It’s the summer of 2017. The weather is that rancid mix of hot and wet which means my eczema is bad, I smell weird no matter what I do and I’m in a permanently terrible mood.
Things aren’t going well for me, career-wise. Work is quiet and money is low. I don’t currently have a temp job because I quit working as a waiter when I got my last script commission, convinced I had graduated from the ranks of the minimum-waged. Y’know, like a stupid bitch.
My boyfriend, however, is raking it in, tutoring upper-middle-class children whom I’m certain are all called Guiglielmo, so I’m skint but adjacent to financial security in a way that makes me feel like Annie in the musical Annie. As school holidays approach he is offered a six-week job travelling with a rich Italian family while they summer in the Caribbean. It’s very lucrative but means I will be alone for a month and a half, which, second only to big frogs, is my worst nightmare.
In an unparalleled act of selfishness, he takes the job.
Suddenly I am staring down the barrel of six weeks with no money, no boyfriend, and a heat rash on the back of my knees so severe that I’m earnestly considering rolling a glass over it so I can rule out meningitis.
The first week passes in a blur. I spend most of my evenings drinking cheap red wine and developing a chillingly intense relationship with the TV show UnREAL. One night I watch consecutive episodes until 3AM, fall asleep, wake up at 6 and continue where I left off with the feverish commitment of a substance addict.
It’s then that I realise: this is unsustainable. There’s no writing work coming in and the end of the month is approaching fast.
I need to find another bastard temp job.
I dust off my regular-job CV. It reads something like this:
2016-2017: Waiter, technically.
I never learned how to hold more than two plates at a time and I can’t open champagne. I think the chefs were on coke? Like all of the time? Anyway I was very bad at this job and my manager was openly racist but I kept up team morale by always being on my phone.
Feel quite smug about this one. Full time writer, queen!!! This was well paid and I wrote a lot of online content for FitBit which is very funny if you’ve met me. Then one time I had to write an advert for cat soup and I was like, hmm my brain is bleeding.
2014-2015: Drama teacher
I taught at a Saturday drama club. One time, the woman who ran it didn’t turn up and I was left in charge of 60 children, two of whom approached me in the morning and wordlessly handed me their EpiPens which I, to this day, have no idea how to administer.
2014-2014: Call centre worker
I did this for three months and it was such a cruel and specific brand of hell that I genuinely go a bit misty-eyed like a war veteran when I talk about it.
- Microsoft Word
- Fun to be around
My eyes linger on that last job. Call centre worker. A shiver runs through my body.
In 2014, I worked in a call centre that was exclusively staffed by actors and what I believe were undocumented immigrants. The office was a place of such unbridled horror and misery that I would sit at my pod and solemnly pray for a nuclear holocaust. Every day for three months I phoned confused pensioners and convinced them to buy magazine subscriptions that they absolutely did not want or need, and at a certain point I realised I was quite good at it which is when I knew I had to either quit or end my own life.
Never again, I had vowed to myself as I left my final shift. Never a-fucking-gain.
But with rent and bills looming over me like a bad diagnosis, the synapses in my brain begin to fire. From what I remember, the office had a staff turnover rate that was bordering on deranged. Every single week a brand new fleet of hopefuls would pile off the DLR, ready and willing to auction off bits of their souls for £8 an hour. An employee could have died at their desk and, without a moment’s hesitation, a sallow-skinned grey-eyed supervisor would forklift their warm farting corpse into an incinerator and wheel in the next perky musical theatre grad to take their place.
Plus… they paid weekly.
I heave a sigh. Jesus Christ.
One Google search. One email. One eight minute “interview” during which I could’ve openly dribbled into the manager’s mouth and still been hired. Within 48 hours I’m alighting the DLR, ready for my first day of training. My second first day of training. Nice one, fat lad.
I round the corner and there it is. The building. Big and bleak and weird, exactly as I remember it. Just a few weeks, I think as I make my approach. A few weeks and I’ll have enough to pay rent. Then I can resume enjoying my life.
And then, in a moment that still makes my vision cloud with rage, something yanks me backwards. I pray it might be the hands of Death, mercifully tugging me into His clutches before I have to face a month of timed bathroom breaks. But no such joy. My headphones have caught on the wing mirror of a van, ripping my phone out of my hand and smashing it on the pavement.
If I was Anna Kendrick in an Anna Kendrick film, this is the point where I would tilt my head skyward and shout “Really?…REALLY?!” and everyone would be like “Christ she’s dry but likeable!” But I’m not Anna Kendrick. I’m just a cloddish twat.
A cold wave of genuinely quite frightening anger washes over me. It’s the sort of irrational involuntary bile that I experience when motorcyclists startle me with the sound of their revving engines and before I know it I’ve thought I hope you get sucked under a lorry.
Staring at my fucked phone lying in the baking sun, I start to wonder… what happens if I just… stop paying for things? How long could I realistically sustain a money-free lifestyle? I reckon I could keep my landlord at bay for at least five weeks because he has a soft-spoken asexual Ainsley Harriet vibe of which I will happily take advantage. If I start keeping milk in the sink and preserving meat in salt barrels like an 18th century sailor I can forgo electricity. And listen I’m not saying I am entitled to steal food but the CEO of Sainsbury’s earns £875k before bonuses so it’s safe to say baby can skim some Doritos off the top. Everything’s looking up!
But, predictably, I come crashing back down to reality when I realise that training starts in four minutes and if I’m late they won’t pay me and if they don’t pay me I might die.
I scoop up the phone, swallow the poison that has gathered in my throat and head inside.
An unfriendly receptionist ticks off my name and leads me to the training room. Eight cheerful 22-year-olds greet me with a smile. First timers, I think, with the hardened world-weariness of a repeat offender returning to prison.
My cohort are friendly. I am not. I am grumpy and sweaty and desperate for this to be over.
A heterosexual man in a backwards baseball cap and low-rise jeans enters the room, puts his feet on a desk and explains that he will be training us today despite his fuck-off hangover. I consider placing a pencil in each of my nostrils and slamming my head against the table.
This time around we’re drumming up donations for a wildlife charity, which is at least less morally bankrupt than tricking mentally ill strangers into buying a years’ supply of Your Horse magazine. We’re taken through a nauseatingly earnest presentation about the environment and insecticide and why hedgehogs shouldn’t be eating pen lids or whatever.
And suddenly we’re on the phones. I listen to old men quack on about their allotments and guilt trip them into setting up direct debits. I’m sure if I was in a more positive headspace all of this would seem quite quaint, but given the fact that I keep slicing my hand on broken glass every time I check my phone, I silently vow to spray deodorant into the next birds nest I see.
Our calls are constantly monitored and critiqued by supervisors. An out-of-work actress named Sophie tells me I’m “a bit too silly” and honestly I would have rather she called me a faggot.
Three weeks pass unremarkably. My boyfriend messages me from Turks & Caicos; he’s working two hours a day and staying in six-star accommodation. I consider breaking up with him over Snapchat.
Once again I discover with self-disgust that I am genuinely quite good at the job. Old people trust me. I remind them of their most sexually ambiguous grandchild. I rack up more donations than anyone in my team and I’m rewarded with an invitation to something called "Pizza Friday", a weekly event wherein top sellers from the myriad teams are permitted to leave their pods for 15 minutes, gather in an unused meeting room and eat two slices of lukewarm Texas BBQ in complete silence.
My younger co-workers try to be nice. They invite me for drinks which I do not attend in a haughty performance of disinterest. I am aware of how uncharacteristically spiteful I’m being, but quite frankly no one is paying me enough to sit through an Arts Ed grad talking about intermittent fasting.
And just like that, it’s over. The charity campaign is finished and I assume we saved the bees.
At the end of my final shift a supervisor asks me if I’d be interested in staying on; they need people to man the phones for the Argos customer support line. The pay is better and the hours are more social. With a completely empty diary and rent covered, I tell him that unfortunately I have a massive fucking television job on the horizon and come next month I’m going to be breast stroking through piles of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, so thanks but no thanks, “Mark”.
I dance my way out of that cursed office block. I’ve just been paid, my boyfriend comes home tomorrow and I CAN AFFORD MY RENT.
I arrive at the DLR platform and tap my Oyster. Please top up.
With a shit-eating grin on my face, I approach the ticket machine and select the minimum ten pound top up. I consult my banking app in case I need to move money around.
I see my balance. I do the maths. And it hits me…
Over the past month of training and telemarketing and small talk and meal deals and lying and crying and scrimping and scraping… I have earned such a pitiful sum of money that putting ten pounds on my Oyster Card will mean I do not technically have enough to cover my rent.
My ears ring like I’ve been shot at. The world zooms out and I swear I can taste blood in my mouth.
And… I start to laugh. I laugh and I laugh and I laugh some more. I top up my Oyster and I shuffle my way onto the DLR, crying silent tears of manic, hysterical laughter.
It was all for nothing. All of it was for nothing.
I arrive home and cackle in my kitchen like a Disney witch. IT WAS ALL FOR NOTHING.
The next day my boyfriend returns, golden brown and pockets lined with Italian blood money. He finds me curled up in bed, teeth stained from red wine, an episode of UnREAL playing on a laptop two inches away from my cornea.
"Nice time?" I ask, bitterly.
"Amazing!" he answers, enthusiastically.
"Been paid yet?" I ask, sinisterly.
"Um…yep?" he answers, nervously.
"Can I borrow some money?" I ask, unbuckling his belt.
And it worked! There is literally zero moral to this story. Sorry if you were searching for one.