City: The temp

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The Independent Culture
I drop in to the agency because I'm passing, and it saves on a phone call, and because Julie, Jackie and Tanya are always saying how nice it is when we pop in to visit. The office is up a staircase on one of those semi-glitzy shopping streets. Offices above shops are always a bit gloomy, because although councils see no problem with ripping out Regency fascias at ground level and replacing them with plate-glass windows, they insist on the bit that no one ever sees remaining intact, with dark corridors, concrete stair-wells and a single, narrow window at the street end of a building that's 200ft deep.

This dismal interior has been further darkened by the addition of half- a-dozen ferny plants growing across the window (presumably the only place where they won't die from lack of chlorophyll) and the agency's logo picked out in neon lettering on the outside of it to attract the attention of wandering waifs like myself. Clustered beneath the window are three desks; at the far end, in the dark, are booths full of secretarial gadgetry where potential temps take tests. Apart from this, the place is empty, with the exception of three armless sofa units in Kermit green.

When I first sat on these sofas, I was slightly in awe of controllers. I thought that a temp controller must have been an especially good temp who had received promotion and a permanent job. Since then, I've found out that temp controlling is a combination of telesales (pestering personnel directors across the city), copying things down wrong, and greeting everyone with your head on one side to show your pity.

I enter the office, and Julie, Jackie and Tanya are drinking coffee and talking about their husbands. Jackie is from America, and believes that all wisdom is dispensed on the Ricki Lake Show. Tanya is from Liverpool and has an immutable belief that there is such a thing as Scouse humour and that she possesses it. "I wouldn't take tharr from anybody," she's saying to Julie. "If a bloke talked to me like tharre'd gerra borrul in his face." "Get with it, Julie," Jackie is saying. "Get some Sell-vesteem. You gadda kick him to the kerb." Julie, 3-in fingernails spread out in front of her, is saying, "Yeah, but we've been going out since primary school. I really love him."

Eventually Julie peels herself from the others, approaches. "Hello." She pops her head to one side, raises her eyebrows sympathetically. "Can I heeelp you?" I stick out a hand, tell her my name. "Have you come to sign up with us?" she asks, enunciating as though I am a seven-year-old Italian. "Urr, no," I say, "I've been with you for a year." Jackie and Tanya suddenly become animated across the carpet, cry "Hiiii!" and "How are yooou?" and wave before returning to their telephones.

"OK," says Julie, "And what can I do for you?" "Oh, I was just passing, so I thought I'd drop in and see if there was any work next week." Julie looks surprised. "Mmm," she says. "And what kind of work do you do?" "Secretarial, PA stuff." I am realising that coming in has been a mistake; it's much easier for someone to pretend they know what you're talking about over the phone. "And have you worked for us before?" asks Julie. "Err, yes," I repeat.

"Ah," says Julie. "I'll tell you what," she says, and recites the temp- controller's mantra: "Why don't you call us on Thursday, Friday just to check in, and we'll let you know." In the background, I can hear Tanya on the phone: "Oh, hiii, Suzanne, how are yoou? No, nothing at the moment ..." and Jackie going, "Hello, is that Marilyn Jones? Hiii there. This is Jackie from the Idle Hands Agency. If I could take a couple of minutes to tell you about the services we have on offer ..."

"Yeah, OK," I say, gathering my shopping bags. "Bye-bye," says Julie, all charm now I'm on my way out. "It's been lovely seeing you." As I reach the door, she turns, waves and says, "We don't see you nearly often enough. Feel free to drop in for a coffee whenever you want".