Having finally and regrettably moved out of my university house and successfully driven back home to the motherland surrounded by bin -bags and heart-ache (singing slash sobbing along to Joni Mitchell as I navigated myself the wrong way around the M25), the first thing to occupy myself with after a few days in mourning, was the task of compiling a jolly good To Do List.
Approximately third or fourth of the way down this list according to levels of importance, were the words “Job Centre”.
Let me take a moment to explain myself.
While I am very much aware that I need some form of income in order to continue my preferred lifestyle of eating out in restaurants that require me to park Fitzgerald, my ten-year old daisy-stickered Ford Fiesta so far out of sight that I need a hiking stick, I just don’t want one that badly. I want to spend my mornings reading papers and supping tea, before taking leisurely walks through fields and poetically considering my tiny, simple existence within the tremendously multifarious greater cosmos… I want to avoid work like the inner student I still am and just sod-off travelling for a few months.
But in the mean time, I am a “job-seeker” and wouldn’t say no to a complimentary £56.25 a week. Why not? I’ll be paying for it in taxes for the rest of my life. And that would pay for dinner out at least 1.25 times a week.
So on one aptly miserable looking, gale-forced Monday morning, I popped along the Job Centre. After applying online, I’d received a text instructing me to be here at this time. Presumably the government are aware that any well-practiced dole-scrounger would never answer a phone call from an unknown number at the risk of being offered a job; does anyone know the text-speak for benefit fraud?
In an empty corridor, wallpapered with peeling posters threatening me with free Chlamydia checks and support through single pregnancy, I began to think I’d mistakenly walked into some kind of back-street sexual health clinic. I began to consider retreating from the information centre come tramp-urinal and calling it time for a well-earned brunch, when suddenly, just as in some 90’s budget horror film, a tall, greasy pony-tailed man appeared at my shoulder: a “Can I help you” gruffly thrown at me like a curse.
“Oh hello! I’m here for an appointment at eleven-fifteen but I’m not quite sure-”
He cut me off: “D’you want door A… door B…door C, or…” (a pause so long that I wondered if I’d have to help him sing the alphabet song,) “Or d’you want door D?”
Well. What a question.
Once we’d negotiated through a series of grunts and nervous smiles as to which door would lead me to my fate, I joined a queue reminiscent of prisoners waiting to be fed. If prisoners were given a uniform of Adidas tracksuit bottoms and greying boob-tubes, that is. As I clutched my bag to me like a safety blanket and avoided the challenging stares of more than one pony-tail, I felt both saddened that this place had lived up to its stereotype so well, but also reassured that I didn’t really belong here.
Pods of job-seeker consoling employees typed robotically behind grey computer screens or invited job seekers over to their pods in order to console. One such depressed employee addressed the line of depressed employed: “Anyone here just to sign?” A rush of grunts and little green booklets pushed to the front. Did I really have to come here and do this every other week? Maybe I should just swallow my pride and go back to working in Wetherspoons. Maybe this benefit-scrounging malarkey wasn’t as an attractive an option as I’d previously thought…
I finally made it to the front, smugly declaring my appointment time in a way which might suggest to the crowd that I was just here by chance; that usually I’m a very busy and successful young professional who would never need consider grovelling for £56.25 a week. I was met by a woman with a grey-striped suit over a grey-striped shirt and a personality to match. She looked me up and down with raised eyebrows.
“She knows I don’t belong!” I thought.
“You’re a day early for your appointment,” she said.