Calls may be recorded
Victor had never seen himself working in a call centre. They hadn’t even existed in his day. He’d been a bigwig in management thirty-something years ago, but what had once been considered vital skills turned out to be of no use at all when he retired. He painted the house inside and out while his wife sighed at the mess, then sat watching it dry, wondering what to do with the rest of his life.
His wife suggested he take up a hobby, something to get him out of the house, but his attempts to fill his days felt contrived and he formed the opinion that Brenda didn’t want him hanging around at home muscling in on her well-trodden routine either.
The first job had been a fluke. Victor nipped down to the hardware store one day to buy some nails and Mrs Gunnet told him Mr Gunnet had been carted off to hospital with a hernia, and she was going to have to close the shop for month because she wasn’t a miracle worker. It had felt like a holiday, people popping in and out, stopping for a natter, asking what kind of glue would be best or whether he could match a particular screw. He’d worn a brown overall that smelled of sawdust. Two years he’d stayed.
By the time he got the job in the call centre Victor was seventy-three. He was good at chatting, putting people at ease, and it was nice to be surrounded by youngsters although times had clearly changed and there were days when he felt like an old fossil. All the girls looked like they were about to embark on a big night out and the lads did bizarre things with their hair and thought nothing of it if someone was homosexual.
They taught him lots of new words and showed him how to make signs with his fingers to flash silently around the office while they were on calls – a W, a heart shape, an L on his forehead. Some even came to him for advice now and then. Nobody at home had asked for his opinion in a long time. He clicked through to the next call.
‘Hello this is Victor speaking, can I take your customer reference number please?’
‘I don’t have one.’
‘No problem,’ said Victor, thinking to himself why can’t people get their act together before picking up the phone? This would no doubt turn into one of those calls where she goes off in search of pen and paper as though it’s come as a huge surprise that she might need to write something down. Victor prompted the caller through the rigmarole: name, postcode, address, a security question she didn’t know the answer to. A memorable place? She said she had no idea. ‘Not to worry,’ said Victor. ‘Mother’s maiden name?’
‘Jelly,’ she said, after a moment’s hesitation.
Victor tapped his keyboard and smiled. ‘I did my national service with a Jelly. His name was Frank. He changed his name to Smith when he came out of the army because everyone took the mickey out of him. Sorry. Bear with me. My computer’s being a bit slow.’
In truth, it wasn’t the computer that was slow, it was Victor. He had big hands which were fine for digging up parsnips but not so good for entering data. ‘I fell in love with his sister but she threw me over for a bloke who looked like Paul McCartney.’ Victor hit the return key. ‘Here we go. Mrs Sharman. Gas and electric was it?’ The line had gone silent. ‘Hello?’
‘Victor Anthony Payne?’
‘It’s Cynthia. Cynthia Jelly.
‘Cynthia?’ Victor felt his heart turn over. He stood from his seat, pressing the headset closely to his ear, his eyes fixed on the grey partition. Stacey in the booth across from his glanced up. She looked at him with concern, finger shapes quickly made – are you okay? Victor turned away from her, concentrating only on the voice.
‘Cyn. Don’t cry. It’s okay.’
‘Don’t be sorry. There’s nothing to be sorry for.’ He heard her at the end of the line, sniffing hard, and pictured her pulling herself together, remembering how she would stand so straight, squaring up to her brothers on the days when they all went for each other. You know what big families are like.
‘I should never have let them do that to us,’ she said. ‘I should have run off and married you anyway and it would have been too late for anyone to stop us.’ The years opened up between them.
‘Is Frank still around?’ There remained a deep scar on Victor’s shin where he’d fallen over the spiked chain outside the King’s Head during the terrible fight with her brothers.
‘He emigrated to Australia in the seventies. We haven’t spoken since.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Don’t be. I’m not.’
‘So you’re living in Sheffield now?’
‘Yes. We moved here to be closer to the grandchildren.’
‘Grandchildren,’ Victor said, as thought unable to comprehend it. ‘How many?’
‘Just three, but that’s quite enough.’
‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘Oh, Vic. What happened?’
‘I don’t know.’ He heard himself sigh. ‘Things were different back then.’
‘Yes, they were.’ The line went quiet, a million things unsaid. Victor stared at the computer screen. His Cynthia, a grandmother, and him two hundred miles away taking meter readings over the phone. ‘You were the love of my life, Vic.’
Victor sank into his seat, his head filled with images of a different life, a life spent with her.
For a long while after the call had ended Victor sat, deeply shaken. The supervisor passed his booth, sliding Victor a look, tapping his wrist. Victor straightened himself, took a deep breath and replaced his headset.
“Calls May Be Recorded” was published in The Sunday Express Magazine