Thank you for calling

Still buzzing from ‘Train to Busan‘ last night, I was reminded of this short story I wrote a while ago. From memory it was written during a protracted battle with our telecom provider (or as was the case, non-provider!) and I’m sure it’s an issue many people will know well.

***

Thank you for calling

‘Thank you for calling. Have a nice day,’ Peter disconnected the call, took a deep breath and hit the flashing read button.

‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Peter. How can I help you today?’

The female voice on the other end of the phone tersely explained the issues she was having with her mobile telephone.

Not bothering to refer to the script the company ordered all employees to follow, he had long ago memorised it, Peter suggested that the woman turn off the phone, take out the battery and sim, then replace them. He waited patiently as she followed his instructions. Hearing a beep at the other end of the line told Peter that his recommendation had worked.

‘Thank you,’ cried the woman.

‘You’re welcome, madam. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

‘No, thank you.’

‘Ok, then. Well, thank you for calling. Have a nice day.’

He didn’t mind the work. It was better than his old life and at least he wasn’t hungry any more. They had called him Peter when he first started working there, telling him to forget his old name, that having a Western name was much better. In time, they had been right, he had forgotten his old name. He had forgotten a lot about his past.

Another call. Peter automatically ran through the script, his voice dry and devoid of emotion. However, the man on the other end of the line would not be pacified. Evidently his internet connection had been interrupted and he demanded an explanation. Peter flicked through his script until he reached the section about the internet.

‘There has been a problem at the exchange, sir. Please be assured we are doing all we can to rectify the situation and normal service should resume shortly,’ said Peter, reading the first excuse on the list.

‘The exchange?’ spluttered the man, ‘Do you think I’m an idiot? There’s no problem at the exchange. Where are your offices? Are you in India? I bet you’re in India,’ sneered the voice.

Peter quickly looked at the board at the front of the cubicles, ‘I can assure you, sir, I am in London. It’s cloudy out and I can see the 10.40 tourist boat cruising along the Thames.’

The man on the other end of the line grunted to show he was impressed, but he was not convinced.

‘As I said, we are aware of the problem and our engineers will have it resolved shortly. Is there anything else I can help you with today sir?’ enquired Peter politely, not rising the the anger he heard in the man’s voice.

‘Yes, you can just go and …’ started the man.

Peter cut him off before the man could continue his rant, ‘Thank you for calling TalkPhone. Have a nice day.’

Peter disconnected the call but imagined he could still hear the man swearing. Customers would frequently rant and swear at him. He didn’t really understand why they got so angry and couldn’t empathise with their frustration.

The truth was, Peter, and all those who were around him were in India. The whole village had been suspicious of the white men in expensive suits who had arrived unexpectedly a year ago, offering a solution to their problems.

The red light was flashing. It never stopped flashing, no matter how many calls Peter took.

‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Peter. How can I help you today?’

‘Yes, I hope you can help me. I think there’s a problem with my telephone connection.’

Peter looked again at the board in the front, covered with photographs of London, schedules for events, a large clock and the local weather reports. He watched the hands on the clock as they completed their loop and started again, continuous, never-ending. He had never been to London, had never even left the village and now, with his job at TalkPhone, the possibility seemed even more remote.

Around the call centre, there was approximately one hundred of his assorted neighbours and members of his family. All had been recruited when TalkPhone had come to town. They each had a small cubicle just over a metre square, with a desk, chair, headset, phone and the ever-flashing red light. No one had bothered to decorate their cubicles; they only ever looked up to check the board at the front of the room, so why bother? It was just them and the red button.

Pushing the insistent red button once more, Peter said ‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Peter. How can I help you today?’

* * *

‘Do we need a bigger workforce?’ asked the man in the expensive charcoal grey suit which matched the colour of his eyes. His features sharp enough to cut glass as he stared out of the office window, overlooking the call centre.

‘I’ve got the boys out scouting for suitable candidates now. TalkPhone has increased it’s sales by 50% in the last quarter and the boys in accounting project it will continue,’ the second man, his face blurred in the blue smoke of his cigar as he creaked back on his chair. His suit was made of the finest materials and rippled over muscles honed not in a gym, but on the streets. While many entrepreneurs were forces to be reckoned with in the boardroom, he had made his fortune by forced takeovers using fists and muscle. ‘Well, when you have a workforce this cheap, you can afford to offer cheap phone calls.’ He barked a laugh while his companion looked out over the hunched figures, huddled in their small cubicles, the red lights on their phones twinkling like stars.

‘Do you think they know?’ the grey man asked.

‘Know what? They don’t know anything, except what we tell them. They don’t feel, they don’t think, they don’t eat and they don’t shit. They never need to take a break and they don’t stop working until we tell them to. Hell, they’re the perfect workforce.’

Despite his earlier nonchalant air, the charcoal grey suited man looked troubled. ‘But what about the smell?’

‘What smell?’ another puff of cigar smoke wafted towards the ceiling.

‘Of decay. They’re decomposing, despite the freezing temperatures in here.’ The man hugged himself involuntarily. The walls of the call centre were thick to keep out the blazing sun and industrial coolers whirred constantly. A light mist descended from the ceiling, coating the workers in a sheen of damp but none moved to brush it away or even seemed to notice it.

Outside the once vibrant village had been turned into a dried mud pool: crops had been abandoned, houses deserted, and cars untended, left to rust on unkept road. Dogs and cattle wandered unchecked with eyes glazed.

‘So? The smell don’t bother them,’ came the reply from behind the cigar.

‘And what happens when their bodies finally give out?’

The laugh barked again. ‘As long as they have a finger to push the buttons and their voices boxes don’t fall out, they work. Besides, there’s plenty more where they came from. Like I said, the boys are out recruiting as we speak. There’s a village downriver. We’ve already started pouring the chemicals into the water. They won’t know a thing. Soon as they start dying off, the boys’ll be there to grab them and bring them back here. Don’t worry.’

Unconvinced, the grey suit turned back to the window.

* * *

‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Peter. How can I help you today?’

‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Victoria. How can I help you today?’

‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Daniel. How can I help you today?’

‘Hello, your through to TalkPhone. My name is Laura. How can I help you today?’

The voices drifted up, mingling with the freezing mist as the zombies kept answering the call of the red button.

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