A 21st century tale
By Eve’s Rib
4: HERO OF LABOUR
Leo was glad to get home. The menfolk next door knew who wore the trousers, all right! He wasn’t comfortable in that brave new world. It certainly helped him see what Trigger was talking about. Thank God Gina was more reasonable.
And yet, he sometimes thought that his own world was not so far removed from Brian’s. Leo was almost getting used to doing the housework, but what he hated was when their arrangement stopped sounding like a practical agreement between equals and turned into Gina giving him orders:
GINA: Leo, I thought I told you to clean the front room.
LEO: Yeah, I went over it with the hoover...
GINA: (sternly) Look, I don’t work a forty-hour week so you can sit on your arse. Do you expect me to do it or what?! That means polishing the shelves, dusting the TV, the works. I want it done today.
He submitted. He had to. He dreaded the look of offended authority that came over her face, the look she used when she was about to pull her weight as the boss. There was no doubt that Gina was becoming more domineering. She always had a plan, always had an opinion. They went out to her friends for dinner, not his; saw the films she wanted to see; bought the new curtains that she liked. She had the deciding word on every penny they spent because it was her money. She had arranged everything for their mortgage because Leo had found it impossible to get his head around all the complicated issues, but Gina had handled it everything with intelligence and efficiency, and now she was paying off the mortgage single-handed. She earned and owned everything, to the point that he was starting to feel like a freeloader. The guilt encouraged him to do his housework less petulantly.
It also, however, gave a new impetus to his jobhunting. There was no way he was going to end up like Brian, so he secretly searched the vacancy columns when Gina was at work, and he didn’t tell her about the applications he sent off. Most of them received no answer, but eventually a firm with a vacancy for a warehouse manager replied and offered him an interview. On the morning of the interview he missed his bus and he had to run two blocks to avoid being late. He arrived at the premises sweaty and dishevelled. At the reception desk sat a groomed and painted young man in a white blouse with a ruffle down the front, carefully varnishing the nails of his left hand.
“I have an interview,” said Leo, breathlessly. “For the manager job?”
“Ah, yes,” said the young man pleasantly. He pushed his seat back to open a drawer and Leo saw he was wearing a short pinstripe skirt and dark tights. Another ponce! “Mr Powers, I take it?”
His high heels clacking loudly on the parquetry floor, the receptionist showed him through a glass door into a room where three young women were sitting on leather chairs. They were all at least five years younger than him. In his early twenties Leo had worked in a warehouse as a packer. He was confident he could put these birds in their place. They couldn’t have the same experience, and warehouse work was still a man’s job.
The women wore sharp trouser suits and had immaculately brushed hair. Unlike Leo, they carried slick-looking folders containing documents and references. All Leo had was an old CV folded in his jacket pocket. Raking his hair into place with his fingers, he took a seat, wondering if he should have put his suit on and still feeling rather hot and bothered. The women were chatting as if they’d become great friends. They exchanged shop talk in loud voices and discussed their previous experience — with a sinking feeling, he realised that they had all done vocational placements, business courses, and even had a year or two of management experience under their belt. They seemed to know the job much better than he did. For the first time, Leo saw what he was really up against. This was the ‘girl power’ generation so feared by Trigger: while he’d been wasting time at home, these women had been pursuing their careers with formidable efficiency. His confidence drained out of him like water from a bath. How was he to compete?
Eventually one of them, a handsome blonde with ice-blue eyes, turned to Leo. “What are you in for, darling?” she demanded. “Secretarial post going, is there?”
“Nah,” said Leo, annoyed at the ‘darling’. “I’m going for the same as you, miss.”
The blonde looked sceptical but politely said nothing.
The office door opened and a woman came out. She was followed by a second woman of about forty, who was chatting to her and was clearly the boss. She wore a trouser suit, too, and a bright silver chain around her neck. “Could I have Annabel Henderson, please?”
One of the three stood up and after a hearty exchange of greetings followed the boss into the office.
Leo watched them go, admiring the fleshy buttocks under their trousers. How the devil had these soft creatures gotten men so firmly by the balls? He could have knocked any of them down with one punch, yet they walked with authority and brashness, unafraid of any man. How had that poem gone, that he’d done in school: ‘the soft and milky rabble of womankind’. Tennyson, that had been. God, who was soft and milky now?
“Well, I think it’s lovely that there’s a man trying for the post,” said the blonde suddenly.
“Leave him alone,” smiled the other woman, a redhead.
“You know what I mean. Women are pulling further and further ahead and you start thinking, where are the bloody guys? We try so hard to prove that we can do things better than men, and then we find there’s no competition.”
“I hear men get gloomy and get headaches when their wives begin earning more.”
“Oh, the poor dears,” said the blonde, and they shrieked with laughter.
“Have you heard the one about why men are like lawn-mowers?” asked the redhead. “Difficult to get started, emit foul smells and half the time they don’t work.”
“What do you call a man who has lost 95% of his brainpower?” said the blonde. “A widower.”
The two women shrieked again.
“Don’t mind us, darling,” said the blonde to Leo.
Leo flushed an angry red, but he was scared of their amused looks and sharp tongues so he said nothing.
“What, nothing to say?” teased the blonde.
“He’s probably scared,” said the redhead.
“Of us, the poor dear.”
The brunette was in the office quite a while. Then it was his turn. He walked up to the boss, shook her hand firmly, and strode into the office with purpose. It was all about creating an impression. He knew that, at least.
The boss sat at her desk, lifted Leo’s application form, and let it fall without really looking at it.
“I’ll be honest with you, Mr Powers. I don’t find your application convincing. Its presentation isn’t very professional and your experience is limited.”
“Hold on, Ma’am. I can promise you that I’m as good as anybody and I’ll always do my best —”
“The problem is, Leo — may I call you Leo? — that we have a quiet policy in this company. If a woman and a man are competing for a job, we always favour the woman. It has been proved time and again that women are better workers than men. Women work harder, are more competent, show more initiative, and lead to a more efficient business. Study after study says so.” She leaned forward and stared at him. “Now you tell me, Leo — when I’ve got four ambitious young women here today waiting to prove themselves, what chance do you think you have?”
Leo was hot and his palms were sweating. The boss’s gaze was lancing straight through him and seemed to see his insecurity and weakness. Her aura of authority and certainty was very intimidating.
“Now I thought I’d call you in for interview anyway, because there is a possibility of a secretarial post here, bottom pay grade, some typing required, which I would consider you for if you think it would be appropriate. I see you’ve done a little bit of admin. We expect the very best standards, so there would be a test period of three months to see if you were up to it.” Leo said nothing, so she went on: “I’ll tell you right now that we do expect our male office employees to wear a skirt. Short, pinstripe, sort of thing: you’ll have met our receptionist. We do a lot of our business with two female-run companies in the north and are keen to present ourselves as being very strong on female leadership. If that’s a problem you’d better speak up now.”
Leo’s mouth went so dry he found it hard to speak. He coughed and said, “I find that a bit strange, I mean, it’s rather unusual — I mean, why should it matter what I wear...”
“Well, that’s the policy of this company, and you’ll have to respect it if you want to work here,” the boss said. She glanced at the clock.
“I don’t think I can go along with that, Ma’am. It’s a question of dignity.”
The boss sighed impatiently and stood up. “Well now, Mr Powers, I’m a busy woman.” She walked round the desk and held the door open.
Leo wanted to say something magnificent and stride out. He shuffled hesitantly to the door, plucking at words that wouldn’t come.
“Kate Fletcher, please? Hello, Miss Fletcher. Do come into my office. I must say I was very impressed by your portfolio...”