A week has passed since my first day at the Covid19 call centre. I left that day feeling like my body was made up of misplaced scaffolding, a structure incapable of assured gesture. I dragged my feet home and barely digested dinner.
To say that ‘waiting is the worst part’ is an oversimplification, but it’s nasty business. I risked transfiguring into a ginormous, gnawed fingernail. Pure anxiety.
Of course, there is a conceptual prerequisite to the cliché of ‘waiting being the worst part’ and that is that the other part, really isn’t that bad. Waiting is the worst part for a healthy person going to the dentist. Waiting is certainly not the worst part for a soldier on the front line. Getting shot in the effing head is. That’s why Wilfred Owen never wrote ‘waiting is the worst part’.
In my case though, waiting was the worst part. Seven days passed and no one mentioned the email. Perhaps I should have been embarrassed to have worried so much and faced no repercussions, but sweet relief was all I could taste.
However, relief was short lived.
The problem is that despite this being a crisis call centre, small talk is still churned out. Lips slap together, as phonemes, lifelessly flop out like corpses. To my left is a lady that I estimate to be 35. I don’t know her name and frankly she doesn’t deserve one. Every morning she walks in aggressively chewing gum and struggling to smile. Under her left arm is a TV magazine, titled in bright pink font. To my right is a younger lady who we shall call Susan. Susan has the maddest – and I do mean the maddest – tattoos I have ever seen. I think one of them is a ghost throwing up a dog, but I don’t like to stare.
Susan and the lady-with-no-name sit 2 metres either side of me. They transmit bizarre sounds to one another, while I sit there like a satellite. Talk of their weekends, their partners, the weather and how they perceive the virus and this nation’s response are rallied to and thro.
My problem is this: the talking goes on and on and on and on and on and on and fricking on. I could do some writing, check the news or read my book of poetry but I can’t because these two are terrified of silence.
The worst part is when the phone rings. One of them answers and talks and listens to someone who needs help. They resolve the situation. Then for some reason that I cannot grasp, they discuss the conversation!
Susan: “Oh that was a bit sad that one. Hmmmmmmm”
No name: “Really? Why? It’s not nice having a sad one. The other day I…”
Susan: “He was eighty-four and didn’t understand what was happening. Not sure it’s best to let them know really. My grandad you see he’s…”
No name: “You have to let him know! We have a duty to inform as well as provide basic care needs. My philosophy is…”
Susan: “Yes I suppose, hmmmm, eehah, ooo. Well he’s gone now. I had someone on the phone for fifty-five minutes last week some of them just want to…”
No name: “Talk! Yes sometimes we just need to reassure them that everything is okay. We’re on the front line.
I do not consider myself anti-social. I don’t mind parties, clubbing or festivals. What I cannot abide is people who think they can stumble into an interesting conversation. Interesting conversation requires preparation and research, you don’t just talk for ages until you forge a new reality, with its own news-cycle of nonsensical jibber jabber.
Perhaps I am slightly warped, but I think there is utopian potential in this crisis. Utopian in the sense that we can eradicate all that is superfluous. We sit at our stations and wait for the phone to ring and on the other end will be someone who genuinely needs help, or at the very least is scared and needs reassuring. In between these calls we are free. The spectre of time management eviscerated. There are no spreadsheets to make sparkle, no client details to update, no group projects to plan, no social medias to manage. We are free as we have never been before and the feeling that we could be doing more has been beaten, trampled, spat on and shamed. An ideology dethroned.
Change is always scary, and I think Susan and No-Name are terrified. For the first time ever, they have seen beneath the bridal veil and it is not the hideous bride they expected to see. A hideous face would demand their attention, applying foundations, eye liner and lipstick. Instead they have revealed an empty space. A face shape with no eyes, ears, mouth, nose. Nothing.
A week has passed. I have listened, nodded, smiled and offered neutered takes on current affairs. Susan has watched the phenomenon that is Tiger King, so we have had some pleasant talks about that. No-Name is upset that Eastenders is no longer aired four times a week.
New faces and sounds have arrived in the call centre. In front of me now sits Beverley. Beverley wears her suit to work every day, despite the casual dress code. She is my favourite because she is quiet.
Ruptree is approximately six metres behind me to my right. She wears bright sarees and head dresses; she glows in my peripheral. She too is quiet.
Not all is peaceful though.
At the front of the room, another nameless one sits. A teenager. He had his first serious romantic encounter a day before the lockdown and now he regales the ladies with his heartbreak. In between his one-man romantic tragedy show he stalks the room with his headset on like an investment banker.
To Ruptee’s right is Janet, with hair dyed dangerously red and tales of cheese, port and dancing on the table; Janet laughs the loudest at the teen’s antics.
In charge of the room is Nigel. He sits next to the teenager. His husband is away on work and Nigel is noticeably sombre. Although his appetite is not depleted. Triple burger and a large bottle of coke every day.
Teen tries to imitate Nigel’s despair and says he understands how he feels because he has not seen his boyfriend for over two weeks now. No one explains that not seeing someone you’ve only just met is different from missing your husband of seven years. Perhaps we do not say anything because we know in truth, they are not that different
But silences have begun to hang over the room. Somewhere, in between the chat, the real news has been getting fatter. It will be known, not through shouts or cackling laughter but in silent reflection.
Today I have read that the Danish have sent their youngest back to school, many parents are not happy with their children being used as Guinea pigs. The president has withdrawn funding for the World Health Organisation. And England is approaching 13,000 dead in hospitals. The amount dying in care homes is yet undisclosed.
Today the teen did not come to work. I overheard a conversation that he needed a break.
The utopian potential is ruthlessness embodied. I can rejoice that the ad-men and the Instagram influencers, their magic wands no longer work. Where they could synthesise desires that loomed as urgent as food and water, now they look and sound ridiculous. But it is hard to ignore the human frivolity negated for something more essential.
Every day the news is bad. This is fertile ground for revelations and epiphanies. This is good. I used to live with a nurse in Whitechapel. It was a truly horrible flat. Now surely everyone agrees that someone who has chosen a career in helping the sick deserves a decent wage so they can afford a nice place to sleep and hang out. In learning what is important many will have to learn what is not important. This may be painful for some. But at the end of the day they need to get a fucking grip.