Another job interview. The same recycled material, the same territory trodden so many times before. And as if by some far-fetched parodic device, this was literally the same job I had been interviewed for three years previously, and at the same place: assistant at an industrial laundry plant. Not an especially sought-after position - quite the opposite.
As I approached the site, driven by the compulsion of the involuntary ‘jobseeker’, I recognised once again that same knotted feeling, not of expectation but of dread and resentment, and brought on by the prospect not of rejection, but of acceptance.
I lurked outside just as before, in the same suit, then went into the same unstaffed reception and dialled the same number to announce my arrival. Everything was exactly as it had been last time, except for some notices on the wall about the company’s ethical obligations, which dated from this year.
It was unclear whether my interlocutors would remember me, or whether in fact they would turn out to be the different people. As last time, the vacancy was advertised in the local paper and the application form was sent by post and filled in by hand – a ritual rare enough to pass as some sort of period reconstruction. It was likely that the job was aimed at people who, for whatever reason, did not have regular internet access. I made a mental note not to let on about my extravagant broadband lifestyle. The fact that I’d been invited back suggested there was no record of my previous failure; or maybe I’d just missed out to a more suitable candidate and was being given a second chance. How generous.
I hadn’t recognised her name but Jane, the woman who collected me, looked distinctly familiar. She gave no indication of us having met before as we entered the main building and she explained the signing-in process, but then there was no reason why she should remember every visitor, or share that knowledge even if she did, so I supposed it was up to me to decide whether or not to own up. We began the tour of the plant and the moment had passed; already she was describing the layout and I had slipped into the performance of looking interested as the machinery scrolled past, as if I were seeing it all for the first time, nodding and asking questions.
I knew from my previous visit that the tour would be followed by a short formal interview, and pinned my hopes on the probability that the manager had changed. Given the pressurised atmosphere and conditions I figured the place must have a high staff turnover. I remembered that last time I was seen by a middle-aged Scot with tattoos and a hi-viz vest who greeted me from behind his desk and then went through the motions of telling me about the job, while clearly having no intention of hiring me.
After the tour I was shown into the office of the current manager, Ian; a middle-aged Scot with tattoos and a hi-viz vest. He greeted me from behind his desk and then went through the motions of telling me about the job, while clearly having no intention of hiring me.
All three of us sat in the same seats in the same office: Ian at his desk, me on a slightly too high chair in front of him and Jane behind me near the door. None of us acknowledged that this whole scene had been acted out before. Even with such an industrial approach to recruitment it would be surprising if nothing had stirred in Ian’s mind, perhaps emerging like a pair of logoed overalls dragged from behind an industrial washing unit, pertaining to this candidate in front of him or the application form spread on his desk. But then, like Jane, he must have seen countless unhopefuls in his time, and no doubt assessed each one instantly as a bundle of human material which either could be ironed into productive shape or should be thrown out. Maybe he was playing a clever game, waiting for me to make the first move. Maybe he detected something uncanny in our encounter but dismissed it as déjà vu; maybe he was oblivious, or simply didn’t care. In that couple of seconds, I couldn’t tell.
He asked me what I knew about the company. I should have seized this opportunity to come clean: ‘Well, Ian, I know about the same amount as I did three years ago when I last saw you...’ But as tempting as this was, I thought if there really was no mental or digital imprint of my previous application, a reminder could only damage my chances. Being all too aware of my fear of getting the job - the seasoned drudge must always be on the lookout for such traps laid by one’s own unconscious, desperate for escape - such an approach might even constitute an act of self-sabotage. What was the strategy here? I wondered whether any of the employability manuals covered this scenario.
I blurted some basic facts. After a perfunctory nod he embarked on the formality of explaining the corporate structure, and again the moment had passed.
As the process went on I sensed that I had been pretty much eliminated (again), with my bookish body stuck awkwardly inside a suit recently dry cleaned by the retail arm of this very company (I had an echoing sense of thinking, I should have dressed down). Ian’s reiterations of the demands of the role suggested that he thought I wouldn’t cope with dull repetitive physical work, even though I emphasised that I would positively embrace such work and pointed to my successful history in other such jobs.
Still the interview ticked on towards its inevitable conclusion, the only new information being that although they have bank holidays off the manager doesn't let staff take any other leave during the weeks of bank holidays, including Christmas. I didn't recall that from last time. He explained the sound business reasons for this and I nodded in acceptance, obviously, as I did at the policy that any lateness or sickness in the first three months would result in instant dismissal. During the tour, as we had watched workers put wet garments on hangers or fold dry ones into plastic bags, tasks which would be repeated for weeks at a time, Jane had mentioned the need to meet deadlines in order to return the items promptly to their owners (hotels, airports, garages). If the workload increased, the staff had to work harder and for longer hours to keep up. Apparently all the staff were working 7-5 this week rather than the standard 8-5 hours. Everyone worked together to get the work done, she said. I got the impression that this overtime wasn't necessarily voluntary.
Last time when it came to the ‘any questions’ stage at the end of the interview, I couldn’t be bothered asking anything because I knew it was hopeless and I just wanted to get out. I knew it was hopeless this time too, and I still wanted to get out, but nevertheless my self-sabotage radar warned me against worthless silence or belatedly mentioning my past failure. In an effort to pull the experience out of the amnesic void of the here and now, I wondered aloud how long the plant had been here. A laundry has been on the site since the 1880s, Ian told me, and it used to cover the whole area of the industrial estate. It had operated under different names and owners before its various specialist departments had been re-located and it had finally been rebuilt in its current form as part of a national chain.
All three of us, Jane, Ian and myself, momentarily bonded over our shared fascination with this historic fact; we stepped outside of the script and the characters we inhabited. We had all been here before, certainly, but in a way which transcended our individual identities, just as the soiled uniforms delivered here and passed through the machines over and over again were elements in a larger fabric, the impervious material of time.
Appropriately enough, as he sat in his office in his hi-viz vest, denying his staff holidays and ordering them to fold clothes for the minimum wage for nearly fifty hours a week, the manager struck me as being a 21st century version of a Victorian factory boss, so absorbed in the duty of maintaining his human machinery as to be utterly unaware of his own cruelty. As he led me out of the plant, twenty minutes after I’d arrived, he told me he’d been the manager here for eight years, having worked his way up through the ranks at another branch.
Outside I noticed a gleaming black Mercedes in the otherwise desolate car park. I presumed it was his, and wondered if I remembered it from last time or if it was a newer model. I imagined all the luxury vehicles which had occupied that same spot over the years, paid for by the labour of those toiling inside: another kind of laundering, another motif in the same endless story.