In which she drives the process, while remembering The Boys She’s Done Before

Being an unemployed single mother is no fun, let me tell you. Neither is being a single mother employed by nutters. I had to do something about getting a new job that paid actual money. Preferably with a boss in possession of all his marbles. Wishful thinking? Well, yes. Since my teaching days, my bosses have seemed progressively marble deficient.

Teaching clearly wasn’t going to work. My teacher’s salary was so miniscule as to be embarrassing, on top of which I had to buy all my own teaching materials. When I left, I had a year’s supply of empty cardboard egg cartons and no use for them. There are only so many piggy-masks a child wants to make before getting bored.

It was time to get real. I decided to do a short computer and secretarial course, and to embark on a stellar career in paper shuffling. For some weird reason, people are far more willing to pay proper money to women who type arb memos all day than to the ladies who look after their children.

I looked forward to a change and thought an office job might be cool. I almost imagined for a second that I could be a dynamic, driven career woman like you see on TV, balancing work and motherhood with consummate ease and sexy hair. Theme tunes from eighties movies played constantly in my head… Working 9 to 5 and so on. Good grief. I was so dof.

So I learnt how to drive a computer, how to type with more than two fingers (The quick brown dog jumped over the lazy fox – or was it the other way around?), how to make tea for the boss, how to do petty cash. When I thought of the real difference I’d made teaching, the meaninglessness of this new life grated me. But I was good at it without having to try too hard. I was organised and methodical (OCD can come in handy). The sane, sensible columns of numbers calmed me, soothed my frazzled nerves, as did purchase orders in triplicate and colour-coded filing systems. Sensible Tracy was as happy as a pig in shit.

Less than I’d aspired to for my life, but at least I knew I could handle an office job without making anybody bleed, except in gratifying daydreams where I’d shove the boss’s head through a plate glass window. This and other lovely fantasies have kept me sane; there’s nothing like contemplating bloody murder to bring a smile to your face on days when it seems everybody around you has eaten a bowl of stupid for breakfast. It works.

I passed my course well and a month after graduation I started my first job as a receptionist at a labour broking office. Reception work probably wasn’t the best fit for me – a basic requirement is a bubbly, People Person type personality, something that is lacking in my make-up. Other qualities required for this particular position (which I also lacked) were the ability to swear loudly at people in four languages, martial arts training and Zen-like patience. A fuck you attitude in general would have been helpful. I didn’t know this at the time. I was under the mistaken impression that working hard and being helpful would be enough. Even though the idea of talking to people (even friendly, happy ones) for eight hours a day – and smiling while doing so – made my stomach hurt. Still, beggars can’t be choosers and I was grateful for the chance to start somewhere.

My illusions were soon shattered. My job was a far cry from what I’d imagined. It was about as glamorous as answering the phone at an Epping panel-beater – just a tiny step up from a stuffy prefab, decorated with tattered Scope pin-ups circa 1987. I’d pictured a new wardrobe filled with pastel shift dresses and coordinating accessories. I’d looked forward to lively boardroom meetings and sociable office camaraderie. Recognition for a job well done. Awe at my astonishing filing prowess. Record-breaking rise through the ranks to be promoted within months to head of Staple Procurement or something. Stuff like that.

What I got was an uncomfortable desk in a freezing cold hallway (on a raised platform, so that anybody standing in front of the desk could see right up my skirt, or up my jacksie, as one male colleague so eloquently put it), office politics so cut-throat it was a wonder anybody was left alive, a clunky old switchboard that nobody explained to me, and staff members who refused to take calls for weeks on end. I was the last frontier (or first line of defence, depending on how you chose to look at it) between enraged contract workers who hadn’t been paid in six weeks and grumpy wage clerks who refused to come out of their holes to help resolve problems of their making.

In short, I’d been banished to hell.

Picture this: It’s 3pm on a scorching Friday afternoon in January. Receptionist Tracy is congratulating herself on the completion of her first week as a working mother, and doing what all working mothers do all day long – watching the clock for home time and pondering just how badly this full-time job is going to screw up her child. I was beginning to think about packing up, when the front door burst open and what seemed like the entire Cape Town City Council’s Cleansing Department streamed in, brandishing scruffy payslips and angry expressions.

Oh boy. Nervous as hell, I tried hard to be professional and to help them one at a time, but they were not interested in queuing. They wanted their pay issues – sorry, their Fokken Pay Issues – fixed immediately. They did not care who handed over the cash, but somebody was going to do it, and before they left the building, too. Twenty to thirty mean, sweaty labourers crowded around my desk, some shouting, others loitering and a lucky few leering up the jacksie. I was terrifically polite and tried to remain calm, but the tears were not far off. They wouldn’t listen. What did they care if the wage office was closed for the afternoon? Which, of course, it wasn’t. Those buggers were in there, all right, drinking coffee and laughing at the new patsy trying to make herself heard without being shot.