And so it begins again.
Monday is supposed to be the worst but it’s not necessarily so. Sometimes the hangover outlasts Sunday abstinence and leaves you scattered and floaty for the first working day of the week. But by Tuesday you have sobered up and in the miserable solidarity of the packed bus route the realisation hits you – you are now jacknifed to the middle of the week like a man tied to the headlights of a speeding train. This life wasn’t meant for you. You knew even as your time in the student enclave ticked towards its final hour that you would avoid this somehow – you would get rich with your band or installation, something would come up, an exception would be made in your case. And yet here you are.
This is the paradox of the free world. Capitalist mythology centres around democracy and freedom, but to earn the money to enjoy these freedoms you have to relinquish your rights and liberties every morning when you clock in. Perhaps you’ve humanised a little corner of this world. Photographs of children, pictures by children, photographs of a husband or girlfriend, perhaps even a football pennant – any more than this would breach desk policy and still you’ve reclaimed a little of the office world. But it’s all dead time here even when you’re having fun. It is all time that you are not playing football, raising your kids, travelling the world, improving your mind, writing a story, making love. On the shore of infinite possibility we rack up hours upon hundreds of hours of dead time.
You could do the commute in your sleep. Your biorhythms adjust. You stop thinking in terms of academic years and think in terms of fiscal years measured in bank holidays and reality shows. You think about particular tasks when you get up and when you crash out. Still you can’t get past the afternoon slump and the rush of complex carbohydrates from canteen or Greggs food that fill your body with sleep. There are things that have been skewed wrong from the beginning. The travel costs, the discrepancies between public transport times and shift times, the system that loads in judders and blinks, the moron at your hub, the irritations and conflicts and desires that make up the life of an office – little romance, but plenty of flirtation and candid sensuality. The magnification of small things in the desert. The small victories against money and time. You could look for something else. But where are those hours to come from? There are moments where you have an impulse to leave. I will tell him to fuck his job, I will finish this call, I will walk out of here and keep walking.
Yet in almost all cases the exit is the best and easiest part. See, your line management won’t mind so much if you walk out and never come back. The team leader or recruitment consultant will even tell you so if you raise problems with flexibility or conditions or management failings. You want to walk? Fine. There are plenty who will replace you. There are better men and women than you living on seventy quid in JSA and getting up before dawn and hitting the streets with CV printouts. There are men with decades of craft and experience in British industry wasting their talents on workfare courses. See, unemployment is part of the plan. The easy way to get rid of the deficit is to cut domestic costs. Which means cutting labour costs. Which means there needs to be a great pool of desperate men and women who spend their days roaming from one dying public outlet to the next asking people for things – money, documents, attention, validation. So yeah and by all means, walk out the door. And see where you end up.
This is not always the way you feel. One of the mad perversities of working life is that it’s possible to take a joy and pride in just about anything – ticking off the cake times, breaking down a car battery, taking a long phone order for some Hampshire woman’s murder mystery weekend. No matter how degrading and repetitive and insignificant, no matter how little a positive difference the work makes to someone’s life, there is sometimes a jolt, a glow, a spark (in-joke laughter from a colleague, a call quality prize) that brings you to the end of the day and you leave for the bus or the train with the sweat of the righteous contributing man on the back of your neck. At such moments you know that you are one of the saved and that you will be looked after and still standing even when the volcano god of the deficit erupts and sweeps the cities away in fire.
Plus there’s the sheer buzz of getting through these hours. Battling to the summit of the week, then cresting it. Then coast towards the weekend, and DVDs and sleep and evening wine and pints of beer and bar meals and nights out, and feeling like you’re coasting towards freedom – the two nights of intoxication before the five straight and dry days.
Other times you understand that this is how it’s going to be forever. You stand on the balcony, smoke a cigarette and watch the rain caught in firelights, and know that by the time they let you out you will no longer want to go.
– T S Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’