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Management Skills – a #fridayflash

July 23, 2010

Babs ignored Peter for the whole evening. At first, he smiled secretly with relief, and, if the truth be told, not a little spite. However, as the frozen arrows of displeasure were silently released in his direction more and more frequently and painfully, his mental armour, just a veneer, was easily demolished.

‘I’m sorry dear; I seem to have upset you. What have I done?’

‘Sniff!’

‘Whatever it was, I’m sure I didn’t mean it.’

He replayed events in his mind, and realised that the frost had descended soon after he reached home after picking her up from work. It must have been when she was recounting the tale of her attempt to get poor Ben to give up smoking; he had obviously given the wrong reaction. The crime of smoking was one of the many bees buzzing around in Babs’ bonnet. He had often mused on the possibility that these bees were a direct result of the plethora of ‘B’s in her name – Barbara Bradbury. He was sure that she didn’t have so many bees before she bustled him off into married life, when she was still Barbara Jones.

Peter knew she’d had her problems: her parents died within three months of each other, when she was sixteen, and she’d had to live with a stern grandmother; she was compelled to leave school immediately and earn a living, despite being earmarked for a certain university place. The school she had attended had fed her insecurity, coming as she did from a poor background, armed with a scholarship, and arriving into the halls of middle class self-assurance. It taught her a snobbery which she still wore like a cloak, although she had nothing with which to feed it. She adorned herself with evidence of the most suitable hobbies, and never allowed anybody who gave her a lift home to drop her off outside the terraced ex-council house, requesting instead to be dropped round the corner, which had far more desirable residences.

It was her sense of fun that had first attracted him, the witty off-the-wall jokes and the streak of rebellion that peeped out frequently from under her assumed cover of refinement. He forgave her the arrogance; it wasn’t her fault. He knew her controlling habits were an obsessive result of her difficult childhood, but dealing with them got more and more difficult. Take the doors, for instance: they always had to be tightly shut. The upstairs ones would, if left open, ‘cause fire to spread throughout the house’. Downstairs, these open doors would ‘let people see right through the house’. He didn’t really see the problem with that, but tried to keep Babs happy by complying when he remembered. She ruled the garden with a green fist of iron. He obediently mowed the lawn, when ordered, and took great care not to shred flowers in his path, or at least to hide the evidence afterwards. She said that this rose should go here, so it went there; twelve inches, or as near as possible without a ruler, were pruned off certain shrubs, as instructed. The plants spread into and throughout the house. They brought a freshness and naturalness to the rather rigid interior decor of harsh, solid colours, stern furniture, and curtains tied back to within an inch of their life. Peter would have appreciated them, were it not for the strict regime of caring, feeding and watering that was imposed on him.

Meals were another problem. Babs wasn’t a bad cook, but she followed fads. Heaven help him if he turned down a portion of his five a day fruit and vegetables, or requested red meat. He used to love her desserts when they were first married; she made a mean apple crumble with her own delicately flavoured vanilla pouring custard. These had been vetoed long ago in favour of an orange or an apple to follow his meals.

Television viewing was strictly monitored for suitability. News programmes and  documentaries of a serious nature were judged appropriate, as were Pinteresque dramas and adaptations of the classics, but soap operas never dared to show themselves in that house. As for reality programmes, which Peter secretly would have loved to have watched, they were deemed to be like ‘watching paint dry’, the worst type of sop for the masses.

Babs’ most outrageous demand was that he should kneel down to use the toilet:

‘You will never learn to aim straight, I won’t have you dripping and splashing everywhere.’

‘Couldn’t we get a lavatory mat, dear?’ he snivelled, appalled at this attack on the final vestige of manhood that remained to him.

‘Lavatory mats are naff. I’m not having one in my house. They are unnecessary if you kneel down.’

She performed spot checks, spying on him when he was in the bathroom, which he was not allowed to lock.

‘I never know what filthy habits you get up to in there if you lock the door.’

She sniffed like a bloodhound to find evidence of illicit peeing. He gave up and allowed himself to be brought to his knees.

During workdays, whilst silently rejoicing in his daytime Babs-free existence, he felt a deep sorrow for the members of her department. Liz was fine, she could more than look after herself, mistress of the rebuff or refusal so subtle that it was only later that people asked themselves ‘Was that really what she meant?’ But quiet little Paula, and the lads, Ben with the artistic soul and little Rob, six foot two and still growing, were not yet equipped with the tools to manage their manager. He could just see her demanding: ‘Coffee, Paula!’ ‘Door, Rob!’ Why Babs had been appointed manager, God only knew. Maybe she had demanded it, and nobody had the guts to refuse her. He could not deny that it was useful; money was very tight after his redundancy, but the power inevitably went to her head, making his life unbearable. She had requested that people, including Peter, call her Barbara after her promotion, but although lip service was paid to that demand, everybody still thought of her as Babs.

Later during the evening in question, that of the icy silence which was eventually cracked by Babs with a sharp throat clearing, the nature of his misdemeanour was revealed to him when she exclaimed, ‘I am not a bully!’

‘Whoever said that you are, dear?’

‘You did.’

‘I would never have said that!’

‘You accused me of hectoring Ben.’

‘I was teasing you, dear. I only said that the poor chap must have dragged himself into work from his deathbed with that dreadful ‘flu, only to be met by you hectoring him to give up smoking. It was a joke, dear, nothing was meant.’

‘I am not a bully. I will not stand for people calling me a bully.’

‘I’m very sorry dear, It won’t happen again.’

Not long after that, it happened that Babs died suddenly. The post-mortem revealed a myocardial infarction, but was inconclusive on why the heart attack had occurred. It was put down to excess weight. Peter did grieve for the Babs he had first known, but he had been doing that long before her physical death. He did all the things he had to do, notifications, registrations, funeral arrangements, financial appointments, hardly knowing that he was performing these ritual actions, unable to focus on dates, details or documentation.

The sun beamed down on the day of the funeral, a gentle breeze played round the hearse. Peter was giving Babs a funeral to remember, the send-off she would have required: majestic, but not over the top, accompanied by just the right amount of choral music; a dignified eulogy with no mawkishness; a reception in a tasteful hotel, with excellent food chosen for its simplicity and suitability. All their old friends were there, including some who had only been a name on a Christmas card for too many years. Babs had wondered why they had stopped visiting. Their daughters, Chloe and Phoebe, came of course, with boyfriends as escorts, and all Peter’s family turned up. Bab’s older sister, had stopped talking to her years ago, and had also died young, without any attempt at rapprochement ever being made. A large contingent from the office attended, some who had known her since she first started working there, twenty four years ago.

‘Well we need to be sure that she really has gone’, muttered little Rob.

The guests started to leave, and the girls insisted on accompanying Peter home.

‘You can’t go home to an empty house today,’ worried Chloe.

Once there, he felt guilty that he couldn’t wait for them to leave, but they fussed around him until he persuaded them that his headache needed nursing in bed, in silence.

As soon as they had gone, he went around the house, throwing open every door as wide as he could. He threw out the pot plants that were looking agreeably brown and droopy without the attentions he had lavished on them under the dictatorship. He switched on the television and found the Big Brother live feed, increasing the volume to a pleasingly high level. He ate two cream cakes and a bar of chocolate, and savoured the slightly nauseous feeling they left in him. He went to the bathroom, leaving open the door, of course, threw up the seat, and peed standing up, deliberately misaiming at times. He had been saving up his urine for this occasion. He whished and whooshed it with wild abandonment, leaning over the loo in ecstasy. He had just a few last drops still to come when the seat and lid seemed to hurl themselves down upon him, with demonic force. He sat on the floor and cried.

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9 Comments
  1. Ouch! To his life under the dictatorship and after.

    If he had knelt, maybe things wouldn’t have happened the way they did. Wonder if Babs had a ghostly hand in that! 🙂

    Good story.

  2. A great picture of how a couple can stay together even when they have drifted so far apart and from where they started. And how echoes of the relationship still haunt the one who is ‘left behind.’

  3. i lol’d when i read the “pee kneeling down” bit… now i consider myself to be bossy and rule this house with an ironfist… but not even i would stoop so low (see what i did there?)… or would i? hmmmm…PAUL? PAUL!! PAUL, I HAVE A SUGGESTION!!”
    nice post. x

  4. Lady Scribbles permalink

    How fine a piece of writing is this? I loved it from the first word to the last. You painted a wonderful picture of this couple – both individually and as a unit. I actually gasped out loud when you revealed that Babs insisted Peter kneel down to pee!! Well done ~ Hazel

  5. I thought this was great. A character led story with such a poignant ending (which I had anticipated) giving it real authenticity. I confess that, having read it just after cleaning the boys’ shower-room, I did have just a slight sympathy for Babs. As for making him kneel rather than sit though – oh and the spying, I did find that sympathy waning.

  6. Youch, that man is a saint!
    The woman sounds a little like my mother… which is why I am relieved that I seem to be turning into my dad as I grow older 😉

    • Well, I’m glad she sounds like a real person! Hope your mother isn’t as bad as that! Thanks for commenting.

  7. Yikes! To be haunted by Babs would be a fate worse than death. I suggest he sell. FAST!
    Sad to say, I actually know some people not too far off from these two.
    ~jon

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