Job Central: in which Alex asks for help and is punished.
From the crossing point at the bottom of the bridge you can gaze left along the glittering punt-strewn river towards the colleges, ancient and modern, or turn to your right to Peter’s Green with its tennis courts, green playing fields and towering horse chestnut trees. Unless circumstances say otherwise, there is no need to look over the bridge to where Job Central is conveniently shielded by a high bank topped with fences and thick bushes. This is a good thing, as Job Central is one of the ugliest buildings in the city.
It’s an imposing five-storey rectangular building with small windows. There is a sullen greyness to its exterior, and the elaborate frontage, a series of ramps and sharp concrete steps, is confusing and, for the less mobile, potentially dangerous. As Chris guides Alex carefully into the building her sight dims; her addled rod and cone cells, unable to process light properly, cannot cope with a sudden change from sun to shade. Back come the teasing shifting shadows through which she can just make out another cat’s cradle of ropes criss-crossing the lobby and a couple of small signs she can’t read. Chris can’t read either, and although there are several people in the various queues watching Alex, no one says a word. She can make out people’s outlines but not faces, and scans around until she happens upon what she presumes, by the cracking radio and stance, is a bored security guard.
‘Which queue, mate?’ she asks.
She waits for a response. After a couple of moments she realises he is pointing.
‘Err...’ she also points, at Chris in his guide dog harness. ‘I’m visually impaired. Pointing is not going to work. You need to use your voice or actually guide me.’
‘Yeah?’ His voice is slow and suspicious. ‘Well, you don’t look visually impaired... and you saw me.’
‘And you don’t look learning-impaired,’ says Alex. ‘But how would we know?’
‘No need to take that attitude,’ he grunts sullenly, yanking her elbow and pulling. She refrains from saying that he also reeks of something ghastly that he probably believes passes as aftershave. Only a man with a job already would be wearing aftershave in here. He hovers while Alex’s handbag is screened for weapons and then shunts her along into the main hall.
‘Thanks,’ she says, breathing shallowly. ‘The dog will take it from here.’
As this is an age of reason and enlightenment, Job Central’s main hall has been redesigned to encourage and excite the jobless. A large blue and orange banner proclaims ‘Technical Outcomes for Social Advancement (TOSA) welcomes you to your new career!’ Gone are the wipe-down linoleum floors, the booths with the stab-proof glass and the prison visiting room decor. Now the hall is rampant with fuzzy orange, the carpets, the lighting and even the Vivaldi being softly excreted from invisible speakers give off a buzzy greeny-yellow kind of effervescence. Alex heard a rumour the colour has been tested on monkeys, but isn’t sure of why or what the outcome was. There is a slight acrid smell too. It reminds her of the powdery mould on lemons left too long in the fruit bowl.
The hall is circled by semi-partitioned booths, all quite open-plan, so you can listen to your neighbour being told that his child benefit is being axed, or that their CV won’t get them into marketing unless they would consider an actual stall in an actual market. And even then they would probably need a maths qualification.
The thick carpet absorbs sound as small groups of people cluster around the electronic exhibition boards advertising jobs and courses. On every desk and table, and in racks hanging from every space along the walls are endless leaflets all showing happy, helpful, smiling Job Central staff and radiant, relieved, excited job applicants.
Chris guides Alex to their usual seat. On the seat to her left a young woman is sobbing quietly into her hands. Ignoring her, another woman chews gum, snapping it loudly and waggling a deadly-heeled shoe from one foot. A pram is parked between them with a quietly mewling baby. Several men in long green parkas trail the smell of onions and old beer as they circle the seats, as if playing musical chairs.
Alex is early for her appointment and could sit over in the cordoned off ‘crip’ area if she wanted. It has better lighting, blue seats and more space. Annoyingly, however, the ‘blue corner’ is currently the haunt of Joanna Honey.
Joanna is there now. Alex glances over, peering down her keyhole of clear sight and can make out her skinny, sway-backed shadow flitting from empty seat to empty seat. Any closer and they would be able to hear her muttering to herself, crying, asking for her mother.
Actually it was Joanna’s poor old mum who stuck her there in the first place. She does so every morning, on the dot of 8am. If the situation wasn’t so fucking tragic it would be a laugh line on social media sites. ‘Look how Mrs Honey Senior solved her social care problem! #systempranklol’ or something similarly perky.
But in reality it is just more dark shit. Joanna Honey is in her late forties and has severe mental health issues, epilepsy and a tendency to scream and then vomit when she gets anxious. Under the new welfare reforms she has been assessed as ‘fit for work’ and her disability benefit axed. As a consequence of Joanna’s new status, her mother’s Carer’s Allowance has been withdrawn, which means her mother, after 47 years of caring full time for Joanna, has had to find paid work, which she has done, part time for a local cleaning company. Only there is no money for a carer for Joanna and anyway, Joanna is supposed to be ‘actively seeking employment’. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone that Joanna has the mental age of a seven-year-old and is terrified of being out of her bedroom. No one cares.
So what does the feisty Mrs Honey do? She makes the very sensible decision to drop Joanna off at Job Central every day, and let them look after her.
Alex knows all this because she had been sitting in that very blue ‘crip’ area waiting for an interview when Mrs Honey had first brought Joanna in.
‘You can’t leave her here!’ The staff had jumped up and down, wringing their hands, calling for backup.
‘You said she should be actively looking for work.’ Mrs Honey Senior had waved the brown envelope like a freakin’ lottery ticket, her eyes flashing. ‘So here she is “actively looking for work”. She is your responsibility now.’ At this point Joanna had begun screaming.
‘I have to go,’ said Mrs Honey over the din, handing a bag of adult nappies and wet wipes to the trembling Job Central Liaison Manager. ‘I’ll be back at lunchtime.’ And she had scarpered just before Joanna had begun throwing up – and, oh hell, can Joanna project her vomit! It was the most elegant revenge Alex had ever seen.
Only it isn’t funny anymore. Every morning Joanna’s mother drops her off on her way to work. Distraught Joanna is left alone, rocking back and forth on a plastic chair, clutching a little bag with her plastic bottle of apple juice and a couple of flapjacks. After a few minutes Joanna stops keening, and the staff relax and move back to their desks. Only Joanna is stick-thin now and in a constant state of terror and misery.
Her mother isn’t faring any better. When Alex first saw her waving that envelope she was magnificent, a tower of passion and righteous fury. Now she is an exhausted shuffler. A head bowed, back bowed, shuffler. After five hours on her hands and knees cleaning toilets in the university colleges, Mrs Honey Senior picks up her gibbering daughter, who now needs double the care and reassurance, and there is still not enough money to feed them both properly.
Alex had written an article about it, but her editor had axed it at the last minute to go with a story about a local paedophile getting beaten up.
Today Alex has a new Motivation and Empowerment Officer (MEO). She is small and plump with a pink face and looks rather sweet, although clearly anxious. She reminds Alex of a white mouse released into its first laboratory maze.
‘Good Morning. My name’s Lucy,’ she says and leans over the desk to proffer a hand. ‘How are–’ Before she completes that sentence she freezes. Already, in her first twenty seconds she realises she has committed two grave mistakes. One, she has offered to shake Alex’s hand. Two, and worse even than that, she has almost asked the client how they are. No, no, no! This is entirely outside of TOSA protocol when dealing with crips. NEVER make physical contact, and NEVER ask them how they are! Apparently this implies interest in the health of the crip client, which could lead to what they call ‘negative empathic stereotyping’. Crips by definition have health problems. TOSA does not believe in allowing anyone to dwell on this aspect of the client. Including the client. Positivity is key for the work-shy.
Lucy is still frozen.
‘Hi, Lucy. Nice to meet you.’ Alex, amused, pretends she hasn’t noticed Lucy’s extended hand and sits. Lucy glances over her shoulder in case her faux pas has been noticed by her supervisor. It hasn’t. She is lucky. She plonks back into her seat and picks up Alex’s file.
‘Alexandra? Alex? Yes, well, what can I do for you today? According to our records you have a placement already. It says here you saw my colleague Ismail three months ago?’
Ismail, the previous incumbent, had been a delightful and ineffective man who laughed an awful lot and shook his head in a weary ‘haven’t we seen it all now’ kind of way. He had organised Alex her current part time placement at the local newspaper. For this, TOSA had received a large wad of cash from the government. If Alex stays in the job for over six months they will get another large pay-out.
‘Is there a problem?’ Lucy is rummaging through Alex’s file.
‘The thing is, Lucy, it is a part-time placement.’ Alex leans in talking low, as if Lucy is a good friend at a bar. ‘I am, therefore, still not actually in paid employment. Having previously had actual paid work, I feel I could do a great deal better.’
‘Is there a problem?’
Lucy’s supervisor has crept up behind her like Nosferatu, only with a clipboard. He doesn’t introduce himself but leans over Lucy and picks up Alex’s file.
‘I am sorry,’ Alex says, although she isn’t. She is irritated. ‘You are reading my file, so you obviously know who I am, but you? You are…?’
He is wearing gold-rimmed spectacles purely so he can glare at people over the top of them. He does so now at Alex.
‘My name is Mr Timms, and I am Lucy’s supervisor. I see your file is marked with a silver star. That is excellent. We have already been able to place you in work.’
Alex sighs. ‘Mr Timms. Lucy. I am in “a placement”, i.e. a temporary part time experience. I did this kind of thing in my sixth form at school. As people who actually work in an employment office, you must be aware that a placement is not a job. It does not actually pay.’
Mr Timms is looking at Alex’s CV. She has a lot of qualifications, and this seems to annoy him.
‘It says here you had a job with BBC Voyager, embedded with the troops in spite of your err...?’ He waves vaguely at Alex’s face. His tone is suspicious.
She doesn’t respond.
‘And Channel Fourteen Films... goodness, all very glamorous.’
‘Not really,’ she mumbles, although it had been.
‘And now a much sought after placement with the Cambright Sun.’
‘Yes, all this I know already,’ she says. His eyes flicker up over his glasses again. It’s like being poked with a stick.
‘Are we going to be having trouble with you, Alex?’
‘It’s Ms Lyon actually, Mr Timms. I am Alex to my friends. And one of the main problems with the placement is that, because it is part time, the Cambright Sun is not in any way obligated to help me with assistive technology. I am unable to use the office computers, and so am having to work additional hours, using printers and magnification, from home. So not only is it NOT an actual paid job, but I have to spend additional personal money which I do not have to stay in the placement. It doesn’t make any sense.’ Alex’s voice is getting a little squeaky. It’s not a good sign. Chris rests his muzzle supportively on her knee.
‘Have you applied for the Work Learner’s Access?’
‘That only applies for people under 25,’ she says glaring, as you well know.
‘The TOSA Empowerment Fund?’
‘That is £25 a month. And if I am on that I will no longer be eligible for my single room supplemental tax.’
‘Yes, but every little helps. I don’t think rejecting help in your situation is sensible, is it?’
Alex’s heart skitters slightly. She knows from bitter experience that rejecting anything TOSA may offer, no matter how ridiculous, will end up in sanctions against other entitlements. She may now have to fill in several more intrusive and upsetting forms and probably go through yet another so called ‘medical’ in order to receive £25 a month, which she can’t afford to have because she will then lose her £30 single room supplement. She rubs Chris’s ears, which are soft and silky. She concentrates on them for a moment.
Mr Timms leans closer over Lucy. Alex doesn’t like the way his hand is on her shoulder. A wee bit too close to the top of her breast, she thinks. She can smell his stale tea breath.
‘As you are so well connected in the industry, then perhaps you feel you would like to leave our programme and utilise your own contacts?’ His eyes up close are pale blue with a pinky hint of conjunctivitis. He has her file. He knows she cannot go back to her previous workplace. No TV crew is going to take on a blind journalist. He takes pleasure in watching her squirm.
Interesting how some people get off on their little bit of power, thinks Alex. They may never have met you, know nothing about you, but they will always resort to the Chinese burn, to the pinch, the scratch, the kick in the goolies. I am meeting so many of them these days.
‘I would advise you to stay in your current position, and we will send out the forms for the TOSA Empowerment Fund. I will also then need you to sign a consent form for our medical team to call on you, as and when they have a free booking in their schedule.’
Alex is trapped. She tries once more, ignoring Mr Timms and imploring little Lucy.
‘Lucy, could you just check if there are any jobs going in PR or Communications... perhaps even some teaching I can–’
Timms cuts in. ‘Ismail went over that with you. You do not have teaching qualifications and with your…’ here he pauses, ‘“condition” and the current benefits you are on, I am afraid it would not be in your interests to take on any more hours. You would lose your Housing Entitlement.’
‘I know,’ Alex says, thinking about wrenching his pen from his hand and ramming it through his pink-rimmed eyes and deep into his brain. She can almost hear the crunching squelch. Then again, she realises she can also get to his brain by getting up his nose.
She breathes out and leans back.
‘Whatever you think.’ Alex smiles widely, expansively, like they are all great friends. ‘Mr Timms, I am sure Lucy will learn so much from you. You really know the system, and I just know you will do what is best for me. Thank you so much.’
It is he who flinches now, pretending he hasn’t heard Lucy’s nervous snort of laughter. He removes his hand from her warm, round and now quivering shoulder. ‘Well then. Right. I need you to sign this form.’ He plucks some paper from his clipboard.
Alex looks at it. The font is tiny and the page, to her, is a shuddery blur.
‘Do you have it in large print?’ She is still smiling as if she is in love.
Timms sighs as if Alex has asked him to loan her a month’s rent.
‘I will have to order a special provision form and pull a large print permit. In the meantime Lucy will read it to you.’
‘I would prefer to–’
Lucy is prodded. ‘By signing this form, the client agrees to the terms and conditions,’ she begins to drone, and Alex switches off, already knowing it by rote. I am not going to sign it anyway, she thinks. It would mean she had signed to having had: 1. A pleasant experience; 2. Being treated with respect and competence; and 3. Having had her current questions on work and benefits answered to her satisfaction.
Mr Timms slides away and Lucy mumbles on, after all the time slot allocation is ten minutes and she still has three to fill.
‘So if you could just sign here.’ Lucy is holding out a pen and pointing a finger at the form.
‘Oh Lucy, thanks.’ Alex gets up and pulls the form from under her hand. ‘As I said, I never sign anything that I haven’t read through myself, as you can of course understand, but I will pop it in the post later today.’
‘I don’t think we do “post” anymore.’ Lucy has become pinker. ‘Everything has to go through the central computer system. Although it has crashed today...’
‘Well then I will scan it and email it.’
‘But the form won’t have been officially approved. You will be sanctioned–’
As the form has already disappeared into Alex’s handbag and she is already standing and moving backwards, Lucy has little choice.
‘Thank you for your assistance.’
Startled, but without the steadying hand of her supervisor, Lucy can only shake her head with worry and reiterate that if Alex doesn’t send the form in, she won’t be able to activate the TOSA Empowerment Fund and could potentially be penalised.
Alex nods, although in her head she is packing a bag and heading to a far distant country to raise chickens. Fuck TOSA.