The Meeting by Amy Pattison
This story is dedicated to Minnie Baldock who planted her tree in February 1910
I sat there, in his office, waiting for him to finish writing a letter.
“Hold on darling, I’m just finishing this for Head Office.” He looked up at me, a frown crinkling his red face. “How do you spell administration?”’ He waited for an answer, arms folded.
“A-d-m-i-n-i-s-t-r-a-t-i-o-n,” I answered.
“Right…Did you do A-Levels?”
I couldn’t believe he’d asked.
“Yes…we discussed last week about how—”
“OK! All finished. So, what was it you were here to talk about?” He forced a smile and pushed his pen and paper to the side.
“I’m applying for the role that’s just opened up,” I reminded him. Again.
He looked at me with a blank expression on his face. “Good for you Tracy. It’s nice that you’re giving it a go. What does your husband think?”
"He’s very happy for me—”
“He’s a manager as, well, isn’t he? In the Marks and Spencer? Down the road?”
“Yes, he is.”
“So, you’re trying to be the head of the household?” He chuckled to himself.
I looked at him blankly.
Trying to be the head of the household? I was trying to get a better a job, so then maybe we could take the kids on holiday this year. I was trying to earn a bit more money because it didn’t look like anyone around here was going to raise our wages, despite us protesting day in day out. It was 1968 and people were talking about putting a man on the moon, yet, paying men and women equally was inconceivable?
“Well I’d just like to advance a bit further in my career, sir,”
I sat forward in my chair and adjusted my skirt. I wanted to look as professional as possible. This morning, when I’d been cooking Sam breakfast, he’d said that I looked like I owned the factory and was in control of all of the other girls. Funny thing for a six-year-old to say wasn’t it? I told him that one day I might own the factory. Then he’d said he was going to tell all of his friends at school that his mummy was going to be rich because she owns a factory.
My mum was sat right there next to him in her wheelchair; she’s seventy-seven now and barely talks. But she put her glasses on, so she could look at Sam properly.
“Sam, mummies don’t get to own factories,” she told him.
“Oh mum, don’t tell him that.”
“Why not, Nanny?” Sam had replied.
“There’s no real reason Sam, it’s just the way things are.”
“Mum don’t tell him that, I don’t want him thinking about that sort of stuff. Besides things are changing. The girls went up to Westminster the other day—”
“Haven’t you got to be at work?” My mother croaked, rather miserably.
She was right; I did have to be at work. I served breakfast and ran out the door without having any for myself and now here I was, in the dull office, talking to an exceptionally dull man. The strip lighting above us buzzed and flickered and the sound of machinery could be heard in the near distance.
“So, you want to be a manager?” he asked, again.
“Yes,” I laughed, trying to hide my irritation, “I did say so, a minute ago.”
He shot me a look that told me to be quiet and remember not to be cheeky to someone more senior than I. “Ok…Oh! And you wanted me to give you some advice on the interview process, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I smiled, a genuine smile this time because he’d actually remembered our conversation from a few days before.
“Ok, excellent. Well Stacey—”
“It’s Tracy, sir.”
“My name is Tracy, sir.”
“I thought it was Stacey?”
“—No, always been Tracy.”
“How long have you worked here now, Trace?”
“Seven years, sir.”
“And you have children?”
“Yes sir. Sam, he’s six, and David, he’s nineteen.”
“Blimey, what happened there?” he laughed.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Well the age gap, it’s pretty big. Don’t most of you women have them one after the other?”
“Does this matter, sir? I’m here to talk about my interview.”
He rolled his eyes and leant back his chair. “Alright darling, no need to get uptight, I’m only asking you a question. Ok, so the interview won’t be easy. The people interviewing you are very intelligent and they don’t put up with any nonsense."
I sat up and looked at him, perched in his throne while I was in a chair that was easily a foot lower than his.
“I don’t plan on giving them any nonsense.”
I was a forty-year-old woman, having someone insinuate that I’m going to cause some nonsense hasn’t happened to me in at least twenty years.
“Well, you know what I mean, all that protesting about you girls getting paid. That Sandra, or Sally, whatever her name is, going on about how things need to change. You haven’t protested have you? Because that won’t sit very well with the people interviewing you, you know.”
“Actually, I haven’t been involved in that. I have a young child at home and I don’t really have the time, but I do think—”
“Oh, good ok. So, here’s a tip. Are you still paying attention?”
I had slumped and was probably looking quite defeated; I did want to get involved in the protests. I strongly believed men and women should have equal pay. I couldn’t support the cause enough. I just couldn’t risk getting fired or even arrested, not with little Sam at home. The rest of the girls had been so understanding.
“When you’re talking in the interview, try to put on a polite and softer voice. Do you know what I mean? Try and be a little less—you know—Dagenham, and a little bit more—well you know, try to sound more eloquent. That means more well-spoken. Just act as if you’re about to meet the Queen and—”
“I have met the Queen.”
“Don’t—no you haven’t,” he laughed.
He examined my face, probably waiting for my frown to turn into a smile as I tell him that I’m only joking. But, the thing is, I’m not joking. I did meet the Queen, albeit briefly, but I did. She came to my University. I was the top of my class that year and as a reward, I was allowed to meet her, along with the other students who were top of their classes.
The Queen was still a Princess at that point, but I did meet her.
Instead of telling him this, I just replied, “You’re right, I’m only joking.”
“Oh, very good. That’s quite funny. Anyway, try to be more well-spoken and don’t move your hands around too much or they’ll think you’re fidgety. And, what else? Oh, look presentable obviously, your skirt’s a bit short today—”
“Its over my knees?”
“Yes, but it rides up when you sit down, young lady.”
“Young lady? I’m forty years old, sir.”
I sat back up in my chair. I knew that I had a nice speaking voice. I’d had elocution lessons when I was at University. What was wrong with my voice? And I’d always thought that moving your hands when you’re speaking is a good thing because it shows that you are expressive and passionate about what you’re talking about. And my skirt definitely wasn’t too short—he was just a pervert.
“You don’t look it Stacey,” he grinned.
That moment, I knew what I had to do. I would stand up and march right out of that office to join the other girls with their banners and their protests. I wasn’t going to put up with a man like this, belittling me and making me feel like I was two feet tall. Why should I take the advice of this grinning, blotchy-faced monster?
But I didn’t do any of these things. I was too scared.
All I said was: “Thank you for your advice, Donald. I’ll let you know how the interview goes.”
As I stood up, my bag fell over and its contents spilled out onto the floor. Donald’s head was bent over some papers, probably for Head Office. I could’ve dropped dead from a heart attack right then and he probably wouldn’t have noticed. As I bent down to pick up my things, I saw a piece of paper that I had completely forgotten. An invitation:
THE 1968 LONDON UNIVERSITY ALUMNI SPRING BALL
I don’t know why I’d put it to the bottom of my bag, and I don’t know why I’d even considered not going. Of course, I should go: this little bit of paper meant a lot. It meant that I’d been remembered. It meant that they’d found my name and actually made the effort to invite me. So my life may have not gone as well as I had hoped. And I certainly wasn’t making as much money as I’d hoped I would, but that hadn’t stopped one of the best universities in the world inviting me back to spend time with the people who I’d once shared a lecture theatre with.
As I read the invite, Donald looked up from his desk.
“What’s that you’ve got there?"
“It’s an invite.”
He held out his hand to look at it. He didn’t ask, just assumed he had the right to anybody’s personal belongings.
“Yes sir, it’s where I did my undergraduate degree.”
“Oh, look they’ve got your name wrong. This is addressed to a Tracy Wentworth. You’re Stacey.”
I gathered my things into my bag and stood up so fast I gave myself a headrush. Then I snapped the invite out of his hands.
“No, my name is Tracy. You know my name is Tracy, I have been working here for seven years. I am leaving now Donald. Have a nice day.”
I headed for the door with the full intention of slamming it behind me, but something held me back. Something told me not to leave. Something, or maybe someone watching over me, told me that more needed to be said. Perhaps it was being reminded that I have a degree from London. Or perhaps the sudden remembrance of that time I’d met the soon-to-be-Queen.
Or maybe, it was because my dear old mum had said to me once: “Women did not chain themselves to church fences just for you to sit around and take a load of rubbish off of a man who doesn’t even know you.”
She’d told me that when I was seventeen. I don’t know why I’d never asked her about it. Women had protested for the right to vote and my mother had been a young woman when that was all happening. Why had I never asked her about it before?
I turned around and walked back over to Donald’s desk.
“Donald?” I said, very politely.
“I just wanted you to know that—” I took a deep breath, I didn’t know what I was going to say. “—I am going to protest with the rest of the girls.”
He didn’t look up.
“And I plan on telling the union about your inappropriate remarks that I found very belittling and actually very sexist.”
Now I had his attention. His face was twisted into a nasty smile.
“The union won’t care.”
“I’ve also decided not to take your advice.”
Donald held onto his desk, shocked. ‘Listen darling I’m—”
“My name is Tracy and I am leaving now. Thank you for your time, Donald, but I really have to go. I think I heard the girls talking about a march they’re doing in a couple of hours, or maybe it’s a meeting with someone important, I’ll need to check the details. Anyway, I’d like to be there because I don’t think it’s fair that men like you get paid more just for sitting on your bottom telling me how to improve myself when really it’s people like you who need the advice.”
I had ran out of breath by the end of my speech, but I felt so much better, as though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders and a million doors had just been opened for me. I knew that everything would be ok, albeit only for that brief moment. There was still a long way to go.