The Agency

The Agency

Photo by Anders Jildén / Unsplash

The woman was in her mid-thirties, black-haired, brown-eyed, and dressed hurriedly in the pale light of that autumn morning. She brushed her teeth in the bathroom, quietly, eyes wandering, while standing next to her lanky partner of six years, blond-haired, hazel-eyed, whose job that day was to accompany the woman to her first appointment at the Agency for Work.

The woman had heard stories – mainly from her partner – about the Agency, even though he didn’t know much about it himself, having only sought its assistance once, decades ago, when transferring from one technical college to another. Although the couple had researched the terms of Unemployment in advance – she was entitled to one year of health and pension coverage in addition to nine months of 60% pay, despite having quit the job on her own – neither of them were sure what to expect. Would the Agency demand an explanation for why she'd left her job? Would she have to justify her plans for the future? How ironic, the woman thought, that the Agency for Work is the place to go for people who don’t want to work.

The Agency was situated in a square building comprised of pale brick and cerulean glass. The woman entered through the revolving doors, her partner lingering two steps behind so that she couldn’t hide behind him in a sudden bout of shyness. She asked the man behind the glass-paneled help counter where she could find office number B45F. He pointed cheerfully towards the elevators on the far side of the building.

Looking up from the ground floor of the high-ceilinged foyer, the woman and her partner saw rows stacked upon rows of office doors lining each of the four walls and extending upwards towards the skylight.

So this is what bureaucracy looks like, thought the woman.

The pair stepped out of the elevator. They seemed to be the only two people on the upper floors of the building. The rows of offices which had seemed to reach infinity from below were all unoccupied up here, their lights switched off.

They ambled in the waiting area outside of office B45F. After some minutes a door on the opposite side of the corridor swung open and a woman with short, disheveled gray hair wearing chained spectacles stuck her head out.

She saw the partner first as the woman stood examining a poster hanging at the other end of the hallway. “Ms. _____?” she asked him, quizzically.

The woman hurried back towards them. “That’s me,” she said, then pointed to her partner. “He’s my translator. And, er – also my partner. Can he come too?”

The gray-haired woman nodded her head towards her office. “Of course. Please.”

LEGO figurines were lined up along three edges of her desk in addition to the single bookshelf on the back wall of the office. The gray-haired woman sat down behind a row of yellow faces with varying hairstyles and began to type at her computer.

“So,” she said, double-clicking on a red-and-gray icon which opened a file. “You are here for a mandatory advisement regarding your Unemployment benefits.”

“That’s correct,” answered the woman.

“Let’s see,” the gray-haired woman said, scrunching her face as she pressed her index fingers into the clickety-clackety keys of her mechanical keyboard. “And have you already submitted your application in the online portal?”

“Yes, I have,” answered the woman. “I received a confirmation e-mail afterwards.”

“Yes, I see,” answered the gray-haired woman, clickety-clack clickety-clack. “So, we just need to fill out your resume together and then we can create a job search with your qualifications.”

The woman was flustered. “B-but I already added my resume details online,” she said. “And I created a job search as well. I submitted them both at the same time I completed my application for benefits.”

The gray-haired woman pressed a couple of keys. “Hmm,” she said, studying her screen. She tapped the nail of her index finger against the monitor and swiveled it so the woman could see. “Here it says that you’ve submitted an application for benefits, but the steps to complete your resume and job search are to be started.”

“Strange,” answered the woman, glancing at her partner, whose expression didn’t change.

“In any case,” said the gray-haired woman, suddenly cheerful. “Maybe a system error, but no matter. Let’s go ahead and complete the steps together, shall we?”

Seven-and-a-half minutes later, the gray-haired woman clicked “submit” on the last entry in the resume containing the woman’s education history. She removed her spectacles for a second and rubbed her brow with the back of her hand. “This will just take a minute to save, I hope,” she said, suppressing her yawn with a lopsided smile.

Next came the job search. The gray-haired woman typed as she spoke. “Based on your resume I will state that you are looking for an IT administrator position –” she began, populating words into a thin search bar with a magnifying glass.

“A-actually-” interrupted the woman, looking pleadingly at her partner. “I would like to make a career change. To keep the IT administrator maybe as a – a back-up, but I’d like to mainly search for work as an author. Or writer, I mean.” The woman felt ashamed to hear herself fumbling through the abbreviated telling of her dreams. She wasn’t sure if she had used the correct term for “writer”.

The gray-haired woman paused her typing and peered curiously at the woman over the top of her glasses. “Do you mean as an editor? Or a journalist?”

“Erm – yes, maybe both? I don’t know,” answered the woman. “All I know is that I would like to write about things. Preferably in English, heh. ” Her cheeks grew hot and she raised her eyebrows dramatically in the direction of her partner, who cleared his throat.

“My girlfriend is considering becoming a freelance writer,” he said. “Is that something that the Agency for Work would support? I mean if – instead of working for another IT company – she became self-employed instead?”

The gray-haired woman explained that yes, theoretically, the Agency for Work would provide 180 additional days of financial support for new freelancers and small business owners, plus continued health insurance and pension contributions, provided that the individual submits a business plan which is approved.

She then appeared to consider something and, swiveling back towards her computer monitor, made clickety-clackety typing sounds for approximately another minute.

“There you go,” she finally said. “I’ve entered in your job search with a primary qualification for IT administration and a secondary qualification for journalism. And—” she paused and winked, the kindest wink the woman had received in her four years of living in The City. “I’ve saved it as an anonymous search, which should buy you a little extra time to think about your plans on your own and update everything online only when you’re ready.”

The woman felt a strong desire to hug the gray-haired woman but instead she smiled, showing all of her teeth.

The appointment lasted only fifteen minutes although it had been scheduled for sixty. The gray-haired woman handed the woman and her partner a pamphlet containing the Agency for Work’s official policies – 95 pages printed on thin beige recycled paper. As they waved goodbye she added, “There’s a fancy chat app you can use if you’d ever like to reach us.” She winked again and the woman beamed, grateful for the cracks in the bureaucracy which allowed enough space for the gray-haired woman’s kindness to shine through.

The woman and her partner made their way back downstairs in the elevator, past the floors upon floors of offices lined up in neat rows, then walked across the grand empty foyer, past the help counters and out the front entrance of the Agency for Work’s revolving doors. Upon arriving outside the woman let out a long sigh and wrapped her arms tight around her partner’s waist.

This story is a contribution to the 6th STSC Symposium, a monthly collaboration from STSC's writers around a set theme. Our topic for this month is Work.