The Policy Says

The manager takes me into the back room to explain the company ethos and the role. Each neighborhood store should feel like just that, a neighborhood store, she says, reading from the brochure.

August 30, 2023
Young writer with long blonde hair in purple blouse

Rachel Connolly has written for the New York Times MagazineNew York Magazine and lots of other places. Her novel Lazy City is out in the UK with...

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different panes of glass

Courtesy of Liveright

On the first day of Anne Marie’s holiday to Portugal I have a trial shift at a coffee shop, an outlet of a big chain. I applied months ago, before I moved in with Anne Marie, and never heard anything back at the time. Then last week they sent an email inviting me to try for a new opening, at a different branch nearby. I replied yes. I sort of have a job now, but depending on the hours I could do both. And I only sort of have a job; the arrangement with Anne Marie is temporary, dependent on goodwill and circumstance.

It’s raining as I walk down to the shop, heavy rain lashed sideways by a strong wind. Struggling against rain like this with an umbrella, battling to keep it from turning inside out while rain gushes in under it, is always futile, so I brave it in Anne Marie’s hooded pink raincoat, the hood continually blowing back off my head. I arrive with soaking hair and damp socks.

The manager, a woman with yellow hair tied back in a ponytail, takes me into the back room to explain the company ethos and the role. Each neighborhood store should feel like just that, a neighborhood store, she says, reading from the brochure. She has to raise her voice to be heard clearly over the beeping and sloshing of a suite of dishwashers. There are five screens showing footage from all over the shop, including the room where we are currently standing. That wee one looking at my room isn’t for me, she says, tapping the screen which currently shows us both standing, looking at the screens. It’s for my boss, if he needs to check what I’ve been up to. She smiles as she taps. Maybe she noticed me looking at it, or maybe it’s simply the first question everyone asks.

I won’t be working on the till today because they won’t invest in training me to that extent unless they decide to hire me, she explains. I will be on the shop floor, tidying whatever people leave on their tables into a grey basin, bringing it into the back room and loading it into the dishwasher. Disinfecting the tables after. And just be fast, and be smiley. It’s dead easy, she says, brightly. She gives me my basin and a cloth with disinfecting spray. I’ll do a spot check of the bacteria level on the tables with my UV pen during the shift, so be sure to give them a wee clean. She brandishes the pen at me.

The policy for phones, she explains, is that we aren’t allowed to take them out on the floor. And that’s the company policy across all the outlets in the whole world, not just something I have come up with for this branch, she says, smiling. The policy says any shift shorter than five hours will have two breaks of ten minutes each, and if these are exceeded, the time is deducted from the next break, but this can only happen three times before there is a meeting to discuss it. The policy says to smile a lot but not talk too much to customers. The policy says if metrics in key performance indicators are not met in a given week, there may be a meeting to discuss why, at the manager’s discretion. The policy says if there are three meetings for any reason, then employment may be terminated, at the manager’s discretion.

I march out onto the shop floor with my grey basin and pink disinfectant spray. On the first table there is a cup half full of liquid that smells like it’s probably hot chocolate with an orange peel and a tissue stuffed in on top of it, a stirring stick broken into small pieces and a saucer. I organize the debris into the basin and spray the table. The rest of the four-hour trial passes similarly, although the mess people leave is creative. A cupcake case turned inside out and mashed into the table. More stirring sticks mutilated in different ways; one has been shredded finely lengthways. Sugar poured into pyramids with the shredded sachet beside. Torn-up receipts floating in cold coffee. Tiny acts of aimless destruction.

At the end of the shift we sit in the room with the dishwashers, and the manager holds an electronic device in front of her and asks how I found my shift. She nods, smiling and tapping the screen, as I say I found it interesting and challenging to learn the ropes, and that I enjoyed interacting with customers. The yellow ponytail darts around in the air as she nods and taps at the screen. Then she passes it to me; there are forms for me to complete.

Even if I don’t get the job, I will be paid for my time today, at the rate of half my pay if I were employed. I have to fill out an invoice on a system; there are temporary passwords for me, and then I should receive payment in a month. If I do not receive payment within thirty working days of filing my invoice, there is an email address for me to lodge a complaint. It will respond within six weeks. Now, only use that email for an invoice which has been filed but not paid, she explains.

Now, we’ll be in touch, she says. Not me, but the company. And you have to fill out feedback too, which we give to the regulator. You do that before we get in touch. It was brilliant to meet you. She extends her arm for a firm handshake.

In the evening I get the email with the feedback form. I fill it out positively. The way it’s set up, with me sending it back first, it seems obvious I have to. When I have completed and submitted it I get a text a few minutes later to say my job application was not successful. They are not able to give further feedback because of the large volume of applicants.

I try to sign in to their system to fill out my invoice and my temporary password doesn’t work. I email a complaint to the address she gave me with the subject heading Invoice Password Not Working. I get an automated reply instantly, telling me their software has detected that my query is not related to a filed but unpaid invoice and so my email will be deleted. I fold my laptop closed.

The coffee shop is still open. I call and there is a menu with buttons to press for different kinds of query. I listen up to number six and then hang up. I could go back in person and ask. I picture myself trying to explain the issue, that it wasn’t to do with me forgetting the password, or anything like that, but rather the impenetrability of the system, while the yellow ponytail dances through the air. It simply doesn’t seem worth the trouble.

Without the routine of my normal chores, my week in the house by myself passes slowly. Anne Marie sends pictures from Portugal a few times a day: her book on a sun lounger beside a pool, one of the boys eating a watermelon, her sister half hidden under a floppy hat. When I get a holiday picture I go outside and take a picture of a puddle or autumn leaves and reply with a crying face. That’s some Tuesday, I’ll say. Holding up OK here.

I look for other jobs, things in call centres and shops, but without focus or urgency. I gesture half-heartedly to myself at making, or changing, longer-term plans: I draft emails to my course supervisor, dropping out permanently, saying I’ll be back next month, asking can I transfer course, and I save them all as drafts of different possibilities. This feeling of trying to plan around so many variables, and the ways I might possibly feel, is like plotting a course along a shifting surface. By Wednesday evening I am bored enough to spend more than an hour getting ready to meet Declan at work, where a student comedy night is taking place.

I sit at the mirror in Anne Marie’s bathroom, curling my eyelashes, applying mascara and then using a different mascara with a different brush to apply more mascara to each eyelash individually. I use three shades of grey eyeshadow. Bronzer, blusher and highlighter.

My phone lights up with a message from Declan. Your man from New York has come in. I open it. We’re chatting at the bar now. When are you coming down?

Ah, have you told him I’m coming? Don’t!! I will explain. I’ll be down soon.

Lol you’re always scheming. I won’t. Dw, he’s said hello and ordered a drink. I glance up at the mirror and catch myself smiling down at the phone. I reply.

Lol!! Yes. I’ll explain. See you soon.

I look at myself in the mirror. Too much? Maybe, although it’s probably dark enough in there that he won’t notice. I send the American a message. Hi, sorry for the short notice, I’m going to head to Declan’s bar this evening because I’ve found out he’s working. No pressure to come but thought I’d let you know :).

Hello, nice to hear from you, and thank you for thinking of me. I’m here now, as it happens. I’ll see you soon :).

Ah nice, Declan should be starting soon I think.

Excerpted from Rachel Connolly’s debut novel, Lazy City, out now from Canongate in the UK, and forthcoming in North America from Liveright (October 3).

Young writer with long blonde hair in purple blouse

Rachel Connolly has written for the New York Times MagazineNew York Magazine and lots of other places. Her novel Lazy City is out in the UK with Canongate in August, and in the North America with Liveright in October. 

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