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 … being a writer, dammit

Before I say anything new, most beautiful listeners, I want to say a heartfelt thank you for your wonderful comments following my post on the rubbishness of eating disorders. I have been overwhelmed, delighted, moved to tears, and inspired by the things you’ve said, and Stickman will now demonstrate my thanks through the medium of an interpretive dance.

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Rather avant garde, Stickman, but I’m sure they got the message.

Anyway, moving on.

I have decided, most darling Listener, to get off my arse. Figuratively, metaphorically, emotionally, mentally, creatively. Particularly the last one.

You see, I have been languishing on my arse for many, many years.

I want to be a writer.

I have wanted to be a writer since my mum stapled printer paper together, drew ruler lines on it, and encouraged me to write stories. My first book, written at the age of six, was the hit bestseller The Girl Who Would Not Go To Bed. This thrilling tale of a child’s rebellion against the rules enforced on her by society, received glowing reviews from my parents, and several of my teddy bears.

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I haven’t been totally pathetic in my endeavours to become a published writer. I am a published writer: I have a very tiny book of short stories published. I have two degrees in creative writing. I have a hard drive which is almost obese with stories, scripts, random splurges of writing and strange thoughts. But the thing that slouches like an overweight, slightly perspiring figure, waiting for someone to haul it out of its armchair and make it do some much-needed exercise, is my novel.

I came up with the idea for this novel seven years ago. I have been sporadically writing it for three, and it is progressing slower than an arthritic snail carrying heavy shopping. Why? Because I am a serial procrastinator, a daydreamer, a believer that my book will appear on bookshelves by merely thinking about it. And if all my thoughts became reality, heaven knows what else might occur.

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If you ever write anything, you will understand. Whether you take it seriously or not, whether you do it for a living or just want to paddle in the creative pond for shits and giggles (an excellent metaphor, and one for which I can almost definitely thank my two degrees), you will know that writing is superb. It’s fun, it’s rewarding, it’s absorbing, it’s almost magical: fully-formed human characters can somehow crawl out of your head onto the page and do stuff you didn’t even think you knew about; worlds can appear, events can occur that make you laugh, cry, or phone a psychologist.

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But if you know any of the above, you will also know that writing is a royal pain in the arse.

I mean, it really is a nightmare. Of all the hobbies and professions known to Mankind, nothing has generated a more dedicated breed of procrastinators, time-wasters and excuse-makers than writing. Writers will do anything to get out of the one thing they should be doing.

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Why is this? Is it because they’re scared of hard work? Is it because they are terrified of the blank page? Is it because a writer can plough away for hours, days, weeks, on a piece of writing, to emerge sweaty, exhausted, potentially bloodied, and realise with the crushing certainty akin to imminent death by falling anvil that every single word is a seeping, pus-filled, hopeless, repugnant pile of shit?

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For me, the answer to all of the above is YES, YES, AND THRICE YES.

All those things are genuine, tragic fears. That terrible, niggling worry that you are wasting your time, that you would be more productive trying to breed a haddock with a gorilla.

And it is those fears that have kept me rooted firmly on my arse for so many years. I have made a total of about £100 from my writing in my whole 28 and a half years (that half-year really sticks the knife in, doesn’t it?). Now that might be £100 more than some other people, but the point is I want to make a living from writing. I want to get on a train and see someone absorbed in my book. I want to hear people discussing it in cafes. I want bookshop employees to roll their eyes and moan ‘I’m so f***ing bored with this book’ when they open yet another box of my bestselling novel to stack onto the shelves.

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And none of that is ever going to happen if I continue to sit here and just think about it. If I continue to wander around listening to tracks on my iPod thinking ‘Wow, that would be an excellent track to play over the trailer of my bestselling novel-turned-blockbuster-movie’, if I continue to spend all my time daydreaming about glowing reviews in The Times and seeing my name on shortlists for coveted accolades, if I continue to basically do nothing, then my eventual result can best be illustrated by asking my friend, Mr Jack Shit, to simply stand here and look at you.

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Not a lot happened there, did it?

I will now ask my friend Stickman (who will quickly and imperceptibly change out of his Mr Jack Shit costume and back into his regular clothes) to illustrate what I should be doing:

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A veritable flurry of activity. Thank you Stickman.

So I’m going to do it. I’m going to get off my arse and write my bloody novel and become the writer I bloody well should be.

And you know what? You dudes have a lot to do with this sudden burst of let’s-get-the-heck-on-with-my-writing-life. You tell me I am good at writing, that I should keep doing it. Well, I’ve listened. And I’m unfathomably glad that I have, and I’m unfathomably grateful to you all for your encouragement and your lovely words. You faceless people around the globe, who could be serial killers or politicians for all I know, have helped me get off my arse. And for that I am eternally grateful.

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Looks like you’re wearing some kind of erotic burlesque corset there Stickman, but hopefully the sentiment will prevail.

So, writers of the world, WRITE!! If you have no problem with procrastinating, and are one of those terribly infuriating inspiring writers who rise at 5am, write for 4 hours, and then go to your day job a healthy, happy and productive writer – WELL DONE! Keep it up! If you are one of those procrastinators who would rather dissect the bowel of your own grandmother than sit down and open Microsoft Word – here is a little flash of inspiration that sparked inside my brain a few months ago (probably while I was dissecting my grandmother’s bowel), and which I now have cellotaped to my bedroom wall:

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Becky says things about … meetings

Oh, sweetest listener.

Meetings.

They are an integral part of grown-up life, like love, depression, and buying the wrong bin bags. Whatever your vocation in this strange and bewildering grown-up world, you will, at some point, have sat through a meeting.

That meeting might have been so phenomenal that you emerged from it on a PowerPoint-induced high and were forced to do something spontaneous and dangerous, like a bungee jump or get an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, just to make use of the adrenaline.

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On the other hand, that meeting might have caused you to question the very meaning of humanity and your status therein, wish a terrible ‘accident’ upon everyone the room, and wonder whether the fall from the window would kill you.

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As the question ‘Why are meetings evil?’ is one of the most pressing and profound in the modern world, I have attempted to answer this with a comprehensive list of reasons, and, for the good of mankind, have also suggested the best methods with which to remedy these ghastly situations. (I did prepare a PowerPoint presentation, but Stickman closed it down before I could save it, all because he wanted to look at his disgusting websites.)

Content

The foundations behind any meeting’s evilness. I have never sat down at a large cluster of tables with a plastic cup of cold coffee and been told ‘Right, the purpose of today’s meeting is to design a Julie Andrews-themed theme park, and come up with names for the rides, like ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialigoodnessmethisisfast’. We will also be drawing a lot of pictures of roller coasters.’

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That literally never happens.

What does happen, is someone says ‘BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA QUALITY DATA BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAA PERFORMANCE INDICATORS BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA SPREADSHEETS BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA EFFICIENCY MANAGEMENT BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAABIMBAMBUMBOODLE I’M GOING TO BORE THE BUM OFF YOU BUMBUMBUMBUMBUMSPOON.’

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Due to the fact that the topic under discussion is invariably as enchanting as a hernia, the very act of being alive can become a strain. You begin to wish your skin would melt off just so you could leave the room to get some Savlon from the first aid box. The speaker’s words cease to be words, just noises, like a walrus humming. Concern grows that your brain might actually be crumbling, and will soon dribble out of your ears like a torrent of soggy moths. The clock tells you you have two more hours to endure, and you panic.

Remedy

If there is a view from the window, estimate how long it would take you to travel from one end of the view to the other using various styles of movement i.e. crawling, galloping, ambling as though filled with hubris. If there is no view from the window, imagine one bursting with sunshine, meadows, sparkling brooks, and those cartoon cupids from Fantasia. If there is no window, get out immediately. You are being held against your will and they are going to torture you, remove your limbs, and laugh at your helpless torso.

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Room Temperature

In an age where we can hold the world in our hands, explore distant galaxies, and make washing machines that are also tumble dryers, no one has invented a meeting room with a stable climate in which living organisms can exist comfortably for any portion of time. In these chambers of atmospheric whimsy you will either be boiled to death in temperatures that make the Sahara feel like an English Summer, or you will get hypothermia, pneumonia and frostbite in a sub-zero climate about which you can do absolutely NOTHING, because the air-conditioning is controlled from an office in Saffron Waldon, and by the time you have logged a call, requested that the air-conditioning is turned off, received an acknowledgement of your request and a promise to respond within 24 hours, you will already be dead.

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Remedy

If it is too hot, strip to your underwear, lie on the table and ask the speaker for a Lemon Fanta and a massage. If it is too cold, your most judicious option is to make a hefty coat from the skins of your colleagues. If you have no instruments with which to achieve this (don’t underestimate the uses of the humble Biro) or are of a non-murderous disposition, you’ll just have to hold up a placard with a polite request to put the heating on, vocal ability having been rendered impossible due to the air-conditioning drying your passages so that they resemble the dusty pipes of a derelict manor house.

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Human Noises

Without doubt the most deathly appalling and evil element of any meeting. In that inescapable confined space you are subjected to the various bodily clanks and clunks of people you haven’t chosen to be locked up with, because why would you choose to spend two hours with someone who clears their throat every six and a half seconds? Not a cough, listener – they never actually cough, there is an apparently insufficient build-up of phlegm to warrant an actual cough – a mere clearing of the throat. Every six and a half seconds. You know the sort I mean. A little ‘hahhugm’ noise. Every six and a half seconds. After two hours each ‘hahhugm’ is like a dagger in your heart.

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And then you must contend with the sniffers, the sneezers, the sighers, and, the godfather of all evil meeting elements: the speaker’s mouth noises.

The loud swallows, listener – every squelch his saliva makes as it forces itself down his throat echoes through the room and pierces your very soul with its heinousness. The sucking of his tongue on his teeth every time he draws breath or starts a new sentence; the occasional slurp or snort; or the accumulation of such a quantity of saliva in his mouth that it sounds like  he’s talking through a mouthful of cotton wool, and this only serves to intensify your growing panic as you begin to rock back and forth, a tear forms in your eye, and you silently offer up your own grandmother in exchange for just one swallow from the speaker.

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Remedy

There is no easy way to deal with this evil meeting situation without making tyrannical and barbaric use of staple guns and shredding machines.

No, I mean there really is no other way.

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Epic Fatigue

It is well-known that meeting rooms are fitted with devices that spray invisible yet potent soporific gases into the atmosphere to cause almost coma-level drowsiness and extreme weakness in the inhabitants of said room. There is no other way to explain the unfathomable and almost biblical lethargy that one feels immediately upon entering a meeting room. You might think you’re a fairly virile, bounding sort of chap – you eat a lot of pulses and lean protein, and you fit in a couple of 5K runs a week and people say things like ‘I wish I had your energy’ or ‘I can’t keep up with you’ – and yet you are no match for the epic fatigue that consumes your entire being during a meeting.

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Remedy

There are two effective methods to combat the epic fatigue: the first is to make a cocktail of espresso, Lucozade, Red Bull and cocaine, and fifteen minutes before the meeting inject it into your veins. There are possible extraordinary side effects of this method, including re-enacting an entire battle scene from Gladiator with you playing all the parts (including the horses), building a scale model of a pyramid using pencils, agendas and your colleagues, and trying to walk on the ceiling.

A less disruptive method is to simply give in to the epic fatigue and get yourself a nice couple of hours kip, with only a marginal risk of shouting out potentially compromising dream words.

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So there you have it. I hope you now feel equipped, dear attentive listener, to deal with any future meetings that you will inevitably have to attend if you are to remain in this grown-up life. There is, of course, the catalogue of Plausible and Implausible But Always Mega Excuses to Avoid Going to a Meeting, which you should carry around with you at all times, particularly for those unscheduled meetings that managers like to spring on employees to make sure they’re still alive.

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Becky says things about … crappy jobs

We’ve all had them. Those terrible jobs we had to get because Mummy and Daddy finally said ‘I think it’s about time you got a job, Rebecca, you can’t spend your entire summer holidays on MSN Messenger and doing painting by numbers while watching back-to-back Disney films’, or because we realised we only had 54p to our name and couldn’t afford to breathe. These desperation jobs rarely did anything to improve our self-esteem or our bank balance.

My first ever – and worst ever – job at 16 years old was at a window company that proudly called themselves ‘Anglian Windows’ biggest rivals’. Declaring this was like me finding half a packet of old teabags at the back of my cupboard, offering them to strangers outside my house, then calling myself Marks and Spencer’s biggest rival. It just wasn’t true.

The job was telesales. One of the worst jobs ever invented. The company’s brochure (I say ‘brochure’, I mean ‘bit of tea-stained recycled paper’) showed the telesales staff and working conditions  like this:

The reality was this:

For £4 an hour, I spent three-hour shifts leafing through the phone book and calling the Great British public on greasy 50 year-old telephones, interrupting people during their lunch or dinner to tell them I wasn’t trying to sell them anything but did they want to buy some windows, while the boss chain-smoked in the adjoining office and her 15 year-old pregnant daughter’s toddler climbed on the tables and screamed. When I wasn’t trying to ignore that, I was trying to block out the sights and sounds of Nigel, who worked every shift, sweated almost as much as he farted, and happily consumed slices of indeterminately-aged pizza that he found under desks or on top of filing cabinets.

And because the shifts were 11am – 2pm (lunchtime) and 5pm – 8pm (teatime), no one – and I mean no one – was very happy to hear from me. I received a great plethora of responses to my polite statement that I was calling from a window company:

“You can fuck off.”

“If you ever phone me again I will call the police.”

“Listen, I’ve got meatballs on the go, I don’t give a shit about windows.”

“I don’t want anything from you people, you’re all crooks.”

“Oh congratulations, you’re obviously doing really well in life.”

That last one took me by surprise and gave me a terrible attack of the giggles, making me snort and splutter down the phone while he said things like “It’s okay, I understand, it’s Friday, you want to get down the pub with your mates and out of that no-doubt hellish office you’re currently sitting in”. Eventually chain-smoking boss emerged and stood over me sternly, so I had to choke ‘I’m really sorry, I’ll have to pass you over to my colleague” and run to the toilets. I was later hauled into the office by chain-smoking boss and given a lecture on customer service.

I didn’t stay in that job very long. I think my total earnings came to about 60 quid (which happily enabled me to buy more painting-by-numbers and Disney videos). Despite the fact that people’s answerphone messages sometimes made my life worthwhile again – like the one that proudly stated ‘Hi, I’m Kevin, I’m undressed – please leave a message’ – I realised that a piece of my innocent, fresh, 16 year-old soul was slowly curling up and dying an agonising death, like a slug that’s had salt poured on it, and I went and got an only marginally less crappy job in a shop that sold John Vettriano prints and chocolate penises. Even though I took a pay cut – I was down to £3.85 an hour – I was happier with chocolate penises than I was with being told to fuck off down a pizza-stained telephone.

But, we get on with it. It’s all character-building, after all. Although how the sight of a sweaty man’s builder’s bum as he reaches down the back of a cupboard for that dusty slice of pizza has built my character, I’m yet to comprehend. I’ll get back to you.