The Temp

Normal office behaviour, just calling you `Um' all week, can make you feel like you don't exist, but you can bet that 90 per cent of people who show any interest have a massive personality defect
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"Please, Minnie," says James, "I've got such a lot to do before lunch." He bends back over his piles of paper and Minnie, for a moment, shuts up. Then she turns to me. "That's the problem with this place," she says. "Everyone here takes themselves so seriously. I mean, it's all very well going on about other people getting disturbed, but it's an open- plan office. We don't live in the world of cubbyholes any more." She addresses James again, and his shoulders tense inside his extra-wide-sleeved white shirt. "You should do some concentration exercises," she says. "You'll never get anything done if you get distracted by the least little noise."

"Please, Minnie!" he says. Minnie heaves a sigh and addresses the room in general. "Well," she says. "Seriously. People have to talk and move around. I think it's a bit precious, really, expecting everyone to be completely silent." James sticks his fingers in his ears. "I," says Minnie, "never let other people disturb me."

Which is true. Nobody gets a chance because, to be honest, nobody gets a word in while Minnie is in the room. One gets the impression that if she tried to stop her every thought falling from her lips she might well have an aneurism. And the interesting thing is that she doesn't even disturb herself: as she prattles and chats and burbles and gasses and prates and babbles and gossips and discourses and yatters and talks, talks, talks, she also gets through a prodigious amount of work. Pieces of paper fly from in-tray to out-tray, her keyboard clatters and the thump of the "processed" stamp punctuates her every sentence. And everyone shifts in their seats going "mmm" and "uh-huh" and "yeah" while they press the balls of their fingers into their foreheads and frown.

Initially Minnie's chattiness was a breath of fresh air. It is nearly three months since anyone has asked me my name, and Minnie did it straight away. It's a bit of a rock and a hard place, this temp-name thing: the normal office behaviour (just calling you "Um" all week) can make you feel like you don't exist after a while, but you can also bet that 90 per cent of people who show any interest in you are going to have massive personality defects. Minnie was lovely: got me a cup of coffee, told me where the loo, sandwich shop, bank and chemist were, who everyone was and what they did.

Then she told me about the year she spent temping once, office by office. Then I got the lowdown on her family: Jeff, the kids, the mother-in-law, the state the builders had left the house in when they'd moved in a year ago. By the time we were finished with that, it was nearly lunchtime. Which produced a five-minute dissertation on the relative merits of ciabatta vs focaccia and how wholemeal bread was better for you but tasted like cardboard. By this time I was catching on.

Minnie continues. "Anyway," she says. "As I was saying, it's a disgrace what that family's done to her. She was only a little girl when they took her on and she got no support, none. And she was brilliant at what she did, just brilliant. I mean, I remember when she first started, and she was just so lovely with all those old incontinent grannies, shaking their hands without gloves on and kissing them and everything. And it's weird, you know, but I was only saying to Jeff on Saturday that I wondered where that relationship was going to go. I mean, she deserved some happiness, didn't she? But neither of us guessed for a minute that that was going to happen ..."

James groans, stands up and sweeps his papers into his arms. "I'm going to go and do this in the smoking room," he says to me. "If anyone calls, tell them I'll be back in a couple of hours."

Minnie rolls her eyes at his retreating back. "I don't know," she says. "Most important thing that's happened in this country in ages. You'd have thought he'd show some interest. Anyway, we weren't even listening to the radio on Sunday morning, but the phone rang and ..."