In the job centre, an extremely tall man in a shiny grey suit tells me that his name is Rick and shakes my hand and smiles at me. There's something wrong with his skin. Little bits of his face look so dry that they might flake off at any moment. It's especially bad around his mouth. He gestures me into the seat opposite, then starts typing on his computer. Occasionally he stops to glance up at me. I wonder how old he is. It's impossible to tell.
'Right then,' Rick says, finishing his typing. 'It says here that you worked in a music shop for the last six years, yeah? Can you tell me a little bit more about that?'
'We sold CDs and DVDs and games and books,' I say. 'I just worked behind the till. I wasn't a manager or anything.'
Rick nods and types a few words.
I don't feel like I'm selling myself particularly well.
'Then it closed down,' I say.
'Oh dear,' he says. 'And why was that? Nothing to do with you I hope?'
He smiles at me.
I can't quite bring myself to join in.
Maybe his mouth might heal up quicker if he stopped smiling quite so much.
'Things were cheaper online,' I say.
'Right, right, of course,' he says, nodding so vigorously that a little flake of his cheek detaches from his face and flutters, snowflake-like, towards the desk. It lands on a leaflet about depression counselling. 'Amazon?' he says.
Amazon, I nod.
He clicks his mouse a couple of times, then frowns at his screen, fiddling with a small patch of stubble on his chin and making a soft clacking noise with his tongue.
If I had to guess, I'd say he was in his mid thirties, about three school years above me.
'And what were you doing before that job?' he says.
'Just bar work.'
'No other skills?'
'And you've got a degree in...in Media Studies, is that right?'
'Yep. A two-one.'
'Alright,' he says. 'I've got a bakery here. In Sale. Think you could handle working in a bakery?'
I try hard to imagine myself working in a bakery: I'm wearing an apron and one of those net hat things, and I'm carrying a tray of sickly, uncooked sausage rolls towards an industrial-sized oven.
'I'm not sure,' I say.
'I'll print it out anyway,' Rick says.
He clicks his mouse and the printer begins to whirr and it sounds, very slightly, like the end of the world.
As I wait for my name to be called, I have a go on one of the job-search machines in the middle. I tap through the listings on the greasy, smudgy touch-screen, but there's almost nothing that I can realistically see myself doing. Either you have to already have a specific qualification like animal care or a foreign language or a PGCE, or else you have to be prepared to do something really, really awful like harass people in the street or clean their offices at five in the morning. I print out only two listings: one seeking someone willing to dress up as a large top hat to advertise a city-centre-based printing company, and the other for a part-time 'general assistant' in a funeral home. I fold the long waxy print-outs and put them in my jacket pocket, making sure to leave the edges poking out a little so that Rick will see them. Then I wander back over to the soft red seating area.
The job centre is open plan, and from where I'm sitting I can see Rick chatting enthusiastically to a woman in a burka, leaning across his desk and smiling at her, occasionally tonguing the sore red corners of his mouth. The whole place is heaving. It's a like a really depressing Argos. There must be over a hundred people milling around this large grey-and-red room.
Eventually I hear my name ("Ian Wilson?") and I look up and there's Rick, waving me over.
'So how are we doing today then, mate?' he says once I'm sat down.
Up close, his mouth looks even worse than before. I almost want to ask him about it.
'Not bad,' I say.
'Any luck on the old job front?'
'Not really,' I say, feeling my mind suddenly shed itself of all the fake information I'd stuffed it with. I'd spent all morning going over my story, making sure I'd filled in a decent number of boxes on the What I've Been Doing to Look For Work booklet and then memorising all the things I'd made up.
'O—kay,' Rick says, leaning in towards his computer screen, double-clicking his mouse. 'Call centre. I've got a call centre here.'
'Alright,' I say.
'We need dynamic, self-motivated individuals to work in this unique and exciting new business opportunity,' he reads, not very dynamically, off the screen. 'Sound any good?'
'What would I be selling exactly?'
He leans even closer towards the monitor and rests his chin on his hand. His little finger dabs at the blistered corners of his mouth as his eyes dart hopelessly round the screen.
'It doesn't say,' he says.
'I don't know,' I say.
'I'll print it out,' he says.
I press the touchscreen on the job search machine and scroll through the listings. Nothing. Not even a top hat. So I walk back to the soft red seating area and take my seat and wait for my name to be called and when it is, finally, it's Rick again of course. He waves at me and lifts himself a little out of his seat as I walk towards him. At first I think he's grown a goatee, but as I get closer I realise it's actually a dark brown scab that's crusted all the way round his lips. In between little cracks in the scab I can see bright red dots of blood. I wonder if it's okay for him to be working here like this. Shouldn't he be at the doctors? Shouldn't he be at home?
'Back again,' he says cheerily, dabbing the corner of his mouth against the back of his hand then examining it.
'Yep,' I say.
'What happened?' he says, looking over some print-outs, which, I assume, have all the details about my Quiztime Solutions experience on them.
'I wasn't quite meeting my targets,' I say. 'So they let me go.'
'And when was that?'
'Six days ago.'
'So what have you been doing since then?'
I've been lying on my bed a lot in a foetal position, feeling miserable.
I've been sitting in the living room, drinking rum with Carol.
I've been ignoring all sorts of messages and notifications on Facebook.
'Looking for work,' I say.
'Right,' says Rick, dabbing his mouth again.
He clicks his mouse and leans in a little towards his monitor.
'Do you have anything where I could just walk around outside?' I say, but Rick isn't listening.
He leans in towards the screen and clacks his tongue loudly against the roof of his mouth. 'Alright,' he says. 'Alright. I've got a warehouse here. Think you could handle working in a warehouse?'
'A small team of motivated individuals are needed for work in this busy warehouse environment to boost our staff during the seasonal period,' Rick reads from the screen. 'You will be expected to unpack and re-pack various consumer goods in this exciting temporary goods-handling position. Well? Any good?'
'I don't know, I say.
I'll print it out,' he says.
As he gets up to go and collect the print out, I take one of the Depression Counselling leaflets from the desk, fold it in half, and stuff it in my jacket pocket.