I have pondered about whether I wanted to write this down for some time. It’s a difficult subject for me. Even now I am not sure how I feel about myself or the situation I found myself in. Yet even as I wrote about how life had changed for me in the last year since leaving my last employer, whenever I think back to my time there there is always a shadow at the back of my mind, an issue I have not yet dealt with. A ghost to lay to rest.
I feel as well that I need to set the record straight. Not that any one I knew then will read this. But I feel that I took the blame for so long and I want to be allowed, finally, to speak.
When I was 21 I moved into a new department to join in the set up of a new team, a whole new area. It was a fantastic opportunity. It marked the start of my career.
My new team leader, J, was respected for her skills and knowledge in our specialist area. She joined the business at this time and brought a wealth of experience.
I remember the first week we met. J was new to our office, having been moved from the head office to take up the reins of our team. She didn’t know anyone so I asked her to join us for lunch and from then on we became friends. We went on cigarette breaks together and as all smokers know, more business is discussed in the smoking shelter than in the office.
I started to stay behind after work to learn. For once I had a job I was interested in. I needed to know how it all worked. Perhaps to the rest of my team I was a jobsworth, but I spent a lot of my own unpaid time asking J questions and she was happy to become my mentor. She taught me everything I knew and I became the best in her team.
I am emphasising this because it is important to me that it is clear. We were friends. Good mates. I valued her as a friend as much as I did as a mentor.
J also had some negatives. Of course. We all do. She was the first to admit that she could hold a grudge for a long time, for no real reason. She told me this many times. Cross her once and she never forgot. She was proud of her determination.
Over time I also came to realise that J was quite insecure and jealous. Her direct manager was a friend that she had worked with for years in a previous company. C worked for our business first and when she needed a team leader to set up our new area, she brought J in. However, as a manager C also had other teams to over see, one of which was led by K. K worked in the head office with C. J often complained that C spent more time with K, listened to K more. She felt slighted and ignored.
This is where our issues began. J was jealous of K. It was suggested that they had very different skill sets, that J was undoubtably the more knowledgeable about the systems and the processes but K was by far better skilled in team management. People skills were not J’s forte. J was furious. The complaints about the unfairness of this comparison went on and on, even though we all knew it was true.
I had worked for J for 2 years when the management decided on a restructure. I was to be moved to become a team leader myself and to line into K, rather than J.
J was not over pleased. She informed C that I would not enjoy working for K, that I would have problems getting on with her. I wasn’t aware of these conversations, until I was called in to speak with the managers to confirm whether I was having issues.
-No, I told them in confusion. We get on fine, Why wouldn’t we?
Looking back, I can see this is where the problem began. J had obviously expected me to dislike K, to be upset on her behalf that she had been found lacking in people management, despite being streets ahead in other areas. She began to distance herself from me. Now when we went out for breaks together she no longer wanted to talk shop, to give advice or to mentor.
I stopped asking for help. Perhaps childishly, I decided that it was time for me to stand on my own two feet. I wanted to prove that I could run a successful team without her help. I wanted it to be my achievement, not something she had to help me do.
Was this where the foundations cracked? Did she see this as a rejection? Was everything that happened after my fault?
After this things were strained. Our work had us moving in parallel. Lunch breaks together became less frequent, but they carried on. But then another restructure occurred. Whilst she remained the all-knowing oracle of fraud, I became a technical advisor for my specific area, using the knowledge she had taught me to follow her footsteps. Whilst I always acknowledged that she knew more, J began to see me as competition.
At first I just heard rumours. Small snippets of conversation were repeated. Then I found that she was talking behind my back. Telling members of my team that I was doing things wrong. Taking a disgruntled team mate and egging on issues they had with me.
The worst part was that both K and our over all manager, C, knew. They knew she was slating me down, they knew she had an issue. Ignore her, they said. She is jealous.
Hard though, to ignore that you are being picked at by a manager who is senior to you. Hard that her own boss knew but did nothing to stop it. Hard, when that person was your friend, and you wanted somehow to get that friendship back.
One night J gave me a lift to my car one night. She showed me some bruising in her hand. She said she was having trouble moving her fingers. She was going to the hospital for tests. I remember feeling surprise she was telling me anything, after so long ignoring me. I thought maybe she was scared. I offered to go with her for the tests. I told her I would be there for her, if she needed me. She never mentioned it again and I put it out of my mind.
My good friend and colleague, A, took me aside one night. We were about to go out for a work do. A had been along side me from the start. We joined the department together, we were promoted together. She had been the third of the Musketeers with J and I. She told me, before we went out that night, that J had a terminal illness. She had a few years, at the most. J had not wanted me to know, she said. Of everyone else to be told at work, I was the one she had not wanted to know.
Because J said I would be glad. Because J said I would be after her job!
I was paralysed. I was numb. I did not know what to say. My friend now felt so much anger at me that she believed I would be glad she was dying. She felt I put a stupid job role above her life.
What did I do to her that was so very bad?
When she eventually did tell me herself, when it was becoming clear there was a problem and that all other managers and required people had been informed, when she came over to me when we were alone late at work one night, I could not react. I did not know what to say. I couldn’t show pity. She would have hated it. I couldn’t be upset, to make it about my hurt over her pain. I showed nothing. I froze. My mind went blank. I think I was in shock.
I went home and one of her chums, her replacement for me, called to see how I was taking the news. V was two faced, bitching about me with J and calling me at work to gossip. I despised her. I was not prepared to discuss my feelings with her. I held it in.
Was this the wrong thing to do? Was that my chance to sort it out, to show her I did care? Would that have fixed our break?
Snippets of the next year come back to me. As she increasingly deteriorated, as the disease took over her mobility and she could use less and less of her hands, her mind seemed to get more vindictive, more angry at me. But I could say nothing. I stayed quiet. I let her release her anger at me. I wondered sometimes if just by being her target I gave her what she needed, a distraction from her fear of dying or her own pain. I think I comforted myself by telling myself that in this way I could help her.
One time C said to me ‘Don’t go trying to talk to her. She has told me it’s too late and she does not want to mend any bridges with you.’ I respected that decision, although I wanted to try.
Another time J asked C to promised her that when she died I would not get her job. C told me this, and that her reply had been that she would do what was right for the business. I was astounded at the jealousy. I could not comprehend the hatred or anger or even the type of person that would be worrying about who got her job when she had months to live.
Even while I was on maternity leave for 9 months the anger at me continued. When my return was imminent she was slagging me off so much that V had joined in and was reprimanded for repeating slander about me. No one would tell me what was said.
When I took my new baby in to show off and the team crowded round to see her, J was at the back of the bunch. I remember seeing her there, hesitant. I felt she had walked over because it was expected, not for me. She came over, but I turned my back on her. After everyone else had seen the baby I turned back, but she had gone.
The worse thing that was ever repeated back to me, though, staggered me. J said to people at work and to my friend, to A ‘She cursed me. She wanted me to get ill and die, so that she could have my job.’
J died the day before my 30th birthday. She had been home and off work for the last month. Most of our department had been to visit her. They signed cards, made cheery videos, bought gifts. I stayed out of all of the goodbyes. I felt that I could not react, I didn’t know how to react. How many people had heard the things she said about me? How many more believed it?
When she died, A rang to tell me. She wanted me to be aware in case I heard anything from anyone else. I was off work for my birthday. My manager, K, called the day I was due back in to let me know. ‘How are people at work reacting?’ I asked. ‘They are sad. The atmosphere is full of grief.’
‘I don’t want to come in today.’ I said. ‘I don’t want to come in knowing everyone is grieving, and not knowing if I can. If I should. If I do, will everyone be watching me to see if it is fake. If I don’t, will everyone hate me?’
J had systematically slated me for so long to all my colleagues I no longer trusted that anyone was my friend, except for A. Whilst no one would believe that I had cursed her (!) did they believe I had been after her job? Did they agree with her that I was incompetent, that I couldn’t manage without her.
I didn’t want to attend the funeral. I told C that I should stay away. ‘She wouldn’t have wanted me there. She hated me, at the end.’ C told me to go. For my own sake. I did, but it felt wrong.
It’s been five years since J died. For the first four I still worked at that company. In the end I did take over many of her responsibilities, but a new job role and title was created to make it a different position. In the end I both didn’t take her job and I did.
The first few months were hard. People from other departments would mention her, ask if I missed her, share their sorrow she was gone. I didn’t know what to say. I gave the expected response.
Some days I would be driving to work thinking of a problem and I would wish I could ask her about it. Some days I would drive home remembering a funny or ridiculous incident and I imagined telling her. Sometimes I would talk to her as I drove. Some days I ranted at her. I shouted.
One day when I told A that I missed her, she rounded on me. A was furious with me for considering feeling for J after all she had done to me.
For some time I was mad with C for letting her carry on making my life so hard at work and taking no action to stop it. But I supposed we all held back. You can’t reprimand a dying woman.
I was angry at J for putting me though 4 years of misery at work. I was angry at the accusations, at the ridiculousness of it all. She knew how to hold a grudge all right.
I felt guilt. I never really knew what turned her against me, but I wondered if I had started it by making her feel unwanted, left out, when I moved positions. Was it something I did?
I felt pain, and hurt. I missed her. She was my friend and I missed laughing with her, joking, chatting.
I felt regret. Maybe I should have tried harder to fix things.
When I left the building 1 year ago, I said goodbye to J too. I thought I had left her behind. I guess writing this shows that I have not. I wonder whether I should forgive her for the pain she caused me. She never forgave me for whatever wrong it was I did her. I cannot forget.
But I think of her less often. She has no part of my new life, I made this all by myself.