Heinze’s incredulous expression said it all. He’s staring like a numbed goldfish, Charlotte thought heretically and almost had to laugh out loud, but suppressed the impulse immediately. Then Heinze cleared his throat, “Mhm.” Charlotte looked at him, mesmerized. Nothing. Then she heard “well.” Then another throat clearing. A nervous giggle bubbled up inside Charlotte. But then Heinze started talking, “I wanted to propose you as my successor.”
Joy shot through Charlotte’s body, disappearing as quickly as it had come. Because now Heinze was getting loud: “You can forget that. It won’t work. Can you imagine this? How are you going to manage a department if you work at home for one or even two days and you are unavailable to anyone? No, either you’re fully there, or….”
The threat of termination hovered in the room. Charlotte hadn’t seen that coming: “But…I would be available by phone,” she said meekly.
Heinze started pacing back and forth in the office: “No, that’s not possible. You have to be on site, you have to be available. Managers are expected to show above-average commitment to their company and must be willing to work longer hours. If you can’t make that work, Schneider will become the next head of department. Do you really want that?”
Heinze stopped his pacing through his office and looked at her with such a serious expression that she became frightened.
“I…don’t know. No…I don’t,” Charlotte said, stuttering.
“There you go. Then you talk to your husband tonight. And next week we’ll make your promotion official,” Heinze now said jovially, dropping contentedly into his desk chair.
Stunned, Charlotte nodded, got up and wordlessly left Heinze’s office.
Cheering, Heinze looked after her and congratulated himself on his clever move. Actually, he had wanted to promote Schneider. He was no better than Reimann, but he was a man. They were on the same wavelength. But unforeseen situations called for unusual measures. After all, he needed Reimann’s knowledge and her diligence and cooperation. For that reason alone, a telecommuting job would not have been acceptable. Controllers always had to be on site. There was no discussion about it. But it had been perfectly clear to him that if he had refused her asking for working from home and put Schneider in front of her, he would have seen her gone. Besides, he reassured himself, this argument would please Schuster. Reimann did not have to be paid as much as her male colleague.
Charlotte’s thoughts raged in a disorganized and confused manner. One chased the other. They circled wildly through her head as an endless loop: she had fallen for the social lie about the compatibility of professional, private and family life. Because nothing here was compatible at all. Why had she started working again in the first place? Now it was a mess. What was she supposed to do now? Give up her promotion? Then Schneider would become her boss. No, she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t let that happen. So she would continue to work full time? And give up painting? Would that be the solution? Inside her, she was saying no. But painting and running a department and family life? No, that wouldn’t work. She loved Justus and Emma and wanted to enjoy her new happiness. Their lives were not endless. And her love for them, she was perfectly aware, was the most important thing in her life. She could not and would not sacrifice her little family. So endure Schneider after all and reduce her working hours to half-time? Or quit?
Thoughtfully, Charlotte walked through the company hallway and down the stairs to the underground parking garage at the end of the workday. Her thoughts were still spinning around in her head like crazy. She started her car and drove the familiar route home, burdened by her thoughts. She reminded herself to calmly review all the options. Quit? No. Family life. Yes. Painting? Well, that was the only thing she could sacrifice. Was that the solution? After all, she could still paint when she retired.
“I thought of something like that. My boss also flatly rejected the remote work position. I guess parental employment is not wanted,” Justus said in frustration when Charlotte told him about the conversation with Heinze after dinner and after they had put Emma to bed together.
“But,” Justus continued, “I insisted that weekends from now on belong exclusively to my family.”
“And?” asked Charlotte.
“That’s what he agreed to. Probably because his wife recently complained that he’s not home enough with her and the kids.”
“How do you know that?”
“From his secretary,” Justus wiggled his eyebrows meaningfully.
“At least something,” Charlotte looked thoughtfully into her wine glass, took a sip, looked at the ripple on the surface, and then continued with a shrug, “I’ll keep working, of course. I don’t want to miss out on the promotion. But I’ll let the painting go for now. Still, I don’t have any more time for you guys. It’s frustrating, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but today we won’t find a solution anymore,” Justus said and pulled Charlotte up from the sofa, “let’s go upstairs and celebrate your promotion,” conspiratorially he winked at her and Charlotte’s skin started to vibrate.
The next morning, as Charlotte passed Schneider’s open office door, she wondered about the many files lying around disorganized in his office. She paused. Schneider looked up from his desk questioningly.
Charlotte pointed at the mess, “What are you up to?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” asked Schneider bitchily. The deep creases between his eyebrows that accompanied his unwilling expression gave him the appearance of an English bulldog. “You don’t have to take a sharp shot just because I was trying to be nice,” Charlotte said, continuing toward her office. Inwardly, she slapped herself on the shoulder. Had she finally managed to respond glibly.
“So – what did the family council decide?” asked Heinze, plopping down in the visitor’s chair in front of her desk.
“I accept the promotion and look forward to the new challenge,” Charlotte said, smiling, although she didn’t feel like smiling.
Heinze rubbed her hands together, “Fine, fine. Then I’ll announce it tomorrow in our morning meeting.”
Heinze waited until the end of the meeting to make the announcement. Charlotte nervously slid back and forth on her chair. She didn’t understand why she was jittery. After all, everything had already been decided. But it hadn’t been signed yet. Exactly. That was it. Only when she had this certainty would she relax.
“…Ms. Reimann will take over as department head on the first of next month. In the next few days you will receive written notification from our management. I am pleased that Ms. Reimann has accepted our offer. Congratulations.”
Charlotte had been so deep in thought that she almost missed Heinze’s speech. It was only when Heinze mentioned her name, stood up, and awkwardly circled the meeting table that she became attentive again. With his right hand extended, Heinze approached her, grabbed hers and shook it vigorously. The first thing she noticed was Schneider’s stunned expression, while the other gentlemen eyed her equanimously. But then slowly, almost reluctantly, they raised their hands and clapped.
“Didn’t you read the contract? It says we have two weeks to pay the amount,” Meier slowly took on the color of a fire alarm. “No, it says nothing like that,” Charlotte said. She sat across from Meier in his office, but now rose and stood wide-legged in front of his desk.
Now Meier also rose from his desk chair, “Of course.”
“No,” Charlotte said curtly. All that’s missing is drawing the guns, she thought, but aloud she said, “We’ll check the whole thing again and talk about it tomorrow.”
Without waiting for a response, Charlotte left Meier’s office. As she closed the door, she met the gaze of his ice-cold blue eyes, which looked at her sharply. The phone rang. Charlotte mechanically looked at the display. It was Mrs. Sonemann from the supplier company. Charlotte picked up the phone and answered it. But she no longer understood what Ms. Sonemann was saying, because Heinze yanked open her office door, rumbled into the room and left the door open, so that the sounds from the hallway together with his booming voice filled her office. What exactly he said, or what exactly Ms. Sonemann said, arrived as a mishmash of sounds in her ears. Defensively, Charlotte hunched her shoulders, turned to the side, covered her right ear and tried to tune out Heinze’s noisy behavior.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Sonemann. I couldn’t hear you just now. What did you say?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Heinze hopping from one foot to the other. It made her so nervous that she could hardly concentrate on the conversation. “Yeah, mmm,” Charlotte said. Apparently that wasn’t the right answer, though. Because Ms. Sonemann suddenly remained silent.
“Sorry about that. I was distracted,” Charlotte said, and saw Heinze finally give up and leave her office. She breathed a sigh of relief. At last her head was free for the phone call.
Charlotte looked at her wristwatch. She still had an hour to freshen up, renew her makeup and change her clothes. Until just now, she and Justus had planted bulbs in the backyard together with Emma. Now she was looking forward to Saturday’s meeting with Susanne. Charlotte got her jeans and a white sweater out of the closet. Being a size 38 again made her very happy. Carrying her clothes, she went into the bathroom. She put them down on the narrow rattan bench, turned to the mirror, and propped her hands on the sink. It was a strange feeling to look directly into each other’s eyes. As if behind the black pupils and blue irises there was a strange being looking at you questioningly, waiting.
“I love you,” Charlotte said softly, and to her astonishment, this time her eyes filled with tears. “I love you,” she repeated and completely unexpectedly a smile stole onto her face.
“Congratulations to your promotion.” Charlotte and Susanne met in their usual café and toasted to each other. For instead of the usual latte macchiato or coffee, Charlotte had ordered champagne for herself and Susanne to celebrate.
“See, I knew you would. You can do it.”
“Yes, I know,” Charlotte said, giving Susanne a smile, “though I wonder why they picked me.”
“Because you’re good?”
“I don’t think so. There’s something not right about it. And before you chide me: No, it has nothing to do with self-doubt.”
“I don’t know. Schneider and I have the same prerequisites in terms of our university degrees. But Schneider didn’t take eight years off to start a family. So – why didn’t they take him?” “Didn’t you tell me you met him at that seminar.“ “Yes, but he was there because his company went bankrupt. He just didn’t work for six months.”
“If that’s the case, there’s only one explanation,” Susanne said grimly. “What’s that?”
“They’re paying you less money.”
“You think so? And if it is, is there anything I can do about it?”
Susanne laughed unhappily, “Well, if your company has more than 200 employees, you can request salary disclosure. However, six employees must be paid a comparable salary.”
“Forget it then,” Charlotte waved it off, “I can only come up with one reason, Heinze himself.” She looked thoughtfully into her champagne glass, “It’s naive to believe that things are just and fair in the world. I guess the challenge of life is to come to terms with it.”
“Exactly,” Susanne said, winking at her and raising her glass, ” cheers to life.”