This was 2000, in the days before London’s employment agencies decided to deck out their premises with garish colours and wall-length photos of happy workers like a cross between Foxtons and the first class lounge at Heathrow Terminal Five, and even though this was a well-known international employment agency the waiting area was shabby, like a national health dentist’s office, with potted plants and stacked plastic in-trays.
I was waiting in the Strand branch, sitting uneasily on a plastic chair as people rushed busily past me. People still had smoking areas in offices then. It was 8 am on a Monday morning and the agency was busy supplying emergency cover for receptions and telephones across London. They forgot about me pretty soon.
I’d been at home since I left the hotel job. I’d been writing (the novel is still on a floppy disk somewhere, where it can stay forever as far as I’m concerned) and every day around 11am when the Evening Standard was delivered to the Woodgrange News around the corner, I would get 30p off my dad and go and buy it to look at the ads section, circling everything that seemed likely with a highlighter. I’d applied for every job I was half-qualified to do but got nothing other than interviews in a few seedy warehouses with even seedier bosses. ‘We’re really looking for someone more experienced,’ was better than ‘What do you want a job for with grades like that?’
It didn’t help that no one I knew had any experience of looking for low-skilled work, or work outside the public sector, or even work without a university degree. My dad made me coffee and told me about the only job he’d ever had outside of academia- a summer or two on the buses as a student. Sometimes he lost his temper. Of course, as always, my dad was actually angry with the system, but the system wasn’t sitting in front of him hogging the telephone to make wild goose daytime calls to commission-only sales-scam companies.
So there I was, wearing my new beige linen A-line skirt from H&M, a shirt ‘borrowed’ from my older sister and clutching, I’m embarrassed to say, my burgundy plastic National Record of Achievement stuffed with my qualifications and achievements. I had won the Plashet School Annual Recitation Competition four years running, among other glories. I really didn’t have a clue.
Around 9.30, after the day’s rush had eased off a bit, someone remembered my presence. ‘What do you want a job for when you have these grades?’ asked an extravagantly highlighted woman in a dark suit. I had never felt so gauche. ‘No, don’t worry. We’ll get you on the system after you take a few tests.’ It sounds like she was putting me at my ease but she really, really wasn’t. Her phone rang again and I waited.
In the computer room a couple of other people were taking the tests. They looked even more beaten down than I felt, a skinny boy in a borrowed suit too large for him and an older man whose face had desperation stamped across it. They weren’t difficult: spelling, basic arithmetic and Windows Office. One would have thought my GCSE results would have proved my capacity to correct the spelling of the word ‘sincerely’ and add £14.50 to £29.95, but I had yet to learn that my GCSE results were not worth the paper they were written on.
I was back in the waiting room. It was 11.45. Highlights came out of the smoking area. ‘Oh, you’re still here are you?’ She looked at the printout of my test results. It appeared I had passed. ‘Well, we don’t have anything on file for you right at this moment, so just come in tomorrow at 7.30 and we’ll see if anything comes up.’
In those days, a 16-year old not in full-time education paid adult fare on the Tube. This was £4.50 I think, £6 if you travelled before 9.30am. I had already borrowed the money from my dad that morning. The next day I took the 25 bus, and walked along Chancery Lane to the Strand. I was early and the office wasn’t open, so I waited outside until the doors opened. I was wearing my beige linen A-line skirt again.
I did that every day that week at great personal expense (I was buying a child bus pass at £1 a day instead of the adult one which would have set me back £2) which was good because eventually they came to recognise me. On the Friday, I left at ten or so when it had become clear that no work was going to come up, but I was rewarded with a phone call (on the landline of course- no one had a mobile back then) when I got home an hour and a half later.
The mail room was in the fluorescent-lit basement of one of the still-new Canary Wharf Towers. I had to stand at a counter and put letters into different baskets. For this I received the princely sum of £3 an hour. My beige linen A-line skirt would have been too smart for such a job, if it hadn’t been that all the young men working around me were in suits. Anyway after a day or so I had to change it for form’s sake and borrow some truly ghastly wool job off my mother. Capital Radio played all day. ‘It Feels So Good’.
The young men, only a couple of years older than me, gossiped all around as they tossed the baskets onto different trolleys and wheeled them off for delivery to the ‘real’ office workers upstairs. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. Occasionally they would ask me about myself and I tried not to reveal anything that might make them tease me more.
‘I bet you’re into Blur and Oasis, aren’t you?’
‘I like all different kinds of music.’
‘Do you like hip-hop?’
‘Of course I do!’
‘What do you like then?’
I was stumped.
I was bringing sandwiches and instead of eating in the break-room I would go and sit by the edge of the dock at West India Quay, hoping to meet some rich man who would fall in love with me despite the fact that I was sixteen and didn’t have a suit. I didn’t want the boys I worked with to know I brought my own sandwiches instead of buying them like normal people. I rode my bike, too. The agency was paying me weekly, but a month in arrears, so I was pretty much penniless. Every Friday I had to complete a timesheet, get the surly mail-room manager to sign it and send it off by fax before 4pm.
I did this job for two weeks. On the third Monday morning, at 8 am, I parked my bike behind West India Quays station (I didn’t want the office boys to know I rode my bike either), walked into the tower, through the Italian marble lobby swarming with people, and took the seventh lift, the only one which went down to the mailroom. I put my handbag and my jacket on a chair, walked to my counter and started sorting envelopes. An hour or so later, the manager walked past me, gave me a funny look and went back into his office to make a phone call.
I hadn’t been called into his office before although the office miscreants had to go in all the time so I knew it was because I’d done something wrong, although I didn’t know what that might be.
‘Frances, is it?’
‘There’s been a mistake love. We don’t need you today. We did call the agency?’
I went red to my ears as I realised. The agency hadn’t even told me this was a temporary assignment. I had thought it was my job.
The manager, usually grumpy, was shamingly kind. ‘You were just covering while Tommy was off.’
This was long before the day when I stopped being embarrassed about things. The walk back to get my things was awful. I couldn’t look at the boys I worked with. I picked up my things, got in the lift and walked in despair back through the huge, grandiose lobby. My dreams of working my way up to a job on a floor with windows, one for which I could use the normal lift, were in pieces.
I cycled back to the agency, trying to decide what to say to cover my embarrassment. They’d forgotten my face in the two weeks I’d been away. I tried to explain. Highlights wasn’t around, so a man in pinstripes took my case. ‘We don’t have anything on file for you right at this moment, so just come in tomorrow at 7.30 am and we’ll see if anything comes up.’