Secretarial: Tunnel at the end of the light

The Temp
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FINALLY, THE interview suit can come out of the wardrobe for another wearing. I'm beginning to wonder if my policy of keeping the one piece of clothing in reserve is so wise; it may remain untainted by the ink and grime of the rat-race, but it's beginning to look a little dated, and it's not like I've got a great deal of wear out of it. Perhaps I should relegate it to workwear and start saving for another one.

Then again, this might be the break I've been waiting for; working as secretary in a team of four in the marketing and publicity department of a leading fiction publisher. If I keep my head down and my standards up, the only way is up. They'll see my value, my initiative. And this time, there's no way that they can turn me down for lack of experience: if there's one thing I can do, it's being a secretary.

Everything seems to be going swimmingly. Margaret, fiftyish, motherly, black-rimmed specs and a strange knit suit, and Rhiannon, late twenties, palazzo pants and satin shirt with Mao collar, have talked as though I've got half a brain cell, getting animated by my questions. We've talked about markets and authors and dump bins and jacket design; I've passed my typing test 15 words a minute above the requirement.

Lucy, on the London leg of a publicity tour with a thriller writer, has dropped in to make jokes about writers and their media savvy. "We did a slot on Norwich radio yesterday," she says. "And she forgot to mention the book at all."

I like them, and I think they like me. I allow myself to relax, start having small fantasies about local lunch haunts and meeting people who people talk about at dinner parties. I eye the empty desk by the attic window and start planning the azalea that's going to go on the windowsill.

And then Margaret says: "Well, thank you for coming." "It's been a pleasure," I say, and start to stick my hand out when she continues: "The thing is, we've got something to say - and I'm afraid that you're not going to like it."

Boom. Stomach hits knees. "Uh-huh?" I say, and my voice sounds very small, very distant. "The thing is, you're too highly qualified. We were really thinking in terms of someone with A-levels. You've got a degree, and you're bound to have ambitions above the job." "Well, of course I want to progress. But this job seems perfect. It would be so interesting. I'd learn all sorts of stuff." "The thing is," says Rhiannon, and her voice is gentle. "We don't want to start interviewing again in six months because you've moved on."

"No," I say, "No. I've been doing any work I could get for two years now, day in, day out, and I've never complained. Surely I've proved that I can be a decent secretary? Can't we..." I can hear an edge of despair in my voice, "...agree that I'll continue to do this for a year, whatever? I really want this job." And Rhiannon shakes her head, though with a genuine- enough look of apology. "You're bright. You should be aiming higher up." "I've tried that. I don't have enough experience. Everyone tells me to try further down." "Keep trying," says Margaret. "You'll get there in the end. Honestly."

We shake hands, and they see me to the door. "Good luck," says Margaret. "I'm sorry," says Rhiannon. "It's okay. Thank you for seeing me anyway," I say. I make my weary way down four flights of stairs, walk through the drizzle to a grand, tree-lined square and sit down on a bench. And, after all this time of keeping my chin up, I finally allow the tears to come.

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