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Short story By: Philip Roberts
Literary fiction

The latest Chris Smith/Jack Smith Story. Jack has to swallow his pride and enrol for employment benefits.

Submitted:Dec 23, 2010    Reads: 57    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

Monday, 31 October 1977
11:00 AM
Jack peered into the small building, through the dirty pane of glass in the door. The people standing at the counter looked like a fish and chip shop crowd during lunch times pushing and jostling each other in the vain hope of getting their order placed in time to get back to work before the whistle blew.
Reluctantly Jack pushed the door open. He felt conspicuous as he stepped into the crowd, although no one looked around as he entered.
"Dole! I want dole!" called out a little Italian man who had been standing in line for more than an hour.
"You'll have to go to the kinder if you want to play with dolls," said a peroxide blonde behind the counter, drawing sniggers from her co-workers.
"No, no," corrected the man. "I want to enrol for unemployment benefits."
"You mean employment benefits you stupid prick," said the girl. "We don't pay you bastards to bludge, although at times it seems like we do."
"Yes, yes," agreed the little man, eager to please. "That what I mean."
Jack stood near one corner at the front of the counter for nearly an hour. He was beginning to think that he would never be served, when the peroxide blonde finally walked over.
"Yeah? What're you want?" she asked.
"I want to sign up," said Jack.
"You'll have to go to Barkly Street to sign up."
"I beg your pardon?"
"If you ask nicely, they might let you drive one of their tanks."
"What...?" asked Jack, amazed.
"You said you wanted to sign up," said the girl. "Well the army recruitment centre is in Barkly Street."
"No, not I want to enrol for employment benefits," said Jack, careful not to follow the bad example set by the little Italian man who had been speedily dealt with. He added, "And get help looking for work."
"So you want the dole, do you?" said the peroxide blonde, picking up a blank information sheet.
"No I don't. I want a job," insisted Jack.
"Yeah, yeah, sure, I just bet that you do. Around this place everybody wants a job. So what's your speciality Elephant juggling? Flea catching? Lion taming? Or have you thought up a new one? How about a gnu bluer? Or a red-rattler watcher?"
"I'm a lathe operator," said Jack.
"A lathe operator?" repeated the girl. "Wow that is a new one, I've got to hand it to you, I've never had a lathe operator in here before. Although I did have a dodo plucker once. I don't suppose that that's anything similar?"
"No, I don't think so," said Jack, trying his best not to be goaded into losing his temper.
"That's too bad," said the girl. "Anyway, first things first: name?"
"Jack Smith."
"Fifty-seven," said Jack. He was puzzled by the reaction of the girl who had started to laugh.
After a few seconds, she settled down again, and said, "Then it's only eight years until you'll be eligible for the old age pension."
"That's right."
"So I suppose you think you can bludge on the dole for the next eight years, to tide you over?" she asked.
"No way! I don't even want the dole!"
"You don't want the dole?" she asked, throwing her hands above her head and doing a mock stagger backwards.
"No. I'd rather have a job."
"I see..." she said in mock relief. "But you are prepared to accept the dole until you can get a job?"
"Only because I've got to stay alive somehow, and I've got a wife to support."
"Ah here we go, the wife and six kids routine...I get this one thrown at me at least a dozen times a day," she said. "For a moment there you had me worried, Smith. I thought you were going to refuse the dole. You almost shattered my faith in the basic parasitic nature of the entire human species."
"I'm not trying to parasite off anyone," insisted Jack. "I'm only asking for some assistance until I can get work."
"Oh of course you are, Smith. And then there's the little woman and six kids to think about, isn't there? I mean we can't let them starve, now can we? Or is it eight kids? I haven't heard the eight kids bit for nearly a month now, but it makes my day every time I hear it...."
"No! It's only one kid, but he's grown up," said Jack, butting in out of fear that the girl would never finish.
"And he's on the dole already, right?"
"Well ... he was up until a week or so ago," conceded Jack. He wondered whether the girl was psychic.
"What, two in one family? Talk about breeding like rabbits, no wonder this country is going to the pack!"
"Look! I didn't come here just to be insulted...?"
"Yeah?" asked the girl. "What was your other reason?"
"I've done my bit for this country, and when I'm down on my luck, I'm entitled to expect a little something back," said Jack.
"Ah, here we go, I love this one!" said the girl. "The how-I-won-the-war-single-handed routine. I get this one almost every day. So you were a regular John Wan, and Errol Flynn rolled into one, were you? And so now we owe you the entire world, and all its surrounding colonies right?"
"No! I didn't even fight in the bloody war!" said Jack.
"Whyever not?" asked the girl. "Bad back?"
"I had a job in a manufacturing plants which was converted to produce weapons, during the war, so none of us were called up," explained Jack.
"Gee, that was lucky!" she said, writing upon the form. "So you had a job way back in the days of the second world war, did you? So what happened? Didn't it work out, so you had to throw it overt and have been looking for something else ever since?"
"No. I held on to it for forty years," said Jack. "Up until a fortnight ago."
"Really? How impressive! What happened? Decide that there was no future in it, so you had to give it away and look around for something a bit more steady? Or did you notice how much fun your son was having lounging around, watching the midday movies?" said the peroxide blonde, "So you decided that you'd like to join him, eh? Then you could share a few tinnies, relaxing around in front of the idiot box. Oh yes, that's the life all right, if only you could convince the little lady to leave the housework until the weekend, you could make a proper little family day out of it!"
"Look!" shouted Jack, finally managing to interrupt the girl. "I didn't quit, they sacked me!"
"Tut tut!" said the girls shaking her head in mock outrage. "Got caught with your fingers in the till, did you? It's a wonder you even need the dole in that case, you should have been able to build up quite a tidy little nest, that way, over forty years."
"Look, I wasn't caught stealing from the company!" said Jack. "They're hardly likely to keep the till next to the lathes, in the machine shop, now are they...? The firm was losing money, and so they decided to lay off some workers."
"Oh! Now you weren't sacked at all, you were laid off! Are you quite certain this time? Finally got your story straight?"
"Yes, I'm certain!"
"Are you sure you don't want to change it again? How about saying that the place burnt down, and the insurance company wouldn't pay up, so they couldn't rebuilds."
"For crying out loud!" said Jack.
"Or better still," said the girl, "you could say they decided to invest the insurance money in a brothers instead of rebuilding. There's a much higher return to be made on their money that way."
"It's not a story, it's the truth!" insisted Jack.
"Oh I'm sure it is, I know you wouldn't lie to me. I trust you implicitly, even if trillions wouldn't!"
"If you won't take my word for it, you can always check with the company that I used to work for! I can give you their name and address."
"Off the top of your head? Or would you like five minutes alone to scour through the yellow pages first?" said the girl. "Oh you can just bet that we'll check up on you, Smith! You surely don't think that we're stupid enough to blindly take the word of every Tom, Dick, and Mary who comes in here with some cock-and-bull story about being sacked after working for the same company for over forty years?"
"It is not a cock-and-bull story!"
"Particularly when you can't even get your story straight in the first place."
"I didn't change my story!" insisted Jack.
"Couldn't you have come up with a more convincing story in the first place? After all, we have to get our laughs around this place somehow. This job is dull enough as it is, without you giving me such an easy yarn to see through.' 'It isn't a yarn!"
"Most of the bludgers who come in here can. Oh, we get some really well thought out yarns all right: about invalid grandmothers who need constant care and attention, sick kids who can't be left on their own all day, deserted wives who can't collect alimony, exotic ailments...You name it, we get it," said the teenage girl. "And all you can come up with, is a wild, totally unbelievable story about being sacked, then laid off, after working for the same company for forty years! You would have been better off sticking to your story about being sacked straight after the Second World War!"
"I never said that!" insisted Jack.
"Bullshit!" said the peroxide blood. "You'll really have to try a hell of a lot harder next time. I mean hell; didn't you even work out what you were going to say before coming in here? Everyone, but everyone does. We even have some blokes spending up to an entire a rehearsing there story before coming in here...One broke even used tiny prompter cards in his left hand to road from whenever he forgot what he had intended to say. But you, you apparently just walk in, straight off the street, totally unprepared, and try to make up a story as you go along. Well let as tell you, it just can't be done. It's like sitting for an exam at school, if you don't study before hand, you've got Buckley's and none of knowing the right answers." She stopped for a moment to catch her breath, and shook her head in disgust. "You really must think I'm some kind of an idiot."
"I'm starting to, yeah," agreed Jack.
"Watch it!"
"The only reason that I said in the first place that I'd been sacked, is because that from where I'm standing, there's bugger-all difference between being sacked and being laid off," explained Jack.
"Well, well, well, Smith, I've really got to hand it to you. You might not always got your story straight the first time around, but you certainly do have a knack for improvisation."
She paused for a moment to write upon the form, and then said, "I'll just bet that you could have come up with a really convincing little yarn, if only you had spent an hour or two working out your story in advance."
"It's not a yarn, damn you!" said Jack. "You can always check it out if you want to."
"Yeah, yeah, you said that already," She wrote upon the form again, then turned it over and wrote a few lines upon the reverse side, before saying, "I'm almost afraid to even ask, but, any disabilities?"
"Any what?" asked Jack.
"Any illnesses or deformities which would prevent you from undertaking any particular types of work?"
"No, none, I'm in perfect health," said Jack.
"Wow!" said the girl. "We've never had anyone who is in perfect health apply for the dole before. Usually the people that we get all have exotic disabilities which prevent them from accepting any job that requires them to stand up all day, sit down all day, lift more than five kilos more than once in their lifetime, use any kind of switchboard or keyboard, or lift more than one finger at any one time during the day -- mono-finger-itis I believe it's called."
"Well I'm in perfect health," insisted Jack.
The teenage girl sighed, and then said, "Well I really hate to have to be the one to tell you this ... but I'm afraid that it looks as though we'll have to let you on the dole. But you can bet that we'll keep a close eye on you, so you'd better at least pretend to look for work."
"I won't be pretending anything," insisted Jack. "I sure don't intend to stay on the bloody dole for a second longer than I have to."
"None of this staying up until all hours to watch the late, late, late, late movie, then sleeping in till mid afternoons Warned the girl. "We'll have one of our blokes down there to knock on your front door, every other morning, between nine and ten o'clock. So just watch your step, all right?"
"All right!" said Jack, relieved that the interrogation session was finally over. He certainly hoped that he found a job quickly, so that he would not have to submit to this sort of third degree every week.
"Here," called out the peroxide blonde, as Jack turned to leave. "Before you go, you had better take these," she handed over two forms. "Fill in the white one now and leave it here, fill in the green one at home, and bring it back in here in a fortnight's time, if you haven't found work by theme"
She handed Jack a ballpoint pen, and as he walked toward the end of the counter, she called out after him, "And don't steal the bloody biro either!"
* * *
Ten minutes later Jack had completed the white form. He handed in the form, along with the pen, and turning to leave, found himself face to face with Bob Bennett.
"Hello, Jack, how's it going?" asked Bob.
"Not too badly.' said Jack.
"Putting in your weekly visit, I see."
"No. I was Just enrolling," explained Jack. He quickly added, "Not that I expect to be scrounging off the government for long, mind you-"
"Of course not, Jack."
"I'm a forty-year-man, employers will be lining up for a chance to hire me. Just as soon as I get the hang of this job hunting lark."
"I hope so, Jack, but you haven't had a bite of a job so far, or else you wouldn't be in here enrolling."
"That's only because I've never had to look for work before. So I haven't figured out how to go about it yet. But once I work it out, it'll be all smooth sailing," said Jack confidently.
"There's not really much to figure outs there are only so many places you can look for work. Mainly all you can do, is to cover them all one at a time, then when you've tried them all, you start at the beginning again. Plus, of courses you have to get up real early to keep an eye on the situations vacant section in the morning papers," said Bob. "In the old days, I'd get up at 8:30 and get around the corner to my work by 9:00 easy. But these days, if I'm not up by six o'clock, I reckon I've slept in."
"Six o'clock?" asked Jack not believing his ears.
"Too right, you have to get up that early to get first crack at any jobs you see, if you're to have any chance at all."
"Hell, I haven't been getting up until 8:00 or even 8:30 every morning," admitted Jack.
"Maybe that's why you haven't had a sniff of a job yet."
"No worries, I'll soon get a job. I'm not an idler to stay on the dole for years, like that layabout son of mine."
"Go easy on him, Jack, Chris is a good lad."
"He's a bludger," insisted Jack.
"No he isn't, it's just that he made the mistake of leaving school with too little education.' said Bob.
"Well don't look at me," said Jack. "I didn't force him to leave when he did."
"It's not your fault, or Chris'. It's the bloody job situation."
"Jobs can't be that short surely?" insisted Jack.
"It's not just the shortage of jobs," replied Bob. "But also the way most employers exploit the job situation."
"If things are that bad, why doesn't the government do something about it?" asked Jack.
"The bloody government started it! I know a bloke who was employed in 1970 in a clerical job in the Australian government, with only second form to his name. A few years later his brother tried out for an identical job, but with fifth form to his name. He was knocked back because in the meantime the bastards had raised the minimum education requirement for the job to HSC. The poor bugger has been rotting on the dole ever since: four and a half years now."
"That's about the same time that Chris has spent on the dole," said Jack, more to himself than to Bob.
They stood to one side, to allow three teenage girls to walk out of the building and Jack noticed that they were now among the last few people there.
"Well I've got to be off," said Jack, holding out his right hand to shake hands with Bob. "I suppose I'll see you here next time, if I don't see you before that."
"I hope so," said Bob. "But the bastards have thrown me off the dole."
"You too?" asked Jack, shocked. "It's only a short time since they pitched Chris off."
"Yeah, it seems that Frazer is starting to crack down."
"If you ask me, he's starting to crack up," said Jack, forcing a laugh from Bob.
"You're not wrong," conceded Bob.
* * *
Thursday, 10 November 1977
12:47 PM
Jack stood in a small alcove outside the employment room, waiting for the office to open, He pulled the collar of his coat up in an attempt to protect himself from the pouring rain, and thought, 'What's the bloody world coming to? Christmas less than two months away and teeming bloody rain. Anyone would think it was the middle of winter, instead of three weeks till the first day of summer...The way things are going, we could end up with the first white Christmas in Victorian history.' He stopped for a moment, then thought, 'Oh well, at least the Christmas cards will make some sense for a change, with their snow-capped cabins and snow covered pine forests.'
And perhaps the traditional turkey dinner won't taste so bad this year," For years Jack had been trying, to convince Norma to settle for salads for Christmas, however, she had always refused to depart from the traditional fare.
"But why did the bloody rain have to come just while I was on the brink of landing a job?" wondered Jack.
As the rain pelted down, Jack looked around at the dreary sight of the back view of the factory. The two buildings at the back were of brick, painted white and were shaped like huge sardine cans. A bitumen road ran from Cross Street, through the double-gates, between the sardine can buildings, and on to the workshops at the front of the factory in Barkly Street, The pouring rain seemed to follow the broken yellow line painted onto the centre of the bitumen road, out into Cross Street, as though it knew that was the way it was supposed to go.
In the rain, the factory took upon a depressing aspect. 'More depressing than usual!' thought Jack. It looked more like a scene from the film San Quentin, than a place where anybody would go to of his own free will to earn his livelihood.
Jack had been calling around at the factory, the Australian Amalgamated Packing and Production Company, every day for a week now, and every day he had been told to come back the next day. 'They must have a job coming up,' thought Jack. 'Or else they're about to lay off some bludger, or one of the old-timers is about to retire, or they're about to expand out a bit and will need another bloke to handle the extra loading, Or...well, who knows?' He shrugged his shoulders. He knew, of course, that they might only need someone part-time for a few weeks to help out during the Christmas rush, or to replace someone going on holidays. 'Still three or four weeks' work is better than the same time on the dole,' thought Jack. Certainly he would not refuse it.
The rain began to absolutely teem down, and Jack wondered what had happened to the employment officer. It was well after 12:30, Normally the man would already be inside when Jack arrived at 12:30. 'Funny time to interview people for work,' thought Jack. 'Just after lunch. Most people want you there for an interview at 7:00 or 8:00 in the mornings.' Still, they'd made a point of telling Jack the first day, that they only interviewed people for two hours a day, from 12:30 to 2:00 PM.
'They must only have a part-time interviewer,' thought Jack. 'Maybe he does other work the rest of the time. Either way, the bludger is late today. Must have overstayed his lunch.'
Jack looked up at the sky and thought, 'If only the bloody rain would ease up a bit, I could try going round to another entrance.' As it was, not having an umbrella with him, Jack was stuck in the small alcove outside the interview room until the deluge abated.
But the downpour showed no sign of abating. If anything, the rain was beginning to pelt down even harder. Jack was beginning to feel more than a little uncomfortable in the alcove. Rain splashed up off the bitumen like water pouring from a tap, to spray the cuffs of Jacks trousers, and drench his shoes and socks.
'If it gets any harder,' thought Jack, 'I might as well give up the pretence and stand out in the opening.'
"What can I do for you?" called out a security guard. He raised a white umbrella and walked across from the adjoining building, to where Jack was standing.
"I've come about a job," said Jack.
"Well you're out of luck," said the grey-haired security guard.
"Don't tell me they've filled it?"
"I don't know about that," said the guard, "but the bloke who does the job interviews has gone on holidays. Two weeks from last night."
For a moment Jack thought that he had misheard. "But he told me last night to call around here today," Jack insisted, not wanting to believe the guard.
"I don't know about that," said the security guard 9 "but there's not much chance of them taking on anyone this time of year anyway. The place always closes down for six weeks over Christmas and the new year."
"But he told me to call around here today!" insisted Jack.
"I don't know about that," said the guard, "but I do know that he won't be back here for another two weeks, and even then there's little chance of them taking anyone on until late January or early Feb."
"But the bastard has been telling me to come back tomorrow, every day for the last week," said Jack. "Why would he keep on stringing me along like that, if there was no chance at all of me getting work here?"
"Don't ask met" said the guard. "I don't know anything about that, but I do know that you're in for a very long wait, if you decide to stay here till he comes back," So saying, he put his left hand on his hip, and for the first time Jack noticed that the guard was wearing a holster upon the belt of his green and gold uniform.
"I suppose so," said Jacks wondering why he felt intimidated by the sight of the gun holster. Jack looked towards the heavens in the hope of detecting a break in the rain.
"You'll probably have to stay here a while yet, if you don't want to get drenched," said the guard, seeing Where Jack was gazing. "But I suggest that you make a dash for it, the moment that it starts to lighten up a bit."
"Yes all right," said Jack, seething with frustration, after thinking that he was so close to being employed.
"As good as had a job," said Jack out loud after the guard had returned to his building. Jack laughed out loud, and thought, 'How big an idiot was I?' He wondered what he could tell his brother, Kevin, after all the boasting that Jack had been doing about having a job lined up. 'Next time I'll know to keep my trap shut until I'm actually on the payroll,' he thought.
* * *
Jack lay back in the bath tub, allowing the steaming water to soak up to his neck, he closed his eyes so that he would not have to see the peeling paint on the walls, and the green-brown mildew that covered most of the ceiling. It would only mean work for Jack, work that he would not be paid for. So, until he had a paying job, painting and scraping the bathroom could wait.
'Christ!' thought Jack. 'This is something that I didn't count on.' He still had three more factories that he had planned to go around to asking after works that afternoon. But there was no chance of it now, even if he did not already have the flu, if the torrential rain kept up.
Jack had waited in the alcove outside the interview room for twenty minutes, before deciding to make a run for it. He had been drenched to the skin in the process. 'But at least I'm home now,' he thought. He sniffed, and wondered whether they had any flu medication in the house. Jack doubted it; they had no money to keep up a home medical kit.
He wondered how he was supposed to hunt after work during the winter months, if he did not have a job by then, when he was having this much trouble in late spring.
Jack lay back in the tub, his feet propped up against the bathroom wall, Occasionally he draw up his knees to allow his feet to be submersed in the scolding water. 'If I ever get another job,' he thought, then corrected himself, 'when I get another job, I'll have to lash out to buy a larger tub.'
The one he was soaking in was so small that it reminded Jack of a picture that he had once seen of an old-fashioned bath chair: a sort of sawn off barrel with a back rest, where people would have to sit up while bathing. 'Ours isn't that bad, thought Jack, but it's not too far away.'
The water began to cool off, and so Jack decided to get out. He already felt a chill coming on, without lying about in tepid water.
As he began to towel himself downs Jack found himself suddenly sneezing uncontrollably. 'Christ!' he thought. 'I've never had a cold in my life before!' But then Jack had never been drenched to the skin in his life before, Futilely he tried to dry himself one-handed while sneezing into his other hand for a few moments, before realising that by standing around naked and half wet In the cold, he was only making things much worse. So he abandoned himself to sneezing openly while dressing as hurriedly as he could, occasionally leaning back to support himself against the wooden towel rack behind him.
Ten minutes later Jack was sitting at the kitchen table, rugged up in two blankets, rather than have the expense of the radiator burning up electricity, sipping a cup of lemon tea, while reading through the situations vacant section of the Melbourne Sun newspaper. He sneezed from time to time and debated switching on the heaters but decided against it, since he no longer had much of a hand in paying the power bills.
Sneezing so hard that he almost dropped the cup that he was holding, Jack splashed tea across the newspaper soaking it. Cursing, Jack threw the paper into a corner of the room, then took a tea towel from the rack above the sink, and began to mop up the mess that he had made on the table.
After cleaning the tables Jack stooped to pick up the newspaper, and began to straighten it out again. Not that he supposed the others would want to read it, Norma would have done so in the morning, and Chris had no time to read anything but his textbooks for night school, And no need to either, now that he at last had a job.
'The lucky bastard,' thought Jack, 'why can't I get a job, with all my years of experience, if Chris can get one? I only hope the bastard knows how lucky he is!'
* * *
2:11 PM
"My God, Jack," said Norma, finding him rugged up at the kitchen table, sneezing and coughing. "What have you done to yourself?"
"I got drenched to the skin, going for a job interview," said Jack almost sneezing the words out.
"Why didn't you take an umbrella with you?" asked Norma. "There must have been a few rain clouds in the sky before you left home, surely?"
"A few," agreed Jack. "But I figured that it couldn't possibly rain the second week into November."
'My God!' thought Norma. 'Debbie was right: men really are such helpless creatures.' She wondered how men would survive if women ever achieved total equality. 'Probably the male of the species will become extinct,' she thought. And the women would use test-tube baby reproduction to keep the species going! Out loud she said, "Come on love, let's go to bed."
"No thanks," said Jack, "I'm just too ill to think about sex at the moment."
"I meant for sleeping," explained Norma. "We can think about sex when you're good and well again."
"I'm afraid it won't work, Norma," said Jack, allowing her to lead him out of the kitchen. "It's a clinically proven fact that you can't bribe someone into getting well again."
© Copyright 2010
Philip Roberts


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