It may come as a relief to learn that call centres have remained formidably dull, as they were before Covid 19. Laminated posters; corporate logos, embossed on glass; sort-of-friendly-but-sort-of-on-edge-people and scalding mugs of caffeine. Even a profoundly contagious and deadly virus cannot give this place an aura of timeless purpose. And so, my first day assisting in this moment of crisis, began with a sigh and feeling its business as usual. Not with a superman-esque deep inhale.
I always turn up to work early on my first day. Confusedly circling the car park, looking for a sign. Everything was shut down, apart from a petrol station across the street, where Jamie Oliver had an impossibly ‘new’ and ‘classic’ range of sandwiches. Eventually I gave up walking around and asked a lady for help. She was six-foot and sucking the life out of a cigarette. After seeking help, she asked disgustedly if I was a member of the public. We are all lepers now, but to be a member of the public is to wallow in your own filthy situation. I assured her I was not and explained that I was here to work. Satisfied with this, she led me up to the office where I was greeted by a shorter lady who referred to me as ‘darling’, ‘sweet-pea’ and ‘honey’ all in one disarming sentence. She spoke with a warm Yorkshire accent.
After a quick tour of the office I was shown to my desk. Relieved that I had my own space, with two screens, the perfect setting to let my playful imagination carry me through the day. Twenty-minute coffee break and then I was instructed to “click the red button”. Throbbing on the top left of my right-hand screen, it read ‘accept calls’. I clicked it. Immediately the phone rang. It was a 91-year old lady and she had received a letter from the NHS, telling her she must not leave the house or she will die. I had been told that most of the calls I received would be like this one. The NHS sent out approximately 1.5 million letters, informing people they are ‘extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus’. A beautiful piece of administrative initiative. So many saved and all I had to do was help the oldies fill in the NHS form online and whoosh, they got their food parcel delivered.
I had five phone calls like this, back to back. All action. Leaning back on my chair, cross legged, smiling and rolling my eyes at the three ladies, in their fifties, sat at the corner desk. As if to say, ‘look at me saving the day and not even breaking a sweat’. Then it all changed.
At 11.55 the phone rang. My lunch was scheduled for 12. Gnocchi from the night before. I have been watching a lot of Rick Stein recently and have become obsessed with cooking onions, garlic, milk and bacon lardons slowly. So, when the phone rang, my mind was melting slowly in a pan with translucent, salty fats. I picked up the phone to a doctor.
He was clearly agitated, a dry, gruff voice, deep urgency that told me I would not get away with a vague response. With the doctor was a homeless lady. She had been a carer but had been evicted ten days ago when she developed a cough. Two days before her eviction the government had announced a ‘coronavirus law to ban eviction of tenants’. But she was not a tenant, she was a live-in carer.
I mumbled some options, before the doctor stopped me. “Look”, he said “I have patients waiting and I just want to find out how the fuck I get this lady into a place to stay for the night. I will call you back in ten minutes.”
After he hung up I felt fraudulent, like a child prancing with a toy gun on the front line. Ten minutes later and seven minutes into my lunch break, I stood and walked to the staff room. When, or if the doctor phoned back, he would be connected to a more capable volunteer. I told myself I’d done nothing wrong and I was scheduled for lunch. I was innocent. Just as Leonard Cohen sang in The Law, ‘guilty’s too grand’.
Lunch finished and a steady pulse of voices came through my phone. Charming grandads, resilient single mothers, seriously ill brothers and sisters; all thanked me for my support. I helped them to fill in a few simple forms, guaranteeing them food parcels through this crisis.
Then, at 3.40pm a note was placed on my desk. It read: ‘please call Dr Farooq, regarding a homeless patient. Thanks darling.’ I slowly typed in the digits at the bottom of the note into my phone.
The doctor’s voice had changed, softened and sunken into some sweet, gelatinous pudding. I wondered if he had sampled some tranquilizers from his cabinet. This time I was prepared and I transferred him through to a team that focuses on housing crises. He thanked me and said goodbye.
It felt good to have dealt with a serious problem. I was in the room with the adults now! Where I belonged. We only dealt with the real problems; we had a team of grunts for minor issues because it was understood that people like me only dealt with matters of consequence.
To celebrate my status as community hub demigod I began typing. Typing this very blog, you are reading now. Life was chaotic, but I was in control. I sent off my first draft, to my personal email and I leant back on my chair. I bridged my fingers and cracked them, like a massive cunt. What happened next surprised and scared me.
An orange envelope appeared on the bottom of my computer screen. Signalling that I had a new email. The email was from ‘Corporate IT’, titled ‘content alert’. My draft blog was being held back because it featured content from the ‘offensive words list’. My self-deprecating language was going to see me fired! It was supposed to shield me from all rebukes, an ironic outer casing, propping me up, but to the untrained eye dragging me down, a commendable degree of self criticism
Suddenly the tall lady from this morning marched into the centre of the room. She stopped and looked at me. She looked at everyone and smiled. “It’s home time!” She hollered out, with her arms spread wide.
I walked home feeling sick, wondering how long until I would be shamed, this time by someone with a human face. They would sit me on a low sofa and sit opposite on reclining office chairs, the literal higher ground. My knees would turn inwards and my cheeks red. I had fallen at the final hurdle but on the first fucking day. Now all I could do was wait.