The Temp

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The Independent Culture
At this time of year, every workplace is crammed with people who have given up something: cigarettes, chocolate, alcohol, carbohydrate, coke ...

Temps: buckle that seat belt. January brings not only hailstorms, weeks without natural light - apart, of course, from the statutory 35 minutes wandering the streets on a Monday morning trying to turn the address your controller has given you into a real place (after hunting for a place called Helmets House, only to work out eventually that it was Shell Mex I was expected at, I trust no one) - a continuing lack of work and massive Pre-Mastercard Tension. You also have to deal with other people's New Year resolutions.

Resolutions divide neatly into spiritual and corporeal. Spirituals are fine: someone who has decided to count to 10 before they lose their temper, say good morning to everyone, be less controlling, go to church, be nice to children, does go through a period of being genuinely a bit nicer for a few days/ weeks.

You can always tell the spirituals because of The Smile. The Smile is to convince themselves and the outside world of the inner benefit they are reaping. The Smile is ever-present, practised in bathrooms countrywide over the bank holiday: an upturn of the corners of the lips so that previously unexercised dimples come, blinking shyly, out into the light. When someone approaches, the booster switch is pressed and The Smile comes on full- beam: teeth bared for the kill, lilty little tip to the chin, twinkly eyes.

So much for the spirituals. It's the corporeals you have to watch out for. At this time of year, every workplace is crammed with people who have given up something: cigarettes, chocolate, alcohol, carbohydrates, coke. Cocaine is the big one, as there was so much floating around in '97. You know those "Of course my voice sounds different. I feel great. I feel powerful. I can do anything" phone calls? What did you think they were? Emotional regeneration?

Whatever they've given up, the corporeal resolvers are all in a filthy temper, and regard their self-sacrifice as a perfect excuse for dropping the dummy. Which is, perhaps, the real function of the practice. Everywhere in the Christian world walls are crumbling to the sound of people shrieking "Of course it bloody is!" and following it up with "I'm sorry. I'm giving up smoking/ drinking/ I'm on a cleansing diet/ and I'm a bit short-tempered."

I currently work in a room full of corporeals, just when I've made a spiritual vow to try to see things from other people's point of view. Monday morning is spent taking down the foxed-looking Christmas decorations, noticing that no one seems to have taken a vow not to look up women's skirts and being yelled at for ruining the paintwork. Then I do the coffee round. Two "Of course not! I've given up!"s, one "No milk, no sugar" and three decafs. Boy, they must have been a fun lot before.

Lunchtime: the entire office sits in silence eating crispbread. I nip down to the sandwich shop and bring back a ciabatta-full of tuna mayo. Three people roll their eyes and move away; one lectures me on the calorific content of my lunch, the other on the additives. "You should be like me," she says, tucking in to half a lettuce and a pitted apple. At 4.30pm she comes over wobbly and has to go home. I take a letter from someone who sighs and drums his fingers whenever his machine-gun rattle leaves me behind, and find myself apologising for the noise the printer makes.

5.30pm, and the one spiritual looks around beatifically and asks if anyone fancies going for a drink. As one, they shake their heads and announce that they've given up alcohol, are dieting, have to get home to put the kids to bed. Spiritual's Smile falters, then returns. "Good for you," she says. Happy New Year.

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