Friday, March 30, 2007

Mirth and Woe: On Her Majesty's Smelly Service

Mirth and Woe: On Her Majesty's Smelly Service

I worked as a temp in a civil service office a few (many) years ago. In fact, it was my first job out of college, which I sort of stumbled into when they stopped sending me unemployment money.

"We're afraid, Mr Duck," they said, confusing me with some sort of adult, "that as a former student that you are not actually unemployed, and really ought to be thinking about getting yourself some sort of paying job."

"Ah," I said, scratching the seat of my dole money-purchased jeans, "It was good while it lasted. Got any vacancies?"

"Yes. Yes we have."

Trapped. And before I knew it, I was dragged inside and introduced to my new colleagues, many of whom had asked - far too lazy to walk across town to the Job Centre - the same question, and had never quite got round to leaving. Some had been there for years.

I wouldn't have minded working for a living if it wasn't for the vexed and entirely new problem of how to deal with colleagues, some of whom were actually in their thirties. Or perhaps even older. And they smelled funny. In some cases - such as the fragrant Miss Dennis, who I still hold a torch for some 22 years later - "clean"; in the case of Jean-Paul - who I never fancied - "like a tramp's shitter".

Jean-Paul, who despite being French, had found his way into the heart of the British civil service - wore the same clothes every day I worked there: shirt, tie, tank top, cord trousers, and he stunk the place out. So much so, that over the course of several weeks, we all managed to move further and further away from him until there was a decent sized neutral zone between him and the rest of the section.

There was only one problem with this situation: he was the boss, and despite the massive clue that noone would go within ten feet of our minging manager, no bugger had the front to tell him he was a filthy, dirty bastard.

So: guess who - on his last day before getting a real job - was made to do the not-so-dirty deed?

His reply: "Oh. I thought you were all avoiding me, or something."

We were Jean-Paul, you soap-dodging dog, we were.

However, Jean-Paul was the least of our worries on the personal hygiene front. The Reading Unemployment Benefit Office could quite easily be twinned with any French armpit on the planet, and on any given weekday, the place would swarm with many of the town's smelliest residents.

Thursdays were the worst - that was the day that all the homeless, drunks and tramps came in for their money, and staff would go about their work with blobs of Vicks Vapor Rub under their noses to mask the awful, awful smell of piss, shit, sweat, puke and cider.

It was even worse when it rained, as you could actually see the smell rolling about the place in a big, grey cloud. Seasoned staff would resort to any possible scheme to avoid Thursday desk duty, up to, and including partial nudity. Alas, working as I did on the Thursday signers section, I was never excused Thursday desk duty. The only consolation was that Mr Wanker came to sign on Thursdays, and that was a treat never to be missed.

Soon came the day when I was no longer The New Boy, and had the pleasure of escorting a stick of a girl called Susan on her first Thursday desk duty. Despite repeated warnings, she completely failed to appreciate the sheer awfulness of the situation, believing, somehow that she would be immune from The Stink.

Still, I tried my best:

"Vicks?" I asked, hoping it might lead onto other things.

"Vicks what?" and "Who do you think I am - some sort of druggie?"

"Suit yourself. You'll regret it later."

Outside, it rained, and the dregs of the Capital of the Thames Valley shuffled towards the office at the bottom of London Street, like zombies to an all-you-can-eat brain buffet

The doors opened, and the derelicts burst forth in a grabbing human tide, clutching filthy UB40s, a fug of sheer unadulterated stench tarnishing any solid object they approached.

They had one goal. Get to the front, sign the form with an "X" (which they would invariably spell wrong), get their cheque, before heading to the post office and the nearest bottle shop, in that order. The nearest bottle shop being, of course, the branch of Prestos supermarket where I had my Saturday job. I was on virtual first name terms with most of the clientele already.

"Ah! Mr Thompson!" said poor, poor Susan, as a bearded thing of indeterminate gender who could have been any age between thirty and eighty, coat all done up with string forced his way to the front of the queue.

"Merp," she said, trying to hold it back.

"Where's me money?" growled the Bum.




It was beautiful. The perfect shower, aimed straight at the tramped hideous, twisted face. And it would have been a direct hit, too, if it were not for the panel of flexi-glass separating clients from staff. Some of the Bums clapped and cheered, for they had not caused such a reaction for several weeks at least.

"YAAAAAAAAAAAAARCH!" she said, by way of an encore, this time filling her tray of dole claims, pens and half a Snickers bar with rich, brown vomit.

This voms trickling down the glass window, Mad Old Tommo stood there impassively, as if this kind of thing happened to him every day. And in the World of Tramp, it probably did.

"Am I still getting my money, or what?"

I packed it all in and got a job with cows.

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