'You'll be hearing a number of reports about your predecessor. But let me make it absolutely fucking clear. The only reason she was sacked was because she was completely useless. About as competetent as a cock ring made of spaghetti hoops.'
Ah, Sam thinks, so this is why I didn't meet the boss before signing the contract.
'And I know this was why she was sacked, because I'm the fucker who sacked her, OK? So if you manage a week doing the fucking job, you'll be fine. OK?
He's glaring at her, thin lips twisted into a sneer. He's watching what she'll do next.
She nods. 'OK. I'll try my best to be a... a steel cock ring, sir. Or leather, if that's your personal preference.'
He smiles. 'Sam, I think you'll do OK. See you next week.'
Her first Monday morning, she runs through the usual questions she asks a new employer.
'...Any birthdays you'd like me to remember, sir?'
It has the double advantage of sounding helpful and gathering some information. She very carefully keeps her eyes off his wedding ring.
'I'm perfectly capable of remembering birthdays, thank you fucking much. Try to remember we're not in fucking Mad Men, darling. I don't get you to fetch my dry cleaning and pay off my prostitutes with the coke, and you don't get a mink coat and a quick fuck over the desk when I'm bored. And don't call me sir.'
'No, Malcolm.' She's very proud of herself for not stuttering. He nods almost imperceptibly.
'And even if I was so fucking Alzheimersed-up that I couldn't remember any important birthdays, I have a Blackberry... And you should probably be aware, in case you need to lie to some snivelling cuntweasel from the tabloids: I had a wife. I don't anymore. End of discussion, ok?' It's not a question.
His eyes have gone curiously flat, giving nothing away. Sam suspects that she now has as much information on the matter as anyone else in the building and considerably more than some. She makes a mental list for later consideration: (i) divorced - wearing ring to rub ex's face in it; (ii) divorced - wearing ring to scare people off, not that he'd need the help; (iii) divorced - wearing ring because he's not over it; (iv) dead and his heart's broken; (v) dead-and-she's-under-the-patio. And, finally, because Sam's nothing if not thorough: (vi) remarried to someone who isn't a 'wife'.
For at least her first year working for Malcolm, (v) seems the most likely option.
Sam builds up files on the ministers and advisers as assiduously as she does on everything else. Mental files, mainly, though one or two are heavily password-protected on her personal computer at home. They're listed by competence, decency as a human being (none score that highly, and the ones that do sadly don't seem to last long as ministers), how much she personally likes them and how much Malcolm likes them, and then crossreferenced.
When one leaves from a little chat with Malcolm, she treats those she most despises and those she actually likes in much the same way: a sympathetic smile and the offer of a cup of tea. The only difference is that if she likes them, she doesn't pass any of the subsequent conversation on to Malcolm.
If she respects them she tends to let them leave in peace. If necessary, she pretends she doesn't see the shaking or - in one particularly memorable case - tears.
'Geoffrey Holnhurst wishes to pass on his thanks for your birthday card,' Sam says as she passes her morning report to Malcolm across the desk. 'And this is the latest on the situation at Defence.'
She frets for the split second it takes for him to work it out and is relieved to see the feral grin when he does. 'Did the world's tiniest-headed man sound scared?'
'Confused, with a definite undercurrent of scared, I'd say.'
'Excellent. That'll be all, Sam.'
Malcolm is delivering a bollocking with the door ajar, which usually means that Sam's supposed to keep half an ear open. Sam's been working for Malcolm long enough to assess the situation as about a category 3: annoying but ultimately solvable. The Minister's still trying to stand up for himself, poor deluded sod.
'... take you down to hell where'll you're be stuck so deep in the shit that even if you do ever get out, you'll be dragged back again, and again, and a-fucking-gain. You'll have to spend half of each year up to your stupid gulping Adam's apple in shit. Like that lassie-'
His head appears round the office door mid-snarl. 'Sam! What's her name, the Greek bint who spent half each year in hell?'
'Persephone,' Sam supplies, not looking up from her filing.
'Like Persephone. Because what you've done is a fuckup of such monumental proportions that you'll never outlive it. This, right here, is going to be the first line of your obituary. That is, if I manage to salvage your sorry career so you even merit an obituary.'
Sam knows she's better-educated and better-qualified than Malcolm and if she ever forgot her mum reminds her at least once a week1. Although he has a degree (apparently one of the other press officers knew him at university), he's really a self-made man. Unlike other self-made men Sam's worked for, Malcolm actually seems to have done a half-decent job at it.
1Sam hasn't even told her mum she's Malcolm's PA. Her mum thinks that no matter how much one enjoys being the quiet administrative backup without whom the whole organisation would founder, a first-class degree from Oxford means one should be at least a junior minister, or a high-flying lawyer, or even, if all else fails, a stockbroker. Sam's mum thinks she's some sort of nebulous policy adviser in Malcolm's department, which is still not good enough.
There are codes, Sam learns, for people who allowed to talk to Malcolm. Jamie, it transpires, is allowed through unless Malcolm specifically says no calls, Sam, not even my diminutive motherwell stalker. Others are allowed to be put on hold for varying amounts of time.
'Julius Nicholson for you, Malcolm.'
'Tell the world's poufiest skinhead I'm far too busy pleasuring myself to our illustrious PM's latest press conference to consult the shiny crystal ball of his skull right now. Ooh! Sam! He's talking about fiscal strategy, this is always the climax.'
'I'm sorry, Mr Nicolson, but Mr Tucker is rather tied up at the moment.'
'You can tell Mr Malcolm 'F-word' Tucker that I am not accustomed to be kept waiting and that I speak with the direct authority of the PM behind me.'
'He says he's going to go crying to Daddy if the big nasty Malcolm won't let him play.'
She hears Malcolm laugh. 'Put him through then, Sam. Let's see what shit the poo-sky thinker's come up with this time.'
'You're never here, Sam. What kind of relationship are we meant to have when you're always at fucking work?'
'When I'm at work! I'm not the one on 70-hour weeks.'
'But, baby, I'm a lawyer. I'm going to make Partner before I'm 30 - you know the plan. And it's different.'
'Why, because you're the man and I'm meant to be at home with your dinner ready in case you ever decide you'd rather eat with me than with some swanky clients on your damned expense account?.'
'Sam, baby, I have absolutely no problem with you having a career. If that's what you had.'
Sam narrows her eyes in an expression she knows she's learnt from Malcolm. 'And what, pray, do you mean by that?'
Damn. Pray. Why does she have to go all period-drama arch when she was cross. She can feel her vowels becoming more braying the longer they argue, the childhood tones of the Rt Hon Samantha (Rodean and Oxford) that she'd abandoned in her early teens showing through.
'I mean, if you had a career, not a job as some jumped up teamaid.' Some sense of self-preservation must have kicked in because he adds hastily, 'I mean, darling, it's such a waste. You're really quite bright, you know.'
'I know,' Sam replies icily.
She ends it before he can, leaves his flat and manages not to sob until she reaches home.
Sam makes it into work next day and is sat, reasonably calmly, at her desk when Malcolm comes in. 'Hey, Sam,' he says cheerily and then double-takes. 'Something I should know about?'
For a second, Sam seriously considers telling him everything. He could make Ralph disappear. 'My partner disapproves of my job, and me, I suppose,' she manages. 'So we split up.'
Malcolm raises an eyebrow. 'Permanently?' She nods.
'Want me to set Jamie on him?' Malcolm asks, cheerfully. 'He might even let you watch.'
'No, thanks, Malcolm.' Watery smile, please drop it eyes.
He leaves her alone and, as her phone is suspiciously silent all morning, she knows he's rerouted all calls directly through to his office. At lunch, he sticks a fistful of notes on her desk, together with two business cards and a number scribbled on a post-it note. 'Buy yourself something, get a haircut, whatever ladybollocks stuff you need to do. If it's pink fucking cocktails with little umbrellas and tropical animals wanking into it, don't come in tomorrow with a hangover or you will regret it.' He taps each of the cards. 'My locksmith - very discreet, very fucking nice. My lawyer - you probably won't need her unless you've got a joint bank account with the inbred little wanker or bought a house with him. And,' he pauses momentarily, 'my home number. Strictly for your eyes only.'
It's the unexpected thoughtfulness that breaks her and she starts to weep, as quietly as possible.
''kin' hell, Sam, stop that. I'm already using all my inconsiderable powers of restraint not to call Jamie right now and get him to castrate the fucker. Don't fucking cry, pet. Christ, you're a mess. Take the rest of the day off - people'll think I'm hitting you or something if they see you like this.' She looks up, surprised. 'That's right. Fuck the fuck off, change your fucking locks and then go and get drunk.' 2
2 Many years later, Sam will have the infinite satisfaction of meeting Ralph at a party and pretending she doesn't remember his name. He never did make it to Partner (though whether Malcolm Had A Word, or Ralph's innate twattisihness was finally recognised by the world at large is unknown). Ralph, as it turns out, needs a favour from the Joint Head of Press and Communications (together, they are known on both sides of the house as 'the psycho and the ice bitch') for Nicola Murray, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Sam takes great satisfaction in referring him to the head of the 'totally , independent no really' Labour Future Strategy Group (known to the entire world as 'Fuck the Tories') who, in recognition of the advice of his doctor and the manipulation of his friends, now deals predominantly with Machiavellian plotting rather than swearing until a lung comes loose, but still enjoys the odd shout. Just as a treat now and then.~*~
The trick with Malcolm, Sam learns, is that he can only cope with drive-by humanity. He'll just about tolerate 'Good, morning, would you like a coffee', but 'How was your evening', 'Happy Christmas' or (worst of all) 'Happy Birthday' is liable to provoke a spitting, hissing outburst of vampiric fury. After the first time, she knows not to give him anything (she would give a great deal to forget his expression the first time she gave him a Christmas present. And it was a poinsettia, lamest of all I-didn't-know-what-to-get-you presents). Instead, she drops the words casually as she leaves, or when he's got someone else in his office. Sometimes she wonders just what has to happen to someone to make them so unhinged by any contact with an emotion that isn't rage.
Sam checks her watch; Hugh Abbott's been in with Malcolm for ten minutes. That's as long as he's allowed uninterrupted (she and Malcolm have a list - the PM gets up to forty 'if he's got that look like Fiver having a myxamatosis-induced bad trip whilst caught in the headlights of a massive fucking truck' and other Cabinet members get anything from half an hour to 'for Christ's sake, Sam, if she's there for more than two minutes you put a call through to me from the UN about a nuclear missile threat, OK? More than three minutes and you can fucking enact the fucking missile strike').
Sam makes a cup of coffee for Malcolm and takes it in. She doesn't much care for Hugh Abbott, who strikes her as a sort of dead wood to Malcolm's political chainsaw. She puts the coffee down on the desk with smile.
'Ah, coffee would be lovely. And... do you have any biscuits?' Hugh looks more like a puppy than a minister. Sam's just about to tell him that they're sadly out of biscuits.
'Hey, Hugh,' Malcolm interrupts. Hugh's head snaps back to the enforcer so fast Sam almost laughs. 'Sam is not a fucking tealady, ok? She's got more Oxbridge degrees than the Tory front bench and, unlike them, she didn't suck cock for ten years to get them. She is my personal fucking assistant and as such, if she makes you tea it will be because I have fucking instructed her to do so so we can put so much Rohypnol in it you'll forget your own name.'
'But she's bringing you tea.' Hugh points out.
'She is MY PA, Hugh. Currently, she is personally assisting me to get enough caffeine into me so I can sit through whatever stultifyingly boring excuse you've got for your latest cockup without resorting to fucking self harm. Later, she may well be personally assisting me to clear your rotting, half-dead cacass out of DoSAC and install some shiny new minister who might actually be able to do their fucking job without me constantly holding their hand like a paedo at a kiddies' birthday party.'
No-one can drive themselves as relentlessly as Malcolm does without burning out now and then. That's what comes of trying to control everything and everybody. Sam, who recognises the signs even though she's confined her ambitions to controlling information (mainly through the medium of filing), starts to develop a sixth sense for when he'll crash. At least one afternoon a fortnight (crises permitting), she clears Malcolm's diary for as long as she can, hands him a huge, boring, non-essential report to read and leaves him alone in his office.
Half an hour before his next meeting, she makes coffee and goes out to buy sandwiches. She slips off her shoes, creeps into his office to leave coffee and sandwich on his desk (he's always in one of the armchairs by his point, back towards the door, dossier sprawled unread over the floor) and creeps back out. So far he's never caught her. Or if he has, he never acknowledges it. A few minutes later she buzzes the intercom and reminds him of his meeting. When she shows the latest victim into the office, she quietly clears away the empty plate and mug.
Sam is quite fond of Julius Nicholson. She senses that, had she ever listened to her mother, she might have ended up something like him. However, all the fondness in the world won't stop her eavesdropping ('legitimately looking for a file in Malcolm's office') while Malcolm has his first meeting with the enobled Nicholson.
She has to admit, his bow is pretty impressive. It takes skill to look looming and derivise whilst genuflecting.
'So, it's Lord Nicholson, now? Have you got one of those fancy-pants posho upperclass English names now - where it's spelt 'Julius Nicholson' but pronounced 'Jizzcloth Nancy-semen'?'
Sam has to fake a coughing fit.
Part of Sam's unwritten job description is vetting new ministers. They are invariably kept waiting in her office whilst Malcolm is 'busy' (she once caught him drawing a line onto the TV so that every time Nick Robinson looked directly at the camera he had a little Hitler moustache) so she can ply them with tea and small talk.
Nicola Murray is, as Sam later tells Malcolm, one of the few she might actually like.
'She's a bit... earnest. Thinks we should unite in a sisterhood against the patriarchal tryanny of the male-dominated political culture, though she didn't put it like that. But she's brighter than she seems,' Malcolm snorts. 'She wants to do some good, which is refreshing, and she also wants to fuck over the Tories. And she'll do what you say.'
'And why'll she do that, Sam?'
'Common sense,' Sam replies.
In fact, Nicola had asked, in between stammers and awkward jokes, what Sam's top survival tips would be. (Because, you know, Sam, you probably see more of us ministers come and go than anyone else!). After Sam had looked her in the eye and informed her that she always thought it best to concentrate on serving one's constituents and the wider communities of Great Britain rather than fixating on one's own survival and Nicola had laughed properly for the first time, Sam had said, '1. Don't ever, ever lie to Malcolm, and 2. Try not to despair.'
It's Saturday evening, later than Sam wants to think about. The shitstorm seems to be dying down, and the Sunday papers are mostly leading with a new story. Sam thinks it's a sign of her ongoing moral degredation that even a tiny part of her considers a hurricane in the US to be good news, but can't bring herself to care much.
On Monday the Home Secretary's wife was caught organising rent boys (one under 18,) and coke for a party that the Home Secretary would also have been attending. On Tuesday, two of the rent boys (twins) decided to tell The News of the World about thier previous experience with the Home Secretary (which, it turned out, his wife hadn't known about). Wednesday was spent U-turning on the government's "basic family matters" agenda whilst avoiding any impression that they were doing the same.
Malcolm's been ill all week. Sam can't imagine any virus actually having the balls to try to take on Malcolm, but one has and has done a fairly good imitation of winning. He's been coughing - a dry, hacking choke that reminds her uncomfortably of her dad's last days - and sneezing, eyes red-rimmed and nose running. As someone said (Ollie Reeder in DoSAC is claiming credit for it, but that means nothing) he looks like heroin chic with an extra dose of heroin and hold the chic. Her greatest comfort tonight is that it must just be a cold, because if it had been meningitis, he'd be dead by now. She doubts he has anyone who'd notice a rash. The thought makes her blush and she hates herself.
On Thursday, the PM threw a mug at a staffer, in front of a journalist.
On Friday, Steve Fleming was sighted in No. 10, which sent Malcolm into such an apoplectic rage that he couldn't even speak, just coughed uncontrollably until his face turned from grey to puce and back to grey, then slammed his hand into a wall hard enough to break the skin and muttered a Jesus, fuck that sounded more prayer than expletive.
Tonight, Malcolm's door is shut and she's heard nothing from him for at least two hours. She knows he hasn't eaten all day and doubts he's been home all week. She has the strictest possible instructions not to let anyone know he's still there, let alone allow them into the room.
Which is when Jamie McDonald turns up.
'Is the fucking fuckface in there?' he demands, gesturing at Malcolm's door, presumably in case Sam couldn't decipher who the 'fucking fuckface' is.
'No. He's gone home.'
She's stayed behind her desk, but Jamie places both hands on it and leans until his face is inches from hers. 'You're a lying cunt,' he spits. 'Let me in.'
'He's gone home, and the door's locked.'
His tone changes so quickly Sam gets whiplash. 'I know he's there. The bastard never goes home at the end of a week like this. He'll want to see me. I know he's had the week from some fucking awful hell dimension that's ten times worse than actual hell.'
'He's ill. He's gone home'
'I fucking know he's fucking ill. He's been wandering around gobbing snot and fuck knows what other shite all over people like a one-man plague factory. If I'd seen him I'd have stapled a fucking bell to his fucking head so that every bugger could hear the unclean one coming. I bet his eyes have gone all red and bloody and his nose is scabby, like when he was playing at being a fucking coke crusader.'
Sam notes down the former coke habit as a point of interest and stands up.
'He has gone home,' she hisses, standing in front of the office door. 'And even if he hadn't, the door's locked and I am under instructions that nobody gets the key.'
'Yeah, love, but nobody doesn't mean me.'
'No, Mr McDonald. Malcolm's very clear about when nobody means nobody except this list of people or if you bring me a coffee and when he means absolutely nobody. And tonight he meant the latter.'
'Listen, poppet,' Jamie is almost at full bellow now. Malcolm could be fucking dead and he'd hear this. 'Get away from that door or I will make the stories about what happens to nice girls like you who hang around offices alone look like fucking fairy stories, ok? I will cut off your ponytail, shove it so far down your throat you're shitting furballs for a month and then I'll make you plait the fucking congealed fucking shitted up hair into a fucking noose which we'll use to hang you. So open the door.'
'But he's there.' Jamie whines. He tilts his head back to allow the roar to echo. 'Malcolm! Malcolm you plague-dog-fucking diseased mongrel. Get your manflu'd arse out here and talk to me.'
Sam doesn't want to be here when Malcolm starts paying attention to Jamie. Because saying 'Happy Birthday' has nothing, nothing, on 'trying to destroy a door just by shouting, just to check he's not dead.' 'I'll get him to call you first thing tomorrow,' she tries, using her best secretary voice.
'Let me the fuck in,' Jamie growls.
'Back. the fuck. off.'
Her head snaps back against the door and it's only when she tastes copper at the back of her throat that she realises Jamie's hit her.
She's still reeling when the door unlocks behind her and she falls backwards into Malcolm. She fleetingly wonders if she could die now if she just wishes hard enough.
He's stronger than he looks is her last thought, as wiry fingers grab her shoulders and she sinks to the floor.
When she swims back into consciousness, Malcolm has Jamie by the tie, pulled in centimetres from his face. Malcolm sounds hoarse, his voice a deadly furious whisper. '...even for you, it takes the fucking biscuit. Christ, man, what were you going to do - read me a bedtime story? How fucking dare you. I should have you f'king neutered. You hit Sam. You hit Sam.' At this point he must have noticed her waking up, because he drops Jamie's tie like its a soiled dishrag and sinks to his knees next to her.
Great. As well as everything else, she's now embarrassed. A feral Scottish thug just punched her. And she's embarrassed because Malcolm seems to feel bad about it.
'You were right,' Sam says. Her lip feels funny against her teeth. 'You should have neutered him.'
Jamie growls, somewhere on the other side of the room. Malcolm gives her a wan version of a smile and helps her sit up. 'Jamie. Whisky.' Amazingly, Jamie leaves and plods back seconds later with a full glass and a bottle. Malcolm watches until she downs the lot.
At least she can spare Malcolm having to to ask. 'I won't make any official complaint.' He's poured himself a whisky (he's using her glass,some detached part of her brain notices), knocks it back and immediately doubles over, coughs shaking his thin frame. 'But he has to apologise.'
Jamie mutters something about how if she'd just let him in because he'd only wanted to check the stupid old coffin dodger wasn't dead at his fucking desk, but something in Malcolm's stony face must have stopped him pursuing that line of argument and instead he gives her a full apology with all the finesse of a born bullshitter.
'And you'll believe me next time when I say he doesn't want to see you.'
Jamie glowers until Malcolm glares at him, then he nods.
'And you,' she glances at Malcolm and notices that he's gazing, eyes wild and blank (fever, her brain notes), at her lip. She prods experimentally with her tongue and is rewarded with a stab of pain and a trickle of blood. 'You, Malcolm, will make him leave right now,' she hears her voice wobble treacherously, 'and ensure I'm never left alone with him again.'
'And,' she must be punch drunk, fighting mad to say this, but the words are tumbling past her split lip before she can stop them. 'And, you will not involve me in whatever the fuck is going on between you.'
Malcolm's eyes never leave hers, he feels it like a weight between her shoulderblades. 'There's nothing going on. Nothing.' He pauses, as though daring Jamie to interrupt. 'Jamie's last brain cell just got tired of its lonely fucking existence and went on a fucking kamikaze raid.' He's still watching her as though she's a stunned wild animal who might bite or bolt at any moment.
Jamie leaves without a word and they both listen to doors slamming as he makes his way through the building.
Sam pours herself another scotch and wishes for a gin and tonic.
'Sam,' Malcolm says, quietly. She can't meet his eyes. 'You did the right thing, not letting him in. That was the right call, Sam. I can always rely on you, eh?'
She bursts into tears and lets him pull her awkwardly towards him until her head's resting on his shoulder. She sniffs for a few minutes before pulling away. She's bled on his Armani. It's probably the least he deserves.
She goes home, and hears him coughing as she leaves.
On Monday, her lip's almost healed. No one mentions it.
She has to hear through her (excellent) sources that Jamie's been transferred to the FCO and he and Malcolm are apparently not speaking. The general belief seems to be that this is down to Jamie misunderstanding that 'pissing on his cornflakes' is meant to be a metaphor.
A fortnight later, Steve Fleming sacks Malcolm.