The Temp: Driven to destruction

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS more to Graham than meets the eye. Through my haze of exhaustion it begins to register that it's not just that he has no sense of humour, and it's not just that he needs to be seen to be giving dictation. There is something seriously wrong beneath the suit.

I should have spotted it immediately, given that his first move after shaking my hand was to take a Wet One from the mega-pot in the shadow of the box files and wipe down his palm with it before dropping it, two- fingered, into the bin. I'm so used to odd reactions from new bosses that I just thought it was a new, imaginative way of making me feel unwelcome. It wasn't until I'd watched him surreptitiously do the same thing to three clients in a row that I started realising that this was a psychosis, not merely a weird way of pulling rank.

Graham, it seems, is terrified of germs. Now, we're all a little nervous of what we can pick up in offices. They're not hygienic places, especially with air-conditioning carrying every cold virus breathed out by someone in the lift to every desk on the 15th floor. I mean, if the Queen can have legionnaire's disease in the ventilation system at Buck House, what hope is there for her subjects? What with people's habit of nicking pens and then putting them in their mouths, it's surprising that any of us is still alive.

But that doesn't explain why Graham's Wet Ones are not, in fact, as I discovered when hunting through the box files for a copy of last month's board meeting minutes, Wet Ones at all, but a mega-box of sterile wipes. He uses them constantly. First thing in the morning, first thing after lunch and last thing at night, Graham wipes down his entire desk with a wad, paying special attention to the crevices around the drawer handles. Graham is the Michael Jackson of merchant banking.

And it's not just that. He uses them for wiping down pens, pencils, staplers, the keyboard of his computer, his fingers after he's handled a piece of paper. Once a week, a dignified young woman in an apron and rubber gloves, who doesn't seem to speak a word of English apart from "Good morning", comes round the office with a squirty bottle of something vaguely pine- scented and some J-cloths, and wipes over the earphones and mouthpieces of the telephones. I find this vaguely comforting. I don't know if you've ever looked at the little holes on a telephone mouthpiece, but it's quite a disturbing sight: slightly mushroomy, slightly cheesy. It's nice that someone is cleaning the fungi out before they get us. Graham, however, isn't content with this. When she's there, he shrinks back from his desk. When she's gone, he gets out his wipes and carefully covers every square centimetre that she's already been over. And as he does it, his Adam's apple bobs as though he's trying to stop himself being sick.

The thing is, the habit is catching. I'd never looked at my environment in such detail before, or thought about where everything might have been. The pub must occasionally pass Health and Safety inspections, I guess, but I suddenly find myself washing my hands each time one of my builder clients emerges from the loo and hands me his glass for refilling, and I have to stop myself from doing the same after handling change. In the office, following Graham's lead, I have started checking coffee-cups as they emerge from the machine in case some foreign body has attached itself to the outside.

Not that my boss has noticed. In fact, he regards me as unclean enough to go well beyond the call of duty. This morning, he arrived on tiptoe, and his skin was positively green. "Good morning, Graham," I said. He didn't answer; he seemed to be concentrating on standing on one foot, while undoing the laces on the other with the tip of a paper knife. Then he slipped it off and waved it, sole first, at me, so I saw what was on the bottom. "Oh," I said, eyeing it.

Strangulated syllables emerged from the very front of Graham's mouth, as though he was afraid to open his airways too wide. "Can you," he said, "deal with this?"

I'm calling the agency.