The Temp

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The Independent Culture
My English-teaching career lasted precisely eight days. Suddenly I understand why my teachers used to get so wound up. After a week of Atalanta's refrain of "I didn't do my homework because I went to a dinner party, what do you mean we have to to do it now, haven't you prepared?" I was chewing the curtains. I am left with a box of useless camomile tea (five bags missing) and two EFL textbooks which will make handy props for the missing sofa leg.

Still, at least I don't have to spend the next three weeks with someone with a face like a sulky prune and a habit of spraying Giorgio Beverly Hills on to her clothes to cover up her body smell.

On the other hand, I'm skint. You can always rely on the rich to fail to stump up.

Foolishly, I lost another day trawling the agencies in search of a higher rate of pay - and maybe, just maybe, someone who placed one with creative companies in W1 rather than claiming that the only available work was packing catalogues for a computer hardware distributor in a business park two miles from Heathrow and aeons from the nearest sandwich shop.

Some chance. The freesheets handed out by cold-looking homeless people at Tube stations suppurate with ads saying things like "Earn pounds pounds pounds temping in the City!!", but the reality is a tad grimmer. Craig is on pounds 3.50 an hour for humping and lifting (which he argued up from pounds 3.25), and I'm sure I remember my older sister earning the same as me back in the Stone Age. "Go to university, the world will be your oyster!" they said. "If u cn rd ths msg u cn get a gd jb & b a sec!" cried the ads. Yeah, as long as you're not planning on starting a pension fund just yet.

Time is of the essence. After a day running up phone bills talking to graduates from the Mollie Sugden school of elocution, I decide that I'd better get back to the old place for a quick fix. Only to discover that, as often seems to be the way with these things, everyone's gone into a sulk and is dead set on taking revenge.

"Oh, hiiii," says Tracie, "how are yoooou? Didn't think we were going to be hearing from you for a while." "Mmm," I say. "I don't think I was cut out for teaching." "Well," says Tracie authoritatively, "It's a very skilled job. Anyway, what can I do for you?" "Err, ooh, well, I was hoping there might be some work going."

"Work?" says Tracie, as though I've just asked for a gross of masonry nails in a doughnut shop. "Well, no. Not that I know of." "Are you sure?" "Hold on," she says, covers the phone and says "Fee? Tania? Any work going? No?" then returns "Sorry, no. We thought we didn't have to look out for you." "Oh, dear."

I gaze around to see if there's anything in the flat I can pawn, but the only thing of any value we have is the CD player, and that has to be held shut with a dictionary these days.

"Please, Tracie," I say. "I'm pretty desperate."

Tracie practically purrs down the phone. "Ah, well," she says. "Jobs don't grow on trees. We tend to keep them for people we can rely on."

I can't afford to mention the year of reliability she's had from me to date; her power urges need satisfying. "Yes, I understand that. And I'm sorry, but I'd be very grateful."

"Oh, well," says Tracie. "Let me have a look."

I have a presentiment of doom as she leaves the phone and makes shuffling noises. I know what her desk looks like; there's nothing to shuffle but a thought-for-the-day calendar. She comes back, and the pleasure in her voice is chocolatey. "Looks like it's the cancer hospital again," she says, and my heart sinks. It gets worse. "And it's only filing this time, I'm afraid. pounds 4 an hour." "pounds 4.50?" I say hopefully. "Uh-uh," she replies. "We do a special rate for the NHS. I can't go any higher." "Okay," I bleat. "I'll take it." "Great," says Tracie. "and the good news is that you can start this afternoon."