Henry strode into Linda Quinn’s office as the church bells chimed two. Exactly on time for their meeting. A minute later would have been disrespectful; a minute earlier, unduly keen. Enthroned behind the hardwood desk that would soon be Henry’s, his boss stared past him to the door. “Don’t you have a union representative, Mr Windsor?”
Henry peeked over his shoulder. The letter had referred to his right to bring someone, not his obligation. His father dubbed unions a gang of hooligans blocking decent folk from doing their jobs. “We’ll sort it sharper without an umpire.” He didn’t need a union chap to choose an executive toy to replace the Newton’s cradle on Linda’s desk. He didn’t need a union chap to access the budget to repaint Linda’s lilac walls.
“Your prerogative.” She gestured for him to avail himself of one of the two vacant office chairs. “I’ve got good news and bad news. The latter shouldn’t come as a shock.”
Henry smothered a smile. “It was on the cards.” Would he be tasked with arranging her send-off? Or would her personal secretary – his when she’d gone – organise the whole caboodle? “You’ll be sorely missed.”
Ruby-cheeked from his compliment, Linda Quinn shuffled her papers. “I’ve worked my socks off to accommodate you, Henry. But this refusal to move with the times …”
Computers! Why dredge up that fiddle-faddle now? Squinting against the glare from the window behind her desk, Henry couldn’t read Ms Quinn’s expression. The light lent her face a saintly halo, but her tone was neither pious nor playful. He tethered his gaze to the silvery balls of the Newton’s cradle as he fumbled in his jacket pockets for his lucky conker, but all he found was grit-infected fluff that vexed his fingernails, and a nut of hardened gum. “If it ain’t broke …” Henry was proud of the payroll system he’d introduced in the seventies. Had he lived long enough, his father would have been proud too.
“Every other council in the country has switched to computers.”
Henry squeezed a finger between his shirt and his neck. His collar hadn’t felt so tight that morning. “A passing fad.” What could a computer achieve that a typist with a Selectric couldn’t? Or a smart schoolkid with a scientific calculator?
“The antidote to business drudgery. Which you’d have discovered for yourself if you’d agreed to go on a course.”
Henry glanced at the empty chair beside him. A union chap might have defended his decision to veto residential training.
“You leave me no choice, Henry. You’ve failed to meet the demands of the job.”
A cloud snuffed out the sun, affording Henry an uninterrupted view of the car park and, beyond it, the graveyard of St Mark the Evangelist’s church. At least with his father dead and buried Henry couldn’t disappoint him. “And the good news?”
“It wasn’t easy, but we’ve figured a way to keep you on.” Scrabbling in her desk drawer, Linda brandished an ID badge on a phlegm-coloured cord. “Up to three years’ protected salary. Your pension’s secure.”
Henry clasped his hands in his lap. He’d be deputy head of payroll until he accepted the badge. But he’d have to take it eventually: it bore his mugshot, in his heavy glasses and a striped shirt with a white collar Irene bought him one Christmas. “What does a Senior Assistant Clerical Officer without Portfolio do?”
Linda ratched through her papers and slid him a sheet of A4. It didn’t say much: the title took up half the page. “You’re familiar with the clause at the end of job descriptions regarding any other duties required by the post? In this case, that’s the core.”
“A general dogsbody?”
“With a desk in the multi-use office and up to three years’ protected salary.”
“What would I actually do, Linda?”
Ms Quinn waved her arms expansively. “You’ll embrace a broad spectrum of projects across multiple sectors. The mayor’s office, planning, electoral services.” She beamed. “Don’t they say variety’s the spice of life?”
Henry stuffed the badge into his pocket to cosy up to the fluff and the unchewable chuddy. “I suppose I’d better clear my bits and bobs out of payroll.”
He’d almost reached the door when Linda called him back, her arm outstretched. “Your old badge, please, Henry. It’s no use to you now.”
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