The Temp

`She marched to my desk like the Germans through the Sudetenland. "Decaf!" shouted Melissa. "Decaf! I only take decaf! Whaddya trina do? Kill me?" '
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The Independent Online
This week I am shared between Melissa and Suzanne. Melissa and Suzanne are partners in a glorified travel agency, which organises group holidays as rewards for the sharkiest used car salesmen or the hundred insurance agents who have persuaded the greatest number of teachers to leave their vocational pensions. It's called incentive travel, and what I do is type up schedules for trips while Melissa and Suzanne ring hoteliers and call them Carlo.

The schedules are one long round of sybaritic self-indulgence: "8.30- 9.00am: Complimentary breakfast in Honolulu Cafe. 9.30am: Meet in Wakiki Lounge for high achievers' presentation. 11.00am: Cocktail party with MD, Automotive Engine Parts and Sales Director, West Europe. 1.00pm: Buffet luncheon, Volcano Grill. 2.30pm: Minibus leaves for afternoon's golf at Richie's Country Club. Green fees paid, clubs extra. Partners: afternoon at leisure. 6.30pm: Meet for cocktails, Wakiki Lounge. 7.00pm: Formal dinner, Palm Beach restaurant. Tuxedos only, please! 9.30pm: Rest of evening at leisure."

Suzanne is all right: she says "please" sometimes. Melissa does not. Like most people called Melissa, she is American, and her vocabulary is scattered with meaningless business-speak. While I'm bringing her herbal tea, I hear her saying things down the phone like: "I need a bottom line on this, Carlo, and I need to know when you will have a window of opportunity to update me on the best way to utilise the figures to maximise roomspace."

My first brush with Melissa was at about half-past nine on Monday morning. She marched to my desk like the Germans through the Sudetenland. "You're the temp, right?" "Yes." I stood up to do the usual hellos. Her hand whipped from behind her back, and a cup and saucer waved beneath my nose. "What do you call this?" It was the coffee I had left on her desk five minutes before. "Oh. Sorry. Isn't it right? Do you take milk?"

"Decaf!" shouted Melissa. "Decaf! I only take decaf! Whaddya trina do? Kill me?"

"I'll get you another one."

"Right." She marched away.

Trish, the other partners' PA, looked over her computer screen. "Melissa needs her decaf. She gets a bit tense."

She does indeed. If workload and noise were in any way related, Melissa would be on 18-hour days. As it is, what she spends most of her time doing is rushing around. It took me three days to realise that, like a lot of busy-sounding people, she actually achieves very little. Suzanne is the one who actually produces things for me to do: most of the chores I get from Melissa involve telephoning: telephoning restaurants for lunch, telephoning restaurants for dinner, telephoning the hairdresser, telephoning the manicurist, telephoning the minicab firm to book the car to take her to lunch. My name, by the way, in this office, is a full and formal forename and surname. My surname is "You!"; my forename is "Hey!", as in "Hey! You!".

On Thursday, Suzanne took off for Atlanta, Georgia, to supervise a three- day paddle-steamer cruise for prawn salesmen, leaving a 30-page itinerary on Melissa's desk for correction. It came back with changes sketched like spiderwebs in HB pencil in the margins. I put on my specs, went through them, printed it out.

Five minutes later, she was at my desk, face puce. "When I tell you to change something," she howled, "you damn well change it!" "God, I'm sorry, Melissa. What did I miss?" "This!" On page 17, near the bottom, looking like a fault in the paper, was a single dot, no indicators in the text of where it should be. I had missed a full stop. "I'll do it now. I'm sorry." "That agency!" shrieked Melissa. "Never, ever again! I might as well do it myself. Don't I have enough to do without ..." she broke off mid-sentence, stared at her hand, lower lip wobbling. "Get my manicurist. Now. I need an appointment this afternoon. Tell him it's an emergency"