There have been few reasons for me to think about my “Bully Boss” in recent years, but the Jeffrey Express bus had the sort of heating on yesterday that I first experienced at Swimer House in 1986. I have suffered it several times since, too, including in this very hotel room. There was a bluish grey haze that seemed to immobilise my whole being, all of my joints, and the place above the shoulders at the base of the neck. This morning when I woke with the pain in my back that made me feel as if the right side of my body was suddenly shorter than the left, I had to turn a full two hundred and seventy-degree angle to see behind me in the mirror.
At Swimer House, it had affected my neck and chest, seized up my entire body, and held me like a vice. Luckily, yesterday was a warm day in Chicago, but in London in November to April, it can be bitterly cold and very windy. In an office the size of my ten by eight-foot room here at the YMCA, my head and body would get so hot that out into the cold I would run. My eyes and ears would itch, and when I looked at myself in the mirror this morning, I could see precisely why the receptionist in London had taken one look at me back then and sent me straight to the nearest available doctor.
My son said it was the change of life and that I probably needed HRT. Dr Tan, however, diagnosed an allergic reaction to something or other and prescribed antihistamine tablets. The pain, nonetheless, was excruciating. At times, I wanted to take my own life, but I carried on swallowing the pills, pretending not to be hurting. Sudden flashing blue lights had left me convinced that there was something potent in the air. Carbon monoxide, perhaps, but I just could not prove it. No longer could I take the pain. It would, eventually, kill me, of that I was sure. It was then that I decided to put my flat on the market.
A jolly English man named Terry made an offer of £59,000. It was a reasonable price. I had paid £32,000 for it two years previously, and although I had spent around £8,000 on it, I was due to make over twenty thousand pounds profit – very good at the time. With forty thousand pounds from the sale of the flat and a little that I had tucked away for the proverbial rainy day, I was ready to relocate to Queens.
My friend Nettie Salmon was thinking of setting up a business in New York City, selling her own designer best quality jumpers, cardigans, and even fully knitted dresses. We had decided to go into business together. A friend of Nettie’s had a house locked up in Queens and would rent it to me as well, and with Terry’s mortgage from Leamington Spa Building Society approved, I was all set and ready to go.
When on 10th April at 4:30 pm my Bully Boss, called me into his father’s office to read out aloud a letter proposing to sack me, I had come to the end of my tether. I alone had managed the entire accounts department of that company for more than twenty years. And I did all of my daily accounts by hand. The auditors were forever amazed that my books accounts were always 100% correct and without the aid of a computer in those days. They hardly had any work to do when they came, even after the business was making a million pounds a year.
Now that the company wanted to modernise, my Bully Boss had decided to get rid of me. Having given them the best years of my working life, I was to be tossed aside at fifty-two like the rubbish. Replaced by a member of their family who came with a company car and a salary to match. I was still without a job title or a contract of employment, but the Bully Boss had said he needed to computerise the books of accounts first. With that done now, I was surplus to requirements.
“You’re either proposing to dismiss me. Or you are dismissing me, Peter. Now, which is it?” I snapped back, bitting against the pain in my neck. Having worked for them for twenty years, these people could not care less that I was in agony.
“I’ll read you the note again,” the Bully Boss said. I had not been wearing the surgical collar that day and could hardly look around to save my life. Sick and wracked with pain, I listened to him without interruption this time. I no longer cared whether he and his father believed or even sympathised with the fact that the company’s new heating system was making their longest serving employee sick. For all these years, I had thought up to a point that we had been some kind of friends.
“Dear Verona,” the Bully Boss read, “Further to your recent unreasonable behaviour, which the board of directors and I have considered to be acts of gross misconduct, we are left with no alternative but to consider your immediate dismissal from the employment of Ralph Swimer Limited. Unless you can confirm in writing that you will stop complaining about the heating system in your office, and cease from raising your voice to either my father or me, then we will be left with no other choice but to terminate your employment with this company forthwith.”
The Bully Boss paused for a moment to glare across at me. Over several years of working together, he had perfected that steely-eyed gaze and lopsided smile with which he scrutinised me now. I knew what that cocky little grin meant. I had observed it a thousand and more times in the office when he thought he had the upper hand. I could remember the almost shy young man whose application for university I had completed because his Eastern European family could write little or no English. I had flashbacks of the outgrown hand-me-downs his father took from my children for his little ‘Bully Boss’ son because as old man Swimer put it, “They were far too good to throw away.”
“As a long-term employee of this company,” he continued, “my father and I are prepared to reconsider our decision. I am asking you, Verona, to go back to your office and to write us a letter stating why you think that we shouldn’t sack you immediately, and confirming your agreement to the conditions I’ve stated.”
I looked at the man before me and saw in him the same spoilt and petulant boy that I had known some two decades earlier. It was coming up to 4:45 pm, and I was due to leave work at five o’clock. If I missed my train now, I would be more than an hour late reaching home and the nights were getting dark and deathly cold. “Peter,” I said finally, in the same measured tone with which I always addressed him these days.
“As the same honest and hardworking bookkeeper who came to work for your father and this company more than twenty years ago, you of all people should know that I cannot commit to promises that I am unable to fulfil. As I said to your father yesterday when you accused me of raising my voice, if I am hot, I am going to say I am hot. And if I am cold, I am going to say I am cold. It’s as simple as that, and as far as I am concerned, there is nothing further to discuss.”
“In that case then, Verona,” the Bully Boss said, “We’ll have to sack you.”
“Fine,” I replied. “So be it.”
“Will you now write me a letter in response to my decision?”
“I don’t think I am qualified to draft such a letter,” Peter, “I’ll get my lawyer to do it,” and that was the end of that. I went back into my office, collected my cup, my saucer, my spoon, and the new two-kilowatt electric heater that I had brought in specially, and broke down in tears.