The Temp

Jenny scares me. Beneath that smiling exterior lurks the Stepford Sec.
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The Independent Culture
"Good morning, Carol," says Jenny. "How are you today?"

"Fine, thanks."

"Good," says Jenny mechanically, and, beaming, moves on. "Good morning, Bob," she says. "How are you today?" Bob looks up.

"Well, thanks, Jenny. How are you?"

"Very well, thank you. Very well," says Jenny. "And how are the children?"

"Fine, thanks. Robert's almost over his chicken pox."

"I'm so glad," says Jenny. She finds a Kleenex in her pocket and wipes a drop of coffee from the desktop. "Don't want to let it dry," she smiles, "then it'll take twice as long to get off, won't it?"

Jenny scares me. Beneath that smiling exterior lurks the Stepford Sec. Perhaps it is her boss I should be frightened of, because obviously someone has kidnapped a woman and replaced her with an automaton, and the most likely suspect is him. Instead of a human being who has headaches, off- days, lunch breaks and forgetful moments, calls the insurance company in working hours and folds letters so that only the bottom half of the address shows in a window envelope, he has opted for an employee who, while personifying perfection in the secretarial field, shows no vestige of either an emotional core or an interest in any subject other than his needs.

Jenny's every sentence contains an up-note, like someone trying to sell you cat food; "I'm really well, thank you". "can I do anything for you?" "How are you today?". Everything in Jenny's world comes with a positive adjective: fresh cups of coffee, nice cups of tea, delicious sandwiches. Jenny soothes her boss's skittish nature by never dressing to suggest that she might have ambitions higher up the ladder; doesn't shame him by wearing trousers to greet clients; never does bizarre things with her hair. A conservative sort of bloke, he greets her appearance each day in pleasant floral prints, Alice bands, maybe a small frill around the neck, with "You look nice today, Jenny", and Jenny simpers her thanks.

Jenny on the phone: "Good morning", she trills, "Mis-ter Blake's office. Can I help you?" Jenny loves to spend hours by the fax machine, has filled Blake's office with pot plants, is always on hand with a paper coaster, has - I've seen it - a change of shirt for her boss, still in its cellophane, in her bottom drawer. It's not natural. Not even Nanette Newman is like this. The other day, as I groaned my way to the filing cabinets with a pile of paper, she smiled sweetly and said "I like to do 10 minutes' filing at the end of every day. That way it doesn't build up." I was hard pressed not to clock her with the hole punch.

One evening I bumped into Jenny in Paperchase, among the Christmas decorations. She was picking through the painfully tasteful silver and gold, examining each bauble minutely for faults. On my approach, the smile blinked on: teeth, cheekbones, no lights in the eyes. "Getting ready for Christmas?" I asked feebly. "Oh, no," said Jenny, "These are for the Blakes." "The Blakes?" "Yes. Mrs Blake -" she looked shy and confiding at the honour of employing the first name "- Sheila - was afraid she wouldn't have time, so I offered to do the decorations for them."

Startled, I said, "But Jenny, surely you don't have to give up your evenings."

"Oh, no," said Jenny. "It's not like that. It's a pleasure. Mr Blake is more than a boss, he's a friend. I never knew how nice working could be until I started working for him. My last place was terrible. Messy. Everyone thinking about themselves. I had no idea how miserable I was until I stopped. I owe a great deal to Mr Blake. If it wasn't for him ..." she trailed off, eyes gazing at the far side of the shop, mouth slightly open. Then the sunny smile came back, the head flicked upright and she marched off home to plug herself into an electric socket and recharge her batteries.