Nothing! There was nothing at
all! "There's never anything worthwhile!" thought Chris as he
stooped to read a card pinned only centimetres from the bottom of
the notice board. He read the card, then straightened and
changed places with a tiny Italian woman who glanced at the card
then shrugged at Chris. He nodded toward the woman, and put on
his best bemused look to signify his agreement.
Chris glanced back over his
left shoulder and saw the crowd at the counter had not visibly
thinned out during the half an hour he had been waiting. But at
least he had put his card in already, unlike many of the people
jostling for a place at the front of the counter.
"All day!" thought Chris. He
would be there all day, waiting for a five-minute interview. A
whole day lost. A whole day, which could have been better,
spent looking for work, or even at home completing his homework.
He wondered how they expected him to ever find work, when they
fooled him around like this, kept him waiting around for hours
for an interview that should have been walked through in a couple
"Penicolli?" called out
Heinrich Himmler, standing behind the counter.
Chris had expected a Ja
Wohl. But, of course, it wasn't really Heinrich Himmler,
merely an excellent facsimile, right down to the starched black
uniform. Or rather, the sharp-cut, old-fashioned suit could
easily have stood in for a Gestapo uniform, apart from the lack
of insignia. Chris wished he could see behind the counter to
see if Heinrich was wearing army boots.
Penicolli's reply was
unintelligible, lost beneath a heavy accent.
"You haven't filled it in
properly," stated Heinrich Himmler, as Penicolli squeezed through
the crowd to reach the front of the counter.
"Scuzie!" said Penicolli. Or
at least that's what it sounded like to Chris.
"The form," said Heinrich to a
bemused stare, "You haven't filled it in properly. Let's see
... Right, what's your nationality?"
"Australian," was only just
intelligible beneath the accent.
"No, no, you stupid wog.
Where were you born?" demanded Heinrich.
Penicolli, leaning over the counter to look at the form. To
Chris, Penicolli looked like a customer in a butcher shop leaning
across to select the finest cuts.
"Bullshit! If you were born
in Australia, I was born on the moon," said Heinrich,
giggling like an idiot at his own joke. Behind Heinrich a
youth, who had been filing away small cards, stopped to snicker
at the joke.
After another ten minutes of
interrogation, Heinrich seemed satisfied that at last he had
unearthed the truth. He led Penicolli around the counter and
took him into one of the interrogation booths at the back of the
"Why do the stupid wogs always
have to make it hard on themselves?" mused the youth filing away
* * *
Chris had already made up his
mind that he would be waiting all day for an interview, when he
caught sight of Heinrich Himmler goose-stepping toward the front
of the room. Heinrich picked up a green card from the stack of
cards on a table across from the counter, and called out, "Smith!
"Over here!" called out
Chris was marched down the thin
aisle between the interrogation booths, to a booth near the very
end of the building. He felt a touch of déjà vu going
down the aisle. He remembered the last time he had been led
down the aisle at church, nearly eight years earlier. Chris had
just turned thirteen, and his stepmother had told him, "It's up
to you now. Go to church if you want to, or stay away if you
want to." So Chris had never gone to church again. "But this
place is too gloomy even for a church," thought Chris. "It's
more like a trip to the showers at Auschwitz."
"Take a seat," said Heinrich a
minute later, when they were hidden away from prying eyes, within
the confines of the telephone box sized interrogation
"I'm Allan Juchster," he said.
But the reedy, effeminate voice did nothing to dispel the
resemblance to Heinrich Himmler.
Chris held out his right hand
to shake hands. He started to say "Heinrich," but quickly
changed it to, "Hi, Al."
Chris noticed that the
interrogation booth was at the very end of the building, the last
of the twelve such booths. "I wonder if the people at the
counter would hear the screams if he starts using the third
degree?" thought Chris.
Most of the room in the booth
was taken up by a small wooden table, piled high with note pads,
card indexes, and other writing paraphernalia. Seated, the two
men were close enough so they were almost touching
"It says here that we sent you
out after a job in a textile factory in
last week," said Juchster,
reading from the green card.
"That's right," agreed Chris
sitting to attention on the stool. His back cried out for a
backrest, but Chris knew better than to complain. Any show of
weakness would be disastrous, and could give the enemy a lever to
use against him. Chris knew the backless stool was a deliberate
ploy to test his stamina.
"How did it go?" asked
"Not very well," said Chris
with a sigh. He knew that the interrogation was not going well
either. "I had to turn it down."
"Why? What was wrong with
it?" asked Juchster, writing upon the green card.
"Too far to walk," said
"Too far to walk?"
"That's right, over eighty
minutes walk each way."
"What's wrong with
"It's my kidney's," said
"What about them?"
"Well, you see, as a kid I
suffered from kidney trouble: nephrotic syndrome."
"All right, all right," said
Juchster, waving his hands around like a traffic cop having an
epileptic fit, "don't try to baffle me with bull, just tell me
what the hell having had bad kidneys as a child has got to do
with you having to reject a perfectly good job?"
"Because, as a result I don't
have the stamina needed to walk eighty minutes twice every day,
as well as working an eight-hour shift."
"Don't have the inclination to
work, you mean!"
"Look, I've already brought in
papers from the hospital, a number of times, to show that I'm not
able to do anything too strenuous," insisted Chris.
"Papers! Huh! I've never
seen any papers from any hospital," said Juchster, scribbling on
the green card. "Look, you said yourself that it's only eighty
"Eighty minutes each
"Even so, that, on top of a
day's work, isn't going to kill you. It'd be one thing if it
were a heavy labouring job, but the work is on a weaving machine.
Even if the walk to work each morning knocked you out a bit,
you'd still have all day to catch your breath before having to
make the repeat performance on the way home!"
"But I just don't have the
energy for that kind of marathon effort," insisted
"Christ! If you're that bad
you should be on the Invalid Pension, not the dole!" said
Juchster, writing hurriedly at the bottom of the green
From the front of the building
came the sound of a decapitated head falling into a basket. But
then Chris remembered that the Nazis didn't use the guillotine so
it must have been the sound of something being dropped onto the
bare wooden floorboards, amplified by the building's eerie
"How would I go about getting
onto the Invalid Pension?" asked Chris.
"I can give you an application
form," said Juchster, rummaging through the drawers of the
tables, "but I don't fancy your chances much."
"What do you mean?" asked
Chris. He was certain he could hear the sound of storm troopers
goose-stepping at the front of the building.
"I mean that before you can get
onto the Invalid Pension, you have to be able to convince them
that you're at least 81 Percent incapacitated," explained
Chris was tempted to ask how
they could distinguish between 81% incapacitation, and a mere
80.9%, but instead he said, "You've got to be kidding! You see
hundreds of people with problems far less than mine, on the
Invalid Pension; I've got a cousin who's been on the pension for
twenty-five years, with nothing worse than diabetes. Hell,
she's a hundred Percent fit, as long as she remembers to take her
insulin shot each day."
"Well, you've just said the
magic words, haven't you?" said Juchster. "Twenty-five years.
Regulates have been tightened up to blazes since then. In
theory they're supposed to dump anyone who stops qualifying,
however, they always manage to miss a few. But I'll tell you
what I can do for you, give me the name and address of your
cousin, and I guarantee that I can get them to dump her for
"What?" asked Chris
incredulously. "I'm not trying to get Gwen thrown off the
pension, I'm trying to got myself on to it."
"Well, as it stands, unless you
intend to walk in front of a tram first, I'd suggest you forget
all about trying to latch on to the Invalid Pension."
"All right, so where does that
"Well, I don't know about us,
but it leaves you with two options: take the
job, or got thrown off the
"Thrown off the dole?" Chris
could not believe his ears.
"That's right," said Juchster.
"That's the way it goes: you can only reject three jobs offered
to you, before you lose your benefits. This is the third job
you've knocked back."
"But none of the jobs you've
offered me have been any good. One of them required me to do
heavy lifting all day, another required me to be on my feet all
day, and now this one would mean walking nearly three hours every
"Tough titties! The CES
standard requires you to be prepared to walk up to one hundred
minutes twice a day if need be, before you can knock back a job
on the lame excuse that it's too far to walk."
"But I've got crook
"I don't care if you've got
lousy bacon and eggs," said Juchster. "It doesn't say anything
in the CES standard about making any allowances for ill health.
In fact, it does say that you have to be fit and able to work
before you are eligible to receive employment benefits. If you
aren't fit and able to work, then you have been receiving
benefits under false pretences for the last four years, and could
be liable to repay every cent you have received."
"What! But you can't do
that!" said Chris, staggering to his feet.
"Can't I? Just watch me,
sport! All right then, what's it to be? The
job? Or the bum's
"But it's too bloody far for me
to walk!" shouted Chris. He heard his voice echoing back at him
around the room. And knew he should try to keep calm. But he
was beginning to feel an almost overpowering urge to flatten
"Then it's the bum's rush,"
said Juchster. "Fair enough by me."
"I don't intend to take this
bullshit lying down!" shouted Chris. He was aware the people in
the other booths, and at the front counter, had stopped talking
to listen to him.
"You aren't. You're standing
up," said Juchster, giggling at his own joke.
"I'll take you to court! I'll
get Free Legal Aid!"
"Fat chances' said Juchster.
"Their budget is as tight as a nun's cunt these days!"
"Maybe you won't be so bloody
smug with a mouthful of broken teeth!" said Chris. He reached
around the table to grab Juchster by the collar, and dragged him
to his feet.
"Calm down," advised Juchster.
"Doing your block isn't going to help anyone."
"It won't help you, that's for
"Look, just to show you what a
fair man I am..." He desperately rummaged through the papers
upon the table, with one hand, until he located a pad of yellow
forms. "I'll give you one of these," he said. Tearing a
yellow form from the pad, he handed the form to Chris.
Chris released Juchster and
accepted the yellow form.
"What is it?" asked
"It's an appeal form. Fill it
in, and send it off to the address on the back of the form.
Your appeal will be studied by an independent panel, and if they
think you've been given a raw deal, they'll let you back on the
"All right," muttered
* * *
For half an hour Chris had been
sitting at the kitchen table, reading through the Situations
Vacant section of the newspaper from start to finish to start to
finish, over and over again, like an alchemist hoping to find the
elusive job that had not been there the first time
As Chris read, he occasionally
sipped from a cup of coffee, which had been stone cold for at
least fifteen minutes.
At the other end of the table
Norma, his stepmother, sat with her head between her hands,
reading through a copy of the Women's Weekly, which lay
open upon the table. Like Chris, Norma had not turned a page in
thirty minutes. She read a few lines, for the seventh time,
then looked across the table toward Chris, then read the same
lines for the eighth time. After half an hour without
discovering what the article was about, Norma closed the
"Cheer up, Chris," she said.
"Life isn't all rotten."
"Yes, I know, it's only the
plot that I'm sitting on that's made out of shit, the rest is
gold plated over silver, with platinum trim. But what gets met
is that I can't even walk away, because the Earth keeps altering
its rotation to make certain the same bit of shit is always under
"Buck up, you'll get a job
soon. They won't lot a bright lad like you go to waste
forever," said Norma.
"I suppose you're right,"
conceded Chris. "I'll probably get a job sooner or later, but
it isn't just that. It's dad more than anything, the way he
loves to rub my nose in it all the time, because I've been
unemployed for so long"
"Chris! That isn't fair.
You should know your father only wants the best for you. If he
stirs you, it's because he thinks you aren't pushing yourself
enough, and he hopes that with the occasional nudge, he can help
you to get a bit more motivated."
"But I am!" insisted Chris.
"I don't want to scrounge off the government or off you and dad
"I know, Chris, but
unfortunately your father doesn't ... Anyway, don't blame your
father for all of your troubles," said Norma. "He didn't chase
you out of school."
"Well, I had to leave some
time, I couldn't go on scrounging off you and dad
"Oh Chris, you weren't
scrounging off us."
"Well ... I overheard you and
dad talking about the problems you were having with my school
fees, and so I thought I could help you by getting a
"Oh Chris! You weren't even
seventeen then. Sure your school fees were a burden to us, but
we would have preferred to face the burdens rather than see you
destroy your life by leaving school too early ... I mean Jack's
your father, and he has only ever wanted the very best for you
... Your father isn't totally unreasonable, it's just that he's
... well he's a little set in his ways."
"Yeah, like double strength
concrete," said Chris. "But sometimes it would be nice if he'd
at least try to see my point of view."
"Have you ever sat down with
him, and really tried to explain it to him? Your father has
been working since he was seventeen, he was too young to be
directly effected by the first Great Depressions and has worked
right through the second one. So how could he possibly
understand what it means to be unemployed?"
"He wouldn't listen if I did
try to explain it to him."
"How do you know? You've
never even given him a chance. Perhaps if you could be
reasonable about it, you might be surprised to find he can be
"That would be a surprise,"
Norma glanced at Chris, but
said nothing. She placed the second piece of meat into the
saucepan, and began to tenderise the third piece, as Jack walked
into the kitchen.
"Hello love," said Norma as
Jack slumped into a chair at the table. "You're home
6:30," said Jack listlessly.
"Oh, has it? Well, I'd better
pull my finger out in that case. I'm afraid tea will be a bit
late tonight." She placed the third piece of meat into the
saucepan and turned on the fourth burner.
"Don't rush yourself on my
account. I'm not particularly hungry."
"What's the matter, love?"
asked Norma, sitting next to Jack at the table.
"I've just been
"What!" said Chris and Norma
"How come?" asked
"The firm was going bust, so
they decided to close down a couple of sections, including the
one where I work."
"But, Jack, you're their
longest serving employee! Surely they could find you a job in
another section?" said Norma.
"It's because I'm their longest
serving employee that old Withers gave me the bad news as soon as
he heard it"
"When does your section close
down?" asked Norma.
"This Friday, apparently they
want to get the ball rolling as quickly as possible."
"But don't they have to give
you some notice? To give you time to find another
"They're giving me two months'
severance pay to tide me over until I can get another
"Two months! You'll be lucky
if you can get another job that quickly," said Chris.
"No worries, I'll find another
job long before two months is up. I'm not a bludger to spend
years of my life on the dole!"
"That's right dad, I forgot,
you're a forty-year-man. You'll have to carry around a bit of
four-by-two to beat away the prospective employers!" Chris
"What did you say?" demanded
Jack, jumping to his feet, and leaning over Chris.
"You heard me!" said Chris,
standing and glaring a challenge back at his father.
"Well, maybe you'd like to
repeat it? Sometimes I'm not too fast on the
"You said it dad, not
Jack raised his fists and moved
toward Chris. Norma rushed between the two men only to find
herself being jostled on both sides, as Chris and Jack tried to
reach around her to get to each other.
"Chris, go to your room, I'll
bring you your tea," said Norma. When he hesitated, she added,
Chris turned to leave the
"If you're old enough to cheek
me, Chris, perhaps you're old enough to think about leaving
home!" shouted Jack.
"Maybe I am!" Chris shouted
back, as he left the kitchen.
Norma turned to glare at Jack
and demanded, "How can you be so heartless! You know he can't
afford to live away from home!"
"Oh hell!" said Jack, slumping
back into his chair. "I don't intend to drive Chris out, but
why did he have to talk to me like that?"
"Because," said Norma sitting
on a chair beside Jack, "after four years on the dole, he needs
your sympathy, not abuse. So naturally he couldn't resist the
chance to get a bit of his own back."
"How about a bit of sympathy
for me? How do you think I feel, having a son living on the
dole for four straight years?"
"No worse than he is feels,
being on the dole for four straight years!" said Norma, going
over to attend to the food cooking on the stove.
"Whose fault was that?" asked
Jack, turning in his chair to face Norma. "I didn't want him to
leave school so young. I had to leave school myself at
seventeen to get a job, because the old man couldn't afford to
support me any longer. So I wanted Chris to get a better
education than I had. So what did he do? He turned around and
knifed me in the back."
"You mean he knifed himself in
the back. All you've got is hurt pride, Chris is the one who
has had to live with being unemployed for years."
"And I'm the one who now has to
live with the shame of being unemployed, and having a son already
ahead of me on the dole."
"Well, you don't have to worry
about that any more," said Norma. "Chris isn't on the dole any
"You mean he's finally done the
right thing and found himself a job?" asked Jack.
"No, I mean those bastards down
at the employment centre have finally done the wrong thing, and
have thrown him off the dole!"
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