It was her favourite kind of morning. Little wisps of mist still clung to the garden in the middle of the square as she walked briskly up the short flight of steps and slipped the key in the lock. She noted with approval the freshly polished brass plaque as she let herself in and paused by the door to draw in the scent of the place. The slight spiciness from the pinks on the table near the entrance. Brass-o and typewriter ribbons. Beeswax and adventure. Undoing the button at the collar of her coat, Miss Climpson allowed a tiny smile of pleasure to escape as she mounted the stairs to her office.
She wasn't quite the first one there. Mrs Martin was pushing a carpet sweeper around the back row of desks, and a young woman with hair pulled back a little too tightly was bent over a pile of papers carefully comparing the shorthand to the typescript. This was Mrs Whittaker, a new recruit and suitably eager to impress. Currently she remained within the more open aspects of the bureau, but Miss Climpson had high hopes. Over the years she had become adept at spotting the certain quality, which when possessed made someone an asset to the agency. This reminded her: she had an interview that afternoon. First though, the business of the day.
By the time the women began to arrive in force, she was firmly ensconced in her office, a cup of tea at her elbow and a small pile of correspondence was in the process of being divided into several categories. Lord Peter had urged her to use a secretary for this part – after all he pointed out, the Bureau was awash with 'em – but Miss Kitty Climpson took pride in knowing every job which passed through her doors. As the chatter in the main office softened she knew that Miss Mullins the senior clerk had arrived, and soon the clatter of typewriters would echo through the halls.
“Miss Mosley, Mrs Whittaker, Miss Crayle please.” Norma Whittaker looked up with alarm and almost dropped the pencil she was sharpening. A summons to the office usually meant job outside, but so far she had been kept safely within the warm confines of the office. She was acutely aware that her shorthand was no longer as speedy nor her typing as rapid as it had been all those years ago before Bernard, and the fear of losing this job was a constant flicker on her horizon. She edged her way to the door of Miss Climpson's private office, letting the other two take the fore as they stood in front of their employer's desk.
To Miss Climpson they made an interesting contrast. Miss Mosley had an air of one who had grown up running. Her cheeks had a healthy glow despite her working life being spent in an office and she had a vigorous air. Miss Crayle was eight inches shorter, five years older and seven shades paler. She exuded confidence and her beautiful tailoring were unexpected in a typist. Mrs Whittaker the most hesitant of the three. Midway between the other two in height, she managed to look shorter and duller, constantly trying to blend into the background. There was something else there though, something that had come to the attention of the Bureau after an unexpected bonus of a previous investigation had led to Mr Whittaker being detained at His Majesty's pleasure for fraud, and the woman who helped to put him there had stepped in to offer his terrified wife a job.
All three stood in front of their employer and awaited instructions. Miss Mosley was rapidly despatched to take shorthand for a visiting professor seized by a sudden inspiration. It was the sort of job she particularly relished; a good brisk walk to the university buildings (her long legs and knowledge of shortcuts equalling the bus for speed and this way saved eightpence), a challenging subject which involved a bit of research to ensure her typing was accurate and, most of all, admission into the offices of the university. Thora Mosley had always secretly longed to continue her education, but was a pragmatic person. Sixteen had taken her to commercial college and she had departed from her friends with a cheerful wave. Efficient secretaries were always needed and money was tight at home, so this was logical. She took her delights where she found them, and today it was in sitting in a book filled room, heavy with pipe smoke and dust, covering her notebook with pencil squiggles about village life in the Sudan. While the professor paused for inspiration, she made rapid glances at the framed photographs on the wall, wondering about the usual occupier of the office. That afternoon she would be back at her desk with a volume or two from the university library (Miss Climpson's Bureau came with a reputation which granted a ticket), deep in exotic places. It was almost as good as travelling.
As the door closed on Miss Mosley with a firm click, Miss Crayle and Miss Climpson's eyes met and a glimmer passed between them. The older woman began to speak: “Mrs Whittacker. You may have noticed that we are not an ordinary typing bureau. We take on some very special clients, and we need to ensure absolute discretion. I must ask you to discuss this client only with Miss Crayle or myself as it may put a court case in onlyjeopardyonly...”
Ten minutes later the typists emerged, the younger woman feeling rather dazed. As instructed she collected her tools, covered her typewriter and followed Miss Crayle from the room. To her surprise, instead of turning left towards the stairs as they emerged from the cloakroom, Norma was taken firmly by the arm and led around a corner to a smaller set of stairs, almost certainly intended for servants by the architect. They rose two stories and emerged into a long low corridor, dimly lit by a skylight. A key slipped into a sturdy looking lock quickly gave admission into an unmarked room. Nothing she had seen since joining the bureau had prepared Norma Whittaker for what she saw in front of her: the room was full of clothes.
Miss Crayle took one look at the bemused expression on her companion and started to laugh, directing her to a chair. “My dear, you should see your face. What did you expect, Bluebeard's wives? Miss C needs us to be prepared when we are on the special jobs and it would look terribly strange if we all brought suitcases to the office.” She rummaged through a covered rail and pulled out a couple of items. “Try these.”
When Norma emerged from behind the screen she was awkwardly tugging at the long green frock, convinced she looked a fright. Her colleague gave her an encouraging grin and picked up a hairbrush, transforming the severe bun into a loose chignon.
“You'll need to paint up a little, but that can wait. Try walking to the door and back.” Norma complied, somewhat stiffly at first but smoother as she got used to the swing of the heavy material. “Now shoes. What are you – a five? Six? There's a shelf in the far cupboard.” Five minutes and three pairs of heels later, Mrs Whittaker felt more like Norma Gorridge than she had in years. Her head was held a little higher and she moved with more confidence in her step. She was still a little confused, but had decided to follow her colleague's lead. They selected a pewter silk for Miss Crayle, bags for both of them and a pair of gloves to replace the rather shabby pair which dated from before her marriage. Then, dressed once more in their officewear, they took the outfits to the floor below and Miss Crayle filled her in.
It was a sordid story of manipulation and extortion, and the two ladies were kept busy for the rest of the morning reading notes and discussing their methodology. They were to lunch with 'a useful young gentleman', and return to the office for more instruction before setting off for dinner at a Mayfair hotel, where the object of their intentions was dining with friends. Mrs Whittacker was wildly excited and looked ten years younger, every inch the ingénue she was portraying. A letter was hurriedly scribbled to her married sister (who had generously opened up her spare room despite the scandal of Mr Whittaker) explaining that she had an evening job and not to expect her until late. This, she felt, was Life.
When the bell rang from upstairs, fourteen year old Esmerelda Rumm hurried to answer it. Miss C had been very clear about this particular bell – it was a sign of urgency “and should be given priority my dear, absolute priority”. As the office junior she saw a lot of strange comings and goings, but had never been allowed past the upper landing. She collected the letter, glanced longingly at the gap in the door most efficiently blocked by Miss Crayle's lean form, and returned to the main room. Her strident call of “Letters please!” (initial attempts at gentile accents had led to complaints that she could not be heard over the clatter of keys), produced a dozen more envelopes, and she was soon walking importantly out of the door to deposit the post in time for the morning collection.
Miss Wallace looked up in annoyance. Where had that child gone, just as she needed a new ream of paper? It really was unfair that they should share her with the people upstairs; wasn't there enough work in the bureau? She adjusted her glasses and peered at the notes. Dear me, this book was boring and the gentleman's handwriting troublesome to read. She would very much like to take him back to the school room, give him a nice fat piece of chalk and set him to practising letter formation. Why had that terribly weedy Mrs Whittaker been sent out while she, Hilda Wallace and far more presentable, was kept here typing up Mr Portland's 'next great novel'? It wasn't that those who were sent out were younger, or indeed older that Miss Wallace's forty-seven years, Miss Murchison, steaming gracefully towards fifty, was always being summoned into the inner sanctum. She frowned and inserted the second to last sheet into her typewriter and found her place once more. It was all dreadfully unfair.
As the office emptied out for lunch, Esmerelda scuttled around topping up the trays of paper by each desk, emptying an overflowing waste paper basket here, straightening a pile of envelopes there. This accomplished, she settled down in her corner with a good chewy sandwich, an apple with a nice red cheek, and her favourite detective story. Maybe one day, she thought wistfully as she turned the page with a crumbly finger, maybe one day she'd find a way to do some sort of detecting herself.
The afternoon post brought with it a number of new enquiries and two or three firm jobs, and Miss Climpson eyed her possibilities. She loved the feeling of holding the strings here in her office, carefully weighing up the most suitable person for the task. She paused over one; could this be the time to test Miss Wallace? But no, that lady's place was firmly among the competent but ordinary typists maintaining the cover of an office remarkable only for its efficiency. Not only did she show a lack of depth in her observations, but Miss Mullins had reported that certain prejudices in her conversation (Miss Climpson often thought in italics). Not a sympathetic character, and (the tip of her nose growing slightly pink at the uncharitable thought) not quite trustworthy. No, this job would be given to one of the others, someone she could depend on. She turned to the rack on the wall.
Miss Climpson's card catalogue was a thing of beauty. Every employee of the Bureau, present or past, had their own card which to the unskilled eye was filled with notes of typing speeds and particular skills. Careful study would suggest that there might be more to this than at first glance. The list of languages included morse, semaphore, and in two cases, naval flags. Several cards mentioned a special course of instruction by Mr Rumm or one of his associates. Others hinted of certain chameleon-like characteristics which came in useful when the role needed someone to disappear into a crowd. Tiny symbols in different coloured inks would baffle the uninitiated, but to Miss Climpson they were crystal clear. She took great delight in updating a card when new abilities came to light, and unexpected talents were revealed; some like Miss Murchison were so accomplished they now qualified for a second card. The Bureau was a hothouse for women, allowing them to flourish under her watchful eye.
The newest recruit – potential recruit Miss Climpson corrected herself – arrived promptly at half past two, bringing with her a lovely scent which suggested expense, and a faint air of dejection. The young lady (very much a lady) had been curiously resistant to her mother's attempts to marry her off, and her sympathetic aunt, an early success story of the Bureau, had recommended her. Not one for the typing pool, if employed she would sit firmly on the floor above, where the Bureau Chief herself would ascend shortly. Although Miss Climpson insisted that all her employees learned to type to at least maintain the illusion, and to write shorthand so that their notes would be rapid and less obvious, these women were groomed for more specialised roles.
As they talked, the listless air was gradually replaced by something that if not quite enthusiasm, was at least a nod in the right direction. Miss Climpson began to believe there might be something there, something trainable. The list of languages – conventional ones at least – was impressive, and if the experiences were more society than office, these skills also came in useful. After Miss Mullins took her four a tour of the upper levels, Miss Climpson drew a fresh card from the drawer and labelled it 'Wimsey, Winifred'. Then she checked her watch, reached for the soft leather packet she kept close at hand, and prepared to instruct Mrs Whittaker in the noble art of lock picking.
The Bureau emptied in dribs and drabs. First those whose day had begun particularly early (the very first of all had not actually been to bed the night before, but had driven back through the night from a country estate, desperate to hand in her report). The traditional typists left at five, typewriters shrouded into strange shapes in the growing shadows. Last of them was Miss Mosley, her head filled with unfamiliar customs and mysterious phrases, a book clutched under her arm. The professor had requested she return on the morrow and she was glowing with delight. Miss Climpson looked in approval at the volume as she passed her in the hall. It was the extra attentions like this that made her Bureau the place to use.
Upstairs the departures were more staggered. Those who were working that evening lingered in the sitting area, helping themselves to tea from the large pot stewing in the corner, greeting their employer with cheerful calls. A mousey woman in blue and an imposing figure in tweeds were practising passing a note invisibly between them. A lanky figure in trousers (Miss Climpson shuddered deliciously at her daring) with a hairstyle distinctly suggestive of Katharine Hepburn's latest picture sat cross legged against a wall memorising something from a sheet of paper. Two women were helping a third to pin up an over long skirt, while Mrs Whittaker and Miss Crayle contemplated the best place to secrete an item of contraband. Such busy, useful woman thought Miss Climpson with pride as she bade them goodnight.
The final person to leave was Mrs Martin, locking her carpet sweeper firmly in her cupboard before collecting her coat. Those young ladies upstairs were always fiddling with things, and she wouldn't put it past one of them to decide that a sweeper was just what she needed for some game or other. From what she could tell from the unguarded scraps of conversation (she felt she should alert Miss C to the invisibility of cleaning ladies) they worked for the good, even if their methods seemed a little crooked at times. Mrs Martin approved of this, and held their secrets wrapped closely to her like a shawl.
Norma Whittaker leaned back lazily in her chair, gazing up at Cyril through her blackened eyelashes while the noise from the band made attempts at conversation useless. He had not noticed that his cigarette case (containing several suspicious pieces of paper and the fingerprints he had thus far avoided leaving) had slipped from his coat into the folds of her shawl, and when he disappeared for drinks it would be secreted in the pocket within the lining of her bag. Slight of hand had come unexpectedly easily to her (admittedly in this case she had been assisted by the dim light in the nightclub), and the gentle clinking of her lock-picks was drowned by the sound of the long loops of beads around her neck. Now to get rid of the tiresome boy before he suspected something. Miss Crayle would be waiting.
Miss Climpson drained her final cup of tea of the evening and gazed around her warm flat with satisfaction. Cluttered it might appear to some, but to its occupant it was cosy and crammed with memories. She was so busy at her work that she had been persuaded, quite persuaded by dear Lord Peter to take on a daily to keep on top of the dusting and other housekeeping tasks, and the difference really showed. A hot water bottle in her bed, a warm eiderdown, and her Bible awaited the close of her day. 'Really,' thought Miss Climpson, carrying her cup to the kitchen, 'this is a rather interesting way to live.'