Monday The streets of Victoria, central London would be mean if there weren't so many branches of Pret A Manger. I try the temping agencies first and boldly step into Reed Secretarial. It is full of women in man-made fibres. I am wearing a grey M&S jumper and painful shoes. I'm covered in make-up, too; I want to make a good impression. When I ask for an appointment, a girl called Kelly shouts across the office, "I'm afraid my diary's chocka all week." I leave.
Brook Street gives me an instant typing test. There is a man opposite me doing the same thing. My nose is running, and after the third sniff he asks me to shut up. A nice public-school type tells me my five minutes are up, and prints my mistake-riddled test. He tells me it looks fine. He is lying. My speed is 29 words per minute. I am shown the door.
The Employment Centre is closed due to staff shortages. In desperation I call the Hodge Recruitment Agency. A severe-sounding woman tells me I can have an appointment at three. I travel to Oxford Street and idle away an hour in McDonald's.
At Hodge I lie, and say I have five GCSEs and left school last summer. Severe Ruth asks me why I left school. I recite, from Home And Away's Shane: "I wanted to get a head start in the job market." She looks dubious. I tell her I want to go into research. "So does everyone else, Jenny," she says, and I feel pathetically naive. She thinks my last salary of £3.85 per hour was quite high. My boss used to apologise for the slave labour rates. Ruth thinks she will have lots of work for me, and promises to call soon. I remember, too late, that I don't really want to go on their books, and scuttle down into the Tube, like a rat to a bolthole.
Tuesday I pluck up the courage, while watching Richard and Judy, to call two jobs in the Guardian. One, at IDC, a market research company, asks me to send in a CV. Apparently, languages are essential. Well, as long as they don't mean German, I'm in. I also ring a company that fund-raises for charities. I'd have to telephone strangers and ask them for money. The hours are 6-9pm, at £5 an hour: if I work seven days a week, I'd make £105.
Wednesday After school, I go for a receptionist's job at a doctor's surgery in Putney. I have chocolate on my sweater from the Toffee Crisp I had at lunchtime. Wait for half an hour, surrounded by women. As it gets to my turn, I am told the doctors are running late and would I mind coming back tomorrow. Yes, I bloody would.
Thursday I ring IDC to try to hurry my interview along. John tells me he'll see me next week. I stutter: "Um, that's no good for m-me, I've got job obligations to f-fulfil then." John tuts-tuts: "But you'd need to start next week." "Oh," I say. "And," says John, "looking at your CV, you wouldn't be suitable anyway. You need German." I have GCSEs in French, Spanish and Italian. Should I return to IDC when I'm a graduate linguist?
Saturday I go for my interview at a fund-raising charity. I look very smart in my Top Shop jacket and I've taken all of 10 minutes over my maquillage. After three interviews, dressing up isn't such a novelty (imagine trying to find unladdered tights for the 50th time). I wait with two men. One is in his thirties with a degree from the London School of Economics. He wishes me luck. I feel like a cow saying, "And you."
I perform a short role-play on the telephone with "Mrs Smith", asking for a £5 monthly donation. "Mrs Smith" then comes to collect me and we conduct the shortest interview in world history. I ask inane questions about the size of the company to make it last longer than three minutes.
Two of my aunts left school at 16. Jane took jobs she didn't like, and stuck with them for years because she didn't feel she had the right to pick and choose. Lydia feels she has underachieved, and lost the chance to make choices in life. She doesn't believe people when they tell her she does something well.
No one was deliberately unkind to me. But then I'm polite, well-spoken, neatly dressed, and eager to ingratiate myself. Most people made it clear I was a fool for leaving school and was unlikely to find employment with prospects. If you're 16, with a handful of GCSEs, it's hard to find work you can tolerate. But perhaps it would be harder to be a 34-year-old with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics trying for a job a 16-year-old with a handful of GCSEs could do. And that's not even fair.Reuse content