a cold cappuccino
She was waiting for him in the café. She had chosen her place to sit, with him opposite facing the wall and her in full view of the street. She had ordered her lunch, a salad followed by a yoghurt and strawberry desert. There was no point starving yourself at a time like this. You needed every bit of nourishment you could get. Her heart was pounding. Her head was spinning. She wasn’t exactly looking forward to the encounter.
Crumbs was, as its name suggested, not a particularly high-class place. She would not have chosen it herself. The tables were covered in wood-grained Formica and there were stools instead of chairs. They served food on the go. When she had rung him, he’d said he was on his way out but she had managed to pin him down to a working lunch.
As he walked in, an image flashed across her mind of him in a coffin. That was where she would like to put him right now. He seemed to be taking an awfully long time to order his food. Delaying tactics. She noticed he had chosen a sandwich. She couldn’t immediately determine the filling.
The stools were of the tall variety. She waited for him to clamber up onto his. It was a difficult thing to do gracefully. She had installed herself on hers before he came. It was important to keep your poise at a time like this. She waited for him to speak.
‘So, what can I do for you?’ he said. His tone was formal, business-like, as if he hardly knew her. She had been working for him for years. She was part of the furniture.
‘As I said on the phone’ she began, ‘I’m very disappointed in the number of hours you have given me this year. It represents a substantial drop in my income.’
She could see he was having trouble remembering how much work he had doled out and to whom. There were so many part-time employees on his staff and all of them wanting work. It was a hell of a job, trying to keep everybody happy. He likened it to a giant jigsaw puzzle. There were only a certain number of pieces. How did you choose? Not everybody could be accommodated.
‘There is always the possibility of work coming up in the future,’ he said. ‘You haven’t been ruled out altogether.’
‘I can’t live on possibilities’ she said. ‘They don’t pay the rent.’
‘I’m sure you appreciate the difficulties we are in. We really are under severe constraints these days’ he said.
This is my bread and butter. I was relying on the work. All you are offering me is crumbs’ she blurted out.
She cast a look around. The choice of cafe had been entirely appropriate. She worried now that she might have blown it. She wasn’t exactly in a bargaining position. Bosses always had the upper hand, particularly these days when everyone was scrabbling for hours. They could afford to keep you dangling for months, just on the off-chance.
‘Remind me again what I offered you,’ he said, shifting his position.
‘I was down for the same number of hours as last year,’ she said ‘plus some extra.’
‘Why is it you people always talk about hours?’ he said. ‘To me, that shows a lack of commitment.’
‘We talk about hours,’ she replied, ‘because hours are what we get, now that there are no proper contracts anymore.’
‘I see,’ he said. ‘Actually, I haven’t been able to tell anyone yet but there has been a change of policy. I was going to break the news at the staff meeting but since you brought it up. The truth is the department is moving out of Humanities and we are going to have to make some cuts.
‘There is nothing in my work record to suggest’, she said, seizing the opportunity, ‘that I have been anything other than a conscientious, committed employee. I am efficient, punctual, enthusiastic, qualified and experienced.’
‘Yes, yes. That may well be true,' he said. ‘I don’t dispute it. It’s just that there are so many of you now to consider. I can’t keep everyone happy. It’s just not possible.’
‘I was under the illusion,’ she said, ‘that my work was appreciated here’.
‘Indeed, it is.’
‘It doesn’t seem so,’ she continued. ‘When you promised me the work earlier in the year, I took you at your word,’ she said, going for the jugular.
He was part of the old boys’ network. They prided themselves on honouring their agreements, didn’t they?
He looked wounded. He had probably underestimated her, assuming she was the quiet type, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. He was no doubt regretting having agreed to meet her in the café, wishing he had kept it on a more professional footing, in the safety of his office.
She had the momentum. It was now or never.
‘If you can’t give me the work,’ she said, ‘I may have to look elsewhere. After working in such a prestigious establishment as this, I’m sure there are plenty of other places who would be only too willing to take me on.’
‘There’s no need to be hasty,’ he said. ‘We need people with your drive and ambition. I’m confident we can find you something.’
‘I wish I could share your confidence,’ she said.
He took a bite out of his sandwich. He couldn’t have spoken, even if he had wanted to. He had got a mouthful.