“Something’s going on,” hissed a voice in Laura’s ear.
The steaming tea-bag she was transferring from mug to bin jumped onto the office kitchen floor.
“Sharon!” snapped Laura, “don’t do that,”
“I was over by HR just now,” continued her colleague breathlessly, “the door was open and I swear I heard them say ‘big changes by the end of the day’ and ‘they’ve got to go’.”
Laura tore off a strip of kitchen paper. Frowning, she bent down to clean up the mess. “They could have been talking about anything,” she said. “But you think they were talking about us.”
“We’re the oldest people here,” said Sharon, wide-eyed and nervous. We don’t have the same computer knowledge these youngsters have. I’m only just getting the hang of Google.”
The publishing company they worked for had recently been taken over by new owners. Everyone felt their jobs were under threat. Emails from management were full of plans for cost-cutting and ‘rationalisation’.
“They can’t get rid of us,” said Laura, “we make the best drinks in this place. And we listen to everyone moaning. Put that on your appraisal form next time your boss asks about multi-tasking: waitress and agony aunt.”
As she walked down the corridor carrying her tray of mugs, Laura scanned the open-plan office. Was Sharon right to be worried? The atmosphere did seem a bit more tense than usual that morning. People who normally smiled at her avoided eye contact. The smart suits huddled by the water cooler scattered when she approached them.
When she got back to her desk the temp was swivelling in her chair. Laura recognised the Facebook website on her computer screen before it was replaced by the company homepage. “Rose,” she said sternly, “I thought I made it clear – no personal Internet use.”
But Laura caught the cheeky grin before it was replaced by a frown of businesslike concentration.
“Right,” said Rose. “What’s next?
“Invoices,” said Laura, passing her a sheaf of paper. “I’ll watch you do the first few to make sure you get the hang of it.”
The girl was so quick, it was frightening.
“It’s not a race,” muttered Laura. “Remember I’ll be checking this for accuracy at the end of the day.”
“She’ll be after your job, if you’re not careful,” hissed Sharon from the desk behind them.
Laura stared at the girl. She was young, beautiful, confident and bright. Management would approve. But why did she have to be here today, showing her up? Maybe HR were spying on the two of them now and making notes …
Laura was getting a headache. Perhaps she needed to show she could be tough as well as nice.
“Change of plan,” she announced to Rose. “I’ve just remembered a pile of urgent photocopying we need doing. And when you’ve finished that there’s a cupboard full of old paperwork that needs filing.”
The girl raised her eyebrows. “You’re the boss,” she said, with a hint of mockery.
“And after that, you can make everyone a nice cup of tea.”
Laura swallowed a couple of painkillers and set about tidying her desk. Stray paper clips, pens and post-it stickers were gathered together. She squared off the page edges of her piles of paper like a newsreader at the end of a broadcast. When she looked over her shoulder Sharon was copying her.
“Exciting and important work,” muttered Rose sarcastically, as she sloped off to the photocopier.
“You want to watch her,” said Sharon.
By lunchtime Laura’s head was still throbbing. After a morning struggling to decipher jargon-filled emails, she felt the need to put some ‘clear blue water’ between herself and her computer and practice some ‘blue sky thinking.’
Laura ate her tuna sandwich alone outside in the courtyard. She had expected Rose to join her, but it seemed that the temp was more interested in chatting to a group of smokers from Sales. Next to them two workmen were unloading giant boxes from a lorry. Our replacements have arrived, thought Laura darkly. Shiny new robots.
The afternoon brought so many new and urgent admin tasks that Laura didn’t even have time to make the tea. She began to feel guilty about all the work she’d given Rose, who sat by the bookshelves surrounded by files. Laura’s attempt at a cheery wave was met with a withering glare.
Half an hour later her shadow had disappeared.
“Where’s Rose?” Laura asked Sharon.
“She was over by the snacks machine just now with someone from HR. I think she was being given a guided tour.”
Laura imagined the conversation that might have taken place:
“How do you think you would cope if you were doing her job?”
“Fine. I’d be much better than her.”
At 4.45 the head of Human Resources loomed at Laura’s shoulder.
“Laura and Sharon,” said the woman solemnly. “Could I have a word with you both in my office?”
A minute later, Laura and Sharon sat stiffly opposite her, waiting for the words they dreaded.
“As you know, the company is going through a difficult time. Our employees need help with the changes. So from today, I’m releasing you from your present duties.”
“I knew it,” said Sharon. “You’re sacking us.”
The woman looked puzzled. “No, Sharon. I’m giving you and Laura new roles in the HR department. Think of it as a promotion. People like talking to you. You’re good listeners.”
Laura and Sharon gawped at each other.
“Have you seen the new drinks machines we’ve installed today? They should make life easier. Those old kettles were a menace. They had to go.”
There was a knock on the door. Rose entered the room with a tray of frothy cappuccinos and hot chocolate.
The head of HR smiled at her. “Hello Rose. How did your work-shadowing day go today?”
“The snacks and drinks machines were cool,” said the girl.
She shot Laura a frown that quickly turned into a cheeky grin.
“But my mum was a total nightmare.”
© Nick Walker 2013