Hunger

I smashed the hold just as the call clicked off and was rewarded with a few moments of nothing. I closed my eyes to shut off the blinding screen glare, and slumped until my forehead rested against the warm monitor. Relax. Something in the back of my head began to count down. Ten…nine…eight-

“Sara? There a problem?” My manager called from down the line, breaking the three seconds of peace I’d grabbed. Ahead of schedule.

“No, just…just finishing a form.”

“Okay” came the dubious response. So I had maybe fifteen seconds grace. In a box centre like this, nothing ever changes. Calls are just numbers. People are just patterns. People who work in the centre much moreso. ‘There a problem?’ in a tone of polite but probing concern was managerial pause enquiry no. 3. It meant my lack of incoming call (and thus, by company standards, work) had been noted and was not welcome. The accepting-but-not-really tone of her reply meant she was paying attention and would note down how long I logged in hold.

I glanced at the ticker-line, 7:54. Anywhere between one to five calls left. Shuffling upright in my chair, I cricked my neck and pressed open line.

“Hello, welcome to Aerodyne. You’re speaking to Sara, how can I help you today?”

“I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes! Your queue times are ridiculous, do you know how much that’s cost me?” Ah. Mid-aged male from the sounds of it. Possibly money concious, possibly just grumpy. Easy to placate.

“I’m very sorry about that, our phones have been par-tic-ularly busy today. What can I do for you?” Standard apology number one. Our phones have not been particularly busy today.

“Well. I need to change my service plan.”

“No problem. I just need to ask you some questions for security, and we’ll get that sorted right away.” I closed my eyes again. “Can I please have your name?

“Michael”

“Thankyou Michael, and your surname?”

“Cretch”

“Thankyou. And what’s your postcode please?”

“em one nine, three jay gee.”

“Thankyou. And lastly, what’s the first line of your address Michael?”

“Three elsa road.” Excellent, he’d already settled into the call. From here it was unlikely I would need to engage my brain at all, so I settled back and closed my eyes again. After the first five hundred calls, you can do half of most calls without looking. After the first thousand, you can do half of most calls without thinking. At least.

“Thankyou. Okay that’s all done, what can I do for you today?”

“I already said, I need to change my plan”

“And what precisely would you like to change?”

“I want to stop it.”

“Okay, we can discuss that with you. It is a different department that will discuss that with you Michael, so what I’ll do i-

“Can’t you do it, I’ve been on bloody hold for an age!”

“I’m afraid not. What I’ll do for you though is direct transfer you over, so you speak to another advisor straight away. Please hold.” I tapped transfer on my handset, and typed the code for CM, closure management. The phone buzzed twice and-

“Hello, welcome to Aerodyne. You’re speaking to Mandy, how can I help you today?”
“Hi Mandy, it’s Sara from GE, got a customer wants to close his account. DPS all done for you. Account number 0553-” I had to open my eyes at this point “22314. Okay to pop him over?” There was the brief sound of tapping on the line, and then-

“Yeah sure, chuck him here.” I tapped transfer again, and job done.

I checked the ticker-line. 7:55. Damn. It was getting close, and this close to the end of shift, you had to play a slight game if you wanted to leave on time. If you kept just taking calls as normal, there was always a chance that your last call would be a long one. And since hanging up on a customer is a prime no-no in the centre (right up there with swearing on the phone or admitting the company was wrong) you’re stuck at work until it’s over. In the past, when I’ve mentioned this to my friends who don’t work in call-centres, they’d not really seen what the big deal is. But when it’s thirty seconds to shift end and you get a call that you know is just going to keep you for the next half hour? Bitterness bites hard.

*

In the centre, you log everything in seconds. How many seconds will this call go on? How many seconds until lunch is over? How many seconds until the end of shift? You grab a second where you can, because that’s all you get. I see people in other office type jobs and all I ever think is you bastards. At parties and gatherings I hear people talk about these crazy days at the office, where they were just rammed, and so overworked. But it’s always just a day. Maybe two. And then they’ll talk about the week after where they had a 2 hour lunch break with their supervisor, who bought cake. Or they’ll talk about the gossip they were sharing with Mina, the girl at the next door down. All these little luxuries, all these little breaks. In a centre, there is no downtime. In the eyes of the employer, if you’re on shift, you’re working. You get 5 minutes mandatory break and not one second more. And, because fair’s fair, any time you do go over, that vital one second, it gets logged. And then at shift end, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, you work one second longer than everyone else. Everything paid back. Every penny earned. But with every day so balanced, every action so monitored, there will never be that gossip time. Never a lunch break with cake. No downtime to counter the up. You log in and you take calls. Then you take more calls. Then you fill forms, sympathise with problems without making the company seem at fault, upsell products, upsell the company. And take more calls. You are rewarded and congratulated when you sell, and only when you sell. And in all frankness, it is not you who are congratulated, it’s the units you moved. You are a tiny, unimportant cog in a machine too large to see. And you will spin. And you take more calls. Every day is just rammed, every day is crazy. And you log in. And you take calls. And you start counting.

*

Training day. Everyone’s favourite words. If past experience is anything to go by, there won’t be much learned in the way of actual skills. Most likely the company is updating it’s protocols again. Aerodyne loves to keep with the times, or at least with whatever consultants are advising. I read a Dilbert comic once, back when I was a kid. One of the character says ‘I love to con people, and I love to insult people. Put them together, and now I’m a consultant.’ For what trickles down to us plebs in the hotbox, I’ve always felt it must have some truth to it. Still, training days are prized by most who work here. It’s a day, or at least several hours, where you’re not on the phones, sitting in the comparative quiet of an office and at somepoint you will be given at least one mildly silly game to play. Who knows, if you’re lucky you might actually have a moment of fun.

I arrived early this morning, so made my way to Norfolk room and had free pick of the chairs. I quickly exercised my right to the best chair – a comfy super-adjustable one bought in for an employee with a bad back who then, predictably, left. Seeing I had at least a few minutes until I reckoned anyone else would turn up, I started shifting the chairs around in a kind of office-based puzzle, working my comfy chair towards the back of the room. Space is always a premium in England, and it always seemed to me that offices the condensed form of this – there was enough space in the room for a wide U arrangement of four tables, and a whiteboard in the space that faced it. Chairs were placed two to a table, allowing an economic ten chairs in total. It probably worked out fine in the head of the room planner, but it fell apart when you factored in the simple point that people took up space too. In ten minutes the room would be a squash of twelve people, all trying to get comfortable in a space that could, comfortably, house about seven or eight.

In the end I simply shoved several tables inwards, bending the U, but allowing me to push my chair to the back corner – the spot that would have someone on only one side of me, that wasn’t next to the door. That done I started to shuffle the tables back into some kind of order. I managed to straighten them out, and just plumped down into my chair as the door opened.

“Hello there Sara!” Dave, one of my preferred team members. “We were all waiting outside before we heard the banging. That you then?”

“Hi Dave,” I smiled “Yeah that was me. Just getting things in order, y’know.”

“Ay ay, you’re always one for the just-so aren’t you?” He laughed, flashing a side-smile to let me know he’s not being nasty. He’s not wrong, I do like things neat.

“Well, you know me.” I shrugged and sat back as another four or five of my team worked their way into the room. Nina, Saj, Aaron, Claire and Tyrone. The early bunch. They took up seats dotted around the room, although wisely none of them took the seat by the door. The design of the room meant whoever sat there was cursed to either have to move every time someone needed to get in or out, or they to have a waistline of 3 inches.

On the whole I try and stay on neutral terms with everyone on my team. It makes life a lot easier if people think of you as just another face. No backbiting attitude to deal with, but no overwhelming expectation of chatter either. I regularly saw how the second became the first. It helps that the centre isn’t exactly conducive to friendships. When I first started working there I came into my team late, so I had no idea of who to look for. I sat down at the first empty bay and set up. I was there for five hours before anyone noticed I had appeared in ‘their’ team. I was sitting next to the team manager. That can be taken as a general barometer for people’s attention at the centre.

That said, I liked Nina and Tyrone. Nina was a peculiarity to me because quite aside from having a dry sense of humour, she really appeared to enjoy the job. She didn’t just turn up and do it like most people, she didn’t even do it with drive to try and earn bonuses. She actually, truly appeared to like it. She would usually be early to work. She never minded staying late on a call. It was bizarre. But since Nina never shoved it in anyone’s face, it meant I never got annoyed at her incessant phone chirpiness.

Tyrone for his part was about as easygoing as it got. He was punctual and never actually slovenly, but he was just…relaxed. If his sales weren’t so hot and our manager was giving him grief, he didn’t care. If his sales were good and he was top of the team, he didn’t even notice until you pointed it out. If someone rang up and shouted at him for ten minutes, he just let it roll over him until they wound down, and then he’d pick it up like they’d been perfectly pleasant the whole time. It made Tyrone an extremely easy person to be around, and he was my prime pick to sit next to at work. Just hearing his voice as he chattered away next to me was nicely soothing – something usually required in a place where the general volume is one step below headache at best.

The usual work-helloes exchanged, I glanced at the clock, then got out my most recent book. Everyone there knew me well enough to know I wasn’t trying to be dismissive – I just liked reading. The book was Halogen, a typical murder mystery type thriller that had been getting particularly high ratings from the online book forums I frequented. So far, it was readable but nothing special. Most train-station crime books weren’t. I had hopes for the scene coming up; the two detectives coming to view the first and most likely twisted crime scene. If Halogen didn’t pick up in this chapter I would feel somewhat let down. That said, the hook chapter was usually where things got up and running. What can I say, I’ve always been a sucker for mystery and murder. Hell, I’ve seen most police procedural shows out there – even the really crappy ones where you can figure out who the killer is before the title screen. I have even, to my eternal shame, watched an entire season of a show where – I shit you not – the title of the episode often gave away the killer. Calling an episode ‘hell hath no fury’ and then the plot really is that the cheating husband was killed by the wife. That’s not a show, that’s a demonstration of popular proverbs with quips.

I’ve been asked by a few people why I like crime books so much, especially creepy thriller-type ones. It’s one of those small-talk questions that crop up when no one really has much to go on. It gets asked a lot here. After the first three or four times saying “I just do.” I started feeling a touch stupid and actually thought about it. As far as I could reason out, and it was depressing as hell to do so, it’s because life is boring. I don’t mean all life, just mine and most people I know. Reading thrillers and watching The Mentalist is my equivalent of reading trashy magazines or bitching about Sandra two desks down. Plus I get to feel superior while doing it; though I tend to think that small insects can feel superior to Hello magazine.

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