Sunday, 31 May 2009

Short Story: Maternity Leave

Rajeev wanted to sit down for a while and get some rest, but Kiyan didn’t give him a chance. To be honest, Carla had been running after little Kiyan since morning and he had no right to complain.

‘Kiyan, don’t go there. You’ll fall into the water.’ Rajeev picked up Kiyan and carried him back to the top of the steps of the beautiful Santa Maria della Salute where Carla was sitting. The moment he put him down next to Carla, Kiyan started to slowly and carefully climb down the steps. Rajeev watched with wry amusement. Kiyan took a while to get to the bottom, after which he ran towards to the pier.

‘Don’t go near the water!’ Rajeev pointlessly admonished Kiyan as he ran after him. It was so easy for that boy to fall into the water, or if he didn’t jump in, that is. And there was no getting away from the water in Venice. It was everywhere.

‘Shall we head back?’ he shouted to Carla from below as he dragged Kiyan away from the water’s edge once more.

Carla looked at her watch and said, ‘No. We have plenty of time.’ The she added with a laugh, ‘don’t be so restless.’

She was right. It was only nine thirty. The vaporetto would take them from Salute to Rialto in less than fifteen minutes. The walk to their hotel on the Calle de la Fava was less than five minutes. Unless Kiyan insisted on walking rather than be carried, in which event, it would take them ten or fifteen minutes. The return trip from their hotel to Rialto would be painful with their big suitcases since there was a small bridge to cross and carrying the big suitcase up those steps would take time. The vaporetto ride from the Rialto to Ferrovia was only another ten minutes and the Santa Lucia train station was right across the Ferrovia pier. Their train to Rome was at quarter past twelve. He couldn’t help being restless. He was always restless. Not that his restlessness was a bad thing. He wouldn’t have set up Chipmunks and made such a success of it if he was the type to sit on a fat arse and watch the world go by.

Rajeev relaxed his grip on Kiyan’s shoulders a bit. Instantly Kiyan tried to break free. Rajeev reluctantly carried him back to the bottom of the steps saying, ‘When Kiyan grows up, Kiyan will learn to swim and then Daddy will let Kiyan play close to the water.’

‘Why don’t you go inside and take a look?’ Rajeev encouraged Carla. Ultimately she would want to see the inside of the church, even though they had seen half a dozen churches in the three days they had been in Venice. Might as well get over the viewing so that they could go back to the hotel, Rajeev thought. Carla got up to go inside.

‘Kiyan, do you want to go inside the church with Mummy?’

‘No, he doesn’t. He hates the indoors, even that of a beautiful church,’ Carla brushed aside a few strands of hair from her freckled face as she spoke. It was very warm and Carla had her sweater off and tied around her waist, which made her look plumper than she actually was.

Rajeev did not press the argument. Carla was right, though it wouldn’t have hurt Kiyan to see the inside of a church.

At that moment, Rajeev’s mobile rang. Or rather it vibrated inside his pocket. As he fished it out, he yelled, ‘Carla, hold on. I need to take this call. It’s the office. Kiyan, here, go to Mummy, Daddy needs to talk to someone’

Carla’s face puffed up in annoyance, but Rajeev ignored it. If he worked for the bloody NHS, he too would keep his mobile switched off while he was on holiday.

As he suspected, it was the office.

‘Hello!’ He bellowed into his phone as Carla came down the steps and took hold of Kiyan.

It turned out to be Linda. ‘Raj, I’m sorry to trouble you when you are on holiday. Do you have a couple of minutes?’’

Yes, of course. He definitely had a couple of minutes. He owned the business, didn’t he?’

‘Today morning Jessie interviewed all three candidates Charlie had short-listed. She says she is fine with them all.’

‘Good. Let Charlie take the call. He’s going to be the direct supervisor, isn’t he? Have you asked him whom he wants to hire?’

‘Yes, I did.’ Linda paused for a second.

‘That’s brilliant! Good.’ Rajeev never hesitated in lavishing praise, which didn’t cost him a penny.

‘And what did Charlie have to say?’ Rajeev prompted Linda who was actually the office administrator. She doubled as the HR manager when situations like this one arose. Which wasn’t very often. With a staff of less than twenty, it didn’t really make sense to have a HR manager in addition to the administrator.

Charlie said he likes Toni the most. That’s Toni with an ‘i' and not a ‘y.’

‘Hmmm. If he has made up his mind, then I have nothing further to add.’

‘Raj, I think you should interview those three candidates before we make an offer. You are the best judge of people I’ve ever known.’

Linda, the born flatterer! However, he was definitely a better judge of people than either Jessie or Charlie. Jessie was strictly a hard-nosed accountant with an unbelievable inability to look beyond numbers, whilst Charlie was a statistician who was determined to miss the woods for the trees.

‘No, no. There’s no need for me to interview anyone. I don’t want to poke my finger in every pie. Charlie is perfectly capable of deciding on his own. In any event, I’m not back for another 4 days.

‘Hmmm. Aaaaah. Well….’

‘Have I missed something?’


‘Go on, I’m all ears.’ `Since Linda could not see his face, Rajeev did not have to smile.

Linda seemed to sense that Rajeev was getting impatient and her tone became crisper. ‘This is actually none of my business, but ….’

‘It doesn’t matter. I’d still like to know what you have to say.’ If it was none of her business, Linda ought to shut up. At times like this, Rajeev did think he had taken employee empowerment too far. In addition to giving all employees stock options, Rajeev had decentralised decision making to a remarkable extent. Everyone was encouraged to speak his or her mind. All of which helped in keeping employee turnover low though the pay at Chipmunks wasn’t anything great.

‘I met Toni briefly when she came for her first interview. She’s very pleasant and she comes across as a very energetic person with a positive outlook. In fact I liked her a lot.’

‘So what’s the problem?’ Rajeev was getting irritated with Linda. He looked around and realised that Carla and Kiyan were not to be seen. Carla must have gone inside the church with Kiyan in tow. Which wasn’t a bad thing, Rajeev thought as he smiled to himself.

‘Toni said she hasn’t ever been on sick leave exceeding a day at a time. And she has been working for almost six years from the time she graduated.’

‘That’s good for us, isn’t it? Too many people take sickies these days.’

‘Toni hasn’t even taken any long leave.’

‘What long leave?’

‘Like maternity leave.’

‘That’s good as well, isn’t it? Oh….. I didn’t realise…’

‘She has been married for 2 years now. She’s almost thirty. She’s bound to start thinking of … you know.’

‘Ha! I see! So, she’s married?’

‘Yes she is. Her husband is a journalist. He works for …’

‘Did you discuss this with Jessie or Charlie?’

‘With Jessie yes. The moment she said she liked all three, I asked her and ..’

‘What did she say?’ Rajeev needlessly prompted Linda.

‘She agrees with me. It’s just a matter of time before Toni goes on ML.’

‘Why is she leaving her current job? From what I know, you aren’t eligible for Maternity Leave until you complete a year at your job.’

‘She was made redundant two months ago. She used to work for Jeremys. They’ve been having huge layoffs at Jeremys you know…’

‘Yes I know Linda.’ Jeremys was the biggest player in market research and Rajeev knew as much about Jeremys as he knew about his own business. ‘I didn’t know Toni was from Jeremys.’

‘Yes she is and ……………..’

‘Why don’t you ask Jessie to have a word with Charlie?’

‘Jessie wants to, but she wanted me to check with you first.’ So it was Jessie’s idea after all. Trust Linda to make it sound as if it was hers. Jessie would know if a woman was planning to get pregnant, wouldn’t she? She had two teenagers, one doing his A levels and the other tackling her GCSE.

‘And please ask Jessie to call me this evening after she’s had a word with Charlie.’ Charlie would have to be handled with caution Rajeev thought as he walked up the steps to the church to join Carla and Kiyan. Though it was almost two years since he persuaded Charlie to leave his job with one of the largest market research firms and join Chipmunks, Charlie had yet to come to terms with the fact that he was now with a very small outfit. One that could not afford to have an employee on Maternity Leave for a year.

Carla and Rajeev had one of their routine arguments on the train to Rome, which was almost empty.

‘You needn’t have booked a ticket for Kiyan,’ Rajeev mildly suggested.

‘What if the train was full and we had to have him on our laps for the entire five hours?’

‘On a weekday? Come on Carla! You know better than that!’

‘It’s only fifty Euros.’

‘It’s not a question of money.’

‘Next time we travel, you should do the bookings.’

‘When I was here last year, it was exactly the same. Charlie was with me and we had a whole coach to ourselves.’

‘I’m sure you had fun,’ Carla remarked sarcastically.

‘With Charlie? Yeah, from the time we got on the train at Milan till we got to Rome, he talked non-stop about work. Such riveting stuff it was.’

‘You could have come here with Charlie once again. You both could have kept your mobiles on Loud and discussed work non-stop.’

‘Honey, I didn’t mean to…………….’ They kissed and made up. Things would have become even better if Kiyan who was skipping up and down the aisles till then hadn’t stopped and come over to sit between them.

‘Let’s take a taxi to the hotel,’ Rajeev said when they reached Rome.

‘No, let’s take the Metro to Cornelia. We can take a taxi from there.’

‘Why didn’t you book a hotel close to a metro station?’ Rajeev asked mildly before adding, ‘it doesn’t matter. You know Rome better than I do.’

‘No, I think you know it better. You come here so often on business. My last visit was four years ago!’

‘But you spent three months here during your gap year!’ Rajeev said as he picked up a struggling Kiyan. ‘Kiyan, I’ll have to carry you buddy. If you are to walk, we’ll never get to the Metro platform.’

Carla inhaled heavily and said, ‘I hope it hasn’t changed. Each time I come back here, I am scared that it has changed and each time it has been the same.’

‘You had fun here, didn’t you?’

‘Yes I did,’ Carla said with a sparkle in her eyes that hinted at a world into which Rajeev would never have access.

‘Kiyan, do you like Roma?’ Rajeev asked Kiyan who resolutely ignored the question and continued to fiddle with the buttons on his shirt.

As they stood on an escalator that took them underground to the Metro, Rajeev asked Carla, ‘is it Line A or B?’

‘Line A, towards Battistini. It’s the stop just before Battistini.’

Rajeev’s mobile shuddered once and was still. ‘Damn,’ Rajeev said as he took his mobile out of his pocket and looked at it. ‘Out of range.’

‘Do you want to go back and return the call?’ Carla asked with extra sweetness.

‘No, of course not. Whoever it is can wait.’

‘Was it the office?’ Carla wanted to know.

‘Yes, it was,’ Rajeev conceded with a wry smile. ‘Must be Jessie. There is something slightly important going on. Otherwise I wouldn’t be so concerned.’ Might as well explain to Carla, Rajeev thought. Otherwise, there was a very good chance of Carla sulking and ruining their holiday.

‘What’s going on? An unhappy client?’

‘I’ll explain once we are inside the Metro,’ Rajeev said as they walked towards the platform wading through a bunch of office-goers returning home. The Metro was crowded and they had to push themselves in. A young girl got up and offered her seat to Rajeev seeing that he had Kiyan in his arms. Rajeev smiled his thanks and nodded towards Carla who took Kiyan from him and sat down on the proffered seat. Rajeev pushed himself to where Carla had been standing and placed his arm with an air of proprietorship on the large suitcase that Carla had been dragging behind her. It was only at Baldo degli Ubaldi that Rajeev got a place to sit, a good three seats away from Carla and Kiyan. Within a few minutes, they were at Cornelia and they got off the Metro.

They found a taxi and the taxi driver agreed that he would only charge them by the meter for the trip to their hotel at the Aurelia Antica. However, within a minute of the taxi moving off, he shook his head and said ‘Signore, this place. Very far. Fifteen Euros.’

Rajeev looked at Carla who shrugged her shoulders. `Si, Si’ Rajeev told the driver who gave Rajeev an approving nod and stepped on the accelerator.

Carla turned to him and asked, ‘tell me, what’s going on in the office?’

‘It’s a bit complicated. I would like to know what you think as well. Why don’t I tell you what it is over dinner?’

‘So that you can call back your office now?’ Carla did not seem to be angry, only resigned.

‘Well, once Jessie leaves office it is tough to talk to her. She has two kids you know.’

Carla was silent and Rajeev took it as consent. He quickly dialled Jessie on her mobile.

‘Jessie? Some one called me from office. I thought it might be you.’

‘Yes, it was me,’ Jessie said. ‘I had a word with Charlie.’


‘He was under the impression that if we hire Toni and Toni goes on ML, we will hire a temp to provide maternity cover!’

‘I hope you disabused him of that fantastic notion. Did you remind him that if we were to spend 20K on maternity cover, his bonus would take a hit?’

‘I did actually. It took me a while, but he finally saw sense.’

‘Thank God. I am sure that of the three he short-listed, at least one is unlikely to go on Maternity Leave in the near future.’

‘The other two are men.’

‘Did he tell you which of the two he likes?’

‘Yes, he did. It’s …’

‘Please ask him to email the name to Linda copying us both. His email should explain that his chosen candidate is better than Toni and the other chap for X, Y, Z reasons. And please ask Linda to prepare the offer letter.’

Jessie was silent for a few seconds. Then she said, ‘Charlie actually wanted to know why we didn’t weed Toni out at the initial stages! Can you believe that?’

‘Charlie is really wet behind the ears. If the Equal Opportunities Commission gets to know that we don’t interview married women likely to take ML, we’ll be in shit. I guess Charlie has never heard of the Equal Opportunities Commission.’

‘He can’t see beyond his data and various ways of analysing it!’

‘It’s not that I have anything against hiring women or giving them maternity benefits, it’s just that Chipmunks is just a start-up and we can’t afford to have employees go on ML.’

‘I know Raj! I know! For God’s sake, I am a woman.’

‘Once we are bigger, and I know that we are destined to become bigger and bigger, once we cross critical mass, we will stop doing things like this. We’ll be as generous with benefits as any of the big players.’

‘Raj, you don’t have to feel so guilty. Even the big players do their best to avoid hiring women who are likely to go on ML. I remember after I announced that I was planning to take Maternity Leave for the second time, and at that time I used to work for _______________, my boss made my life so miserable. He would have fired me if he could have done it. And after I came back from ML, he kept giving me such crappy work, I was forced to quit and go to ______________.’

‘Chipmunks will be different, once it is bigger,‘ Raj declared fervently. ‘Listen Jessie, thanks for this. You take care. Okay?’

‘Bye Raj. You have fun. Give Kiyan a hug from me. And please say Hello to Carla’

Rajeev quickly dumped the mobile into his pocket and looked at Carla’s face to see if she was annoyed with him. Carla was staring out of the window with a blank face.

‘We ought to do a Super Duper dinner today. When in Roma, eat like a Roman.’

‘They don’t have vomitoriams these days.’


‘I was just joking. The restaurants here are so much better than in London.’

‘Where should we go? You are the Rome expert.’

‘Do you remember the restaurant we went to at Ottaviano? Shall we go there?’

There was no time to say more since the taxi slowed down and they realised that they had arrived at their hotel.

As the taxi driver helped Rajeev take the suitcase out of the boot, he said with a smile, ‘three Euros for luggage.’

Rajeev looked at Carla who was busy preventing Kiyan from running away. Not a single hotel employee could be seen outside the hotel who might have helped Rajeev. With a smile and a shrug, Rajeev said, ‘okay. Si.’

They had a good room with a view of the hotel’s swimming pool. As they changed out of their travel stained clothes, Rajeev told Carla, ‘we were on the verge of making a job offer to someone. That’s for Charlie’s team. Then we decided not to.’


Because she’s around thirty, has been married for two years and is likely to start thinking of a family.’

‘You don’t want to hire someone who might go on maternity leave within a year of being hired?’

‘Yes,’ Rajeev said simply and waited for Carla to explode. She didn’t. Instead she smiled and said, ‘I’m so glad I work for the NHS. If I were in the private sector, we might not have had Kiyan.’

‘That’s ridiculous. Even if you had to quit your job, we would have managed on my income!’

‘I don’t have the energy to go to Ottaviano for dinner? Can’t we find something close by?’ Rajeev was relieved at the change of topic. Carla did look tired.

They ended up going to a restaurant that was just outside the hotel. As they ordered starters and their main course, Rajeev said, ‘I’m famished. I will go for a secondi after this.’

‘Raj, don’t get carried away. You need to lose weight.’ Which was a bit rich coming from Carla, Rajeev thought. She was still good looking, though. Rajeev looked at Carla for a second time for reassurance. Yes, she wasn’t bad looking.

The waiter brought them the Frascati wine Rajeev had chosen along with a plate of Panini. He opened the bottle and poured a little wine into Rajeev’s glass. Rajeev drank it slowly with a serious look on his face and nodded at the waiter who quickly filled his glass and then Carla’s.

‘What happens if you say you don’t like the wine you ordered?’ Carla asked and laughed.

‘We need to keep up appearances honey. What’s life without a bit of charade? Do you like it?’

Carla sipped her wine and said ‘it’s good, though I would have preferred a Chianti any day.’

‘Come on now! We can’t order a Tuscan wine in Rome! When we go to Florence, you can have a Chianti! Frascati is supposed to be the best among Latium wines.’

‘Fine! Let’s keep up the charade. This wine is amazing. Splendid! Are you happy now?’ Carla laughed at her own joke.

Rajeev looked around and said, ‘look at these Italians. They spend two or three hours over dinner almost every day. An entire bottle of wine, starters, two main courses and a dessert. How do they manage to look so fit?’

‘I don’t think they eat much breakfast or lunch. They exercise a lot and they eat their dinner slowly. A siesta in the afternoon, a slow dinner over two or three hours.’

‘You are not angry with me, are you darling?’ Raj asked. ‘About what I told you?’

‘No honey. Of course not. I understand perfectly well. You can’t afford to have people on maternity! Not when Chipmunks is just taking off!’

They drank the wine in silence. Out of the blue, Carla asked, ‘do you think we’ll have another child?’

Rajeev looked at Kiyan who was strapped into a child seat and was busy playing with the plastic baby cutlery placed in front of him.

‘We should, shouldn’t we? I’m sure the NHS will survive even if you go on maternity leave once more.’

‘Kiyan, would you like to have a brother or sister to play with?’ Carla asked Kiyan who carefully considered the question and went back to playing with his red plastic spoon and fork.

Before Carla could repeat her question, the waiter re-appeared with their starters.

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