In parts one to three, we left our hero being allocated a task that may not be quite what he is expecting..
Back in the office, Mr Mezillious has already left for his club; luncheon, these days is an extended affair, but his secretary, Jeanette whispers a ‘well done’. My suit is hanging on a coat hanger behind my chair. It’s seventeen minutes past midday and I’m already exhausted. I turn to the titles, take a deep breath and ring the Land Registry help desk.
To my, and I suspect their surprise they are helpful. I explain to Peter who agrees that I can follow up on their suggestion after lunch.
Lunch. Hmm. Some people assume lawyers are and always have been well-paid. In 1979, after the rampant inflation and high interest rates of the last decade that is not so at the pondlife end. My salary is £2450 per annum and, after tax and national insurance I take home £18.72 per week. My rent, ex bills is £15 per week. If I eat on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, it’s pretty rare, though recently I’ve discovered pot noodle; flavoured cardboard never tasted so good.
The government and my firm, please don’t think, are uncharitable. They allow employees a 15p a day luncheon voucher which is tax free and five of which are included with my weekly wage. Around me, the cheapest food is Giorgio’s cheese sandwich, coming in at 17p; add tomatoes and you top 20p. If Giorgio isn’t looking, you might be able to add a squirt of ketchup…
Tea and (instant) coffee are free and unlimited; decent coffee will not arrive in London until the early 1990s. I make a cup, take it to my desk and sort out what I need copied.
The firm of Crimbould Rougby & Co is not one to embrace the modern. Typing is carried out on electric typewriters; dictation is, for the most part delivered to a secretary shorthand, though Leonora, a senior lawyer who famously turned down a partnership insists of using a machine. Currently, I’m using a similar machine, though when Peter goes away Jeanette will be my secretary; it is a day I am dreading.
There are three other mechanical aides to our legal practice; the telephone, the telex machine and a photocopier. This last arrived a couple of months before me and caused some consternation.
In a strange reversal of the sexual stereotyping that is prevalent in the work place, the women/non-lawyers are generally the ones to use the machines. Consequently, the copier has been the subject of some internecine warfare between Ethel and Jeanette, the two senior secretaries as to who is in charge. Jeanette won and it is to her I must turn to acquire the copies that I will need of the five land registry plans and the three others that seem to make up the remaining parcel or parcels. It was made very clear when I joined that copying ‘willy-nilly’ was a frivolity that would not be countenanced. It has also become clear that the three partners – Our ‘enry, Helen and Peter – have no clue about this wondrous contraption. Thus if Jeanette says ‘it can’t be done’ her word is law. I fear asking for eight copies will prove a request too far. Still, nothing ventured…
At one minute to two, Jeanette and Ethel return to the office. They take luncheon together at the Fulbright tea rooms every day, leaving at one minute past one and returning at one minute to two. Each wears a smart coat, sensible shoes and gloves. Oh and a hat, a sort of felt pie-dish that perches on their perms. They do not speak on leaving nor, if one sees them on their way to or from Fulbright’s, while walking. However, I’m led to believe they ask you to join them on your birthday, were it to fall on a workday and, as Peter confided in me ‘you’ll learn a lot’. I think I’m looking forward to the end of November.
In the possibly vain hope lunch will have left Jeanette favourably disposed to my request, I approach the secretarial room with some trepidation. Disturbing these wise old birds (as the rest of the office collectively knows them) after lunch is always delicate. This is because, while dictation is a morning function, it is after lunch the real work is done. Namely the typing and other tasks they have been given. These are completed before the post is proffered for signature about 4pm. Corrections, if such are needed, are then made and the rest of the post signed shortly before five. If the partner/other is not about to sign the same he/she will have left instructions whether they can be pp’ed. All letters are sealed and handed to the receptionist, Gwyneth who redirects all incoming calls to Peter’s room and takes the post to the post office on Marylebone Lane for dispatch on her way to Baker Street station.
Peter, being young and irredeemably modern, works late, hench all after hours calls going to him. ‘Late’ usually means he leaves sometime between 5.35pm and 5.45pm. I quite like the quiet of the evening when I can undertake research tasks I’ve been set which means calls coming in often fall to me to answer rather than him. I’ve learned not to panic; if I say I’m the articled clerk, the caller sighs and leaves a message, the expectation being that that all articled clerks are idiots. I have no intention of disillusioning anyone of this truism.
My last task, on which I have been instructed at least three times in my three months here to make sure I understand is to set the answer machine before I leave. It is the only thing on which I received some sort of helpful instruction; everything else has been the result of observation, desperate questioning of Jeanette, the most helpful secretary or Leonora, if she’s not shouting at someone on the phone. Peter should be the obvious source of such information but after three ‘no ideas’ in response to my first queries, I understood he had no intention of being the source of all office lore or wisdom. Of legal queries however he is nothing but helpfulness personified.
“Jeanette?” I know I sounded tentative; she is hunched over the enormous Olivetti that looks like it probably grinds articled clerks to pulp, if left unattended for long, doing something with the ribbon. This isn’t going to end well.