in the office and last away, thought by some to sleep overnight at his desk. Whether he did or not, as was his way he gently reminded Arthur of his lowly perch at the bottom of the pecking order, and then soon afterwards explained to Miss Fothersgill, allegedly almost as old, just how the term had originated with the great Admiral himself. Nelson Mathews himself meanwhile had his thoughts on other and higher things. His mind and devotions were elsewhere.
Mr. Matthews was Section Head of his small group in the office. He did little work and had minimal responsibilities - something that was obvious to everyone else. With a powerful supporter in the Chief Accountant, Mathews colleagues had found all they could do was grumble among themselves and accept the situation. Undemanding as his work-load was, it had been decreed that he needed two assistant clerks, so creating the vacancies filled by Mr. Smith and Mr. Jardine.
Status dictated that Mr. Matthews had a large desk by the window and next to the radiator. On the desk were two telephones the second one allowing him to dial outside directly without going through the switchboard. His two clerks each had smaller desks with a narrow gap between them and no telephone.
Many men have secret passions, but Mr. Matthews made no secret of his. He was a golf fanatic. He played at every conceivable opportunity and was Secretary of the local Club that he ran from his office desk, which had on it a framed photograph of himself following a hole-in-one at the 15th.
The Club was a popular one and there was a lengthy waiting list, but when a new Chief Cost Accountant arrived he became a member almost immediately. By a fortunate and unlikely coincidence Mr. Matthews had discovered an opening and he was able to add a powerful and valuable ally to the Club membership.
Mr. Matthews also ran the Companys Golfing Society. Regular inter-departmental games were arranged, and the latest project involved a match with the Companys major customer in Wales.
If these games were not played during the working week, then Mr. Matthews felt he had failed his colleagues. So, if golf-playing staff members were absent now and then, others not in the Magic Circle, as it became known to resentful non-golfing colleagues - or golfers who were not selected - had to realise that these mid-week matches were good for business and the Company stood to benefit from all the goodwill generated. This raised a few cynical eyebrows.
His priorities in the office were well established. Golf, then whatever workload was left a distant second. What did remain was delegated to his two assistants. Neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Jardine played golf.
Mr. Smith was a keen gardener. A shaved lawn and rigorously controlled roses showed a degree of obsession but that was what he wanted. His special pride was an apple tree that he nursed and cared for like a baby, a tree which rewarded him each year with a rich crop of delicious fruit.
It was a tree with a problem, though. It had been planted by a previous owner near the privet hedge that marked the boundary between the house and the one next door. Years of prevailing wind and a lack of support early in its life had resulted in a mature tree that leaned, and grew with many of its branches overhanging the neighbours garden.
Then Mr. Jardine moved into No 14 Acacia Avenue. Soon afterwards a large ginger cat started to be seen near Mr. Smiths roses. As the cat always came from that side, he assumed it belonged to his new neighbour, and a sighting of the creature one Saturday morning caused an angry and increasingly heated quarrel between the two. Only after another neighbour claimed ownership of the cat did Mr. Smith make a grudging apology.
The previous occupant of No 14 had accepted some tasty apples as compensation for part of his garden being put into deep shade by someone elses tree. Mr. Jardine curtly dismissed the offer of some Coxs They overhang my garden so theyre mine anyway and the tone of their future relationship was set.
Some days later a letter addressed to Mr. Jardine but with the wrong house number came through Mr. Smiths letter-box. He marked the letter Not known at this address and put it back into the post box. When it did reach Mr. Jardine several days later, he responded by cutting down those branches of the apple tree that overhung his garden.
The relationship between the two was now icy. As their paths crossed nowhere else, the friction between them was limited to being neighbours who did not get along.
Each could recognise his neighbour as one of the great tribe of office workers who lived in their dormitory suburb. They left home at the same time each morning to walk to the local Railway Station, boarded the same train taking them to City Central Station, then they went their own ways. One Monday morning they found themselves walking in the same direction and through the same door to start new jobs for the same Company in the same office on the same day. They found themselves with adjacent desks and the two had no option other than to work together.
Mr. Matthews had often said he would die happy if it was during a good round. Whether he was happy or not as he was about to drive off at his favourite 15th tee when he was hit on the temple by a wild shot from the 12th wasnt clear. He died instantly.
This happened on a Sunday morning. On the Tuesday following, Mr. Smith was part way through the Daily Mail crossword when he was summoned into the Cost Accountants office.
Sit down, Henry.
Mr. Smith was slightly taken aback as he was unused to be addressed by anything other than Mr. Smith.
Actually, its Harold, Sir.
Sorry, er... Harold. Shame about Peter, eh? Hell be sorely missed. Hard working chap with quite a future ahead of him. I went to see his wife - er, widow, yesterday, and she seems to be bearing up quite well. Brave little woman. I expect you know the funeral is on Thursday? Ill be going, of course, along with some of the Section Heads. The office must show the flag on this sad occasion.
No need for you to go, though, Henry. Someone has to keep the boat on course and the tiller steady.
The Cost Accountant had a small boat moored near Kings Lynn, and he tried to sail most weekends. Young Arthur had christened him Popeye.
What I am going to say to you, Ill be saying to Stanley Jardine when he comes back from holiday. Next Monday, isnt it? Mr. Smith nodded.
Regarding the future for Waste Recovery and how it affects you, er...Horace. We wont be replacing Peter Matthews directly. You and . er, Sidney, can manage between you, Im sure. If you both work together I dont see any difficulty. Just take on that little bit extra each. No problem there, is there? The extra duties will be so slight that there wont be any increase in salary, of course.
He paused, leaned forward in his seat glancing to left and right even though there was no-one else in the office.
Ive heard whispers that you dont get on together, Herbert. Is that true? If there is a problem you can tell me about it. Try to forget Im your boss here in the office. You can talk to me as man to man - in confidence, of course.
Mr. Smith chose his words carefully.
Your information is only partially correct, Sir. Any differences Mister Jardine and I may have dont get in the way of working together.
But Im told you dont even speak to each other.
When its to do with work we do converse, of course. The office always comes first. Socially we have nothing in common.
Well, quite frankly, I dont understand it, but I suppose you know your own business. As long as the Section doesnt suffer, thats what matters. Have you any questions then?
Mr. Smith saw his opening and took it.
Just about my position, Sir. Thats all.
Your position? Havent I just explained that? Theres no change.
My position, Sir. My place in the Section.
The Cost Accountant was clearly becoming more exasperated by the minute.
I dont know what youre talking about. Dont waste my time like this. Spill it out, man.
The desk, Sir.
What desk. What are you going on about?
Mr. Matthews desk. May I move to it and use it in future?
Oh, I see. Well, I suppose so. I cant see any reason why not. Yes, carry on. Thats all for now, Henry.
Mr. Smith was a happy man. Immediately on returning to the Section he began to empty the drawers of his old desk, and transferred his pens, paper, ruler and box of paper clips to their new home. Behind the desk, near the window was a coat rack with an empty coat hanger on it. He took off his jacket and put it on the hanger. The internal telephone rang.
Waste Recovery Section - Mr. Smith speaking. After answering the phone a quick look around revealed, disappointingly, that apparently only Arthur, the office boy, had witnessed his moment of glory.
He was ecstatic for the rest of the day and, unusually for him, Mr. Smith found himself constantly looking at the office clock in his keenness to leave.
At home that evening Mr. Smith restrained himself until he and his wife had finished their meal and she was washing the dishes. He was drying the cups and saucers when he chose the time to impart his great news. Mrs. Smiths reaction was what he had hoped for.
If anyone deserves promotion, dear, it must be you. You work so hard carrying that office. I know hes gone now, and one shouldnt speak evil of the dead, but Mr. Matthews depended on you so much, didnt he? And as for that horrible Mr. Jardine, well, its time he was put in his place.
That horrible Mr. Jardine came back from his holiday the following Monday. After a brief interview with the Cost Accountant he returned to the Section, making no comment about what had happened - just resuming his work at his usual desk as if everything was as it had been before he went away.
Mr. Smith was troubled. Had he won? Was it as simple as that? As the days passed he began to feel more relaxed, but he still felt uneasy. A response was inevitable, he knew his enemy too well to expect nothing in reply from him - but where was it and how would it show itself? The lack of reaction worried him. Was Jardine planning his counter-attack, or had he accepted that Harold was the winner? The fact that there was no obvious concern worried him. It simply didnt seem in character for the man he disliked so much.
With nothing said directly between the two men, Mr. Smith began to watch out for the internal post envelopes that came to him. He half expected an attack from his rival to come by this means. It was something he might have considered as a possibility had the situation been reversed so why wouldnt Jardine? After all, to avoid speaking he had sent his neighbour memos through the system regularly since hed started work here. But the brown envelopes that arrived twice a day didnt have the poisoned dart he expected.
Jardine continued to use his original desk, and the unused central desk showed a wider than ever rift between them. This added to Mr. Smiths unease. The two never made eye contact and as far as Mr. Smith was concerned Jardine seemed to be the perfect office colleague, hard working and conscientious a man devoted to his work.
As time passed Mr. Smith found he was able to relax and feel confident that he really had won. Even so, his day now began by catching a different train each morning, one that put him at his desk thirty-five minutes earlier, and importantly, thirty-five minutes before his enemy. He knew his opponent was sneaky. It was too soon to lower his guard. He would savour the real enjoyment of his victory later.
Just read that, both of you, then initial it and pass it to my secretary for filing. It was four weeks after his promotion. The office was pleasantly warm, and Mr. Smith was startled from a near doze by the Cost Accountants voice as he saw him handing a paper to his enemy. Well done...er, Sidney. Good thinking. We need more of that around the place. He went back to his office without acknowledging Mr. Smiths presence.
Mr. Smith knew that he must force himself to look across at his colleague, and did so, to see him putting his initials to the paper with an untypical flourish. Then the single sheet was pushed over for him to read. It was similar to the mass of other inter-office documents that regularly circulated around the office. People who needed to see the paper were listed, and after reading it, each was expected to initial it and send it on to the next name.
The sequence of names on the list followed the rigorously enforced hierarchical system that existed in the Company of those days, one which put individuals in descending order of rank. Protocol insisted that people at the same level were listed in alphabetical order. There were about a dozen names on the list, starting, as always, with the Chief Cost Accountants.
Mr. Smiths eyes read down the list. There the names were, clear and indisputable.
The last name was his. The last name in the rankings of the office and the section.
The lack of a second initial had never hurt Mr. Smith more than it did at that moment. For a moment he hated his harmless, peace-loving father who was still alive and living quietly in Southport for not giving proper consideration to the choice of name for his first-born. Somehow he sensed that worse was to come. There was no reason to link this routine document with his enemy but, somehow he knew, that this was the moment he had been dreading. Uppermost in his mind was the fact that he was to behave at least as well as his foe had, and show no weakness or emotion, whatever happened.
Mr. Smith could sense, rather than see, that he was being watched by his neighbour as he forced himself to keep his hands from shaking, and to look down to read the single foolscap sheet. It was dated the previous day.
To. Mr. P.T. Raybould.
At yesterdays meeting of the Office Working Practices and Economies Committee, we discussed the suggestion that following a minor reorganisation in the Waste Recovery Section, certain items are surplus to requirements.
The Committee agreed with this view and decided that the Section Heads desk and the two telephones, internal and external, should be removed forthwith.
As there are now just two people employed in the Section, it was felt that they could easily use other telephones that are elsewhere in the Cost Office.
Would you please advise the people concerned, and pass on to Mr. Sidney Jardine of the Waste Recovery Section the Committees appreciation of his suggestion.
As you know, the Company is always keen to encourage suggestions that show how deeply employees at all levels take an interest in their work. Mr. Jardines understanding of the value of cost-effective communications and utilisation of resources is to be highly commended.
The usual Cash Award will be sent to Mr. Jardine in due course.
Signed. J. R. Jones Cost Accountant. Central Division.
Mr. Smith kept his eyes on the paper for a minute or so after he finished reading it. He knew he had to look up, but dreaded the gloating and triumph that he would see from his neighbour. He forced himself to look to his side, and saw his enemy, clearly waiting for their eyes to meet.
Young Arthur was the only other witness to this moment. He insisted that he saw Mr. Jardine look at his colleague and wink with his left eye. No-one believed him though. Arthur was known for inventing little tales and this was just too unlikely to be true.
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