Colleen is the type of person who needs to be noticed. If she wasn’t greeted with a friendly smile she would think one thought ill of her, for she was easily offended. She yearned to be accepted into the bosom of whatever group she was in. Above all, Colleen needed to feel important.
You wouldn’t think so, for Colleen tended to be brusque; she voiced her opinions loudly and expected them to be accepted. At times she appeared to be unfeeling, such as the time she barked “Rules are there to be obeyed” at a colleague who dared to show an empathetic stance towards a girl who had pushed the envelope too far.
Colleen could be impatient too. There is no doubt that she was ambitious and lusted for power. Colleagues who worked closest with her knew that Colleen, who tended to present a tough exterior, often cried or sulked when things didn’t go her way.
She was an attractive young woman, who used this to her advantage in the company of men. Then she would flash a ready smile; shake her always slightly untidy blonde hair; or would reach out to touch a male arm or shoulder in conversation – just long enough to make eye contact, then she would look away and pretend nothing had happened.
Some of her male colleagues regarded her as a tease. Others spoke of her charming company. A couple of them thought she was intriguingly mysterious in that she gave little of herself in terms of where she had come from or why she sometimes wore a gold band on her left ring finger and yet mostly left it bare. Men tended to cluster around Colleen at staff functions. She liked it that way – who wouldn’t!
Colleen was not as successful with her female colleagues, who tended to be suspicious of her motives and were easily annoyed with what they interpreted as her attention-seeking tactics. Mostly though, they grew tired of her grumpiness and barbed remarks. Actually, the women turned from Colleen when it became clear that the aura of power had become her lodestone.
First, she did her best to make herself appear to be indispensable to the Deputy Principal in charge of Academic Matters. Colleen helped her collate the mark sheets, sided with her at meetings when anything contentious arose for discussion, and frequently stayed at work late to assist Olive with drawing up anything from examination time tables to duty rosters.
We were gobsmacked when it was announced that Colleen was to be the new Head of the Natural Science Department for we all knew that both Colin and Sarah had applied for the post. The Deputy Principal had invited Sarah out for coffee one afternoon and persuaded her to withdraw her application. “This really needs to be a one-horse race,” she had smiled sweetly, patting Sarah’s arm. She leaned towards her with a confident “You’re still young, Sarah, with plenty of opportunities ahead of you.” We had all then assumed Colin would get the post. He was ten years her senior and had been in charge of the boys’ boarding house for his full term of five years – it could only be him.
Well, it wasn’t. It did not go unnoticed that Colleen and the Deputy Principal were on particularly good terms. It soon became clear that the Natural Science Department floundered under Colleen’s hand, despite Sarah’s best efforts to help her stay on track. Colleen was easily angered and either set unrealistic deadlines for her staff or forgot all about them. She hated being criticised and cancelled any departmental meeting if she caught a whiff that it might become confrontational. Her colleagues loathed her curt e-mails. The men began ignoring her; the women simply stared at her in disbelief during the rare departmental meetings until the morning Isabel deliberately knocked over the school desk she was sitting at.
“I’ve had enough of this Colleen!” Isabel’s cheeks were suffused with red and her eyes glistened with anger. “You dither and complain. Nobody can do anything right in this department. You are selfish, ungrateful and know nothing about leadership!” With that, Isabel picked up her notebook and strode out of the classroom, not even stopping when Colleen’s large diary whizzed past her ear.
Six months later, Colin took over the reins of the department while Colleen spent a term enjoying her sabbatical leave two years earlier than anyone else has been able to secure theirs. “She has been overworked,” the Deputy Principal explained, “and really needs the rest.” Colleen returned to take charge of the girls’ boarding house and told everyone that it was such a full-time, hands-on job that she couldn’t possibly run the department too.
Steven became the Deputy Principal when Olive retired a year later. Colleen held no interest for him as he was devoted to his wife and two daughters. No more cosy dinners for our Colleen; she had become something of a pariah in the staffroom by then.
The parents of the boarders seemed to love her. Colleen fawned over them and revelled in the expensive gifts that came her way. She had all the outward signs of being loved, being valued, and of being held in high esteem. The cracks must have been there, but nobody cared to look. A few male colleagues still found her charming, but she no longer batted her eyelids at them. She had more interesting fish to fry: the fathers of the girls in boarding – and the Headmaster.
There is no need to jump to conclusions here. Colleen loved the heady feeling of the power of being attractive to older men with pretty wives and children in boarding school. There was no hanky-panky for Colleen, she wasn’t that type of person. What she thrived on for the most was to be in the centre of power. Her proximity to ‘important’ people in society made her practically drunk with pleasure.
Evan Butler, the Headmaster, openly empathised with this misunderstood, unappreciated, rather sad, single, still attractive woman in charge of the girls’ boarding house. He was relieved by her apparent success in the wake of Tilly, who had made a hash of things. He and his wife, Allison, occasionally invited her round for a drink, which often lead to an invitation to supper.
Colleen glowed with happiness. She sometimes teased Evan in the staffroom and often brought him tea at odd times during the day. She simpered at his over-used jokes. One day, Colleen let slip to someone in the bathroom that Evan Butler was secretly in love with her! We watched as she giggled in his presence; she would guess where he would sit during the staff tea break so that she could be near him. We noticed that she took greater care over her clothes and wore a lot of jewellery when Evan was present and slackened off during the times he was away from the school.
Her being so close to the ‘powerhouse’ of the school was akin to an aphrodisiac for Colleen. Everyone watched her like a hawk. She wore her lust for power like a shimmering mantle. Some of the weaker-willed colleagues were drawn to her, just as moths are attracted to light. She treated her current favourites with care by inviting them to her flat for wine; changing their campus duties at will; and granting them opportunities to enter what had become the ‘inner circle’ of power – albeit at the fringes only.
To his credit, Evan never encouraged her advances. He openly showed devotion to his wife of several decades and treated his colleagues with an even hand. He laughed with the few mothers who dared mention that “Miss Halford tried to get too close” to their husbands. “Colleen?” He would pour another glass of wine and compliment the woman on her earrings, her hairdo, or even her daughter. “Colleen is harmless,” he would smile. “A little lonely perhaps, but she is excellent with the girls.”
Was she? In time the girls began talking about how embarrassing it was that Miss Halford flirted with their fathers. In time word got out that Mr X or Mr Y had paid for Colleen’s holiday to the Kruger National Park or to Mauritius. In time girls began to complain that some of their peers received more privileges than others and that it was no coincidence that they were the daughters of the fathers so generous with their wallets. “It’s unfair!” The chorus of ‘unfair’ swelled with the passing of each term.
Colleen ignored it. She looked forward to the contents of creamy envelopes containing tickets accompanied by the well-meant “Enjoy yourself this holiday” or “You deserve to relax after such a hard term” notes. She reflected on her trips to Kenyan farms, to private game reserves, and wondered where her next destination would be.
To be fair, if nothing came her way, Colleen wouldn’t complain. Instead, the new term would bring a more thin-lipped Colleen to the fore. A Colleen with a desire to impose iron discipline on the girls. A Colleen who would show everyone who was boss. It became well-known that she seemed to have deliberately set about to unravel all the good Colin had done in the Natural Sciences Department.
Colin was made of sterner stuff than she could imagine. The men had become immune to her charming charades – they knew better. The women ignored her. All remembered the pot plant that had appeared on Isabel’s desk the day after Colleen’s diary had narrowly missed her ear. There had been no note. Everyone in the department knew that this was about as close to an apology that Colleen could muster. The members of the Natural Sciences Department simply side-lined Colleen and demonstrated their loyalty to Colin.
Steven spent three weeks in Australia. Officially, he was attending an international schools’ conference. Unofficially, he and his music teacher wife were planning to spy out the land for a possible transplant. Colleen saw the gap and moved in. She could smell the second tier of power and her nostrils flared at the possibility of usurping Steven’s post. She dreamt about it at night. During the day she would offer to take up the slack by doing this or that – whatever Steven would have done she was happy to ‘sacrifice’ her time to complete. Colleen would be better than Steven. She would be the best. She would have real status and power!
We began receiving e-mails sent at around midnight or beyond: reminders about the security of examination papers; reminders about deadlines for report comments; reminders about mark entry deadlines. So many unnecessary e-mails filled our inboxes that anything from her was ignored. We all had Steven’s end-of-term schedule to work from anyway.
Colleen couldn’t hide her obvious enjoyment at being seated next to the Headmaster at our final staff meeting of the term. In the absence of Steven, she had offered to take the minutes. We watched her beam. We watched her sparkling eyes. We watched the smile that couldn’t be suppressed. We watched as she drew attention to her position by shifting closer to the Headmaster, by whispering in his ear, by shuffling papers and by playing with her pen.
We watched and we waited. We knew something that Colleen didn’t. She didn’t know what we knew because every grapevine has its limit. She didn’t know what we knew because she had taken to having her tea in the boarding house office whenever Evan was away, which had been often of late. Of course we never spoke about what we knew when he was in the staffroom, where she continued to sit as close to him as she decently could – always ready to laugh at or agree with whatever he had to say.
We knew because real power comes from having knowledge. Real power doesn’t come from belittling some people while favouring others. Real power does not necessarily come from trying to be superior. It comes from chatting to people, from exchanging opinions, from providing a helping hand, and from being the best person you can be. Real power comes from considering the information you have and where it comes from. Real power considers the impact it has on real people. Real power includes degrees of empathy, sympathy and respect.
Evan embodied all of that – he was that kind of person. He didn’t openly share the details of his wife’s terminal cancer, and when he did so reluctantly he didn’t seek sympathy. He didn’t expect anyone to compromise on his behalf. He grieved in private.
Once the last item on the agenda had been dealt with, Evan rose to face us all crowded into the staffroom. He paused as he surveyed the room, cleared his throat and announced softly, “Allison is not going to get any better. Her family and our children live in Johannesburg.” Heads nodded. Several pairs of eyes in the packed room had become misty. “It is with regret,” Evan continued, his voice cracking, “that I announce my resignation with immediate effect. Steven will step in as Acting Head on his return and Isabel has agreed to take over his job until she goes on maternity leave at the end of next term. Allison and I have been extraordinarily happy here.” He was struggling to maintain his composure in the face of the absolute silence. “No fuss. No fuss. We need no fuss. Goodbye to you all from both of us.”
Is there such a phrase as ‘shocked pandemonium’? There should be, for that second of shock ended in a rush of emotion as people crowded around Evan, shook his hand, hugged him, or simply sobbed.
And Colleen? Our triumphant wait was in vain. So focused had we all been on Evan that none of us had noticed her slip away. It was Pauline, Evan’s PA, who told us the following morning of Colleen’s letter of resignation slipped under her door. It too was with immediate effect. We never saw her again.