37 Degrees Celsius (part I)
By Mark Burrow
A single poster was stuck to the otherwise white and bare walls of the waiting room. It was an advert for holiday assurance, which made little sense to Smithy, as the job he was applying for didn’t seem to have anything to do with luxurious breaks.
Two other candidates waited with him. A man who was getting on in years sat opposite, coughing into a handkerchief, and a skinny younger woman, who was translucent looking, her skin drawn and wrinkled like microwaved plastic. He got a druggy vibe from her appearance.
The receptionist had earbuds in and was watching a show on her tablet, giggling as she ate a chocolate croissant and sipped a red coloured tea. He checked his phone. The screen was shattered and the battery life knackered. He wondered if there was a message from Helena. He tapped the screen and saw she was online, messaging someone. Evidently not him.
A bloke in his late twenties, similar in age to Smithy, emerged from the interview room. The guy had the expression of someone who had crashed and burned. Smithy knew that feeling. He felt a smidge of empathy, as one human being to another, but he was pleased the vacancy was probably still open. Looking at the other two, he didn’t rate their chances.
He stared at the advert on the wall, wondering how it related to the job – a slim girl in a bikini, relaxing in a long narrow box on a beach, wearing sunglasses, waves lapping against the shore. He stared at the box she was lying in, thinking it was an odd kind of sun lounger.
Truth be told, when the jobcentre official explained the position, he hadn’t fully understood what it entailed.
Smithy wasn’t sure the official did either. “What do I have to do?” he asked.
They shrugged. “No experience required: ‘We only ask the candidate has a body temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. Preferably, the candidate should also be comfortable operating in a confined space.’”
“What’s the job called?” he asked.
“Thermal Assurance Executive.”
“Let’s find out,” they said.
Smithy sat there, watching them tap the keyboard. They didn’t ask if he wanted to apply.
That would suggest he had a choice in the matter.
The receptionist called Smithy’s name without glancing from her tablet. He rose from the chair. His mouth was dry and his stomach felt tight. Walking through the door, he saw two interviewers sat behind a desk. He hadn’t been given their names. The pair of them watched him as he shut the door and walked towards an empty chair, which was far back from the desk and almost in the middle of the room.
“Hello,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
They looked at him.
“May I sit down?” he asked.
Seconds passed and he hesitantly sat on the hard chair, keeping his legs tight together and placing his hands on his lap, feeling the need to appear formal. The man had round steel glasses and was dressed in a black suit and a white shirt with a thin black tie. The woman wore a black jacket and skirt and had a white blouse with frills round the neckline. Her hair was pulled tight back across her head into a ponytail. She stood up, removed a small pen-like object from a box on the desk and walked up to Smithy.
“Please remove your shoes and socks.”
He did as instructed.
“Now open your mouth,” she said.
She was holding a mercury thermometer and shook it three times. He opened wide and she stuck it under his tongue, turning to look at the man, who started to count the minutes on his pocket watch. The woman gestured for Smithy to stand up. He did as he was told and then she went back to the desk, removed a steel tape measure from the drawer and stood next to him, putting the tip close to his head and releasing the tape.
“Back straight,” she said.
He stood to attention.
“Five foot and nine inches,” she said.
The man nodded, writing it down.
Smithy wanted to correct her. He was five-foot nine-and-a-half inches.
The tape rattled fast back into its case and she placed it back in the drawer.
“You may sit down,” the woman said, walking over to the man and reading his notes.
The two of them talked in low voices and then the man said, “We like your height, Mr Smith. In some ways, it’s the ideal size for this line of work. It’s a promising start, however, we still need to run some other checks, not least your temperature, which, as you can imagine, is absolutely essential.” He looked at the woman as she went to a wall cupboard and removed bathroom scales, which she put next to Smithy’s chair.
“He doesn’t seem overweight to me,” said the man.
“A bit of a belly fat, perhaps,” the man observed, “but I think that reflects the general physical appearance of today’s common man in a society addicted to glucose.”
“We’ll have him undressed shortly,” said the woman.
Smithy made a muffled, questioning sound.
“Don’t speak,” she snapped.
He kept his hands on his lap. He knew he couldn’t walk out of the interview as his Jobseeker’s Allowance would be axed and then Helena would definitely throw him out. She had made it clear that she was tired of supporting him and that he needed to find a job.
The man looked at his watch and moved his lips silently to count down the seconds as the woman walked up to Smithy. He then said, “Five, four, three, two, one – you may remove the thermometer.”
Smithy felt the swift removal of the glass from under his tongue and relief at being able to open his mouth normally.
“And?” said the man.
The woman held up the thermometer. “37 degrees Celsius.”
Smithy suddenly felt like this must be it. “Do I have the job?”
The woman wiped the thermometer clean and then replaced it in the box on the desk.
“We’re not finished,” said the man.
Smithy felt disappointed. He wasn’t sure he could take another rejection.
“Please take off your clothes.”
He stared at the woman.
“We need to weigh you,” she explained, pointing to the scales.
“You want me to undress?”
The man and woman looked at each other.
“Is there a problem?” said the man.
Smithy went to reply and then stopped himself. He looked around for a cubicle, somewhere with privacy. “Right here?”
The man nodded and the woman gestured to the scales.
With a sigh, Smithy removed his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt. The man took notes.
“You were correct about the belly,” said the woman.
“Glucose,” he replied.
“The modern disease.”
Smithy placed his chinos on his other clothes on the chair. He went to stand on the scales.
The man coughed.
Smithy looked at them.
“Pants,” the woman said.
They both had expressions like he was the unreasonable one.
The woman asked, “Is there a problem?”
“I think there might be,” said the man.
“That’s a pity.”
“A real shame.”
“He showed promise.”
“We had hopes.”
Smithy shook his head, muttered “son of a bitch” under his breath and said more loudly, “Okay, okay, whatever.” He yanked down his pants and put them underneath his trousers.
He stepped onto the scales.
The man came and stood next to the woman. They strolled around him. Looking him up and down. “Keep your hands by your side,” the woman said.
“We need to see everything,” stated the man.
Smithy moved his hands from covering his manhood.
“170 pounds,” the woman observed.
“Overweight,” the man said, tutting.
“But not overly so.”
“No,” he agreed.
“Average, in many ways.”
“In most departments.”
Smithy was certain he heard them snigger. He nearly said “son of a bitch” out loud, but somehow managed to keep it in.
They wouldn’t explain to Smithy why he had to get in a car to be driven to an unspecified location. He went along with their request, figuring it must be a positive sign, that this was the last stage. He felt good about himself when the woman went into the waiting room and dismissed the other candidates without bothering to interview them.
Smithy sat in the back of the car, looking out the window. There was no conversation between the three of them. They didn’t even put on any music. He gazed through the glass as they drove into town. He saw mothers pushing babies in prams. A busker playing songs on a battered acoustic guitar. As always, there were the homeless, with their makeshift bedding, often in the doorways of shops that had closed down and never reopened. They asked for food and drink these days as no one carried real money anymore. They scared him as he feared he was peering into his own future. That he might end up on the streets himself. It wasn’t like he had any savings, or family that was close enough to help him if he really hit a rough patch.
Smithy checked for messages from Helena. The job search had gone on too long for her to wish him luck or ask whether an interview had gone well. It was like she had given up on him. The atmosphere between them in the flat was toxic. She told him that she wasn’t judging him, but he could feel an undertone of disapproval. This sense that he should try harder. That he could do more and had somehow chosen unemployment. He picked up on her disdain when she got ready for work of a morning and saw he was still in bed. Whenever he tried to relax, maybe lying on the sofa to watch a film, she flashed him this look that made him feel guilty, almost as if he didn’t deserve any downtime.
The car was on the other side of town and seemed to be making for the suburbs.
“Where are we going?” he said.
They kept their eyes fixed on the road. They were yet to ask him if he had any questions, or tell him a single thing about the company. He still didn’t have a clue what the job entailed. Sighing heavily, he looked out the window, seeing fields and trees. “Hey,” he said, “isn’t this the way to the cemetery?”
They seemed to be ignoring him again.
In some ways, it was refreshing. Most companies pretended they cared about him when he started, yapping on about their values and purpose, and proceeded to treat him like a tissue.
At least there was no pretence with this lot.
It was the woman who spoke.
“Yes, Mr Smith, that’s correct. We’ll be arriving shortly.”
(Click here for Part II https://www.abctales.com/story/mark-burrow/37-degrees-celsius-part-ii)