petite anglaise

August 9, 2007

vertigo

Filed under: working girl — petiteanglaise @ 7:23 pm

“Come on mum,” I say in a wheedling voice. “I’m going to have some cinnamon toast. Don’t you fancy a bite to eat? My treat…”

Mum frowns at the menu. “Well,” she says hesitantly. “A toasted scone might be nice. With some raspberry jam…”

When the uniformed waitress has scribbled down our order, my mother slips off to the ladies room and I rest my elbows on the cool pane of glass which protects the tablecloth from tea and coffee stains and stray dollops of whipped cream, and look around me. The flock wallpaper, which used to be a claret red, is now deep racing green. The carpet looks different too, although I can’t recall how it was before. If I crane my neck, I can see along a narrow corridor into the tiny kitchen, which appears to have had an extreme makeover in gleaming aluminium.

At the tender age of fifteen, I began working in a local newsagent’s to top up my pocket money. My memory of my first day in that job is crystal clear.

“20 Park Drive,” barked an elderly customer as he stepped up to the shop counter, under which the penny sweets were laid out in their cardboard boxes. I swallowed the white chocolate mouse I had just popped into my mouth and reached for the paper rounds ledger, scanning the pages for a mention of Park Drive, assuming the gentleman had come to settle his bill. “What on earth are you looking in there for, you daft cow,” the man said impatiently, “the fags are behind you…”

My face glowed an attractive shade of beetroot as I turned to face the wall of cigarettes behind me and scanned the unfamiliar packets. Legally, I wasn’t old enough to buy any myself, but within a few weekends I would know every price off by heart, and soon when particular customers shuffled through the door, I would reach instincively for their smokes of choice. In that neck of the woods back in 1987 by far the most popular brand were Lambert & Butler, which came in gold and silver coloured matt-finish packets not dissimilar from those they are sold in today.

My second weekend job, at the age of sixteen, was in a tearooms in York city centre. The main attraction of that job was the generous tips left by the well-to-do ladies who stopped by for breakfast, elevenses, lunch and afternoon tea. I scurried around, hot and flustered in the wool skirt and heavy blouse of that season’s uniform, and served cream teas and triangle sandwiches (“would you like the crusts on or off, madam?”) in this very room.

I do a swift calculation in my head, put a shocked hand to my mouth, then remove it so that I can repeat the sum on my fingers, twice, to make sure there can be no mistake.

I worked here NINETEEN years ago? Can that be possible? I mean, the waitress hastening towards our table with two large cups of coffee and a jug of single cream is probably not even nineteen years old. I worked here before she was even born?

I send an incredulous text message to my Boy to the effect that I am having an attack of age vertigo.

Tu m’excites plus qu’une fille de 20 ans,” he retorts immediately.

I set down my phone with a smile. This boy, I think to myself, is most definitely a keeper.

August 3, 2007

newsflash

Filed under: misc, working girl — petiteanglaise @ 10:14 am

My lawyer confirmed to me yesterday that my ex-employer not only does not intend to appeal, but has already paid up.

What a relief to see good sense finally prevailing, albeit later, rather than sooner…


NB: Me Eolas has written about his interpretation of events here, with useful links back to his previous posts about the case, as an impartial legal expert.

March 29, 2007

result

Filed under: working girl — petiteanglaise @ 2:18 pm

I read it here first, because no-one is faster than Maître Eolas.

I won. A year’s salary, plus costs. I will only get this compensation if my ex-employer does not lodge an appeal (they will have one month in which to do so once the written version of the decision is published in about a fortnight’s time). But right now, the principle is enough for me. Round one to petite anglaise!

What a relief.

Anyone fancy babysitting for Tadpole tonight so I can go out and paint the town red?

March 22, 2007

twist

Filed under: working girl — petiteanglaise @ 1:24 pm

A French industrial tribunal hearing is, in some respects, a surprisingly informal affair. Four Prud’hommes, two employers and two employees who have been elected to hold this position (all salaried employees are eligible to go and vote in these elections, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has) preside over a small salle d’audience in civilian clothing, with the addition of a medal worn proudly around their necks on a red and blue ribbon. The lawyers representing the employees and employers whose cases are being heard wear black gowns with a white ruffle at the neck.

After a roll call at 1pm, the cases are heard one by one, and lawyers, employees, journalists, even members of the general public are free to come and go as they please as long – as they do so discreetly – and to report on the content of the proceedings. In sixth place, my turn didn’t come until 5.30pm. I read, I paced, I chatted to my lawyer. I paced some more. I drank too much coffee.

Lawyers have explained to me that the prud’hommes don’t necessarily have any legal background, and make their decisions based on their combined experience and common sense, decisions which are therefore often open to challenge and taken to the appeals court, where a more traditional, rigorous legal debate can take place. After hearing the arguments put forward orally by both parties’ lawyers the prud’hommes review the supporting documents and written arguments and deliver their decision. Sometimes this is immediate, but in my case the result will be announced in a week’s time. I think this had as much to do with the fact that the session was running late and there were several cases to be heard after mine, as it did with the complexity of the subject up for debate.

How did I feel when the hearing was over? Frustrated.

Because after all that waiting, when the time came, our lawyers were asked to be brief. It seemed to be over in the blink of an eye. I didn’t speak, except to confirm a couple of minor details. I was being spoken for, criticised, but able to do little more than wince or grimace when I disagreed with what was said. And most importantly, I realised that this case is based on words, not actions. My words. Commenters’ words.

And oh how they can be twisted.

No-one is saying that I did a bad job. No-one is saying I was guilty of absenteeism or slacked off or exhibited any sort of disloyal behaviour in the office. My actual performance in my job as secretary to a partner seems to be a moot point. I was fired because when my blog was discovered (or rather its existence reported to my boss by someone who worked with me) my employer read that I sometimes blogged from work, when I had nothing better to do. That a passage about meeting my lover in a hotel implied that I might have lied about my whereabouts on two half days, a year previously. That by blogging about work at all (however rarely I actually did this, and regardless of the fact that I did so under the cloak of anonymity) I was being disloyal to my employer and putting the reputation of the firm at risk.

In addition to making this point – and I think his exact words were “if she’d confessed to murder on her blog, even if there was no actual proof of any wrongdoing, should she go to prison?” – my lawyer used jurisprudence to argue that an employee is not some sort of robot whose time is not their own. The internet has broken down the barriers between the personal and the professional, and previous rulings have shown that workers do have the right to send the odd personal email or use the internet for non work-related surfing, as long as they are doing their job. He argued that freedom of speech permits a worker to discuss what goes on in the workplace, as long as the line is not crossed into libel. Although I was told that the firm objected to certain passages on my blog, I only discovered what these were when the supporting documents for the tribunal case were sent to us a little over a month ago and I saw which extracts they had translated into to French. Clearly if there had been anything libellous, I’d have been sued by now. But either they’re not, or it’s impossible to demonstrate that the people I described were identifiable.

So far, so good.

Predictably, it’s the arguments made by my former employer’s lawyer which I found objectionable. True, they had nothing to support their allegations that I had damaged the firm’s reputation, or even caused any distress to any members of staff prior to my dismissal. The two or three colleagues who had signed a short statement were simply confirming that they knew of the blog’s existence and that they had seen me consult it at work. So in the absence of any hard facts, my words were used against me. Translated into French, taken out of context, a couple of lines from a post, a comment written by me, a comment written by a reader. No clarification about who wrote what, or when. Taken in isolation you can pretty much make words mean whatever you want them to.

So I had to sit there, seething, while my own words were made to lie.

“The subject which is preying on my mind, to the exclusion of all else, is the fraught atmosphere at work. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to exercise caution about what I say.”

“Now, when I have a discussion with my colleagues over lunch, I no longer even know myself whether I’m picking their brains for material for a future post or just having a normal friendly conversation. Unwittingly they have become guinea pigs…”

These two little snippets, taken out of context and wrenched from their rightful place in my blog’s history (September 05 and October 04) were used to imply that just before I left, in April 2006, my blog CAUSED an awkward atmosphere at work. That colleagues had started to be aware of it and now lived in constant fear of what I might say about them. That this made my continued presence in the company impossible. I was pleased when one of the prud’hommes piped up and asked whether there was any evidence to support this, such as written complaints by employees, which of course there weren’t, because hardly anyone knew about the blog, and aside from a couple of descriptions of my superiors, and this isolated example from July 2004, no-one had actually been written about. Ever. But this only mollified me a little.

Because in fact, in the first instance, I was explaining that things were tense with my boss but I realised I should be careful not to talk about that on the blog, in a post where I then went on to provide my readers with a quiz. In the second, I was talking about the effect of blogging on my life, and saying that I sometimes tested my stories out on my friends in conversation to see if they were funny before I wrote them up on the blog.

Anyone who has read petite anglaise knows that I didn’t make a habit of writing character assassinations of my colleagues and friends. But I can’t expect the prud’hommes to read an entire blog in a foreign language to convince them of this fact. Or to know that the words which followed “guinea pigs” were “even though they know nothing about petite anglaise”. Context is all.

The masterstroke at the end was when my ex-employer’s lawyer congratulated me on my book deal, prompting raised eyebrows from all present. The implication being that because I haven’t suffered enough as a result of my sacking, that makes everything alright. Let’s just gloss over those five months which intervened between my sacking and the deal, shall we? The ten kilos I lost through worry. The sleepless nights and constant crying. The apartment purchase which almost fell through. It doesn’t matter if I was wrongfully dismissed or not. Who needs principles when they have something else to fall back on?

Which rather begs the question: if I’d been burgled, but won the lottery the following day, should the thief have been let off scott free because I could afford to replace everything?

February 19, 2007

wrong-footed

Filed under: working girl — petiteanglaise @ 11:00 am

I am going to the prud’hommes (French industrial tribunal thingy) today to contest my dismissal. This is rather unexpected, but my lawyer informed me late on Friday evening that contrary to everything we had been led to believe, my ex-employer’s lawyers had changed their minds about asking for the hearing to be deferred to a later date (and had forgotten to let us know).

Given that I’d been told precisely the opposite a matter of days earlier, it’s somewhat miraculous that I’m back from the UK, have childcare for the day and can attend at all. I suppose, to look on the bright side, at least I haven’t spent the last week feeling apprehensive, which might have put a dampener on my trip to England with Tadpole.

More later…

Update: lawyer obtained a deferral and the case now will be heard on 21 March, which should give me time to actually read the substance of the arguments being made against me and make sure all the facts are straight.

October 2, 2006

the office

Filed under: working girl — petiteanglaise @ 3:54 pm

I think it might be the light-hearted banter I miss most.

In the mornings, as the coffee machine screeched and growled, grinding beans (or cockroaches) to make a near perfect espresso, we yawned, stretched and gossiped. On a good day, someone might have baked a cake, or some brownies, or brought in a huge bar of imported Cadbury’s chocolate. It was nine a.m. and I’d only eaten breakfast half an hour previously, but I learnt that it’s never to early for the first chocolate fix of the day.

Around one, a crowd of girlfriends fetched sandwiches and salads together and we picnicked while we moaned about the boss, or our boyfriends, or discussed the latest episode of whichever series was flavour of the month. On bad days, our collective silence was punctuated only by the occasional sigh; on better days we made each other giggle uncontrollably, and I wobbled dangerously on my high stool, tears streaming down my cheeks, secretly giving thanks to the French God of post-natal re-education, without whom I would have undoubtedly been in trouble.

The office was my main source of adult conversation; my lifeline. I don’t think I ever woke up looking forward to working – or that a single day went by when I didn’t swear at the sound of my alarm clock – but once I was there, my office friendships sustained me.

There are many things I don’t miss, of course. The distinctive rattle of a cassette being inserted into a dictation machine, especially ten minutes before I was due to knock off for the day and fetch my Tadpole. The constantly trilling telephone, which could not be left unanswered. Not only having to drag myself to the office in the mornings, but the need to look presentable, which meant tights, make-up and uncomfortable shoes. The tray used for taking coffee and tea into meetings, which was just too wide to comfortably negotiate the meeting room doorway. Photocopying; binding; typing accounts. The ducking, diving, bowing and scraping of office politics. Living at the mercy of mercurial temperaments and blood alcohol levels. Long periods of idle time which crawled by at a snail’s pace while at home, piles of ironing, dusty floors, washing up in the sink all waited patiently for my return.

As I sit in front of my computer, barefoot, clad in jeans, a mug of tea by my side, I decide that a little bit of loneliness is a very small sacrifice to make, in the grand scheme of things. Besides, I can get my banter from gmail, and bake my own brownies if the desire should grab me.

And when an email pops into my inbox from my new accountant, the irony of the situation in which I find myself is definitely not lost on me.

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