The Temp

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The Independent Culture
There is a clock somewhere in the room, an electric one that hums and ticks at the same time, marking out all too clearly every ghastly second of silence. I endeavour to sit still in my chair, hands folded in the lap of my one good suit, bought by my mother, the pupil of her mind's eye expanding with pleasure at the thought of her darling daughter knocking 'em dead at the BBC, raising laughs among the advertising creatives, pumping the mitts of movers and shakers. Please, God, I'm thinking as I rub the button on my cuff, please make me have to take out a work clothes loan soon. Don't let my mum down.

Tick, tick, tick, tick. I am short-listed for a job as information officer for one of the smaller charities, which badly needs help recouping this year's Princess Diana Memorial Fund shortfall. I don't want to be seen glancing down at my watch, but it must be a full minute since I answered my last question. It's a committee interview, and there seems to be a rule that each of my four inquisitors speaks in strict rotation. And each one, bringing his or her own agenda into the room, ignores the last question asked and refers instead back to their own last comment.

The chairman shuffles his papers, clears his throat, looks at me over his black-rimmed specs. "The only thing that bothers me," he says, "is that you don't seem to have a lot of work experience." "Well, I've been working solidly since I left university," I say. "I've been with the same agency all this time." Head Fundraiser pulls her cardie across her chest. "And if you answered the phone to one of our clients," she says, "how would you speak to him?"

Disconcertingly, only the person who has asked a question seems to want to meet my eye; everyone else gazes into space when I try to speak generally. "Um, well, if there's one thing temping's taught me, it's how annoying it is to be patronised. Obviously, I'd have to learn how you all deal with people, but I would say, respect and not assuming I know what people are saying were the most important things."

A woman whose role was never really explained to me, but I think is a member-rep, takes her turn. "And you like the cinema. What was the last film you saw?" "The Ice Storm." She scribbles furiously. Financial Officer, wire-wool hair, dips in. "We sometimes have to work long hours." I shake my head. "That's not a problem. I understand how important deadlines are, and I've not got any particular commitments at home at the moment."

Tick, tick, tick, tick. All heads are turned to the chairman. A police siren wails in the street, a flash of reflected light splashing across the ceiling. The offices are cramped, 20 people with countless cardboard boxes and an ancient photocopier in a flat owned by the kindly greengrocer downstairs, whose child suffers from the particular handicap in question. I try to think of something else to back up my dedication to long hours and low pay, give up, and wait for the chairman.

He speaks. "Temping," he says, "Is hardly proof of staying power." Gawd. I suppose he's right, but at least I've shown the stamina to keep working however grim it gets. "I suppose not. But I've learned how to go into unfamiliar situations and size up what needs to be done pretty quickly. And please believe me" - I don't know how else to put this - "if you give me a chance, I promise you won't be disappointed."

Fundraiser's cardie twitches again. "Things are tough for charities at the moment." "I know. We need to make sure our profile stays high -" (at least I've learned never to diss my predecessor) "- by any means we can. Lobbying MPs, placing articles with the press, trying to get at least local TV coverage of events." I sound like a real professional. "And maybe expand the newsletter mailing list to use it for publicity." Three sets of eyes momentarily rest on my face, three pens work overtime. Ah, yes, expand the mailing list. We'll use that idea.

The fourth set of eyes comes back to life. "And what did you think of it?" For a moment I'm flummoxed, then remember what she's on about. "Good. Depressing. Sigourney Weaver was fantastic".

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