My Week: Are you being served?: James Wilson seeks a solution to penury behind the sales counter

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Monday Man cannot pay back student debts on Income Support alone and I have belatedly decided to Get Myself A Job. I am in a large high street store in Newcastle upon Tyne, working for pounds 3 an hour for an employment agency which happened to stick its 'wanted' sign outside as I was walking past. Carpe diem.

Fifteen of us start this morning with a gentle introduction. Mainly we watch videos; health and safety, fire regulations. Martin Shaw tells us how accidents can be prevented. 'He's gone downhill since The Professionals,' observes the woman from the agency. Another video demonstrates efficient physical movement. I reflect on this too much and have a bad back all day.

Tuesday Today, cheques and credit cards. We learn reversals, floor limits, authorisation codes. The nature of the job becomes clear - we will stand at the end of the till and 'wipe' (the technical term) cards through a machine.

We will also put things in bags. This is the most nerve-racking part; I hope the customers won't notice too much when I mangle their goods.

I discover the staff canteen, with great free tea and an intimidating atmosphere. 'Senior management' - largely male, when the staff must be 80 per cent female - sit apart.

Wednesday The inventory tagging system fascinates me. Random collections of tat that you couldn't possibly want to steal have plastic discs clattering all over the place, while half-decent clobber has nothing to stop you carrying it straight out of the door. Still, it keeps me on my toes and I don't think I've yet sent anyone still unsuspectingly tagged into the long arms of the security guard.

We temps are actually beginning to talk to each other, a bond of solidarity forming in this hostile environment. Unbelievably, one girl has come back from Tenerife to do this, another from Perth, Australia.

Thursday I now know all about socks.

'Are these squash socks?'

'Well, madam, you can play squash in them.'

'And tennis?'

'Certainly, madam.'

'I'll take them, then]'

We sell a lot of socks. Dressing gowns are also big round the tree this year. And you know the horrible jumpers you get every year from that relative you've not seen for ages? Well, I've sold them all. For an hour the PA booms out increasingly irate messages asking Mrs So-and-so to collect her sister from the coffee shop. The old bat is finally tracked down in the shop next door.

Tonight Kevin Keegan switches on the Christmas lights in the city and the festive season seems disturbingly close.

Friday More training, this time on the till, which has one of those wands that never work when it's your stuff they are meant to be scanning.

After three hours I have more or less got the knack and can do everything except make a sale in Norwegian krones; a shame, as most of the shoppers are Scandinavian.

However, it all goes completely out of my head when a woman decides she would, after all, rather have had six separate receipts for the scarves she is sending to her relatives in South Africa. I ring the bell for help, feeling like a raw recruit who has just confronted his first real enemy soldier after weeks of happily running his bayonet through sacks of straw.

Saturday Oops, I puncture a cashmere sweater four times with a coat-hanger. It's my first time on ladies' wear and the folding techniques are that bit more complicated. But thank goodness I avoid the till, as the queues are round the shop. Recession? What recession?

Home to a letter from the bank telling me my student forms will be extended till June 1993. Just as well - I reckon that with tax, bus fares and sundry other expenses deducted, I've made about pounds 25 on the week. And my back still hurts.

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