Initially, I took the morning job at Pharmaceutical Logistics as a way of keeping myself occupied. At least that’s what I told Nicole, but neither she nor the girls fell for it. At my age, you don’t wake up at 4.00 a.m. for 45% of the minimum wage just to get your endorphins going. It’s all a bit more complicated. Well, actually it’s not that complicated. At ﬁrst, we didn’t need the money – now we do.
I have been unemployed for four years. Four years in May (May 24, to be exact).
This job doesn’t really make ends meet, so I do a few other bits and bobs too. For a couple of hours here and there, I lug crates, bubble-wrap things, hand out ﬂiers. A spot of night-time industrial cleaning in ofﬁces. A few seasonal jobs, too. For the past two years, I’ve been Father Christmas at a discount store specialising in household appliances. I don’t always give Nicole the full picture of my activities, since it would only upset her. I use a range of excuses to justify my absences. As this is harder for the night jobs, I have magicked up a group of unemployed friends with whom I supposedly play poker. I tell Nicole that it relaxes me.
Before, I was H.R. manager at a company with almost two hundred employees. I was in charge of staff and training, overseeing salaries and representing the management at the works council. I worked at Bercaud, which sold costume jewellery. Seventeen years casting pearls before swine. That was everyone’s favourite gag. There was a whole load of extremely witty jokes that went around about pearls, family jewels, etc. Corporate banter, if you like. The laughter stopped in March, when it was announced that Bercaud had been bought out by the Belgians. I might have been in with a shout against the Belgian H.R. manager, but when I found out that he was thirty-eight, I mentally started to clear my desk. I say “mentally” because, deep down, I know I wasn’t at all ready to do it for real. But that was what I had to do – they didn’t hang about. The takeover was announced on March 4. The ﬁrst round of redundancies took place six weeks later, and I was part of the second. In the space of four years, as my income evaporated, I passed from incredulity to doubt, then to guilt, and ﬁnally to a sense of injustice. Now, I feel anger. It’s not a very positive emotion, anger. When I arrive at Logistics, and I see Mehmet’s bushy eyebrows and Charles’ long, rickety silhouette, and I think about everything I’ve had to endure, a terrible rage thunders inside me. Most of all, I have to avoid thinking about the years I have left, about the pension payments I’ll never receive, about the allowances that are withering away, or about the despair that sometimes grips Nicole and me. I have to avoid those thoughts because – in spite of my sciatica – they put me in the mood for terrorism.
In the four years we have known each other, I have come to count my job centre adviser as one of my closest friends. Not long ago, he told me, with a degree of admiration in his voice, that I was an example. What he means is that I might have given up on the idea of ﬁnding a job, but I haven’t given up looking for one. He thinks that shows strength of character. I don’t want to tell him he’s wrong; he is thirty-seven and he needs to hang on to his illusions for as long as possible. The truth is I’ve actually surrendered to a sort of innate reﬂex. Looking for work is like working, and since that is all I have done my whole life, it is ingrained in my nervous system; something that drives me out of necessity, but without direction. I look for work like a dog sniffs a lamp post. No illusions, but I can’t help it.
And so it was that I responded to an advertisement a few days ago. A headhunting ﬁrm looking to recruit an H.R. assistant for a big company. The role involves hiring staff at executive level, formulating job descriptions, carrying out assessments, writing up appraisals, processing social audits, etc., which is all right up my street, exactly what I did for years at Bercaud. “Versatile, methodical and rigorous, the candidate will be equipped with excellent interpersonal skills.” My professional proﬁle in a nutshell.
The moment I read it, I compiled my documents and attached my C.V. Needless to say, it all hangs on whether they are willing to take on a man of my age. The answer to which is perfectly obvious: it’ll be a “no”. So what? I sent off my application anyway. I wonder whether it was just a way of honouring my job centre adviser’s admiration.
When Mehmet kicked me in the arse, I let out a yelp. Everyone turned around. First Romain, then Charles, who did so with greater difﬁculty as he was already a couple of sheets to the wind. I straightened up like a young man. That’s when I realised that I was almost a head taller than Mehmet. Up to now, he had been the big boss. I’d never really noticed his size. Mehmet himself was struggling to come to terms with kicking me in the arse. His anger seemed to have abated entirely, I could see his lips trembling and he was blinking as he tried to ﬁnd the words, I’m not sure in which language. That was when I did something for the ﬁrst time in my life: I tilted my head back, very slowly, as though I were admiring the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and then whipped it forward with a sharp motion. Just like I’d seen on television. A head-butt, they call it. Charles, being homeless, gets beaten up a lot, and knows all about it. “Nice technique,” he told me. For a ﬁrst-timer, it seemed a very decent effort.
My forehead broke Mehmet’s nose. Before feeling the impact on my skull, I heard a sinister crack. Mehmet howled (in Turkish this time, no doubt about it), but I couldn’t ram home my advantage because he immediately took his head in his hands and sank to his knees. If I had been in a ﬁlm, I almost certainly would have taken a run-up and laid him out with an almighty kick in the face, but my skull was aching so much that I also took my head in my hands and fell to the ground. Both of us were on our knees, facing each other, heads in hands. Tragedy in the workplace. A dramatic scene worthy of an Old Master.
Romain started ﬂapping around, no idea what to do with himself. Mehmet was bleeding everywhere. The ambulance arrived within a few minutes. We gave statements. Romain told me that he’d seen Mehmet kick me in the arse, that he would be a witness and that I had nothing to worry about. I kept silent, but my experience led me to believe that it deﬁnitely wouldn’t be as simple as all that. I wanted to be sick. I went to the toilets, but in vain.
Actually no, not in vain: in the mirror, I saw that I had a gash and a large bruise across my forehead. I was deathly pale and all over the place. Pitiful. For a moment, I thought I was starting to look like Charles.
I hope that sharing this chapter with you will encourage you to pick up a copy of Inhuman Resources!
Many thanks to Ella at Quercus Books for inviting me to take part in this blog blast today!