Elaine Johnson is one of the people I hoped never to see again after I jumped off the roof of my first primary school, aged nine and encouraged to do so by half of my classmates. Sixteen years later, at the wrong side of a Job Centre desk, Elaine looks nowhere near as intimidating. She's wearing leggings and a long blazer in a colour that reminds me of winter skies; a fortune's worth of make up to create a natural look and a straggly blonde ponytail on the top of her head. Though she's been waiting for over twenty minutes already, she doesn't sit down and seems to be hugging herself, as if she's trying to keep out the artificial cheerfulness of this utterly depressing place.
According to my mum, who got me this job in customer care as soon as I graduated, there are three types of people claiming JSA: the ones that want a job, the ones that don't care, and the ones that don't want to work. “The first,” she explained, “are just like us. They're working people, except they happen to be unemployed. They'll try hard to find and keep a job, and usually succeed sooner than they expected. Members of the second category will occasionally find work, but they often lose their jobs and come back to us. They're the ones that sometimes 'forget' to cancel their claim when they've found something temporary. They're also the regulars you'll end up bonding with, because they're much more agreeable than the parasites that don't want to work. Parasites are lazy, arrogant and they look down on us, even though they've got nothing to be proud of. Like your father – who rejected one job because he couldn't use his creativity and the next because it would drain his creativity. They're full of lies and damn hard to get rid off.”
It's obvious that Elaine has grown up to be a member of the last group. Her file is next in my tray and I'm running behind on schedule already because I tried to stretch the interview with one of the regulars. I've had twenty minutes to prepare myself for the confrontation but I'm still not ready. The name Elaine has been on my lips while waking up from nightmares for sixteen years but now that she's here, in my territory, I'm not even sure whether she remembers me.