Becky says things about … the first day of a new job

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:

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fortunately, there was an incredibly simple answer, and I learnt my second piece of wisdom: PEOPLE ARE GENERALLY STUPID.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Becky says things about … the little embarrassments of daily life

Faithful Listener, I embarrassed myself today.

Someone waved at me. I didn’t know them, but I waved back. It’s polite to return a cheery salutation. Then I realised they were waving at the person behind me, who did know them. I was embarrassed. I immediately pretended I was receiving an important phonecall, and proceeded to put my silent phone to my ear and talk into it. There was no one on the other end of the phone, Listener. No one. Just my own crippling indignity.

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And the whole sorry incident led me to contemplate the little embarrassments with which we must contend in daily life. No one escapes them. Least of all me. I am constantly embarrassed.

My above example is an excellent one.  Pretending to be on the phone. We’ve all done it. It gets us out of various disagreeable situations, in particular:

  • A boring conversation. Someone’s talking at you. They’re boring you. You need an ingenious escape. You reach for your bag or pocket. You say ‘I’m so sorry, I just have to get this’. You walk away and have a conversation to no one for three minutes, hoping that by the time you get back to the boring person they’ve forgotten what they were telling you and will talk about something more interesting.

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  • Avoiding someone you don’t want to talk to. You see someone approaching whom you just know is either going to demand that money you’ve owed them for three years, or will ask you again to go out with their acne-riddled and rather maladroit brother. So it’s phone out, head down, and there ensues an extremely intense conversation to NO ONE along the lines of ‘Yes, I know they said they’d get it done by Tuesday, but Tuesday  isn’t soon enough, I need it by Monday or the whole deal will fall through, and you know what that means’. Crisis averted.

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However, these sudden-important-phonecall strategies will not pass without embarrassment. Your phone will ring as you have it desperately pressed to your ear whilst absorbed in fervid conversation. Why is your phone ringing as if someone is calling you whilst you’re having a conversation into it? Is it because there’s no one there and you’re actually just pretending to have an important conversation to avoid talking to someone? Yes. Yes it is. You socially awkward buffoon.

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But Listener, these daily trifles can always be made more embarrassing. Observe.

Not long ago, I was walking. I saw my friend walking towards me. A friend whom I regularly call ‘Cockface’. As it was definitely my friend who was walking towards me, I waited until he was close enough to definitely hear me, and I called out, nice and loudly, ‘All right, Cockface’.

It wasn’t my friend. Not even a little bit.

What do you do, wise Listener, when you have yelled ‘All right Cockface’ in the face of an innocent bystander? Do you chuckle, apologise profusely, say ‘I’m so sorry, I was convinced you were my friend’, both have a bit of a laugh and continue on your journeys amused by this light-hearted yet harmless bungle? Or do you do what I did and whip your hand to your face, make that shape with you little finger and thumb that is the well-recognised international symbol for ‘phone’, and start talking into it?

No. No of course you don’t. Because then not only would you have called a stranger ‘Cockface’, but you would have made yourself appear mentally dangerous by having an intense conversation with your own hand.

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But what about the other little embarrassments that plague our daily life? Anyone run for a bus, missed the bus by a millisecond, and turned your desperate sprint for transport into a casual afternoon jog? Of course you have. You probably do it every day. And what about that little accidental trip up a kerb? Turned that into a playful jog as well, did you? Thought you’d style it out and run a few steps like you were suddenly filled with the joys of life and just had to expend some energy? Of course you did.

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And don’t forget the friendly toot from a car horn. You’re crossing the road. The car at the crossing toots at you. You cannot ignore that toot. It is the toot that says ‘The person who is driving this car recognises you as a chum and would like to register their greeting by utilising their automobile’s method of acknowledgement; furthermore, they demand a response’.

You give the windscreen a cursory glance. Your worst fears are immediately realised: all you can see in the windscreen is a reflection of the sky. 

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You have two choices:

1) You ignore the toot and walk on. When you are later faced with a chum who says ‘Hey, I beeped at you earlier and you completely ignored me’, you say ‘Oh, did I? God, I’m so sorry, I must have been in a world of my own’. Situation resolved. You win. Have a biscuit.

2) You throw caution to the wind and peer at the windscreen, squinting like there’s no tomorrow, knowing full well that the person in the car is thinking ‘Christ, she looks like a ruddy idiot squinting like that – she’s known me 20 years, can’t she see me? Why is she making that stupid face? Bloody hell, she looks like an absolute dick, I wish I’d never tooted in the first place. Jesus, this is embarrassing, maybe I should just run her over and make this whole situation less awkward for both of us. I could say I was overcome by a sneezing fit and accidentally put my foot down. Oh, this is horrible.’

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It is a terrible, terrible situation. The only real way to escape it is simply to run away. Just leg it. Then deny you were ever on the scene. They can never prove it was you.

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And I haven’t even mentioned bodies, Listener. Bodies. The very structures that comprise our existence are mortifying. 

You nip to the toilets at work. You smile at Sandra from Accounts plucking her chin hairs in the mirror. You enter a cubicle. You sit down. A fart like a foghorn bellows forth into the aural receptors of everyone within a 60 foot radius, not least Sandra from Accounts whose hairy chin suddenly doesn’t seem quite so embarrassing. You can do nothing but curl up into a toilety ball.

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The list goes on. The violent sneeze that releases a small but entirely audible parp from your lower regions, the unexpected burp that erupts in the middle of a supermarket aisle and offends a nearby elderly gentlemen, the thoroughly unannounced throat gurgle that growls like an angry tortoise in an otherwise silent office. Your body is your enemy on these occasions. It is a vile, shameless noise machine with the sole intention of causing you social angst and self-disgust.

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Listener, these are the moments that make us the people we are today. Let us laugh at ourselves and the social gaffes that bedevil our existence. And if you find yourself faced with a moment of particularly acute mortification from which you believe you cannot recover, just do as Basil Fawlty does in such moments, and freak out.

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