Peggy longs to be elsewhere. Today, even Charmaine, her WorkSolutions adviser, seems bored. Or if not bored then fatalistic: she’s picking at her earlobes and examining the flakes of skin on the tip of her finger.
They are meeting not at Charmaine’s offices, but at the neutral territory of West Herts College, because the WorkSolutions Programme is all about important concepts like Approachability and Inclusion. They probably have questionnaires measuring this sort of thing. And targets to accompany the questionnaires. But in West Herts College foyer, where she’s shielded from the summer elements by a mirthless structure of glass and painted metal, Peggy is confronted not by inclusive approachability but a series of Papier–mâché sculptures, the summer output of this year’s art graduates. The lumpen forms are made of squelched newspaper articles. These beige bodies unsettle her: almost human but not quite. This is exactly how Peggy feels, on sick leave for the past two years: squelched news, almost human but not quite.
Charmaine now seems focused on repeatedly shoving a tube of Vics Sinex up alternate nostrils and squeezing hard.
“Well,” sighs Charmaine, “there’s a role available at the Palace Theatre. Envelope stuffing, putting on labels, stamps. You could manage that, couldn’t you? Decent employer, the Palace. Arty folk. Maybe a job at the end of it?”
“At the end of it?” asks Peggy.
“It’s an unpaid position.”
“Wait – I’m obliged to take voluntary work now?”
“Think of it as more of an internship.”
“Of course. Am I obliged to take it?”
“Well, then, no.”
Charmaine scribbles in her notebook. She is minuting the conversation; from this will emerge one of her annotated spreadsheets. Every actionable task will be dated, sorted for priority, forwarded for Peggy’s attention.
Charmaine’s follow-up emails are the primary evidence of her commitment. They panic Peggy with their quantity, speed and accuracy. For the past five months on the WorkSolutions Programme, a backlog of numbered tasks has been hammering at Peggy’s head. Charmaine, once a former WorkSolutions client, wangled a job on the Programme when all other opportunities failed. It seems, at the moment of accepting this offer, she shed every vestige of empathy she felt towards the marginalised and dispossessed. Such is the glorious calling of bureaucracy.
Peggy takes a long breath and settles herself into the comfort of drawing a blank. Facing Charmaine’s meaningless, boomerang smiles requires increasing effort.
Charmaine leans in, conspiratorially. “Look, I haven’t told anyone else yet,” she says, “but there might be a job coming up at WorkSolutions next week. Entry level administrator. Play your cards right, and – ”
But Peggy has stopped listening. Soon she will be at home, stretching out on the carpet, waves of relief running up her strained spine. Today has been a successful failure. Inside a glitched system, failures are much simpler to embrace. Already she can feel the great artificer begin to slap the cold, damp mulch of yesterday’s Times and Daily Telegraph around her aching body.
Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 Saboteur Award for Best Novella.
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