Keep Them Rollin’
“You are making history,” they told us at our “Motivating the Motivators” course. “You’re part of the great reformation of the British welfare system!”
But my cubicle in the open-plan office doesn’t look like a history-making room. No maps with pins and flags adorn my partition, only a generic landscape painting of cliffs and waves and appropriately humble fisherfolk. It’s hanging crooked, for some reason, so I put it straight just as my first ‘customer’ arrives.
Middle-aged lady, faded 1990s rock-chick look. Kitted out like she’s off to a gig rather than an interview. Hoodie, t-shirt with an unreadable name on it. Denim skirt, black leggings, trainers. About my age and my height, but bulkier, with a battered cardboard folder under her arm. She sits down before I invite her and places her folder on her lap.
Presentation skills need work. I make a mental note as I smile at her. “You must be Wendy Smith. I’ll just get your file up on the computer.”
The screen comes to life, and the desktop icons dance in front of me. I rub my eyes. I’m having trouble finding Wendy Smith’s file. Could I really be hung over from last night? It was just a few drinks with Miriam from IT.
No, it’s the damn system playing up again. No surprise after five years of constant overhauls, write-offs and restarts from scratch.
Whole thing’s so cocked up they’ve just brought in another new bunch of experts, Miriam says. It’s all about ‘quantum computing’ now.
So it’s a big thing, this quantum computing. Government put millions into it. “All theoretical,” Miriam said last night. She does like to bend my ear, and she likes a drink too. Must be all the stress they get in IT.
“But they’re getting practical real fast around here. A universal computer system for Universal Credit! Or shall we say multiversal, Gwen?” She downed the last of her drink with a chuckle.
I didn’t quite see the humour. “Call it what you want, it sounds like gobbledygook to me.” Then I went to the bar for more G&Ts.
Miriam carried on talking shop, but after a few drinks it was sounding more and more like a shop located on another planet.
At last, there’s the profile for Wendy Smith, who shares my run-of-the-mill surname. Blimey. Where did she get that haircut, in a poodle parlour? I also notice the date of birth. Same as mine. Just goes to show what a crock astrology is.
I take my time before I speak. Silence makes people squirm, ready to spill.
“So Wendy, we need to talk about your Claimant Commitment, which will set out what you must do in return for our help. We have your tax records, but we need to know more since you’ve not been on the Job Centre system before.”
“Maybe it’s because I already have a job. Two of them.”
Wendy speaks with a smile, so ‘firm but polite’. Bet she’ll talk about ‘rights’ next.
Expect that from working claimants, we were told at training. So now it’s time to initiate a ‘challenging conversation’.
I turn up my own smile. “Now we have a new system, so just having a job is not enough. We ask you to try to progress in your work and increase your earnings, and provide proof of that. To get started, why don’t you tell me more about what you do.”
She looks at me like I’m an insect that just buzzed in, and grips that thick folder on her lap as if she’d love to swat me with it.
“I’m a freelance editor and writer,” she finally says.
“That must be lovely! But you’re still not earning enough to support yourself without claiming in-work benefits. And that’s what we have to tackle.”
She nods. “OK, let’s do that. I was fine on my income ten, even five years ago. But my rent has doubled since then. And the publishers have cut their rates.”
I beam her my ‘tough but sympathetic’ look. This is accomplished by a steady stare, keeping eye contact but giving the lips a faint upward twitch.
“But Wendy, we have to move on. It’s up to you to make the changes you want, and not blame anyone or anything else for shortcomings.”
A burst of laughter greets that motivating morsel. “Oh yeah, and I bet ‘there’s no such thing as society,’ like your hero Margaret Thatcher said.”
“That’s quite an assumption…” I begin. Then I see she’s looking at the painting behind me.
“Those cows look like they were made by a cookie-cutter,” she says. “No perspective. Where’d you get that thing?”
Cows? I look over my shoulder. The sea and the cliffs have been replaced by rolling hills and… badly painted cows, splotched with greasy-looking patches of purple. That picture has changed. Who? When? My mind refuses to accept it; my stomach lurches.
But I’m a professional and I will continue this interview.
I turn away from the painting. “You weren’t invited here to comment on cows. We need to talk about your responsibilities as a claimant, and your work.”
“So I have some queries, all about my work!” She takes a sheaf of papers from her folder. “These are documents produced by your office. Universal Credit at Work, Guidance for Work Coaches… from the Freedom of Information Act and all that.”
She displays a page peppered with words circled in red. “Drive’ must be used fifteen times here. Drive earnings progression, drive the attitudes of low-earning claimants, driving a step-change in behaviours… Drive, drive, drive. Are you talking about cattle or sheep? Keep those dogies rollin’, rollin rollin rollin…”
Is she singing ‘Rawhide’? Indie bands did ironic covers of that song many years ago when I didn’t do much work myself and spent too much time at festivals. I can hear that music now, coming from the main stage while I was waiting in queue to use the satellite phone… A festival in Cornwall where everyone was off their faces and the portaloos overflowed with shit.
Wendy points at another red-circled word. “Incentivize? Spelt with ‘z’, no less.” She shudders. “Do you know what one of my editors said? Any writer using ‘incentivize’ should be taken out and shot.” She lifts her hand in a ‘stop’ gesture. “Not that I’m advocating that. But really… How can an organisation that produces such bad writing and churns out such swill be entitled to tell me how to do my job? Incentivise this, incentivise that! Sounds like a bloody Dalek. Incentivise! Incentivise!”
Though she hasn’t raised her voice, people are looking at us. Dalek-speak carries. Daleks! But last night Miriam was also talking rubbish straight out of Doctor Who as she rambled on about quantum computing. Qubits in many places at the same time, and people who might do that too. Parallel universes.
“Incentivise!” There she goes again.
Stay professional. Just remember I’m in control. Others have power over me – like that tight-arsed area manager – but I still decide what happens here.
I take a breath and modulate my tones to express patience and forbearance. “If you keep creating a disturbance, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
The computer emits a clickety-click. I’m still afraid to look at that painting.
“But I’m being perfectly reasonable,” Wendy protests. “And I have nothing against you personally. I know you have such a tough job.” Concern knits her brows, and her face flushes with faux sympathy. Same face I put on as I pretend to ‘help’ while I’m really shoehorning some loser onto a scheme with a multimillion pound contract.
In fact, there are seconds when Wendy could be me… wearing a fright-wig. I pat my short hair for reassurance.
“You know, I almost went to work at the Job Centre myself.” she says. “When I applied, I thought I’d go ‘undercover’ and help people get their money. But I’d already arranged to go to a festival, so I planned to ring my flatmates to find out about interviews. When I was queuing at the phone stall a friend walked by and said hey, come see a band. I thought, sod this. And when I got home a week later I found a letter saying I had an interview, but I’d missed it.”
“So you missed a job interview?” I make a note.
“Yeah? So that was in 1989,” she laughs. “Even if your sanctioning schtick does go retroactive, it couldn’t extend that far back.”
The queasy feeling returns as I remember. I’m waiting among the stalls selling overpriced veggie burgers and hippie tat. I’m anxious to make my phone call. If I have an interview I’ll leave. I won’t stay for the rest of the festival or join friends on a trip to St Just.
“Was… Was the festival in Cornwall?” My voice sounds distant in my ears. “Was there a band on the main stage playing ‘Rawhide’?”
“Yes! Were you there? It was a mental, that festival! And the loos were disgusting. But I had a good time in the end…”
Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’, keep ’em rollin’ rollin’. No, I told my friends. I’ve been waiting too long to give up on my phone call.
The receptionist comes by my partition. “Gwen! Your next customer is here.”
Snap out of it, snap snap snap!
I’m tempted to wave Wendy on her way after ticking the right boxes. Why argue, when I can fulfil goals with more tractable and less mouthy individuals?
And she reminds of times I’ve forgotten – or tried to forget. Moments that didn’t involve shit or squalor. Finding a stage far into the woods, bands playing on it, creating music I hadn’t heard before and haven’t heard since.
“Customer…” Wendy is saying. “When I last signed on, no one called us customers.”
Two bands jamming, creating a weave of sound that will never exist again. I could have slipped out of the queue. To hear more, I could have become like the woman in front of me. I could be living in chaos, too.
The computer’s gone to sleep. I have to log on again. The document materialises, but the text has turned into hieroglyphics. A vortex forms in the middle of the screen. But it dissipates and there’s Wendy Smith’s profile at last. With short hair.
That’s not Wendy Smith. It’s me.
Or both of us. Our images are layered, mingling in the same space. Wendy, Gwen, both. My stomach starts knotting again, the ground pitching under my feet.
“Different probabilities, and a computer that can calculate them.” Miriam was truly sloshed and slurring by last orders. “So quantum computing’s gonna save Universal Credit. That’s what they say. But maybe they want to influence claimant behaviour! Imagine different versions of each claimant in many universes, living out different decisions. Maybe there’s one who isn’t unemployed?”
I close my eyes.
Open them again to look at the real and rather cross Wendy Smith.
“What are you doing? Did you really write about my missed interview in 1989? But I did get work in publishing later.”
“And look where you are now,” I remind her.
“Yeah… it could be worse.” Wendy waves, indicating the vast strip-lit room around us… security guards at the door, tense talk as people are interrogated. Sobbing from the reception area. That better not be my next customer…
And Wendy is looking at me. It could be worse.
That’s it. “I’m afraid our time’s up,” I say. “I’ll write to you about our next appointment.”
Wendy can’t get out fast enough, papers trailing behind her. She turns to give an exaggerated salute.
Bitch. But she was right about one thing. We can’t sanction claimants for actions before their claim. Yet. However, I can flag up her comments as suggesting an entrenched aversion to work. That justifies a sanction, in addition to disrupting our interview. Six months of no benefit? With her rent she’ll feel the pinch.
Then I book her for a four-week programme with Grow Aspiration Success, the same organisation that ran our training. She’ll enjoy the full battery of neurolinguistic programming and mind-melding techniques.
And at last I do get around to ticking the box: ‘refer to decision-maker for compliance doubt.’ Sanctioned.
Keep Them Rollin’ first appeared in We Need to Talk, an anthology published in 2015 by Jurassic London.