Comfortably Numb. Chapter 2 of 10

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Chapter 2

After the others had left, I started making calls. If the girls I wanted to talk to weren’t at home, I’d leave a message for them to call before six-thirty today or tomorrow. By the time I put the phone down at a quarter to seven, I had a list of nine girls, who were all happy to be kept informed about a new site with female welders.

I locked up and went up one floor to the agency. There, Tracy welcomed me in and gave me a quick tour around, before sitting me on a chair, with lights on me, and setting her photographer on me. By the time I left, about eight, I had been smiling, scowling, grinning, pouting, looking serene, angry, happy, and upset, and every emotion in between. Halfway through, Tracy had stopped things for a few moments while she altered my make-up to give me a different look. She went to the door with me.

“Jenny, I would often see you and wondered why you dressed as a tomboy, or if you were really a man. It doesn’t matter what you are, in this game. It’s all in the look, and you, my girl, have a look that a lot of our clients want. Don’t worry, you’re not catwalk fodder, but more suited to magazine advertising. You have an amazing face, and a range of emotions that the rest of my girls would kill for. I hope that you keep joining us for lunch, as I think that you have a future, or just a sideline, away from that Union.”

I got home, taking in the fish and chips I had promised Carol, in a call before I left my office. She had fed the girls, and they were in bed. Before we ate, I was instructed to take off my blouse and skirt, and put on my robe, in case I dropped anything on me. We sat at the kitchen table and ate our tea as I gave her a blow-by-blow commentary on my day. She almost fell off her chair when I related my outburst at Cyril and Bernice’s reaction to the new me. She was amazed at my lunch with the agency girls, and even more so when I said why I was late tonight.

“So that’s why you have that evening look! That’s a great look, and if that Tracy thinks you can make extra money as a model, I’m behind you all the way. When she gives you a portfolio, make sure you bring it home. The girls would be beside themselves if their Auntie Jenny shows up in one of their magazines.”

That night, we just cuddled. We had made love more, this week, that we usually did in a month. Friday, I went back into work, in a different outfit, as befitting a businesswoman. I would have to do extra laundry, over the weekend, to make sure I was up to date for next week. I now understood why women have so many clothes, and it was making me confront my own habits.

At the office, I made some calls to keep in touch with our local organisers. Not one of them questioned who I was. It made me wonder if my old voice was so feminine that there wasn’t much difference now. The three guys were all polite, and very careful around me, and Bernice could hardly keep a smile off her face. I didn’t tell her about last night, until we were about to go down for lunch. We were reworking our lipstick in the toilet as I let on that I had been in a photo shoot and that Tracy thought that I may have a future as a face model.

When we got down to the café, all of the agency girls stood to hug me and tell me how good I looked with the shoot. Tracy had a bunch of loose pictures, from last night, and they were discussed, in detail, as we ate. When we left, to go back to work, Tracy gave me a folder with all the best pictures in.

“Have a look at these over the weekend. Let me know, on Monday, what you would be happy with. I can sign you on as a casual, and we can work evenings, if we have to. We’re doing a shoot on the south beach, at Blackpool, tomorrow afternoon. Come along and see just how hard we work.”

I thanked her for her faith in me, then followed Bernice to the lift. She took the folder from me and flicked through it.

“I thought I’d seen everything when you walked into the office, yesterday. Since then, it’s been a total rollercoaster of fun. And now this! These pictures are amazing, you have such a range of looks, it’s no wonder Tracy want’s you signed on, you would be worth a fortune to her. I should be jealous, but you’re not a person one can be jealous of, just someone to admire and be happy to have met.”

This time, I initiated the hug. When the doors opened, we went into the office with smiles on our faces. I had promised Carol that I’d be home about seven-thirty, and she had organised a takeaway Chinese for the whole family. I worked up until six-thirty, taking some more calls from our welders, and the locked up to go home. We had a lovely tea, and I showed the family my portfolio. That night, cuddling wasn’t enough.

Saturday, we were all sitting around in our nighties and robes, when I made my suggestion.

“How would you all like a day at the beach. We can go to Blackpool, ride on some of the roundabouts, have a fairy floss and ice creams. I feel that I want some sun on my face and some sand between my toes.”

When we piled into the Jensen, we were all in summer dresses, with sunglasses, and it was almost too much for Carol, who kept breaking into giggles, setting the girls off in the back seat.

“What’s so funny, my love?”

“It’s just how I feel, darling Jenny. You’re so much more open and spontaneous these days. Every day is like a new ray of sunshine. I expect that you will spring something on us today that I don’t see coming.”

“How about dropping in on an agency photo shoot on the South Beach. I’ve been invited. I’ve no idea who is being photographed, but I expect that it would be swimwear. I can introduce you to Tracy. It will let you gauge, for yourself, what she’s like.”

“You are so devious, my love. The girls will be beside themselves when we get there.”

We got to Blackpool, rode some roundabouts, had our ice-creams, and sat in a beachside café for lunch. After lunch, we went up the tower to the viewing platform. I could see the shoot being set up, so, when we got back down to ground level, we strolled that way. Tracy saw us first and came over to greet us.

“Jenny, so good to see you, and these delightful girls.”

“Tracy, may I introduce my wife, Carol, and our two daughters, Cathy and Kerrie.”

“Welcome, all of you. Come over and meet the gang. We’ve taken a few pictures but seeing you all in your summer dresses has given me an idea.”

It wasn’t long before our daughters found themselves as extras in the photo shoot, next to a couple of girls that they had seen pictures of in teen magazines. Before long, everyone knew everyone else, and both Carol and I were background figures in some shots. I told Carol that I thought that there wasn’t much chance of us being able to be picked out in the final pictures, if indeed any were picked that we were in. Later on, a woman arrived with a box, which contained, so we found out, a number of bikinis.

For an hour, Carol and our girls were pictured in bikinis, while I was given shorts and a halter top to wear, joining the professionals in a number of pictures with us splashing each other. When Tracy called a stop to proceedings, we all had a group hug and then she got me and Carol to sign waivers as temporary models, for both of us and for our daughters. She then told us to keep the outfits we had been wearing, and to get dressed, again, as she was going to host an evening meal in a local restaurant, for the whole crew.

On the drive home, the girls were exhausted and sleeping in the back seat. Carol and I held hands as I drove.

“You certainly pulled that rabbit out of the hat, my love. I haven’t had so much fun in ages. The girls were so excited at actually meeting a couple of models, they didn’t even get worried as they became friends. You have a strange aura, Jen, one that allows people to feel able to accept things, as they happen, with the knowledge that everything will be all right. That’s why you’re such a good person in your job. We have no idea of how this afternoon will pan out, or if any of the pictures will be used, but it doesn’t matter. We all had a great time. Please say that you’ll stay around, after the meeting on Tuesday. I don’t know if I could go back to the old ways after this. I’m having too much fun.”

“It’s odd, that you say that, my love. I spent a lot of time, yesterday, setting up meetings at various sites. I used my usual voice, as far as I know, and I couldn’t make my mind up whether I would front up as Jen or Jenny. Talking to a few of the guys, I don’t think it would matter which one I chose. If I go back to Jen, I’d have to do something about my hair and nails, not even thinking about the new eyebrows and earrings. I’m not sure If I want to bother. Being Jenny has been a breath of fresh air in my – no – our lives. It could be a problem when the girls want us to go to parent-teacher meetings, though.”

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes. What do you have in store for us on Sunday?”

“Your turn for rabbits, darling, I’m in your hands.”

“That’s good. There’s a market in the morning, I would love it if we can all go and wander the stalls, the girls would be certain to find things they like, and we may even get some new things for your side of the wardrobe.”

So, Sunday morning, that’s what we did. The girls in jeans and tops; Carol, and I in dresses. We were called ‘Love’ and ‘Darling’ by the vendors, and we did find some nice things to wear, even me going into cubicles to try things on. One of the stalls had hot dogs and hamburgers, and we all sat on a bench to eat ours with plenty of napkins to catch stray drops. The girls were between us, and my heart melted when Kerrie turned to me, between bites.

“Auntie Jenny. Can you please stay with us. I know that you’re really my Daddy, but you make us so happy, the way you are. I could hardly sleep, last night, from the fun on the beach. Cathy feels the same.”

“All right, poppet. I’ll try to keep up the excitement. I was only supposed to be like this for a week, but I admit that I’m having a lot of fun, as well.”

Carol looked over their heads at me and smiled. We had to get home to do the laundry in the afternoon.

Monday, I was in a meeting with Cyril. It was unlike any other meeting we had before. He was caring, asked my thoughts, and we planned out the next day, together, rather than him calling all the shots. He would take me to the meeting, in his car, so I transferred all of my working gear to his boot. He gave me a folder on the site we were going to see. When I looked through it, everything fell into place.

“Cyril, this site went bust, about a year ago. It became a bastion of a militant union, and with their demands, coupled with the greed of the owners, it failed. It doesn’t have a very good reputation and I can see why they haven’t been able to recruit. We will have to stipulate that we supply all of their workers if we can. Both women and men. Our guys are mirror images of the ones that worked there before. I’m sure that they’ll be some of the old workforce that will want to return once they get going, but we will have to enforce proper attitudes if they do. We have a lever that we can use, in that the current owners look as if it’s a family concern, who jumped in without fully researching the history.”

“You’re right there, Jenny. They’re into a lot of things. The closest they’ve been to this is civil engineering, bridges, and the like. They thought that the contracts that might come up in the North Sea, and across on the Continent, would be good earners. The longer they stay closed, the more money they’re losing. I’ll let you run with it, tomorrow. You and Janet will get on like a house on fire, I expect. One thing in their favour, is that they bought all of the equipment so there’s a load of welding sets that are ready to go.”

Lunch was a lot of talk, once more, about a big sheaf of pictures. Bernice hooted when she saw one where I was being splashed by a couple of bikini models. Tracy gave me two portfolios, one for Carol and me, the other for our girls. She put her hand on my arm before we went back to work.

“Your girls, Jenny, are pure gold. They acted like a couple of kids having fun, and the camera loves them. You have no idea how stilted some of our child models are, pretending to smile. Yours were so natural, my photographers want to work with them again. I think that when this client sees these pictures, she’ll insist that they are part of the on-going campaign. I know that you’ll be away, tomorrow, and I may have some news for you later in the week.”

Bernice looked through the files on the way back to work.

“You know, I’ve been a bit afraid that having children would kill my career. While you’re away, tomorrow, I’ll talk to Tom and Alf about maternity leave and whether I could come back, afterwards. My hubby is starting to talk about teaching a son how to play rugby, but I would be happy teaching a daughter how to be a girl.”

We worked through the afternoon, and I left at the same time as the rest of the team. At home, we had dinner and I pulled out the photo files. There was a lot of laughs. The girls told us that they had told their friends about Saturday but none of them believed it. Tomorrow, they would be able to take the pictures in to show them. I told them not to boast, or rub it in their faces, but just to be cool and matter of fact. Most of the evening they acted like proper ladies, being cool.

After they were tucked into bed, Carol got me naked and went over my body with a safety razor. I didn’t need any work on my face, but Carol did say that I might need to visit the salon for a touch-up in a week or so. She helped me decide what I would wear on Tuesday. I had the idea that I should wear jeans or slacks, but she insisted that I wear a skirt and light top, so that I needed to ask for somewhere I could change before I showed my welding skills. That way, I would be able to inspect what they had that would be suitable for girls, and to suggest changes they should make.

Tuesday morning, Cyril was driving us to the east coast. It was odd, as he kept looking across at me as we spoke. He’d never done that before, whenever I had gone somewhere with him. I decided to hold off bringing it up until we were going back. At the site, we parked next to a line of cars. Obviously, the whole Board was present. This was something that I had done before, but never wearing a skirt and stockings.

A young man came out of the building to greet us.

“Good morning. I’m Alex, and I’m a Board Member. You must be Cyril and Jen.”

“Actually, Alex, I’d rather be called Jennifer or Jenny. My card reads Jen, but that’s a throwback to my younger days.”

“Sorry, Jennifer. I’ll take you in to meet the rest of the family - I mean the Board.”

“Alex, we don’t mind what you want to call yourselves. I know that you can call yourselves either. It doesn’t matter for what you want to do. As far as Company House is concerned, you’re the Board. If you want this site to run smoothly, I suggest that you stick with it being family run. If you treat your workers like family, they’ll respond in kind. I visit a lot of sites, like this, and the ones with the least trouble are the ones where there’s respect going both ways.”

“Wow! That’s telling it like it is. I like you, already, and I think that Mum will see things your way as well. Some of our other members think that we need to live up to ‘our station in the business’. They’re the ones with the swanky cars. Anyway, come on in and meet the motley crew.”

He led us to the Boardroom, where we met seven other people, five of them men, and two women. I could see that the younger woman was a daughter, and the introductions proved me right. I could pick the ones that Alex had alluded to by their snappy suits and their haughty manners. I expect that Janet had only managed to force this meeting because the Board was split three to five. Janet was a very pleasant woman, about fifty, but obviously a regular at a salon, somewhere. Her daughter, Tina, was a chip off her block. I was starting to like this side of the family.

Janet asked Cyril to tell them what we planned, and he deferred to me. I stood and went to the end of the table where I could see them all.

“Let me start our discussion with a little history lesson. You were able to buy this business at a good price because it had been run into the ground by the greed of the previous owners. I have visited it several times, some time ago, and there was a continuous battle going on between management and workers. The management thought that the sun shone out of their backsides, just because they had been fortunate enough to own the company. The three main owners used company money to pay for cars, boats, holidays, and houses. None of these should have been paid for by the company. They sowed the seeds of their own failure.”

I saw frowns on two of the three faces as I looked at them, but Janet had a wry smile.

“The workers knew this. Don’t ask me how, but everyone knows everyone; and barbers, taxi drivers, cleaners and scullery maids all hear things you would rather keep quiet. The workers here were mainly members of a very militant union, and they fought hard for better wages. They never fought for better conditions. When I visited, the changing rooms and toilets would make you want to throw up. How many of you have had a look at the facilities?”

Janet, Alex, and his sister nodded.

“The guys who did the real work were animals, lived in squalor and had no respect for either their employers or the workspace. This company had one of the worst reputations in the country. No self-respecting man, or woman, would consider working here unless it can be shown that things have changed. How much budget do you have to clean and repaint the existing facilities? How much have you set aside to create changing areas for women to use? Our Union can do nothing to help you unless you’re prepared to help yourself. I was brought here to show you that women can do the jobs you want done. If you insist, I’ll suit up and weld something together. I have a Pressure Vessel Certificate, the top-level X-Ray papers and have worked on the Scottish rigs. We have a list of at least a dozen girls with similar qualifications, and some that I’ve spoken to, over the last week, know of girl welders from other unions who would jump to us if we can set up a female-friendly site. I reckon I could send you a hundred guys who would be happy to work for a caring, and respectful, employer. Where you take this is down to you, not any demonstration I can give you.”

Janet was the first to respond.

“Thank you for your frank lesson, Jennifer. There are some, in this room, who think along the lines that the old owners did. I, for one, would be happy to find their replacements.”

At that, one of the three stood.

“I’ve had enough of this lovey-dovey bullshit, Janet. If you want to replace me, then fine. I’ll leave and work where a business is run by businessmen, not den mothers!”

As he left, one of the others followed him. Janet looked at the last one.

“What about you, Horace. Don’t you want to throw a tantrum as well?”

“Actually, Janet, I agree with this young lady. I only sided with the other two because of the family dynamic. I can put more money in, if you want it, and I’ll leave the Roller at home, in future. What we have just been told is correct. I have tried entering those buildings, but the smell has driven me out. The other two considered it beneath them to look at anything here other than their plush offices to be. I’m sure Jennifer has an idea of who we can add to the Board, an employee representative, perhaps.”

“I applaud your insight, sir. If you have both male and female employees, I suggest that one of each would fill the seats nicely. I have been a representative of two or three boards, and none of those companies lost time or money because of it. We have some likely candidates on our books. We can give you a list when you start actively recruiting. If my memory of this site is correct, you can employ a professional cleaning firm to hose out the facility blocks, then get some decorators in. In the meantime, we can send you welders, fitters, and general hands to interview. I expect that, if you get moving with the changes, we could have you up and running inside six to eight weeks, that is assuming that you do have contracts ready to start.”

I could see Janet making her mind up.

“Alex, dear, can you take Cyril and Jennifer and show them where the tea and coffee are, then come back while we discuss out next moves. Thank you, Jennifer, for opening our eyes to where we were going wrong. You’ve shown me that employees should be respected, not just thought of as beasts of burden. We’ll call for you in a little while.”

After Alex had left us with our cups in front of us and a bowl of biscuits ready to plunder, Cyril finally said something.

“You don’t take any prisoners, do you, girl? I was ready, cap in hand, and you just blew all their prejudices into the weeds. How did you know that those two would have to be cleared out?”

“Alex told us, on the way in. On top of that, they had spent more on each suit than I spent last week on the full transformation. If they had remained, this company would have only bounced a bit before failing, once more. With them, anything we proposed would have been wasted, with our own reputation taking a hit. It’s better to be out of it than be linked to a disaster.”

“What do think they’re talking about, now?”

“How much it’s going to cost to make the place somewhere that you would be happy working in. We all know that the actual worksite is messy, but you should have somewhere clean and tidy to shower and change after putting in a shift. It was always important to me, before, and since last week, I have an appreciation of how much more it means to a woman.”

We drank our tea and only had a couple of biscuits and then Alex came back to get us.

“Mother asks that if you have enough time, would you walk the site with us, to point out where we should concentrate on.”

“Certainly, Alex, lead on. We will just have to get our hard hats from the car.”

We had to wait for Alex to raid the stores for hard hats for three of the Board. Cyril remarked that it was imperative that everyone in the company follows safety rules, something that not all of them had considered and something that the two who had left would never consider. We spent a good two hours, going places that they had never seen, even though they owned the site. They saw, for themselves, places where you wouldn’t keep a pig. They saw areas with danger at every step. All the while, Cyril and I were giving the insights from our own experience and saw the daughter with a small tape machine, recording it all. In the end, we had identified the areas that needed cleaning, and those that needed experts in to make safe. The place was as I remembered it, only a lot worse. I could see where things had been stolen before the workers finally left, mainly fire extinguishers and small tools.

“Janet, when you have some tradespeople on board, you’re going to need them to put together a shopping list of what you need to get back to production. You’ll need a good storeman, first, to put together a proper inventory of tooling and consumables, then you’ll need to send some of the weld sets off to be overhauled. A lot of them have been left out in all weathers since the closedown.”

“When we sign the paperwork, Jennifer, would you spend some time with us to get things going. You have shown us a lot we didn’t realise was important, today. Your input would be appreciated.”

Marianne Gregory © 2024

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