My appointment was at 9.10am. The JobCentre is only a couple of minutes’ walk from my home, but I arrived at 8.55am to make sure I wouldn’t be late.
As the Centre opens at 9am, there was a small queue of people clutching their grey “sign-on books” at the front door.
The sight of the local jobseekers made me shudder. Gathered in a small mass like that, they were like a visual representation of the common people’s mood in the current economy (something like the images in the poster below).
This is the one day I become a character in a Charles Dickens’ novel.
Long-term unemployment is a slow-killing cancer on the spirit – and it shows on how you look. You stop caring what time you get up, what time you go to bed, what you wear for the day. You are not going anywhere or see anyone, why bother?
I just hoped I didn’t look as dreary as some of them did. I had pledged myself I would stay upbeat this time and have a positive attitude throughout. I made a mental check that I had washed my hair and put some lipstick on before I left home.
At 9 o’clock doors opened and the small crowd of six or seven people streamed in. T., who always stands at reception, was directing each one to the first floor. When my turn came, I put on the most friendly smile I could muster and said to T. I had a 9.10am.
His response stunned me: “Is it sign on?” He rolled his eyes and shifted on his feet. ” Could you NOT queue at 9.00am please?”
T.: “Because it’s busy and I’ve got to get these people through first; people coming at 9 get in the way. So could you go back out and come back later?”
It was cold and drizzly outside. I wasn’t going to literally leave the premises, so I stepped aside and hung around behind T., trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, not understanding why I felt I had to be inconspicuous.
There was an empty sofa behind T., but he had not told me to take a seat. I didn’t want to risk another telling-off.
T. shepherded the last of the 9 o’clockers upstairs, then turned to me again and said he was sorry but I really should not come at 9 o’clock. Had he not finished ranting yet? My emotions swung back and forth from shock to sadness, from outrage to compassion.
Yes, compassion. Had T. had a bad morning? Had one of his colleagues been taken ill and he had to do their job today? Had his wife left him? Was he having PMT? I don’t mean to sound sexist, but his behaviour reminded him of when we ladies are having hormonally challenging days.
Attending the JobCentre feels like a prisoner on bail having to report to the police at fixed days and times. Not that I have ever been in prison, but unemployment is, at any rate, a lonely cage of despair. Why a modicum of respect and dignity cannot be spared to jobseekers is beyond my powers of human comprehension.
T. suggested I go do a job search on the JobCentre’s job-search machine “for five minutes”. I was obviously still in his way. Obediently, I walked to the job machine and clicked on “Local Jobs” trying to ignore the fact that “Avon lady”, “Sales assistant – energy” and “Judo teacher” were not exactly my cuppa tea.
At 9.10am, I was finally waved upstairs to go see my adviser. This was my first sign-0n day this “season”. I said good morning to the adviser with my professional saleswoman smile on and proudly handed in my grey book, in which I had listed the six actions I had taken in the past fortnight to find a job, including one interview.
I am not sure if any of the information on the book gets entered anywhere but the motions are the same with every jobseeker. This is how it usually goes (every fortnight):
Adviser: “Let’s see if we can find you a job. Is it still publisher, sales manager and journalist you are looking for?
Me (Hmm. Publisher is the place I want to work at, not the profession but never mind): “Yes. [smile]”
A: “How far are you willing to travel? I don’t think there will be anything for you in this area.”
A.: “No, there’s nothing in Sussex…and there’s nothing in London either. Any questions?”
A.: “See you in two weeks.”
On the way out, I smiled and said good bye to the security guard but tried not to make eye contact with T.
I had exhausted my smiling quota for the day.