The Temp: Permission to tell jokes, sir?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT'S 7.30. Beardman approaches the bar and I start grinding my teeth.

"Evening, guv," says Mike, and, as usual, receives no response. Mike grins and buries his nose in his lager. Beardman arrives.

"Hello," I say. "What can I get you?" I've tried every way I can think of to circumvent his next sentence but, as it's probably the only thing he says to anyone all day, or maybe because it takes such an effort of will to speak to a relative stranger like me in the first place, nothing is going to stop him getting the full sentence out. I've tried "Hi there, the usual?" and even "Hello, pint of lager and lime and a slimline bitter lemon, is it?" but all I've had in return is "Thaat's roight. A point of laager and loime and a zzlimloine bidder lemon, please." It's enough to drive a girl to distraction.

I've been suffering a bit from literalness all week. Or perhaps its just that double-shift tiredness has changed my delivery, so that people can't tell I'm joking.

In the City, Graham, who is the head of unit in the small merchant bank where I'm working at the moment, suffers both a humour bypass and a bit of an empire-building complex. That, I think, is why he won't use his dictating machine, but requires me to come in and sit by his desk with a pad on my knee pretending to take dictation. On Thursday, I was spreadsheeting for Malcolm, who had to get some proposal about a potential plastics investment in by lunch time, when Graham rang. "Are you busy?" "Very," I said, "I'm just doing my nails." "Oh," he said. "Can you come in? I've got some letters." "Sure," I said, "I'll be through in 10 minutes. I've just got something urgent to finish up."

Eight minutes later, I arrived at his desk with my Berol Speediwrite and my Niceday spiral-bound to find him sitting with his fingers clasped over a pursed mouth, specs glittering. "Hello," I said, fishing a chair from another desk and settling on it. Waited, pen poised expectantly. Started scribbling as he started talking, stopped quite quickly as I realised that he was addressing me rather than a client. "How are your nails?" he said. Thinking that we were still sharing my rather feeble joke, I waved my gnawed stubs at him and said "Lovely, aren't they?"

Graham stood up. Started pacing up and down. His colleagues, my other bosses, dropped their pens, raised their heads from their knuckles, put their phone receivers to their chests and started watching. "I don't expect," he said, his voice rising a decibel with each syllable, "To ask for your attention only to be told that you're doing your manicure on the firm's time. You are paid to work and I WILL NOT HAVE IT!".

I dropped my pen, scrabbled around to retrieve it and stuttered "But Graham, I was -" "NO EXCUSES!" shouted Graham, and the people behind the glass screen with the map of the world on the wall came out to look. "If you want to spend your time doing beauty treatments, train as a beautician." "Graham, I was joking." "Joking?" His head snapped back like a velociraptor's and he eyed me sideways. "Yes." "How joking?" "You asked me if I was busy and instead of saying that I was I told you I was doing my nails. It was only a joke."

He sat down. "How is that funny?" "Um, well it wasn't a very good joke. It was just one of those off-the-cuff things you say." And instantly regret, I thought. "Well," said Graham, "I don't call that much of a joke myself. I'd be grateful if you'd confine your jokes to outside office hours in future. Now. Are you ready to take some dictation?" "No," I started, then changed my mind. "Of course I am," I said meekly, "Sorry."

Beardman begins his sentence with a couple of throat-clearings and some "arr-urr" noises. I catch Mike's eye and can't resist a small tease. "Don't tell me," I say, "it's a Kahlua and green chartreuse and a Baileys chaser, isn't it?"

Beardman stops, looks suspiciously at me, clears his throat again and says "No. A point of laager and loime and a zzlimloine bidder lemon, please." Then he makes a tutting noise, turns to Mike and says "I don't know. You'd have thought I'd have been coming 'ere long enough for 'er to at least know thaad."