The Appraisal

 

i.

Given his size, it was fortunate that the birth of his second son was not more traumatic. Judging by his wife’s pregnancy bump, he was a large baby, and already long-overdue. Having originally planned for a home birth, the due date came and went, before faded into the near-distance. A fortnight later, his reluctant wife was compelled to book her induction appointment at the local hospital.

She was instructed to arrive at the hospital late in the evening. When they arrived together, she was given a bed on the maternity ward, hooked up to a monitor and told to wait. They waited together in the dim sodium glare of the ward for some time, her reading a book, him writing a paper for an academic conference, listening by the sound of their son’s heartbeat, and trying to ignore the quasi-orgasmic noises of a Polish girl’s protracted contractions in the next bed. Eventually he had to leave and went home alone on the 185.

After a near-sleepless night, during which his wife was monitored and prodded by the ward nurses, she was induced the next morning. He was at home, looking after their eldest son, when she texted to tell him her contractions had started. After leaving their boy with the childminder, he returned to the hospital. A difficult, discomforting labour followed. For his wife, this was on account of her cervix not dilating enough; for him, it was due to a male trainee midwife silently observing his wife’s evident agony.

As with the first time his wife gave birth, he felt utterly helpless, useless, incapable of easing her pain or offering any meaningful words of comfort. His wife was determined to give birth naturally, as she had done with their first son. Her body had other ideas. Several times the midwife offered her an epidural or a c-section. She refused, at one point pulling out the epidural needle before the doctor could insert the line.

Sometime in the early afternoon, with his fatigued wife at the point of exhaustion and his son’s heartbeat fading, another team of nurses and doctors bustled into the room. It had been decided that they would deliver of his son by ventouse, using a suction cup applied to his head and what resembled a length of washing line to pull him out. The stocky midwife charged with using the ventouse looked like she was engaged in a tug-of-war contest. Slowly but surely his son emerged, purple and bloody. Once clear of his by now deathly pale mother, the boy was weighed and placed in a small crib where he lay, sagely and snugly, looking for all the world like he might be about to fall asleep. All ten pounds ten ounces of him. Even in those first moments, his had an aura altogether different to that of his sibling. Already he could tell the boy would be trouble.

Miraculously, the midwife found his wife and son a private room on the over-crowded maternity ward. That evening, while he was at home, the obstetrician diagnosed jaundice in his new son, and as a precautionary measure determined that they should remain in hospital for the next week. The next day, he brought his oldest son to the hospital, who tottered happily towards his absent mother, and met his new brother with puzzlement and be-furrowed brow.

 

ii.

The year earlier he had found a new job, at a charitable organisation with ties to the property industry. His initial impulse, which had been to quit the industry for good, had been superseded by his inability to find work in a different sector, and the urgent need to continue earning money.

His morning routine and commute into the city remained much the same, for the charitable organisation’s offices were in the same building as the lobbying body. In fact, they were literally around the corner. Upon exiting the lifts on his floor, instead of turning left to enter the offices of his former employer, he turned right to enter the offices of his new employer. The job he had taken was less a sideways move, more a crossing of the floor. He was also learning less, a lot less, than before.

A chance conversation with the charity’s chief executive, a perky, pony-tailed woman a few years older than him, had revealed that there was a role available for him, should he want it. We’re looking for someone full time, she explained. I know you’re doing a PhD, but I think we both know that won’t really lead to anything. He hoped she was joking.

He had met the chief executive several times in the communal spaces of their shared offices. She liked to pepper her speech with light management jargon, while letting it be known that there were many demands upon her time, and giving the impression that she thrived in the face of adversity. She was very different to the chief executive at his last organisation. Dynamic. Proactive. Inclusive. He liked her and thought he would enjoy working for her.

A couple of days after being informally offered the job, the chief executive called him into a meeting, where informed him that after canvassing the opinion of his formal employer about his suitability for the role, as an informal reference, the job offer had to be temporarily withdrawn pending a formal interview. The next day, he was formally interviewed for the role, by the chief executive and the deputy chief executive, where he was asked, pointedly, if he had ever found himself in an argument with a senior member of the industry, a hugely influential individual with a high net worth, and if he thought that might make him unsuitable for the position, to which he could only repeat a by-now often spoken lie. I’ve learnt my lesson.

The next day he was offered the job. By accepting it, he had effectively deposed the communications manager already in position, a man who tied his sweater around his shoulders without any noticeable degree of sartorial irony, and who was unable to commit to the additional hours because of his childcare responsibilities. This, it appeared, caused some upset among his future colleagues. We’re sorry to see him go, he’s been an absolute diamond, said one. Another disgruntled former team member, who had confessed her dislike of the chief executive, called him traitor the next time they met.

During his handover period, he and the incumbent met for an awkward lunch at a Japanese-styled cafe on Piccadilly, where his future self warned him, between slurps of ramen, that managing upwards effectively would be vital for the sake of his sanity. At his leaving drinks, one of his work buddies said to him, privately, Are you sure you want to do this - I mean, you do realise she is an absolute nightmare, don’t you? He shrugged and laughed it off.

He didn’t have to wait long for either theory to be tested. In his first week, the chief executive, who thrived in the face of adversity, announced that it was her intention to re-brand the organisation, redesign and relaunch the website and newsletter, and undertake a review of their communications strategy. Responsibility for project managing these three strands would lie with him, but final approval on the next steps would come from herself. Moreover, the entire team should be consulted throughout.

He was introduced to the PR firm who provided pro bono support for the charity, and was grilled at length by their account director, a former property journalist. The director was a generally avuncular and occasionally truculent character, with a good nose for sniffing out bullshit. Amusingly, he had the measure of the charity’s chief executive, who had revealed herself to be unfocused, digressive and all-too-flappable. The director was also utterly unhelpful whenever urgent assistance was required, which was most of the time in those first few months, and he came to dread the director’s terse, single line responses to his detailed emails pinging into his inbox, each of which implied, though without making it explicit, that he was out of his depth and doing a terrible job.

From time to time the charity’s president, the chief executive of a property development company, a man who could usually be relied upon to make inappropriate comments during his speech at their events, would call the office switchboard and, whenever he answered, ask who he was speaking to, and no matter how many times he reminded him, he persisted in getting his name wrong, calling him Alan or Alistair or Ian. The first time they met after he started the role, he introduced himself to the president, who looked vaguely at him before turning to the chief executive and asking, What happened to the other guy?

He struggled through that first year, being a little sheepish with his former colleagues, a little awkward with his new ones, balancing the competing demands of being a parent again, earning less money than before, and having less disposable income, with his wife on maternity leave and their eldest in full time childcare. His workload was insurmountable and the demands on his time relentless. He’d had a degree of autonomy at his last employer, here everyone was invited to critique his work.

The dynamics of office life had also completely changed: his team in his last office was almost all men, and now he was the sole male in an organisation of just ten employees. Most of the team were cramped into a tiny office space, and he was sat next to the chief executive. There was nowhere to hide. Team meetings on Monday mornings almost always overran, and he would listen with growing frustration while any number of unfocused ideas with were discussed, criticised and quibbled over. If he ventured an alternative view, it was usually discounted.

Frequently he felt excluded, sometimes marginalised, and he began to understand how it must feel to be the only woman in a male-dominated office. Or career-minded women in general, eager to get ahead but impeded by obstructive and destructive men. Though he had an inkling, he could never truly know what that would have been like. To be paid substantially less than his male counterparts, to be overlooked for promotions or pay rises, to be leered over or sneered at. He did learn, to his cost, that what had previously passed as banter in a male-dominated team was no longer acceptable in this new working environment. When his gestures towards commonality with his colleagues fell flat, and after a couple of instances of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time, he regressed to the selective mutism of his adolescence. It was better to say nothing, he felt, than say something that might invite ridicule or reprimand.

 

iii.

Midway through his second year the chief executive announced she was leaving the organisation. Always fiercely ambitious, having raised the profile of the charity and expanded the team, she was now ready for the next chapter in her career. She was, understandably, very excited about starting her new role, without considering the team and organisation she had re-made in her image.

Around that time, he also learned that the incumbent chair of the charity was stepping down, and the new chair would be the chief executive of his former employer.

Before she left, the chief executive announced that she would be conducting a final round of appraisals. He had been dreading his, which would be his second at the organisation. His first appraisal been conducted during the honeymoon period of his employment, a relatively tranquil time by comparison with the previous six months, where he had been unable to engage in dialogue with his chief executive without it descending into a protracted discussion, then a heated debate, followed by an executive decision, which usually settled the matter. The new website had been the source of much conjecture, including one particularly ridiculous argument in the communal kitchen about the relative difference between editing out and editing down content, after the chief executive had swamped the site with paragraphs of impregnable text. Back at his desk, he received an email from one of his former colleagues: What is the difference between editing out and editing down?

The day of his appraisal arrived, and he sat down in a small conference room with the chief executive. She announced that she was restructuring the team before her departure. Certain responsibilities he once held would now lie with one of his junior colleagues, who had been promoted. He would no longer report directly to the chief executive, but to another colleague who had been promoted internally. Having been promised autonomy at the start of his time with the organisation, it had now been officially withdrawn. This, he was informed during his second appraisal, was due to his attitude problem.

I think we need to talk about this, for the sake of your time here, however long that might be, and for the sake of any plans you might have career-wise, but more importantly, most importantly I’d say, because of how your behaviour affects the entire the team. Because, and I hate to say it, there is a feeling in the team that your behaviour has become a problem. It’s not just me saying this, I’ve had several conversations with others who say that you are unapproachable, unhelpful. That you don’t engage. That you are grumpy. Some things you may already be aware of, but there are others that you won’t. We are a positive organisation, with a positive team, making positive changes to people’s lives. Everyone in this organisation wants to be a part of that. Everyone, but you it seems. Because you are always miserable.

L—- and I were talking before, and she said she knows someone who is in his late sixties, and he is just such a miserable man, never happy, never has been, never will be, and she said, imagine being that person, imagine working with him or being married to him, or having him as a father, and no one ever took him to one side and told them that they need to stop being miserable all the time, and let him be that way all his life. Well, that’s what I’m doing now. I’m telling you.

She continued, but he was no longer listening. It was obvious he had made a terrible mistake in accepting the job, and that the chief executive had made a terrible mistake in offering it to him in the first place. By accepting the role, he had hoped to prove his capability as a professional individual outside the restrictive confines of his old office, but had simply proved that he was congenitally incapable of functioning like a normal person, and that his behaviour at the charity was emblematic of how he dealt with people more generally. He had been given an opportunity to prove himself, and he had failed.

That night, after his appraisal, he went home and begged his wife to let him resign. She calmed him down, and suggested he wait until the new chief executive was in position. Things may change then. Things could only get better. He was not so sure.

A week later he saw a photograph of the preferred candidate for the role. The picture showed a middle-aged man of average build, vaguely athletic, with thinning blonde hair and square glasses. A man who was, physically at least, his exact mirror image. His doppelgänger. His second self. His alternate. His uncanny Other.

The next day he handed in his notice.

At their first team meeting after his appointment, the new chief executive insisting on standing throughout, an unintended consequence of which was that the entire team’s eye-line rested upon the same zone of elevation as his crotch.

 

iv.

On the Friday of his last week, as was customary he was checking a trade publication for mentions of the charity’s work. The organisation had been referenced in an op-ed piece extolling the virtues of doing charitable work as a way for the property industry to beat the January blues. The tone of the article, by a senior property fund manager, was largely innocuous, but there was something about the self-interest at the heart of her sentiments that prompted him to pick up his phone and type a response. He then sent it to the publication’s editor, which she said she would publish in the next week’s edition.

A few months earlier he had attempted, unsuccessfully, to deflect the inquiries of a STV journalist who was doing a report on homelessness. The reporter wanted to know if he was aware of landlords and property management companies putting anti-homeless spikes in the entrances to their buildings.

I’ve been looking at your website and I saw some of these companies are listed as your foundation partners, the reporter said. So your charity claims to be supporting homeless and disadvantaged people, but some of your donors are using measures that deliberately prevent rough sleepers from finding shelter and warmth. I just wondered if you had a comment about that?

It was impossible to give the appropriate comment to something so fundamentally inhumane without speaking the truth and losing his job.

He wanted to make a public statement that would shame the industry and rattle the foundations of its complacency. Make them see how their actions, conscious or unconscious, fuelled homelessness. How their regeneration projects were pushing lower income families out of London. How fundraising for the Conservative Party by the charity’s own president had brought about the austerity policies which were causing child poverty to spiral. How all their charity runs and bake sales and sponsorship drives wouldn’t make a scrap of difference. How they weren’t doing enough, how they could never do enough, until they stopped chasing profit and started putting people first. How he was sick to death of working to make the industry look good. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. He wanted to stand up and be counted, even though he knew he was pissing in the wind.

Thursday came. The day before the magazine’s publication. He began to get cold feet. He could picture the faces of his colleagues when they read the magazine. The incredulity and hurt. It was then that he panicked. That morning he emailed the editor and asked if there was any possibility that his letter could be removed from the magazine. After lunch he received her response. Sorry. Magazine has already gone to print. Anyway, what’s wrong with the letter? We’ve made it our Star Letter of the Week!

He had to break the news to the new chief executive. He knew there was no way to do this without the risk of sparking a conflagration. The man had only just begun his new job, and he was just about to encounter his first major bump in the road, his first patch of scorched earth by a disgruntled former employee.

In the end, he decided to deliver the news using the medium which would best allow the new chief executive to process the information and formulate an appropriate response, and which would enable him to nip out for lunch before the shit hit the fan. He sent him an email.

An hour later, the new chief executive called him into a conference room. The deputy chief executive was also there, her eyes downcast. There was a printout of the letter on the desk.

He sat down. The new chief executive turned to him.

It’s a bit of a FUCK, this letter. I mean, it hasn’t been published anonymously, has it? You’ve clearly got your name on there and it has been attributed to our charity. Which makes it look like it has come from us, it’s what we think, what we feel, as a charity. And a lot of people will be questioning why they support us at all. I imagine quite a few of our partners will be pissed off by it. Not to mention the Board.

Without looking up, the deputy chief executive spoke. I agree. There are a lot of people who are going to feel hurt by that letter. It’s wrong.

Okay, the chief executive continued. Here’s what’s we’re going to do. I’ll speak to the PR guys. See if we can fight some of these fires. You are going to go into the office and explain to the rest of team what has happened. What you’ve done. They have a right to know, and I think they should hear it from you.

As they stood up to leave, the chief executive spoke again. A word of advice. Don’t write angry.

The three of them returned to the office where his colleagues were working. Possibly they already knew, but if they did, they gave no sign. The new chief executive said, Hi everyone, we’ve got some news, it’s quite important, and gestured for him to speak with the open palm of his flat hand, as if he had him in the centre of it and was ready to close it into a fist.

He cleared his throat and began to speak. To explain the letter. Why he had written it. As he spoke, he watched each face turn from expectancy to incredulity, disappointment to dismay, and finally, anger and grief.