Trying to find lots of things not to do

For many years I worked in a solicitors’ office. Mostly we were worked off our feet but every now and then for some reason the work supply dried up and we got pretty bored. One afternoon my colleague Madeleine, employing a perfectly-shaped fingernail for the purpose, prised off all the keys from her word-processor and placed them neatly in the lid of a typing-paper box. Firstly she turned the keyboard upside down to shake out the cake crumbs (she was a great one for cake) dust, paperclips and those little white dotty hole-punchings. Not satisfied with the results she began to bang it loudly on the desk. The rest of us watched her, fascinated. I think at this point she must have had an inkling that what she was doing might be a bit obsessive, somehow, but couldn’t quite stop. Next she took out her special soft keyboard-cleaning brush and cleaned all up and down those little aisles between the letters. Not satisfied, she bent over the little aisles and gently blew to get rid of the last remaining specks of dust. Then, frowning slightly, she reached into the typing-paper box lid for the first of the letters. No way could she remember where the letters went on all those naked pegs, and we could all see her problem, but nobody remarked on it. Madeleine rose in dignified silence, walked over to the spare desk and unplugged the keyboard from that computer. Nice one! Using the borrowed keyboard as a pattern she began to try to press the nice clean keys back onto the nice clean keyboard. Half an hour later she picked up the phone and summoned our computer engineer. She was in need, she said, of a little assistance. If he wasn’t too busy. When he had a moment.

Boredom and I don’t mix – I get evil inside. But I used to hide the inside evilness as best I could. I would tidy out my desk drawer, sharpen all the pencils and make the elastic bands (the place ran on elastic bands) into a kind of ball. If there was a draught I would wind my pink scarf around my ankles to keep them warm, half hoping I would forget about it when I next stood up. I once made a lengthy instruction leaflet for the office typewriter, which we kept for doing labels. Sometimes I would pick up a file and walk around with it. We all did this. You could spend a good half an hour, walking around. The trick was to pause if you saw a Partner coming down the corridor, open the file and start perusing, whilst still walking, picking up speed even, thus indicating that you were so overburdened with work that you were working even in transit.

At another solicitor’s office, the Partner I worked for went off sick, long-term. He was a horrible man and I did not miss him, though regretting, in a formal way, that he was unwell. There was nothing for me to do, or at least nothing I understood to do. Commercial conveyancing wasn’t my strong point. Simultaneously, recession struck in full force and I sensed that, having been Last In, I was destined to be First Out. I had never been made redundant before. I was on my own, with bills, a mortgage and innumerable cats. I believe I was more frightened during those few weeks than I have ever been in my life, and the business of looking busy took on a suicidal intensity.

They gave me a task. It was Checking The Wills. There was this stack of long trays full of handwritten white cards, each of which had details of somebody’s Will on it. The cards were ancient, dog-eared and mainly unreadable. And you know when you get those phantom alphabetical sequences? Someone puts one card in wrong and then a whole alphabet-within-an-alphabet comes into being. There were lots of those. For each small batch of will-cards I had to remove a key from a hook, go down a spiral staircase, cross a damp yard, unlock an outbuilding and find the corresponding will files. The will-files were also full of phantom alphabetical sequences. They were also very heavy. When I had found them I had to bring them out, lock the outbuilding, re-cross the damp yard, ascend the spiral staircase, return the key to the hook and sit checking files against cards, making sure the details were all correct. They mostly weren’t. I did that for weeks and weeks. Nobody was talking to me by this time – a kind of muffled silence fell whenever I entered the room.

One lunch hour I walked down the High Street and into the local care agency and asked if they could offer work to someone like me, should the worst happen. I spent one whole weekend shadowing an experienced carer, from eight in the morning till eight at night. I saw some things in those two days that I never ever want to see again. Redundancy/pennilessness followed shortly and was actually the more bearable scenario. I never did complete the Checking of the Wills.

Eventually, after a four-week temp assignment with the National Health (entering data from surveys completed by midwives onto a computer and not being allowed to use any of the mugs in the kitchen cupboard because those were Staff mugs) followed by a spell of sitting about on those blue plush, backless squares at the Job Centre, having forms completed on my behalf by people who could actually write, and being asked if I had filled in my Job-Seeking Diary for this week, I spotted a large advert on the back page of the free newspaper: Telephone Interviewers Wanted. I applied and got the job – as everyone actually did, if sentient. I adapted myself to a new culture and a new dress-code, something I had never heard of, smart-casual. In fact it was more casual than smart – fairy-wings, ripped jeans, teddy-bear onesies, hippie tie-dye, men wearing skirts, wellington boots and dangly earrings – anything went.

Also a new species of boredom. In between my ninety-second and ninety-third repetitions of the same script I would attempt to learn a few more lines of one of the photocopied poems I had smuggled in in the back of my notebook. I would write secret messages to myself in Teeline. I would amuse myself with complex calculations involving the hourly rate on the National Minimum Wage, minus twenty-minutes unpaid, the cost per mile of petrol, tax at 25% deducted – and give up, confused. Was I actually making any money, overall? How many hours per week were optimum, on a zero-hours contract? I would fold a sheet from that notebook in half and then carefully along each ruled feint line to make a concertina. Then I would turn the concertina around and re-fold the folds in the opposite direction, then I would draw a pattern on some of the folds and not others. I would draw biro flowers, always the same design, a centre, five leaves, a stalk, two leaves…

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