The Temp: So, you want to be a career woman? Dream on

After a brief absence, during which she became the subject of a best-selling novel, our girl from the agency is back in The Independent and back on the temping trail - that true gateway to stardom
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FIVE RULES of the career ladder: 1) Only wear short skirts when you are on the bottom rung; you don't want your underlings seeing your knickers. 2) If you get the photos, keep the negatives. 3) Ply everyone else with alcohol at Christmas parties and stick to tonic water yourself. 4) Never think that anyone in a pastel two-piece is your friend. 5) Temping can lead to a great career. As a temp.

The agencies have been having a PR push lately: all I see when I open the papers are articles about how graduates are using temping as a first rung on the career ladder. Rosy pieces from people who never have surnames, about how they were noticed while covering some high-powered PA's holiday/maternity leave at the precise moment the firm was looking for a trainee and none of the boss's nephews was on the job market. Plucked from ignominy to fast-track stardom.

These pieces are always illustrated by one of two pictures. There's the still from a black-and-white movie in which someone with an impossibly tiny waist, impossibly broad shoulders and impossibly glossy lips wields a spiral-bound pad. Then there's the grainy but stylish shot of "A Girl Like You", usually the secretary in whichever office the article has been produced, turning to the camera on her swivel chair.

Take a pinch of salt, Ms Shorthand. If there's a film still that really illustrates the joys of temping, it's probably the image of a terrified Drew Barrymore just before she gets eviscerated in Scream.

And don't believe a word of the hype. You won't get offered your dream job from the temp circuit. Do you have any idea what proportion of permanent secretaries get offered promotions outside the administrative sphere without slogging their guts out at night classes and changing companies? The word "temp" doesn't even register on the average spell-check, for heaven's sake. Do you think the actual people register on real life?

OK, so I'm feeling particularly embittered just now because I've just spent a month being a Real Person - still on a temporary basis but with that magical, makes-all-the-difference word "freelance" attached - and it was blissy.

I was still at the bottom of the pile, of course, research assistanting (making a few phone calls, going through cuttings libraries, scouring the Internet and making coffee) on someone's pitch for a slot on cable telly, but I got it through that most powerful of application engines, a friend of a friend. Life is great in a FOAFdom. People say "good morning", you can go to the dentist without your colleagues deciding you're slacking, and when they go to the pub after work they include you without having to remind themselves.

They even ask you what you think from time to time.

And now: grim reality. Only it's all made worse because I've just discovered some of the ruses the agencies have thought up to wriggle out of the holiday- pay, sick-pay, pay-rise stuff which the Government thinks they're legislating into the temp lifestyle. If, as an employer, you think that you're about to be forced to let your slave labour have lives, you get smart about making sure it doesn't affect your profits.

Here's how. Once the project is over, I call my old agency. I ask to speak to Tracie and discover that Tracie has moved to another branch. Never mind. Lindy will talk to me. Lindy, of course, doesn't know who I am. She invites me to come in to see her and, when I do, she can't find my file. I explain again that I've been off for a month and she brightens. "Well, that'll explain it," she says. "Explain what?" I ask. "Well, if you leave for more than three weeks, we assume that you've left our employ and throw your file away."

I make some spluttering noises. "But I had 350 hours built up toward my holiday pay on that file," I say. "Oh, well, too bad," says Lindy, who has one of those Canadian accents that make you want to put your hands round a neck and squeeze. "We can't keep everyone on file forever." Grimly, I accept that this is probably true. "So can I re-register?"

Lindy dips her head sideways, smiles that Lindy smile and asks: "What kind of work were you looking for?" "Well, I've been PA-ing, mostly." "Ah," says Lindy. "Well, I'm sure you can appreciate that we can't just put people into sensitive, skilled work like that without trying them out for a while first." "I've been working for you for more than two years," I protest. "Surely that's enough trial?" "Sorry," says Lindy, only it comes out as a sort of "Saaah-reee" uttered with the smile of a Disney puppet. "You may have been working for Tracie, but I don't know anything about you. Still..." she digs in her top drawer. "If you'd like to fill in this form, I'll set up a typing test for you, and we can go from there."

`The Temp' by Serena Mackesy is published by Arrow (pounds 5.99)