I have been looking for work in Bristol for over a month. I have queued up in sweaty recruitment agencies, trawled the internet job sites for eternities, written covering letters dripping and limp with bullshit, printed a thousand CVs and attempted to force my way into any crappy little employment role going – I have done the works without ever finding work.
Then it came – that all-important phone-call.
I was rummaging through household goods in the depressing depths of Wilkinson’s basement when my mobile rang. There was no signal so I stuttered like an autistic Hugh Grant into the phone as the escalator ascended, hoping that whoever it was wouldn’t hang-up before I could hear their voice and respond in a coherent manner. I wonder now that if I had had signal, been able to speak like an adult, then I might have been offered an altogether different kind of job.
I walk along a dual carriageway – cars speed past me. I duck under trees, balance alongside brown waters and precipitous mud sidings. I pass garages where suited salesmen straighten their ties in the shiny windows of the latest models. This is trading estate territory. Behind a KFC car park, surrounded by skips and sharp, angular metal spikes is a warehouse. Men with faces smeared with grease and wearing fluorescent overalls shuffle across the concrete, smoking and blinking in the daylight.
I walk down a Soviet-style corridor, all gloomy shadows and flickering light bulbs, through some swing doors into a huge room where six trains are suspended in the air with men busily examining their mechanical underbellies. I keep on walking before turning through another set of double doors and here it is: three tiny offices, saturated with diesel and hot as hell – my new home. In the corner of the ugliest office space I have ever seen is a computer surrounded by piles of A4 paper smeared with mechanical grime. The computer runs Windows 97 and makes a noise like a small plane taking off. It is covered in dust and the keyboard looks like it’s been tortured.
There is a man on the desk opposite called Martin. He does not speak to anybody; he is a man of few syllables – a tanned grunting Bristolian Bartleby. I take the seat opposite him. My minder tells me that I should take my new shiny shoes off and go get my money back. The tie around my neck suddenly takes on the weight of a chain.
A man comes in, Andy, a West Country Roy Chubby Brown. He says frickin’ and fuckin’ in various spirited rants about the state of his world. There are engineers that come in and say inherently perverted and misogynist things before procuring some fuse or fitting and disappearing. They say the word pussy like you would dogshit and describe overweight girls as shire-horses.
My job is to enter and print out safety reports for pieces of railway equipment. These come in two principal categories – lifting machines and lifting tackle. Two engineers ring me and ask me questions about these pieces of equipment and I fax them sheets. That’s the measure of my responsibilities. I write down notes on what I’m supposed to do, knowing that if I don’t come in next week at least the new person has something to go off. They will no doubt last about as long as me and my notes will get passed down to the next one and so on. On day one, I am already thinking about my legacy.
After about three hours of mind-numbing instruction, I venture back into the corridor, up some stairs and through a locked door which leads to another corridor. This corridor has more peeling paint and even less light. At the end of it is a kitchen of sorts; a barren room with some tables and chairs. The walls are covered with pornographic magazines and calendars of bronzed women with huge pendulous breasts. I try another door and it leads into another corner of the pornographic gallery. It all feels like I’ve stepped back in time to the seventies were political correctness didn’t exist and men were men.The next door I try is the toilet. It has not been cleaned for years, decades perhaps, but I am fascinated by the selection of hand washes available in fancy dispensers on the wall. There is Swarfega; a barrier cream; a grease dissolver and two others that I forget the names of.
When I come back Andy and Martin are talking about cleaners; in fact, Andy is talking about cleaners and Martin occasionally coughs in acknowledgement. Apparently, a woman used to come in and clean the offices and the upstairs rooms. She no longer does – it comes as no surprise. Martin picks up a business card from his desk and grunts: “Could always call Abdulllullaaaulllaaaamohamadulladulla.” He laughs. It is the only time in the eleven hours I have spent in his presence that he has put together more than three syllables. Andy comes over and picks up the card and says: “His name is Amir Mahmood. You telling me if you rang up and asked for Abdulllullaaaulllaaaamohamdulladulla, you’d speak to him.” Martin thinks for a minute then says, “Maybe his brother.” I have got no chance of communicating with these men, not today, not ever. What am I supposed to do? Where are the other hopeless arts graduates to share my misery, my disbelief at where we all ended up?
The guy whose job I’m taking explains: “It’s old school. You know what I mean. Old school. The only way I’ve survived is by imagining that these men are characters in a Vic and Bob sketch. Oh and doing the death run at least twice a day.”
The death run? I wonder what this is with the deadened half-dread that I have been feeling ever since I arrived in this railway siding. It is not long before I find out. In order to get to Sainsbury’s, a beacon of the modern age, a reminder that we’ve not gone back in time you have to cross two roads on blind corners and then a dual carriageway. The first time I attempt it, I understand instantly why it’s called the death run. A Fiat almost flattens me. The whole process does succeed in making me feel alive though. Despite my soul feeling suitably destroyed by the casual racism and tedium that stretches before me like a prison sentence, I am thankfully alive.
For more tales of temporary work check out this piece on searching for jobs.