I have had a proper job, and for about three weeks. I was seventeen at the time and thereafter I’ve ever since been doing one thing or another to do with games, such that even when I was ligging about being thin and pretty I still worked when I was not working. But back then and this the 80s, I was a civil servant.
It was in the suburbs and not having anywhere to live or a job to change that (being seventeen I had little recourse to benefits) I was offered a room from a new friend who was himself moving out. I wandered to the Unemployment Office to check out the wall of woe. I took a few cards to the desk, where they asked me to wait. A terribly busy lady appeared to ask me a few questions that I forget but were probably along the lines of ‘do you like dogs’ and ‘if you must masturbate can you manage it quietly’, and an hour later I was employed by the DHSS. The same day I was offered cheaper accommodation than that thereabouts. A good day one might think.
But the journey from the one to the other required going from one suburb into London, then out again. The two, home and work, were not all that far apart but busses did not marry up and there is still to this day no ring-railway about the capital. Should be too. But I’ve never been a fellow to stay in his bed, so I was never late, though it was three days before anyone knew what to do with me. Indeed and apart from a little light filing I was mostly left to sit about reading The Warhound And The World’s Pain whilst about me middle-aged people smoked. I did not have a desk and no one was too sure who I was. They didn’t like to ask and I didn’t want to look the fool. For all I knew I was there until someone retired or dropped dead, there to hasten it a little like those coin-shoves you might still get in some seaside arcades. It was only towards the end of the week when a youth a few years older than I in the sort of suit that usually sees its first use up before the Magistrate decided that I was his replacement.
He was leaving, and on Friday.
This was before computers, in the sense of being widely used. Back then and every claimant had a cardboard envelope with a bit of paper that they signed. Then each was conveyed to this young man’s office – my office I supposed then. Kept there was a machine of cogs and hammers, with great keys to be depressed and which sent out the numbers of those who had signed on that day. It was all done in code, and there were replies on ticker tape. It was stunningly complicated and no less so because this young man couldn’t be arsed to explain it. So we sat through Thursday drinking tea and on Friday he didn’t come in at all.
And by Wednesday the week following I’m still sitting there when someone comes to find me.
“Good God,” he said. He was important in a flustered sort of way. He was also in a hurry. He called me ‘Bill’ I remember. He wanted to know why none of the important ticker-tape messages had been sent off along the wire. Presumably to an office block in Whitehall in the 1920s. I explained, he panicked and spent an hour pushing levers and clearly not understanding anything himself.
I was moved to interviewing people for them to sign on, or because they hadn’t, or just because. I think I was meant to find ways to stop their benefits only and again no one told me. So generally we would chat for a little while. Some big boozy brickie to a shitty little seventeen year old with too much hair. Mostly we’d find out what else could be claimed for. Which at the time was quite a lot. Bedding allowance I recall most clearly. Come the third week and no one came to my office door at all, not for all of Monday when I mostly read The Final Programme. Tuesday and I coming back from lunch and an old couple I had never seen before were having rather horrid, grunty sex behind my locked filing cabinet. I did not have the key, as an aside. It did not conceal them and it all sounded very unpleasant, desperate, sort of old. I gave them half an hour, returning to find only a single Argyle sock to show they had ever been there at all.
With nothing to do I took to visiting the common room more and more. In which therein was always Trevor Eve in his role as the detective Eddie Shoestring. Clearly on an important case he would be sat there, knees apart and shirt untucked, reading the paper. I was found there by Mr. Flustered before the end of the week, who asked who we both were? Shoestring ignored him. I sort of just stopped going in after that and a bit later they sort of stopped paying me.
So don’t tell me it’s been a hard day at the office.
And I won’t tell your wife where you left your sock.