The Temp

When I was temping several years ago, I went to lots of different places. I learned the life of the temporary receptionist. They always show you the kitchenette first. My longest assignment was for 3 weeks in a solicitors’ firm. I learnt there how to properly take phone messages, in that when I first started I would make a note of the caller’s name, but not the number to call them back on. I would deliver my scrappy pink piece of ‘message for you’ paper to the correct divorce or property specialist and then as I was walking back out the door, about to take the long stairs of the Victorian house back to the reception, they would stop me. They would ask me to confirm the number of the person that had called, or what the reason for their call was. I would stand, in my mum’s smart trousers-the expensive ones from LK Bennet, and my mouth would move without anything coming out. I thought that the lawyer would have had the number already. Or that they would already know the exact subject that the caller was phoning about, like they were just catching up. Almost like friends.

The person who helped me move past this habit was one of the partners, Lewis. He was an older man. He looked wolfish, and he told me once how when he was at school he was expelled for turning up to their school picture with peroxide hair. After this dismissal happened he drove off on his bike with the legs of his girlfriend wrapped reassuringly around him. A teenage king. Lewis came downstairs after I, the temp, had left another incomplete message on his desk and talked me through the assailant elements of a full formed message. He explained that the lawyers had so many people to talk to, they didn’t always know who was who and even though the person ringing knew who the lawyer was, to the lawyer they might just be another anonymous name. They also might not have the contact details of the caller, even if the person on the phone spoke with familiarity. I nodded, furiously, not being the kind of person who was expelled from school and grateful for this rebel turned solicitor’s gentle nurturing of me.

Temp assignments can be great, in that you don’t really care because no one knows you. You come in and out before the entire office can remember your name. A job I did over Christmas was just one day in a car dealership. The all lads team and the usual receptionist were, rightfully, very hungover, and even as the flimsy temp I was like the tent pole holding the whole operation up. I ate lunch in my car.

When I was temping before, as a self confessed romantic I was besotted by the whole process. I loved the doomed notion of arriving for a few days. It was just enough time to start to gain a routine to then leave again with your time sheet and the small shoots of relationships that were starting to bud. I’m enamoured the fate of the temp, how you never expect much from them and yet they are a vital fulcrum as they allow the normal, efficient, worker to get her needed two weeks in Kefalonia. I liked the observations that you are allowed to make when you are somewhere as domestic as an office. How both the Linda’s were very friendly, and how Vicky pushed Lewis to let me go ten minutes earlier so I could make a train for a gig I really wanted to go to. And what the eyes of the temp see, which is actually quite a lot, but no one really expects this because you are just ‘the temp’. You’ll be gone soon. I told one of the solicitors once about my love of scripts, and he then sent me, amongst the emails for cancelled and confirmed clients’ appointments, a list of all the characters in another firm he used to work in that housed so much eccentricity. He told me how he’d always wanted to turn this into a sitcom, and maybe I could do something with it instead.

I write this, having not done any temporary work for a while. I only really understand the point of it now, as when I used to do it-it was just because my parents suggested it. It wasn’t even as defined as ‘a time filler after university and travelling’, it was just what I was doing at the point. Almost as if I was going to be a permanent temp. I remember the recruiter ringing my house repeatedly with different assignments, her friendly tone not dampened by the awkwardness of constantly calling. My dad, the gate keeper, would come and get me from sitting in the lounge, and I would role my eyes, ungrateful for the disturbance of watching The Simpsons and not recognising the opportunity to make money.

‘Hi Lucille’, I would say into the phone though a thin smile.

Now though, I am someone who has started to say ‘I am desperate for some temp work’. This is partly experience, having worked for three and a half years solidly, to now not having had a routine for four months, I’ve learnt that the sequence of going work gives you a mental sanity. Aside from the money, it gives you purpose. It’s a three fold benefit. It makes you disciplined because you are on someone else’s time and in turn, you appreciate the time that you are not being paid for more. I am ‘desperate for some temp work’, because I’m not yet ready to commit to a job that I really want-maybe I’m not even really sure what that is and so the carefree life of a temp, once you get over which buttons to press on the directory, is my current focus. All I want is a Lucille. I want to go into an agency, and sit down in front of a well dressed, smiling lady who will ask me to list my skillset. Someone who I can share a moment with, when she says ‘and how would you rate your Excel skills?’ And I will widen my eyes ever so slightly in that ‘I can move cells but I’m unsure to where’ way, and she will nod knowingly and then put down ‘competent’ on the form. Someone who I can demonstrate my communication skills with, and give unfaltering eye contact to to illustrate this further, knowing that this is my strongest suit and because of this Lucille will work to find me a temp job for tomorrow. That’s what I want now. To be able to walk back to my parents’ car, satisfied with the fact that I have done something today in my unemployment: I have put the wheels in motion and now I just have to wait for the call. Maybe then I could spend the afternoon swimming.

This is all I would like now, however it seems that this is less possible. Now, everything is done through an app. I was roused from a morning of worry and panic earlier in the week by the reality that I needed to do anything to find work, and as such, cunningly found the ‘top rated temporary agency in London’. Maybe these would be my people, here I would find another Lucille. I was thankful that they asked for a face to face assessment because this means they would meet me and realise that I could make the agency some money. And then they would help me, and I could have somewhere to be as opposed to texting my friends in the morning about the weekend which is still five days away, and being quite upset when they don’t get back to me til after 8pm.

I booked in with the online register, and made an appointment for 5pm. I should have been wary then that there were only two slots available: 2pm or 5pm. In my excitement, I thought that this was just because all their other availability was gone. I made sure I wasn’t late which is a hurdle I am constantly fighting to overcome, but energised by the promise that I would talk to someone, I was early. I paced the dark road outside waiting for ‘the five minutes to’ window that I would walk in on. The agency was in a bigger building of companies and the middle letter of the name of the building was missing, so instead of reading ‘Loco Networks’, it read ‘Loo Networks’. No one had yet replaced the C.

I gave my name at the reception, and again should have been wary that he didn’t ask me to check in. All the door man needed was the information that I was here to see the agency, and this was enough. He gestured towards the canteen, ‘wait in there’.

In the canteen, there were about twenty-five other people, of varying ages but the majority of them were early twenties. They were all dressed similarly to one another, and to myself. Wearing that ‘smart casual’ wear, made up of black and white clothes: the business look. I leaned against the radiator. There were so many people here now that to even take a seat would draw attention. A girl moved her bag and offered the chance to sit next to her, but I didn’t trust the quiet in the room. I could see my long scarf and legs becoming tangled nervously, and my anxious laugh would break the hushed scene, so I stayed standing. We were now allies though.

A lady stepped into the canteen, and there was a natural lull from quiet to silent as we realised that she was here for us.

’Speed Recruitment’? She called out. We all nodded, all these faces that filled up the space for the 5pm slot.

‘Great come with me’, and we shuffled out of the canteen to a downstairs meeting room. There were people with piercings, people who wore a lot of make up and people who didn’t. Those who clearly didn’t own a suit, and didn’t realise the importance of this. There was one girl with her bag of clothes to return to Zara, which sat on her lap next to me. There was people with long hair, and people with long hair who had tied it up. There was a wide variation of nationalities, with darker European complexions, and a nervous Asian man who sat at the end and asked later in the meeting ‘what was the point of national insurance’.

The meeting room was bright in that unforgiving way of the corporate: Meeting Room Three.

The lady who took us downstairs stood at the front and introduced herself as Denise. Denise was head of HR, she was tall and had a slim figure with a waistcoat that clothes lines in High Street retailers peddle as fashionable.

Denise explained that she would take our passports, and went on to introduce Claude. Claude had thick limbs and expressive eyes. His hair was thinning, but in a way that promised masculinity, not just poor genetics. Claude wore a cardigan over his suit, the kind of cardigan that you might wear in the evening at home, or the kind that suggested you were comfortable enough in your cooling November office to get away with this. We were the second lot, the 5pm lot. The 2pm group probably didn’t see the cardigan.

Claude put on a good show. He was warm, and though this flickered a bit when questions were repeated or asked at the wrong time, his clipped tone was more efficiency than rudeness. He spun a few jokes, not enough to break the room but still enough to get the audience to like him. Jokes like ‘I used to be thin would you believe, but now I can’t get past you so please can you get the lights’. Claude explained how he knew the grit it took to get to the top, how he had started as an unappreciated kitchen porter, but now was the happy founder of a recruitment agency who had a range of cardigans and a success story to fuel young hopefuls ambitions.

We were there to learn how their app worked. You would not get one on one time with Claude, that wasn’t necessary. But instead he talked us through how to use their app, where you can list your skills and where you can find out how to get paid. I was a little stunned. Maybe if I had read the confirmation email more closely I would have expected this tutorial as opposed to actual contact with an actual person. There was one older man there in a suit. An older man who had a career behind him where he had gravitas and he set a certain standard, who now was in a room of European barely post teens, who now was not even given a meeting but a one hour tutorial of where he could list his key skills, and which alert to switch on to let you know about current jobs. He asked some excellent questions.

The man next to me kept looking at his phone. On a glimpse, I saw that his background was the portrait of a girl, which must be his girlfriend. He asked if we needed a CV. Claude met this question like an old friend, he greeted it and made the asker of the question instantly comfortable as to how to get past this problem.

After Claude explained the importance of dressing well, we were free to leave, and that he would see us on the app. We all shook his hand as we left, his grip was very strong.

As I was walking up the stairs, I got a call from another recruiter that I am working with. A meeting has never taken place between us, and instead they have been able to asses my capabilities from an online profile I made. His name has linked with my email, and so his name always comes up under this unknown number. Each time I’m not sure whether to just give an anonymous ‘Hello’, or a ‘Hi Max’ which would suggest a closer relationship than we have.

‘Hi Evie’, he came back, voice tired for the last call of the day, ‘so how was the call with Julie earlier?’

Julie hadn’t called, instead someone else, not Julie, had called at a different time that Julie was meant to call. I wasn’t expecting this, and so the whole phone interview was jagged.

I explain this to Max.

‘Shit sorry’, he says back as I’m about to get on the tube, ‘they’re a bit all over the place there, I’ll reorganise it and I’ll send you an email confirmation tomorrow yeah?’

No, I don’t want the shoddy results of a faceless technical algorithm. I just want to be a carefree temp who can flit around with the cape of my time sheet. Surely, despite the sophistication of technology, we cannot replace the impact of a meeting between two people. Of intuition, and first impressions, and noticing how someone presents themselves. You can tell in one meeting how reliable someone will be, or whether they will let you down, and despite the immediacy an app offers, this really is a massive sacrifice for quality on everyone’s behalf.