Let me tell you a story, Listener. A story of fear.
Yesterday I walked into my local coffee shop. I glanced at the menu board and made my decision. There was a young girl standing behind the counter. We looked at each other.
I realised I was looking into the face of fear.
The girl had TRAINEE BARISTA emblazoned on her shirt.
Ordering coffee from her felt a bit like this:
She handled the milk jug like it contained a human heart, poured the milk into my cup as though it were the pureed remains of Christ himself, and when she spilt the tiniest globule onto the counter, looked at me as though I was going to club her to death with a raisin whirl and whispered ‘I’m so sorry – it’s my first day’, I wanted to hug her.
Because, most adored Listener, is there any fear like the first day of a new job?
My first ever day of work was at a telesales company that sold double glazing. I was 15 years old. I was presented with a sticky phone, a soiled phonebook, a chewed pencil, a grimy script, and a deep sense of everything in the world being black and wretched.
I was told to call members of the public and sell them double glazing. I stared at my besmeared equipment and suddenly realised that I had an insurmountable phobia of phones, people, talking, and life. If I had been given the choice of phoning a stranger and trying to sell them double glazing, or sandpapering my own corneas, my decision would have been swift.
After 20 minutes of trying to devise a cunning and elaborate escape, I pulled myself together, dialled the first number and had a brief conversation with a member of the English public that went something along the lines of:
‘Hi, my name’s Becky, I’m not trying to sell you anything but – ‘
‘If you call me again I will hunt you down and I will kill you.’
On my first day of working in a gift shop when I was 16, I realised I had a terrible fear of greetings cards. Oh, Listener, they all look perfectly harmless when they’re neatly stacked in their displays, but when you’re the poor chump who has to get them out of their box, find the right slots, price them, and stock-check them against a mystifying coding system that was devised by an evil genius in a distant subterranean lair, it is alarming.
After emerging from the emotional persecution of greetings cards, I was handed a duster and told to dust the shelves. As a result, I discovered a snippet of wisdom that is invaluable for your first day in a new job: find a task you can do and do it very slowly and very thoroughly, thereby keeping well out of that shark-infested deep water and remaining safely in your comfort zone.
I dusted for about four hours, bristling with terror every time a customer came near me, until the worst fear of anyone on their first day in retail was realised: SOMEONE ASKED ME SOMETHING.
Everything went into slow motion. The customer’s words morphed out of his mouth, slowly cutting into my soul like demonic blades.
Fortunately, there was an incredibly simple answer, and I learnt my second piece of wisdom: PEOPLE ARE GENERALLY STUPID.
What about your first day in an office, Becky? I hear you ask. Behold, sweet Listener.
If you are unfortunate enough to be taking over someone’s job, starting work in an office is like bursting in on a recently-bereaved family, grabbing the urn off the mantelpiece, and shitting in it.
Your desk is not your own – it is the desk of Val, or Beryl, or Graham, or whichever adorable and much-loved colleague sat there before you. On that first day, and for a fair time thereafter, you are The Person Who Took Over Val’s Job. You are using Val’s pencil. You are using Val’s stapler. You open Val’s desk drawer to find a festering, tea-encrusted mug, and you innocently hold it up and say ‘Er – is this anyone’s?’ and the office sinks into a stony, grieving silence, and before long your new colleagues have grown enormous ginger beards, are wearing horned helmets, and are telling you you are not welcome in their village.
But there is no fear, no abject terror comparable to your first day working behind a bar.
I was 20. I walked behind the bar on my first shift to be confronted with the blank staring faces of eight men behind a gauze of smoke. I couldn’t have felt more exposed if I had removed all my clothes and straddled the beer pumps.
The landlord then proceeded to place me two feet away from the group of customers, wrap his arms around me, put his hand over mine on the beer pump, and pull it down, all the while murmuring ‘Theeeeeeeeere we go, pull it hhhaaaarrd, don’t be afraid of it, give it a good tug now’, while the men viewed me in solemnly judging silence. I will give 50 English pounds to the 20 year-old girl who claims she would be comfortable in this situation.
I spent my first shift staring numbly at the ludicrous amount of bottles, the baffling multitude of glasses, and wondering whether I could make it through my entire barmaiding career without ever having to serve anyone a drink.
The most unnerving thing about that first day was the exposure. In Space no one can hear you scream, right? Well, behind a bar everyone can hear you scream, and everyone can hear when you drop a glass and everyone can see when your skirt’s tucked into your knickers and everyone can see when you’re staring desperately at the bottle shelves trying desperately to see the Pernod and pretending desperately that you’re not trying desperately to see the Pernod, and there is no escape. Space is easy.
So I felt for that girl in the coffee shop. The only advice I can give her is that it will get easier. She will become more confident, more assured, until she will wonder what she ever worried about. She will also develop a profound abhorrence for the human race and everything it stands for, but that’s just the beauty of life.