Secretarial: Quick flash of shame

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The Independent Culture
AN ENVELOPE appears in the top left-hand corner of my screen and starts to flash. E-mail. Well, not real e-mail, but intra-mail; this company has an internal messaging system and this is how most people choose to communicate with each other. I'm not sure how healthy it is for human beings to substitute machine-chat for the face-to-face version. We took millions of years, after all, to develop the spoken language; it would be a shame to lose that power in a couple of generations.

Anyway, there are about 10 "casual" logons on the system so people like me can arrive, access the system, appropriate an e-mail address and, of course, be traceable if we get up to any naughties. My boss communicates with me almost entirely via this system: I pass on messages on screen, ask questions, find out about his schedule, receive requests to come and take dictation in his pigeonhole. Funny, really; he only sits eight feet away from me. We could do the same things manually, as it were, without even raising our voices. But if you've got the technology, you've got to use it.

So the envelope flashes at me, and I double-click the mouse on it. Blank screen for a second, then an unfamiliar indentifying logon. And the message, short and to the point, is this: "Hello, sexy".

I study the logon. Someone called rblack thinks I'm sexy. I haven't come across anyone called Black, but then, one rarely finds out more than one or two surnames per office in this job. There seem to be a lot of Martins here, and a Jim, but no-one called R. I decide to reply. After all, 90 per cent or something of us meet our partner at work.

I click on "Reply" and type one word: "hello???"

Nothing. I go back to typing proposals to the BBC for fly-on-the-wall documentaries - a bit surprising, as my boss is an insurance broker. I've reached No.13: Day to day life in the offices of an insurance company ("the series could follow a high-flying executive and his incompetent colleagues), when the envelope flashes up again.

Double-click. "Hi!!!!! there you are!!!! Thought you were ignoring me!!!!"

"No.Not ignoring you. Just don't know who you are."

(14: Golf Club. Caddies, board meetings, and conversations between high- flying executive members...)

Flash. Rblack is back. "HAHAHAHA! Good one! What you wearing 2da?" Hmm can't see me, then. Click. "Black dress. Who are you?" Flash. "Nononono. Under." Oh, great, an obscene e-mailer. Just my luck. I do the equivalent of hanging up, which is not to reply.

(15: Round table. The tireless charity work of local high-fliers. My branch would be particularly suitable...)

Flash. "Those black lace ones? I'd love to pull those off with my teeth..."

Click. "Go away. How old are you?" Pause. Flash. "You're not cross with me are you? I know I had to go away at short notice, but you can't really say no to head office, can you? p.s. how are your chest puppies? Still snuffly?"

Now I get it. Modern etiquette dilemma: how do you tell someone they've been sending billets-doux to the wrong e-mail address? While I'm considering, the envelope flashes again. "Tell you what, meet you for a hold in the usual place at lunchtime. I can't wait to feel you again." I'm getting a bit giggly. Click. "Usual place?" Flash. "You know. Car park on Amway St. B there or b sq."

Click. "This is all a bit sudden. Don't you think we ought to meet first? I don't usually go to car parks with strangers." Pause. Flash. "Hahaha. You're in an odd mood. What's up?" Click. "Nothing's up. You're going a bit fast for me, that's all. What's you name, by the way?"

Flash. "Me. Robert." Click. "How do you do, Robert." Flash. "Alison?" I don't reply. Five minutes later, another flashing envelope: "Alison, that is you, isn't it?" And after that, silence.