Alison McQueen


Flash Fiction

Posted: February 16th, 2014

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.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘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?’

‘Seven. You?’

‘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


Travels with my mother (Part 2)

Posted: February 5th, 2014

The Taj Mahal really is a sight to behold. It also has very little seating, which is not something I had taken into account. Besides, I was too busy being overwhelmed by its beauty and feeling my throat close. Such a monument to love, and what a love that must have been. Ah, well. We can’t all be the favourite wife of a mogul. The Taj Mahal holds a certain melancholy about it, a streak of tragedy, and there is something quite awkward about seeing the tourists lining up to replicate the Princess Diana photograph, hogging one of the few benches.

Outside the monument, the assault by hawkers is brutal. My mother is tired. She also took a tumble a short time ago when she misjudged a stone she was planning to sit on. I was standing right next to her when it happened but I hadn’t anticipated her move, and she hissed me away when I tried to check her over and told me not to make a fuss while she blushed scarlet beneath brown skin. Nobody else had noticed and that’s the way she intended to keep it. But still. Must have hurt, and I wished she had said that she needed to sit down rather than going off-piste like that, because now she’s gone and hurt herself and I feel really bad.

It’s all very well to have a crusading spirit of adventure as you hurtle into your eighties, but my mum can be pretty belligerent and it’s no tea party trying to make sure that she stays in one piece. She can get downright difficult sometimes too, particularly when she’s tired, which she will also never admit to. I’ve told here there’s no shame in granny naps. I actually love a good granny nap myself. We almost came to blows in an Indian airport once, when she (tired) insisted upon ‘helping’ with the luggage and promptly rammed a fully-loaded trolley right over my bare foot.

The hawkers outside the Taj Mahal are possibly the worst I’ve ever had to deal with, and I’ve dealt with a lot. They drive you mad, and they don’t care. That’s the whole point. They’ll wear you down until you part with some money, at which point the floodgates will open and you’ll be lucky to escape with your shirt. After the incident with the mother, I was in no mood for any of it, my only concern being where the bus had mysteriously disappeared to and whether she had done herself any serious damage. The hawkers did not take this well. Before I knew it, I had two or three men jabbing cheap souvenirs at me and shouting in my face, one of whom was getting way too aggressive for my liking.

Never in my life have I been more relieved to find us on the receiving end of a huge American tourist wearing a Hawaiian shirt with an enormous camera swinging from his neck. This man saw what was happening, came barging over, bellowed at the hawkers “what part of no don’t you people understand?” and got us out of there. It didn’t escape my notice that the hawkers had no intention of starting an argument with a man, but that us women had been seen as easy prey. Make no mistake. This is a country where female travelers have to be very careful, no matter what age they are, and not once in well over ten years have I ever had cause to revise that opinion.