Secretarial The Temp: He came in a loincloth to brighten my birthday

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The Independent Culture
SO WHAT'S the worst day of the year to be a temp? Your birthday. What's worse than that? When your birthday is the day after Valentine's and no one sends you a card for either. When it also happens that your birthday is a Monday, you're scraping dangerously close to the nether regions of the barrel. Except when you spend the day filing paid bills in the basement of a huge, faceless service-provider.

I'll say this now: I hate filing. It's one of those things that, in normal jobs, I force myself to do first thing every morning for five minutes so that I don't have to spend time dreading it. I have been reduced to tears by the task. The combination of mundanity, repetition and paper cuts is enough to make the toughest soul crumble. I have fantasies of hardened policemen, who have presided without a flicker over murdered children, rape victims and motorway pile-ups, sobbing as they pull out the same cardboard wallet for the seventh when the time for paperwork comes.

I know dentists are supposed to have the highest suicide rate in the country, but I'm sure that this is because no one has ever bothered to check the rates among filing clerks. This particular job has all the exquisite boredom of waiting for a Virgin train, for every piece of paper is the same as the last save for the figures and the name at the top.

Sometimes, a curious filing clerk can find interest from reading as they file, building up pictures of lives and events that, though they have been reduced in the final stage to dusty, dog-eared official documents, were once moments of great drama to the participants. Not here. Copies of bills that have been paid give no indiction of the grief that settling them will have entailed. The wives who found out about their husbands' gambling when they received a red bill, the shared households that split under the pressure of settling individual responsibility, the single mums going without food to make sure the kids are covered are all reduced to a single piece of paper stamped with the date of settlement.

Come lunchtime, I decide to take a break even though it means forgoing the extra pounds 4.25. Some birthday. So I head to the nearest greasy spoon for beans on toast and a Mars bar. Buy a magazine and read an interview with one of those glamorously successful women who has never had an urge to eat five Mars bars in succession and wash them down with a tin of Coke. Eat my beans as she confesses that she's about to turn 30. "I feel fine about it," she says. "You have to learn to be happy about your stage in life, or life will always be too much for you. And anyway," she continues, "I love birthdays. I always take the day off, and spend it being pampered. I have a massage, a steam bath and a facial, and give the time over to reflecting on where I am, what I have achieved in the past year and what I intend to achieve in the coming one. I find it very useful to take the time out and check that I'm still on track."

Oh, well, I think, maybe that's what I ought to be doing. Let's see. I've had 28 jobs, one holiday, a zillion cigarettes, had my shoes reheeled twice, and discovered that none of my friends cares that it's my birthday. What do I want for the coming year? To buy new shoes. To have something to say about myself at parties that doesn't make people glaze over and go in search of the drinks. To get a job: a real one, with payed holidays, sick leave, a desk of my own, colleagues who knew it was my birthday. Lord, how I'd love that.

When I can't spin my stewed tea out any longer, I wander through the streets to the grim concrete edifice that is Electrical Holdings plc. In the basement, there's some giggling and staring going on when I walk in. I pick up another sheaf of paper and start sorting them alphabetically, when Brenda comes over. "Is it your birthday or something?" she says. I brighten instantly. Someone cares after all. "Yes. How did you know?" They all burst out laughing. "You had a singing telegram while you were out," she says. "Tarzanagram, he was, in a loincloth. Said to tell you he'd be back at five o'clock."