If your desk is your home, and the exterior is the living-room, then the interior is the bedroom. While most people, however chaotic, can contrive to keep their public room, if not tidy, at least quickly mendable in case of an unexpected visit from the vicar, the bedroom is where the true personality shows through. You rarely, after all, see discarded underwear on living-room floors.
I feel a twinge every time I have to pick the lock on a desk to get at the contents. You know how people talk when they've been burgled: "It's not so much the money, it's the thought of some stranger going through my stuff." Every time a drawer slides open under my hand, I invade a space that should be sacrosanct.
I get a twinge, yes, but it's usually followed by the adrenalin rush of discovery. You know so little about what you have walked into when you arrive to take someone's place, and, because temps often find that their colleagues' attitudes to them are affected by their attitude to the person they are replacing, it's worth being prepared.
You can't always tell, of course. Loads of make-up in the top drawer doesn't necessarily mean that the owner goes out a lot. It could as easily mean that the office is the only social life she has. I once came across a pile, heavy on the sky-blue creme eyeshadow, in a man's desk, and am still unsure what to make of it, but then I spent a whole week in January hugging the knowledge that the PA who was off with 'flu had a black rubber mask with zipper mouth in her bottom drawer, only to find that the staff Christmas party had been a fancy-dress bash in the London Dungeon.
But these dark, secret places behind the Post-It notes hold life stories. Take Tina, whom I met for about an hour on Friday: 26, draped in jumpers, slightly reddened skin and those pale eyelashes that make the owner look permanently tearful. Tina had a cold, which she dealt with with the help of a Kleenex stuffed into her cuff. The outside of her desk is a model of secretarial efficiency: box files between Perspex bookends, a pen pot in which all the pens still have their lids, audio wires held down beneath a plastic strip, the first Roladex I've ever seen which still has its lid, pink-haired gonk Blu-Tacked to the top of the computer, flower- patterned mouse mat.
But, oh, the life beneath the surface. In these dentally conscious days, about 50 per cent of top drawers contain a toothbrush. Tina's contains toothbrush, mouthwash, three half-used tubes of Clorets, deodorant, bottle of antiseptic handwash, Handi-wipes, four unopened pocket-packs, bottle of Clearasil, bottles of eyedrops, vitamin B complex, vitamin C, calcium, ginseng, cod liver, iron and extra-strong multivitamins, giant-sized tub of E45 cream. Tucked safely in a leather pouch is a diptych of a nervous- looking young man in an anorak.
The middle drawer gets a bit weirder - it often seems to hold that the lower the drawer, the more bizarre the contents. Tina's middle drawer contains one three-pack of 30-denier tights, American Tan, and a shoe box. In the shoe box is a collection of small change. I counted it in the lunch hour, and it came to nearly pounds 17. Perhaps she's saving for a treat. And later, I dipped down to open the bottom drawer, that really deep one made for hanging files, and started back in amazement. It was completely full of chocolate wrappers: Kit Kats, Lion Bars, Double Deckers, Toffee Crunches, Snickers, Mars Bars, Fruit and Nut, Minstrels, Revels - not folded neatly, as is her way, but crammed in as though the eater had done it in a hurry to hide her shame. There were so many, they burst from the drawer and tried to make a break for freedom. And hidden at the back, a large-size bottle of senna tablets. I felt more than ever like a burglar, or a tabloid journalist, intruding on secret misery and revealing it, if only for a second, to the world's damnation. I slammed the drawer shut and went back to my typing, wondering if my guilt showed on my face.Reuse content