There were a lot of warning signs from the outset. I went into the job expecting a pretty high level of disorganisation — and yet my expectations were exceeded on every level.

I had taken on a temp role at a large telco (who shall remain nameless) who are merging with another large telco. My role, within the HR team, and more specifically a smaller team of temps, would be to help manage some of the teething pains associated with their systems move (mostly, at the outset, their intranet and HR systems, not including payroll).

I did not last long.

We begin on a Tuesday, after Easter Monday.

It was clear that our arrival had been rushed and not prepared for. There were no computers for us. No log ins. No preparedness in terms of training us on systems or processes. No material had been printed for our arrival.

After the afternoon of day two, when lack of work helped us graduate from awkward chit-chat to full-blown conversation mode (assisted nicely by the-temp-who-never-stops-talking who reminded me so much of my eldest (and socially awkward) sister that I began referring to her as “sister-clone” when recounting events to my friends), one of the women in the recruitment team offered our manager a job “just in case she didn’t have work for us” doing reference checks. All four of us told our manager, who had a way of vacantly staring even when she seemed stressed and busy, that we’d be happy to do this.

No, Manager Vacant-Stare decided at the close of day two, better to put you all in a small windowless meeting room, and have you write a list of jobs to do tomorrow. We wrote a list. Manager Vacant-Stare briefly appeared to say, no, I don’t care what’s on your list, that’s fine, before disappearing again.

Day three, week one. Windowless meeting room. 10.30am. Our list is mostly done, although I don’t know this as the girls organically degenerated into gossip from “work”. Most of the items we couldn’t actually do. Especially not without a computer or any idea how the processes work. I’ve asked Manager Vacant-Stare to print us out information on a few processes, which I’m dully reading through.

One of the girls announces, as part of a long diatribe about herself and her boyfriend, that she is an alpha female. I already disliked her, I now want to kick her in the face. I begin practising roundhouse kicks in my head. I wonder if this will actually improve my physical ability (poor) in performing this maneuver. After listlessly hearing Irish Girl and Alpha Female talk about their relationships with their boyfriends for 45 minutes, I make an excuse to go to the bathroom.

I find myself standing out in front of the building. I’m not quite sure how I got here, except for a vague recollection that the doors to the bathrooms are right next to the doors to the lifts. I’m slightly concerned that if I blink, I might find myself at home with equally no idea how I got there. I find my cellphone in my pocket and call a friend, explaining to him that this scenario is literally out of my worst nightmare: trapped in a room with gossiping girls.

After ten minutes conversation I go back upstairs (the ascent in the lift feels like a death sentence) and return to the windowless meeting room. Irish Girl and Alpha Female are still talking about their boyfriends, while Sister-Clone interjects with a comment about her aunt’s relationship, or some TV show. The girls get frustrated when I suggest we do some work. I give in to the fog. I can hear Alpha Female complaining she is cold.

Day Four, week one. We are still in the windowless meeting room. Still no computers for us, but Manager Vacant-Stare has given us hers, so we can write up some of our processes in Excel or Word. We do this within the first few hours, Alpha Female complaining it is cold. She is not good at using MS Office. She spends 10 minutes wailing about not knowing how to use Excel, before I intervene and point out the ‘wrap text’ button on the home tab (apparently what she was looking for all along). Neither Alpha Female or Irish Girl have ever seen Smart Art before, and are far too impressed by it.

Alpha Female, who weirdly, for someone who comes across as so normatively consumerist/corporate, lives in a commune:

  • believes the world will end (soon) in fire, with the return of the creator
  • when the ring of fire will ‘explode’
  • and ‘nature will take back the Earth’
  • which she knows because ‘all’ ancient spiritualities had a prediction about the world ending this way
  • but climate change will not affect us in our lifetimes
  • we’re going to run out of oil soon (if you’re wondering, the opposite is true: we’re not going to run out of oil soon enough)
  • and ‘a vegan diet is not healthy’.

As a vegetarian (I’m also allergic to gluten or perhaps I’d have made the leap to veganism by now), and a follower of climate change news, I challenge these last points. She doesn’t have a lot to say in defense of her ideas, but manages to wave a flag of ‘spirituality’ as some sort of superiority indicator. In a moment of Dawkins-like fury I want to tell her that ‘spirituality’ is a word that means she believes things she has no evidence for. I don’t.

Alpha Female talks about her boyfriend again, and how he won’t let her take public transport, or walk anywhere and insists on giving her rides all the time. I think, but do not say, that he is reminding me of the description of domestic violence precursor behaviours on a Mayo Clinic webpage. When Sister-Clone suggests she wouldn’t like his controlling behaviour, Alpha Female explains that it’s only because she’s “so precious to him”, and he doesn’t want to lose her. I think about domestic violence precursors and roundhouse kicks to the face. It’s much later it occurs to me this is a paradox.

I am infinitely relieved this is a four-day week.

Day one, week two. Still no computers. No work. It’s obvious Manager Vacant-Stare knows we aren’t doing anything, because she hasn’t given us anything to do. I ask her if I can do anything to help her. She explains to me that there’s nothing I can do without computers and they’re coming, she just doesn’t know when. There’s a spark of anger in her vacant stare. I retreat back to the windowless meeting room. I’ve never been good at dealing with passive-aggression.

She later tells us she will have us sit with her one-by-one so she can show us a system process and go through our process flowcharts we (I) made last week, before quickly disappearing again. I don’t know where she is. I’m fairly certain the flowcharts are wrong, since I’d made them for a job I’d never done, but I don’t care. I’m glad at the prospect of doing something. Anything.

Today, the gossip is less. The mood is low. It’s not just me now, they’ve caught up. We discuss whether this is some weird psychological test/torture. Sister-Clone compares it to an episode of a TV show. It’s not nearly that interesting. I feel like I’m paying penance for some unknown sin I’ve committed.

For the first time, I think about the oubliette in The Labyrinth. The Oxford English Dictionary defines oubliette as “a secret dungeon with access only through a trapdoor in its ceiling”, but the definition Hoggle gives in the film is better (and perhaps more accurate to the word’s french origins): “a place you put people who you want to forget.” I wish David Bowie were here. Or a Muppet.

Manager Vacant-Stare never does reappear. Alpha Female complains about the cold again.

Day two, week two. A small, white, windowless meeting room. I’m beginning to crack. At least, I think I’m beginning to crack, but I don’t realise at the time that I started to crack long ago. I am not about to break. I am broken. Any tentative pushing back on Manager Vacant-Stare for work or news of when we’ll be able to do work is generally greeted with veiled anger from her. I don’t know what to do. I am forgotten.

I wish Sister-Clone would stop talking, but her chatter about her mother and her flatmate and her cat is like comforting white noise by now. I wish Alpha Female didn’t exist. I begin to draw doodles of fungus people. We carefully fight in the polite/horrible non-fighting way that girls do over the emails of five-minute work Manager Vacant-Stare sends through.

Around lunch, Alpha Female and Irish Girl sit with Manager Vacant-Stare as she takes them through one of the processes we will be doing. They later tell me and Sister-Clone that Manager Vacant-Stare decided that instead of taking the two of us through the process herself, that Alpha Female and Irish Girl will do it instead.

When Irish Girl starts taking us through the process after lunch, I can barely see the computer screen, as Alpha Female has taken up a prime spot. When I ask if she can move a bit, she tells Sister-Clone to move. I can see if I crane my neck. It becomes clear that, like everything we’ve done so far, that no one actually knows what they’re doing. We don’t get any of the work done. The computer never makes it over to me. I still don’t know where Manager Vacant-Stare is.

Day three, week two. I ring my agency on the way to work. I tell them I am handing in my notice, I can’t do it any more. I explain the situation, but they seem to think this is normal. Later, when the company is informed, I am taken into a meeting room by a brusque agency representative and told that it’s my fault because the computers are arriving tomorrow and there’ll be plenty of work. She asks me if I’d like to leave now instead of working out the day as she “doesn’t want my poor morale to affect the other girls”. I’m aware it’s not really a question. I am laughing on the inside, but it’s a wrong, hysterical kind of laughter. I am broken.

When I go back to the white windowless box of a meeting room one last time to pack up my things and say one last un-fond farewell to Irish Girl, Alpha Female and Sister-Clone, I tell them that the rep told me the computers are definitely coming tomorrow. Sister-Clone shakes her head. No, they might be coming tomorrow. Part of me will miss Sister-Clone.

I descend in the lifts and walk outside. The suns shines on my face and the fog begins to clear. It is warm here. I am free.