The Temp

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The Independent Culture
Coffee. If only it were like it is in the ads: interior-designed, jet-setting, silk-shirt lifestyles, and sophisticated frissons available even to the instant-drinking classes. Humorous, confident, kindly bosses like Cherie Lunghi putting bumptious men in their places without losing business/ promotion or being labelled lesbian ballbreakers. Exciting oceans at night with neither jellyfish stings nor goosebumps, and you're towelled down by a sensitively ill-shaven muscleman who nuzzles your ear as you inhale the orgasmic aroma of arabica.

Most of the people I make coffee for bear more resemblance to PG Tips monkeys than lovely, shiny, half-smiling Cherie Lunghis. I would never dream of complaining, because burning my fingers on those ultra-thin plastic cups that companies have taken to installing in their machines in the hope of saving pounds 35 a year is part of my job remit. And I can learn a lot about boss-character through the ritual.

Like the rude ones. No one has ever surpassed the guy who, when I introduced myself as his secretary, merely said, "Right. I take milk-no-sugar and I expect one on my desk on the hour every hour" - but they are an odd lot. I think maybe a lot of people feel uncomfortable about having servants, but I can never get over that "pretend the waitress isn't there" thing.

You know how it is: No 1 boss and No 2 boss have a meeting with some outside honchos. You empty the mouldering sludge from the filter compartment, because no one ever feels washing-up is any business of theirs, go down to the corner shop to buy filter papers and milk, dig out the set of white china with the wiggly ridges on the top, decant milk into a jug, scrape the worst of the limescale off the teaspoons, improvise a sugar bowl out of the clear Perspex lid of a box of pens, carry the whole lot through on a tray, best smile, knock on door and make your way in with your bum because it never occurs to anyone to hold the door open for someone whose hands are occupied. All conversation stops; four sets of eyes stare balefully at you as you set the cups, one by one, in front of them. Smile plastered on, you ask if anyone needs anything else, and No 1 boss grunts a negative. As you close the door, a voice says "So you don't run to biscuits down here, then?" and someone else laughs.

The rudes are simply rude; the indecisives, those people who are so lost without their regular secretary to make decisions for them that they become paralysed when asked a simple question, are exhausting. The sort of people who say, "do I like these?" to their partners before biting into a profiterole. You can take 10 minutes worming out of them what their preferences are. "Milk and sugar?" "Oh, gosh, Jenny usually makes my coffee."

This trying tendency, though, seems like an endearing quirk when you're up against an anal retentive. Not only are anal retentives picky, they're also usually mean as all-get-out: take days to avoid contributing to leaving- present collections; accept with alacrity when someone's making a canteen run but never leave their desks themselves ("I'm always so busy, I never notice the time"). And if their drink isn't exactly as it should be, there is hell to pay.

I've worked for them all, you know. Ms "Whose mug is this? What's happened to my Love Is mug? I can't drink out of a Snoopy mug". Mr "When I said a drop of milk, I meant a drop, not a splash". Mrs "Don't you know the difference between a spoonful-and-a-quarter of sugar and a spoonful-and- a-half?" and Dr "These sweeteners seem to be made of saccharine". A girl can go without her Earl Grey all day, with all this rushing about.

The only spare cup I can find in this week's office is really a milk jug; everything else is earmarked. People give me looks, but it works fine if you sip from the lip. Berenice, She Who Must Be Obeyed, is calling for her own refreshments. This means putting on a coat, going to the Seattle Coffee Company and spending pounds 2 on a double-decaff latte with vanilla syrup. When I get back upstairs, I will decant it into a mug with Oxford University written on the side in gold, and sprinkle chocolate on the top from the little shaker that my permanent equivalent keeps in her desk alongside a jumbo tub of Nutrasweet.

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