Britain, 1988: In a recession, landing a job, any job, is like winning the Lottery and that’s how I felt when the temping agency rang me.
“Brilliant!” I said. “I’ll take it. When and where?”
“It’s only one day,” Miss Infrequent Opportunity said, “So don’t get your hopes up. Start today, nine o’clock sharp, at Snotty, Dim, and Screwball, solicitors, on Main Street.”
Okay, so that last part is a lie, because this was in England, and names have to be changed to protect their skullduggery. What matters is, I was up and out of my fleecy pajamas, showered and perfect in two shakes of a lamb’s tail because England in February is damp and moldy, with ice on the insides of the windows. I dried the rain off my trusty bicycle and headed down the hill, faster than a pop tart from a toaster.
I arrived hot and breathless, padlocked my beloved to the railings at the back of the building, slipped on my girl shoes, and dashed around to the front entrance with five minutes to spare. The foyer was massive, marble floored, dotted with Corinthian columns, high ceilings and a glittering chandelier. Miss Battleaxe glared at me from behind a heavy mahogany, highly polished desk.
“You must be the temp.”
How did she know?
“Next time, use the side door. This entrance is for clients only.”
I wasn’t worried as there’d probably never be a next time.
“Name?” she said, pencil poised above a book the size of an heirloom family Bible, only much, much older.
“Madeline, but my friends call me, Maddy.”
“I meant,” she said, peering over her bifocals with the brittle patience reserved for the under sevens, “Your surname.”
“McEwen.” I spelled it for her to save myself from further interrogation.
Before long, I was led into a large room full of permanent secretaries, not the political kind, but the gainfully employed kind. The tapping of typewriters ceased and everyone looked me over, only for a second, barely more than a blink.
“You can sit at Miss Best-Secretary-in-the-World’s desk. She’s off sick today. You’ll be working for Mr. You’ll-Regret-You-Ever-Came-Here. That’s your in-tray.”
Clearly, I was deemed too thick to decipher the label ‘in-tray’ for myself. How did they expect me to type legal papers in that case? But I kept schtum, even though I didn’t really because ‘schtum’ is an American Jewish word that I didn’t know back then.
I got started, working my way down from the top of the pile, before moving on to the letters recorded on the Dictaphone. Boy, was I ever glad to stick on those headphones and listen to the droning monotone of my temporary boss, rather than the vapid gossip of my fellow secretaries. At lunchtime, I waited until everyone else had stopped working and left the room before I did. No way was I going to let them think I was a slacker. Taking my squashed sandwiches from my backpack, I headed for the nearest park, a five minute walk away, to sit on a battered bench, watch the ducks and donate my crusts. Only four and a half hours to go once I got back. The afternoon swept by because I was a damned fast typist, if not a particularly accurate one. I made sure I corrected every error though. Nobody was going to have cause for complaint once I passed my completed work to Miss Only-I-Can-Speak-To-The-Bosses. Soon enough, the secretaries were packing up for the day, touching up their make-up and putting their typewriters to bed beneath typewriter shaped covers. I did the same, but only the latter not the former. Then I rummaged in my rucksack, playing for time. I needed to be the last to leave, dedicated to the very last. Miss Only, was watching me. What was I doing wrong? What had I missed?
“Nice rucksack,” she said, “Don’t you own a handbag?”
“I do but I didn’t bring it.”
This was the most conversation I’d had with anyone all day, apart from the ducks.
“I don’t have anything to put in it so I keep it for best.”
She laughed, more of a titter. I had no idea why.
“If you’re ever employed here, or anywhere, again, you might want to use a comb or perhaps some lipstick.”
She stood by the door, holding it open, ushering me out before locking it. I trudged home, pushing the bike steeply uphill.
When I got in, I found a message on the answering machine, that newfangled invention which allowed people to communicate with you when you weren’t there. Imagine that! I listened to Miss Infrequent Opportunity.
“They want you for the rest of the week. Phone me back and tell me if you want it.”
Want it? Of course I wanted it. Who wouldn’t want to be paid for sitting in a dry, relatively warm space on one of those fantastic chairs with wheels at the end of its legs? I spent the rest of the evening doing maintenance on my bike in the sitting room, which was only slightly less cold than outside. I didn’t give my handbag or lipstick another thought until the following morning as I skidded to a halt outside the solicitors’ office. Damn! Forgotten my girl shoes. Hoping to avoid Miss Battleaxe, I tiptoed on sneakered feet through the side door, bounded up the imperious, deeply-carpeted staircase three steps at a time, lunged into the secretaries’ room, and hid my shameful footwear under my desk. As long as my feet remained there all day, I’d be safe. Fortunately, the phrase ‘Office Dress Code’ didn’t exist back then in Britain. Unfortunately, ‘Inappropriate Attire’ did and much chortling ensued at my expense.
“Planning to run the four-minute-mile, are we Miss Mad?”
Oh how amusing. Never heard that one before.
“I do believe Miss Mad wants to beat us all in the race to fashion perfection.”
Ho, ho, hum. Best hold my tongue.
“I love how they coordinate with your rucksack, Miss Mad,” said the last one in an accent that could have sliced my laces.
I grinned good-naturedly. I could take a joke or three. The struggle to reach the end of the week was worth every penny in my pay packet, minus taxes and the Temp Agency’s cut.
The following weeks were fallow but just when I was beginning to think I should give up hope and sell my body for medical research into the effects of chronic unemployment, I got another call.
“They want you again,” Miss Infrequent said, “They must like you.”
“Oh yes, they asked for you specifically.”
I was so gob-smacked, I said nothing.
“Play your cards right, Maddy, and they might offer you a permanent position, although you’ll still be at the bottom of the pecking order. I’d be sorry to lose you, but best of luck.”
I was surprised to be assigned to the same desk. Perhaps Miss Best-Secretary was on maternity leave but I didn’t dare ask. Instead, I examined her family portrait on the corner of her desk for any signs of a baby-bump. Plodding through the week, my fingers glued to the keys, I wondered what would happen on Friday? Was that when they’d tell me? I ran through tactics. Should I accept straight away or play it cool? Perhaps I should ask about ‘terms and conditions’, try and sound savvy. After all, it was a law firm, contracts were their business.
Friday dragged, but only in my mind. Every time the door opened, I expected to see one of the solicitors, some man in a suit with the power to grant me an income, an annual income. I hoped it wouldn’t be Mr. Inappropriate Behaviour, who’d block my access to the coffee machine with his body. brush against me in the very wide corridor, and want to know whether I had a boyfriend? By one minute to five, I thought I might expire from fear and excitement in equal measure. The secretaries packed their stuff away, pulled on their coats, and retrieved their umbrellas. Time was up. I had nothing to lose, so in a brief bout of self-assertion, I addressed Miss Only-I-Can.
“Do you think I’ll be needed next week?”
“Shouldn’t think so. Miss Best-Secretary is coming back from Tenerife.”
“Oh, I see.”
“But don’t worry. Next time someone’s away, we’ll be sure to ask the Agency for you.”
“Really? Great! Thanks so much.”
“It’s a biggy to me. I’m so glad I managed to fit in with you guys.”
Although I didn’t say, ‘guys,’ because I wasn’t American yet and it would’ve been considered an insult. The correct term was ‘ladies’.
“I wouldn’t say that,” she sniffed, as my blood flow began to slow and pool in my mud splattered socks, “I mean, you don’t exactly ‘fit in’, do you?”
“I thought…” What did I think? I had no idea, “But didn’t you ask for me specifically because I’m a good typist and so hard working?”
“Hardly.” She laughed, more of a scoff.
“You’re not like the other temps. They’re like a squad of marauding magpies with their light fingers, stealing everything that’s not nailed down. You’re the only one who’s not cleaned out her desk’s stationery supplies. We hate magpies at Snotty, Dim and Screwball.”
Trying to keep warm in my local library the following week, I learned from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,“The notion that magpies steal shiny objects is ancient and widespread”, while a helpful note taken from The Saturday Magazine of 23rd January, 1841 informed me that, “The councils which magpies appear to hold together at particular seasons, commonly called ‘folkmotes’, are associated in the minds of many with superstitious and ominous notions…If these are of an even number, it is supposed to betoken good to old and young—but if there is an odd magpie perched apart from the rest, silent, and ponderous [Vid. like me in the secretarial pool at Snotty, Dim and Screwball] the reverse of this is apprehended and mischievous consequences are to be expected.” Hence the old English nursery rhyme first recorded in M.A. Denham’s Proverbs and Popular Sayings of the Seasons (London, 1846):
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret
Never to be told.
Madeline McEwen [her/she] is a blow-in to the Bay Area from the UK, bi-focaled and technically challenged, who has enjoyed publication in a variety of different outlets both online and in traditional print.
Her fiction and non-fiction focuses primarily on disabilities [ableism] and humor/humour.
She has numerous short stories and a few stand-alone novelettes. Her latest short story, Stepping On Snakes, appears in the Me Too Anthology edited by Elizabeth Zelvin published by Level Best Books, and Benevolent Dictatorship published in Low Down Dirty Vote Volume II edited by Mysti Berry.
She and her Significant Other manage their four offspring, one major and three minors, two autistic, two neurotypical, plus a time-share with Alzheimer's.
In her free time, she walks two dogs and chases two cats with her nose in a book and her fingers on the keyboard.