Secretarial: Bored to death in Bloomsbury

The Temp
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The Independent Culture
IT'S VERY rare for individuals to hire a temp, but Merle Hammond is no ordinary individual. Normal people who need the odd bit of secretarial back-up can usually find someone's daughter, a struggling artist or friend of a friend to do it, cash in hand, no questions asked. But Merle Hammond was left very well off when her husband Maurice died, and she can afford someone like me at pounds 8 an hour and another pounds 8 to the agency. So she does.

And I come in the expectation of being very interested by my week's work, because Merle Hammond is a little piece of history, one of the last remaining survivors of the Bloomsbury group, and I am to help her transcribe her memoirs. In her mansion flat near the university, she sits among boxes of letters, photographs, old theatre programmes, bunches of dusty peacock feathers. And I quickly discover that I am not there to do archival work at all, but to act as a very expensive version of what people used to call a Lady's Companion.

I mean, it's not as if I could do a great deal of work even if I tried. The only writing equipment available is an ancient manual typewriter. But it doesn't matter, because I'm not being paid to type, I'm being paid to listen.

Mrs H sits in a thickly upholstered chair by the window. She is telling a story about how her famous friends put on a spoof opera at Garsington, in which they all dressed up as Eastern potentates and Vanessa Bell set fire to the drapes, or something like that. The flat is overheated, the windows shut tight against the rain, and I find it hard to keep my eyes open. It's only 11 in the morning, and I'm praying I'll stay awake until lunchtime, when I can go for a brisk walk and fill my bloodstream with oxygen.

"Dear, dear Otteline," says Merle Hammond, "always so beautiful, and so lively. Did I tell you about the time we went to Cromer for the day?"

Only three times already. I feel like I've strained my jaw muscles in the effort to keep the yawns inside. "Yes," I croak, but she continues anyway. "We took the phonograph," she says for the third time since I arrived, "and Virginia did a dance on the foreshore. Cyril had a phonograph record of that marvellous baritone - negro, American; frightful scandal when he had an affair with Theda - singing `Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child'."

She drifts off, eyes glazing with the force of memory. "Gosh," I say politely, for the third time.

She comes back to earth. "You young people," she says, "think that you have the monopoly on sensitivity, but I can tell you, I lived with men who knew how to cry. Now, where were we?"

"The Garsington opera," I say, wondering how any of them got any work done between their bursts of lachrymosity and promiscuity.

"Ah, yes. I'm sure I have my costume somewhere. Let's see. At least the turban." She heaves herself from the chair, and, with my support at her elbow, leads me into a spare bedroom piled with more boxes of photos and letters. Pauses over a horrible white ceramic hand onto whose palm someone has painted a Phoenician-style eye.

"Ah", she says. "Otteline's ring holder. Did I tell you about the time we went to Cromer?"

Serena Mackesy's novel, `The Temp', is published by Century/Arrow on 7 October, pounds 5.99