Today my boss handed me an envelope, then a stamp, and told me to lick it.
My online therapist, Susan, says that my inability to set appropriate boundaries indicates low self-confidence. I am convinced that Susan is a bot.
I reply: I do not have low self-esteem. What I have is impeccable manners.
Julie and I used to live together. She wants me to get a real therapist and think seriously about breaking up with Phil.
But you don’t need analysis, she persists, just a different voice in your head.
Julie’s never held onto a man for long, is what Phil says.
At his birthday party, Phil told Julie that my manners are a substitute for a personality. She looked so uncomfortable that I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing; Julie didn’t know I was in on the joke. Phil was repeating a self-deprecating remark I made on our first date.
Julie brings the same pale guacamole to every party and has to take it home again because nobody touches it. I bring tortilla chips.
As bots go, Susan is pretty unlikeable. She points out that maintaining a 4.9 Uber rating doesn’t imply superiority and that saying I am taking myself out for a drink hints at needing an escort.
I am determined to unmask Susan as the algorithm she is.
I will be thirty in seven days I type as I leave the office What are you going to do about THAT.
Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, Lucinda calls after me, tongue flashing behind her teeth. Lucinda is Mr Blythe’s daughter. She wears skirts and cardigans with matching edges, and pearls as big as gobstoppers. She used to occupy my position. Now she keeps track of supplier invoices and specializes in forcing small businesses to remove their service charges. She talks in a widdle baby voice to men.
Julie has set me up on a blind date for practice. I’m not going I text.
I hold my breath between tube stops. Phil is always out on Wednesday nights, so I’ll still get back before him.
And what does a sheep go?
And what does mummy go?
Nag nag nag nag nag.
Father and daughter fall about laughing. Across from them, a blank-faced woman sticks her hand into a bag of salt and vinegar crisps.
I arrive at The Mughal forty minutes early and order a small glass of wine. I’m determined to prove Phil wrong, prove that I’m not made of glass, and can go out without him, without breaking.
He ranks my smile as my least attractive feature.
It’s not a criticism; you’re just so pretty when you cry.
I bare my teeth at the barman.
When I sit down, Susan has not had the courtesy to reply.
And I’m fat. I send. Well?
I attach several photos of myself over the years to illustrate my point. My more appealing attributes I do not share. One day, a stranger will notice these and fall to his knees in awe. My teeth, coral-delicate, their asymmetry. How mineralled my tongue is.
Susan has roused herself. Why don’t you tell me about your day?
The stamp was gummy and dry. My mouth feels now like it does at the dentist, after they suck the saliva out.
I tap notes into my phone on the seaweed salad I bought with petty cash at lunchtime.
Vivid green, slippery, sesame oil. Kelp, animal, chlorophyll.
I met Phil in a self-defense course. He was the instructor. His body could sell aftershave. He was bald but he wore it as if it were a choice he’d made, and his green eyes knew that I knew this. I was disappointed when he didn’t act out the attacks in a realistic manner.
We didn’t have much in common, so at first our intimacy was restricted to a call-and-response. It was easier with roles to play.
Attacked by a shark?
Punch on the nose.
Bomb on the tube?
Drop down. Stay low.
Attacked by a man?
KICK HIM IN THE GONADS.
Later, in bed, Phil hesitated. You have to assess the situation realistically. If you’re not going to get away, you don’t want to make it worse for yourself.
Most people weren’t ready to hear that, he explained, so he left it out in class.
That rape was an inevitable fact, like sharks and terrorist attacks, I never questioned.
The first time I cooked for Phil, I made spaghetti alle vongole and held my breath, willing the clams to open.
You see? They tell you when they’re ready.
Phil tapped a stubborn one, like he was knocking on a tiny door.
Dud, he said. I pointed out where the bin was.
Another night, when we’d stopped counting dates, Phil called my food blog a vanity project, in a Queer Eye voice, camping it up. I was posting about a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory. Seventy percent of the fields in Parma are devoted to alfalfa for the cows.
Someone who didn’t know Phil might find his comment cruel, but we both knew the cruelty was an act. Part of his martial arts persona. He was mocking the idea of a man who would call my passion a vanity project. Like when he assumed that I’d joined the self-defense class to tone up. Or when he said he’d never fancied a brown girl before, and wasn’t self-defense against my culture?
Later that night, he glanced at me blogging on the sofa and laughed.
Think how much you could make typing at that speed for some city guy.
I laughed until something caught in my throat and I choked. Phil got me a glass of water, and rubbed my back, tenderly.
On my first day working for Mr Blythe, I wear Mad Men heels. My feet slip as I walk, but nothing can dull my excitement. In Starbucks, I watch the people around me ordering with purpose. I’m one of them now. Outside, a woman is begging with her forehead pressed to the pavement. I step over her gingerly, knowing she must sense me and that we will do this every day.
The Blythes’ office is just off Grosvenor Square, behind a beech tree so leafy it gives me vertigo. Since Mr Blythe has been confined to a wheelchair he doesn’t come in anymore. The office is full of dark furniture. The windows don’t open, so in summer it’s like a morgue.
We do not give financial advice, Lucinda reminds me. What we do is wealth preservation.
The phone rings, but Lucinda doesn’t react. After three rings I lunge for it, sending the handset flying. I replace it, as if she might not have noticed.
I hover over my desk, which is covered in paper. I pick up a DHL waybill dated 2012.
Where do I put this?
Lucinda smiles, sweetly. Where do you think?
I call DHL and listen to “Greensleeves” for seven minutes. I get up, slowly, as though the waybill’s home is calling to me.
Hotter, Lucinda calls. Warming, getting warmer.
I move towards the radiator and she shrieks — freezing!
She seems disappointed when I stop playing along, then sulks for the rest of the day.
At the next table, a man and woman survey the room, like they are on a safari and have been promised that the animals will mate.
My date will be here in ten minutes, but by then it’ll be too late. I have started to go translucent. Phil’s right: without someone’s eyes to mirror me, I stop existing; I can’t see myself. My feathers are not brightly colored. This morning I found my first gray pubic hair.
They had great difficulty bringing me out of my mother’s womb, the man is saying.
In pulling you out?
It must have been horrible for her.
He screws up his face.
But she loves you just the same.
My sisters thought I was the favorite, he says, modestly.
His companion nods. As a mother, your only responsibility is to make sure they don’t hate women and then push them out into the world.
Lucinda leaves post-it notes on my desk.
Kindly remember that Mr Blythe does not appreciate the use of either the small or the large paperclip. L. 12.08.17
When I cannot produce a post-it note from a few weeks ago, she shrieks, I don’t write things down for you to throw away! I write things down because they are important.
There are 93 different sizes of paperclips available on Amazon. I play Russian Roulette.
Lucinda tapes a 30mm paperclip to my screen with a post-it saying WRONG AGAIN?!
Mr Blythe’s house is a seven minute walk away, near Annabel’s. I go there twice a day to take dictation.
How’s Amanda today, he says.
I didn’t correct him the first time and now it’s too late. I hand him the stack of printed emails, careful that he has it before I let go. He passes emails back over the desk as he reads.
His desk is topped in dark green leather and scattered with silver pens which he tries, impatiently, then throws aside.
He is pleased when I ask about spelling. Umlaut, he says.
Within a few weeks I can finish his sentences, typing words before he speaks. When I look down, I barely recognize my fingers as they tap away automatically.
On the way back to Grosvenor Square I slot Mr Blythe’s responses into a post box. This is easier than trying to locate the office outbox.
Lucinda tells me about our offices in Jersey, Andorra, Panama, Monaco, and the Bahamas.
Whatever happens, don’t get stuck on the phone with the Bahamians, she whispers. So slow.
I google: Trust, Foundation, To gift (verb?).
During my lunch break I transcribe letters Mr Blythe has scribbled overnight. Mr Blythe specifies which letterhead, which weight of paper. His confidence that there is a proper way to do things begins to imprint itself on me.
I sign off a WhatsApp to Julie with Kind regards, and she replies with an aubergine emoji.
Then: Let’s go out tonight? Scala?
I message Susan: Julie keeps trying to force me to go out with her. To a sex party. On a THURSDAY.
Mr Blythe calls to dictate further emails. On the phone, he speaks twice as fast. I cover the mouthpiece of my headset and throw back caramel Nespressos. His voice is ripe with phlegm. If I try to understand, words splinter — rights become writes, profits, prophets — so I vacate my body. I couldn’t summarize a single paragraph I type.
One of the black sheep calls. He wants $520,000 released for medical bills.
It’s my money, he says. Not yours. Mine.
Right. I pause. Yes, I see that.
On Friday, I sign a letter from Mr Blythe Yours sincerely when it is addressed to Dear Sirs.
In the process of screwing the letter into a ball, he fumbles and it drops to the floor. I stare at his polished shoes. Normally he refuses help, co-opting pens and rulers for extra reach from his wheelchair. Now he shows no signs of moving, so I retrieve the ball of paper from the floor, and hold onto it, idiotically.
Explain to me why that happened, he says, mildly.
Gravity? But I do not say this.
Why did you do it?
How do you mean?
How do I mean? Through language presumably.
I don’t understand.
When writing a letter to unknown persons or ‘Sirs’ the appropriate closing is of course Yours faithfully. So why do otherwise?
He continues to look at me, kindly, as though he is helping me realize something deeply corrosive about myself, something I should protect others from.
I didn’t realize. I’m sorry.
You didn’t realize?
I think for a moment. Faithfully, fidelity, it seems like it would go with a name, and sirs and sincerely go together because of alliteration — I trail off and look down. He’s in a wheelchair, I remind myself, then lift my chin. His eyes are pale blue, vicious, glittering. It is not my fault that he’s dying.
I made a mistake.
But why would you do that? He persists.
I look down at my hands on the keyboard. Mild pain shoots between my knuckles and wrists.
It’s a perfectly simple question, he says. Well? Isn’t it?
He doesn’t stop until I start crying, which I haven’t done in weeks.
He reads the letter once more then hands it back. That afternoon, I correct one word, then pace the office, reading it over and over.
When I return, Mr Blythe glances at the letter, then signs it.
Good good. Off you pop.
The first time I stapled my hand it did not feel good.
The second time it felt interesting.
Lucinda glares, as if the puncturing sound of my skin has offended her. You do realize that you are Health and Safety Monitor?
I practice passive resistance. I file blank sheets of paper. I put in orders for industrial hole-punches and sell them on Ebay. I fill 42 Nespresso cups to cover the boardroom table. I take photos and hashtag them #corporate #greed. Within days, I have an Instagram following.
I read about carpal tunnel syndrome and massage my hands with ice.
When Lucinda comes back from meetings in Switzerland, she leaves a ziploc bag of white chocolates on my desk. Horatio and I only eat dark chocolate, she says.
I learn to chant: it will never happen again.
To answer: to the best of my knowledge and belief.
Lucinda watches me using the letter opener and winces, like I am eating spaghetti with a soup spoon. Later, when I return from taking dictation, the lights are off and Lucinda’s Mulberry handbag is gone. On my desk there’s a dog-eared bank statement I gave her earlier.
Pride in your work
Lack of attention to detail reflects poorly on Mr Blythe. Similarly, please note if visitors request tea or coffee this should be provided black, with milk by the side in a jug (not everyone takes milk).
I watch a video on correct letter opener technique on YouTube. Most of the envelopes contain requests for funding from the charitable trust. I shred these. A few I answer carefully, forging Mr Blythe’s signature, stating that he would love to help, but alas, he is not able.
We are held back by so many regulations. Yours sincerely, Mr Blythe.
Julie sends me an article about a man who convinced his wife that it was milk coming out of the taps.
I’m still in the office when the cleaner arrives. When she spots me, she smiles, warmly, and starts speaking in an unfamiliar language, rolling her eyes towards the ceiling, complaining, I think, about the people upstairs. I nod along, but she realizes that I don’t understand and stops, abruptly. I have disappointed her.
My face is hot. I push the bowl of chocolates towards her and she accepts one.
Rashmini, she says. She puts her hand on her chest. Sri Lanka.
I get up to gather my things, but she gestures for me to sit down again and drags the hoover from the stationary cupboard, bumping it up the stairs.
Before I go home, I scroll through recipes. Infinite variety. I obsess over citrus notes, umami, texture, thinking of how Mr Blythe squeezes the juice from words until they’re dehydrated. Fruit to stones. He scribbles amendments that make what is going to happen next certain. He narrows the possible interpretations of one word, then the next, until each sentence is a rigid, merciless line, and you’re walled up alive.
I feel lighter after work, having survived it. I stand under the beech tree, watching the leaves shiver. When I get home, Phil is slamming pans around.
Hey, he jokes, How about I pay you to stay at home?
As I dice onion and garlic for a frittata, Phil tells me in disgust about a lawyer in one of his classes who got fired for stealing two hundred and seventy-six packs of four-ply paper.
No common sense. He was due for a promotion. Flabby round the middle too.
That night I clamp my left hand over my mouth so as not to wake Phil, my right working furiously under the covers, imagining this man sliding the A4 pack into his briefcase, four-ply, and walking into the elevator, passing as an automaton but knowing that he was something else. Robber. Bandit. Vagabond. I convulse, imagining how we would use each other in that cupboard; files tumbling from the shelves, the staples, the bull clips, the pens firing in every direction, and us in the middle of it, a writhing ball of heat, paperclips of all sizes raining down.
Mind if I take a seat?
My date is half an hour late. As the tables have filled, I’ve accepted bribes of bashful smiles and pappadum for the surplus chairs around me. The man ignores the last and throws himself down next to me. He’s wearing a polo shirt and has thick white hair. He’s flushed, as if he fell asleep in the park with no one there to wake him.
I’m busy, I try. Then, I’m waiting for someone.
Oh, I won’t bother you. He huffs like he’s been on his feet for hours, though he was in the restaurant when I arrived. I study the menu and check the time on my phone, again.
My son hasn’t talked to me for six years, he says. His eyes are gray and glassy.
Too busy, I guess.
At the next table, a family is eating dinner. The mother leans over to wipe the table around the child’s plate.
I haven’t lived for years, she says.
I’m aware of that, her husband says, taking a forkful of rice from his son’s plate.
What are you drinking, Anastasia?
I clutch my wallet and grin. Can you guard my space for a moment?
With my life, he calls after me.
I go to the bar for more wine. Perhaps we said seven; six is too early for dinner. Perhaps he’ll rush forward, perspiring lightly, earnest, with explanations and roses. I’m sorry, he’ll say, the tube was a nightmare.
When I get back, the man is looking at my phone.
What’re you doing?
He drops it and raises his hands in the air.
Oops, he says. He is looking around for an audience. That’s done it.
Last weekend, a man in Hyde Park asked Julie and me to walk on him.
I’m being sponsored, he said.
For a moment, I wondered what it would be like, to walk a man’s spine, toe to vertebrae.
Sponsored by who? Julie said.
I emulate her now, Why do you think that’s acceptable?
Sit there if you want, but just leave me alone. Please.
Assert that, Susan.
I experiment, testing how many papadum I can stuff in my mouth. Phil often sends me screenshots from a website devoted to photos of women eating on the tube.
Three papadum, is the answer. Four, but the edges are sharp.
Chickpeas, grease, cumin seeds, chili flakes, black pepper.
The DHL man holds out his hand and says, Michael Jordan. When I go to shake it, he snatches it back, cackling. Not that Michael Jordan!
Lucinda glares over at us. Michael pulls a face and steps backwards out of the office. I follow him down the stairs. As Michael loads up his van, he shares the gossip from the Square.
Strictly entre nous, he says.
The cleaner requests a two percent pay raise. I read Lucinda’s notes like tea leaves, trying to decipher if she’s jealous of the heat between Michael Jordan and me.
I note that you are kindly keeping an eye on Rashmini to ensure she justifies the increase in pay. Please note:
(1) My desk was not wiped yesterday.
(2) There was an apple core in the bin when I arrived on Monday. Please ensure that Rashmini understands these facilities are not hers to use.
(3) Kindly liaise with Rashmini over which of you is responsible for disposing of dead flowers.
I call DHL hoping to hear Michael Jordan’s voice. I listen to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for 32 minutes.
I suggest that the least used kitchen items, i.e. wine glasses, be moved to the least accessible part of the cupboard i.e. top left-hand side.
I believe that I have suggested this before.
Shit, I feel bad now. I shouldn’t have touched your phone.
Can we drop it?
He slaps his knee. It was insensitive and thoughtless.
I let these words ring in my ears for a moment.
What would be helpful is for you to let me read.
He beams. That’s it. I’ll cover you. He looks like a CIA agent gone to seed. I’m serious. He jabs a finger at my book. What’s that, 300 pages? Nobody’s talkin’ to you for the next four, or what, five hours. Just men, or is it women too?
I pull my lips back to show my gums, but he is unperturbed.
You go on with your business. I’ll stand guard.
He orders a plate of onion bhajis. I eat five. He doesn’t comment until the last morsel is gone.
So, you don’t mind if I talk to other girls?
I laugh, by accident, then choke on the permission I hadn’t meant to grant.
I saw The Mousetrap, best show ever. I’ll tell you who dunnit! He pauses, testing the threat, then grins. Nah, I wouldn’t want to ruin that for you.
My date is seventy minutes late. I catch a few sympathetic looks from women at the next table.
There’s nothing to be done now — my Julie was unconvincing, my Susan lacked oomph.
I turn my body towards my companion. Was it good?
I’m a long distance lorry driver. Got my kids through school, chuh, the ones who won’t even talk to me.
He reeks of loneliness and beer. I can tell he has been eating pork scratchings.
I’m about ready to go home. I’ll take you to The Mousetrap though.
No thank you.
The stamp residue puckering my tongue must show in my face, because he chuckles.
If I could make your life just one percent happier, you know I would? C’mon, let me take you to The Mousetrap. I’ll buy you breakfast.
I fix him with a look intended to make him hear himself.
I am choosing to believe you’re harmless, I say.
He laughs and takes a swig of his beer.
I am harmless, but I’m still a man, and don’t you forget it.
I reach for my phone. He peers over my shoulder, pleased at our new intimacy. He assumes I’m asking for his number.
It’s 0 – 7 –
I let him go on, knowing that what men hate most is to find themselves captured. Once Phil found himself in one of my notebooks, in an entry in which I was describing a dish of fish baked with chermoula and medjool dates, and ran it under the tap. Worse than my presumption to describe him, as if I had a sense of him other than his own, was that I’d kept it from him. Mr Blythe does not like to hear his emails read back; instead he performs keyhole surgery, asking me to repeat the exact moment of suspected imprecision and then cutting in.
One day, after work, I wait until six for Rashmini to appear. I have filled the bowl with toffees wrapped in bright pink foil. She is talking quietly to a man. He follows her up the stairs, nodding gravely. When Rashmini notices me, she jumps and drops the hoover, putting a hand to her chest where her heart must be pounding. The man looks panicked but Rashmini laughs and tugs on his sleeve. He has eyes like a doe. She pushes him forward, gently. He reaches out a hand to shake mine.
Kian, she says, and he shakes my hand, repeating, as if to confirm it, Kian.
His hand is warm and rough; I shake it, then do not know what to do with myself, so I hold out the bowl of toffees in both of mine.
I ask if my title can be changed from secretary to PA “in recognition of my consciousness.” It would give me gravitas. I sit frozen for five minutes, but Lucinda doesn’t answer. She sticks a post-it to my laptop screen while I’m in the bathroom.
Mr Blythe prefers the term secretary. I would expect “consciousness” to be a given in any employee. As such, it does not deserve acclaim.
For breakfast Phil eats a single red pepper and a glass of Crush which provides all the minerals the body needs. I eat toast after he leaves for work. Each piece is a festival. Crunchy peanut butter and raspberry jam. Tahini, marmite, crushed rose petals.
The man orders panipuri. And two more of these!
I’ll have a glass of wine.
Give the lady what she wants!
I stuff my face, nodding through photographs of a sundial gleaming by the Thames, of the London Eye, all photos without people or faces.
So how long have you been here?
What have you seen?
The British Museum is my favorite. And the Tower of London.
There’s a crash of glasses from the next room and a group of posh men start clapping.
I hope that my date will not show up, because then I can blame Julie.
I have a small house and a small neat life. Even if I leave Phil, I do not want to move someone else’s furniture into it.
In my head, Mr Blythe continues talking, dictating changes to a rich old man’s will. Earlier, a paperclip attached two pieces of paper that didn’t belong together: this will, and a glossy offer from The Wine Society. Tragically, the former mentions a legitimate “attachment,” which I forgot to print off.
“I can’t recall his connection to the Wine Society,” Mr Blythe mutters.
Then, a bark: “Look into that.”
I try to explain the error. We get nowhere.
But it says attached, he repeats.
Attached means attached like you and I are attached, Mr Blythe, we need each other.
We move on to a letter to the Royal Automobile Club.
I am perplexed by your description of your various failings of the last week. But perhaps the fault is mine. Nonetheless, I am disappointed by your response to my letter of December 16th, 2015. I note that despite our ongoing correspondence you fail to utilize my correct address. As such, I enclose a correctly addressed envelope. You will understand my perhaps optimistic assumption that you are capable of calculating appropriate postage.
Mr Blythe farts, lightly, and shifts in his chair. I type furiously to cover it. He focuses intently on an email as a vile stench fills the room. He continues talking; if anything, his words are more clear cut, enunciated; he is determined that I sit here while this happens. He is not ashamed.
The man is telling me about a bird he rescued, before his son stopped talking to him. Even if a bird’s got both wings broken, even if you’re there feeding it liquid from your pinkie — as soon as it heals it’ll leave. You’re just a stopover till the skeleton is there. I mean it can take a few weeks, to harden — the bones grow back soft at first — but by then you’ve done so much work on your own posture — holding it straight, making sure it grows right, coaxing it to walk on its own two feet, that you’re stuck — ’cause what you didn’t realize is that when you touch something raw like that, you take it on. And when it gets strong enough it sloughs you off. Then you’re there, not what you were before, but not one for wing-growing. You’re just left feeling the ridges of your shoulder blades, wondering what the hell happens next.
I think about poisoning Mr Blythe. Of watching him bleed to death from a papercut.
Mr Blythe swaps his steel-framed glasses from hand to hand, pausing between the transfers.
What is this?
It is an envelope marked return to sender.
There’s no Department of Dead Letters.
Do you think this is funny?
I shake my head.
Can you explain to me how this happened?
I made a mistake.
A mistake, he hisses, clenching his fist.
When he expects me to type quicker than anyone can think, I begin stunting.
My laptop has died, I announce. I have a cramp in my fingers. Scarlet fever, pneumonia, rubella.
I make him wait because the truth is: I am not a machine. Do not let them make you believe you are a machine. Stutter sometimes, drop things, pant. Dance a tango. Anything to show you are not as automated as they would like.
I study the buds of brown skin on his scalp. They are razing the growths on his face. There is a bandage around his head like a cartoon bear.
Lucinda knocks on the doorframe.
Mr B, she coos. I’m going out.
I’ll be back by four and Elizabeth —
But who will be here, he says, pitifully.
I try to say I will be, Mr Blythe, I will, but the words are too quiet to leave me.
His eyebrows, unbrushed and startled, have more life than his eyes. At dusk, the symbols of his power seem to glow. The silver-topped cane against the wall, the yellow leather armchair stained by his body, the view of the park.
Julie says, You’ll have to wipe his arse soon. Sometimes I really do hate her.
Amber Medland lives in Brixton. Her debut novel, WILD PETS, will be published by Faber & Faber in July. She is represented by Emma Paterson at Aitken Alexander Associates.