A Personal Statement
"When can he start," was my only question.
We were in the manager's office; he had just interviewed an applicant for a position in my department. He interviewed and engaged all new staff, but the head of the department concerned had the right to dismiss an employee who proved unsatisfactory. I was not greatly surprised that he was considering employing someone with a criminal conviction. His sympathy for those with problems or disabilities often swamped his judgement and in recent months he had engaged an alcoholic and a petty thief to assist me with the firms accounts. Of course not all his selections failed, many doubtful starters were now respected employees. Skin colour was, in places, a bar to employment when he interviewed Winston Vines. "Do you object to working with a black man?" I had been asked, before he was enrolled. Now Winston's efficient pen was busy reducing the backlog of unsolved costing problems, and bringing our price lists up to date. Unfortunately a spate of rising charges and wages had kept him so busy he had been unable to assist me with other tasks.
All firms were having labour problems and for many reasons we found it harder than most to attract staff. We were inconveniently situated for transport, there being a longish walk from bus or train; the building and equipment were old, space was restricted, and the work exacting. We handled goods from many countries and new staff had difficulty in coping with foreign terms and currencies. We paid beginners little above award rates and promised end of year bonuses held less appeal than immediate cash in hand. Easier, better paid work, was readily available in more pleasant and convenient areas, and of those who did start work with us many left for other jobs within a few weeks. Although entitled to a staff of three, I had, apart from the six girls operating the accounting machines, only Winston.
The chains of age and long service entitlements bound me to the desk till 10.30 many evening and often all day Saturday or Sunday.
Before leaving that evening the manager told me "Allan is to start in the morning, I hope you find him knowledgeable and congenial. As far as his lapse is concerned, dishonesty or fraud played no part so you should have no fears in that direction. I cannot tell you why he went to gaol, I must respect his confidence. He was quite frank in admitting his guilt, no excuses, and no evasions. I admire his bravery. He has paid his debt to society and we will judge him as we find him, not on any black mark in his past. We will never again, in any circumstances, refer to what we have learnt today."
Allan Crane, single, 45 years old, five feet four inches tall, plump, clean shaven and balding, came in next morning. He was the most untidily dressed man I have ever seen. He wore spotlessly clean, good quality clothes as if they had been blown by a strong wind to settle on him. His suit was a size too large, his crisp white shirt two sizes, with a gaping collar that eluded the knot of his tie. His shirt cuffs, unfastened, draped large red undeft hands. His socks slipped over untied shoelaces, his snowy handkerchief trailed from a jacket pocket. He moved slowly, sat heavily, and pondered long and seriously before answering.
Over a long period alcoholics, petty pilferers, and inexperienced, careless, confident youths had come and gone, increasing, rather than lessening my work and worry. Allan's appearance did nothing to inspire confidence, and as he took a pen, holding it hesitantly and timorously, as if it were a lighted match about to burn his fingers, my hopes bottomed.
Starting a new man can be an awkward experience, everyone has their own way of working, and explaining particular methods can confuse a new employee, and give an employer an impression of incompetence. With Allan other difficulties arose. I had not learnt the length of his prison term, how big a break there had been in his usual employment; and this unacknowledged gap separated us as I sought details of his experience. At ten o'clock, as we paused for a cup of tea, the telephone rang, and the caller identifying himself as a social worker, requested conformation of Allan's employment. Despite, or because of, the careful phrasing of my replies it was a bad few minutes, and when Allan asked for time off that afternoon, presumably to report to some authority we were again both embarrassed.
That first morning was spent in explaining our work and the functions of the other departments.
Next day Allan put pen to paper and worked steadily through the morning. I was busy and it was not until he had gone to lunch that I had a chance to view his work. I was appalled.
My pilferer's false entries, perfectly penned decorated a number of account book pages; my alcoholic's wandering after liquid lunch pen disfigured as many. Allan's clumsy hand had drawn rather than written strange symbols all over the Purchases Day Book. His letters and figures not only did not conform to accepted shape, they wandered over the page, overlapping lines and columns, as if these had no right to confine their meanderings. It was an uncomfortable time for both of us, when he returned, and I asked him to explain his strange scrawl.
In the first month Allan was with me his bumbling ways, his strange unformed writing, and his zigzagging columns of figures seemed to increase rather than relieve the burden of work. I had repeatedly to seek clarification of the strange symbols he used to represent figures and letters. This was time wasting and embarrassing for us both. Winston, whose own hand writing was well formed and easy to read, was able more readily than I to decipher Allan's, and during Allan's lunch time absence he would find me the information I needed.
The manager, who occasionally went directly to the records to verify some transaction rather than interrupt us at work, gave up the unequal task and with raised eyebrows and puzzled frown waited while I clarified the entry with Allan.
"Don't let him continue if his handwriting hinders rather than helps." was his advice to me; but surprisingly, after those first few months, despite the ravages of Allan's pen, it was apparent that the piles of paper needing attention were dwindling. Hardly ever lifting his head Allan got through an enormous amount of work each day, seldom seeking help with, or explanation of, documents he was dealing with for the first time. I became aware that he was more than usually capable, and began to accept his results without checking or questioning them.
After six months were beginning to have breathing spells, to be able to stop for a few minutes to drink our morning and afternoon tea, to be able even to discuss the day's news.
During these months Allan had familiarised with most of the aspects of our work, with little assistance from me. He now began producing accurate and helpful financial statements and comparisons, and as I became more accustomed to his particular style of scribbling I found it easier to understand.
So began a period of appreciation on my part, and I hope of acceptance and satisfaction on his. We talked more. We were in agreement on many subjects, but politically on opposing sides. Winston and I held similar views, Allan being the odd man out, but all our arguments to influence or change his beliefs came to nought.
When the manager began better to understand his writing, and, to avoid interrupting me, approach him directly for confirmation of entries and results, I was glad that I had been patient those first months.
Now that the vast accumulation of routine work was a thing of the past Allan thought up new ways of presenting results, each one more helpful and time saving than the last, and when he was able to have his statements typed the results showed a nimbleness of mind belying his physical clumsiness. It became rarely necessary to ask him for a set of figures, they would appear on my desk in the correct analytical form even as I pondered what form would suitably express a result. I was able to leave more and more work to him, and when our black friend was once again ahead of his costing calculations and had time to lend a hand, and we had added a junior to our team, overtime became only necessary for a short end of year book balancing period.
Two years went by, the junior left for greener pastures and was replaced, the work stream flowed smoothly, and the period was relaxed and rewarding.
Allan, smiling more often, was popular with all the staff, and was able to smooth over small difficulties and jealousies before they assumed serious proportions. Now well into the sixties, and with retirement only a short distance away, I appreciated this serenity and the assistants who made it possible.
Discord came in the form of a replacement for the firm's retiring secretary.
A young man on his way up, confident and brash, and fully certificated, arrived to question, and criticise, and ruffle feelings. As part of his training he spent several weeks with us, familiarising himself with our methods. He was brashly critical of work and workers and annoyed many of the staff until the manager told him to change his attitude. Then he smiled more to cover his petty criticisms.
He was very critical of Allan's handwriting and held it up to ridicule. I asked him, quietly, to desist, pointing out that Allan's ability more than compensated; but the new man had no reason to respect feelings, and persisted.
One Friday at five o'clock in the afternoon when the others were preparing for home going, and he and I had the office to ourselves, he said, "Allan will just have to do something about his handwriting, he could improve it if he made the effort you know, even if it meant attending a school of calligraphy. You must agree it is atrocious - "
"Yes" I said, and stopped as Allan came into the room ready to leave.
"Mr. Benton and I have been discussing your handwriting Allan, and we agree you will have to do something to improve it," was the new man's greeting.
"Yes" Allan said. He looked unsmilingly at us both standing together.
"Goodnight," he went out.
I spent the weekend inventing phrases to explain to Allan that I had not been criticising his work, but had been trapped into appearing to do so. I also worked on the opening remarks of my request to the manager to once again ask the new man to moderate his critical attitude. But these thoughts were never voiced.
Allan, seldom missing, never late, was worrying me with his absence, when at ten o'clock his brother rang to say he had died early on Saturday morning of an unsuspected heart condition.
His ;mother, with whom he lived, had taken him in an early morning cup of tea, he had taken the up, then fallen back and died in a few minutes. His mother was still under sedation, they, the brother and his wife, and a sister and her husband were all terribly shocked. I don't know what I said.
Allan had never spoken of his family. I knew him to be a bachelor and imagined he lived alone. My mind dwelt on what I should say either personally, or in a letter, of my feeling of loss and of my gratitude for Allan's help and friendship. I felt I should wait until they were over the worst of the shock, but once again my thoughts were never expressed.
The funeral was on Tuesday. Months previously it had been arranged that I should keep this day free for a conference with colleagues from another country. It was felt that no other member of the staff was sufficiently conversant with the matters needing consideration to act in my place, and although the firm sent three instead of the usual one representative, I was not at the funeral.
The brother rang again and made a date to call at the office; he thought it better I did not write to his mother, still in shock, till a later date.
I was in another part of the building when the brother called, and the new man, without notifying me, handed over Allan's few personal belongings.
Somehow it seemed to be fated that I should never tell his family how much I valued and missed Allan.
Another replaced him, a friendly, confident, outgoing young man without apparent problems, and after two more balance sheets I retired.
Mother, brother, sister - you will never read this - but Allan, for my own piece of mind I had to put it on paper.