The joke went that a receptionist got this brilliant job for Wang, the computer company, back when nobody really knew what computers did apart from the Accounts department and typists. She’d done some German at school so when she got the chance to apply for the Koln office she thought that might a good idea for the CV, see a foreign country, all kinds of reasons. But it didn’t work out. She kept answering the phone by giving the name of the company and the location of the office and people thought she was saying something else. If you use the English pronunciation of Cologne, which she wouldn’t as the office was in Germany.
Like any joke, like any reference, you have to have a shared set of assumptions for it to work, a supporting world where everyone in on it knows much the same sorts of things. So obviously you have to know what an Accounts department is and roughly what they do, and accounts and therefore sums is pretty much enough knowledge to understand how a computer might help out there. Except of course computers did much more than help out there when before that there were only manual adding machines you typed a number into and pulled a chrome lever like a pinball machine which printed the number you’d typed on paper that came off a rotating drum, ratcheted forward by the cogs and teeth pulled around by the lever, pulled around mechanically by you.
If you were there. But you can imagine it anyway, whether or not you were. We make a picture of her in our heads, this girl, just from the words we use. Because it’s Wang it’s the 1970s or maybe 1980s, whether or not you were even born then, so we know what she’s wearing. We’ve seen pictures, at least, films, or old photos with the colour just that bit wrong enough to tell us whatever was happening wasn’t now but then. We know she’s probably blond, probably dyed and she wears coloured nail varnish. Her skirt’s a bit tight, even if it is respectably knee-length. She probably smokes too. JPS, or More, those long, thin, menthol cigarettes that reeked also of sophistication if you lived in a country town.
She might have her own car, this girl, a Mini or maybe on the furthest shores of reality, a Renault 5, but not a new one. No way a new one. In the winter she has problems starting it and the windows fug up with condensation sometimes, just from breathing and the heater, not smoke. But she definitely smokes. As for what else she definitely does, apart from worries about her weight but not so much that she goes to a gym, because people don’t back then, certainly not girls like her and there weren’t any anyway, we don’t know. She probably does. I mean, look at her. That’s the look you want on Reception, pretty much wherever you go, back then. In our heads.
And we know exactly what her voice sounds like as she says the two words, the two words, the three syllables that she pronounces with a tonal shift to make it sound like four, the flat tone of Wang then the same tone again for the first syllable, the /co/, the raised tone of /low/ and the split drop down of /own/, the single syllable split into two tones so the word rises in the middle but not so much of a drop that it starts back at the same tone. It doesn’t. It’s a little higher. You can see her saying this on the phone, in this cheaply furnished Reception with the wood painted black, on her red phone with her red nails and the grey and beige switchboard, her eyes on yours although she’s on the phone, a cheap pen in the other hand held aloft. If you move a bit you can probably look down her shirt; she knows you’re trying to do that anyway. Depends whether she’ll let you or not. But she does know. Definitely. The same way she doesn’t know that when she says the company name and the town like that, it sounds like she’s recommending solitary onanism. But of course she isn’t. Because she wouldn’t be calling it Cologne if she answered the phone in Germany. And Wang probably never had an office there anyway.
We don’t need her. She never existed. She’s gone. She never was. Except you can see her in your mind, picture her sitting on a wall in the park one sunny summer lunchtime. With all our shared assumptions. All our histories.