America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Any Job for Bob
There were days in London when drinkers lived in dread of the hated bell and those spine chilling words, 'Last Orders at the Bar.' This was that time, when drunks forgot their battles, left their tables and without stumbling, ran for another one.
I had come to London from Boarhead, 250 miles up north, in search a job. I couldn't find work and apart from Thursdays, dole day, I was always broke. I was in a pub, the dreaded hour had past, when Paddy, one of my friends started looking over the vacancy pages of the Guardian newspaper which had been left behind by someone.
Paddy said, 'You know Tariq, I told you so many times you need to get educated then you could get a decent job.'
'How can he do that? It means he will have to work,' Peter added sarcastically in Punjabi, downing the dregs of his pint 'Besides he's from a village of illiterates.' Peter was from West Punjab, Pakistan.
'Let it be yaar, these are tough times.' Paddy replied in Punjabi. He was from East Punjab, India. With the passing of the years, he had changed his name from Harjinder Singh to Paddy, but Peter had changed his very quickly as white folk had difficulty pronouncing his real name, Fakhar.
'Anyone can do any job, if given a chance,' I said, feeling a little hurt, but filled with self righteousness which a good few pints can bring.
'I suppose you could get short-listed for any of these jobs, then eh Tariq?' Paddy laughed exchanging a hi-five with Peter.
'Especially after 6 pints,' Peter grinned, then let out a beer bellied laugh, 'Any job for Bob.'
'Point to a job, piss-heads,' I said indignantly, 'and I will get short listed for it.'
Paddy tore out an ad, put it in front of me and said, 'Here, Housing Research Officer.'
'If he can get an interview for this one, beer on me,' Peter said.
'Curry on me,' Paddy added.
They looked at each other and laughed a closing time laugh.
Just then an idea flashed though my mind.
In the morning I phoned the organisation which had advertised the job and asked for an application form and details to be sent to a friend's address in Boarhead. Two days later, my friend posted the documents to me in London.
The application form and the eligibility criteria were straightforward. I didn't have even the minimum qualifications or experience for this job. But as I knew I had no chance of getting the job, I made myself sound like the perfect candidate. My referees were excellent as well, only they didn't know I had put them down, and I didn't know them.
A few weeks later my friend in Boarhead telephoned and told me that I had been short listed for the job and he posted me the letter.
I showed it to Peter and Paddy, and they were shocked and had a little chat among themselves and Peter said, 'Our bet was for you to be interviewed.'
'No it wasn't' I protested. 'It was to get short listed.'
Both of them folded their arms across their chests and tightened their lips.
'OK you sons of donkeys. Your tongues are forked like the white man's. I will go to the interview and bring you proof and see you in the pub,' I replied.
I didn't realise at the time how much of a bonanza my decision to go for the interview would be.
There were three people on the panel. Two women and a man. The man sat in the middle. I sat in front of them. They smiled at me as soon as I walked in. I smiled back.
'Thank you very much for attending today. Especially all the way from Boarhead,' the first woman said.
I nodded. The smile still on my face.
'What made you apply for a job with us?' the second woman asked.
I was completely stumped by this question, thought quickly and replied, 'Because I like what you do and I need a job.'
The panel nodded. They all wrote something down.
'What do you think will be the implications of the forthcoming amendments to the 1977 Housing Act,' the second woman asked.
Sweat ran down my back. I went quiet. I had not heard of this or any other Housing Act, let alone any amendments.
After what seemed like an eternity in which I stared at smiling faces, I found some words and blurted out, 'Itís is bit early to judge at the moment.'
The panel nodded. They all wrote something down.
'Could you please expand on the methodologies you employed during your research at Boarhead University?' the man asked.
'Please allow me to refresh my memory,' I said bending down to pick up my bag with the copy of my application in it. I had forgotten what I had put down. I was so nervous that when I opened my copy of the application form, I couldn't read what I had written. I am not quite sure what I said, but my ears began to burn. Had I been white, I would be like a tomato. They asked me a few more questions, to which I mumbled whatever came to my mind. Eventually the man said, 'Would you like to ask us any questions?'
'Could you please give me a note to prove I came for the interview,' I said.
The panel looked at each other and then the man said, 'Please see the secretary on your way out.'
I nodded and left.
The secretary was a young woman with a genuine smile who asked, 'Can I please have your rail ticket?'
'All I need is a note saying I have been for this interview.'
'I can give you that, but can I please have your rail ticket so I can reimburse you for your travel.'
A hungry man quickly sniffs a free meal and I replied, 'You mean money, you'll give me some cash?'
'No,' she replied. The smile was still there. She was definitely the most beautiful creature on earth. 'It'll have to be a cheque, I'm afraid.'
'But I didn't come here by train,' I replied. 'I came by car.' This bit was true, but that was five months ago.
She stopped typing and said handing me a piece of headed paper. 'We can only give you the return train fare, I am sorry.'
Reading the confirmation of my presence at the interview, I said, 'That's fine, thank you.'
As I read the secretary telephoned rail enquiries and asked the price for a return ticket from Boarhead to London and then disappeared into an office and came back a short while later with a cheque for me.
And so began my career as a professional interviewee.
13 October 2015
Tariq Mehmood is a novelist and documentary film-maker, who lives and works between Manchester and Beirut. An award-winning writer, his first novel, Hand On the Sun, was published in 1983 by Penguin (London). His latest, You're Not Proper, a story of two girls struggling in a town seething with Islamophobia, was published in March 2015 by Hope Road (London). He is the co-director of the multiple award-winning documentary Injustice, a story about people who have died in British police custody. He teaches at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon.
See also: You Stink