The Temp

Those who are underemployed are sly: they have the smarts to know that the best way to avoid work is to chuff about making busy noises and try to be the last to leave of an evening
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Mr Travis (it's another of those offices where senior staff have surnames and junior have first names) emerges from his office wearing a raincoat and carrying a furled umbrella. "Right," he says, "I'm off. I'll be in a meeting all afternoon. I won't really be able to talk to anyone, so don't pass on my mobile number. I'll see you tomorrow." "Fine," I say. "I was just about to print up that report for you. Do you want it now, or is tomorrow all right?"

He looks startled. "Oh," he says. "I wasn't expecting you to get that done until Friday. Tomorrow will be fine."

"Okay. Is there anything you want me to get on with while you're out?"

"Oh," he starts pulling on his leather gloves, "just the usual." And then he leaves me to it.

That great phrase "the usual". There are two ways to interpret this phrase: that someone somewhere has forgotten to tell you about something you ought to be doing, or that the person you're replacing doesn't actually do anything much at all. When I first got into this game I spent nights fretting that it might be the first, that on Friday someone I'd never heard of would appear and want to know what had happened to some time-consuming and essential task without which the whole system would grind to a halt. Nowadays I have taken on board that the second interpretation is usually right. You'd be surprised how many people, despite the late fashion for rationalising staff out of existence, have still managed to cling on to their trophy secretary, a status symbol far more potent than the possession of a company car.

You can understand the boss's desire to be important enough to have a minion dedicated to his sole use, but I'm not quite sure what's in it for the employee; I'd have thought the boredom would kill them. Covering for a trophy secretary is actually one of the more stressful bits of work in a temporary's life, because if you make the mistake of getting everything done by Wednesday lunchtime, the likelihood is that your colleagues, far from thinking you efficient, will probably complain to your agency that they don't pay you through the nose just to sit around all day. The underemployed, you see, are sly: they have the smarts to know that the best way to avoid work is to chuff about making busy noises and try to be the last to leave of an evening. You can't cut through years of that just by doing everything in half the time.

So temporaries have little alternative but to develop a canon of time- filling techniques. There are two things you need to learn about a computer when you arrive in an office: where the "on" switch is (not always as obvious as you might think) and where the games are. Many companies have tried to put the kybosh on this by removing games from hard disks, but a smart cookie always knows how to re-enable. Old-time temps still wax lyrical about the Wang word-processor's built-in Dungeons and Dragons game and the hours they spent trying to get past that axe-wielding dwarf in the underground tunnel. It even had a button that, when you hit it, bounced you straight back into the middle of the last document you were working on.

Those heady days are over. Nowadays you are more likely to spend your time drawing bad pictures of country cottages complete with aerosol smoke coming out of the chimney, using Paintbrush, or playing Minesweeper. Minesweeper, for those who work for a living, is a sort of reverse Battleships, where you try to avoid hitting an occupied square, getting blown up and being visited by the ghost of the Princess of Wales. The rest of the time I work on my novel (15,000 words and rising), write letters to Americans and tart up my CV. It's now so tarty, in fact, that it's started hanging around in bars and coming home at all hours. Maybe one day it will pick up a career and bring it home to meet me.