Sarah Griffiths: A Man of His Word

Malcolm had often thought that his name was the real root of his unhappiness. If he’d been called Gary or Miles or Fabian he could have run a nightclub, played the trumpet or joined the under-occupied ranks of the church. But the name Malcolm had doomed him to a life of navy blue suits, of conference calls and swivel chairs, of documents copied in triplicate. And, Malcolm, ever willing to oblige, had bowed to his fate and become a lawyer.

As a young man Malcolm had wanted to excel, but realising that he lacked sufficient talent, he merely tried to succeed. In his thirties, he wished just to cope. By his forties, his only ambition was survival.

But although every working week began with the dread of what the incoming post might bring and ended in a pool of claret on Friday evening, he still couldn’t bring himself to quit. This was what he’d known all his adult life and, like a bad marriage, there was a grim comfort in the familiar misery. Besides, he really didn’t want to cause inconvenience to anyone by giving notice. So, at fifty-five, there was numbness. He still prayed for some calamity beyond his control to bring the whole bloody thing to a crashing, apocalyptic end, the nature of which he left in the hands of God and the Law Society, but without any real hope.

The partners regarded her with a mixture of awed fascination and fear, as though they’d bought a tiger cub which, now grown up, left them wondering if they might be its next meal.

It was no coincidence that the most recent plummeting of Malcolm’s spirits had coincided with a scheme of modernisation at Greenish & Tremble. The partners had become convinced that the firm’s future, nay, the very survival of the planet, depended on computerisation and a paperless office. As his employers, Malcolm had every respect for these men, but it is a universal truth in legal firms as in life, that those who make the decisions are the ones least acquainted with the facts. All they needed to do was to continue as they always had, providing honest legal advice, but they had waivered and looked over their shoulders at what their competitors were doing. And now they were being baffled and cajoled into spending thousands on modernisation by consultants, tech firms and, in particular, Gemma, the new office manager.

The firm had never had or indeed needed an office manager before the advent of Gemma, but she had rapidly become essential. The partners regarded her with a mixture of awed fascination and fear, as though they’d bought a tiger cub which, now grown up, left them wondering if they might be its next meal.

‘Why is Mrs Birkett lying on the floor?’ Gemma had asked Malcolm on her visit to his office that Monday.

To be fair, Mrs Birkett herself wasn’t lying on Malcolm’s office floor, but the ample and slightly grubby file devoted to her case. It was there for three reasons: 1) because Mrs Birkett required almost daily attention, so it was never worth putting her file away, 2) because the file was now so bulky it could barely be manoeuvred into the filing cabinet, and 3) Malcolm detested Mrs Birkett with such a passion that the only way he could deal with her calmly was to stamp on the file on a regular basis during his working day.

‘She needs to be off the floor. She’s a trip hazard,’ snapped Gemma and, before Malcolm could sketch out why Mrs Birkett was so much more than that, she had begun opening the drawers of his filing cabinets.

‘Why is Lady Martindale next to Mrs Antrobus?’ was her next question. ‘These should be in alphabetical order.’

Malcolm was on the point of explaining that, during one afternoon of particularly excruciating boredom, he had organised his files on the basis of the British class system, running top to bottom, minor aristocracy down to hoodlums and ne’er-do-wells, when he stopped himself. Gemma, he felt sure, would not appreciate the virtues of his system.

‘And your dictation’s another thing,’ Gemma continued. ‘I’ve listened to one of your tapes and it’s rubbish.’

Malcolm was horrified. That tape, whichever one it was, had been intended for the ears of his secretary, June, and June only. How dare Gemma insert herself into the sanctity of the solicitor-secretary relationship? He felt violated, as if his confession to his priest had been sent to his mother. Malcolm’s dictations were punctuated with essentially private enquiries about June’s health and family. He also often apologised for the monotony of the work which he tried to alleviate by the inclusion of jokes. For example, he might say:

‘New client, Gilbert Isaac Thompson, who I will refer to by his initials G.I.T. because, in his case, it seems particularly appropriate.’

Or perhaps:

‘A letter to Miss Little and her fiancé Mr Burke, please June, who are planning on becoming double barrelled, I believe, once they are married…’

But the more Malcolm considered Gemma’s criticism, the more his annoyance solidified into anger. If she wanted to find fault with his organisational skills, okay. His legal ability, he agreed could be improved upon. But interfering between him and June and rubbishing his sense of humour, his one real talent, his last defence against being lost in the pointlessness of his so-called career, that was too much.

Oblivious to the magnitude of the hurt she had inflicted, Gemma delivered yet more bad news.

‘Anyway, a new electronic dictation system has been installed on everyone’s computer.’ She proceeded to demonstrate by clicking on an icon which had appeared magically on Malcolm’s computer screen and sliding the control switch of the microphone up and down. ‘It’s brilliant. Even has digital enhancement for people who mumble.’

Malcolm did not appear to take in any of Gemma’s rapid instructions, though he silently acknowledged he was probably one of the mumblers. He sat motionless, his hands gripping the arms of his chair.

Somewhat exasperated by his silence, she said, ‘Well you’d better get the hang of it. No one will have their own personal secretary from now on. The secretarial team will just pick up the next dictation file in the pool and type it.’
Malcolm dug his fingernails into the wood as rage spread throughout his body, like the rising of toxic sap.

‘Of course, I’ll have my own personal secretary, but no one else will. You’ll have to get to grips with the technology and adapt,’ said Gemma, smiling as she delivered her final blow. ‘Think of it as a challenge, Malk.’

Malk! Malk? Who the hell was Malk? No one in his entire life had ever called him ‘Malk’. Even at school, which had been fraught with countless humiliations that he remembered in detail even to this day, no one had descended that low. Gemma had really crossed the line. But she had left. Malcolm caught the sound of laughter and imagined Gemma and a colleague next door joking together at his expense.

He remained seated at his desk. The phone rang several times. He did not answer. It was no doubt Mrs Birkett, but Malcolm no longer cared.

After a while, when he had recovered from being addressed as ‘Malk’, he began to play with the new microphone and found he could record, rewind, amplify, save and re-record with ease. He discovered the digital enhancement tool that Gemma had mentioned but, in order to try it, he need to record something.

Still sitting in his office chair, he rolled it around the side of his desk to the wall that separated his office from that of his neighbour. If he pulled the curly wire taught and straight, the new microphone could just be placed against the woodchip. Malcolm flicked the controls until the light on the microphone glowed green. He held it in place until his arm ached. Returning to his desk, he replayed the conversation, amplifying it and finally improving the quality digitally. Malcolm had to agree that the new system was quite brilliant. Even through the partition wall, it had picked up every word.

Next Malcolm decided to try a test recording of his own dictation. If he had answered Mrs Birkett’s telephone call, he would now have had to dictate an attendance note of his conversation with her. He held the microphone a few inches from his mouth and pondered. It could have gone something like this:
‘Now please a note dated today of my conversation with Mrs Valerie Birkett, General File – attending Mrs Birkett when she rang for the four hundredth time STOP She was concerned that some of her investments on the stock market had slumped by approximately two hundred pounds and that consequently she was down to her last three million and didn’t know how she would survive STOP She demanded that I immediately contact all the world leaders and tell them to get a grip on their respective economies and if they refused then I was to issue proceedings against them immediately on her behalf STOP.

New paragraph.

I suggested to Mrs Birkett that there were perhaps more important issues for the world leaders to deal with at present such as war and disease and advised Mrs Birkett to take her investments and shove them up her not inconsiderable arse STOP Mrs Birkett asked me to repeat this advice which I did STOP Mrs Birkett then stated that she was horrified at being addressed in such a way STOP I said that I was surprised no one had given her this advice a long time ago on account of the fact she was well known to be a selfish cow STOP At that point I lost the connection to Mrs Birkett STOP Time engaged insulting Mrs Birkett six minutes STOP.’

Malcolm hesitated. His career flashed before his eyes, the tedious explanations, the unreasonable demands, the long wait for bills to be grudgingly paid, the sound advice ignored.

‘What the hell,’ Malcolm said quietly to himself and sent Mrs Birkett’s attendance note zooming off to be typed.

After that the whole thing unravelled pretty quickly.

First, Malcolm heard running feet in the corridor a few minutes later. It could be anything, he told himself, not necessarily to do with him. And then there was dead silence for about half an hour as if the whole firm was holding its breath. Malcolm busied himself with further research into the capabilities of the amazing dictation system. Finally, Gemma appeared at the door of his office.

‘Can I come in? I’m not disturbing you?’ Malcolm knew that such politeness from one so inherently rude as Gemma meant something was up.

‘One of the secretaries has just shown me the note of your conversation with Mrs Birkett.’ Gemma waved a piece of paper. ‘Would you like me to read it to you?’

‘I know what it says,’ replied Malcolm, surprised by his own boldness. ‘After all I’ve only just recorded it so they’ve typed it very quickly. And I have to say it’s a first class recording system.’

‘I assume that this was some sort of joke,’ said Gemma moving further into the room and laying the paper before Malcolm as if it were exhibit A at his trial. ‘But have you any idea what kind of damage this sort of thing can do? As a member of the legal profession, you should know that you never, never say anything like that, even as a joke, let alone record it.’

‘Yes, I suppose it was a bit silly of me,’ agreed Malcolm, looking thoroughly unconcerned. ‘I don’t suppose you’d ever do anything half so stupid, would you Gemma, eh?’

This was not the response Gemma had been expecting and for once she did not have a glib reply to hand. While she hesitated, Malcolm seized his moment.

‘As I say, a first class system. Just listen to what I recorded earlier.’ Malcolm casually flicked the controls on the microphone and from nowhere a female voice said:

‘…bunch of dinosaurs, haven’t a clue what they’re doing. Honestly, I can get the old fools to do anything I say, particularly Carter. Senior partner, senile partner more like. It’s a wonder he’s still considered mentally capable enough to practise…’

Malcolm pressed pause and looked at Gemma, who after the initial shock, rallied remarkably quickly.

‘Ok. What do you want in return for the recording?’

‘Early retirement on full pension, effective immediately. And you keep June on, if she wants to stay.’

There was another strained silence and then Gemma smiled. ‘Once you’ve left your desk, I can log on to your computer and delete that recording and no one will be any the wiser.’

‘The thing is that you told me to get to grips with the technology and adapt,’ said Malcolm, leaning back and placing his hands behind his head, a pose he’d never felt the urge to take before. ‘I did just that, Gem. You see, I’ve saved the recording to my iCloud.’

‘I’ll sort it,’ was all Gemma said, after a few more moments’ thought. She departed, letting Malcolm’s office door slam shut behind her.

‘Thank God,’ said Malcolm letting out a long breath and making a mental note to discover what an ‘iCloud’ was at some point in what now seemed to be an altogether brighter future.


Sarah Griffiths’ first short story appeared in Redline Magazine in 2014 and since then her work has been published by Writers’ Forum, Scribble Magazine, The Fiction Pool and Eunoia Review. This is her second piece for Funny Pearls.