Ria sat in a chair, clipboard on her knees, trying to pull down her skirt. She looked around nervously at the nine other people waiting to be interviewed, hurriedly filling in the form they’d been given. No one looked up or around. There was no noise in the room besides the scratching of their pens on the paper. They were all like her- similar age, appearance and an almost identical office dress style. The job was for a government position, which was only vaguely described, and even then in the murkiest terms. The words surveillance, security and freedom were used. Those words, in that context, sent chills down her spine but at least it would be a secure job.
Ria needed this job or any job really; they were getting harder to find. She’d been unemployed for six months. Before she set out that morning, she fussed over her new haircut, the one she splurged the last of her money on. She decided as she looked at herself in the mirror, her stomach knotted in regret over spending the last of her money on the haircut, that if she got offered the job, she’d take it no matter what. She was falling behind on her rent and student loans and the way things were going her only option would be to move back in with her parents, something her pride wouldn’t let her do. Something she couldn’t really see working since her father was unemployed as well.
At the time she was glad she got her hair cut, it gave her that little extra confident boost she needed after six months of unemployment and rejection letters or worse, never hearing anything back at all. It was a little treat since going out to buy groceries and occasionally meeting up with a friend became the only activities that got her out of the house and away from her computer filling out constant “Dear Sir or Madam, I am applying for the position of. . .” cover letters.
She put her head back down and continued filling out the form, trying to remember exact dates of her previous employment. She wondered if it was going to be a group interview. She couldn’t think of why else they were all put here together at the same time. She hated group interviews and how petty and competitive everyone got. It didn’t seem so bad of a competition if you didn’t see those you were up against. But no one around her really seemed much competition anyway. One girl wasn’t even wearing proper office shoes, they were black canvas shoes, surely that’d put her out of the running. And two people arrived without CVs which would make them look amateur.
She took a deep breath and reassured herself that she was better than these people. She had a degree, work experience, she was a hard worker, quick learner and willing to go the extra mile. But she seemed to be the only one showing nerves. No one else had looked up since they entered the room. When they all filed in there was no one there, just ten chairs with ten clipboards and ten forms to be filled out. It was a self explanatory and solitary assignment and everyone, wanting to make a good impression, started right away. Ria had hesitated, maybe they should have waited for someone to tell them what to do or make sure they were in the right place. But everyone else started immediately filling out the forms and so did she. She didn’t want to be left behind in case it was some kind of initiative test.
Ria wondered if everyone else knew exactly what the job was. Perhaps that’s why they seemed so sure of themselves and confident. All she got was an email with a time slot for an interview and the address. She had filled in the rest. She had dressed in her best suit, she had brought previous references and anything else they could possibly want to look at and had arrived ten minutes early. If she turned her head slightly she could see that the man sitting next to her also brought references. And she knew that everyone else in the room also arrived ten minutes early except the man sitting near the door who arrived five minutes early and the woman sitting near the fake plant who had already been waiting when she arrived.
She realized that they probably didn’t know anything more than her. It would have showed if they did. Someone would have sat more relaxed, with one leg crossed on top of the other or would have at least made eye contact with another person. No, they must all be in the dark just like her, except they were better at not showing it.
Ria again stole a glance at the man sitting next to her. Now that she looked at him closer she saw that he was sweating a little bit. It was nothing that would be visible to someone across the room, just one or two little drops on his forehead.
“PLEASE keep your eyes to yourself” came a voice from somewhere within the room.
Ria jerked back in her seat. It took her a few moments to realize that no one in the room had spoke. She could see the other interviewees covertly stealing glances around the room to locate the sound. There had to be a speaker in the room somewhere which meant that whoever just spoke to her, could also see her. Ria couldn’t see any visible cameras. She had this intense feeling growing in her, as if someone was sitting right behind her, studying her back and hovering over her shoulder. She could feel everyone in the room tense a little, she wondered if the cameras could see that as well.
The pens were scratching against the paper more fiercely now. It was as if everyone knew she was the one singled out and they were doing their best to disassociate themselves from her. She began to feel a little irritated with these people. They didn’t even know who she is and yet were willing to point the invisible finger at her.
She tightened her grip on her pen. She would show them! She began filling in the rest of her form with vigor and enthusiasm, purposely letting it show on her face, not just for the competition but also for her potential employers who she now supposed must be watching every move.
She was so engrossed and writing with such passion that during an elaborate gesture her pen slipped out of her hand and skidded across the floor. Perfect, she thought. She could tell that once again all the attention from the other candidates was on her. She felt her cheeks burn in embarrassment. She thought of getting up and began to rise.
“Please stay seated,” said the voice again.
She sat back down. Why did she sit back down? She felt the other people in the room staring at her even though their faces were still bent down in concentration. They had labeled her the weak one, the one they were better than. She began to panic. She didn’t care about the other people in the room anymore. She just wanted to do the interview and get the hell out.
She reached into her bag, took out another pen and started to fill out the form again but then paused. She really didn’t want to be there anymore, but then leaving would definitely give her no chance of a job. She would be back to endless searching, depression and doubt. She had barely enough money to last into next week. It was going to be a stretch even if she got this job and started right away. She knew her finances as closely as the little scar on the back of her hand.
Then the voice was heard again. “We will be with your shortly. Please do not leave.”
Ria didn’t like this at all. Her heart was beating fast, not with the nervousness she normally experienced with interviews, but with the overwhelming urge to flee. Staying on unemployment and endless ego bashing from rejections would surely be better than being subjected to this. If this was only the interview what would the job be like? She hated wearing business clothes, she didn’t like the look of anybody in the room, she didn’t like the building, she didn’t like the feel of anything. She knew, clearly as if someone had slapped her across the face, that this was not for her.
Suddenly the door across from the one they had entered from opened and a smiling man in a well fitting suit walked into the room. He apologized for the long wait and asked if everyone had filled in their forms. Everyone nodded; Ria’s was still unfinished. The man was smiling and seemed pleasant but his suit pressed to perfection made his appearance sinister.
“Great,” he said. “Then I’ll call you in by name and we’ll begin.”
His voice was not the voice that they heard before, Ria realized. Maybe it was no one’s voice, just a computerized voice or one the security guards, she had seen several on her way in. The atmosphere in the room broke a little while the first man who was called shook hands with the smiling man and door behind them closed. Everyone seemed to relax. Ria began to think that she was actually a lot more stressed and anxious than she originally thought. She calmed down a bit and idly began to fill in the rest of her form.
“No more writing please,” said the voice. “We already asked you.”
Ria stopped. Her gut feeling was right, this was no good. She needed to get out of here. Even if it was just to the toilets for a minute to tell herself that she was overreacting. She gathered her bag and began to rise.
“Please do not leave, you should have gone to the toilets earlier.”
Ria stayed standing. She didn’t need any job this badly. The door opened again and the man in the suit came out and looked directly at Ria.
“Ms. Belgin, you’re next.”
Her blood ran cold. She had never met this man before. There were five other women in the room. She had given them her name in the email but they had never seen her before. How could he know who she is?
“Ms. Belgin . . .” he smiled.
Ria looked towards him and towards the door. She still had a choice.
“No,” she said.
“No, you’re not Ms. Belgin?” the man said. He seemed amused as if they were lifelong friends and she was playing a game.
“I mean, no, I’m leaving.” She headed towards the door.
“Ms. Belgin if you leave we unfortunately cannot offer you another interview.”
“Good,” she said. She paused near the door, turned to everyone and said “Good luck.”
I don’t necessarily aspire to write like anyone, I hope that I’ve developed my own voice but I’ve been heavily influenced by Neil Gaiman, Albert Camus, Hemingway and Milan Kundera.
I admire Neil Gaiman for his imagination, Hemingway for his way of understating things but those things still coming across very strong, Kundera for the way he plays with narrative and Camus’ short story collection Exile and the Kingdom opened my mind up to how powerful short stories can be.
I’d like to think there’s some sort of shadowy The Third Man element to this piece. Or if it were a film it’d be directed by Kubrick in a similar vein to 2001: A Space Odyssey- lots of white and sterile surfaces.