Aphelion Issue 233, Volume 22
October 2018
 
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Woman's World

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 man.”

Jimmy gave a non-committal grunt.

“With China’s rise, these attitudes got everywhere. And you know what clinched it?”

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 Chinese anyway?

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 well!”

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 added, chuckling.

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 tea.”

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 wondered aloud.

“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?

Could 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 just wasn’t.

Bill must have seen his inner struggle, for he said in a low voice, “The hardest step is the first, lad.”

Jimmy nodded.

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 a wink.

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?”

Jimmy cringed.

“‘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 different.

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.


THE END


© 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 Hong Kong.

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