The Typewriter Girl
It is very important that you should learn the key-board so thoroughly that you can see it with your eyes shut, and can strike each letter without the least hesitation.
—Mrs. Arthur J. Barnes, How to Become Expert in Type-writing
Type-writer girls, they oughtn’t think too much.
Betsey knew it was so. She understood the detached and nimble attention required for speed and accuracy; she had learned to sustain such attention for pages and pages at a time. When it faltered, she was able to remind herself: Concentration, not contemplation. The words in her mind had the patted-down accent of Miss Slott of the London Working Women’s Training Institute.
Miss Slott had been imported from America, just like the Remington Standards her students used in their lessons, and as she chanted over the violent clatter of the typing machines, she might touch her pointing stick to your back, just beneath your shoulder blades, or slip it under your wrists to lift them. Posture worked toward efficiency, just as it did toward attractiveness, another important detail. Miss Slott had ever advised each pupil to consider how she must be like a beautifully made clock, not only functional and constant but also a complement to the surroundings—pleasing to the eye, should the eye happen to notice more than the hour.
Betsey understood. She had mastered it all, and she was fast. Fast and accurate, more so than most of the type-writer girls at Baumston & Smythe, Insurers, where she worked now. She’d had to be: Word had gone round not long after her hire at the insurance firm that Betsey Dobson had not finished her course at the Institute. Betsey Dobson had been dismissed. Not even a fortnight from the finish, and with no character given her! But truly, what could be done? What sort of character could be written for a girl who’d had a love affair with one of the instructors? That was the word that went round.
So she’d had to be good. Impeccable posture. Efficient, accurate.
Truth be told, that affair with Avery Nash had helped her improve at least as much as Miss Slott’s instruction, for Avery owned a type-writing machine. He was something vain of this treasure, but certain favors could persuade him to let her practice upon it—half-strikes, to save ribbon.
That she dragged the thing out to the stairwell on a blanket each night she spent in his flat, he never knew. A fuck made him a sound sleeper, and she always brought her own paper.
And while typing in a stairwell wasn’t conducive to good posture, those middle-of-the-night drills had served her well otherwise. Except for the expulsion, of course. And the gossip.
Concentration, not contemplation. It was a good motto, and not just for type-writer girls. It could save you from brooding over stale if mostly true gossip.
Or suppose you needed to pull some dodgy deed, right in the open—why, then the advice was wise indeed, for in such a case, you had no business contemplating the shoulds or shouldn’ts, the dodginess of the deed. Such self-consciousness could only draw attention. There was room only for concentration in such a case: Mind your posture. Pay attention. Be efficient. Do the deed.
Dear Mr. Jones,
An image of him flickered in her mind longer than it took to type his name. Mr. Jones, her hero, if he didn’t turn out mad, or a liar—
Regarding the character of one Miss Elisabeth Dobson, we at the firm of Baumston & Smythe, Insurers have found her a skilled and valued employee these eight months past.
It might have been tricky, but she had prepared. Avery’s type-writing machine was long gone (a card game, just the way he’d come to possess it), but he had helped with the wording of the letter and laughingly encouraged her whenever her conscience had bristled. Three evenings she’d spent with her fingers poised over imaginary keys, committing the words and motions to memory. Now, she pasted her eyes to a fire policy and did not pause once to lift the carriage to check her work. It was finished in moments. She folded the letter without looking at it and slipped it inside her black type-writer’s smock, into the waistband of her skirt, doing her best to make the movement appear as no more than a simple shift in weight.
Load more paper. Glance at the dais at the front of the office.
Mr. Wofford was not there.
Hell. And hell twice more, for Mr. Wofford, the least junior of the junior clerks in this office, was nowhere within her range of vision. Had he gone out altogether? Betsey dared not lift her eyes from her work again, not until the bell for the afternoon rest period rang.
The din of hammering words eased away. The words came in shushes now, the type-writer girls softly continuing conversations they’d suspended at the end of the lunch period.
Betsey risked a half-turn toward the three tiers of desks behind her, where the junior clerks perched on their stools. They were not permitted to take their breaks alongside the women, but that did not keep them from pausing in their work to watch the type-writer girls exit. Finest part of the day, Betsey had heard them jest more than once. Only Avery, a junior clerk for far briefer a time than he had been a composition instructor at a working women’s college, seemed determined not to be distracted. The smart thing, of course. The two of them acted as strangers here in the office, and though Cora Lester had whispered her knowledge of Miss Dobson’s expulsion, when she asked Avery to speculate as to which of his fellow teachers had been in league with her, Avery obliged, noting how suddenly the elocution tutor had departed. Oh, but Mr. Hadfield went with the Baptists to the West Indies, Miss Lester had protested, but it took only a shrug from Avery to make her breath catch and her eyes light. The elocution tutor! No wonder Miss Dobson was so well-spoken!
The smart thing. Betsey might have wished Avery had told Cora Lester to mind her own business, just as she wished now he would meet her eye and give her a fortifying nod, but such wishes were foolish, so she didn’t permit her gaze to rest, and made certain it avoided James Chesney, who’d taken to leering at her since Cora Lester had done her whispering. Well, he was not the only one, and not even the boldest. No, that distinction belonged to Mr. Wofford.
Who, she saw now with a swoop in her belly, stood waiting near the wall of coat pegs. Waiting for her, plain enough, waiting at her peg, the one labeled with her name, adorned with her tweed jacket, though whether he’d noticed her, or only wished her to notice him, she couldn’t tell.
She’d dodge him, she decided. She would stick herself to the far side of Maude Rudwicke’s little group and duck out with them. Laugh at her own absentmindedness when they pointed out she had left the office still in her smock.
But ducking out wasn’t easy. Betsey was taller than Maude Rudwicke and every other girl in the office; she was taller than Mr. Wofford himself, though she hardly felt so as he intercepted her at the door and said, “I’ll have it, Miss Dobson.”
She stared for a moment at his hand outstretched, the squared-off tips of his fingers, bulging pinkly in comparison to the pale line of skin peeking out from his shirt cuff. The bustle around them ceased, the girls suddenly uninterested in taking their break.
Mr. Wofford’s two middle fingers twitched, beckoned.
“It is personal, sir, if you please.” Useless, her low tone in this tight knot of girls. Mr. Wofford seemed to have no intention of bidding the girls on through the door, nor of prompting the clerks to put their heads back over their work.
No, when she looked up, he was trying not to smile too broadly, as successful at that as he was at growing a beard. She judged the scraggly blond mess had another ten days before he gave up again and shaved. He was young, Mr. Wofford. Old for a junior clerk, true—three junior clerks had been passed ahead of him since Betsey’s hire—but still young, and anxious about this condition.
“I cannot see how that’s possible,” he said. Only his bottom teeth showed when he spoke. “What you have folded away there came straight from a Baumston and Smythe machine.”
“Begging your pardon, Mr. Wofford, are you certain?”
A whisper wormed its way through the knot: What’s she done? Hush, came the answer, for no one wished to miss a thing by taking time to explain. Plenty of time later to poke it over, plenty of lunches, plenty of breaks, plenty of arm-in-arm walks to the omnibus.
Mr. Wofford’s fingers twitched again.
Betsey set the letter on his pink fingertips.
After he finished reading the first few lines (aloud, of course), the attentive silence in the office remained. Mr. Wofford asked, “You’ve composed your own character, Miss Dobson?” and then he got the stir of shock he wanted, slight exchanges of glances, the softest of gasps here and there. Her first months with the firm, she had imagined him shy. But the gossip about her had emboldened him, somehow released him, just as an eager audience did now.
“Efficient, I grant you,” he said, “but not likely to be very objective, is it?”
“There’s nothing untrue in it.”
“Oh? But so often, the deceit is in the omission, is it not?” He looked down at the paper again but, thankfully, read to himself now. “And such is the case here, I see—you’ve neglected the key portion of the typical character letter, that being the character. Though I do suppose that’s implicit, considering the blatant fraud of the younger Mr. Smythe’s name appearing at the bottom of this letter. As though he himself had dictated it and intended to put his signature upon it.”
Another ripple of movement. The younger Mr. Smythe was abroad for the next three months, everyone knew it.
“And look.” Mr. Wofford held out the letter. “The paper. The ink and machinery. The very time taken to produce this forgery. More dishonesty. Thieving, really. That would be the more precise term, would it not? Theft?”
Theft and forgery. Betsey kept a steady eye on Mr. Wofford but realized with a fresh grip of fear the man could make a lot of trouble for her. He could do more than merely utterly humiliate her, more than get her dismissed on the spot. For those things, she’d tried to prepare herself, though really, she’d believed she could carry this off.
She tried to calculate: What fraction of her weekly wage of eight shillings had she stolen in the five minutes it took to type that letter? How much ink diverted from company business to those few sentences telling her skills and experience? As for the paper—naturally, she’d bought her own.
That added together, plus forgery—no, only intended forgery, that was the most Wofford could claim with an unsigned letter—was it enough to interest the law? She didn’t know. Certainly Baumston & Smythe was no Covent Garden coster complaining about a filched apple. And there was Richard to consider, toiling in an office on a floor below, still ignorant to this mull of his sister-in-law’s making.
“I’ve but—” Betsey began, but the words were just air, no sound. She swallowed. She did not, would not, look at Avery. “I’ve but three days left to my notice, Mr. Wofford. Perhaps it would be best if I collected my wages and took my leave today.”
His mouth stirred, making her decide seven, not ten days, for the blond whiskers. He liked her offer, just as she’d guessed he would—he hadn’t the authority to dismiss her, but now he could feel he did. She elbowed her way past the girls standing next to her, tugging out of her black smock as she went to her coat peg. Someone touched her arm, murmured a sympathetic Betsey? Julia Vane, ever kind, one of the girls who still risked being friendly with her.
She heard Mr. Wofford say, “I suppose we ought to see Mr. Hutchens prior to that. He may be of the same opinion as I as to whether you deserve your wages.”
Betsey’s hands shook over the buttons of her jacket. Only a few minutes ago, the prospect of leaving Baumston & Smythe with less than a full week’s pay and the letter of reference had been unthinkable. That letter had been the only thing Mr. Jones had said was a condition of her hire at the pier company. She had to have rail fare to Idensea, a payment for Richard, money for Grace. Now, suddenly, she might leave empty-handed, a possibility only a hair less terrifying than getting turned over to the law.
She fidgeted over her gloves, grabbed her hat. No one said anything, and as she walked out of the office, she supposed it appeared she had some sort of plan, that she knew what she was doing.
The corridor outside the office, with a great arched window at every landing of the staircase, was filled with May, the light like a remembered dream. Two flights to the street, one to the office where each Tuesday she stood in a queue for her wages.
Mr. Wofford called her name and she halted on the second step down, fingertips on the banister, though she didn’t turn round to him. “I’ve been here more than eight months, Mr. Wofford,” she said, trying to keep her voice from carrying up and down the staircase. “Never missed a day nor been tardy. I’ve been one of your best type-writers, and I’ve earned three days of wages for which I’ve not been paid. Let me collect them, and I’ll be gone.”
“Ah. I have stated the difficulty with that solution, have I not?”
With some hope in candor and decency, she turned. Mr. Wofford had left the door open, and every face in the office, including Avery’s, was looking out of it. The hope sank, but she told him anyway.
“I cannot go without an entire week’s wages, sir.”
“I imagine not, a girl like you.”
His agreement intended no sympathy. “A girl like you” meant what he knew of her, that she wasn’t like the other type-writers, a girl helping out her family till she married. She was older (four-and-twenty now), unmarried, supporting herself: peculiar. And of questionable morals, of course. The story of her expulsion had only confirmed the suspicions.
“It seems peculiar,” he continued, “you would not have considered that before. It seems peculiar as well, you taking such a foolhardy chance when I did agree to write your character myself.”
“A qualified character.”
“One must be truthful in such matters.”
She sprang back up the two steps. “It’s unfair. Everything you would have insinuated had nothing to do with my work here. You couldn’t’ve complained about that; I’ve been a model employee.”
Betsey felt herself flush. She looked at the window, where there were no spectators.
“Ah, Miss Dobson, what I think you, and a great many others of your sex, misunderstand is the risk a business runs simply in taking you on. You’re an unknown quantity, so to speak, you young . . . ladies . . . in an establishment like this, or like that pier company you mean to go to. Extracted from your feminine sphere, you create a precarious unnaturalness with your presence which can only be countered with the assurance—”
“Do you mean to let me collect my wages, or don’t you?”
His bottom lip wavered as though to respond to this interruption, but he didn’t speak until he turned on his audience suddenly and directed them all to return to work. Avery’s head, Betsey couldn’t help noticing, was already bowed. None of the type-writer girls raised audible protests against the abbreviated rest period.
Cora Lester, apparently the only one to have escaped to the W.C., came bobbing up the steps, hesitating in a kittenish sort of way when she saw Betsey and Mr. Wofford in the corridor.
“Again, Miss Dobson,” he said, “I would remind you there is an order to things in business. It isn’t for me to decide whether you get your wages. It’s for me to take you to Mr. Hutchens so he may decide the matter.”
“You could let me go down the stairs.”
He brushed Cora Lester into the office with a wave. He lifted his brows at Betsey.
“Could I? And overlook the proper procedures? There is call for such a thing, on occasion.”
He looked her over. He stood in the open doorway, before everyone and yet unseen by any, and he looked her over. The snaps of the type-writing machines grew muffled as he pushed the door almost shut, one hand curled round its edge. The other hand slipped to the front of his trousers. He gave himself a squeeze. It was a dainty squeeze, and it was the daintiness rather than the squeeze itself that mystified Betsey.
“You should have to convince me the present situation is such an occasion,” he said. He pushed back his coat and hooked his thumb on the waist of his trousers. “You see?”
Mr. Wofford looked her all over.
Concentration, not contemplation. It was a good motto, and not just for type-writer girls. So many situations in life called for one to pay attention yet not think overmuch. So many times when the proper posture would promote one’s efficiency. Suppose, for example, you wanted to give a bastard his due—why then, it was wise advice indeed.
Betsey nodded once. “I see.” She offered a closed-lip smile, a slow blink. She witnessed the shift, when some of the marbles came rolling her way. “Mr. Wofford, you are . . . entirely correct.”
And her breasts were far from ample, but with the proper posture, she could endow them with a certain significance. She did so now, an efficient way of holding Mr. Wofford’s attention as she moved to the doorway and, with an efficient, concentrated motion, kicked the door to its frame, an efficient and concentrated way of telling a bastard to go to hell, especially when the bastard’s fingers were still curled round the door.
And then she concentrated on the most efficient exit from Baumston & Smythe, Insurers.
Excerpted from The Typewriter Girl
by Alison Atlee
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provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
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