If I may… by Ronald Mackay
“If I may say so, Mrs Mackay, your invoice entries are…”
Try as she might, Pearl was unable to read the company secretary’s expression.
After three weeks with this London firm, Mr Chadwick’s social niceties, suspenseful pauses and unfinished sentences were still unsettling to Pearl. It was as if he constantly struggled to avoid giving offence. In her previous post at home in Scotland, she’d welcomed the frank evaluation of her work and thereby had learned much and expanded her book-keeping skills. Here, she noticed that the women in the office -- little more than girls, to her and much in need of guidance -- sheltered their unnecessary errors behind his reluctance to be forthright.
“Your entries are neat and accurate, Mrs Mackay.” He stopped, watching this Scottish woman who puzzled him. This recently-arrived book-keeper who added columns in her head just to make sure that the mechanical calculator had not erred.
Do I hear a reservation in his compliment; need I now dread a ‘but…’? Pearl held her breath.
Since her first day, she had been conscious that the figures entered into her day-book were under scrutiny so she double- and sometimes triple-checked them, a silent finger running up and down the columns. As company secretary, Mr Chadwick had every right. The girls revelled in trying to alarm her in the colourful way they had with their rhyming slang.
One Jaffa Cake and you’ll be Jeramiahed. A right Peter Crouch is our Mr Chadwick!
She understood that Mr Chadwick didn’t care for mistakes (Jaffa Cakes) and, as he was such a grouch (Peter Crouch) careless errors could easily result in her being fired (Jeramiahed).
Their giggled warnings, however, didn’t overly alarm Pear. Despite their causal errors, the five of them are still employed, aren’t they? Didn’t this suggest he was less fierce than they suggested?
She suspected, rather, that they cradled the hope that this middle-aged newcomer with the peculiar accent might be dismissed and replaced by someone closer in age to them; a person more able to join in their carefree banter, less focused on work, on precision. For Pearl, the finance department was that vital centre of a business where fun could be permitted but only if it did not interfere with scrupulous attention to detail. These girls have their priorities awry and there’s nobody to guide them.
“Thank you, Mr Chadwick, neat, legible and accurate is how I learned to keep the day-book in Scotland.” He failed to respond so she added, “Accuracy is everything in book-keeping.”
His continued silence suggested that, after the mollient compliment, he was now trying, uneasily, to summon up the courage to break the bad news that she had to go. She was saddened. She wanted to stay with this company. Mr Chadwick’s English formality pleased her, told her that they shared a common respect for the traditionally strict demands surrounding the recording of revenues and expenditures. His reluctance to wield authority, however, served neither him nor his employees well. That aside, she’d come to enjoy the banter of the girls despite being unable, so far, to join in as freely as she would have liked to. London was their home. Cockneys born and bred, with quick minds and ready wit. They had such potential! If rightly channelled, it would add a much-needed accuracy to their work, justifying the gaiety.
I want to keep this job. Another week of searching will simply cripple my budget. Vivian is already carrying more than her share of the expenses. Cripple her budget it might but she knew it would never, ever, force her back north of the Firth of Tay.
“I’d like to ask you a question or perhaps two, if I may, Mrs Mackay. Then I may make a suggestion.”
Mrs Mackay nodded. “Of course.” Why the constant ‘if I may’ when he has the right to demand? How will he camouflage the suggestion that I look for work elsewhere?
“For over a decade you worked for a contractor.”
“What kind of contract work?”
“We bid on small public works mainly. Road construction to improve physical access to rural properties owned by municipalities.”
“Ah, civil engineering projects?”
Civil engineering sounded much too grandiose for the work of Horsburgh Murray so Pearl expanded. “Our crew did the road excavation, added and compacted the base, graded, drained, levelled and finally rolled the asphalt.”
“How many of you worked in the accounts office?”
“Me, alone. I handled the correspondence, kept the books and made up the wages weekly.” I can’t read what he’s thinking. So she continued. “Mr Murray showed me everything during my first year. Then, he left me to get on with it.”
“By yourself?” Mr Chadwick’s expression didn’t alter but his cultured voice rose.
Is he disappointed by a business so small that the office could be run by one middle-aged woman with no formal qualifications? She braced herself for the dismissal that she imagined coming, the suggestion that she seek employment with a firm more in keeping with her limited experience than with a long-established company trading triumphantly across the Commonwealth from the heart of London.
In the silence Pearl allowed her mind to wander.
She was back under the protection of a sweet autumn day in 1948, in the friendship of the maturing sun beneath the tree that provided Homebank with cooking apples. Daughter and mother sharing together, in that love-affirming way the task of coring windfalls as they had done autumn after autumn, throughout the lengthy rumble of distant war.
Daughter from mother absorbed the counter-intuitive wisdom that silence can offer the most certain way to share the things that matter.
Mother broke the companionable silence.
“Pearl, my Lass, you’re no happy.” Empathy the more easily voiced in the quiet cadence of her birth.
Pearl’s continued silence was confirmation enough. Neither needed to name the source of the unhappiness – a husband who had returned from the front, an undeclared war raging inside, a war waged unrelentingly on his wife and off-spring.
In the evening sky, gathering swallows swooped and twittered.
“Listen to me, my Lass. Ye’ve nae need to stick to a road that’ll lead but deeper into grief. As He has warned us, a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
Pearl felt her mother’s hand clasp hers, inhaled the aroma of bruised apples. Their combined warmth spread to her very heart and seemed, oddly, to hone and relieve the aching that was in it at one and the same time.
“There’s a better road, my Lass. When the time’s right, ye’ll find the courage to take it.”
Comforted, Pearl raised her eyes to receive the embrace offered in her mother’s.
They finished coring the windfalls.
Sixteen years it had taken her to find that better road and by then she had buried her mother though never as much as a day passed that her heart did not weep from the missing of her.
Pearl had tried to bridge the gulf that yawned between her and George, attempts that were met with anger or vilification. Any common ground they might once have shared was consumed in the rage he nursed. To shield herself from such a wasteland, she reared and nurtured her children, read joyfully for them and for herself, and escaped into the luxury of imagined worlds offered, for a few short months each year, by the Repertory Theatre.
She learned that people wedded to the error of their own bitterness cannot bear reconciliation. So, shouldering her burden, she had educated her three children in what it means to live honestly in the world: that we must strive to accept a legacy that we did not create and to amend it only once we have understood it. From their earliest years she introduced them to the consolation of daily praise. She raised them to be compassionate, independent and self-reliant.
She’d seen all three of them set out on careers before boarding that train to London together with the loyal daughter who had chosen to accompany her, bearing a one-way third-class ticket, £200, and a light suitcase -- the material wealth rescued from 25 years of a burdened life.
No resentment did she carry for she had learned that gratitude is a must if we are to experience joy and despite all, Pearl was grateful. She was grateful for the true home she had known in the modestly genteel west-end of Dundee, for caring parents and for a boisterous houseful of siblings who were friends and family rolled into one. She was grateful for her mother’s move to the village of Coupar Angus where the pace of life accompanied the seasons and the cycle of growth and harvest, on the surrounding farms. In an inexpressible way she was grateful for the years of War that had intermittently separated her from a callous husband allowing her to mother children with thoughtful love in the company of one who had done the same for her.
Pearl had been taught to avoid the mistake of assuming that the good things of life are ours by right. When they came her way by chance combined with the result of her own efforts, she was grateful.
It was in this frame of mind that she and Vivian had alighted from the train in Kings Cross Station and taken temporary lodgings in Sussex Gardens near Lancaster Gate tube station.
As a dental nurse, Vivian had accepted a prearranged position in a practice with three dentists and started work immediately, as the breadwinner. Lacking such an approved training that provided a recognized professional standing, Pearl was initially reliant on her willing daughter but wholly resolved to accept whatever work her assorted experience might fit her for.
To her unexpected delight, on her first full day in London, she had discovered that her comfort with numbers, lined columns and financial records ideally fitted her to serve as a book-keeper. She’d jumped at the first offer the employment agency made her as the only employee in the small import business owned by a resentful refugee from the Russian Civil War. His failed daily attempts to humiliate her for whatever she did or did not do added to his rancor.
Inured to petty reproach, Pearl sealed her being off from the guttural carping until she and Vivian had found an apartment, a church to worship in and a community to embrace and be embraced into.
The urbane and gentle streets of St. John’s Wood where wisteria and ivy-clad walls spoke of an age in which dignity and authority declared itself unashamedly while seeking to honour the community provided a sense of belonging.
She joined an early-morning Saturday class to explore London’s historical past. With infectious enthusiasm, the guide was able to gratify his group with sights and the sounds, and to flesh out the city’s narrative with anecdotes from a history hitherto unknown to her. Thanks to these peaceful walking tours, the City’s history arose slowly around her like a great cathedral, defining a place where everything connected and where everything possessed a significance that made making London’s friendship a welcome adventure. London quickly became her spiritual home.
Then, comfortably established and confident that she had found the lost haven for which she had been searching, Pearl turned her back on the guttural entrepreneur from South Russia and stepped into Mr Chadwick’s finance department with its promise of comforts and puzzles to be mastered.
In London, Pearl relished that it was sufficient just to be. Together, she and Vivian began to thrive.
Yes indeed, I would like to have kept this job, but if it is not to be, I will search further.
“By yourself, Mrs Mackay?” Mr Chadwick’s repetition extinguished Pearl’s reverie.
“By myself, Mr Chadwick. I kept the daybook then transferred the entries from the daybook into the ledger. In the first quarter of the year, I drew up the trial balance in preparation for the chartered accountant’s annual audit.”
Mr Chadwick raised his eyebrows. “If I may be so bold as to inquire, might there have been anything else you undertook?”
Was he was suggesting her workload had been overly light or was he gently mocking?
“I also prepared the documents for the tenders we submitted.”
He accepted this in silence.
These English gentlemen can be so hard to read, but I’m learning.
“When Mr Murray inherited the company, he shrank it to satisfy his own needs. He preferred fishing and shooting to work, so long as the business covered essential expenses, he was satisfied. The company stayed small and my workload was manageable.”
“Thank you, Mrs Mackay, for your candid answers to my questions.”
Now he’s ready to suggest move on. Pearl steeled herself for the inevitable but satisfied that she was beginning to grasp the Englishman’s oblique manner of conversing. Such knowledge would prepare her for the next job interview.
Mr Chadwick drew a deep breath. “I am an accountant, Mrs Mackay, comfortable with financial statements but less so with managing...” He gestured ruefully towards the giggling girls.
Pearl heard Mr Chadwick’s admission with alarm. Did I speak my thoughts about his weakness aloud? Has he the power to read my mind?
“I need an assistant willing to organise the work of this office, to supervise the staff so that the work gets done to the standard required. You, Mrs Mackay, possess the qualities to provide that assistance.”
Pearl had seldom reflected on the skills she had mastered while raising a family and resolving the daily challenges faced by a business whose owner preferred casting flies or shooting pheasants to scheduling the maintenance of earth-moving equipment. Do I? She asked herself for the first time and immediately knew the answer.
“You possess the personality, the discipline, the practical knowledge of keeping track of financial transactions. Moreover, if you will permit me, your age and demeanour permit you the authority necessary to supervise and mentor a capable but overly-playful staff.”
‘If you will permit me.’ There he goes again!
They both somehow seemed to know without her even answering, that she accepted the offer.
“Oh, and Mrs Mackay. One last thing, if I may?”
And again, she thought. ‘If I may.’ But now she appreciated the diffidence as the respect due from a conservative gentleman to a middle-aged conservative woman.
“When you use the calculating machine, you may rely on its accuracy, odd as that must appear to you.”
As Pearl walked from the tube station, she turned into Loundoun Road for the sole joy of allowing her soul be renewed by the fragrant purple wisteria that clad the symmetrical brick walls of Arnold House School. Then she retraced her steps to Grove End Road and on the flat so that Vivian could share her good news. She gave silent thanks for Mr Chadwick’s offer, confident that she could fulfil his expectations. I can bring the girls round to a more sober work ethic without halting their fun, she reflected. I’m not convinced, however, that I can abandon my mental check on the accuracy of the mechanical calculator.
Pearl breathed deeply and smiled. For the first time in many years, she was truly happy.
Mum (Pearl Mackay Sword)