Cynthia worked with us in the basement office. The three of us did audio. All day long, solicitors or their secretaries would stagger down the stairs with piles of files. The piles of files were lined up on a long table and we sat and worked through them, starting at the end closest to us. Occasionally there would be attempts to queue jump. If we didn’t watch them, solicitors would come down and lurk by the long table for a bit, engaging us in conversation, taking phone calls from clients, getting in the way and holding us up. After they’d gone you would find their pile of files had been swopped with someone else’s pile of files, closer to the head of queue. We always swapped them back, not because we cared in the least what order we typed their stuff in, but to spite them for trying to deceive us.

It was a tiny office and the three of us were hemmed in, not just by piles of files but by great chunks of machinery. The printer took up most of one wall. It could collate as well, which was why it was so big – but then all machinery was bigger in those days. There was a little window, with bars. If you stood on a chair you could see the accumulated rubbish of years, and pedestrian feet. If you craned your neck sideways you could see the tops of the lamp-posts and maybe an inch or so of sky. If you opened the window you got a lungful of petrol fumes from the ring road. But this was February. No need.

In this room I learned that the love of my life was moving to Lincolnshire. We’re writing to…  said the tinny voice in my ear one day, and it was him, his name. He was a client, apparently. I think my fingers may have frozen for a moment as terror, love and a murderous rage swept through me, and then I carried on typing. Nobody’s business, and nothing to be done. Lincolnshire – that flat, sour county confronting the North Sea; icy winds, rusty bridges over drainage ditches; fields of cabbages as far as the eye could see – even Lincolnshire was preferable to me.

I can’t pretend Cynthia wasn’t annoying. She was. She looked to be in her late forties or early fifties, though never admitting to anything over forty. She wore a lot of orangey makeup and spent a lot of time examining her face in detail in her compact mirror, adding bits. She had a peculiar way of putting on lipstick, smearing and smacking her lips together. And she talked. Oh God, how she talked. Typing never seemed to get in the way of it. Her fingers flew across the keys, audiotape droning non-stop in her ears, and she talked and talked and talked. She had elaborate, puffy hair in a sort of beehive style, and spent much time with a stiletto-handled comb, teasing it upwards, adding extra puff. She even had an annoying voice – light and squeaky, with a put-on accent that didn’t quite work.

Cynthia was annoying, but we weren’t expecting them to give her a week’s notice. We never found out why they had sacked her and she didn’t seem to know either. We felt very sorry for her, and slightly relieved. Relentlessly upbeat, she assured us she would walk into another job the Monday after she left.

I’ve got my skills. Eighty words a minute, girls, they can’t take those away.

Eighty words a minute – it’s true, they can’t take those away. Everything else gets taken away – your face, your figure, your fertility, that confident wiggle of the hips, the glint of an earring, the flash of the eye; frivolity, joie de vivre… but skills – those mindless, flying fingers – those you get to keep.

On her last day at work it was cold and windy, with incipient rain. We had brought in Black Forest Gateau. We hid it under that massive printer to defrost. And a bottle of Blue Nun, some paper plates and some plastic cups. At 12:45 we packed all this into a carrier bag and half-tiptoed, half-clanked up the stairs to the front door. Dead leaves were gathering in the hallway, carpeting the carpet, blown in with clients as they entered.

And in the Memorial Gardens we cut the still half frozen gateau and slopped Blue Nun into the plastic cups, and sat there on a green bench, under a grey sky, in wind and spitting rain, wishing her luck. Someone had abandoned a shopping trolley in the middle of one of the paths that divided one empty flower bed from another. On the far side, the man in the fawn-coloured raincoat, who was nearly always there, stood watching us. As usual, his hands were deep in his pockets.

I’ve got my skills, Cynthia reminded us, over and over. I’ve got my skills, girls. I remember she was wearing a lot of perfume – Anaïs Anaïs, my favourite. Or Anay Anay, as she called it. The wind kept bringing me gusts. And those shoes of hers – black patent leather with very high heels.

She never once sat down. We two sat on the bench in our coats and scarves, trying to pretend we weren’t shivering while Cynthia clattered up and down the path in front of us, a lighted cigarette in one hand, Blue Nun in the other. I remember the red, red gash of her mouth and those long red nails curled around the plastic cup. I remember how lined and dry she looked that day, and yet how somehow magnificent, and how she never raised her head, but stared down into those black mirror-shoes, as if to read her future clearer there.

  • I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
  • Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
  • Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
  • But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
  • Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
  • I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Ernest Dowson (1867 – 1900)

(from) Non Sum Qualis eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae

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