Secretarial: A story of love and hate

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE a recording of Billie Holliday singing "When Love Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right)". I think Marilyn Monroe sang it originally, but with Billie's piteous tones it's positively suicidal, the sort of song you play at four in the morning when The Smiths have got boring.

Since I started working with Doug and Hannah, this song never seems to be far from my mind. When one of them stalks across the floor, Billie starts to croak in my ear, and keeps on until they have receded into the distance. Nothing has been said overtly, but it's as obvious as crisps trodden into the carpet that, though it may have been a good party, it's over, and the participants are suffering from sick hangovers that they have every intention of inflicting on each other.

Get this: day one, and I'm hunting for a phone list, working out where the "on" switch is on the computer, pulling up old correspondence files in the hope of working out a standard letter layout, when Doug arrives. "Where is she?" he says. "Who?" I ask. "Hannah Monckton," he says. "Oh," I say, "She's got a breakfast meeting." To which he heaves a sigh and says "Oh, yeah, the old breakfast meeting. Tell her to contact me immediately she gets in." And off he marches.

At 10am, Hannah comes in looking well-fed and cheerful. We make acquaintance, and I relay Doug's message. Hannah's face clouds over.

"Thanks," she says. "I'll contact him when I'm free." And she, too, stalks off.

10:30am: the phone rings: Doug. "Is Hannah there yet?" "Yes. She said to tell you that she'll get in touch when she has a moment," I say; I've long since become a past master at making palatable the charm of my seniors. "No," he says, "Tell her to call me immediately."

10.31am: Hannah: "Tell Mr Me-Me-Me Forster to stuff it."

10.32am: "Hello, Mr Forster, Hannah is in a meeting right now. She'll be in touch as soon as she can."

10.35am: Doug passes my desk at a rate of knots.

10.36am: Doug and Hannah pass back in the opposite direction, she walking at an even greater pace than his. He touches her wrist; she shakes it off like a horse swatting a fly.

10.37am: Door to stairs bangs shut.

10.42am: Door to stairs bangs open again, slams behind Doug, who is purple in the face.

10.42am plus 30 seconds: Door to stairs opens quietly and Hannah emerges looking grimly triumphant.

I thought at first that this was a simple personality clash, then began to suspect some darker harassment question. But, as I said, the signs are there if you're looking. For under all the rage, the attempts at sabotage, the frostiness, there's a familiarity you find only in people who know each other very, very well. They hiss into each other's faces from so close up they are almost kissing, make personal comments ("I told you that was the wrong sort of briefcase"; "You always say that when you know you're in the wrong"; "Well, it's probably in the car. That's where it was last time"), know each other's personal habits ("Lunch? Where is she? Giovanni's, I suppose?") in a way that they could only if they'd shared lives at some point.

Wednesday, Hannah calls in sick. "Are you OK?" I ask, "Can I do anything for you?" "No," she croaks, "It's some sort of flu thing. It's been coming on for days. Just hold the fort, will you?" "Sure," I say, start shoring up those arrow slits.

Doug turns up soon after. "Ill?" He says? "Well, that's just typical, isn't it?" He turns on his heel and walks away.

A few minutes later, he's back. "What did you say was wrong with her?" "Flu, I think. She sounded pretty croaky." He thinks for a moment.

"Maybe I should call her." "Sure." I start to look for her number, but he's already picked up the phone and dialled it from memory. Drums his fingers, twitches when the phone is answered.

"Hannah?" he says, "It's me. I hear you're ill." Then he turns his back and hunches into the phone, as if this will stop me hearing what he says next. "Shall I come over tonight? I think we ought to talk..." He listens, then says, quite gently, "Mm. Me too." Hangs up and, with a watery smile, returns to his desk.