It has been four days since I spoke, in person, to another human being. Unless I pop to the shop or pass a dog-walker I’m unlikely to do so for the rest of the week. Unemployment is a journey you feel you’re taking alone.
Chaplin is well aware of this and has taken to sleeping with his paws over his ears or looking at me intently whenever I speak to him which, I like to think, is him feigning interest for his old friend.
I remind myself constantly that I am one of 2.5 million and there are many of us who have lost our jobs, others are losing their homes. Recent research, however, highlights the benefits of interaction: they don’t mean laughing at House or worrying about the state of Steve McDonald’s relationships.
I wonder, though, if being a hack has given me skin thick enough to not feel lonely and a brain quick enough to keep it entertained: I’d certainly like to think so.
Working in district offices can be a lonely business if you let it. My first district office was colder than my flat will be in the mini Ice Age. It was difficult to see outside to the chemist car park through the grimy windows: I don’t think I ever saw a window cleaner in the five years I worked there. The desk was worn, bits of plastic topping sticking up waiting to rip your best going-to-court clothes. As soon as my colleague went on holiday I would be alone, their patch covered at head office; I’d resent them enormously if they decided on an over-indulgent two-week break.
I used to sing at the top of my voice; pop downstairs to the front office to talk to the women who sold classified ads; put in far more calls to contacts than I would any other week and even be eager to conduct vox pops.
The arrival of someone on work experience could break up the monotony but brought its own problems. I remember taking one young hack on a lazy vox pop: this is when you organise it at a school, with an education topic, so you don’t have to wander the local market in the rain listening to stall holders shout “you’re not doing me again.”
We arrived at the school in time for lunch break. This time six pupils hadn’t been selected to represent the school properly, we were left to ask pupils walking about whether they felt they should have fewer school holidays. I doubt that would happen now.
So, me and the work experience lad wander into the playground, reeling from the screams and thud of shoes that define a girls’ school at break time. I knew the work ex needed to learn from this experience so handed him the camera, the notepad and my pen and told him to get on with it. Of course, this was not laziness on my part but all part of his essential training.
“Could I, perhaps, ask you a question, perhaps?” he looked up, asking a very tall 13-year-old.
She looked back, a bit confused, then guffawed. I imagine it is how an elk would look if it found something really funny and could laugh at it, just before eating it. Her laughter was infectious and the group of girls that had gathered around all collapsed in hysterics.
This was an inner city school and the work ex was a bit posh and very shy. I should’ve stepped in, taken over, but I didn’t have time as he threw the camera at me and ran from the school. I found him later at the car, still shell-shocked by the cruelty of teenage girls.
I’m not without friends but now feel overwhelmed quickly in company as he did by the loud, garish teenage girls. A visit means looking more carefully at my living room, as an outsider might see it, before tidying up the throws, cups and cat toys. It means making an effort to have a conversation and ask them about work when they will, inevitably and justifiably, grumble, leaving me with little response. It means hiding the moments of panic in bars, when you’re confused by the chatter and noise, blinded by the bright lights, wondering why you can’t lie down and reach for the remote control.
It has made me think about former colleagues: the one who had stinky lunches, the one who talked too loudly on the phone, the grumpy one, the one who insisted on sharing the intimate details of their life: I wonder if I will be able to tolerate them more or less when I finally return to work.
Until I’m back in work I will try to see myself like Chaplin: I’m independent, not isolated.
How many jobs I applied for last week: 4
How much money I have: Zero pence until tomorrow when I get my benefits
What I need money for: A halogen heater, which I hope to be able to purchase before the mini Ice Age by cutting back on food
What I’m waiting for: A letter from my MP regarding my complaint about extortionate gas meter surcharges with NPower