The Temp

`Oh, for God's sake,' says the voice, which obviously has a small ginger moustache attached. `I'm calling peak rate. What's the hold-up?'
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The Independent Online
I'm in a room. Beyond that, I know very little. I think that the room is attached to an accountant's firm, but you can never trust your agency to have got the details straight. Despite all that sweetie-darling- we'll-give-you-holiday-pay-and-lots-of-attention screed that agencies' hand-outs are filled with, temp controllers are interested in one thing only: commission. They will send anybody anywhere, by lying through their teeth.

Agency forms are full of little boxes: What kind of work? Which areas? Are there types of firm you don't want to work for? The first couple of times I registered with an agency, I was naive enough to believe that these were read. Well, in a way they are. I'm sure now that controllers have a game, to while away the hours between phone calls by mismatching workers and jobs. "Hey, Mary. Here's a shorthand secretary who wants creative companies in the centre of town. What do you say we give her the warehouse job with the computer hardware firm, out by the airport?" "Linda, you're a genius! What about this PA job with the creative director of an advertising firm in Soho?" "Give that to that guy with the GCSE in electronics." "What, the one with the muscles, who lives in Hounslow?" "Yes." "Brilliant."

They can get away with this because a) as I've said before, everyone expects their temp to be subnormal anyway, and b) no one ever turns down work twice. If you turn down work, however ill-suited you are, you will be punished by being offered no more work for three weeks. "Things are pretty slack at the moment," Linda will say as you do the round of weekly phone calls. "Guess you should have taken that part-time filing post in Milton Keynes after all." Signing on to more than one agency doesn't work, either; you end up having 10 agencies not offering you any work for three weeks, which is as good for the self-confidence as someone coming up to you in a night-club and telling you they really fancy your friend.

Anyway, I have been in this room, alone, for half-an-hour. After half- an-hour in reception, a hassled-looking woman led me in there, said "I'll send someone to see to you", and disappeared. I have scoured the room for clues to the nature of this firm, but have drawn a blank. Aside from two desks, three typists' chairs, a computer and a telephone, the room contains a waste bin full of plastic teacups, some fire regulations and a desk organiser containing two paperclips.

I poke my head into the corridor. It has that heavy silence you get in school gyms during exams, which suggests that this probably really is an accountant's. I am about to walk down it and ask for help, when the phone rings.

"Hello?" It's not easy knowing what to say when you answer a strange phone. "Mr Schlumpf," says a man's crisp voice. "I'm sorry, who did you want to speak to?" A heavy sigh. "Mr Schlumpf." I cast around hopelessly for a telephone list. "I'm sorry. Can I transfer you to the switchboard?" I press star zero, race next door into another, equally empty, room which, in place of the desk organiser, contains a phone list. I grab it, run back.

The phone is ringing again. The same man. "Mr Schlumpf," he says. "One moment, please." I scan the esses. No Schlumpf. "I'm sorry. I can't find a Schlumpf on the list. How do you spell it?". Another sigh. "M-U-R- D-O-C-H". I try the Murdoch extension. Engaged. "I'm sorry, but Mr Murdoch is engaged." "Oh, for God's sake," says the voice, which obviously has a small ginger moustache attached. "I'm calling peak rate. What is the hold-up?" It's my turn to sigh. "I'm sorry. I'm a temp and I've been left in this room without a phone list. I'm doing what I can." "Hah," he says. "Typical. Temp. Hah." He hangs up.

I twiddle my thumbs, look again down the silent corridor. The phone rings. "Are you the temp?" says a female voice."Yes," I reply. "What on earth are you doing on Mr Murdoch's phone?" It says. "We've been waiting for you for more than an hour"n