Working 9-5

A retrospective on ten years of employment

“Working” as a teenager basically amounted to babysitting for the kids of my mum’s friends. We’d watch films like Lethal Weapon (which, as rated 18, I wasn’t legally allowed to watch at the time, let alone the kids) and I’d chase them up the stairs to bed as their parents turned into the driveway at gone midnight. In retrospect, I doubt we were fooling anyone! In the summer I turned 18, before I went off to university, I temped like a mad thing. I stacked shelves in the 24hr Tesco from 10pm-8am night after night and completely screwed over my Circadian rhythm (I say shelves, plural; I actually couldn’t reach the top two so I was marginally useless). In another tale of 5’2″-woe, I wore a sandwich board that was 90% of my height to advertise a clothing catalogue sale. To pile the embarrassment nice and high, I somehow managed to get lost in my hometown and wandered for hours, a lonely, levitating advertisement. I chugged. I leafleted. I disappeared off to university come September, with all my stockpiled, tax-free pounds. Adulthood!

Before too long, I nabbed a part-time job as a sales assistant in a clothing boutique. A small, classy establishment – I had to wear heels and a blazer! – not too busy; an ideal first real job. If it wasn’t for the complete despotic bitch of a manager, that is. Within three months I was the Senior Sales Assistant, as everyone else kept quitting. I was contracted in for three shifts of five hours a week, not that the MegaBitch cared. She insisted that I come in every Friday morning for a grand total of 90 minutes, just to oversee the stock delivery. When I protested that I basically only made my bus fare back in wages, she threatened to fire me. Aged only 19 and convinced that being fired once would mean I would never be employed again, ever ever, I shut my mouth. Then MegaBitch began to insist that I and the other sales assistants begin to wear the clothes sold in the store as a kind of uniform. Nothing wrong with that, right? Well, the store sold only sizes 16-32, and I was an 8. I looked like a child playing dress-up, and rather than being a walking/talking mannequin, which is what I assume was the point, I just offended the customers instead. Colleagues were hired and fired at breakneck speed. MegaBitch got worse and worse, blocking me from taking my breaks during the busy Christmas period, bollocking me out over nothing whatsoever; once she threw a notepad at my head. But one day she made the mistake of screaming at me in front of a customer. That ‘customer’ was in fact my mother, hanging around waiting to take me out to lunch. My mother literally dragged me from the shop, and I never went back. But at least I learnt how best to fold a shirt.

My university campus was near Ascot, so when the races were on I picked up some bar work in the Pimms tents. I got so quick at making up the pitchers, but by the end of each shift there was barely an inch on my body that wasn’t sticky from lemonade. Any tips the bar staff made (and the punters were drunk, merry and generous!) didn’t belong to us though – every penny went straight to the franchise owner of that tent. When we left each evening they made us turn out our pockets and take off our shoes to make sure we weren’t smuggling quids. They also made us pour an entire can of cheap energy drink into each pitcher of Pimms – apparently it made people thirstier, and hyper and more likely to gamble. One day an unsuspecting woman with a caffeine allergy had to be taken away by ambulance after drinking her spiked beverage. Should we stop adding the energy drink? we asked the managers, appalled. No, they answered, supremely unbothered by what had happened. Keep at it. Oh well, at least I now know how to mix a proper pitcher of Pimms. And I saw the back of the Queen’s head once.

Two offers of part-time jobs came at the same time during my last undergraduate year. One was in the Waterstones, the other in a family restaurant. After some deliberation I went for the waitressing role – in that one I’d have tips, and the evening hours suited my study schedule better. How I wish I’d taken the job with the books! After six months I was working sixty hours a week whilst trying desperately to keep up with my Masters study. A normal day looked like this. I would be at the restaurant for 9am, preparing it for opening at 11. I’d work straight through until 4 in the afternoon, at which point I’d have to run back for my lecture, from 5-7pm. Then it was back to the restaurant, where I worked until closing. 90% of the time, inconsiderate customers refusing to pay up and leave meant I missed the last train home and was faced with the dilemma of an hour and a half’s walk along what was basically a hard shoulder to an A road, or parting with some of my precious tips to pay for a taxi. On getting back to my little boxroom on the university campus there’d be a quick change, and then – still stinking of vinegar and BBQ sauce – I’d head to the library where I’d work until the small hours, work until I literally dropped, on my assignments and coursework. And then, of course, after four hours sleep (on a good night), it would be the same again the next day. Refusing shifts meant threats of dismissal. I was almost late for my BA graduation ceremony because the front of house manager refused me the morning shift off that day. Drunken creeps who wandered over from the bar opposite would cop a feel while I had my hands busy holding their plates (I only ever spat in one diner’s meal, and I assure you he seriously deserved it). I existed on a diet of Pro Plus pills and energy drinks, but I made it through. One day, weeks after having left that job, I fainted in the middle of Paddington station and was rushed to A&E. My body had finally, finally expunged the last of the caffeine that had kept it moving for the last year, and subsequently crashed. Scary stuff.

Having had to quit the bad-for-your-health waitressing job, I tried to focus on my dissertation for the last three months of studenthood. Myself and the boyfriend (who would eventually become my husband) sold our possessions on eBay and did experiments for the Psychology department for a fiver at a time to be able to afford food. But eventually I had to admit defeat, and seek gainful employment once more. I got a job working at the campus canteen, serving out food to the foreign teenagers that were over for scholarly programs that summer. I’d be up at 4am, crawling back into bed come 9am having finished the breakfast shift, where my boyfriend was sleeping on, barely aware that I’d ever left! The days were truncated with lunch shifts or dinner shifts – sometimes both! But it wasn’t too bad. One time an Italian teen screamed at me because they’d accidentally poured BBQ sauce over their brownie (thinking of course it was chocolate) and I’d had to unfortunately inform them there were no more brownies left. Oh, and I had to wear a hair-net. I did not enjoy the hair-net.

But oh, it was over! I was newly graduated, 22 years old, the very, very proud possessor of a Masters degree to augment my sterling First Class degree in English. Somehow I was going to change the world. I was going to have a Career-with-a-capital-C. Never again would I have to mix drinks, or clean up vomit in the kid’s area, or fear psycho management. I was a proper Grown Up. It was all easy riding from there.

Unfortunately, from 2008, it was mainly all downhill for the economy. I had graduated at the worst possible time. Eventually I managed a temporary admin position at a housing association over Christmas. Two years later, I was still there, performing about four separate roles, the very definition of an office skivvy. But I was happy for the experience, and eager to oblige – that was, until the Powers That Be realised that they’d never moved me on to a permanent employment contract (I’d asked, but they’d always said they’d sort it after the ‘restructuring’ that never happened). It was decided that, as a temp, I hadn’t been entitled to holiday or sick pay and, as I’d recently had Swine Flu, there’d been about two weeks of sickness. So they deducted two years of holiday and illness out of my next monthly salary without warning, leaving me unable to pay my rent and basically up shit creek. The universe aligned, however, and I was head-hunted out of there at around the same time. Two can play at the ‘temp’ game – I didn’t have to give them any notice, and so I left them with no handover of two years and four roles that only I understood. Oh, and I also took them to an employment tribunal and very happily got my money back – and then some!

I was very chuffed with my second job. Skivvy no more, I was a PA! I had an actual job description. I can’t describe how much of a luxury that was after so long. And Property Management was a whole different ballgame to housing association admin. It was far more genteel, in beautiful regency offices in Pimlico. I took the qualifications – could this be my Career?? – and took on responsibility for a small portfolio of my own. Sure I had to still do some PA stuff in the interim, but surely they couldn’t expect me to do two jobs forever? Oh wait, they did… citing that bloody recession for the reason I had to do a management role on a junior wage. I did the site visits and endless evening meetings, but was told that I was still classed as a PA I couldn’t have the time back for them in lieu like the other Property Managers did. So I was basically working for free. Eventually, exhausted – and thoroughly out of love with all things property – I made my escape over to PR.

Still a PA, but something much more exciting. Media training! The panicked CEOs who Anne Robinson shouts at on Watchdog? It’s people like that who needed our media training. How to answer questions without really answering them. How to not look twitchy. How to come across as slightly less of a git. It was only a year’s maternity contract, which ended up being a blessing in disguise, as one of the managers ended up being worse than the MegaBitch of so long ago. I think the most benign thing she ever said to me in twelve months was “you little fool”. I used to physically break out in a sweat when she entered the office.

And then – management! Well, office management, but still. In on the ground floor on an interesting start-up company, a role that married my organisational skills with creativity, where I got to do design and copywriting. Was this it, finally? My Career?? It might have been. I’ll never know. Because the rents had been steadily growing in London. We’d moved to further and further out zones, but the increases in commuting costs ate up any savings we made in rent anyway. We were living paycheck to paycheck, at the whim of uncaring landlords who’d sell up and kick us out on the barest notice, who’d refuse to do any necessary repairs. Any unexpected costs would literally cripple us. We had no savings. No assets. No car. No hope. Here and there the odd food shop, occasionally the monthly travelcard would simply have to go on the credit card, or we couldn’t survive. And so suddenly there was debt and interest and we were approaching thirty with nothing – literally nothing – to show for years upon years of hard graft, aside from student loans and credit card bills. It had all gone in to other people’s mortgages, people who had the luck to be born slightly earlier than us and therefore get on the property ladder and buy-to-let before it all went to shit.

And so we left our beloved London for deepest, darkest Gloucestershire. And eighteen months later, at least I finally enjoy my job. My course for a new qualification starts this month and, with my book deal arriving in 2013 at least I can finally say that writing is my Career, my whole heart (if not enough to ever live on), something I was always too practical to think I’d ever get to say. And maybe 2015 is the year I get to own my own little piece of life by way of bricks and mortar, and my husband and I get to picture the things we never thought we could have – sofa suites, conservatories, children. Maybe there will finally be something material to show for the last ten years, from sneakily reading over my lecture notes in the kitchen at that restaurant, to working all that unpaid overtime whilst writing my first novel. I was wistfully expressing this hope to one of the managers at my current job this Christmas. He was a little drunk, and I’m sure not meaning to be insulting, but basically inferred that my husband and I had been foolish and lazy to get so close to 30 with no financial stability. He was from a different generation, a different world and simply couldn’t understand. Why would be need to?

And so now I gird myself for the Gestapo-esque interrogations of a mortgage application, cry as I put my wedding dress up for sale online for that tiny bit of extra capital, and wonder how it is that, seven years on from the first time, my husband and I are still selling our worldly possessions on eBay.

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