The secretary is the most dangerous person in the room. I couldn’t help smiling when I first read that sentence. It was in one of those old-fashioned detective novels; a cosy, drawing-room whodunnit, its pages littered with dead bodies. I curled up amongst them, pored over the details of their savage ends without feeling the least discomfort, safe in the knowledge that all would be well, each thread tied up, the criminal brought to justice. Three cheers for the clever sleuth. Real life is not like that. There are always loose ends, untidy fraying edges, however hard one might try to keep things neat. And justice? Justice is something I lost faith in long ago. I’ve read An Unquiet Woman countless times now – it’s one of the few books I brought with me to The Laurels, and on nights when I can’t sleep, it’s the book I reach for, it’s the book that sends me off.
What made me smile was when I imagined the shocked looks on the faces of the well-dressed ladies and gents gathered in the drawing room as they heard the detective denounce the villain. ‘The secretary,’ he said, turning and pointing to the bitter spinster, perched, no doubt, on the least comfortable chair in the room. ‘There she sat, as quiet as a mouse, at the heart of events. A silent witness, watching and listening, waiting for her moment to strike. One by one, she took down those who thwarted, used and – most foolish of all for her victims – underestimated her.’
I have been a secretary for nearly twenty years, so of course I was amused when I discovered the villain of An Unquiet Woman was one of my kind. I identified with her, saw defiance on her face as she looked back at her accuser, and I could almost hear, as she must have, the sound of the stopper being removed from a crystal decanter as she was led away, and then her betters drinking a toast to justice as the door was closed behind her. It is a sound I am familiar with – that tinkle of cut glass – a welcome drink at the end of a busy working day. Christine, won’t you join me? And I always did – I never said no.
An Unquiet Woman was published half a century ago, but being a secretary back then was, it seems, not so different to now. That ability to make oneself invisible. It is astounding the number of conversations carried on in front of us, as if we don’t exist. The silent witness is a role I am quite used to. Watching, listening – as quiet as a mouse, at the heart of events – my loyalty and discretion never in question. And yet, loyalty and discretion are qualities for which I have paid a heavy price. I have been humiliated in a most public way.
I hate to think what would have become of me if I hadn’t been rescued by The Laurels. I have found sanctuary here. No one forced me to come – it was my own choice, though the circumstances were not of my making. Still, I hesitate to call myself a victim. Let’s just say I am taking some time out to consider the next stage of my life. Forty-three is too young to retire.
I have tried to apply a work ethic here at The Laurels, and have set myself the task of putting the past into order. I arrived with carrier bags stuffed full of newspaper cuttings that had littered the floors of my home. I gathered them all up and brought them with me, and now I have unfolded each scrap, smoothed away the creases, and sorted them into chronological order, ready to be pasted into a scrapbook. It’s a beautiful, leather-bound volume – the kind you might use for wedding photos. I suppose it’s a kind of occupational therapy – every page I complete rewinding the clock and taking me back.
Who knew that Christine Butcher would ever have her name in the newspapers? Or that anyone would be interested in taking my photograph? Yet, there I am. My moment in the spotlight a brief period last year, 2012. Most people probably skimmed through the references to me, their eyes scudding over the words until they came to what they considered the meat of the story. They will have forgotten my name. I am ordinary, only there because I made some questionable choices – choices I suspect many would have made in my position.
When I heard I would be working at the head office of Appleton’s supermarket chain, I can’t pretend I wasn’t excited. After all, it’s not often you recognize the name of a chief executive or see their photo in the newspaper, but Mina Appleton, daughter of Lord Appleton, chair of the company, was a regular at celebrity parties and a favourite of newspaper diarists. She had her own column too, which I’d read and enjoyed. It offered tips for quick and simple family suppers, sprinkled with casual mentions of famous friends she’d entertained at home.
Not that I expected to have any contact with Mina Appleton herself. I was there as a temp, parachuted in to replace a secretary who was on holiday. It was a matter of pride to me to ensure the absentee wasn’t missed, and I made myself indispensable. They didn’t want to let me go, so it was only a matter of time before I came to Mina’s notice.
I remember the first time she spoke to me. It was lunchtime and, as usual, I was alone in the office, holding the fort while the other secretaries went out. I always brought a sandwich in from home and ate it at my desk, so I could leave on the dot of five. My daughter – Angelica – was four years old, and, back then, I always made sure I was home for bath and bedtime.
‘Is he at lunch?’ Mina was looking for the finance director – Mr Beresford, it was then. Ronald Beresford.
‘Yes,’ I nodded, a little star-struck, perhaps.
She went straight into his office and closed the door behind her, and I stood up and brushed the crumbs from my skirt. I could see her then, through the window of Mr Beresford’s office. She was going through the drawers of his desk – pulling out bits of paper until she found what she was looking for. I was sitting back down when she came out, pretending to be busy, and I think she forgot I was there.
I could hear her at the photocopier, muttering to herself, and when I looked up she was stabbing at its buttons in frustration. It was only when I unwrapped a ream of paper and filled the tray, then replaced the empty ink cartridge and brought the machine to life, that she turned to look at me.
‘How many copies would you like?’ I asked.
‘Two,’ she said, and she watched as I copied, collated, then stapled the documents together. Instinct told me she’d like to take them away in a plain, brown envelope, so I found one, and slipped them in for her.
‘I haven’t seen you before, have I?’
‘I’m just a temp,’ I said, though it was not how I saw myself.
I was the most reliable and conscientious secretary in the department. ‘Would you like me to return the originals for you?’ She looked at me and smiled, and it was the most extraordinary thing. There aren’t many people who have that gift, but Mina has it in spades. When she shines the full beam of her attention on you, it lights you up inside. Certainly, it made me feel, not special exactly, but as if I mattered. In that moment, to Mina, I mattered.
‘Mina.’ She held out her hand. ‘Mina Appleton.’
‘Christine Butcher,’ I said. Her hand was tiny in mine.
‘Good to meet you, Christine.’ She smiled again. ‘No need to tell Mr Beresford I was here,’ and she held on to my hand a moment longer, then left.
When she’d gone, I returned the documents she’d copied to his office, and Mr Beresford’s smiling eyes watched me from the photograph on his desk as I tidied up and covered over Mina’s tracks. He’d never know she’d been there, and I smiled back at him, standing with his arm around his wife, his two young daughters holding hands in the foreground. Then I straightened his chair and returned to my lunch.
Two weeks later I received a call from Miss Jenny Haddow – PA to Mina’s father, Lord Appleton.
‘Mina is looking for a new secretary, and your name came up,’ she said. And that was it. Mina must have made inquiries about me. All she would have learned was that I was punctual, efficient and, perhaps, that I was married with a child. She could have had her pick of secretaries, but it was me she set her heart on.