Funny what can jog the memory; we were talking last week at work about voice recognition software, of all things, and it got me thinking about Intira from Cashiers. Before that she hadn’t crossed my mind for many years.
I moved home after university in the summer of 1996. I had a degree, but I had well and truly missed the boat in terms of finding something to do with it. My contemporaries were on the fast track to becoming solicitors, accountants, management consultants – adults, in short. Either that or, bankrolled by mummy and daddy in leafy North London, they were ensconced in the family home working as interns for newspapers or runners for TV channels. I could just about make out the soles of their feet far above me on the career ladder as I stood on terra firma, scared of heights. By contrast, going back home and moving in with my mother and my brother was an admission of defeat, one that was remarkably easy.
My life settled into a comfortable routine back home of living rent-free, watching daytime television and trekking along to the Siberian horror of the Jobcentre every fortnight. My main daily outing was a wander to the off licence on the roundabout around three in the afternoon to buy a packet of Rothmans Royals and twinkle at the girl behind the counter. She was, of course, out of my league – mainly by virtue of her being in gainful employment.
I strung this cushy arrangement out for as long as I could but it soon became apparent that it couldn’t last. The household dynamic didn’t adjust well to my nearest and dearest coming home from a hard day at work to find me lying on the sofa watching television, dirty dishes piled up by the sink. If they’d ever noticed the gigantic pyramid of dog ends tossed on the flat roof outside my bedroom window god only knows what kind of hell would have broken loose. After a family summit it was made clear to me that I had to find a job. If I couldn’t, one would be found for me. That is how I ended up working in the cashiers’ department of the insurance company that had offered a position to my brother, not long after he left school under a cloud.
If anything, I at twenty-two might have qualified as an even more hopeless case than him at seventeen.
For the first time since graduation, I threw on my nasty shiny double-breasted suit, knotted the only tie I owned and went for an interview. I’m not sure what was bigger, my interviewer’s hair or my shoulder pads, but all went well and I was deemed up to the demanding task of data entry, filing and filling out paperwork at the sum of four pounds an hour, starting Monday. That was the start of what was supposed to be my life as a grown up. Before I knew it, that nasty suit had become a regular occurrence along with alarm clocks, laundry, ironing, shaving, luncheon vouchers and the Sunday night slump when you realise you have had all your fun and the tedium is about to begin again. Welcome to adulthood, said the metaphorical sign, you’re going to be here for forty years. If you’re lucky.
I can’t convey the culture shock of life in a big company when you’ve left a university where the main social intercourse consisted of having precious (if not twee) conversations until two in the morning. By contrast, most of the conversations around the bank of desks involved what had happened in the previous night’s episode of EastEnders. The way my colleagues talked about them, it was as if the characters in the soap opera were mutual friends. I soon realised that, to all intents and purposes, they might as well have been. Later on came another realisation, that watching it was the only way I would ever have anything in common with most of the people in my open plan prison, so I started watching it too. That was another admission of defeat, but by no means the last.
The demographic in that office was a strange one. You had the wide boys who dealt with the insurance brokers; almost all school leavers, all flashy suits and spiky hair. My brother was in that group, but he didn’t hang around with me. It was just like being a kid on his first day at big school, and I was far too embarrassing. They worked hard and played hard, which is just another way of saying that they could fit in three pints at lunchtime down the Corn Stores, the nearest pub. I didn’t realise at the time that my brother might well have drunk three pints at lunchtime on his own if it came to it, but as it turned out they were very effective camouflage for him.
Then you had the graduates and management types. On paper, I should have belonged in that camp but I was the wrong kind of graduate. I wasn’t on a management scheme, I was just the hopelessly overqualified temp. They avoided me, just as they avoided anybody who wasn’t one of them. A few years later one of the graduate trainees told me she had spoken to the branch manager who had described the non-graduates this way: “By all means look at the monkeys and laugh, but when they get on the table and dance, whatever you do don’t join in.” If I had known that at the time, it would have explained a lot. I was a metaphorical man in a monkey suit, and every bit as ridiculous as a real one.
I was stranded with my own makeshift tribe, the good ladies of the cashiers’ department, and of course I didn’t fit in there either. Our bit of the third floor was right in the corner. You had to pass through all the areas of the open-plan office full of young people having fun before you got there, which made the walk to your desk even more agonising every morning. Once there, you were in the lifeless dark heart of the company, surrounded by filing cabinets and old women which had much in common. They were all grey, stocky and immobile. Like the filing cabinets the women had been there for years, like the filing cabinets they were full of information nobody needed or wanted and like the filing cabinets you wouldn’t have wanted to go through their drawers for fear of finding something that had lain unused for a very long time.
There was Maureen – impassive, grumpy, perpetually disappointed. She always had an expression which brought to mind Queen Victoria after she’d just been told a filthy joke. Maureen was the sort of person who was appalled if she got passed a piece of work full of errors but even more appalled if she couldn’t find any fault at all. I made so many mistakes that I suppose, in a funny sort of way, she might have described me as a pleasure to work with, if that word had even featured in her dictionary.
There was Alison, the team leader. She was the only person approaching my age in the team, but because we were the broken biscuits of the corporate barrel she had something wrong with her hip and walked as if her whole life was spent on the verge of a pratfall. She lived for the weekends, when she would go to the pub she called “Yatesies” and get obliterated on Hooch alcoholic lemonade (it was all the rage back then). I always wondered whether, if she got drunk enough, her walk might right itself. Perhaps that was why she did it.
She had a Forever Friends cuddly bear at her desk, sinister narrow eyes peering out at me whenever I approached her to ask for advice. I found it difficult to take orders from somebody who hadn’t mastered joined up writing, let alone spelling or grammar. Her letter ‘i’ had a childlike heart over it instead of a dot; it was her all over, meant to be endearing but instead just downright irritating.
Then there was Aileen, my favourite: chirpy, mothering, almost glamorous in her way and the only one who talked to me like we were in it together. Like so many good people who stick out like a sore thumb in horrible offices, she was afflicted with serious health problems. She left a little while after I joined to fight cancer. My memory, normally so good at this sort of thing, fails me when I try to recall who won, but I have a horrible feeling it wasn’t her. After that there was just an empty chair and some Aileen-shaped silence competing with all the other silences in that miserable coagulation of desks.
Autumn slid into winter, the air got sharp and thin and the Rothmans Royals started to give me an evil cough that would persist well into spring. Every morning my brother, my mother and I would pile into her beige Renault 5 and chug down the hill, the radio pumping through the speakers, the cars backed up in the fog and the frost as far as the eye could see. The Beautiful South would come on the tinny car stereo singing This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome. ‘Cause Rotterdam is anywhere, anywhere alone. I could see my breath in the air, or it might have been the Rothmans Royals, and I was certain they were wrong. Reading wasn’t Rotterdam, Liverpool or anywhere; Reading was nowhere, and by then I was already depressed, although I didn’t know that yet.
I’m not sure I can do justice to what an awful place it was to spend eight hours every day. If working in an ad agency in the 1960s was Mad Men, working in an insurance company in the 1990s was Sad Men. It’s hard to imagine now, but this isn’t just in the days before email. This was in the days before personal computers at every desk. There was some internal equivalent of email you could use to send messages to other people in the office, but I was too low-grade to get access to that. This was the last hurrah of filing cabinets, carbon paper, triplicate and microfiches. My day consisted of filling out forms, filing forms, processing forms, checking forms and – on rare occasions to break up the monotony – writing cheques (another throwback, that) settling insurance claims. They were nearly always for more money than I would earn between then and Christmas Day.
There were next to no ways to waste time, at a time when my time was less valuable than it would ever be again. The only one I ever found was listening to Intira talking on the telephone to insurance brokers.
Intira was the other member of our little team. She was an aggressive little middle-aged Thai lady who specialised in the kind of chunky patterned cardigans no grandmother, no matter how sadistic, would knit. The look was completed with crinkly greying hair and giant thick spectacles which appeared to cover her entire face. Her eyes swum behind them like fish in a tank as she squinted with suspicion at everything she ever came into contact with: humans, numbers, books, doors.
Intira predated the popular stereotype of nubile young Thai ladies being imported to Britain to marry awkward blazered balding men with more money than social skills, she was from an altogether earlier vintage. Nobody asked when she arrived in the country, but it was hard to imagine she had ever been nubile. It was harder still to imagine she had ever been young. The stories about her were legendary; she was renowned throughout the office as an excruciatingly slow and cautious driver, peering with terror at the road from behind the double windscreen of her glasses, struggling to top ten miles per hour. A colleague of my brother’s once got stuck behind her trying to exit one of those multi-storey car parks with a curved concrete ramp between every single floor. It was over an hour before he saw daylight again.
The real draw, though, was hearing Intira yelling on the phone in an unintelligible accent which prolonged exposure to her didn’t render any easier to decipher. Most English people, when confronted with a foreigner, choose to speak English louder and louder. In an interesting reversal Intira had taken to doing exactly that when dealing with people who could not understand her, which was most people, even though both of them were speaking English. This meant that several times a day we were treated to Intira bellowing at some spiv in another office who, I expect, had no idea what had hit him.
I wonder what Intira would have made of voice recognition software. Perhaps more to the point, I wonder what it would have made of her.
For example, if Intira had said the words “bank account” into a microphone, here’s what the software would have spat out: bang a cow. Intira worked in Cashiers so she had to talk about bank accounts a lot, pretty much every day. It was a joke which never got old. Not just that, but Intira also couldn’t pronounce the letter x, which always came out as a k. Maximum became “makimum”, next became “nekt”. Most of the time you almost got used to it. However, all of Intira’s telephone foibles built to a glorious conclusion one uneventful spring afternoon when I noticed her getting more and more agitated with a broker who couldn’t understand a word she was saying. She kept raising her voice the way kids turn up a stereo just to see how loud it will get, which meant that everyone on the entire floor heard the culmination of her tirade into the melting receiver, to their baffled shock:
“No. Is not in my bang a cow! No! Not in bang a cow. You fack me. You fack me in bang a cow. You fack me, we have a good look.”
As a result Intira become one of those almost mythical people, like some celebrities, that everyone thinks they can do an impersonation of. And by everyone, I mean me. I was also the person responsible for that story doing the rounds in the first place. I milked that car-crash moment for all it was worth – for attention, for popularity, for belonging. And it sort of worked; the gel-haired spivs used to love my impression of Intira. On the occasions when I managed to wangle an invite to the Corn Stores it seemed like a fair exchange; cheap pints in return for cheap laughs. It’s easy, after all, laughing at people who are different.
I left Cashiers a few months later and headed across the floor to a job which was much the same but where I was surrounded by people forty years younger. In my book that classed as going up in the world, yet another admission of defeat. My replacement, a spotty school leaver called Rob, was even more obnoxious than me and when he turned up on his first day I remember the chilly smile he got from Maureen. I had a distinct feeling that she would be even more unpleasant to him than she had been to me, but by that stage I didn’t much care. After all, I was headed for better things.
I don’t recall what happened to Intira. I hope for her sake that she was close to retirement, because she and her colleagues were part of a workforce which the passage of time and the development of technology were about to render obsolete. Intira would never have survived team away days, or learning to use spreadsheets, or being forced to reapply for your own job. She would have been broken on the wheel of assessment centres or psychometric testing. I can’t see her finding her way round the brave new world of the Internet. Putting Intira, or any of her team-mates, through that would have been the cruellest thing of all. They were lucky to be ending their careers when the world was changing; the 1990s were a kinder time in so many ways than all the bullshit we all have to go through now. Stuck shivering in my mum’s Renault 5, spending my evenings drinking lager in the Bull and Chequers with my friends, listening to What’s The Story, Morning Glory on the jukebox for the five thousandth time, I could never have appreciated that. I wouldn’t for a very long time.
It’s only now, when I look back, that I see things as they really were. Being an immigrant in England back in those less enlightened times must have been an awful fate. For every woman like Intira who got in her car and went to work (admittedly at a snail’s pace with a tailback of apoplectic motorists behind her) I bet there were ten like my friend Ivor’s mum, who came over fleeing the Prague Spring, and stayed at home. She hid behind the net curtains while her husband went out to work, making no friends, speaking little English and devoting her time to her children, her frightening-looking evening meals, and to making tapestries.
This isn’t about false sentiment. Intira wasn’t a nice woman and she and I would never have been friends, that would have been unthinkable. If I close my eyes and ignore the television blaring in the corner, I can almost still hear her barking down the phone at someone (though I’d be lying if I pretended I could make out any specific words), or cross-examining me with suspicion when I asked her whether she wanted something from the coffee machine. But sitting here now, with the benefit of fifteen years of hindsight, I can’t help but find it all a little sad to think of all that time I wasted, ridiculing the only person I knew who fitted in even less than me.