Introducing Josephina Steele

Someone had warned me before I accepted the offer. Why I didn’t listen is anyone’s guess. I wish it could be blamed on some youthful exuberance, but even that isn’t a viable explanation. I’m thirty years old, out of work, and just a little bitter.

It would be great to say that it wasn’t always like this. Of course, that isn’t entirely the case. In some ten years of experience, I have left one job after another, always dissatisfied and incrementally disillusioned. This job, unlike all the others, has left me drained and, I’m pretty sure, emotionally imbalanced on top of it all.

I have no idea if this is normal, it isn’t like there have been a host of peers with whom to compare battle wounds. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, I’ve only had roles where I was alone with a boss, or had such responsibility thrust upon me to compensate for the incompetence of others, that most of my career has been spent working independently.

It seems there is no shortage of commentators, however, especially older ones, who take every opportunity to blame this situation and outlook on my generation. “Young people today,” they bitch, “have no sense of loyalty. Just because a job was brutal, that didn’t justify quitting. You just paid your dues like everyone else.”

Needless to say, it has been trying to listen to these spiels. Number one, even if being treated like shit has been a social norm up until this point, it doesn’t make it imperative that every subsequent generation should suffer too. That’s like saying, “my father beat me, and so I get to beat you.” While it might explain the origination of such a negative feedback loop, it doesn’t excuse its continuation.

Second: pay my dues for what? Why I should have to pay dues to belong to an organisation that profits off of my labour is mindboggling. When I look back on my life, will I really want to say: yes, I worked so hard to get to this position in a company or government, where all of the subordinates hate me and at least a dozen miserable people are waiting in the wings to swoop in, as a replacement, on the winds of my destruction? I suppose it might be said, if the likely cancer or coronary arrest, that both so love this sort of lifestyle, doesn’t silence me first. That would make for a sad life indeed. It’s probably the very reason so many of these people feel it necessary to say such things about my generation; if we don’t choose to wallow in the misery of our forbearers, it forces them to question their lives. Can you imagine, waking up after a few decades in a toxic environment only to discover it wasn’t at all necessary?

I couldn’t. And now I’m unemployed. We all make decisions, I guess. Mine was going to work for Josephina Steele.

Josephina was a cutthroat bitch of the first rate. Rumour had it she clawed her way up from a secretarial position, way back when women had no other options for gainful employment. She loved to tell the women on her team, and she only ever hired those of the female persuasion, how hard they would have had it back in her day. Some 30 years ago. In the 1980s. When Margaret Thatcher was leading one of the more important countries in the world and shoulder-pad sporting executistas were all the rage in Hollywood. Josephina paid her dues, she’d tell you.

Part of me understood Josephina’s justification that she had to be a bitch in order to succeed. The Civil Service was a cesspool. Everyone in it had a well-paying job for life. There was something about guaranteed employment that twisted a person’s psyche. No matter how little one worked, termination never seemed to be a consequence. In fact, the worse you were in the public sector, the more likely you were to be promoted, because promotion was the only means for ridding a team of a useless member. Likewise, tyranny was a perennial problem in the government. As there was virtually no recourse, cruelty thrived as a means for getting ahead. So, useless tyrants tended to rise pretty quickly to the top of every department.

Tyranny and the stereotypical female disposition make for an interesting combination. This mixture wasn’t something I had given much thought to until Josephina hired me. And I was faced with the horror of such a fusion on a daily basis, and I mean daily. The condition is exacerbated, apparently, when the woman is a reluctant divorcée of a certain age. Older, sour, and with little else but work to live for, such women cease to exist outside the confines of their job and title. As a result, everyone working for her is expected to do the same.

I still remember the day she stood in the middle of our division’s huddle of cubicles and announced: “didn’t you get the memo? You have no friends and family here. We are your friends and family.” And this after relocating the entire team halfway across the country to stage a two-day event for some twenty politicians; an event that wasn’t even happening for another two months. Hearing this made many a stomach drop.

Josephina couldn’t wait to cut us off from our dear ones. She was unabashed about her excitement in moving to the new location. “Everyone is distracted here,” she would say, “by their family and friends. I can’t wait until we get to the new place. We’ll have dinner together and hang out.” And that is exactly what happened.

The first thing she demanded was everyone’s room number, which wasn’t entirely secret as we were all housed in the same building. Moreover, some planning genius had already provided her with a rooming list in advance of the move. When we failed in the evening to answer messages via Crackberry, she could simply dispatch her emissaries to physically fetch us with summons to yet another glorious night of humour-the-cougar-in-heat. We would be sat in her assistant’s suite, the one who wore the heavy eyeliner and plastic face, so as to form a proper audience, pretending to be enthralled by the insults she would hurl at the victim of the night.

At one such court function, Josephina appeared in a new full-length Technicolor dream coat, looking like a middle-aged stage magician. Nonetheless, a young colleague paid compliments on the patchwork vestment, inquiring where it was purchased. “You can’t afford to shop there,” was the curt reply, and just like that, the sacrifice for that evening had been selected. The others would then compete for the rest of the night to laugh the loudest and most earnestly at all of Josephina’s snide remarks about their co-worker, in the hopes that tomorrow morning they would be selected to accompany the mistress from her room down to breakfast.

And this is to say nothing of working with Josephina.

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