Due to a combination of the recession and me not really trying very hard at my job, I have recently had my working hours (and wages) slashed. While going over my finances I came to two potentially life-changing decisions: firstly I would probably have to cancel my monthly 15 direct debit to Save the Children (times are hard; fuck the children. There’s no way I’m cancelling my Sky subscription, I’d miss Ross Kemp too much). Secondly, I’d actually be better off signing on, getting my rent paid and qualifying for free courses at college. I can use the recession to my advantage and emerge on the other side with more skills than Ryan Giggs.
However, I shall be the first to admit that it will take every ounce of cognitive control I can muster to prevent me from spending six months lying on the floor watching Comedy Central. I like Comedy Central, it makes me laugh. Especially Robert from Everybody Loves Raymond. I definitely can’t cancel Sky.
My plan is foolproof – I’m essentially beating the system. I don’t care what David Cameron says about creating an environment where nobody is better off on benefits; I have done the math(s). Taking into account the money I’ll save on travel and lunches, I actually am going to be better off, plus I will absorb education as opposed to repeating the same monotonous tasks over and over again. I also won’t have to pretend to like my boss any more, something that I’m pretty sure was causing me long-term emotional damage and slowly nurturing a form of subconscious misogyny that can only have negative repercussions for the women in my life (excluding, of course, the ones already under the floorboards).
My calculations hinged on one deciding factor, a circumstance that would eventually become the integral determinant: lunch. Had I been prepared to take a packed lunch to work, I could have just about justified staying on – in the grand scheme of things, a minor sacrifice and inconvenience, or so you would be led to believe. The actual process of choosing my lunch, the excitement of uncertainty, taking a gamble and buying a crayfish salad or something from the West Indian aisle of the supermarket was (along with smoking) the irrefutable high point of my day. Take that away from me and you may as well bury me. Being sat at my desk with only a ham sandwich I made myself to look forward to would be too great a cross to bear.
Within the space of ten days I had handed in my notice, arranged to sign on and put in my housing benefit application. I was feeling strangely optimistic about the future for someone who was essentially going to have to either give up smoking or relinquish solid food and attempt to live off milk swiped from doorsteps at sunrise.
The only possible obstacle in my path was the Job Centre actually finding me a job. The last time I signed on, I made the mistake of appearing overeager to find work. I was polite, charming and if my ‘jobsearch’ booklet was to be believed, applying for no end of jobs. They took it upon themselves to help me and I was constantly receiving phone calls about vacancies in Sainsbury’s and exciting night-shifts that had just become available in factories on the outskirts of London.
It had been two years since I last signed on, so I knew there were probably a load of new staff there. I had the chance to entirely reinvent myself and I formulated a plan that would keep Job Centre interference to a minimum. The last things I needed were interviews at Ryman’s and phone calls in the middle of the day; they would seriously interfere with my state-sponsored Renaissance experiment.
Now I would like to make it crystal clear: I am not proud of what I did next. I was in no way attempting to mock, satirise or trivialise mental disability. I was merely attempting to harness some of its lesser-documented perks. I knew that if from day one, I went in there and their initial reaction was ‘there’s something not quite right with Mr. Lazer’, I would be left to my own devices. I had to make sure I didn’t over-egg the pudding; I did not fancy being referred to some kind of clinic. They would be far harder to dupe, and I would run the risk of being sectioned.
After a little research I decided I would pitch my ‘condition’ somewhere between mild autism and a plethora of vague social phobias. I had to make them believe that sending me off for an interview halfway across town would end up with me refusing to come out of a toilet cubicle on the train to Hastings.
As I took my seat opposite a lady at the Job Centre named Dana (a large lady of Afro-Caribbean decent with a slightly haggard expression, only partially counterbalanced by her massive yellow earrings), I knew it was now or never. I had already laid the groundwork. My hair was parted slightly off-centre and tucked behind my ears; my shirt was partly untucked and effectively pulled out to form a weird ‘blouse’ effect; there was a good three day’s worth of hair on my face and I hadn’t brushed my teeth. I fixed my stare at a point on the wall slightly to the left of Dana’s head; began cupping Dana read through the forms I’d filled out in silence before asking “what type of work you want?” barely looking up. If she wasn’t going to look at me, how was she going to know if I had autism or not? I needed to get her attention with a slightly odd answer. “I refuse to hurt animals”, I found myself replying, before adding, “even dead ones”. I now had her full attention. “What do you mean?” she asked. “I don’t want to be a butcher or work in a slaughterhouse or be a fox hunter or have to talk on the phone,” I replied, my mouth now opening and closing in fairly rapid intervals, my hands fidgeting. “OK,” she replied, apparently unfazed, before typing something on her computer. She was now aware that I was staring blankly at the wall behind her head with a bemused expression on my face; I needed to reel it in slightly.
“I’d like a job where I can meet new people, but I am quite shy so sometimes I find it hard talking to new people; but I like meeting new people,” I said (with a subtle stammer that I must have subconsciously incorporated). I thought that was the kind of thing someone with a slight mental condition might say. “OK,” she replied again, “this is your sign-on date; sign here and I’ll update your claim, we can look at some jobs next time.” I pretended to read the form I was signing before executing an extremely slow and complex signature. “I’ll see you in two weeks, David,” she said. “OK Dana, thank you. It was very nice to meet you,” I replied, cautiously extending a limp wrist for a handshake. As she shook my hand I made a facial expression that an abused puppy might pull if you had cornered it and were attempting to stroke it.
Walking across the Job Centre towards the exit, I felt a sense of relief; I clenched my fists together to prevent a smile spreading across my face. As I went through the electric doors I felt the sun on my face, and a warm sense of accomplishment surged through my body. Only time would tell if I had convinced her, but I knew exactly what I had to do if I was forced to attend any job interviews. But, as I got further up the road, a sudden gust of cold autumn wind swept over me. I thought about what I’d just done and suddenly felt a little bit disgusted with myself.