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Acting Accordingly

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Becoming Mr. Bickford-Smith’s secretary was any working woman’s dream—particularly for any of the typists working long hours in the firm’s basement floor. Margaret hadn’t dared hope throughout the application process; but she had worked very hard and studied just as hard before that. And so, just a year into working in the firm’s venerable grey building, she found herself ascending to its top floor, her worn-out typewriter left behind and a brand-new set of expectations settling on her shoulders.

Taking on this position was nerve-wracking on many counts. First, it meant daily interaction with a slew of unknown men in suits—business partners, lawyers, and engineers from various factories in and around London. Second, while Mr. Bickford-Smith wasn’t known to be of a mean sort—although he was armed with a distinctly painful handshake—seeing to his office was a massive responsibility she couldn’t afford to fail at. But the third count was the most intimidating one of them all, and it had nothing to do with Mr. Bickford-Smith: it had to do with Miss Susan Pevensie.

Standing at the threshold between her old life and her new job, Margaret had to take a shaky breath before approaching the desk in front of Mr. Bickford-Smith’s office.

“Good morning,” she managed.

Miss Pevensie looked up, and her perfectly coiffed dark hair and brightest of red lipsticks still weren’t nearly as striking as her gaze.

Miss Pevensie had worked for Mr. Bickford-Smith for over three years now, and in that amount of time she had become everything: secretary, representative, organizer, diplomat. Her voice was neither too loud nor too soft, and when she walked across a room she commanded everyone’s attention in a way that was neither arrogant nor rehearsed. It was rumored that Miss Pevensie had the record for the fastest shorthand in all of London, and that she knew the name, face and occupation of every single man or woman downtown.

On the rare occasions Margaret had seen Mr. Bickford-Smith in the lobby, Miss Pevensie had been right at his side, a small notebook and fountain pen in hand, lips curved ever so slightly in a way that could have been a smile—or a perfectly-timed word that would immediately put an end to any conversation and move Mr. Bickford-Smith on to his next appointment. Rumor had it that Miss Pevensie not only made the trains run on time, but everything else, too.

But now Miss Pevensie would be leaving the role, and Margaret—quiet, nervous, still entirely too uncoordinated Margaret—was meant to replace her.

 

The desk was just large enough for two people to fit behind it without elbowing each other, and it was a perfect map of her new duties: a telephone in the middle, a jar with pencils and a pen in front of her, clean sheet of paper, and a typewriter. A line of cards with telephone numbers, addresses, various schedules and lists of Very Important People was pasted to furthest edge of the desk. Most of it was now angled towards her, although Mr. Bickford-Smith’s calendar remained firmly centered in front of Miss Pevensie, or rather—

“You can call me Susan.”

Susan flashed Margaret a small smile that should have quelled her nerves but instead reminded her of how appalling her own lipstick-applying skills were in comparison. Susan could only be two or three years older, but Margaret felt dreadfully young.

“I’ll be here for a few days yet to show you the ropes. It can seem like a lot at first, but you’ll catch on.”

And so, sitting rather stiffly in her brand-new suit and not-yet-broken-into shoes, Margaret took to the telephone—her very first task as Miss Pevensie’s replacement.

“Mr. Bickford-Smith’s office, how can I help you?”

It was an endless series of calls: potential clients seeking quotes or appointments, salespeople offering products, managers at various offices reporting in, Mr. Bickford-Smith’s wife calling about dinner plans, an automobile repairman and even one of his son’s tutors. And while Margaret answered them all—Mr. Bickford-Smith’s office, how can I help you?—Miss Pevensie received those with appointments in the small waiting room, offering them a seat and quietly knocking on Mr. Bickford-Smith’s door to let him know of their arrival.

Whenever a caller asked Margaret a question she didn’t know the answer to, she somehow found them jotted down on the cards in front of her. And whenever she stumbled over her words, she saw Miss Pevensie’s eyes on her—even if she happened to be across the room.

But it was not until mid-afternoon that she had her first unpleasant caller.

“This is Tommy Gregor; put me through to his office.”

Margaret glanced at Mr. Bickford-Smith’s closed door, and the three people waiting in the sitting room for their own appointments—an accountant, a lawyer, and a young apprentice. Lastly, she glanced at the card with the list of Very Important People. Mr. Gregor was not one of them.

“I’m afraid he’s busy at the moment, sir. Would you like to leave a message?”

The man growled on the other side of the line; the tone of a man used to getting his way by force. “I told him—I told him! Next time I called I wouldn’t be so pleasant. You don’t turn a deal with me down. Go in there and drag him to the phone, lady.     

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that, sir.” She could see Mr. Gregor’s enraged eyes in her mind, even though she had never actually seen him. “But if you would like to make an appointment—”

“Don’t be stupid,” he spat. “I don’t want to make an appointment. I want him to take my bloody calls—"

“Hang up.”

Margaret looked up at Susan, who had finally set down the pen she had been writing with for the last ten minutes. She blinked. But Susan didn’t—so she obeyed and hung up, Mr. Gregor’s angry words still ringing in her ears.

“Don’t let them talk down to you,” Susan said, handing her a writing pad to make note of the call. “You gave him two chances to be civil. On the third, you hang up.”

 

Over the next few days, Margaret learned that Susan Pevensie knew everything about everyone. Perfectly organized notes reminded her, upon taking a call, to ask about his mother’s health, or wish a happy birthday 22 October, or remind about quarterly budget report. The grapevine hadn’t lied about her shorthand—she made note of every conversation and remembered even more. After Margaret had a light cough one particularly chilly morning, she found hot lemon-ginger tea and honey waiting for her the next day. People came to the office seeking appointments—but also to get advice on which event planner to hire, or on how to navigate a particularly difficult bout of workplace drama. Susan found time for them all; and without sacrificing an ounce of quality.

But as to Susan Pevensie herself, Margaret learned very little. It was clear that she lived in the city, and that she might possibly have a dog—or at least, was in possession of dog treats for the occasional canine visitor. But she never mentioned a husband or children—never offered up her own anecdotes when Margaret mentioned her parents and sister at home just outside London. Nor did she mention a beau to commiserate with Margaret’s difficulties finding a decent man. Susan was a tightly closed book, always gently but intentionally redirecting conversation. She would never offer information unintentionally.

Margaret supposed it wasn’t too odd; since the War, everyone had things they wanted to forget. Still, there were little things that did offer some hints. Like how after her lunch break one day, Susan quickly slipped a shoe off to remove a pebble and revealed grass-stains on the bottom of her stockings. Once, when her purse was jostled by a passing janitor one morning, a small bag of birdseed made an appearance along with letters from L. & E. Pevensie from over a year ago—all opened but carefully bundled together in their worn envelopes.

Susan had calligraphy too beautiful to have been learned in boarding school or even secretarial school, and she added an extra flair to a letter or two, weaving patterns of leaves and berries and strange creatures that Margaret couldn’t recognize around them, the dark ink of the fountain pen suddenly transforming into a tiny painter’s brush on any surface.

She didn’t quite hide any of it from Margaret—but she didn’t say anything about it either, and Margaret was too shy to ask.

 

But it wasn’t until the second-to-last day of Margaret’s training that Susan really startled her. It was an hour before closing, and Mr. Bickford-Smith’s weekly board meeting (with drinks) dragged on a bit longer than usual. The waiting room was empty and quiet, and it was just Margaret and Susan—Margaret throwing out drying flower arrangements in anticipation of new ones arriving tomorrow, while Susan finished typing the last letters of the day.

As Margaret took the flowers from the front desk, one of Mr. Bickford-Smith’s newest partners emerged from the office, making his way towards the men’s room. He was grey-haired and smiling, but his smile inexplicably made her uncomfortable, although she didn’t quite know why until she felt a hand cup the back of her skirt with a forcefulness that sent a disgusted shiver down her spine.

“You look gorgeous, sweetheart,” he breathed down her neck. “I’ll be looking forward to Thursdays now.”

She was about to fling his hand off her, but something tightened in her throat. She could smell the whiskey on his breath—but also the money, and the powerful signature that went on Mr. Bickford-Smith’s business contracts—

There was a sudden scraping noise and a lurch, and the man was dragged forward by his necktie until half his body bowed over the desk. The dried-out flowers in Margaret’s hands fell onto the floor.

Susan was standing, one sharp heel perched on the side of her chair for added height, one hand on the man’s collar and the other emerging from under her skirt with a small, sharp dagger.

“Clearly you’re new here, Mr. Collins,” she said, her voice no more louder than usual. But her heel dug viciously into the chair. “We don’t tolerate disrespect in this office, I’m afraid. If you cannot behave like a gentleman, then you will be treated as befitting your behavior.”

Susan held the dagger like it wasn’t the first time she had held one, or even the first time she had used one. It was like watching another woman emerge from within the perfect secretary—still elegant and efficient, but also an unyielding warrior. She knew, deep in her bones, that this was not a persona Susan was putting on. It was a rare glimpse at who she really was. For a moment, she feared Susan might actually slit the man’s throat.

It was clear that the spluttering Mr. Collins had come to the same conclusion. “Bloody mad,” he rasped, eyes fixed on the shining silver. “You can’t—"

“Mr. Bickford-Smith is well aware of mine and Margaret’s expectations for how we are to be treated,” Susan continued, lips curling into a cold smile. “And who’s to believe that someone like you ever cowered under a secretary’s knife?”

In a breath, Mr. Collins was standing straight again, his collar is twisted and a wild—yet much more sober—look in his eyes. He was out of the room in an instant, and when Margaret looked back at the desk, the dagger was gone and both of Susan’s feet were firmly on the ground. Primly, she returned to the typewriter.

 

Susan was not the only one to leave on Friday. Jerry Lawson was let go that day, and he sat in Mr. Bickford-Smith’s office for some time, ashen-face and glassy-eyed. Margaret watched from the desk as Susan brought him and Mr. Bickford-Smith tea; saw the glance she shared with the head of the firm, the way he looked to her for help as the man in front of him shook with shock and dismay.

But as Mr. Bickford-Smith floundered and situations became tense and quiet, Susan simply blossomed and took up the space their words had left behind.

In an instant, she executed the smoothest choreography: placing a careful hand on Mr. Lawson’s arm and gently leading him to his feet, carefully-chosen words guiding the conversation between him and Mr. Bickford-Smith until the two men were shaking hands and thanking one another. Margaret watched as Susan handed him his hat and his coat, a careful nod in the direction of the doorman indicating that he steer any potential acquaintances away from the man on the verge of tears; a stern, silencing look towards someone rather chatty sitting in the waiting room; a gentle but firm hand on Mr. Lawson’s elbow. And when Susan’s eyes turned to her, she did as she had been indicated, handing him the standard papers stating the termination of his employment—but also tissues folded discreetly underneath, along with a card for a nearby company seeking new employees.

Susan glided through the office, setting every person and process in motion. And although on paper Mr. Bickford-Smith was the greatest authority in the building, in those moments his role seemed to pale in comparison, the waiting room desk occupied by a benevolent authority whose movement regulated the pulse of the entire firm—a Queen, Margaret liked to imagine, for a very efficient little kingdom.

 

Margaret didn’t muster the courage to ask until the very last moment, when Susan stood in the center of the room and took one last look at the place that had been her life for the last three years. The desk was perfectly organized, the flowers bright and the room empty—and Margaret now sat in what had been her seat.

“Why must you leave?”

Susan smiled that odd, brilliant smile of hers, and took a deep breath. “My time is up,” she said simply, and smiled that odd, brilliant smile of hers. “Again.” She took a deep breath, then took her purse and coat. “It’s time for me to move on.”

Placing her coat over her shoulders in one smooth movement, like a cloak, she set something down on the desk. “It’s your turn, now. And don’t worry, Margaret. You’ll do beautifully.”

The door closed behind her, and the room felt suddenly smaller, darker. Margaret turned to the calendar that was now centered perfectly on the desk, a fountain pen close at hand—and noticed a brand new tube of bright red lipstick upright in front of her, the tube decorated with a curious pattern of vines.