By Anna P. Monaghan
Abner Pickard put away the immaculate distelfink card on which his name was carved in gold. A new batch had arrived today and, try as he might, he could not overcome the impulse to open the first drawer of his desk and peek at the heralds. He had done this thrice in the past half-hour, and despite himself, was getting a little tired. Vanity, vanity.
He could hear Miss Capshaw in the next room clicking away at her typewriter to the precise sounds of the Dictaphone –a letter to Messrs. Aram and Sons. He was proud of all the technology in his office, and prouder yet of his secretary who ably managed everything. Pickard had good reason when he smiled proprietorially. It had taken him years, twenty-three long years, to build this company from the shanty garage of his ex-friend’s duplex-flat, and though many had been felled by the market’s fickleness, Pickard had survived the turbulent twenties. The war and the depression had gone by him, and the years had aged him but not beaten his spirit. In the course of the three long decades, he had made many friends, dropped many more, earned several enemies, and driven to dust some more. There was none better at his work than Abner Pickard – the business card shone forth a halo in gold.
Ah! He was annoyed how he could not let the cards be and resolved to look in on the letter. With a slam of his mahogany drawer, he got up to go out.
Miss Capshaw was busy. Her work brooked no interference and a peremptory glance at her boss, emerging from his room, assured her that this was no work-related jaunt. She continued with her purposive clatter. The sound of a machine whirring some incoming message drew the attention of Abner Pickard.
“Goodgood. Goodgood,” he muttered approvingly. Miss Capshaw did not bother to respond. How else could it be – her swift fingers seemed to imply.
Abner Pickard was now looking at the telex message. There was a look of confusion on his face as he mishandled the paper causing it to tug at the machine. He looked somewhat helplessly towards his secretary who, sensing an impending problem, had already half-turned towards him, even as the rest of her remained attuned to a white page, half submerged in her typewriter and on which squiggly little figures were coming alive at the command of her dancing finger-tips.
“One moment, Mr. Pickard.”
Pickard attempted to fold the paper as it emerged from the machine, but now somewhat slowly, having been assured of a greater authority’s aid in the matter.
“These machines! Really, life was much simpler before, isn’t it, Miss Capshaw?”
With a flourish on the typewriter’s lever, and the final tinkle of a task completed, Miss Capshaw swung herself towards the telex machine, and flicked a switch. Sheets of content emerged noiselessly, like one wave after another, and Pickard happily picked them out. He had a smile that seemed to say: As ever, Miss Capshaw. As ever.
There was a tacit romance to this drama of managerial disabilities and secretarial skills, and Abner Pickard privately enjoyed these moments of feminine domination. Miss Capshaw was pretty, young, and brisk with office work, and in a few months of employing her for the firm, he had felt vindicated in his choice. In the last six years, Miss Capshaw had come to virtually manage all administration and her responsibilities had increased multifold. Pickard, in turn, had proven a kindly employer. If the net pay was a little less than what she might have earned elsewhere, the raises in pay she had earned helped offset her financial liabilities. In this regard, Miss Capshaw, too, felt she had been fortunate, for no sooner had some grave need arisen, God had willed for her a way around it. That time when François’ medical bills had made her distraught, or when his kindergarten teacher had said François was a child with special abilities and needs, it was Mr. Pickard’s word that had helped François gain admission in a school with classes for exceptional children. Despite itself, life works out, she thought. Her François and she were safe, in God’s hands.
François was Miss Capshaw’s eleven-year-old son; his father had died when he was only two and the boy had grown without paternal influence. A result of this was a preternatural closeness to his mother, with whom he shared an almost intuitive force of understanding. There was a photograph of François and Miss Capshaw on her desk. They were standing by a sailing boat, all white and blue, and in her pale blue polka dot dress and hat held firmly to her head by a shapely arm, Miss Capshaw looked like she could stave off disarray forever. Young François stood in front of her, barely over her waist, held close by his mother, a look of speculation causing him to peer, from behind his glasses, at the photographer.
Pickard was quite fond of that picture. François was an unusual child, special, and his ponderous face looked like it had taken on the burdens of the whole world. The child worried Abner Pickard a little – behind the round glasses, his eyes looked like wells of meaning, so unexpected in a child, especially one of the vivacious Miss Capshaw. François was having trouble at his new school, Pickard had been told. Some of the rich boys were picking on him. They had taken his copy of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and flung it over a shed on the school compound and jeered at him as he tried to retrieve it. School administration had had to be called in and eventually the book had been restored to the rightful owner, but François had refused to name his bullies.
Abner Pickard thought of the boy with respect. He wondered what he would have done himself. Given those sniveling skunks up! Pickard appreciated courage when he saw it. He felt a surge of affection for the boy. Even though Miss Capshaw was not family, the boy was like the son he never had. Pickard felt towards François a responsibility that transcended categories of kith and kin and brought out in him a profusion of warm feeling that he could not quite call love, and yet . . . Pickard suddenly felt much better and walked over to his desk. As usual, she was completing her day’s assignments. The sound of the Dictaphone conveying his letter from the previous evening played out like a chorus in the drama of industry. All was well, indeed!
Miss Capshaw debated, as she typed, whether to allow at the evening’s party later the attentions of the gauche Mr. Thompson to presume a future, or to snub him today so as to prevent heartbreak later. All of a sudden, she found herself called in by Abner Pickard at really a most important moment of decision-making. With characteristic administrative ability, she filed the pros and cons of the situation away, to be fished out later for proper dealing-with. As she entered Pickard’s room, separated from her space by a wall of half glass and half wood, her mind fleetingly went to her new red dress and to a slight pang that she had no red shoes to go with it. She would leave a little early – François’s cake had to be picked up. She had bought him a little geometry set – the book of maps she had got him earlier had made him want to draw angles and such, he said. The Merangue set she had bought came with a mini-eraser and a stencil, a fact that made her prefer it to the cheaper Safe-T Geometry set that had only the standard eight pieces. He would be happy – her little man genius. Despite the grimness of the day’s work, Miss Capshaw was smiling at the thought of the evening.
“Yes, Mr. Pickard.”
It was always a statement, so sure were her ways. Yes. Yes, indeed – the sum of her seemed to imply. Abner Pickard was secretly amused and felt another surge of affection for this prim and proper and most efficient of all secretaries in the world, whose son felt like his own.
“So all is good, Miss Capshaw?”
A quizzical eyebrow from her reminded Abner of life’s superfluities and all things generally redundant. Not quite abashed, he inquired officiously of work-related details. Then he coughed somewhat significantly, prefacing what he was about to ask. “How is François?”
“He is very well, Mr. Pickard. He is looking forward to his small party today. I bought him a book of maps and a geometry set. He was been wanting that ever since you let him have the old set of Encyclopaedia Britannica from your library. François has been over the moon since.”
Abner Pickard coloured with deep pleasure. His hands did not know what to do; his legs felt aflush with a vague warmth and, with a slight panic, he remembered the days when he would wet himself until, laughably, quite old. There was in Miss Capshaw’s words the same sweet bliss of letting go, and with an effort at composing himself, Pickard smiled. “I am glad to hear of that. The slight matter of . . . um, the school bully Jameson? What of that?”
A look of annoyance flared in Miss Capshaw’s eyes but she spoke with caution. “The school is looking into it. I am sure it will all be fine soon.”
“No, no, no, Miss Capshaw. We mustn’t let go of these matters so easily. Youth is a dangerous time and for young boys even more so. They are arrogant boys – they speak the language of their fathers, I know this type. Money has not yet taught them reserve and subtlety – values they will learn slowly, if at all. Perhaps you should speak to the school principal and ask for strict action. Exemplary action!” There was a mild agitation in the air around Abner Pickard.
“Thank you, Mr. Pickard,” Miss Capshaw kept her annoyance close in her tone. “But perhaps things will right themselves. After all, they are just boys and some mischief is natural. I met with the class teacher and she has assured me she will keep an eye. François himself is somewhat embarrassed by the whole affair and wishes not to make things more sticky.”
“I see.” And suddenly, Pickard got up and left his office for the bookshelf in the hall outside, where he took down a brown book with gilt-edged pages. Perusing it with a mild interest, he walked over to Miss Capshaw’s desk and looked at the photograph in some concentration. “We mustn’t just let things slide, Miss Capshaw. You have to be more careful!” He spoke now as if he were thinking aloud to himself or as if he was addressing the House of Commons. There was a subdued energy to him.
“To these boys, François is a threat, you see. He is not of their class. He doesn’t have money like they do, and yet he is so, so… exceptional. The poor have no business being exceptional – it is only fit that the ruling classes be deserving of their right to rule. Someone like François is always a reminder, you know, an awakening. The working class ought not be riddles – they should just be.” The words, like so many notes of music, hung in the hot air, for, it seemed, many minutes. Pickard was still considering the prospect of saving young François and any measures that that might entail, and his fingers beat a tattoo on Miss Capshaw’s desk. The sound was like a clarion in the afternoon quiet of the office. Behind him, Miss Capshaw, who had followed him out, coloured visibly and felt her heart thump loud as thunder, and as she measured out her reply, she felt the air rush out of her.
But the moment passed and Pickard’s words dispersed everywhere. He turned around just as suddenly as he had moved out and back in earlier, his mind made up.
“Of course, mother knows best, doesn’t she.” He was smiling now. “And the class teacher. There, I am glad for you. The matter’s settled, of course. François is safe in their hands.” Pickard turned around, evidently pleased, and walked towards his room.
She stood there, next to the photograph and her desk, where her typewriter and papers assured her of her place in the chain of being, and as she watched her boss walk away, Miss Capshaw had the sudden notion of a train she had missed. When Pickard faced her again, from his room, it was a cool look that had arranged his face into an impenetrable mask and she was looking at him through the glass that separated them and divided his world of power and purpose from hers.
As Miss Capshaw sat down on her cushioned chair, she felt her body sink into the softness. There was a clenching in her legs and arms and she looked at the letter on the typewriter, all complete. Her heart was beating so loud she thought tympanies played in her ears. She switched on the Dictaphone and there was Pickard’s voice, pointing out her way.
“New message, Miss Capshaw.”
Every morning, when she turned on her new Morley Pynchon Dictaphone, she would hear those words that began her day’s work. It was Pickard’s way of showing that he always worked. In the background.
When the likes of her had gone home to their grubby rooms and flotsam families, the likes of him came out of their swank offices and spent valuable time in recording ‘new messages’. This was the game between the classes: the rules of engagement between messages old and new. Those who speak. And those who are spoken to. And always the message is the same. Contempt. Beneath all the kindness – the raises and the words of support and the plans – was that corroding contempt, eating away at her pride, like water to a rock, slowly but measuredly blunting her selfhood. Killing her with the weight of obligation, of gratitude, of kindness.
They kept her and her son safe! And in return, we listen to them talk. Even when they are away, they talk. They talk talk talk!
Something akin to revulsion rose up in Miss Capshaw and she grabbed the spool of tape from the Dictaphone, and behind the parapet of her table, she wound and unwound the tape, wrenching it free from its plastic holder, shredding it into whatever bits she possibly could. As the plastic dug deep into her pale hands, now twisting and coiling in unknown rage, her eyes steadied themselves on a prospect far away, and though when Abner Pickard looked at her, he only saw her looking intently at the letter on her typewriter, there was a silence which rushed in to fill up the room once all the words of the day had been uttered and all the old messages had been heard and all the new messages were waiting to come. And then she began to type.
Abner Pickard signed another cheque and smiled gloriously. The memory of the gold cards and François’s safety, along with the sight of Miss Capshaw’s unerring diligence assured him of the fitness of things.
It is time for her raise. The boy’s needs are growing – it is important to keep him from vulgar want.
His bosom swelled in pride thinking of François. He counted back to the three raises Miss Capshaw had had in the last two years, all substantial ones, of course. And all in due process, so that merit had the upper hand always, for was not Miss Capshaw just about the best secretary any man could have? Abner Pickard felt a familiar warmth fill him at the thought of François and his mother. He was conscious of a certain transgressiveness in his concern for them. There was nothing sexual here – how could there be? But Pickard felt François to be his own, and there is much to be said for feeling. No matter what the world takes from you – your business, your wealth, your wife – it can’t take away feeling. A man’s got a right to feel. To feel!
Pickard leaned back into his chair’s comfort. His unspoken love for François, his concern for his mother, and his extreme care of them defied language. Sometimes, he could not bear the burdens of his solicitousness – for wasn’t it his kindness that had bailed Miss Capshaw out whenever she had, in her own reluctant way, expressed need? Her overdue rent – a new school for François – François’ medical bills – had he not stepped in, like divine intervention, whenever Miss Capshaw had wished?
Pickard glowed in private memory of his kindnesses, but he desired greatly for a new language of love. This was not just kindness, he thought – this was a man’s right to feel! To feel and express his feeling! Would his snobbish relatives ever understand? How would they react if they knew François was in his will? A man has the right to pass on his legacy – it is his right! And François was safe.
Pickard felt overwhelmed. He wanted to thank somebody.
On an impulse, he opened the top drawer of his desk and took out a card. The light bounced off his gilded name and the office shone to him like the heavens had opened, and his heart sang in joy. He took one of the cards and walked up to the dark armoire across the room.
An intricate boat, sails and all, sat on display, within a pale green bottle lying on its side: François’s birthday gift. He hoped Miss Capshaw would not mind. He was afraid it might be deemed . . . improper. For a moment, he panicked over Miss Capshaw’s refusal. “Too expensive, Mr. Pickard!” “Not right.” “No.” She would not understand. She might read too much into it. Perhaps he was expecting something sexual. No!
Mystified, he looked between the boat and his card, hoping to find a solution. He cared for her and the child – he cared. Was a man to not have a right to care for someone! Pickard’s nerves were shot – he looked towards Miss Capshaw and saw an empty seat.
Suddenly, it struck him: he would do it. He would give François the boat in a bottle and he would put his card on the box. He couldn’t attend the birthday, of course. It would be inappropriate. But a small gift like that would be most professional. It would be quite all right. There was a meaning to his life now – in giving, Pickard felt his best and strongest.
He pulled the boat-in-a-bottle down and took it to his desk. He would ask for Miss Capshaw to find a box for him. He took out his finest ink pen and wrote. Happy Birthday, François. Abner Pickard. Then he held the card up to light – Affectionately? Sincerely? He wished he had the Dictaphone to say the words out loud into so he could hear them back again. What would be appropriate?
He peered over at Miss Capshaw’s desk. Might she know? But where did she go? The restroom, perhaps. She wasn’t back yet. He got up.
As he neared Miss Capshaw’s chair, he noticed her bag was not there. Puzzled, he looked towards the restroom, half expecting to see her walk out with her bag swinging, her step of purpose and that look of quizzing appraisal she had. On the desk, there lay an envelope with his name. It was office stationery. He would recognize that gold trimming anywhere.
As he read it, Abner Pickard saw his world sink slowly like that boat going into the bottle, until the cork capped its life forever. It is fair to say Abner Pickard had been taken utterly by surprise – and then shock, and then dismay.
Miss Capshaw had resigned.
As the fact of her leaving came upon him, his first thought was that for all the kindness that he had done for her and her son, this had been his return.
Anna P. Monaghan is Assistant Professor of English at Presidency University, Kolkata. She completed her doctorate at the University of Toronto in 2010 and published a monograph, Utopia and the Village in South Asian Literatures, with Palgrave Macmillan in 2012. Anna writes and teaches in the broad areas of postcolonial studies, the history of ideas, critical theory, and cultural studies. She is also the author of a volume of poetry, Twenty Odd Love Poems, published by The Writer’s Workshop in 2008
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