City+: The Temp

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The Independent Online
A depressing week. Sometimes you encounter these lulls, even in the middle of the summer when there is supposed to be loads of work. By Friday, there hadn't been a peep of work all week. So when Maxine rang from an agency I had long since given up on because of the awful nature of the work they seem to specialise in, I was actually glad to hear from her.

Maxine was being sugary. When she asked after my family, I knew that the task ahead was not going to be pleasant. I asked how she was. She said she was very well, thanks, though things were busy-busy-busy (they always are for temp controllers) and she could do with a holiday. Then she said, "I wondered..." "Yes?" I said. "Well, there's a couple of days' work going. Only reception, I'm afraid. But we'll pay top rate." "Uh-huh? Where is it?" "Well, this was why we thought of you. It's just up the road from your house. You can walk there in five minutes." "Yes? Tell me about it." She named the local cancer hospital. I heaved a sigh of relief. The tone of her voice had made me think I was going to have to work for Peter Stringfellow or something.

I might as well have been: it's been a prematurely ageing experience. It had never occurred to me before, but working somewhere like a cancer hospital doesn't stop a receptionist behaving like a receptionist. I have been sharing a basement corridor, painted in two shades of grey with a red stripe for added gaiety, with three others: Carla, Mario and Jean. Between them they cover all the receptionist cliches: Mario is a fussy queen who complains about other people's coffee cups and loses things; Carla suffers withdrawals if parted her from her emery board; and Jean is of the steel-haired, steel-rimmed, steel-hearted variety. Between them, they treat the patients with a callousness that takes special NHS training.

Carla and Mario gossip all day about nothing much; Jean stalks around silently, mouth set in a grim line, moving brown cardboard files of notes from one top to another. Any patient who approaches the desk has to wait, clutching their referral notes, until someone throws a glance in their direction. Mario and Carla use the time-honoured "nelp you?" approach; Jean just looks suspiciously over her glasses and says, "Yes?"

Patient, who is usually pale grey to match the walls, often shaking or watery-eyed with fear, will say something like, "I've got an appointment with Mr Cahill." "What for?" says Jean/ Mario/ Carla. Patient will reply something like "radiotherapy" or "I'm having my diagnosis today". Then they home in for the kill. "Have you got your patient number?" they say. Now, a lot of the people who come here are in a forgetful frame of mind; a good quarter have forgotten their appointment card. They will stammer an apology and Carla will sigh, tapping at the computer keyboard with the rubber end of a pencil. "I can't access you if you haven't got your patient number." This is a blatant lie, but it works every time. Patient will stammer apologies and look even wanner. "Well, go and take a seat and I'll see what I can do," says Carla. "And try to remember to bring it in next time, OK?"

We had a Saudi couple in yesterday; she, the patient, was covered in a blanket, had no card or ID, and he did all the talking. Jean sent them to the ripped-up plastic chairs and three-year-old copies of Woman's Journal, and went into conference with Carla. "Well, I think we should check. He looked terribly shifty to me. Wouldn't meet my eyes when he was talking to me." "Mmm. I think you're right." "What's the problem?" I asked. "Well, we can't tell who she is, can we?" said Jean. "You can't be too careful. Hospitals are full of people trying to fiddle treatment." She picked up the phone and called the specialist's office to consult, while Carla glared at an old lady in elastic bandages and I wondered why anyone in their right mind would want unnecessary chemotherapy. God, get me out of heren