the temp

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The Independent Culture
December is a time of thin pickings for temps: if you're not lined up with a nice six-week stint somewhere, you're likely to spend the month being too scared to turn on the heating. Although everyone takes a day or two off for shopping, no one takes holidays before Christmas, and no one leaves jobs with New Year bonus schemes after mid-November. There is never any shortage of work in the Christmas week, of course, which is fine if your family live in town but not so good when they live hundreds of miles away, as mine do. It's a time of agonising: the agencies lay on the guilt with a trowel, and you have to work out the trade-off between managing to earn more than pounds 400 in a month, and not spending anything for an entire week except the king's ransom it costs to sit on a Virgin up the east coast.

My time is spent doing odd days here and there and miserably trawling the street markets in search of presents that cost no more than pounds 3.50. This isn't easy: even a knock-off Pamela Anderson doll costs a fiver, and I don't know anyone who would want one, as they are a peculiar shade of orange and would clash with everything.

The other thing you become painfully aware of at this time of year is that you don't belong anywhere. I have never been to an office party. I'm not sure I would like one if I went, but at least I'd know I had a place in the world. Instead, I find myself on a Friday afternoon reading 20 hints for surviving the party season in women's magazines, while the permanent occupants of the office whoop it up in a wine bar down the road.

Pity the office cleaners who works perpetually in this Marie Celeste atmosphere, their only encounter with the day staff being those five-word exchanges ("Excuse me" "Sorry" "Sorry" "Sorry") as they empty the bins of people addled by 14-hour workdays. Sally the receptionist hasn't even bothered to show me how to work the switchboard, as there is no one to put calls through to. I don't even know what this company does, though the clues - primary colours, a piece of driftwood in a pot in the reception area and one of those dynamic, biological names like Enzyme or Zygote - suggest that it's either design, management consultancy or PR. All I am employed to do is answer the phone and say that there's no one there.

It seems that everyone else in the business world is either at their own office party or taking advantage of Poets' Day to bunk off; the phone rings precisely seven times in the course of the afternoon. Two Mr Jollys, three Mr Startleds, and two Mr Absolutely Seethings. "What do you mean, Christmas party?" says one. "What sort of answer is that?" I think about asking what kind of question he thought that was, but instead mumble something palliative. "Well, you'll just have to do," he says. "I need a quote on some specs for next week." "I'm sorry," I say, "But I really can't help. If you call back on Monday someone will be able to help you." "Who are you, anyway?" he barks. "Just a temp in for the afternoon to answer the phones." "Well, you're not doing a very good job of it, are you?" He says, and hangs up.

I scratch my head and go back to "20 Ways to Give Him a Christmas Treat". The phone rings again. "Is that the temp?" says a slightly wobbly woman's voice. "Yes." "Hello," she says. "This is Sally here. Could you do me a favour?" "Of course." "Look in the bottom drawer of the reception desk. There's something in there you'll know what to do with." Then she, too, hangs up.

I open the drawer. It is empty apart from a Jiffy bag. I fish out the staple remover (more important to preserving the nails than any Sally Hansen product). Inside is a card, and a gaudily wrapped parcel. "Dear Temp," says the card, "Happy Christmas. Love, Sally." Inside the parcel is a small box of chocolates. I eat them as I gaze around the deserted reception, and somehow things feel much glowier inside.