A week after my in- house job interview, at work in the call centre, I cautiously clicked open the internal company email system.
'I am sorry to say that on this occasion Paula, you have not been successful.'
My spirit sank. I was letting the news absorb when I spotted a colleague, Leo Riley amble over to my desk. He'd also been a candidate.
He launched straight in: 'Have you got the team leader job?'
I shook my head. 'No. How about you?'
'No,' he snapped. I assumed, like me, he'd only just received the 'Not successful' email message.
My workmate Clare piped up: 'I haven't been offered it, either.'
'They must have given it to Big Barry then,' Leo concluded, and he raced off to seek him out.
We'd taken it for granted that the successor would be an insider, because Energa (a nationwide duel- fuel provider) liked to invest in their staff.
Although over thirty had applied for the team leader position, as far as we knew, just us four (Clare, Leo, Barry and me) had been short-listed for the interview.
Chatterbox Clare turned to me. 'I can't see Big Barry in the role, Paula.'
Barry, besides being six foot four and broad with it, was dull as ditch water. Although he was an IT expert, he didn't have the right sort of personality.
I pulled a face. 'Neither can I.'
At morning break, Clare, Leo and I discovered that Big Barry hadn't been successful, either.
So who had been given the job?
A few days later, we discovered that Energa had hired an outsider.
A thin- stick, glamorous fifty- something woman, with a mane of long red hair, stood in the middle of the call centre floor and clapped her hands.
We all looked up.
'Hello everyone! I'm Angela Mason, your new team leader. I'll be getting to know you over the coming weeks. If there's any problem, knock on my office door.'
With her high heels clacking, she strode away.
'Is that it? Talk about brief!' Clare was aghast.
'It's hardly authoritative, is it?' I muttered.
At lunch, the conversation centred around the new recruit.
'Maybe this Angela prefers to take a back seat,' Big Barry remarked.
I shrugged. 'That suits me.'
Let's face it, none of us were fans of control freaks, I thought.
Our last team leader had a habit of breathing down our necks and micro- managing. Anyway, when she'd become pregnant, she'd decided not to return to work after her maternity leave had ended. We were pleased and relieved.
'The 'staying in the background' sort usually like to suck up to the Powers that be,' Leo put in. It was clear he still felt bitter about being passed over.
'Has anyone noticed Angela's hair? It's unusually thick and glossy.' Clare swiftly changed the subject. 'It's bound to be a wig.'
Big Barry burst out laughing, while Leo and I grinned.
From then on, Leo, big Barry and Clare started a campaign against Angela – now nicknamed The Vixen.
Clare made sure that her unkind comments about Angela's 'wig' (and her general appearance) were spread around the call centre floor.
Big Barry's tactic was to involve the IT team, creating technical glitches in the Energa software that had Angela tearing her red tresses out.
However, Leo's strategy was more direct.
We were all trained to deal with complaints. But Leo gave unhappy customers Angela's direct line.
'All this is bound to get The Vixen sacked!' He rubbed his hands with glee while Big Barry and Clare high- fived.
I felt cold and sick.
'What are you planning to do?' Leo asked me in the pub that Friday night. It was our weekly treat but this time, I wish I'd dreamed up an excuse not to join them.
'Us three have done our bit,' Barry said.
'You need to pull your weight, Paula,' Clare stated.
'Oh, er – I'm still mulling it over,' I stuttered.
'It's bound to be something really subtle and clever,' Leo mused.
'All will be revealed later.' I smiled, yet inside, I shuddered.
Their campaign left me feeling uneasy - that's why I refused to be drawn in.
I thought we should all move on. Be mature about the promotion situation, and put it down to experience. Yet I could hardly say this to a hard- nosed pack of hounds.
'When Angela's fired,' Leo went on. 'Energa will need someone to fill the post quickly... they won't have the time, nor the inclination, to advertise the post again. Then there's all that re- interviewing... it'll be much quicker and easier to return to us, the short-listed, in- house candidates.'
'You're probably right, Leo,' I said. 'Hey, it's my round.'
After that, I intended to dish up my invented excuse and leave.
Two months later, and without warning, the five of us (Me, Clare, Leo, Barry and Angela) were hauled into Mr Hammond's sleek office.
I felt anxious. Mr Hammond, always in a sharp, immaculate suit and tie, wasn't known as The Exterminator for nothing.
When we nervously took seats, we discovered head office staff were present too, armed with notebooks, pens and mobile phones set to record.
'For official purposes, we need to record this interview,' Mr Hammond began. 'If anyone has any objections, please speak now.'
Of course, no - one did. It was the term 'official purposes' that sent a shiver down my spine...
'Ms Mason has told me about this hate campaign against her,' Mr Hammond said.
Big Barry's tactic was to feign innocence. 'What do you mean?'
So Mr Hammond invited Angela to outline her gripes.
It all tumbled out - Clare's nasty remarks, Barry's deliberate IT blunders, and Leo's unhappy customer sign- posting.
'To top it all, they've given me the rather horrible nickname of The Vixen,' Angela concluded.
Mr Hammond peered over his spectacles. 'What have you got to say?'
Leo folded his arms in defence. 'Angela's making something out of nothing.'
Clare nodded. 'Every member of staff is a victim of gossip, we've all experienced IT problems and Leo was doing the right thing.'
Mr Hammond's eyes flickered over us.
'Really? We all know Leo, that you are more than capable of dealing with a customer regarding an increase in their bill.'
Leo reddened, yet didn't comment.
As head office staff made notes, a silence fell. The soft tick- tock of the clock heightened the tension.
Barry decided to break it. 'As for nicknames - who hasn't got one here? I mean, everyone calls me big Barry.'
His joky attempt to lighten the mood was about as welcome as a butcher at a vegan conference.
Mr Hammond cleared his throat. 'This is a clear case of bullying. Barry and Clare, because you've breached your contract, I can fire you both outright. Clear your desks and leave immediately.'
I stood up. 'Hang on, Mr Hammond. I didn't take part in any of this.'
'But you didn't do anything to stop it, did you, Paula?' His tone was gentle, yet it held an edge.
I couldn't deny it.
'You and Leo can stay. But I'm issuing you both with official written warnings.'
After that, the atmosphere at Energa soured.
Colleagues became distant, and Leo took sick leave. Angela told me it was stress- related. Stress? Hmm - I reckoned it was guilt.
Then he became too ill to return to work.
My own daily waves of guilt were difficult to cope with, so I decided to apply for another job elsewhere as team leader.
I suspected that Energa wanted rid of me, as they'd promised to provide a good reference.
When I was offered a new job, I was pleased to start afresh.
I just hoped this company hadn't also hired Big Barry and Clare!
To my immense relief, they hadn't.
On my first morning, I was keen to create a warm, welcoming impression in my introduction, but it was difficult when I was faced with a sea of miserable, hostile faces.
'Four of the staff here were interviewed for your job,' my manager told me. 'But you're the successful outsider, so expect a level of resentment. Good luck, Paula. You're going to need it.'
I took a deep breath. This was going to be tough...