The A to Z Challenge – S is for -”So, what do you think?”

I thrived on the notion that I was invisible.

Every time I went out with friends, no one ever asked my opinion about anything, and I never really ventured one, and it had been that way all my life.

It came from learning at a very young age that I should listen not prattle and speak only when spoken to.

All through school I spent most of my time studying alone, or with one or two others who wanted to help with their schoolwork, and I think that after a while I’d become a definitive nerd.

Things changed a little when I went to university and found there were quite a few just like me, and we sort of gravitated towards each other.

After that, getting a job, I still found myself more or less keeping my own company though from time to time one or other of my contemporaries would ask I’d I was going to the drinks after work on Friday night, which usually I avoided.

My contemporaries were a little too outgoing for a self-confessed boring person.

Then things changed, a promotion to a different branch in an office in the next state, with new people and a different atmosphere, fuelled a desire to break the mold I’d created for myself.

It was time to be more outgoing.

What kicked off the new attitude was a meeting of department heads.  I found that the company had brought together a group of people, hovering in the middle management group, of which I was only one of about a dozen of similar age, experience, and qualifications.

It was an interesting meeting because it was addressed by the current CEO, a man who was rarely seen out of head office, on the other side of the country.  We were, he said, the up-and-coming future of the company, and our time in this particular branch would determine our trajectory.

So much easier then to crash and burn.

I was last to leave the room, with much to ponder.

“You’re new, aren’t you?”  One of the female attendees had been talking to several others, then turned her attention to me.

“Two weeks on Thursday, but yes.”

I’d see her at various times during the last week, in different parts of the building, leaving me to think she had some sort of managerial role.  It was no surprise to learn she was in sales.

“Jennifer Eccles.”

‘Daniel Wells.”

We shook hands, which was a surprise.

“New to the city then?” She asked.

“I am.  I’m still working on what I want to see, but there’s plenty of time for that.  I have a mountain of reading to get through.”

“You know the saying, all work, and no play…”

She had a look about her that suggested she might be the life of the party, certainly if the meeting was anything to go by, the center of attention.

“I’ll bear that in mind.”

I had made our acquaintances in the first week, Oliver Birtwhistle, another introvert like myself, a candidate settling into research and development, right down to the white coat and pencil pack in the pocket.

He had also been at the meeting, and had Bern at the company for three months and had been giving me the drill, who to avoid, who had nuisance value, and how to get ahead if I was that way inclined.

The thing is, he had said, you were sent to this place to prove your boss’s faith in your potential.  Each manager of each branch hot to pick the brightest candidate.  I had been my manager’s choice, odd because there were others who would have appreciated the opportunity more than me.

He had to go past my office to get to the laboratory and dropped in, flooding into the lounge chair along the sidewall, a remnant of the last office owner who used to sleep on it overnight while going through a messy divorce.

“I see you were ambushed by the incorrigible Jennifer Eccles.”

“You say it as if it’s a bad thing.’

“That’s because it is.  You would be well advised to steer clear of her.  The last three people like you she selected as work partners all left broken from the experience.  She sucks novices dry of all their knowledge, claims it as her own, and moves up another rung.”

“She seems quite nice “

“So does a rattlesnake until it bites you.”

“Well, forewarned is forearmed.  She doesn’t have anything to fear from me, I’m not the ambitious sort.”

“That’s not how it works here.  You need to be competitive just to stay here.  There are no free lunches.  Next meeting you’ll be required to make a pitch, and if the boss doesn’t like it, you go back home.”

“You’re still here?”

“That’s more because I have an incompetent manager.  It’s easy to create cost/benefit savings when his methods ate all last century.  All I’m saying is watch your back.”

I never gave Oliver’s advice another thought, as the days passed, and Jennifer was just a shadow on the horizon.

Until she dropped into my office, on her way to somewhere else.  Another person, also wary of her, had said she burned shoe soles faster than a spendthrift spent money.

“How are you settling in?”

She sat exactly where Oliver had been a month before.

“Feels like home.”

“See anything of the place?”

“I bought a car, moved into company-assisted accommodation, just haven’t had the time to get out and about.”

“OK.  Tell you what, I’m free this weekend, come by my place and I’ll show you around.  And, Friday night, drinks in the bar off the cafeteria.  You should come, meet the competition.”

“Do I want to?”

“Of course, you do.  You want to at least meet the people who are most likely going to stab you in the back.”

“Is that what you do?”

“Me, no.  I’m a woman.  We use poison.  Much more efficient “

So, curiosity got the better of me, and on the way out, I had a last-minute change of heart, thinking about what the harm could be.

When I arrived most of the staff cafeteria was already there, and underway, and by the look of it, for some time.

As I’d surmised, Jennifer was the Queen bee surrounded by her drones.  Crossing the room, I tried to pick of the ones she had picked up and spat out.  Probably all of them, hence her interest in me.

She stopped mid-sentence when she saw me, and then abandoned the group, to come over and give me a kiss on the cheek, and a hug.  It did not go unnoticed.

Then we went back to the group with several new faces, and she introduced me.  I was ‘the new guy in marketing’ who was ‘working on a huge new concept’.  Of course, I had no idea what she was talking about, but let it ride.  It was a close approximation of the truth.

This informal get-together was much like a brainstorming session, but to me, with one purpose in mind.  Run, clearly, by Jennifer, for the purpose of mining their ideas.

I was encouraged to talk about my huge ideas, but in reality, they were just pie in the sky clouds, there was nothing to talk about.  And that seemed to annoy her.  It wasn’t for the want of gentle prodding, down to outright asking me, but I generally ignored her, and it was noticed.

Then she manicured us to be alone at the bar.  Was this going to be the big push?

“Haven’t forgotten about tomorrow, have you?” She said, sliding a Millers across to me.

She was a beer drinker, a tick in a box if I was ticking boxes.

“No.  Looking forward to not talking shop.”

“Oh, you never stop living a breathing work at this level.  It can be all-consuming for some.  Just as a matter on interest, had any of the orders spoken about me?”

There was that fraction of a second hesitation that could be construed in a dozen different ways. I tried covering it, but she knew, so I tried walking carefully through the mindfully.”

“I suspect that most of the guys I’ve spoken to consider you just a little out of their league. I should be so lucky to be spoken of so highly.”

I had always dreamed of following my father into diplomacy, but there was little on offer these days.  The old days had long since been replaced by the new generation who considered diplomats anachronisms of a colonial empire.

She smiled.  She was smart enough to see what I was doing.  But I was still treading water.

“So, what do you think of me?”

Direct.

“That’s a question of whether you want me to tell you what you want to hear, or tell you what I think, which is something entirely different.”

“What you really think, of course.”

I could see that she didn’t, but this was rapidly leading up a one-way street to the firing squad.

“Here’s the thing.  I learned a long time ago that opinions count for nothing, and more often they cause more grief than anything else.  You don’t need other people’s opinions of you to validate who you are, and what you want to do with your life, especially not from me.

“I have no opinion.  As for me, I am not ambitious, and truth be told I don’t belong here.  If the powers that be thought I’d play the competition, there wrong.  Actions speak louder than words, and I will do my job to the best of my ability, but I won’t depressive someone else of an opportunity because I think I’m better than them.  I’m not.

“I like you, and I’m happy to be your friend or something else if it ever comes to that, but don’t expect me to play the game, or be something I’m not.”

There, I said it, and it was what I intended, and perhaps if she was to read the subtext, would realize I was subtlety telling he she didn’t need to screw everyone over to better herself, but the truth is, she was, and perhaps she didn’t really know it.

Judging by the look on her face, I was blindfolded up against the wall in front of the firing squad, and then we’d just received the ready, aim, and about to say fire.

“Friend, you say.”

“There’s a lot of wiggle room with a word like that.  It’s all in the individual interpretation.”

“Wow.  For not giving an opinion…”

“I’m sorry it was not what you were expecting.”

It was interesting if not strange in a way to watch her expression change with each new thought pr reaction.  I wondered for a moment if any of the other men spoke to her in such a manner

Perhaps not, because they would not want to sully their chance of getting a date with what was a woman that had both brains and beauty.  As for me, I hadn’t been thinking of her in that way, but only in terms of how we could work together.

Perhaps that would be regarded as strange also.

Then she smiled, or perhaps it was a smirk, I was not quite sure, but it seemed she had come to a conclusion.

“You do realize no one has ever spoken to me in that manner, especially the men here.  I can see now that asking me on a date, or the preliminaries before that are not on your immediate agenda, and, in fact, I suspect you did that to some of the other women here, you’d get a very cold shoulder.  I’ll admit now, that you intrigue me, and I want to know more about you.  You still want to go touring tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

“Then you can take me home, so you know where to pick me up.  But, for now, we’d better get back to the others before we become the subject of tomorrow’s water cooler gossip.

My take: Perhaps I could refine what is and isn’t opinion before I actually did upset someone.


© Charles Heath 2022

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