Candour

Jane Westbrook's retirement party

This is an old photo, and it isn’t a particularly good one… but it is weirdly of some sentimental value to me. I hope it’s of sentimental value to her – it’s her damned retirement party. I do remember going to some effort to produce the magazine she’s holding in her hands. I remember being the only person on the team being capable of producing it. I remember it was a relief to many that I was doing so because she was not universally liked. I was pleased nonetheless for the honour to fall to me.

Some of those colleagues asked why I would do so much for a person who would, in a few hours, have no role to play in our lives. My heart sank. Why were these people maintaining the pretence and essentially lying to themselves about celebrating her retirement and giving her a happy send-off? And she’s not stupid: she can feel that energy. So why is she smiling and maintaining the pretence these people are all here to give a happy send-off?

In the end, I’ve captured a room full of people playing a colossal charade, lying to each other about how they feel through perfunctory smiles, and nobody really wanting to be there.

That might go some way towards explaining why I never shared this photo.

I do know that, for my part, the gift I produced was genuine; as genuine as the crocheted pillow gifted personally by Ana, one of the data analysts. I do wonder if her reaction to my gift was genuine. She would have known it could only have been produced by me. She also did once attend finishing school and then theatre school (her elocution is immaculate). But if I look closely at the photo, in the split second that I captured her reaction, I can see that her surprise is partly disguising… ambivalence? Perhaps I am looking too closely.

Either way, I don’t regret my humble contribution to the party. She mentored and guided me in ways I only wish could’ve happened 20 years earlier in my career. Among many other very important things, one lesson she gave me is that loyalty isn’t rewarded – it is the reward. Looking back, I understand now why the woman standing next to her served as her deputy for most of her career.

It’s been six years since I took this photo. As my colleagues predicted, Jane Westbrook hasn’t really had a role to play in my life. But I know that if fate should ever bring us face to face again, perhaps on the streets of the South Coast where she resides, she will remember me as an old friend, and I will embrace her with warmth and kindness.

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