“Hellllllllloh there and welcome to Pascal Insurance and how can I be of service to you today?” Chelsea chirped.
I shifted my eyes towards the enthusiastic blurt that sat next to me. I looked her up and down slowly. I tried for a second to guess her weight. I thought it to be somewhere in the region of eighteen to twenty-four stones. This estimate was too vague for my liking. I am not accustomed to guessing the weight of people who couldn’t hang themselves on account of there not being a tree branch strong enough. I conceded that conjuring up an accurate figure was beyond my capabilities, so I shifted my thoughts to comparisons. What does she weigh an equal amount to? A four man canoe? An oven filled with bricks? An empty bottle bank?
I sat pondering over her heft as if I would win her if I guessed correctly. Her entire frame was a lot to take in. There were so many squidgy looking patches which should have been firm. So many flab craters that should have been flat and so many chins dangling from her muscular jaw. This engrossed my thoughts until I heard someone barking something into my left ear.
“Hello? Are you still there?” the angry person asked.
I snapped out of my daze.
“Yes, eh sorry about that Miss….”
I started as my eyes quickly scanned the computer screen for the customer’s name, “es Cartwright. Now if you could just go over the problem again for me one more time I’ll try to get this sorted for you,” I said, propping my heavy head with my hand, using almost all of the effort I had left.
“Oh my god, we’ve been over this twice already, I don’t know why you people ……….”
I dazed out.
There was a well built man in his early twenties stood across from me. His name was Chris, or Chrissy Boi as he enjoyed being referred to. He was the team leader. He was the epitome of mutton dressed as a lamb. A dog shit wearing a top hat. His expensive pinstripe shirt wrapped around his water plumped muscles, his stone washed, worn effect Diesel jeans hugged his legs and a self-assured, arrogant expression perpetually scarred his fuck-ugly face.
It must be Friday. Dress down day.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of my computer screen. I was wearing a white shirt with a Bolognese stain on the collar and my pair black trousers. I swung my head left and then right. I was the only person on the floor in Monday to Thursday dress code. I turned back towards Chelsea. She was wearing an unintentionally slim fitting, neon pink tracksuit with a black trim that was made from an indistinguishable, cheap velvety material. She looked like a sausage wrapped in bacon.
Chrissy Boi was a well known member of staff at the E-Solutions Commerce and Customer Service center. He was a regular contributor to ideas for staff parties, charity fundraisers and incentives for the top sellers on the floor. I knew little of any of these things. Chris ordered us every morning to check our “JetPhone iBox” for updates on deals, incentives and staff-only binges. I had only been personally invited once to one of these “Pascal Parties”. And I remember the day fondly, as it had been my silent victory over the deluded fools that I worked with.
Chris had approached me upon completion of my first full week on the phones. He swaggered towards my station, conscious of every female eye which may or may not be inspecting his chiseled upper body. I remember thinking that he walked as if he were carrying rolled up carpets under each arm and any woman who was sexualizing this ridiculous image desperately needed to be rolled up in one of his imaginary carpets and thrown off a bridge.
I had watched Chris all day long, strutting up to each member of staff and asking them if they would like to go to Jumping Jacks, Glasgow’s nightclub equivalent of a portable toilet on a Mexican building site, for staff drinks after work. I had noticed the enthusiasm that had entranced the other new members of the team and I immediately felt alienated and happy. Chris finally made his way round to me. There was always going to be a conflict of interests present when our two confident personalities butted heads. My good self; a work-place sociopath with odd socks, long unkempt hair and dark purple circles framing my dark, deep pupils, and Chris; a self-obsessed blue-eyed, blonde haired muscle factory with a grossly inflated idea of his appeal to the opposite sex. It was obvious that Chris loathed having people like me in his team. But nonetheless he felt it necessary to approach me once and offer me the chance to join the party.
“Jumpin’ Jacks, tonight, staff party. Fancy it eh…” asked Chris as he searched his walnut brain for my name.
I hit the mute button.
And buckled with laughter. “Sorry mate. I’d rather wipe my arse with a broken bottle.”
From that moment on the two of us never spoke to each other again with anything other than blatant contempt.
I watched eagerly as Chris plucked the cap from his black marker pen and updated the scores for his team. As usual, I had the lowest sales score of the morning. And as usual, Chelsea had the highest. I took a certain pride in being known as the lowest of the low in a kingdom of lowlifes. It made me better than everyone else. Chris drew an exaggerated, thick circle in the box next to my name, turning his head around slowly to glare at me. He put an unnecessary full stop after the zero as his eyes met mine.
“Get yer act together Dennis! If you build a strong customer orientated experience, customers share that with each other. Word of mouth is commerce Dennis. Commerce.” advised Chris as he curled his biceps, giving a flex for the females.
I smiled and did what I always did when Chris experimented with his standard issue, company required motivational phrases. I raised a thumb and gave an overstated, patronizing wink as if to say, ‘Worry not dear leader, you can depend on Dennis, ya prick!’
“What I can do for you sir is, put you on hold for just a moment while I have a look and see if you’re eligible for any premiums on you life insurance,” she said sympathetically, “would that be alright for you Mr. MacInness?” she asked in that way she always did.
“Okay, I’ll be back in just a moment Mr. MacInness, okay…okay, thanks.”
I watched as Chelsea shifted her heft in her chair and turned to me as she raised her third can of Diet Coke to her face. She tilted her head back and emptied the last of it into the crater in her face and discarded the can with the rest of her collection in a bag on the floor.
“That’s me made eight sales so far the day! Ah could be up for a prize!” she beamed, “How many have you had?”
I quickly raised his finger to the mute button on my phone as the increasingly irate customer continued to lambaste me about something to do with money or the company or my attitude or something.
“What? Like not one?” she asked, unable to hide the confusion in her voice. “Hello?! Are you even listening to me? Hello?!” the voice in my ear yelled. I turned back to the screen leaving Chelsea’s question rhetorical. I brought up the soft phone on the screen and randomly selected a department to fob this trouble maker off to. Commercial Restructure and Data Control, that’ll do. I clicked on the name of the department and prepared to launch this hassle Trojan into the customer services abyss, where she would subsequently be passed around the departments like a yawn at church.
“I’m sorry Miss Cartwright,”
“MRS. Cartwright!” she aggressively corrected.
“Of course, my mistake, I’m sorry MRS. Cartwright, this is a Commercial Restructure and Data Control issue, I’ll just put you through to them now,” I said coolly.
“No! No, how can that be a…” she protested.
“Have a lovely day Miss Cartwright and thank you for calling Pascal Insurance. Bye”
The satisfaction overwhelmed me as I heard her voice being flushed away and out to sea. She would flounder around there, clutching tightly onto her problem, desperate for someone who cared would rescue her from another call-center induced nervous breakdown. I breathed out and looked to the sterilizing strip light above me. I could feel that familiar old wry smile crept across my face. I looked back to the screen and kept my status as ‘unavailable’ for as long as I could without detection.
I turned back to Chelsea again. She had cracked open another can of Diet Coke and was sipping it every time the customer spoke and looking at it lustfully every time she spoke. My eyes couldn’t help investigate the blurred join between her legs and her buttocks. It had started to squeeze itself out of the triangular arm rest of her computer chair, like a homemade, human sausage maker. The fat on her wrists seemed to slip down to her elbows as she raised her can of Diet Coke. Her chin made her look like a pelican that had eaten a person. She was as far from attractive as any human could be afraid of ever becoming. Her weight would almost certainly merit, had it not already, a one-on-one doctor intervention. Her hair was dyed a peroxide blonde about six months ago and the natural brown had begun slide down closer to the tips. Teenage ache had served to make her skin look like melted Lego and she worked full-time in a call center, the human equivalent of a battery farm. But she seemed happy. And I was far from it.
Chelsea looked at Dennis with a strange mixture of envy and pity. He was an unconventionally handsome man who was skinnier than you’re average person his age and attracted the stares of some women and gay men in the call center. But he had no respect for himself professionally. He was offensive and dismissive to the customers and was working here for all the wrong reasons. She thought that he could do with going back to training again to learn a thing or two about courtesy and telephone etiquette, something which he was either unfamiliar with or simply cared very little for. She hated sitting next to him. He always looked so angry. It brought her down. Chelsea always maintained that the best way to work was to do your best to enjoy it and think little of the woes that could plague the day. She kept a mental score of how many times she would say a certain word during the day, how many times she would transfer a customer to a particular department, or her favorite was to see how many times she could solve a problem that was out with her purview. Chelsea always kept count mentally because you weren’t allowed to have paper in a call center floor as it was a violation of the Data Protection Act. Everybody except Dennis knew that. But she could never be sure if he didn’t know this or if he chose to forget. Dennis always had paper next to him. He would scribble furiously onto it between calls. At least she hoped it was between calls. The thought of someone sitting next to her and not listening to a problem the customer had turned her stomach. Or even worse, writing down account details of the customers.
But he was weird, she thought. He liked to write things. Essays or stories maybe, she thought. Once she saw him draw a picture of a cute little rabbit with dynamite strapped to his body and a turban on. His ears were poking out of holes on the turban. She thought that this was so offensive that she almost told Chris about him. But she didn’t. No sense in causing waves over someone who would probably consider his dismissal a favour. But the writing, that was different. She wondered if it was maybe it was a code. He would write this stuff and maybe the letters symbolized account numbers or something. She asked him about it one day.
“What is it you’re always writing?”
He pressed the mute button on his hard phone.
Dennis turned to her and said, “What?”
“What is that you’re always writing?” she asked again.
“Thoughts?” she said.
“Aye, don’t you have them?” he asked, in his sarcastic voice. She gave him a dry, equally sarcastic smile.
She looked to the clock. 15:58. The time filled her with anxiety. In two hours, she would be leaving. These motions she went through in the last two hours of every working day were comparable to the way some people feel before they go to bed on Sunday night. It was Friday and in two hours it would be the furthest possible time from when she would be back in her chair with that headset snuggling into her ear like a soft pillow. She thought that maybe she could ask Chris about overtime for Saturday or Sunday. Or Saturday and Sunday. She needed only a very minor reason to talk to Chris. Chelsea thought that Chris was the most handsome man on the call center. She didn’t need the money, just something to do at the weekend.
Her thoughts turned to what she would have for dinner. Fish and chips, maybe a curry or possibly just a Burger King. It was Friday and Friday was a day for lavish treats, she thought. It was certainly cheaper for her to eat these days. Maybe a bit more expensive for her individually but cheaper since it was just her.
“Hellllllllloh there and welcome to Pascal Insurance and how can I be of service to you today?” she said, with no noticeable dip in passion since the last call.
The man had called on behalf of his son. This was a simple sale. The customer was looking to insure his son (male, seventeen years old, not yet passed test) on his own insurance. She went through the usual rigmarole with him. She thought that this was what dancing with someone you knew loved you would be like. The sale, the kiss, was inevitable, but for both of you to come away overflowing with happiness, it was necessary for you to flirt around the subject of the kiss.
“Wow! Is that really how much I save? That’s incredible!” said the man.
“That’s right sir and if you just give me a minute here I’ll see what sort of loyalty discount we can arrange for you,” Chelsea said with conviction.
“That’s absolutely brilliant Chelsea, thank you so much!”
“Not a problem sir”
“If every call center worker was like you, we would get a lot more done in the world!” said the man.
Chelsea’s heart warmed. This was almost the biggest compliment one could give her.
I couldn’t stop myself looking at the clock. I could feel myself getting excited, my heart beating a little faster if it were one minute closer to the end of this hell. I was desperate to be released from restraints of my head set and be free to run around and swear and smoke and be honest with everyone. I occupied my impatient mind with looking around at the drones that whizzed around me. The spiky haircuts with bleached tips clashing with the tanned orange skin and whatever gaudy colour they had chosen to wrap themselves in for dress down day. I looked on in disgust at their happy faces. They were content to work in a place like this and it offended me greatly. An educated human being who is happy to hand over forty hours of their week in exchange for this environment and the meager wage that accompanied it, was not worth the soul in their body.
I found myself overwhelmed with a feeling of disdain for every single person that had ever smiled as they walked through the doors of this building. I looked down to my hands and noticed that they were clenched so tightly that the knuckles looked like chicken’s feet. These pond-dwellers had no ambition and even less drive to better themselves. The feelings of alienation that I was experiencing had served wonderfully to bring me to the realization that none of this suited me. I had been lying to myself in the beginning. I had assumed that if I had managed to maintain a happy private life, work would be something I could endure for the sake of maintaining what made me truly happy. But forty hours every week was a long time for anyone to feel consistently miserable. The other hours of the week that I didn’t use for sleep were either spent in a drugged up state or bound in the clutches of panic that work was once again looming over me like a black cloud ready to piss all over me.
I had never once inquired into the lives of the people I shared my most miserable hours with but I knew that I wasn’t one of them. I knew this because they asked me about mine. I would be asked all manner of mundane and torturous questions about things that were nothing to do with them. They could never seem to grasp the fact that I didn’t just dress differently from them, I was totally and completely different from them in every single way in which they could possibly conceive. To these people, thinking about things other than football/fashion, women/men, fighting/shopping, beer/Smirnoff Ice, Magaluf/Mallorca or fake tan was seen as being waste of time and, ultimately, weird. The simple and beautiful fact of the matter was, that I was not one of these people and I never would be.
I had worried that in coming back to Scotland I had made a huge, immeasurable mistake. Japan had been barbarically expensive, sexually perverse, misogynistic in a 1950s kinda way and at times a ferocious, pulsing numb for the senses, but it had been the best experience of my relatively short life. I left a lot of like-minded friends behind and hadn’t seemed to gather anything like the momentum I had with my writing since arriving back on the moody shores of my homeland. Simply put, I had never been so misanthropic as I continued to find himself now. I had been a positive, uplifting person in Japan and had never doubted that I would saddle up this new found passion for life and that this fresh, mature outlook would continue bloom regardless of where I lived. But this job had crushed every morsel of hope and drive that I had into the floor. There was nothing but scummy dregs left of my love for humanity. Seeing people enjoy working in a job of this nature confirmed to me that the planet was over run with parasitic, uninspired idiots.
As the clock rolled over to 4:00 P.M. (my last smoke break) I burst from my chair like I had hauled an ejector seat lever with all of my might. I was almost pulled back into my seat by the resistance of the head-set cable. Suddenly realizing that I hadn’t come anywhere close to fixing this person’s problem, I hit the mute button.
“Fucking come on ya cunt! Shut the fuck up!” I snarled into the muted microphone.
I was fully aware with what I was dealing with here. I knew that this time bandit was fully prepared to spend the next fifteen to twenty minutes telling and retelling the facts of his grievance, each little molehill becoming a snow capped mountain, as he would get more and more frustrated at the sound of his own whining voice and the serene, calmness of mine.
“I think that I’ve just realized the problem here sir,” said I, becoming more and more impatient with each short, bursting syllable, “you’ll have to go on hold for a moment while I try to sort this problem out for you.”
“What? For fucks sakes mate! This is absolutely ridiculous. I want to speak to your fucking manager! I’ve been on the phone for an hour!” the man snarled.
And at that point, I snapped.
“I’ve been on the phone for eight fucking months mate! So get fucked ya cunt!”
Chelsea choked on her mouthful of Diet Coke as she heard what Dennis had said. She quickly shot a glance to his chair and noticed that he was now standing up and everyone in the call center was looking directly at him. She didn’t like this much attention being almost directed at her so she hunched slightly in her chair, using the computer screen as a shield. This was nothing like the other call center flip-out she had witnessed. About a year ago, a young man in training had gotten angry and tossed his headset at his computer screen. Everyone took note. It reminded them that this job isn’t for everyone. Some people can take it, some can’t. Dennis clearly fell into the latter bracket and everyone could see this. A breakdown of this proportion had never been seen in this building and Chelsea could be sure that after Dennis’ inevitable dismissal, people would come to her for clues. Why did he do it? Was he getting closer to the boil? Is he really as weird as everyone says he is? What would she say to these people?
Chelsea was on the verge of solving a man’s problem with his no claims bonus history being disregarded on his last bill. It was a standard issue procedure for anyone who had been there long enough to know the systems properly. But at this moment she had to concede that no matter how much she valued the customer, she couldn’t be the only person to miss the aftermath of this situation. especially considering she was the person closest to him.
It seemed as if everyone around me gasped simultaneously, like air being sucked from an open door on a space station. I immediately looked around in every direction and saw that each member of staff within ear shot had muted their phone and started to whisper to their neighbor. All eyes were on me. I tried my hardest to act cool and pretend that this outburst hadn’t happened.
The truth was that I had shocked myself and when I looked down at my hand on the keyboard I could see it trembling furiously. I knew what those words meant for me.
“Ho! Dennis! Go and take five and come see me when you’ve had a wee word with yourself!” shouted Chris from behind me.
I had surely lost my job. There was no possible way for me to save myself now and that seemed appropriate because grovelling for my job back here would be an enormous insult to myself.
Without thinking, I turned to Chris. I smiled at him softly and raised my middle finger high in the air. As all eyes were on me anyway it seemed unnecessary to attempt to gather attention. But I did anyway. One last chance to articulate your feelings Dennis.
“Fuck you all.” I shouted.
I looked to Chelsea. She was sat with her mouth wide open looking up at me. Chelsea couldn’t possibly understand what was going through my head. And that made me sad.