Fiction: Temporary People
By Samuel Mills
It’s a temporary job with a pharmaceutical company in Reading. A three-month contract, warm calling for eleven pounds an hour under the lofty title of Business Development Assistant. Script-clad, you urge retailers to switch their suppliers of vitamin and mineral-based food supplements to your company’s own. Sorry, we don’t stock those, they tell you. You can hardly say our records indicate otherwise. We tried your products in 2009 and had issues. Can you call again tomorrow? Call next week. Call when you want — they find a way to tell you fuck off.
It’s a temporary job because you can’t do it for long. Week one, you attack your list with the energy of a young prizefighter. Establishing your work ethic, you wonder how quickly you’ll clean up the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Wiltshire areas, evangelising the word of Goodman B Good Vitamin Chewables and Goodman Fifty Plus Food-Booster Sachets, and whether in some month's time, with an up-to-date pay package, the perk of a company car, or personal office space in one of the glass conference rooms skirting the edges of this open-plan building, itself one of several geometrical replicas within this business park in Reading’s most westerly fringe, you’ll be asked to take on regional managerial duties for the South-West, Greater London, or East Anglia?
But after one week, the internally propelled reward loop has burnt itself out following a slew of rejections; the external one, fuelled by bejargoned corporate pleasantries exchanged over coffee by your kind but compromised Northern Irish section manager, you understand, means nothing. And so you find your work ethic spiralling, as you make fewer calls each day wondering how long before you’re called into one of those glass recesses, where you’ll have to convince a pair of senior managers that your depreciating call rate represents some adjustment in the balance of quality over quantity — that is, you are making sales.
Five others are temping with you, seated at this six-pronged desk. They’re around your age. Most of them, like you, graduated last summer. Two bond over their degrees in Sports Science. Otherwise, there’s a tacitness in your introductions, overseen by a member of senior management and the head of HR, that these are rivals more than colleagues. On more than one occasion, the senior manager makes vague reference to a full-time role at the end of the temping period, and so it’s easy to slip into the mentality that the six of you, from separate recruiting agencies, are ‘having it out’ for this hypothetical position, in a £21k, elastic-tie version of The Apprentice.
But once you realise you won’t work here, couldn’t work here if you tried — once the others have come to similar conclusions that they no longer look towards the managerial section of the office for approval, but now look towards you and the others — once you have entered into conspiracy together, there becomes new goals, new targets to meet in this revised value system. Lunch breaks probe the upper limits of acceptability; toilet breaks compete in duration with lunch breaks of the first week. You share memes over the company’s mailing system. When you take your first trip together outside the office (to a McDonald’s by the ring road) the project is signed in writing. It’s now only a matter of time. You will hold tight till the end or get kicked out before: it’s a game of waiting to see how long it takes your superiors to notice and act on it when they do.
And your superiors — the Business Development Managers, or BDMs, who sit on identical six-pronged desk clusters (x2), adjacent to your Business Development Assisting area — are pleasant enough people. You get along with these men and women whose professional duties include growing business with the pharmacy chains and developing it with leads your team earns. The BDMs range in age from late thirties to mid-sixties. They are pleasant enough people and seem to acknowledge, albeit in differing ways, the inconvenient but unavoidable hierarchy of the corporate environment, and how it imbues even the simplest of exchanges. One thing they share is a collective explanation that’s almost apologetic for what they’re doing here. Like any story you hear more than once, it’s difficult to know how much to believe it. I was here, like you, for a temp job, Paul explains one Friday over coffee. Just got back from trekking the Mekong. Hair down to my knees. Wasn’t meant to stay long. Nine years later, I’m still bloody here. He cackles and sucks his vape pen as if this were a punchline, then makes his way back to his desk. They are too comfortable denouncing their spent time as wasted. If they’re joking, it’s difficult to understand why. Is this their way of apologising for the fact they earn three times as much as you for the same chunk of the day? Or is there truth to the self-deprecations? Looking around, you struggle to imagine how ten years could pass by here accidentally. No, you decide. There’s something you don’t understand yet that makes people stay in places like this, and it’s not because they haven’t noticed.
The senior managers aren’t stupid. Try as they do to appease you — to gain just a foothold into your conspiracy through remarks that place you and them on the same side of a dividing line, e.g. against head office, or specific members of staff; the corporate structure in general, or even the lacklustre quality of the products you sell, details of which you receive daily from former clients with fomenting grievances, your managers ultimately serve their place in a long line of subordinates figurehead by shareholders that represent the more abstract overseer of profit. They will cut the fat with the unflinching precision of a butcher if they need to. On this, you alternate between two mindsets: they haven’t noticed your ruse, so preoccupied they are with other areas of the business. Or, they really aren’t stupid. They know everything. They’ll cut the fat and send it back to the recruiter without a second thought. That they haven’t yet represents an insight on their part you do not possess. They know this happens. It happens to everyone in their fourth week. They are working you, moulding you, figuring you out. Why else do you think people stay here for ten years?
And they do cut the fat. You watch them do it. Your colleague Sufiyan is the only member of the team who didn’t go to university. He lives in the same town as you: where you grew up and where you’re back with your parents, commuting from each morning. Indeed, while you were completing your degree, Sufiyan was serving a two-year prison sentence. He is what HR calls a ‘wild card’ — his drug distribution charges do not automatically exclude him from the role. Sufiyan is bouncing back with a world-weariness buried in newfound openness and a hunger to make something of himself. Charismatic and well dressed, or dressed to give the impression: he’s quite a sight in his Gucci slippers and grey check River Island suit. Neck tattoos and tattoos down his arms meet a gold watch he tells you is Rolex. Sat across from him on the train, dressed in your tired outfit that borrows its trousers from Year 11, the pair of you are chalk and cheese. But it is Sufiyan who seeks something from you. His boasts of material wealth and weekend sexual conquests seem to mask a certain fragility.
But Sufiyan is on that train with decreasing regularity, running late more often than not. His confidence, the managers are saying, is starting to lapse into the unfiltered. As he becomes comfortable, he veers more frequently into the inappropriate. His ‘geezer’ patter, which draws its charm with its incongruity to himself as a British Pakistani, is starting to piss people off. There are unwritten rules in a place like this. It’s better to be on time and take a fifteen-minute coffee break than it is to arrive five minutes late and go without one. Small talk can be exchanged within desk clusters, but never cross the office floor to discuss the weekend football.
One afternoon, you and the temps are called into a conference room, where your Northern Irish manager delivers a brief, almost upbeat reminder to maintain a level of professionalism at all times whilst at work. There’ve been one or two complaints, that’s all, he says. He is almost rolling his eyes as if to say: look, I’m sorry, there are moaners in every office, you just have to play along. Later, he takes you aside to tell you his talk was in no way aimed at you, but at one person for whom there have been several complaints. The next day, on the train home, Sufiyan receives a call telling him not to come in the following morning.
Sufiyan is replaced before the week is over. The new girl, Gemma, is allotted to your desk to shadow your calls as part of her training. Gemma is someone you take a liking to instantly. The others on your team are nice enough people, but you know it’ll never amount to anything. Your conversation with them has become stiff. They are too self-conscious, too squeamish about the abnormal in a way you recognise from your own suburban adolescence, in their case, yet to be shaken off. They are nice enough people, but there’s a spark missing, which reiterates the importance of your university friends, who you plan on joining in London once you've saved some money here. Gemma reminds you of those people. She is funny, witty, and quick; she gets it, this whole place. You immediately feel less alone among your colleagues. She asks whether you’re posh because you studied at Oxford, and rips apart your rough state school cover for your otherwise middle-class upbringing, in a way that reminds you of your friends.
Settled into the desk next to you, the pair of you spend the day identifying unchecked corporatisms in each other’s speech: cold-calling cliches carried over in casual conversation; mannerisms you adopt after spending too long cosplaying as serious business people, with your hands-free headsets and cheap shoes that clip-clop on the laminate floor of the office kitchen. Gemma arrives with the same upstarting energy but rides the wave into boredom and disenfranchisement quicker than you — your negativity and, now, well-practised articulations of the situation, snuff out any beginner’s spark. The two of you go for drinks one evening. You explain your ambition of becoming a writer to her — your dreams of travelling the world and never working a proper job again. Over a few beers, you ridicule the spectacle of the office and the performance you’ve been brought into. Together, you see the ridiculousness of it all, how quickly it can turn a reasonable person ridiculous. It’s contagious. At the office, you make knowing smirks to one another when this ridiculousness comes buzzing near you or buzzing from your mouths.
There is nothing romantic going on between you, although some of the others suspect there is. Such a straightforward interpretation of your friendship confirms what you’ve come to expect of your colleagues. But Gemma is in a four-year relationship with a man she met at Brunel: an artist from Hillingdon, currently on a six-month site placement in The Wirral. She talks about him a lot. Only six months ago you ended a relationship of three years with someone you’d known since childhood. The summer and early autumn was a period of giddy euphoria where you felt free and unencumbered; as winter drew colder, the despair of regret seeped in. December almost broke you. It’s March now, and you've been here two months. This is supposed to be a gap year. You’ve talked of travelling before moving to London. Your friends are getting on building their lives without you. You’re seeing them less. Weekends in the city are a frenzy of drinking and arguing, as you turn on each other to establish new identities outside the toy town of university. You want to avoid losing another weekend to a hangover, plus, it’s no fun sleeping on other people’s floors.
Two more drop out of your team, but they’re not replaced. You are starting to believe you will see the job through to the end of the period. Your call rate has settled to a figure you’re able to maintain. You’ve become confident on the phone and find yourself adhering less to a script. You have passed the point of cringing at every bit of marketing speak you reel off, and your sales figures are beginning to rise as a backlog of business is credited to you on the system. Occasionally, your manager prints off the receipts. He leaves the sheets on your desk and catches your inquisitive looks around the office with a smile when you come back to find them.
Gemma is proving to be an even more successful caller. You joke that her voice changes when she’s on the phone. Almost as if in suspending some part of her personality, her vocal range is affected. She talks in a thick dialect of jargon and nonsense. Wry smiles and guilty glances are becoming rarer — the joke wears thin, after all. She tells you one lunchtime that she would take a full-time role if she was offered one. Sensing a light-heartedness to the remark, you tell her that’s how it happens: eight years fly by and you’re a Paul or a Brian or a Sue. What’s so wrong with that, she disarms your micro-revolutionary soapbox speech. We can’t all be writers. You can’t pretend you know everything about someone’s life after being here five minutes.
You book flights to Delhi. A week after your last day, you’re getting out of here, you tell her one evening. You’re in a bar in Reading, a street away from where she lives. Come, you ask? Bring Callum, you offer. Sounds sick, she says. I’m so jealous. No one is as encouraging as Gemma is of your plans. You still can’t decide how much she puts it on. Like her warm calling alter ego, there is a part of her that speaks fluent life coach. She doesn't automatically construe your plans as a dare against hers. There’s no sense that beneath her encouragement, she is trying to figure something out. I can’t, though, she sits back in her chair. You sip the pint in front of you. I’ve got to find a job. I’m speaking with a recruiter tomorrow, for like actual good ones. I’ve got a year on the flat. You act supportive. You didn’t expect her to say yes and, come to think of it, you wouldn’t want her to. Travelling around India is an undertaking that should be done alone. In fact, as you begin to juxtapose one another in your expectations of the upcoming months, you start to feel even better about your plans.
A few afternoons later, you and Gemma are called into one of the conference rooms, where your Northern Irish manager is waiting for you with a warm, have-I-got-good-news-for-you smile. You sit. He speaks with a hushedness that’s unnecessary in this sound-proofed fish bowl, but which gives his message an air of ‘I shouldn’t be telling you this’. Your manager puts it succinctly. There are two, maybe three upcoming openings in the BDM team. No one is getting cut, they’re simply expanding due to increased sales. Nothing official yet, but as the two highest-performing members of your team, we’d give you first dibs. Vacancies might not be open for a while, and in the meantime, you’d have to extend your temping contracts to bridge you over to official roles. Interested? No need to answer now. Keep it from the others, they may get a look in, but he wants us to know first.
You let your manager know a week later. The end of March will be the end of your time here. You have plans to travel around India, after which you’ll likely move to London. Your manager’s face is unchanging as you explain this; he genuinely considers it good news. He mentions Jim in the distribution team who spent three years in Kashmir. He says he gets it. Your final day is official. You tell others in the office. Friday the 25th. I’ll bake a cake, the head of HR promises. The others in your temp team, who in the following week sign up for extensions of their contracts, making this exclusively your leaving-do, propose drinks together that evening. Some of the BDM team catch wind of the plan and ask to join as well. The more the merrier, you tell them.
Thursday the 24th. Your penultimate day. Whatever has kept you fuelled to work these months has vanished entirely. You make your fewest calls to date. All week you’ve felt unsettled and now you’re thirsty come the end of the day. An unofficial leaving drinks, or leaving drinks eve with Gemma and a sweet, you both assume closeted boy called Ben from your team. Just the three of you, in a pub near the station. Ben had to go out of his way to join you here, and he’s not much of a drinker. You and Gemma on the other hand. What is it about after-work drinks that go down so easily? After just three pints you’re shit-faced. Is it the empty stomach they’re drunk on, or is there more to it than that? Does the sudden respite from work duties add to the thrust they give, as you make plans, after one more, to head to Gemma’s flat to pick up a wrap of cocaine?
You fumble three glasses on the kitchen counter, pouring in silly measures of vodka, and topping them up with cranberry juice you discover in the fridge. Gemma makes two big lines on her mirror. It’s your second time trying this drug. You did coke at a house party once with your ex: you remember experiencing nervous excitement, like you are now, watching Gemma crush and slice the powder with her Barclaycard; you remember a strange sensation in your teeth that wasn’t exactly numbness (when do you ever feel your teeth?), and you remember spending much of that night desiring more, but not wanting to piss off the friend who’d offered it. You make a second lame Scarface reference, watching Gemma work the cocaine on the mirror. Ben has refused a line on the condition he doesn’t refuse the vodka. He’s overly agreeable like that. He’s bad at saying what he wants and drinks his cranberry vodka diligently with a wince. You crouch down by the mirror, taking the note Gemma used to snort her line, which she did with an air of good practice. You take a big, loud snort, then a second and third to mop up the residual powder. It immediately stings the inside of your nostril, not unpleasantly, and you sit back on her sofa and sip your drink as a chaser, waiting for that mysterious feeling to kick in.
You and Gemma are fucked, but the coke provides a sort of scaffold to your looseness, propelling the tongue into a fit of talking even when the brain has given up thinking. You talk and talk, just the two of you. Ben watches from the sofa, his eyes intermittently closing, hiccuping like a cartoon drunk. You feel a cold sweat on your body as you do the second line. You feel like everything Gemma is telling you is so meaningful. She opens up about her parents; that her dad left when she was young — the challenges her mum faced raising her alone. She talks about the slow road to forgiveness — the difference between forgiveness and forgetting — how it’s relevant to her situation now, namely, her desire to achieve financial and professional security so as not to be in a position where a partner can rip out years of foundational work whenever he pleases.
You tell her she could be anything. You tell her she is clearly the best person in the company. She could be CEO or more. She has that rare gift of both technical competence and interpersonal skills. You laugh together at the words ‘interpersonal skills’, a term onomatopoeically opposed to its meaning. You have so much ahead of you, you tell her. You’ve never met anyone like her, never felt so instantly comfortable with a new person. Feels like you’ve known each other forever. She makes lots of ‘awww’ sounds at this. Seriously, you say. She says she agrees. Says she thinks you’re special for choosing a life that doesn’t place money over freedom. She thinks you’ll be a fantastic writer, because you tell such funny stories, and she knows you’ll be in touch forever. She says all this spreading out the third round of white powder onto the mirror, dividing it up with her card. And so it goes on, racketing compliments back and forth that seem to bubble up from a reserve of love you feel you rarely access these days.
And then it starts to get blurry. You haven’t kept a tab on the amount of vodka you’ve drunk. Those three lines looked big, and as you don’t really know what you’re doing, you don’t have much of a gauge on what you’ve already done. You’re fidgety. You find yourself squatting by the coffee table, bouncing on your legs, talking about something you forget halfway through. Gemma laughs telling you to calm down. She is composed. Ben has fallen asleep and you take some solace in the fact that in the morning, it can be said he was the one who passed out.
Then, before you know it, the conversation has veered down a route you weren’t expecting. You find yourself monologuing on your breakup — how last winter was the most difficult of your life. It’s as if Gemma is performing an exorcism: you trust her so much, it feels like you could tell her anything. At the same time, you want to shock her with your confessions that pour out without so much as a filter that checks if they’re true. But no worries, there’s usually more than one version of events. You made a mistake leaving your ex, you tell her. You fear you lack the cohesive headspace for love. You fluctuate too much; you’ve no idea who you’ll be in a month, no ability to preserve yourself in the long-term. You feel trapped by your impulsivity and self-doubting. You feel like you threw away the one chance you had for happiness.
And then you start crying. Gemma sits next to you. Now you feel your reaction warrants more dredging to meet an explanation on her end. You bring up a friend who died by suicide a year ago. With a shaky hand, you pull up the last texts you shared on your phone. Your sobbing gets a second wind as you read them out. You say something flippant like, if he hadn’t killed himself, he’d be alive now. It sounds profound at the time (you’ll recall saying it tomorrow with cringing embarrassment). But then words are only as profound as they make you feel, and right now, you feel like you’re apprehending what it means to lose somebody all in one go. Perched on the edge of your chair, sobbing into your hands, a stream of faces flash through your mind: aunts, uncles, grandparents — all the people you’ve loved and who left you. You can’t get your head around the fact that people peel away for such a horrible eternity. For a while you’re outside the room, suspended in the space of your thoughts, until, slowly, you return to your body in its chair, to Gemma’s arm around your shoulder, to one more line and a top-up of drinks, before the rest of the night is gone.
You wake early before the 7 am alarm on your phone has had time to go off. It takes you a few seconds, checking the room, to remember where you are. There’s a blanket pulled over you, and you’re still wearing your office clothes. Ben is on the sofa, horizontal: he has managed to sleep without a cover. You, on the floor, a stack of hoodies and jumpers beneath you, which you loosely remember assembling last night for a mattress, have slept dreadfully with one. Your head is pulsating. Your mouth is dry and you need the loo. You stand up and take stock of the flat, registering the drug paraphernalia on the coffee table, the glasses, and empty vodka bottle; the crushed carton of cranberry juice.
It’s another half an hour before Gemma wakes up. She stumbles out of her bedroom in a dressing gown, bee-lining for the toilet. You decide to withhold your morning’s greeting. You don’t want to look overly keen to confirm the ‘all goodness’ of your badly recalled night. You have some memory of the end — you remember going to bed, so that’s a good thing. Mostly, it was sitting here talking. But save for a few general topics, you have no clue how you managed to fill six hours just by chatting.
Gemma laughs as she enters the living room. Ben is stirring on the sofa. Fuck, I’m so hungover, she says, taking in the state of her flat, which you’ve already made some progress in tidying. Urgh, I’m going to shower, she says. There’s nothing in her tone to suggest last night was an abnormality. Indeed, you wonder what other way it could go? You drank and talked and did lines of coke. You talked a lot of shit, but isn’t that what it’s for? If you wanted a proper conversation, you'd have made coffee.
It’s Friday, the 25th, your last day on the job. You remember this as Gemma makes coffee for the three of you. Ben seems refreshed after his long sleep. The last thing he remembers is you and Gemma arguing how gin is made. I was fucked, you announce. You were, Gemma laughs. You’re testing the water. What was I saying? You feel a horrid self-consciousness blotting the physical malaise you’ve experienced since waking. Over-sharing — you hate it. You said too much. You were really sweet, says Gemma. You were so sweet last night. I feel like I was chatting shit, you tell her, sipping the coffee she pours into your cup. I was chatting so much shit, she tells you. You were very sweet. Can’t really remember the end, you say. Ha, she laughs. You were desperate to find somewhere to play snooker. I kept telling you, it’s Reading and everything’s shut at 12, and, plus, there’s nowhere to play snooker.
The three of you walk to the bus stop together, huddled in spring jackets that are caught short by a step back in the weather. You are reassured that this bruised feeling of self-consciousness does not relate directly to your night. Instead, the night provided you with a means to connect with how you’ve been feeling all along, and now you’re processing that. It’s okay, you tell yourself. But you are unable to shake it quickly, and plus, you still feel dreadful; the headache is yet to subside even with the introduction of paracetamol into your system. You feel dehydrated and anxious. The initial comradery of breakfast, the residual blood alcohol that has kept the party going this morning, has now given way, as you wait together on this cold March morning for your bus. You see this reflected in the others. Gemma looks years older; pinched, tired, unwilling. You remember this isn’t her last day; she has no plans to travel to India next week.
I’m going home, you blurt out. They think you’re joking. No, seriously, you say. I actually can’t. I need to go home and sleep. I feel like shit. Are you actually being serious, Gemma asks with a shift in demeanour you’re unfamiliar with. She seems angry. Seriously, I think I’m going to throw up or have a panic attack or something. A while of this; the more you argue it, the more you’re sure. It’s your last day you idiot, says Gemma. Sue’s made a fucking cake. We’re meant to go for drinks later. If I drink anything later, I’ll throw up, you say. At the end of the street, working its way through the traffic, is your bus. I really can’t. Gemma softens slightly. Right, she says, finding her ticket, tucked behind the familiar Barclaycard. Well, Brian is going to cry. You’ll never see them again. Couldn’t care less, you lie. Truth is, you’d love to pop by next Monday and do the whole thing then. You’ll miss them in a weird way that you’re only just realising now. Not an option, you understand. Your company swipe card will expire this evening — it would be trespass. Say I’m so sorry. Say I was feeling really unwell. I’ll write to them. Sorry, sorry, you wave as she and Ben board the bus. I will see you both really soon though.
Samuel Mills is a writer from London. His short stories have been published in numerous places online and he is currently finishing up his first novel, Poacher's Priest. He works as an SEMH tutor.