War and Peace

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Robert Skin­ner

I re­tired when I was 28 years old, but ran out of money the same af­ter­noon, so I caught a bus to the dole of­fice. My feel­ing about un­em­ploy­ment was: some­one’s got to do it. Why not me? The pay was lousy, but I’d heard the hours were good. I had been work­ing for the past 16 years – driv­ing buses, wash­ing dishes, pick­ing grapes, pack­ing boxes, um­pir­ing foot­ball, driv­ing trac­tors, build­ing ex­hi­bi­tions and, once, dig­ging the same trench for three days be­fore be­ing told I was dig­ging in the wrong di­rec­tion. (Sub­con­sciously, I think, I’d started dig­ging for home.) I didn’t feel bet­ter off for any of it. In the Cen­tre­link wait­ing room I learnt that it was no longer called “the dole”. Some over­paid mar­ket­ing agency had re­branded it as “New­start”. Fake nails clacked away at key­boards. The walls were cov­ered with in­spi­ra­tional posters (“When op­por­tu­nity knocks, open the door!”) along­side more prac­ti­cal advice telling job­seek­ers not to drink al­co­hol be­fore a job in­ter­view. Some­one called my name and I fol­lowed him into a small room. I hadn’t even sat down be­fore he started try­ing to sign me up for fork­lift-driv­ing jobs on the other side of town. “Whoa,” I said. “This isn’t the kind of New­start I had in mind at all.” I had only just moved to Melbourne. It seemed (at the time) like a place filled with magic and pos­si­bil­i­ties. I wanted to meet in­ter­est­ing peo­ple at rooftop bars. I wanted to read Rus­sian nov­els. What I didn’t want was a pesky job. But try telling that to your dole of­fi­cer. “Lis­ten,” I said, “our econ­omy re­lies on a 5 per cent un­em­ploy­ment rate. Can’t I just be one of those 5 per cent for a while?” The long an­swer was no. Peo­ple, I’ve found, just want you to be busy. They don’t re­quire you to con­trib­ute any­thing mean­ing­ful, other­wise how do you ex­plain pro­fes­sions like “con­sul­tancy”? Genghis Khan could move into your street and peo­ple would say, “Well, at least he’s work­ing.” My dole of­fi­cer changed tack. He straight­ened his tie and wafted some cologne in my di­rec­tion. “What about truck driv­ing,” he said. “I’ve got some great truck-driv­ing jobs.” I’d spent the pre­vi­ous three years driv­ing tour buses in the out­back. One morn­ing it was so hot I woke up with a lisp. I had a crooked back, was still find­ing sand in my un­der­wear, and har­boured some la­tent racism (mostly against the Swiss) that I was try­ing to deal with. I was sick of driv­ing. But you can’t just come out and say that. “What sort of loads would I be car­ry­ing? I’m al­ler­gic to peanuts.” “Fur­ni­ture,” he said, eye­ing me sus­pi­ciously. “No peanuts.” I held in my lap my tal­is­man copy of War and Peace. I had vowed not to get a job un­til I fin­ished read­ing it. But the dole of­fi­cer had ob­vi­ously sworn some oath of his own. He was so dogged I was amazed he hadn’t risen up the ranks yet. “Is it far away?” I asked, even­tu­ally. “Just around the cor­ner.” “Oh. That could make things dif­fi­cult.” “Dif­fi­cult how?” “Well, I was think­ing of mov­ing.” “Mov­ing where?” “To far away.” And so on. It was quite the tango. I was lucky to get out of there with­out a job. What fol­lowed was a se­ries of long and glo­ri­ous au­tumn days. I went to shows. I wan­dered through parks, gal­leries; I winked at old ladies, had long boozy din­ners in friends’ back­yards. My un­cle was in town one day, and I ex­plained that, what with the de­mands of War and Peace and ev­ery­thing else go­ing on, I hardly had time for a job. “Well, it’s a ques­tion of pri­or­i­ties, Rob­bie,” he said. We looked at each other and I hit the ta­ble with my fist. “Ex­actly.” When my sec­ond ap­point­ment came around, the dole of­fi­cer asked me how I was get­ting on, and I told him about the projects I was work­ing on. He made a few notes. “So, you’re writ­ing a book?” “I’m read­ing a book.” He be­came busi­nesslike. He said that, as per reg­u­la­tions, I was to start fill­ing out a job diary and ap­ply­ing for 20 jobs a fort­night. Twenty! It was even more odi­ous than hav­ing a job. It sounded like I would be do­ing a lot of extra work, so I asked him for a pay rise. His an­swer was long and weari­some, like your pri­mary school teacher go­ing on and on about not eat­ing pen­cil shav­ings. Even­tu­ally I pointed at the job diary and said, “But. But what’s the point of it?” The point was “How dare you!” The point was “We the tax­pay­ers!” etc. Andy, my friend and house­mate, had lit­tle sym­pa­thy. “They pay you $230 a week for do­ing noth­ing.” “I don’t get the money,” I said. “Our land­lord gets it.” “Oh, not this again.”

“Well, why is it fine for him to get money for noth­ing? I work just as hard as he does.” “Not to­day you didn’t. You spent all morn­ing try­ing to glue your boot back to­gether.” “It’s a Satur­day, Andy. Je­sus.” “Not yes­ter­day, either. You spent the whole day look­ing for dis­count ice-cream.” “Okay, so we hap­pen to have a par­tic­u­larly hard-work­ing land­lord. But morally, my point still stands.” You have three months, by my cal­cu­la­tions, to ex­plore a city be­fore your sense of won­der turns to fa­mil­iar­ity. I used to board trams with ex­cite­ment, think­ing, Where will I pos­si­bly end up? Now I knew ex­actly where. As the days short­ened, the trams ploughed the same old fur­rows up and back, and I rode with them. The dole life is noth­ing like the univer­sity life, where your friends are also broke and up for any­thing. Most of them worked dur­ing the day and ate din­ners I couldn’t af­ford at night. It was get­ting harder to make rent ev­ery month, let alone have the wild times that wel­fare re­cip­i­ents are al­ways hav­ing on the news. My read­ing was turn­ing fre­quently into nap­ping. I was lan­guish­ing some­where be­tween war and peace. Then, through a se­ries of cler­i­cal er­rors and mis­un­der­stand­ings, I ac­ci­den­tally got a job as a dish­washer. Ev­ery time I start a new dish­wash­ing job, I can’t imag­ine why I ever quit. It’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing. You feel like a gen­eral, mar­shalling his troops. Wait­ers pile up cof­fee cups and tea­spoons on one side, chefs drop hot pots and pans into the sink on the other, and you’re in the mid­dle of it all, suds fly­ing. At the end of a shift you have that phys­i­cal tired­ness that feels al­most like a life well lived. On your lunch­break, if you get one, you send out group text mes­sages: “Friends! You were right! Maybe this is the an­swer!” And then, af­ter two or three shifts, you start to re­mem­ber. The sinks are al­ways too low, so you stoop all day, or all night, and wake up in the morn­ings, or afternoons, with a crack­ing headache. You get cov­ered face to feet in grime. The kitchens are hot, cramped and al­most al­ways an in­suf­fer­able boys’ club. If you’re new they’ll send you off to fetch a made-up item, like a “rice peeler” or a “bucket of steam”. (I used to pre­tend to fall for that one and sit in the stor­age room read­ing a book un­til some­one came look­ing for me.) You be­come in­creas­ingly con­vinced that, in the world out­side your kitchen, in some end­less dusk, latin bands are play­ing on street cor­ners, friends are hav­ing chance en­coun­ters, par­ties are be­ing thrown, and every­one you like is sleep­ing with some­one else. It be­comes harder and harder to con­tain the long, loud bouts of moan­ing at the help­less pur­ga­tory of it all. And all shift long the dishes keep com­ing. You could work 15 years in that job and still have noth­ing to show for it. If you left the sink for one minute to ac­cept your Golden Tea Towel Award, by the time you turned back the whole thing would be piled with dirt­ies again. Worse, they’re the same dishes. And dishes are as good as it gets, by the way. You need a bi­ol­ogy de­gree to re­move the oily film that clings to the in­side of plas­tic con­tain­ers. I had one, but for the wage I was get­ting I re­fused to use it. Some­times I just threw dishes into the bin. What sort of an­swer is this, to the ques­tion of what to do with our short time on Planet Earth? Some­times I would find my­self stand­ing at the sink with my hands dan­gling in the dirty wa­ter, think­ing, I can’t go on. It’s just too point­less. And dish­wash­ing is one of the im­por­tant jobs! Imag­ine how the con­sul­tants feel! As soon as I smelled spring in the air, I quit the dish­wash­ing and raced back to the dole of­fice. Some­how, im­pos­si­bly, this dole of­fi­cer was even more cun­ning than the last one. Within 10 min­utes I was check­mated. He had the perfect job for me, he said. I didn’t un­der­stand all the de­tails, but it sounded like I’d be work­ing for a com­pany that couldn’t af­ford a fork­lift, and was set­tling for me in­stead. I mum­bled some­thing about low blood-sugar lev­els and pulled some roast chicken out of my bag. (Lis­ten: not all vic­to­ries can be won with dig­nity.) I wolfed it down and then pre­tended to choke on a bone. I writhed around on the ground, clutch­ing my throat. The dole of­fi­cer sighed, stood up and said, “We’re done for the day.” The man was no fool; he knew a piece of chicken breast when he saw one. But also, it was 4.30 on a Fri­day af­ter­noon. I lunged for the door. Not even the best dole of­fi­cer in the land could catch me be­fore Mon­day morn­ing. I burst onto the street and sun­shine hit me in the eyes as on the day of one’s birth. I did some­thing sim­i­lar to a yo­del. I had two more days! Two more days in this world where, right now, a wheel­ing, chat­ter­ing flock of rain­bow lori­keets were shit­ting on some­one’s scooter with what looked like pure joy. Two more days in this world where peo­ple play the bas­soon, climb trees and help baby tur­tles get from their nest to the sea; where it’s pos­si­ble to meet some­one with whom to spend a life­time watch­ing wrin­kles gather around each other’s smil­ing eyes. Two more days at least, be­fore the vice clamped down on me once more.

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