by Adalya Nash Hussein
I applied for the job in a burst of panic, acutely feeling both my need for money and my own inadequacy. Regular job sites overwhelm me, so I limited my search to niche databases: ethicaljobs.com, artsjobs.com, and my university's career portal.
My eyes glazed over as I read through the position descriptions, trying to understand what I was qualified for, what was paid, and what wasn't a scam.
JuiceBar seeks ENTHUSIASTIC Blending Associates
Casual/Part-time JOBS. Fast-Paced CBD looking for experienced juicer to BLEND with our workplace: PASSIONATE and most of all FUN!
Summer Internship Program
SynnSpray Network Pty Ltd
Are you up for the Challenge?
Brinks Community Engagement Co-ordinator
Working at Brinks is more than a job. It’s a calling to create a better society through meaningful work, focused on improving 3 billion lives a year by delivering innovative solutions across the wellbeing continuum.
Casual administrative role available for student passionate about FOOD and SOCIALISING. Dining Table organise social dinners at a variety of locations across Melbourne and Australia. You will work for very nice and very good cook!!!
Around halfway through my application for Dining Table, I realised I was applying for a job at a dating company. The next day I had an interview and the day after that I had the job. I reassured myself that I was just checking it out, that if the company was dodgy I could quit. The office had a kitchen with a lolly jar and a Sodastream, which seemed a promising sign that they valued their employees.
Katrine owned Dining Table, and was charismatic but functionally incapable of working independently. Instead she relied on her employees, mainly Yana, to keep her on task.
“Katrine, you have a client coming in 5 minutes!”
“Katrine, you must call Mike Williams!”
“Katrine, put away your phone!”
“It is simple,” Yana told me on my first day. “Katrine manages business, I manage Katrine.”
They had a personal dynamic that seemed an inversion of their work dynamic. Katrine seemed to view Yana as some kind of daughter-figure, would take soup to her on sick days. Yana would go from chastising Katrine in the office to asking career and relationship advice over lunch. I would sometimes even find Yana’s name among the formal counselling clients in our calendar.
Initially, my job largely consisted of data-entry. Name, age, address, banking details, hobbies, build —“slim”, “average” or “cuddly”—, reason for joining.
The cheapest program Dining Table ran emphasised it was just for socialising, although from the paperwork I could tell that none of our customers believed this; everybody said they wanted to meet someone to share their life with.
For a higher price, people could choose three traits that were important to them, and we would guarantee there would be somebody like this at all of their dinners.
To start, I learned that almost everybody wanted a “non-smoker”, which surprised me. I hadn't realised this was so important, and I began to feel pity the few smokers we did have in our database; they probably didn't even know. The second criteria was generally a height restriction. I had always assumed this stereotype about straight couples (who the company exclusively catered to—although there was discussion of using Oscar Wilde branding to launch a queer service) was a bit of an exaggeration, but, at least among our clients, it wasn't.
The final point was generally where I learned if I despised or merely disliked the client. People who wanted or didn't want a family were ok. People who selected an age range were a mixed bag, depending on whether the age range was radically different to their own. The worst people were the ones who used bizarre euphemisms for thin and white: “Petite Australian”, “Sporty European”, “Healthy Anglo-Saxon”.
From the data-entry I learned other, funnier things too, and I would turn them into entertaining anecdotes for anybody that asked about my new job.
“So many people like ‘Reading’, but not ‘Literature!’”
“Everyone's just looking for a ‘good conversationalist’!”
“I never knew water skiing was so popular!”
Dining Table prided itself on being “ethical”, meaning more ethical than their competitors, meaning we charged less, and never paid actors to go on the dinners. The website emphasised safety and authenticity, and as a result we had far more women signing up than men. A large part of my job became texting the few men on the books to try and book them in.
Hope your leg is healing up nicely!
If you're up to it, we have a really special table of four coming up this Friday the 17th of June that Katrine thinks would be great for you! Very well-travelled and educated guests you haven't met before, and we're looking at booking a restaurant right near your house. Let us know if you're ready to start going on dinners again!
It was tricky to find the right structure and tone. You had to seem friendly and professional, to really sell them on the table without seeming desperate. Katrine encouraged mild flirting, which was obviously a terrible idea, so on the occasions it seemed necessary I would include a few more typos and sign the texts with her name.
Katrine and Yana were always telling me how shy I was, how polite I was, how I should apologise less, which was not feedback I often received. I liked the difference, that at work it seemed I was someone else.
On Wednesdays everybody came into work and Katrine would cook us lunch, a complicated feat given our different dietary requirements. I was vegetarian, Yana was allergic to gluten and most red vegetables, Katrine herself was on a diet I struggled to understand the constraints of, and our IT guy Chris mainly seemed to eat unseasoned meat. During exams, Katrine's daughter Juliana (a little older than me) would use the office to study/marathon Gossip Girl, and would also join us for lunch—she was on a lactose intolerant variant of Katrine's diet.
Katrine's focus was no tighter in the kitchen. She regularly served up meals that were overcooked and incoherent: eggs boiled for over an hour, cold cuts, chicken tenders, supermarket falafel, a lettuce (whole), sweet chilli sauce, grated cheese, and a tub of smooth ricotta—all to be served on tacos that were “a little bit gothic”.
Over lunch, Katrine would regale us with stories of her past lives—her childhood: how liberal everybody was in Belgium, how her parents had hired cleaning staff (“the house was too big not to!”), but how they had always made sure her siblings were completely down to earth and in touch with other cultures. She would then stretch into her previous careers: calling on behalf of fake conferences to get past pesky administrators, introducing astrology and numerology to the CEOs of major banks.
When our IT guy Chris was in the office, I struggled to work unless I had headphones on, which was generally discouraged. Every time he spoke, my jaw would set stiff and my eyes would widen.
It wasn't so much the things Chris said—although, as the only man in the office, they were often extremely dated jokes of the form “Men are like ______, women are like _______”. It was his delivery that really bothered me: stuttered over, rhythmically unsound, simultaneously laboured and performed as if he had never heard a joke in his life.
A few months into my job, a Nigerian woman came into the office to meet with Katrine. She was beautiful and a professor, and she wanted to sign up for our most expensive matchmaking program, but Katrine bargained her down.
“Now, I love your enthusiasm, but I think perhaps it's better off if we start you on one of our introductory packages!”
“Well... Now I want to be completely honest with you, and I don't want you to take what I say as any kind of endorsement of this! But my experience having clients that are black African, is that they tend to have a more difficult time... I mean not because they're not wonderful, of course I think you're wonderful! I'd marry you in a second if I was that way inclined! but many of our clients aren't as... open.”
“You mean—they are racist?”
“I mean perhaps not intentionally!”
Katrine recounted this proudly, glad to have the opportunity to show me just how ethical she was, but I didn't quite know what to think. I supposed surely it was better not to take money and hope from somebody you knew you were less likely to help, but Katrine's casual acceptance of our clients’ racism unsettled me.
Katrine's home life was a mystery. Money never seemed to be something she thought about, but, as I began to monitor the business's finances, it became more unclear how she had enough to live off—let alone too cover the many, mostly international, impromptu holidays she took a year.
When Katrine was travelling, the office's productivity would grind to a halt, not because the rest of us became lazy, but because without her, we couldn't bring in new clients, or coach old ones, or really do anything but tread water. The structure of the business meant that the majority of its income came from a client interaction with Katrine. Each time Katrine went away, Yana would grow more frustrated with the business, would spend more time “working from home”. I grew used to being in the office alone.
When Katrine returned she would always have a convoluted story about sorting out her family's properties, show off a new purchase, and gift us each a body scrub. She would also usually return with important pronouncements on how to change or expand the business that I quickly learned to ignore. We had become, or had always been, a hobby, a diversion for her.
At some point, though I'm not sure when, I started wearing a dupatta most days. On days I worked, I would pull my scarf back off my head to sit round my neck as I crossed from the street to the office. Everybody at Dining Table knew I was Muslim and had been almost performatively accepting of it. It wasn't that I thought I would be fired, that they would pull off my headscarf to dramatically reveal themselves as Pauline Hanson voters; I just dreaded having to talk about it at all.
While there were a few clients I had a fondness for, it was generally not a mystery why the people who signed up for Dining Table were single. Our customers were frequently rude, bizarre, or grounded in fantasy. As “the writer” of the office, I was tasked with preparing firm and professional responses to the more troubling messages. Most of the time, it was related to no-shows—explaining that we couldn't take responsibility for table partners that had cancelled last minute—and I quickly prepared a range of templates depending on the tone and specific concerns that were being responded to. Katrine and Yana encouraged me to be more cutthroat in my response to women, due to the glut in our database. I grew accustomed to which clients would complain as a rule, and perfected a tone of chirpy concern that tended to temper them.
There were others I found harder: the man confused about why he'd received a negative reaction to surprising a first date with $180 tickets to an Elvis impersonator, the man who constantly just wanted to talk to Katrine about The Crown. Usually the office backed me up, or at least I didn't do anything radical enough to require back up.
When one client begged me to double or triple check with women he had met that they definitely weren't interested in him—“I never stop until I get a no :)”—Katrine rejected my suggestion we explain that a no is often expressed subtextually rather than directly.
“Well, Adalya, women do need to learn to say no!”
I was stopped from blacklisting a client who forcibly kissed another, immediately before delivering the line: “most women take a while to warm up to me”.
“We've sent Peter on dinners for years and years, I think I can just talk to him about this directly.”
When I described the incident as an “assault”, Katrine interrupted.
“I hope you didn't use that language when Ruth described the incident to you! I mean it is, but…"
At some point in the conversation I caught myself attempting to delicately explain “the #MeToo moment”. Peter continued to go on dinners, and my co-workers continued to complain about him for paying his invoices late.
Partway though an ever-elongating overseas trip, Katrine texted to let us know her daughter Juliana would be living in our consulting room for the foreseeable future, which I had already guessed from what Juliana had told me while scrambling eggs in her pyjamas that morning.
“Yeah, my housemate was just deported.”
“Yeah, a week ago. Anyway! I started moving into her room because it's bigger than mine, but then the whole place just got so messy and I needed to get away from it for a while until Mum gets back and can help me organise it.”
“Yeah so anyway don't mind me! Just make sure you put any clients in the calendar so I don't accidentally greet them in the nude!”
Juliana's presence seemed to exasperate Yana, who rolled her eyes when I asked how long the situation might last and worked from home more determinedly than ever. Office supplies—most crucially, phone chargers—went missing overnight, and I would have to reclaim them, tentatively knocking on the “bedroom” door, opening it slowly in case Juliana was inside but hadn't heard, padding carefully around her piles of clothes.
In the meantime, Yana decided to hire another admin assistant to make sure there was someone in the office when we weren't. We interviewed a few candidates with Katrine on Skype, before choosing Ella, because she had a marketing background like Yana, and because I found her charismatic.
For the first week, I doubled my hours to show Ella the ropes. She was mostly there to answer urgent calls while Yana and I weren't in, and in the meantime she would use her marketing skills to prepare copy for our social media and website. When I'd started the job there had been some hope that I would be good at this, but I spent too long on research and my pieces always massively exceeded the character limits. It's safe to say there was a shift in tone from me:
Understanding our history is important to understanding the way we live today. As our conceptions of love and relationships have changed, so too has the role of matchmakers. As a way of rooting our matchmaking practice in the present, we think it’s important to understand how it relates to matchmakers of the past.
Raise your hand up everyone, who has heard of skin (or touch) hunger? Well, not many! Lucky that i did not ask to give me a ❤ only by the people who have heard of it. Our skin is our largest organ. It’s therefore no surprise that touch is so vital to our wellbeing.
For single people skin hunger is a real “catch 22”. When you don't have enough supplement of skin contact you may become a bit needy, desperate or, the opposite, quite aggressive and anti social, which makes it hard to find a partner and solve this problem naturally. To all of our clients, who may have been single for a tiny bit too long, I suggest to invest in few massage sessions. Hey, I was talking about the usual massage, not what you just thought of!
After this, Ella and I rarely overlapped, but she did send me a lot of texts when I wasn't working. Occasionally it was to ask for advice, but mostly it was just to complain about clients that she didn't like.
Michelle is a pain in the neck. She wants to give us a call back tomorrow to let us know if she’ll come to the dinner for 4 on sat .
might need to replace he
I said all the right stuff she’s just annoying as
When Katrine finally returned, as usual, she had a body scrub for each of us (coconut), a new business plan (coaching!), and a new purchase to show off (blue contacts over her already blue eyes). She had a less convoluted than usual anecdote about family property:
“My brother Alex owns these beautiful old Amsterdam apartments that he Airbnbs, but truly he's learnt the worst about humanity! He can’t rent them to Indians anymore—too many experiences with bad smells.”
I didn't really know how I was meant to respond so I just got up and went to the bathroom, texted my boyfriend.
I need to quit.
This wasn't the first time I'd sent a text like this, and every time it became more serious, more possible, but it never eventuated, because I was fired.
Katrine was serious about the new business plan and it meant cutting back on admin hours. Having been there a year, I thought I was a natural choice to keep, but apparently I wasn't.
“Well, Ella just has that marketing background that will be so important in the new incarnation of the business. She's just so good at media.”
I told everybody it was a good thing. I needed the work but I needed to leave more. The business was toxic and I couldn't work there. I even told some people that I had quit, as if I could have mustered the bravado to do such a thing.
I spent a few weeks in bed playing Mario Kart. I went back to my university's career portal. ◯
Adalya Nash Hussein is a Pakistani-Australian writer, editor and educator. Her work has appeared in Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow, The Suburban Review and Going Down Swinging. She has been shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize, has been an Emerging Writers' Festival Melbourne Recital Centre Writer in Residence and is a current Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow. She is the Online Editor of The Lifted Brow and a nonfiction editor for Voiceworks.