What with the strike in the public service and Secretaries’ Day coinciding last week, business fizzled and telephones went unanswered throughout Johannesburg.It was no different at the headquarters of the Stoep Talk Organisation. Threnody Higginbottom, my private secretary whose name we pronounce as “Smith” and who files everything under “M” for Miscellaneous, had conspicuously circled Secretaries’ Day on her desk calendar when it was still barely mid August outside.
I pretended not to notice. I like her to think I can remember special days unaided.
Halfway through Wednesday I said, “Happy Secretaries’ Day!” and from behind my back I brought out a surprise in an envelope. She opened it and exclaimed, “But it’s a Christmas card!” That was the surprise, I said.
Oh my, how we laughed.
Well, I certainly did.
It’s always nice to give a little surprise on Secretaries’ Day. Last year I surprised her with an expensive (and hardly used) “Get Well” card. The year before it was a birthday card.
Every boss should have a sense of humour.
I fully realise it is also incumbent on the boss to do something bordering on the generous on Secretaries’ Day otherwise you get tea slopped in your saucer for months afterwards. So I took Threnody, once again, to lunch at Bobo’s where, I was pleased to see, they’d installed seats at last. It made it a lot more comfortable than having to stand at the counter admiring the back-lit blown-up photographs of sausages and chips.
“This is your day,” I told her, “and you may order whatever takes your fancy! Spare no expense! Even the ‘Special’ – a ladies’ steak and chips, if you like.”
To be frank, this annual lunch requires a very real sacrifice on my part. It’s not just the money it’s that Threnody is so very reserved. She sits up very straight and tense while I tend to be an exuberant eater, waving my fork around and dropping things down my tie which, when I get home, I often dig straight into the compost heap.
I allow her to drop the “Mr Clarke” and just call me “Sir”. I call her “Threnody” although, in the office I never address her as anything but “Miss Smith”. Threnody ordered a small hamburger, with chips. I ordered just a cold drink for myself but told her not to worry about me. “Just relax,” I said. To show her that I was perfectly at ease and that there was no need for her to hurry the meal, I tapped a little tune on the table with my fingers.
The conversation, as always, comprised mainly of little fits of coughing.
Cough, cough, cough she went and then she said how long it had been since she’d had a salary increase. Naturally, I was curious. “How long?” I asked.
“(Cough. Cough.) Four years.”
She confessed she’d actually prayed for a rise. I was shocked that she should have gone above my head and said if she wanted a rise she must say so.
“(Cough. Cough.) Well, I do!” she said.
Then I too went into paroxysms of coughing and subtly changed the subject: “How’s your mother?” I asked. (A lot of bosses don’t care about their secretary’s family.)
“Fine,” she said.
I asked her if she liked my “surprise” card. She said “Yes.” Then I reminded her of last year’s “Get well” card and we had another jolly good laugh