Secretarial: What boozy beast, come round at last, slouches at the desk?

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The Independent Culture
IT'S ONE of those offices where knocking loudly and waiting for permission to enter is a really good idea, as you never know what you'll be interrupting. In fact, that's a bit of a fib: I have a very good idea what I'll be interrupting. Mr Torrens, my boss, is a raging alcoholic. Not just a perpetual-hangover alcoholic, but one of those spittle-on- the-chin, fag-burns in cuffs, vodka-for-breakfast alcoholics. It's a good thing it's his own company, really.

Aside from that, he's OK. He has one of those phlegmy laughs that starts somewhere in the stomach, turns into a wheezing cough and erupts 10 seconds later with a roar from the side of his mouth and a mopping of his chin with a handkerchief. He is a walking bundle of smeary bonhomie, slapping people on the back as he walks past and howling "Jolly good. Keep up the good work". Everything about him is a bit blotchy: his spectacle lenses have permanent finger-marks, papers need to be handed over for signing and snatched away before he can besmirch them, and the light switch on his wall is surrounded by a vague fuzz of greasy brown.

We didn't get off to the most propitious start. Or that was how it seemed to me. I'd been ordered for 10am, and turned up, ex-interview suit nicely pressed, to meet Monica, personnel assistant. "Oh, hello," said Monica, "I'm afraid no one's seen Mr Torrens come in yet. He must be working from home today." And she smirked.

She led me to my desk outside the big man's door. "What should I be getting on with?" I asked. "Err, well," said Monica, "that's really up to him. Have you got a paper? Why don't you read that?" And she shot away. So I sat and read The Independent from cover to cover, wrote a letter and looked through my drawers.

Gradually, I became aware of movement in the room behind me. Not much; just the odd hacking cough and faint groan. I wasn't sure what to do. Had a cleaner collapsed with a stroke and been lying there all night? Had His Nibs come in while I was in the loo? Was a burglar going through confidential papers with a view to selling trade secrets to a competitor? Eventually I took my courage in both hands, gripped the door handle and pushed.

At first, nothing: the blinds had been drawn and the room, which smelled like one of those pubs you find near railway stations, was bathed in unnatural twilight. The something moved behind the desk. A rat? I switched on the light and said "Hello?" Then, as I was about to leave, a hand appeared, slapped down on the desk. It was followed by another, which knocked an old coffee cup on its side, the contents spilling over a pile of pens. Then a thick, grey thatch, squashed over to one side, appeared, followed by a pair of yellow eyes and a pendulous jaw, the cheek with the perfect diamond imprint of the wipe-kleen carpet. "Wha?" it muttered.

"Mr Torrens?"

"Wha?" The elbows came up parallel with the hands, so the wobbling head had a slightly more stable support.

"Good morning. I'm your new secretary. I'm sorry I didn't come and say hello earlier, but I wasn't sure you were in," I gushed. "Is there anything I can do for you? Cup of coffee?"

I stopped short. A low, rumbling noise was coming from somewhere deep down in Mr Torrens's body. It worked its way up, became a growl and, gradually, a roar. The mouth opened and formed a word. "VAGGOV!"

Now, having plenty of Irish blood, I'm made of pretty stern stuff, but even I know when retreat is the smartest option. I pulled the door to and ran for the loo. Then I changed my mind half-way and hung around behind a screen while I regained my composure. I returned to my desk and sat down. There are limits to what any temp should be expected to put up with. I waited, armed with a high-horse speech and a plan to march out of the building.

Ten minutes later, the door opened and Mr Torrens's smeary specs twinkled at me, face wreathed in smiles. "Sorry about that, girlie," he said. "Bit of a migraine. Don't suppose you could be an angel and pop out for a packet of Nurofen, could you?"

"Humph," I said. "OK."

"Jolly good," he said. "Marvellous. Top girl. Keep up the good work." And then he disappeared back into his lair.

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