Clarisse sat idly at her desk, her bare feet resting on an empty chair, her hands behind her head, fingers interlaced. A fresh southerly breeze was blowing through the building, lightly ruffling the papers spread around her, held securely in place by a selection of smooth stone paperweights. The breeze also caught her summer dress, which fluttered slightly in the eddying air. A few spreadsheets sat open on her desktop, several cells displaying hostile rows of bright red symbols. Her numbers were still not adding up, but she needed to take a break from them. It was a hot day.
“I see you’re taking casual Fridays very literally Clarisse,” said Olivia, nodding disapprovingly at Clarisse’s lounging posture.
“I’m expecting a phone call,” she replied, “and we’re in the middle of a heatwave. You’ve got to try and keep it cool. Anyway, you’re looking pretty casual yourself.”
Olivia cast a glance down at her own outfit, a short pencil skirt and a light white blouse, then responded quickly. “My outfit is perfectly in line with the company dress code, and more to the point…”
She was cut off as the phone began to ring. Clarisse leaned forward and lifted it gently from the receiver, answering in a tone that was honey-glazed in customer service.
“Hello, Sharma and Wilson Legal Services, how may I help you?” She flashed her best ‘professional’ smile at Olivia, who relented and continued down the office, lightly fanning herself with the file she was carrying. It was too hot to argue. Clarrisse noted down the client’s request then returned to her accounts. It could wait till later, at least until the midday sun had passed over. Still, at least she was getting some work done. She dreaded to think what it would have been like trying to work in this heat a year ago, before the firm had updated its dress code. She cast a glance across the room to a far cubicle, where an ageing man with salt-and-pepper hair sat sweating in the corner. Some, it seemed, were still reluctant to make the change.
As if on cue, Bernard rose to his feet, sweat stains showing around his neck and under the armpits of his three-piece suit. It looked expensive, custom-fitted, likely from a fancy London tailor. That was the kind of man Bernard was. Appearances had always mattered to him, and they still did. Her eyes followed him as he stalked forcefully towards Olivia’s desk, past rows of his colleagues dressed in shorts, flip flops, t-shirts, sarees and other garments that until recently were not considered office wear. He came to a stop, staring harshly at Olivia, who continued to fan herself with her file.
“I’ve had it with this, Olivia. I can’t work in these conditions. I demand that the air conditioning be turned back on. I know the system hasn’t been removed yet. There’s no reason not to use it in this heat. The controls are right there.”
“Bernard, you’ve read all the company policy statements that the partners sent around. I know you have. The air conditioning is being decommissioned as part of Bartlett & Bartlett’s commitment to going carbon neutral. To compensate, we’ve ventilated the office, and of course you’re free to adopt the firm’s new warm-weather dress code.”
Bernard’s face reddened further, his whole body stiffening as he listened to Olivia’s reply.
Here we go, Clarisse thought to herself.
“New dress code? New dress code? Olivia, this is a law firm, not a beach party. Our name is supposed to command respect. I’ve worked here for thirty years and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that we’d stoop to this level. What must our clients think of us? How am I supposed to meet with them if you insist that I either boil alive in the appropriate wear or meet them dressed like a hippie at the Glastonbury Festival?”
Clarisse saw Olivia bristle a little at the last comment. She’d clearly gone to some effort to stay as close to the ‘business’ end of business casual as she could with her own wear.
“Bernard, please, if you’ll only be reasonable…”
“No,” he interrupted. “I’m tired of being reasonable. This situation is ridiculous. Why, it’s downright inhumane. I swear the firm’s servers get better treatment than we do. With the amount of money I alone bring in we can easily afford to run the air conditioning, plus pay for whatever offsetting we need to make us net zero. We can just have a few trees planted somewhere, it’ll be good for public relations.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Clarisse caught the turning of a doorknob, the knob of the end office, monogrammed Bartlett & Bartlett. She watched wide-eyed as, while Bernard continued to rant, the door swung wide and Bartlett the senior stepped out. He was wearing sandals, yellow-striped Bermuda shorts and an extremely loud Hawaiian shirt with a rainbow-coloured floral print. He strode up to Bernard and Olivia, addressing the former in his calm, firm voice, the verbal equivalent of drawing a line in the sand.
“Come now, Bernard, there’s more than enough hot air in here today. No need for you to add any more.”
Bernard looked up, his lips moving silently as he tried to compose a reply.
“Bernard, don’t be a dinosaur. I’ve made it very clear how seriously Bartlett & Bartlett takes its commitment to decarbonising. Besides, we’ve always promoted ourselves on our efficiency. It hardly seems reasonable, given this reputation, to insist that you dress for winter all year round, then spend a fortune turning this place into an icehouse just so you won’t have to take off your jacket? Anyway, I think it’s good for lawyers to update their dress code every once in a while. You don’t see us walking around in togas any more, do you?
Eventually Bernard’s anger began to subside and he allowed himself to be guided back to his desk, sliding his suit jacket from his shoulders as he walked.
“Still, Bernard, you make a very good point about the servers, we need to find a better way of regulating their temperature. I’ve been reading some really interesting things about air source heat pumps. Come winter, those servers will be heating our office, so be careful what you say about them, eh? There’s a good chap.”
After depositing Bernard back at his desk, Bartlett the senior turned and made his way back to his office. Lingering, he took a moment to speak to Clarisse and Olivia, who were exchanging looks across the room.
“Is everything OK? I know it’s hot today, and I appreciate your continued efforts.”
“It’s not that, Mr Bartlett,” said Clarisse, feeling emboldened by the display she had just witnessed. “It’s just that casual Fridays don’t seem quite the same since you implemented the new dress code.”
“Yes, you’re quite right,” he said, nodding. “What to do?”
There was a pause. Clarisse thought for a moment, then decided to push her luck.
Douglas Hart UK Douglas Hart is an aspiring writer currently living in Bristol. He has worked in the conservation sector for over a decade on and off and a lot of his writings are inspired by the natural world. You can read more of his stories, poetry and other scribblings at https://www.dougwrites.org View all posts