The Temp

Annabel only says hello to those she perceives to be her superiors and can watch a phone ring for five minutes before reluctantly picking it up and mumbling "hello"
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The years roll round and the workies stay the same. Work experience is a great idea: students can gloss their CVs, employers get free slave labour. It's a great idea. Unless you are one of the people who has to work with them.

Students divide into two types: those whose parents support them, who get to cite "work experience at Warburg's" when entering the milk round, and those who pay for their existence during the vacation, many of them by learning to type and spending the summer toiling over a hot keyboard. From this situation comes one of life's great ironies: that those with real work experience have little or nothing to decorate their CVs with, while those with none can look employable at 21.

Mr Lucas-of-the-many-wives is on holiday this week, so mostly what I do is hold the fort, answer the phone and observe what's going on. Outside the next-door glass cage, which belongs to the head of Marketing, two people are sharing a desk. One is called Tania; sitting beside her is Annabel. Tania is a temp. Annabel, who got here the week before I did, is a workie.

The difference between them couldn't be more marked. Tania, who has been here a week, types, answers the phone without making the person at the other end hang up, understands the computer network, made friends with the postroom. Annabel only says hello to those she perceives to be her superiors, hasn't mastered the "sort" function on the copier and can watch a phone ring for five minutes before reluctantly picking it up and mumbling "hello".

Annabel is reading English at Exeter. Everybody knows this, because she wastes no time in telling them. During one of those information dissemination sessions in the loo, Tania informed me that she was going to hit her if she told her one more time.

"Do you know what she did?" she asked, leaning against the wall by the roller towel. I was sitting on the sink, and we were sharing a cigarette, fanning the smoke away from the sprinkler and towards the air-conditioning outlet. "Uh-uh". "She came up to me this morning with this fax. Said `Can you send this to Lagos? It's in Portugal'. So I said, `It's probably for Nigeria, actually'. `Lagos', she said, `is in Portugal'. `Well,' I said, `given that Lagos is a village on the Algarve and we're doing a major push on Africa, I think this is probably for the city in Nigeria'.

"So she marched into the boss's office, came back a minute later and tried to hand me the fax. Goes `You're right. It is in Nigeria'. Of course, I'd spent the time with my nose in the code book, so I go `Okay. The code's 00234 1'. You should have seen her face when she realised I expected her to send it herself. I shouldn't have bothered, of course. She buggered it up, tried to get some bloke to fix it and I ended up spending 20 minutes mending it."

I rolled my eyes. "I think," said Tania, "that when she discovered she wasn't going to be planning the company's marketing strategy for the next decade she went into a sulk. She doesn't seem to do anything much all day apart from phoning her friends to tell them how impressed everyone is with her."

Today is Annabel's last day, and she is in a chirpy mood. She has finally started talking to Tania. Talking at, actually. She is off to her parents' house in the Algarve next week, and looking forward to it. "It's lovely there," she says; "There's a lemon grove below the house and a wonderful view of the sea. We've had it ever since I was little". "What next?" asks Tania. "Oh, well, obviously I have to do finals next year," says Annabel. "Urrgh". She grimaces. "I'm dreading them. Then I'm going to go into PR or something like that. What about you?" Tania glances up from her screen, where she is inputting a memo about qualitative research. "Oh, I'm waiting for my results," she says, "but if I get a First I'll be doing a PhD in particle physics"