‘I know what your circumstances are, don’t worry,’ the bloke said, glancing at us with sympathy. 'We're here to offer hope.'
He was a middle aged man in a faded shirt who smelt of crushed dreams and late night ironing. Beside me the others on the Job Centre training course stared into space: tattooed blokes wondering where all the manual jobs went; gum-chewing teens; a straw-haired woman whose gaze seemed to speak of profound and tragic futility.
‘It’s been good to me, the AA,’ the bloke continued. ‘I came when I was nineteen. Got a wife and two kids now.’ He gazed at a ray of sunlight slanting in through the window, like an ex-hostage attempting to overcome years of trauma.
A pretty girl at the back sullenly checked her mobile.
There were a couple of 'Aptitude' tests to see if we were really the elite squad of call centre operatives the AA was looking for. I realised there must be an error as soon as I opened the 'Literacy' section. My paper didn't appear to be aimed at a fully-functioning adult; rather it was written in the tone of voice you'd use to address a tree.
1. It was cold, so I put on my_________
d) DVD player.
2. The lady ran back to get her __________
I looked up. Was this for real?
3. People play football all over the _________
In the end I found the only way I could get through the whole thing was to shut my eyes and effectively answer the questions blind, drawing random little circles in the hope they might connect with an answer. It was a sort of Jackson Pollock approach to multiple choice.
17. Black is the opposite of _________
a) a bell;
18. Jane drove to work in her _________
‘Don’t worry if you haven’t got any qualifications,’ the bloke smiled kindly, glancing down at my sheet when I got to the bit about 'Past Work Experience'. I was about to put 'BA Russian Studies With Spanish Cinema', but concluded that knowing how to make marks on a piece of paper with a pen was probably sufficient.
I took my half-completed test to the guy at the desk and informed him that I’d be delighted if he would never, ever consider accepting me onto the training course answering inbound calls for the AA. He looked slightly crestfallen, as if I’d just turned down an invitation to his birthday party.
‘Was there a problem?’
‘Everyone else was dead chuffed at the opportunity,' he said. 'The Job Centre will want to know why you've turned it down.'
I gazed back at him and pictured myself smiling dumbly into oblivion beneath a headset as I tried to sell a woman extra breakdown cover while she picked pieces of her husband out of a pileup.
'You know what?' I said. ‘I just don’t think I’ve got what it takes.’