Secretarial: The boss's `exes' file

The temp
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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the things you do if you're a PA is deal with the mail. So naturally, when the PA's away, the boss expects the temp to know what to do with every letter that comes in. And what you do do is pick the brains of the people working around you about memos, invoices, statements, magazines, slips of pink paper with holes punched in them.

Which means that, sometimes, you make a blooper. Ellen Armitage is one of those bosses who takes three-hour lunches while her underlings slog it it out over a sandwich at their desks; one of those bosses who says she has a meeting on the dot of 4.45 while the rest of the department stays until eight each night; one of those bosses who always, but always, manages to blame cock-ups on someone else. She pockets corporate freebies - tickets, trips, bottles of booze, pens with advertisements on - before they reach the rest of the department. She was once heard on the telephone telling a crony how proud she was of how she kept her slaves in line. There are 17 people working beneath her, cramped into a room 20ft by 15 because she refuses to confront management about health and safety. "I lived with it," she says. "Now you can, too."

So there I am, paper knife in hand, rubber thimble on my right thumb to protect against paper cuts and those ragged slashes you get from careless contact with staples, when I open one of those orange envelopes with the boxes on the front for internal recycling, and out falls a filled-in expenses form with her name at the top and a fistful of receipts tacked on with a paperclip.

I look at it for a bit, wonder what I'm supposed to do with it. Then I take it over to Sue, who tends to be quite helpful. "Any idea what I'm supposed to do with this?"

Sue takes it, glances, then peers. "My God," she says. "Carey," says Sue, "come here a minute." Carey takes it and says: "Oh My Gaaaad." I'm still standing there going "What?" as the entire department rushes over, going "I don't believe it" and "Christ on a bike".

"Where did you get this?" asks Carey. "It just came down in the internal post," I say. "Why? What's wrong? What have I done?" And she grabs me, kisses me and tells me I'm a genius, that's what. "The MD's PA must have sent this back to her by accident rather than forwarding it to accounts," she says. "We've been trying to get a look at her `exes' for months, but she always takes them upstairs by hand."

"Right," says Jamie, sitting down. "Let's see. Sue, she didn't take you out to lunch on the 18th, did she?" "Lunch?" says Sue. "She's never even offered me a sandwich." "Well, she spent pounds 50 on you, apparently. And pounds 40 on taking me to lunch on the 13th. And you" - he nods at Mike - "accompanied her on a fact-finding mission to Bournemouth last Sunday."

"Ogodogod," says Sue, squirming in her chair. Mike stabs a receipt for pounds 170 from a Turkish restaurant. "Look!" he crows. "Her daughter's birthday party! What's that?" Carey leafs through the sheet. "Entertaining clients." Mike cackles. "Wonder what the cheese will say when he finds out the clients are 12 years old?" "Samples!" cries Jamie. "Samples from Chanel!" "Samples?" says Maria. "I know what that sample is. She's been wearing it on her arse for the last three weeks."

Jamie bashes me on the back with the violence of one who is well pleased. "You're a blimming star!" he cries. "We're going to get you so drunk tonight you won't believe!" They all fall quiet as the enormity of their discovery sinks in, then start jumping around and hugging each other.

Then Sharon shouts a warning from by the door, Sue shoves the fatal document in her bottom drawer, and they all scurry back to their desks. Ellen Armitage enters the room, smoothing her Chanel skirt over her hips. Everyone bends over their work, rattling furiously at keyboards. No-one meets anyone's eye. Ellen eyes them like a lizard; she knows something's up. "You're all very quiet," she says. "What's up? Someone died or something?"

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