by Matthew Harrison
The thump of high heels on the carpet, that piercing laugh – it was the
boss! Jimmy’s heart beat faster; he put aside the newspaper he had been
reading. She would be passing Jake now, Jimmy could almost feel the
Beast smirking at her. And now Bill – well, she wouldn’t look at him.
The heels thumped still nearer. Jimmy tried to control his breathing.
At any moment, the tang of perfume, the hand on his shoulder….
“And how are you this morning, my young man?”
“Fine, th–thank you, Ms Marsham,” Jimmy stuttered, not daring to meet
her eyes. They were dragon’s eyes, deep in mascara. Their owner paused,
just long enough for Jimmy to feel the warmth of her hand through his
shirt. Then she swept on with a swishing of skirts. The Beast snorted
with stifled laughter. Jimmy turned, but Jake was focused on his work,
his face hidden by a curly fringe. Bill rolled his eyes in sympathy.
As Ms Marsham marched into her office, she signalled her secretary
William to follow. The lanky youth, head bent so as not to appear so
tall, sidled in after her like some gigantic stick insect.
Moments later, he sidled out. Straightening, he marched up to Jimmy and
snatched the newspaper from his desk with a sneer. “The Vice President
will have that, thank you very much.”
Jimmy swallowed his dismay – the paper was his one perk – and got back
to his report. The morning unfolded. At intervals the boss’s phone
rang, and then her penetrating voice would fill the outer office, with
the occasional shrieking laugh.
Jimmy tried to concentrate. But the office aromatics made him sniffle,
and whenever he looked up and saw the rows of pastel cubicles, the
floral arrangements, the window offices occupied exclusively by female
executives, the hopelessness of it all came over him. It was a woman’s
world. There was nothing in it for a man.
“How did we get to this?”
Jimmy glanced up numbly from the teabag with which he was trying to
infuse his tea.
“Men used to be in charge. How did women get on top?” It was Bill,
portly middle-aged Bill, butt of the office jokes.
Jimmy didn’t know. He emptied his mug and tried again, but the boiler
wouldn’t seem to work.
“I’ll tell you how,” Bill said. “It was the Chinese. Remember the
female factory workers, the shortage of brides? Independent women,
unwanted men? You can’t blame the women either, the way they’d been
treated, with foot-binding and everything. I wouldn’t fancy a Chinese
Jimmy gave a non-committal grunt.
“With China’s rise, these attitudes got everywhere. And you know what
Jimmy stirred his tea. Bill was a quite a philosopher, but then no one
was hitting on him. And was he even right? How influential were the
At that moment, Jake bounced into the pantry. Reaching past Jimmy, he
flicked the switch on the boiler (“It’s not on, you know”) and topped
up his coffee. Then, sweeping back his fringe, he bounced out.
Jimmy tried to bite back his feelings. “Oh, he’s impossible!”
“Horizontal promotion,” Bill agreed. “I saw him with the Marsham woman
the other day – phew!”
Just then a large plump visitor sashayed in. This was Ms Collins (‘Call
me Wendy’), whom Jimmy always dreaded. Her eyes lit up as she saw him.
“Ooh, that pink shirt!” she said, “It just sets off your cheeks so
Jimmy grinned nervously. He never knew how to receive a compliment.
“And if you’re down my way, do pop in!” Wendy continued archly. “We’re
designing a breast cancer awareness poster, and we need some ideas.”
She glanced down at her own breasts, which were broad and prominent.
Then she took a step forward.
Jimmy retreated, but found himself trapped against the fridge. The
breasts loomed nearer.
Bill cleared his throat. “As I was saying….“
With a grimace, Wendy withdrew and straightened her jacket. As she
sashayed out of the pantry, she said softly to Jimmy, “You know where I
am, dear, don’t forget to drop by. If the Marsham can spare you.”
When she had gone, Bill turned to Jimmy wryly. “Interested?”
Jimmy winced, trembling after the encounter.
“You could get a bit of the old horizontal yourself, you know,” Bill
Then his face became serious. “As I was saying, the thing that clinched
it – you know what that was?”
Jimmy was silent, so Bill answered himself: “Something they put in the
Jimmy involuntarily glanced down at his mug.
“Ha! Just kidding,” Bill laughed. “No – it was surrogating,” he went on
more soberly. “Once women could make children themselves, we became
biologically redundant. And one thing led to another. We just became… playthings!”
He almost spat out the word.
Bill with his paunch and his greying hair was hardly a plaything, Jimmy
thought. But nor was the angular William. And anyway, why was physical
attractiveness so important at work? “How did we get to this?” he
“Exactly!” said Bill. “Glad you’re on board.”
That lunch hour, Jimmy had a sandwich in his cubicle. It was blessed
moment of peace, no one ogling him, no one touching him. After washing
down the sandwich with a drink he shut his eyes and tried to relax.
Why was he so insecure? Jimmy tried to analyse himself. It was because
his progress in the company – no, his survival – required him to, to….
To what? To submit himself to his boss – if she wanted him? And didn’t
she have a husband anyway, that nervous little man who had stood by the
soft drinks stand the whole summer barbeque not daring to talk to
anyone? Jimmy felt more sympathy than rivalry with the poor chap.
And why did everything rest on his sexual attractiveness? Couldn’t he
be judged by his work?
He knew the answer to that before he had framed the question. It was
man’s role to be toyed with, to be picked up or ignored by women as the
fancy took them. He was to be used, she did the using. That was the way
things were, not just in this company, but everywhere.
Jimmy knew it had once been the other way around, but that was just
intellectual knowledge. Emotionally, with all his sweating, doubting,
esteem-craving being, he knew women were on top. You had to accept it.
He could accept it, couldn’t he?
“So the world’s unjust?” Bill repeated slowly.
Jimmy nodded. They were out in the corridor, where they would see
anyone approaching, but they couldn’t talk for long. Was Bill with him?
He was. “Good for you!” Bill said heartily. “Someone’s got to stand up
to them. It’d make my grandfather turn in his grave to see what we go
through. He kept my grandmother in her place.”
“That’s exactly it!” Jimmy said excitedly. “It’s because men like your
grandfather were so mean to women – that’s why we’re suffering now.”
“That’s just an excuse!” Bill laughed. “But you want to do something
about it, right?”
Now Bill put baldly like that, Jimmy hesitated. It wasn’t just
audacious. When he thought of those massed ranks of women – the
philandering Wendys, the Marshams with their favourites, and further up
the grey-haired older women of power – it was impossible. And it wasn’t
just them, it was the men too – the Jakes, the Williams and all the
others who prostrated themselves and perpetuated the whole thing. Jimmy
wasn’t a hero – and even the word ‘hero’, with its connotations of men
leading, was anachronistic these days. He wasn’t a heroine, he
Bill must have seen his inner struggle, for he said in a low voice,
“The hardest step is the first, lad.”
A tall blonde girl appeared down the corridor. The two men hurriedly
stood apart, but not before she had seen them. “A fathers’ meeting, eh?
We know what you’re up to!” Then she bounced past, giving Jimmy
Jimmy managed to contain himself. “Why can’t we do something?” he said,
when she had gone. “Why do we just take it?”
Bill shrugged. “Somehow, none of us dare answer back. Perhaps they
really did put something in the tea. Or we exchanged temperaments with
women, meek switched with aggressive, like the magnetic poles….”
As his anger cooled, Jimmy had inspiration. “We need space,” he
reflected, “somewhere we can be safe, where we can talk amongst
ourselves. Somewhere away from them.” Then his face fell. “But why
would they give us that?”
“There’s budget,” Bill suggested: “the Company Social Club.”
Jimmy thought of the Social Club, with its macramé classes, its make-up
sessions, its aggression training, each section chaired by a woman.
“That’s no use….”
But it was Bill’s turn to get excited. “Yes, it is!” he cried. And
ignoring the blonde girl who was returning down the corridor, he
whispered in Jimmy’s ear.
“This is a most unusual proposition,” Ms Marsham began.
Jimmy was in his boss’s office, feeling uncomfortable. The tangy scent
was overpowering; his legs shook but he had not been asked to sit down.
He took a breath, trying not to look at his boss directly. “I know it’s
a big thing to ask, and sorry to bother you and everything, but it
would mean a lot to us.”
“To us?” Ms Marsham repeated, scorching him in her mascaraed gaze. “You mean, there’s more of you with these… these odd views?”
“‘Girls not allowed’ – is that it? Boys want their own club, where they can plot mischief against the girls?”
“No, of course not.” Jimmy squirmed. “It’s just that we’d like a quiet place–”
“Oh–ho, so that’s it – not quiet enough for you here? I suppose you’ll
be wanting an executive suite next?” Ms Marsham said sarcastically,
glancing round her own office, which was itself little short of a suite.
“No, no, we don’t need anything special, just a meeting room after office hours,” Jimmy said, sweating.
“And what exactly do you mean to discuss, that is so private women can’t join?”
Jimmy had an inspiration. “There’s men’s conditions. It’s not just breast cancer….”
His boss stood up. “Jimmy, you do realise that the leading doctors in
your so-called ‘men’s conditions’ – by which I suppose you mean
prostate cancer, pyloric stenosis” (she rattled off half a dozen terms
which Jimmy had never heard before) “and all the other things that make
your little lives so short – do you realise that the leading doctors
are all women?”
Jimmy nodded miserably. He could believe it. Women led in every field.
“So just what do you think you are going to achieve in your men’s
group? What problems can you solve that women couldn’t solve better?”
She looked at him pityingly. “Do you think you can even organise a
meeting by yourselves?”
Then Ms Marsham’s tone changed, and she spoke more gently. “I could ask
Wendy to help, I think she’s got a soft spot for you. Would you like me
to do that?”
Jimmy hesitated. With others present, Wendy should be manageable, and
she wasn’t as hostile as the other women. That would be the price to
pay – it was impossible to do more.
He opened his mouth to accept. Almost for the first time, he looked
directly into his boss’s eyes. And then he realised that Ms Marsham’s
demonic expression had a lot to do with the mascara. Within those
forbidding black circles, her eyes peered out shyly – almost, it
seemed, entreatingly. Could it be that she was afraid of him?
Instinctively, Jimmy shut his mouth. And when he opened it again, it was to say quietly, “I think we can manage, thank you.”
“First of all, a big round of appreciation for our founder!”
This was Bill, vigorously leading the applause. It was the first
meeting of the Men’s Group, and as founding member Jimmy had been
unanimously elected Chair-man (Bill had insisted on the suffix) by the packed assembly.
Jimmy stood up, surveying the eager faces, the shining eyes, all fixed
on him. Normally hesitant, he now felt strangely self-assured, buoyed
by his secret knowledge of women. “I want first of all to thank you for
your confidence in me….”
There were cries of “Yo!” and “Go it!” Bill was shouting to anyone who
would listen, “He faced down the dragon! He really did!”
“And I want to acknowledge those who couldn’t be here today because of company duties.”
The applause this time was more subdued. Someone shouted, “Toy boys!”
“Now,” Jimmy continued, in a more matter-of-fact tone, “Let us turn to
the agenda. First item – what are the purposes of the Men’s Group?”
There was a tumult of voices. Each man had his own grievance and
clamoured for attention. Bill got them under control, and one by one
each man came forward with his tale of molestation, of exploitation, of
living in fear. One poor man had been woman-handled by the entire
senior management team. But the most affecting tales were those relayed
by friends of colleagues too depressed to attend – men who had had
their hopes crushed, initiatives declined, opportunities denied, until
they had sunk into a stupor.
Eventually, Jimmy judged that the assembly had heard enough, and called
for order. “Now we have heard the need,” he said. “And what do we want
to do about it?”
There was a murmur, rising to a tumult. “String ’em up!” someone
shouted, to general applause. “Make them pay!” shouted another. Then
someone called out, “Revenge!” and quickly, the chant built up, “Re-venge! Re-venge! Re-venge!”
Bill turned to Jimmy, a broad grin on his face.
But he had misjudged his protégé. Jimmy brought his palm down on the
table with a slap. “We are not going to think like that!’ he shouted to
them. “All we want is fair treatment!”
This was a surprise. Men glanced at one another in dismay. The grumbling rose in volume.
Jimmy yelled back at them, “I’m for fair treatment. If you want revenge, find yourselves a new Chairman!”
The grumbles continued. Someone shouted: “Fine Chairman you are!”
But Bill stepped forward. “Get real! We’re a club, not a revolution,”
he admonished the crowd. And (to the most vociferous objector): “Think
you can face the dragon alone?”
The thought of their Vice President was enough to make even the most outspoken quail.
Thanking Bill, Jimmy took over again. He assured the men that note had
been taken of their grievances (the note-taker was a surprisingly eager
William) and that the issues, suitably framed, would be taken to the
all-female management for their kind consideration.
“Now,” he said, “for the remainder of the meeting, we can discuss priority. Who votes for urinals?”
There was a burst of applause. Men hugged each other with tears in their eyes.
As he walked out alone through the company carpark after the excitement
of the meeting, Jimmy’ heart was full of quiet joy. He had found the
chink in her armour. And he had mustered the she – no, the he – in his
fellow men. It would be a long road, he knew, but they had taken the
first step. No woman was going to push them around now!
The following morning, Jimmy strode into work, his head up. The office
looked the same – the same pastel colours, the furry cushions, the
flowers. With the essential oils it even smelt the same. But it felt
William came respectfully to his desk. “Er, Ms Marsham requests…,” he said, pointing to the paper.
Jimmy raised an eyebrow.
“Of course, only if you’ve finished,” William added hastily.
Jimmy was about to send him scuttling away. But how would that help?
“Sure,” he said, with a generous wave of the hand. William snatched the
paper gratefully, and hurried into the Vice President’s office.
That morning was quieter than usual. Ms Marsham’s voice did not resound
from the office walls. Jimmy wondered if she was off that day. No –
later in the morning, the lady herself emerged from her room holding
something, and walked up. Jimmy stiffened. But Ms Marsham deposited the
thing on his desk. It was his newspaper.
“Thank you – I should really get my own subscription,” she said with a smile.
Jimmy said that it was nothing.
“We should have a chat,” his boss went on. “I heard about your meeting. Maybe I can help? Over coffee?”
The mascara was on as usual, but was that a smile? “Thank you, Ms Marsham, that would be nice.”
“Call me Helen,” his boss said.
© 2017 Damien Wells
Bio: Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of
that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from
non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion
for speculative fiction. He has published numerous short stories and is
building up to longer pieces as he learns more about life. Matthew is
married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in
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