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“The way it is, is this,” says Quinlan. He grips my papers with his fists. He stretches his neck chin-up, and a tendon clicks. “They were basically happy with you. They liked you. As such. We went a step beyond ourselves. You weren’t the person they were looking for, do you get me?”
“So we go back and redraw the roadmap.” He invokes a map on the monitor and zooms into the business district far up the quays. He turns the monitor a tad towards me. It takes me a moment to realise that ‘roadmap’ was just a metaphor, and has nothing to do with this map we are looking at. He just wants to show me how to get to the next job. Or ‘role’ as he calls them.
“There’s a woman there went off and had a baby and left them in the lurch. It’s nothing only filing and typing. And that we know you can do, Clive.”
Another three-monther. Another job where they give me strange looks. They just want someone bright and bubbly to make a nice profile at the photocopier. Instead they get me.
“What’s the actual job title?”
“Ah something administrative something. It’ll be on the placement. But you know the score by now. You’ll be reporting to the accounts director, name of … Camilla Leddy. As I say it’s mainly the filing and typing, but if they ask you to do a bit of telephoning, there’s no problem there, is there?”
Once again Quinlan stresses how central the location is, and that there are several cafés in the vicinity, a sandwich bar, and a park with flowers. He talks in a common-sense tone, and so I assume there really must be temps who value such things, who might refuse a job where there is no café or park close by. In any case, these assignments are all the same as regards pay: minimum plus fifty, seven hours per day.
“Don’t worry Clive, they’re not looking for a Harvard MBA.”
The security guard leads me through corridors of deaf-wall partitions. He explains the fire escape route and the key code policy. He outlines a couple of scenarios I might encounter: You are expecting a courier. Or you are alone in the building and feel faint and need fresh air. Or you are working late, and are not sure if you are the last person on the floor. “That’s my spiel more or less over with,” he says, “I’ll just show you your station.”
The invoicing department is marked out by orange trim on the desks and chairs. On a closer look it’s not actually orange, but a natural timber. Print-outs of jokes and cartoons are pinned to the fibre of the partitions. A photograph of a bare-chested wimp sitting in a pond. The caption reads: Telemarketers are not to be confused with pond scum.
The security guard indicates ‘my’ cubicle and says he supposes I can get on with my typing or whatever it is that I do. Instructions from Quinlan were to report to the CHRO Austin, but it appears he is at a meeting, and not just a meeting but a whole schedule of meetings. I sit down, get up again, and adjust the swivel chair to suit my back. It’s not yet ten. Nice to know I’m getting paid for this time.
A number of music magazines are scattered across the desk, a furry mascot with repulsive droopy eyes, an unused herbal teabag. I tap the mouse and the screensaver clears: Hello new staff member. Click to begin intro. Looks like they set it up ready for me. There’s nothing else to do but play along. Can’t tell them I’ve done nothing all morning. As I click through the exercise I feel an odd muffled silence fold around me. I get up suddenly and stroll around the immediate vicinity.
Blurry photos of extravagant cocktails in nightclubs, sweaty faces caught red-eye, a beach snapshot of men in bermuda shorts. The men have thick pink limbs and seem to be laughing at the sight of themselves. Jaycee’s last day. No rest for the wicked. Up Down. A glossary of management speak. We have an opportunity -> You have a problem.
My eyes flit from image to image. Each thumb-tacked scrap yields its secret and I skip to the next. I feel like I’m spying.
A head pokes around from a partition. Fresh graduate’s face, unshockable hair. “They’ve abandoned you?”
“Ah – ha, no. I’m waiting for – Austin?”
“Got you. You’re the temp for Lisa? Here for the filin’ and faxin’?”
“That I am.”
“That you are, that you are,” he repeats, in such a way that it’s a cue to laugh. “Lucian they call me.” He swings out his hand for a clasp. He is responsible for something called trailing accounts, the explanation of which he is absolutely certain will bore me to tears before he can get half way through. He offers to walk me over to Austin’s office. It’s a separate glass-partitioned room with blinds on the inside. We bring our faces close up to the glass, and can see between the slats that there is nobody inside.
Back at the desk I grow aware that the office is far from silent. A copier shudders. Computer fans whirr. The water cooler gurgles. I never wanted a specific career, never set my name down for a traineeship. This is exactly how I wanted things to be.
A girl carrying a plastic cup of water from the cooler. Young, skinny, with mousy brown hair. The soft soles of her shoes turn nicely on the carpet. She is wearing cotton track pants and a soft cotton top, the kind with extra wicking power. I am trying not to observe her too meticulously when she veers towards me.
“Clive? I’m Camilla?”
She reaches out her long hand. I catch the dirty-sweet scent of her perfume and body odour. It has an impact on me.
“Did you meet Austin yet?” she asks.
“No. Just waiting.”
“Prepare yourself to be terrified. Ah no, he’s lovely. Serious.”
“Do you want me to show you around?”
“Ah, I’ll figure it out.”
“It’s no problem. It’ll only take a minute.” She walks ahead of me points out the eight cubicles for post-sales, twelve or so for recalls. She doesn’t seem to feel a need to tell me when she’s finished at each stop, but pads off again without looking back.
I make a stab at humour. “You’d make a good tour guide.”
“Ha, I guess I’m getting good at it.”
Something clicks with me, the conversation back at the agency. Camilla Leddy.
“You’re – in accounts?”
“That’s right. Accounts director. For my sins.”
This floppy girl with no makeup is my boss. This teenager who looks like she should be working at Miss Selfridge’s. I take a step back to breathe in neutral air.
“All right. So you’ll be showing me what I have to do?”
“Absolutely. But you’ll pick it up easily. It’s not rocket science.”
I wish everyone would stop saying things like that.
A post-it note is stuck on my desk. Pls run 20 cps and despatch. Encl. std offer. PS welcome aboard.
Camilla has already explained what despatch means in this place. The printer bay is over by the smoked glass windows. I guess these windows change transparency according to the level of sunlight outside. Right now they are smoky brown. Flickers of machine green reflect off the glass. As I feed pages through the rollers, I look out and try to recognise familiar street corners. But the roofs are foreshortened, squeezed up against each other, and from this height it looks like the city is congested with trees.
The printer is a model I’ve used before. I’ve gone through maybe two dozen temp roles in the last ten years, I’ve seen a lot of copiers. I swap the position of the input tray so the pages can feed in by themselves.
The sound from the machine accelerates to a repetitive whirr-click and dies. A single informational light blinks. That generally means the paper is jammed somewhere inside. I could try opening up the machine and poking at the insides with a pen. But I don’t want to damage something and get a bad report to the agency. On the other hand if I escalate the problem to a manager it could be seen as lacking initiative. Or they might just laugh at me. I crouch down to examine the rollers on the feed slot. The surface of the rubber looks withered. Black dust trickles down and stains my cuffs. I tug at a panel which I am sure is the snap-on type. It bends out, but doesn’t come off. I bend it more and something cracks. When I push the panel back it doesn’t sit as neatly as before. My shirt is sticking to me with sweat. I feel like an animal half-tamed, and wish that the process could be undone, or brought to completion.
Sometime in the afternoon Camilla sticks her head around the partition.
“Did you go for lunch yet?”
“No. Still waiting for Austin.”
“Don’t worry about him.”
More women step into the lift on the level below. They exchange greetings. Obviously they all know each other, even though they are from different offices. The whole building belongs to the one group. There are subdivisions and subsidiaries – it was all in the computer presentation. The women chat as we descend through five levels. There is a mention of local cafés, a Topshop store, a clearance sale of bras. Camilla adds in a small voice, “not that I ever have much need for them.” I give no indication I have heard.
The canteen is an immense, neutral space. I pretend to hungrily sniff the air. “What’s cooking today?” But in fact the only scent is of plants in tubs. Except for seconds later, when Camilla walks in front of me.
I linger at the menu board and let her and her friends go on ahead. Eventually I decide on a chicken satay, add a salad plate to my tray, and pay. I pull out a chair at a table close to the till.
Camilla beckons me over to her table. She’s with some other people now, not the two women in the lift. I sit down with them, and they talk about tennis, about taking lessons but being no good. Why does no-one play squash any more, I ask, and the conversation turns to whether it is an actual fact that squash, as an office sport, is dying out.
The table talk turns to how mind-numbingly boring data entry is. It seems everyone has done their time at it, no matter how important they are now.
“They could easily get computers to do it,” one man laughs, “but computers don’t tell jokes like we do.”
Camilla introduces me to the two men. Brian from internal communications, and Dick, head of despatch.
“That’s a bit harsh,” I laugh. “Who did you annoy?” They look at me with interest. “Is it just today? Like you’re dickhead of the day?”
Camilla’s face tells me I am making a terrible mistake. The two men wear puzzled grins, grins that wait for a plausible resolution.
I knew in the moment of speaking I was taking a risk. But it is only through taking an unconditional risk that an authentic approach can be made between people. If every word is weighted then conversation becomes a simulacrum of itself.
These jobs never seem to last long. Another few weeks and I’ll be gone from here. Maybe not a thousand miles, and maybe not any place that looks different, but gone from here all the same.
Through the afternoon I tackle the task of adding workgroup members to a domain. Then I scan through despatch lists and figure out which are available as hard copy. Certain documents have to be printed and posted out – particularly those containing safety-relevant instructions.
Process archives are on the left of your desktop. I am puzzling out this email from Lucian when he speaks from right behind me. “That means in old-fashioned real space,” he laughs.
We cross over to the filing cabinets. They are of riveted steel, six drawers high. Dates go back many decades, to the 1990s and even earlier. These cabinets must have been transported here from a previous incarnation of this office. Lucian shows me the knack of opening the drawers and rifling through the folders. He takes out the one he needs and blows pretend-dust off it. He hands me the document that needs to be scanned and digitized. Buildings decay and get demolished, names of deceased grand-uncles get forgotten, new populations move in to inhabit derelict districts, and still it remains of significance that Elaine Watson of Emor Street refused permission for security lights in the adjacent premises to be kept on after ten pm.
Lucian confides that the physical filing side of the job is likely to be made a full-time position. He whispers this like he’s presenting me with a gift. The news doesn’t make me feel good. It makes my stomach tighten in a ball. Always I imagine nets out to catch me. Always I think that others want to make me one of their own.
“Better concentrate on making a good impression then,” I tell him.
It was three weeks before I finally had the ‘Austin meeting’, and it was a complete non-event. He talked about football and his four-year-old son’s train obsession. He asked me about the agency that placed me, and what I think of the office atmosphere here, how it compares to other places I’ve worked. It seems the company doesn’t usually employ temps.
“I like it here,” I told him genuinely.
“We believe in our staff here,” he said with emphasis. “I hope you can take part in all that’s going on: parties, outings, using the gym, exchanging birthday cards. We try to be life-affirming, keep people motivated. We want them to feel involved.”
I wish I could say that there had been some catastrophe in my life that brought me to this. I wish I could set the story of my downfall to a descending chord sequence. My fate, I would call it, and it would be mine to cherish.
The reality is, I did pretty good at school and didn’t suffer the universal panic about accumulating sufficient points for a good university. I studied Geography and French. The only thing unusual about that being I’d only ever been on package holidays, and France was not among them. I majored in hydrology and desertification. After graduation I got work on a research programme into water tables. I studied the impact on communities in marginal regions of Central Asia. I worked at a desk, it was all done through the internet. I had a girlfriend, we went to the movies, argued, had sex, went on package holidays. The research position ended and a few months later I got work cataloguing for an arts foundation. Then that ended and I went on social welfare for a couple of years. I got a slot as intern with an excavator sales magazine. Maybe they reckoned there was a connection with water tables, in that their machines are commonly used to destroy them. They wanted me to go to evening classes in graphic design and I declined and was promptly let go.
Through my twenties and early thirties I listened to stories from classmates who spent their time backpacking around the globe from Bolivia to Nepal. How can you afford it? I used to ask. The question puzzled them. You don’t need money to backpack, you do it on a shoestring.
And so nothing happened. Not a damn thing. No misery tale of depression or drugs, no squandering on the high life, no going off the rails. Just job, dole, rent. A stint of a couple of years working as security guard, but I got scared that I was in fact a security guard. So I became a temp, because you can never look in the mirror and say I’m a temp. A decade passed, another begins. 2010, 2020, 2030, 2040. The years on the calendar lose the glitz of futurity. The future was a twentieth century fad. Its time has passed.
With Lucian and Dick for lunch. I get introduced to Lucian’s theory of the office as a tribal space. He loves to pretend there’s a big rivalry with Despatch. You’re new and innocent, stay well out of it, he warns me darkly. Dick argues there is no such rivalry, or that if there is, no-one in Despatch is aware of it, or if they are aware of it, that’s only because Lucian keeps talking about it. Each anticipates the other’s argument. Each speaks more loudly until they are throwing glances left and right to see if anyone disapproves.
They ask if I’ve given thought to staying on. I tell them it’s a real possibility, and they advise me to drop a few hints in the right places. Their conversation moves on to ‘hot chicks’ across the various departments. Dick folds his collar up on his neck, and opens and closes his mouth like a fish. Lucian giggles and tells him that’s horribly mean. Only then I realise this is a mimicry of Camilla and the tight polo neck sweaters she wears. It’s clear from their jokes she is considered to be the epitome of plain, a boner shrinker, etc. etc. This puzzles me. On the face of it, she ticks the right boxes: slim, discernible hips, neat and regular features.
“She’s not bad-looking,” I shrug. It’s easy for me to say such things when I’m not in love with her or anything like that. And Dick and Lucian readily agree, she’s fine, and she’s okay to work with too, never gets stressed.
Late afternoon. For several hours I’ve been immersed in collating columns of figures. Consider this, my mind needles me, consider this if you dare. I feel the claims of a demand on me. Do not evade and lose yourself in the columns again. Do not go down to the coffee station and engage in idle chatter. Consider this:
There are sixteen people working in this invoicing department. Another forty-three on this floor alone, and maybe fifty on each of the six or seven floors. And not a single one of these three hundred people will ask themselves the ultimate purpose of the work they do here, or of this company which employs them. Insurance, indemnities, licences, re-insurance, coverage, reach metrics, counter-claims, clicks – an immense babel of administrative work. None of it contributes anything to the world, none of it improves anyone’s life, or has any impact good or bad. But it’s in the nature of people to need jobs and careers, it’s a need there in the hierarchy after food and sleep, and so, and so – I get up from my desk and pace to the lift and back. I want to run up to the closest employee and shake him or her, and ask if they realise this is a fake job, a nothing job facilitated by a benign government policy. Stripped of all protective irony, confronted with the bare fact, what would they do? I need to do something, make some definitive action to stake a claim on our dignity. For all of us. No more craven passivity.
It’s the little things that become sinkholes for time. Getting the yen sign ¥ into a spreadsheet. You look up the key combination, you fill in all the numbers, but then you copy and paste to a different document and the symbol turns to a junk character.
Camilla stops to ask how I’m getting on. Smooth as vanilla ice-cream, I tell her, except for one small problem. And I tell her of my troubles with the yen.
“No rest for the wicked,” she laughs, “offer it up.”
This strikes me as off-key. Like she’s playing a part and hamming it.
“Why did you say that?”
“That phrase you used.”
She explains it’s just something people say when something is a lot of hassle, that it doesn’t mean anything. She shrugs and her face flushes, and she says maybe she used it wrongly, but so what, maybe people use clichés too much but they can be funny too. She picks at a fuzzball on her sweater and stretches her sleeve down to hook her thumb over the cuff.
“No worries, I was just curious.”
I go back to my work. I feel ashamed of my earlier (luckily unnoticed) flight of hubris. Making a big drama out of things. ‘Ultimate purpose’, what the hell? Grandiose, I whisper to myself, grandiose. To think I had even begun to design a poster. It was there in a doc on my desktop, the product of a long afternoon with no incoming pips. RECLAIM YOUR DIGNITY. I drag-and-drop it into the wastebasket.
Taking up Lucian’s hint, I learn about physical filing and get a name as the go-to guy when it comes to legacy documentation. Most of the staff only need to access paper originals a couple of times a year. They are liable to nip their fingers between sliding hooks, or waste hours flicking through dusty index cards. Suspended files, lever-arch, spiral bound and ring binders: I am master of them all.
The printer has been given a service and is now working reliably. I ruffle the sheets to make sure none are sticky. Out on the street a horn beeps, a short silence, several more horns contending. The traffic has slowed. I see a man, two men, stumble across the road. They berate the cars and gesticulate to each other. I see them now only as damaged people in need of a role in life.
Austin comes over with a beaker of water and parks his rear against my desk.
I slide back from the screen and half-turn. Austin has his non-judgemental observer look. That’s the phrase the others use, and I see now it is apt.
“Clive. Your contract runs out in another week.”
“Gosh, I suppose it does.”
“How do you feel you’re getting on here?”
This is the opener I was expecting. I’ve had enough of the roundabout.
“I’m getting on fine. I really like it here.”
He takes a sip from his water. “That’s great.”
“People here are very friendly. Communicative, there’s good cooperation. Good staff atmosphere. And I’ve learned a lot even in the short time span so far.”
“And I think, as regards the technical side, I’ve got to grips with the filing. Lucian showed me the ropes there. I think I can make an effective contribution here. Yeah, it’s certainly a supportive environment to work in, while also sufficiently challenging.”
“Come into my office Clive.”
I follow him into his glass-walled office. The blinds are angled so only narrow slits open to the floor outside.
“Shut the door.”
I do so.
“Sit down Clive.”
He sits behind his desk and doesn’t reach for any documents. He looks at me like I am a puzzle to be resolved. He seems about to speak, takes a breath and clamps a small smile on it. I wait, and as I wait, I prepare myself to receive what will be said.
And he speaks.
Do you think
You’re doing Clive?”
He looks away from me and fiddles with the cords of the blinds. His words slot into a place that has always been there waiting for them.
Do you think