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The Office Secret November 30, 2009

Posted by Anna in Exercises.
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Writing prompt: compulsion, executive, obtain, wistful, cathartic, naive.


She was a small, delicate woman, who moved about the office with a sense of compulsion. Quick and efficient, yet poised and effortless with it, the younger women could not fathom her at all. She had an almost ethereal beauty, gliding through her purposes with an economy and grace of movement beyond their comprehension or capability.

Marlené had worked for many years as the executive assistant to David Grant, company chief and noted philanthropist. The office girls liked to call her Mar-leen, in their common, dishonouring manner, but Marlené herself would always correct them with dignity, engaging their eyes with her own steady, knowing blue ones, and say with a firm, well-modulated tone and an eloquent smile, “Mah-lane-uh.” She had learned, at the hands of a previous generation of office girls, to pronounce ‘lane’ rather than ‘lay’ as the middle syllable of her name.

Those rumours persisted, of course. David Grant was known to be single, and early gossip questioning his sexual orientation had long been dispelled throughout the company. The preferred suspicion was that elegant, gamine Marlené was his chatelaine.

There was no hint of any such impropriety from either Mr Grant or Marlené within the office. They both conducted themselves with the ultimate in professional courtesy. He called her Marlené of course, but she only ever referred to him as Mr Grant, meeting his deadlines, arranging his itinerary and keeping his diary with fastidious correctness.

There was little hint when Marlené became ill. She still wore her impeccable, stylish yet feminine business suits, yet she seemed to shrink within them. The soft glow of her cheeks became more obviously artificial, and her eyes dulled though somehow became keener still, as if she longed to not miss a thing.

Mr Grant, who had never been unkind to Marlené ever, had sometimes been sharp or urgent in his directives to her in the course of the business day. It became obvious, however, that he began to still himself and speak with the utmost kindness and respect with every interaction he had with her. Instead of buzzing through and asking if documentation had arrived, he would leave his desk to seek Marlené out in person to obtain the information.

Nobody needed to ask if Marlené was sick, because it was very obvious that she was. Sometimes the girls from the main office would take paperwork or messages through to the executive suite, and find Marlené just staring off into space with a wistful expression. They all reported that she seemed serene and otherwise efficient, but all fretted and mused about what could possibly be wrong with her.

Marlené had never been a smoker, so it wasn’t likely that it was lung cancer. Perhaps it was a different form of cancer – but then, there was no evidence of her having any kind of treatment. Some pondered that perhaps she had developed food allergies, while others suggested a heart condition or a liver disease. Nobody ever asked, though, because Marlené did not invite questions of herself. She engaged with all the staff in a professionally interested way, but that was always about executive care of staff and no reciprocation was required or received.

It was a rare morning when Marlené did not arrive in the office. Nobody could recall a day when she was not ensconced, with the executive coffee pot already percolating, when everyone else arrived to populate the office for the day. That she was not at her desk at 8:29am on a Monday morning was most unsettling.

At 8:40am, the pay mistress phoned Marlené’s home number from her file.

At 8:47am, she phoned Marlené’s mobile phone.

At 8:53am, she phoned David Grant’s mobile phone. He was en route to a business meeting in Hong Kong, so all she could do was leave a message.

At 10:14am, the front desk receptionist received a phone call from an unnamed male, advising that Marlené Cossington would not be at work for the rest of the week.

It was very distressing. There were so many little things around the place that Marlené just took care of, or reminded others to take care of.

The office didn’t seem to run as smoothly. People were fretful.

At 4:23pm, David Grant phoned from Hong Kong to say that he would be back in the office on Wednesday afternoon instead of the following Monday.

Beyond that, there was no information. Oddly, there was little discussion, either. Nobody liked it that Marlené wasn’t around. She was the glue that held the place together; the grease that kept the machinery running efficiently, so to speak.

When Mr Grant stepped out of the office at 3:57pm on Wednesday afternoon, his greying hair was as impeccable as always, his suit was sharp and his demeanour full of his usual authority. It was only the last point that caused concerned eyes to snap to attention and wonder what was going on. His current confidence was such a contrast as to highlight that for the last few months, his deportment had held an uncharacteristic sag.

“I will speak to all staff in the conference room in half an hour,” Mr Grant advised the wide-eyed receptionist. As soon as he strode through the door into the executive wing of the floor, she was on the phone trying to figure out how they would fit so many people into the room all at once.

When he walked into the conference room at 4:28pm, the room was indeed jam-packed. The most junior staff were sitting on the floor right before the podium like kindergarteners. The next rows of the most senior staff in age were on chairs, then some sat on the edges of the tables that lined the back walls, and the young, fit men lined the back wall, standing on the tables.

Mr Grant took in the scene before him. “Thank you all,” he said, and they relaxed at the warmth in his tone. “As you are aware, my trusted assistant, Marlené, has not been at work this week. She has, in fact, been in hospital.”

A gasp arose from the assembled 71 staff.

He held up his hand. “She is well cared for, in good hands, and will return to her usual vigour swiftly now.” Suddenly though, Mr Grant sagged. “She is my wife,” he said. “I will tell you our story.”

It was as if the entire assemblage held its breath.

“Marlené is not sick, as such, she is pregnant.”

Questions were voiced, and Mr Grant did no shy away from answering them.

Initially, difference in their ages (nineteen years) and Marlené’s non-Catholic religion barred their union. Out of respect for his mother, they avoided relationship completely for a number of years. Mr Grant explained that although Marlené had been naïve, she had always been highly principled. They simply worked together cordially, then parted company at the end of the day.

It was during a rail strike and a torrential downpour that Marlené accepted his offer of a ride home. He took her out for dinner on the way, they talked, laughed, and at last admitted the depth of the attraction between them. For three years they conducted an unconsummated courtship, only ever outside working hours, until on a weekend drive in the country, he proposed.

Marlené explained that she knew she would never be able to have children, due to an untreatable medical condition. Mr Grant’s mother, a true aristocratic matriarch, would not accept a daughter-in-law who was not ‘of the faith’. For some time, the situation appeared completely untenable.

Then, over dinner one evening, Marlené offered a solution. ‘I enjoy my independence, as you do,’ she explained. ‘We are legally able to marry. We could do so, and spend the time together that we do now, but with …’ As Mr Grant explained it, her words trailed off, and everyone understood. Thus, their wedding took place and remained a secret to all, save themselves (who never forgot) and the officials (who performed their ceremony then moved on to the next pair, rapidly forgetting all the names along the way).

They had been married for seventeen years already, Mr Grant still officially living in his family’s generational mansion with his mother, and Marlené still in her tiny cottage in a very different part of town. Somehow the arrangement worked.

Neither of them expected to be parents. That was a miracle. It was a huge shock, and it was the shock more than morning sickness that had made Marlené seem so gaunt and frail, especially at first. Then, Mr Grant had begun to insist that this eventuality was just the cathartic jolt they needed to tell his mother about their marriage and their expected baby. They had fought about it again just before his departure for Hong Kong.

“She stopped to speak with a neighbour on her way to the train station on Monday morning,” Mr Grant explained to the office. “She fainted, the ambulance came, and she has been hospitalised since. It was a male nurse who called in to advise of her absence from work.”

Mr Grant seemed much relieved to have told his staff the truth about himself and Marlené, and was flooded with congratulations regarding both his marriage and impending fatherhood. He squared his shoulders again as he entered the lift, ready to face his mother.

Nobody ever knew how that meeting went. Mrs Grant senior died within a week of the news, and in due time Marlené became an elegant mother who appeared in society pages. She did not return to work as her husband’s assistant, but her young male replacement found that despite their diminutive size, hers were indeed very large shoes to fill.

The staff noted the extra jauntiness in Mr Grant’s step thereafter, and if Marlené did visit the office with little Jonathan, he was openly affectionate with them both, in his dignified way.

They all wondered why they’d never guessed. How such love had escaped their prying eyes for so many years. The wiser ones amongst them concluded that it was because they had no right to know. The older, more prideful ones assumed a retrospective knowledge, and the younger, romantic ones all dreamed of one day finding a love like that.

For David, Marlené and little Jonathan Grant, however, they just smiled at each other and enjoyed the next phase of their lives, being together openly and living properly together in their new mid-sized suburban home.

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