Doing them like a Donald

Doing them like a Donald

By Kenneth Vickery

Alice smiled at Vince across the restaurant table full of their colleagues. He was young, clever, and energetic. He was good at his job in their mental health support organisation. It was a shame the young man couldn’t control his anger. His aversion to Donald, their boss, had made it impossible for him to stay. This was a farewell lunch for Vince.

Alice found both men charming. Their conflict was mystifying. Vince had told her that Donald was all technique and no strategy. She was sure this was very clever but had no idea what he meant. She didn’t think the young thing could have much to complain about. Rheumatoid arthritis wasn’t making him lame like her.

Donald’s confidence and determination were admirable. She appreciated his support, and someone who loved a book like “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” must be a decent person.

Alice loved books and often talked to Donald about what they were reading. Leaping into a world of fiction was one of her few escapes from pain, and it was the only leaping she was capable of.

Back from lunch, she wound her way through the rabbit warren to her office. The fibro building had walls as wonky as a Salvador Dalí painting, which reminded Alice of demountables at her school.

Donald must have heard her because he summoned her to his corner office. Walking to his desk, she asked to sit down. She expected Donald to get up and sit with her on his visitors’ chairs as he’d always done before. Standing for long was painful for her.

Donald shrugged, not looking up at her as he put some paperwork down. ‘This won’t take long.’

 ‘Okay.’

‘I’m organising services for my mother.’

Alice swayed back and forth to stop her knees from seizing up. ‘Right.’

‘I rang Silver Chain.’

Alice’s knees were hurting. This was already taking longer than she’d hoped. ‘Is this going to take much longer?’

‘Now now, I told you, Alice. It’ll only take a minute.’ He gave her a big smile. ‘Well, not much longer if you don’t keep interrupting.’

He paused until she said, ‘Okay.’

Donald looked out his windows, which didn’t look as cheap and nasty as the rest of the building. ‘Now, what was I saying before you interrupted my train of thought?’

Alice could no longer stand with any comfort. ‘You were talking about Silver Chain.’

Donald turned back to Alice. ‘Ah yes, yes. That’s right. I rang Silver Chain to organise services for my mother.’

Alice nodded, not wanting to interrupt again. She wondered what she’d done to make him this inconsiderate.

Donald picked up a pen and turned it between his fingers. ’I told them what she needed and well “gyre and gimble in the wabe”, do you know how long it took them to ring me back with an offer?

Even with the quote from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’, the pain was making it hard for Alice to concentrate. ‘I have no idea.’

He teased, ‘You’re our Intake Officer, Alice. I expect you to be on top of these things.’

Donald had been light-hearted and derogatory like this when Vince had been angry.   ‘So, how long?’

‘Three hours. When I told them that this was a quick response, they said that they always respond in less than four hours.’

The pain was bringing tears to Alice’s eyes. Maybe Donald was upset because he hadn’t been invited to lunch. ‘Good on them.’

Donald leaned closer. ‘We should be providing best-practice. You’re shilly-shallying is wrecking the reputation of the whole organisation.’

‘You know there is only one of me, and I must assess a client’s needs and then find a supervisor who can accept them. It often takes supervisors more than twenty-four hours to get back to me. You said it was amazing I could get back to our clients as fast as I do.’

‘That was before I knew best practice.’

‘How many intake officers does Silver Chain have?’

Donald’s stare made Alice’s heart feel cold. ‘I want you to respond within four hours in future.’

‘That can’t be done, Donald.’

Any playfulness in him was gone. ‘Make it happen. It’s imperative to inform clients right and without delay.’

Alice wondered if she could lean on his desk to take the weight off her knees. ‘Okay then, you should inform the supervisors that they need to respond to me within two hours.’

Donald threw his hands in the air. ‘The supervisors have enough to do, without me putting more pressure on them. Nothing is less forgiven than setting targets people have no mind to follow. We are here to support the supervisors, not make their jobs harder. You should understand that and grasp this opportunity.’

Alice noticed the irony but was now in too much pain to argue. ‘All mimsy. ‘She quoted back the language she loved from their nonsense poem. The love of words for just the way they sounded together had been like a private joke between them.

All mimsy!’ Donald frowned up at her. Since you are resistant to making these improvements, I will performance-manage you every week until you can do it. Your role must be carried out at the highest point of excellence.’

Alice felt stunned and stepped back. He had used the words they loved against her. He must know it was not what she meant. They were nonscience words. Hobbling back to her office, she remembered he had performance-managed Vince. Sitting in her office, the pain subsided.

Hoping Vince was wrong about all technique and no strategy, she wrote Donald an email saying what impact his new target would have on the supervisors.

She hoped that Donald’s charming self would return tomorrow, and he would realise he’d set an unachievable target.

The next day, Donald’s director came into Alice’s office and said that Donald had made an official complaint about her. Alice stared at the director. ‘Sorry?’

‘He said you were refusing to follow his instructions.’

She knew she couldn’t get angry. ‘What instructions?’

‘It was something to do with the call back protocol. Donald is in my office. I want to settle this right away.’

‘Right, let me print some stuff off first.’ When Alice and the director got to the office, she found a seat without asking. With his usual passion, Donald spoke about providing services at a level of best practice and how Alice was standing in the way of him making the organisation the best in the country.

It was an impressive-sounding speech. Alice had enjoyed his eloquence before, but this time, she was the butt of it. Alice wondered how often his rhetoric had been this slick and vacuous.

When Donald had finished, Alice handed the director the email she’d sent Donald. It showed she hadn’t refused, just warned him of the consequences. Explaining what would be required to meet Donald’s four-hour target, she remembered how Donald played golf with the director. Despite this, the director nodded to her. He said that the complaint should be withdrawn, and  they should go back to a twenty-four-hour response target.’

Donald agreed with the director. When he turned to Alice, his eyes widened just enough for Alice to know that he was furious with her. She’d shown him to be wrong, but how was that her fault? He had forced her to do it.

Later that day, Alice and the other divisional managers sat around a conference table chatting as they waited for Donald. They looked up when Donald arrived an hour late.

Donald looked at his managers. ‘Have you got the agenda? You’re all so hopeless at remembering.’ They all nodded and smiled at Donald’s usual joke. Donald sighed in mock relief. Alice wondered if he said this to stop complaints about him being late.

‘Now, guys and gals, there are a couple of items I’d like to add.’ They nodded again, so he continued. ‘I want to resurrect the company’s image. It will be beautiful, a flawless campaign. You’ll be writing books about this. How’s about that?’

Alice put his agenda to one side and breathed out in relief. This was the charming old Donald back again. He must be over whatever was upsetting him. She was interested in Donald’s campaign. His energy always made his ideas fun to do and unified the team. ‘What do you think is wrong with our image?’

Donald took a drink of water and looked away from Alice. 

Alice sat back and decided to make her question more positive. ‘I was wondering what sort of image you were looking for.’

Donald cleared his throat. His upbeat mood had disappeared like a conjurer’s coin, ‘Now then, now then. You can hardly think that we are at the forefront of prestige and glamour.’

‘Okay. What sort of profile were you looking at giving us?’

He rolled his eyes and leaned towards Alice. ‘An image that would enhance the way customers perceive us.  Your office furniture, for example, is disgraceful rubbish. What type of corporate image does that give our customers?’

Alice shrugged. ‘Are you giving me a budget to update it?’

Donald smiled as he moved in jerky motions. Alice knew this was to mimic her arthritic gestures. No one else seemed to notice. ‘As it happens, I don’t want our customers to realise how hopeless you are.’ He laughed as if this was a joke and turned to his other managers. ‘Maybe I’ve prodded Alice out of her comfort zone enough for one day. I shouldn’t let this slow the rest of you down. I’ll keep her in suspense and spell it out to her later.  So, I hear great things about our training program.’  

Alice spent the rest of the meeting watching Donald complement and laugh with the other managers. He spoke with a smile and chatted with them to explore their comments, never advising unless asked. Now his energy was uniting the team against her. He was charming them like he had charmed her when it was Vince who had got on his wrong side. The other managers looked at Alice as if she was a leper. Like they had looked at Vince.

She felt trapped and had no idea how to appease Donald and get him to stop treating her like this.

That night Alice woke up. Familiar sights and sounds of her bedroom surrounded her. She’d been dreaming about how Vince had warned her that Donald was a psychopath and she should leave, but at the time, she couldn’t believe that anyone would lie and coerce just so they could deceive and control.

She hated that Donald had torn enthusiasm out of her with the resolve of a dog gutting a cushion.  She wanted to be strong and get her feelings of worth and confidence back, but her mind was numb and unsure of what to do to get herself out of this dark place.

She reached to her husband for comfort. The trauma of the day had made her feel damaged and unworthy. Everything now seemed as remote to her as a house she no longer lived in. She turned away and got out of bed, putting weight on her painful legs and waddled to the bathroom.

Alice sat on the toilet. She understood now what Vince meant when he said that Donald was all technique and no strategy. When she hadn’t understood, she’d blamed Vince’s anger for Donald’s harassment because it was the only thing that could explain it.  Donald behaving like this, just to be a bully, was unthinkable. Alice sighed. Well, unthinkable, but true. Now he was doing it to her.

She now admired Vince for giving up and leaving. Donald had been crushing him like he was now trying to destroy her, and like Vince, she should go. She knew now that evil is confident, good is unsure. Bullies are persistent, victims lack direction. She could no longer trust Donald to give her a good reference. Even if employers weren’t put off by how pain crippled her, they wouldn’t consider her for a job if Donald had made her miserable, unsure and directionless. She’d be lucky to get an opening from an automatic door.

Thinking about Vince’s clash with Donald made Alice aware of how showing a bully anger was as unwise as punching a tar-baby. She didn’t want to be angry but didn’t want to be crushed either. This was like the hero facing the Jabberwocky, only without a Vorpal Sword.

Thinking of the nonscience poem made her feel better. She  didn’t know the difference between  a Vorpal Sword and an unembellished sword, other than how  ‘The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

The next day, Donald scuttled into Alice’s office with the anger and angles of a giant praying mantis. ‘You are letting the side down again. There’s too many inactive relief staff. It takes too long to find a replacement for our people who are sick. We need relief staff who are ready to work. I want you to sack all the inactive people on the relief list.’

The relief staff would fill in when permanent staff were on leave. The organisation couldn’t expect relief staff to wait for their call. These staff had other jobs and would go through times when they were not available because if they were always available, why would they be relief staff. It was a long process to engage and train them. Contractors were an alternative, but they were untrained and twice the cost.

He was close enough for her to smell his breath. This was a blow, but trying to stop him from sacking relief staff would be as pointless as taking on the Jabberwocky with a toothpick.

Telling herself to turn the other cheek, she calmed herself to answer him. ‘Sure, will do. I’ll work with human resources to put together a protocol. I’m reading Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight’. Have you read it?’

Donald leaned away. ‘I’ve heard about it, of course.’

Alice smiled, hoping to restore their previous relationship. ‘You must read it! You’ll love it.’

Donald glared at her. ‘Right.’

She blinked and realised that Donald wouldn’t be able to read the book, now she’d recommended it. Well, this would work too. She knew hundreds of other books he’d love to read. ‘What are you reading now?’

Donald narrowed his eyes and moved away from her. ‘A Gentleman in Moscow.’

‘Isn’t it a lovely book? Have you got to the friendship he makes –?’

Donald shook his head and retreated out the door, his arms raised as if to protect himself from blows. Alice whispered, ‘Snicker-snack.’

As she started to suspend people from the relief, she kept meticulous records. She got as many people to witness what she did as possible. Whenever she saw him, Alice would energetically recommend a book. He couldn’t talk to her for long, so she never lied to him. He couldn’t have read her warning emails either. They were decorated with book covers.

Service managers began to complain about how the use of contract staff was blowing out their budgets. Then things really came to a head when a customer sued for getting the wrong drugs from a contract worker.

Alice got to reinstate people back onto the relief list. Donald attacked her, but this let Alice reveal to his director how diligent she had been, carrying out Donald’s requests.

A couple of months later, Alice was smiling across a restaurant table at Donald. He didn’t smile back. This was his farewell lunch. In his card, she had written:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
 And the mome raths outgrabe.”

He would know what she meant.


By Kenneth Vickery

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