After my brief flirtation with unemployment I now find myself working for a temping agency of the “if-it-looks-Mexican-take-its-passport-and-lock-it-in-the-basement” variety. The kind where you just walk in and they put you to work straight away, usually someplace way out in the middle of nowhere; you know the sort of thing: watercress factories, vegetable farms, slaughterhouses and sinister looking experimental facilities that go a hundred stories down into the hot bowels of the earth: they drive you there by cattle prod. Still, it had to be done because the bills were mounting up and my self-respect would soon be taking a nose-dive. I’d briefly considered signing on again, but the fact is that I'm nearly forty, and these days I like soft furnishings.
It was after a frustrated morning of fruitless pavement-pounding in Old Christchurch Road with my semi-autobiographical CV that my eyes alit upon a dingy sign which read: “immediate work, start today”; a formidable looking arrow pointing at the dark and steamy staircase that rose from the street to the Last Chance Employment Agency above.
The receptionist was pleasant enough, once you’d got over the carbuncle.
“I’d like to register for work, please,” I said.
“What sort of thing are you looking for?”
“Anything, really. Ideally something that doesn’t involve manual labour, heavy lifting, steel toe-caps, extreme temperatures, the dissection of animals, the serving of alcohol, the cleaning up of bodily fluids, delivering anything, fixing anything, being responsible for anything, hair nets, beard nets, hard-hats, helmets, wellington boots, surgical gloves, polyester waistcoats, sycophancy or having to kowtow to cretins.”
“We have just the thing.”
The following morning found me crammed into a van with a bunch of shoeless foreign language students, most of whom had just come off a twelve-hour shift at the glue factory, our destination: the Sandy Balls Holiday Park.
The irony of calling the place “Sandy Balls” may have been lost on the owners of the establishment - or maybe it wasn’t: if I came into possession of a massive swathe of hilly woodland full of Swiss-style chalets and thirty miles from the sea, and was in a playfully infantile mood, I’d probably call it Sandy Balls too (or Salty Clefts or Crusty Groynes, or maybe even Oily Gruttocks) – but it certainly wasn’t lost on me, and seeing dozens of employees wandering round with “Sandy Balls” written proudly on their t-shirts caused me the kind of amusement that rarely wears thin.
Upon arrival I was presented with a bucket, a map, and a lad of Turkish extraction, and told to go and clean windows. It was a beautiful day, so I concurred. I’d much rather be out cleaning windows in the sunshine than stuck inside a chalet changing beds with some gluey language student, however sticky she may be. I’m trying to stay out of trouble.
The Turk was called Deniz, and was overjoyed that he’d been teamed up with a real, honest-to-God Englishman: I was, in fact, the first he’d met since coming here. I wondered how this could possibly be: this is England, after all.
“Ah,” he said, “at my language school there are no English, only foreign. French, Bulgarians, Czechs. Then when I’m not at school I have to work, here, or in the glue factory, or wherever the Agency send me, and there are no English working for the Last Chance Employment Agency. You are the first and only one.”
I wondered whether I should feel proud, and decided that yes, I probably should. Not for being English, or for working at the Last Chance Employment Agency, but for being the first and only one of something. Of anything.
Deniz was very keen that I should correct any mistakes I noticed in his use of the language, and interested in learning the kind of everyday English that they don’t teach you in school.
“Come on Deniz,” I said, for example, as we were leaving one of the chalets where we’d just smashed a window, “let’s get out of this fucking hell-hole.”
“Fucking hell-ho?” he asked me quizzically. “What is fucking hell-ho? I know fucking hell, but no fucking hell-ho.”
“Hell hole,” I replied. “As in: let’s get the fuck out of this fucking hell-hole.”
“What is hole?”
I pointed at the broken window. “That’s a hole.”
“Ah, I understand. Now what is the difference?”
“The difference is this: you break a window, you say: ‘Fucking hell!’ You want to make a quick exit from the scene before you’re discovered and have the cost of a new window deducted from your already minimalist pay cheque, you say: ‘Fucking hell, let’s get the fucking hell out of this fucking hell-hole!’”
Deniz was very pleased with his new slogan, and repeated it frequently and joyfully throughout the afternoon. I, for my part, was proud that I had been able to enrich his understanding of our mother tongue.
“You should be an English teacher,” he said to me as we clambered into the van. “I’ve learned more English today than I have since I’ve been here. You do a six-month course and you can teach in a language school. You’re very understandable. You’d be good at it. You should think about it. And now,” he added, as the mini-bus pulled away, “let us hasten from this godforsaken place.”