I have started screening your calls. Not with a fancy electronic system. It’s just me recognising the 512 at the end of your number. You call that often. Even then, I still have to answer. My skin purrs, my chest tightens, every time you call.
I have saved your file onto my desktop, for easy access. The page takes a while to load as your phone number PINGS into the ‘next caller waiting’ box. In these ten seconds, I notice my aching shoulders and roll them back, each bone clicking like the spokes of a bike wheel. When was the last time I took a screen break?
You have an impossible voice: a thick, Yorkshire hum melting over a shrill, urgent bird-call. It scratches me. Your voice charges towards me with reticent, desperate eyes. I can’t imagine what you might look like, you are just a faceless thunder cloud, that’s how I want you to stay.
“Good afternoon it’s Ms. M— and I need to talk a manager urgently, I am a victim of gross negligence from one of your employees”, is how our first conversation began. What followed was a lengthy exposition of the faults and failings of our staff. This is normally what happens in our conversations.
This is not my responsibility. I only work in b— !
Despite my unimportant role within an unimportant company, I feel personally responsible and reprehensible for each complaint. Every “do you know what I mean?” curdles in my stomach, producing a feeble “mmm, yes, I understand” response when I’m given the brief opportunity to speak.
Dutifully, I type up every complaint and pass them to my superior, peppering my emails with “sorry to bother you” and “apologies for the inconvenience”, as if your issues are my fault. This tedious ritual haunts my otherwise uneventful workday.
Occasionally, you go on a tangent. The first time you did, it was so brief, I didn’t take note of it until I spell-checked my transcription of your complaint. You had been criticising a recent company policy change when you said, “and now there’s only me in the house!”
“Now there’s only me —”
I have always assumed you lived alone, Ms. M— , I never hear you talk to anyone, nor does anyone chime in from the background of your calls. The “now” throws me. Someone has left you, recently too, you have never mentioned this before. I presume it’s a partner of some sort, perhaps a housemate. Are you too old for a housemate? I can’t guess your age. You are acidic and eroded, still full of bite.
Did they leave you intentionally? Did someone pass away? I don’t like thinking this, your roots are squirming into my mind. From that first tangent, you begin to frequently throw in new scraps of information like “I can still imagine they’re here”, “how could they leave?” and “I don’t want it to be this way”. Against my will, you are building me a mosaic of your face.
During one particularly troubling phone call, you rang me in tears. You began to speak, then paused, whispered something incomprehensible and finally hung up. You didn’t call back for two weeks after that. I felt relief eventually seeing your 512 on my screen.
I obviously tell my manager all of this, who now asks me to CC our Safeguarding Lead into any correspondence regarding you. Safeguarding Lead never replies to emails, except once when they asked me to clarify whether you had said “die” or “dye”. Stupid question.
You phone me today. It’s raining and clammy. I am about to make myself a cup of coffee when 512 flashes up. The phones have been quiet so far. I open your file, click to answer your call and reel off my usual company script.
“Hi it’s Ms. M—” you pause. Wind snatches the rain and throws it so that it rattles against my window. You are breathing heavily, each inhale labouring against you. I accidentally scratch my nail into the wooden table, driving a splinter into my nail bed. I attempt to pull it out but break the skin, driving the splinter deeper into my finger. You continue to say nothing.
“Is everything okay, Ms. M—?” I am off script now, but you have been off script for weeks.
“I’m sorry, I know you are always the one listening to my complaints. It’s just been hard recently.” Your voice crawls through my headset and nestles into my ear.
An apology. Finally.
I exhale and smile as if I’m your parent who has just succeeded in disciplining you. I type your words into your file. I reply with something happy and irrelevant.
You say, “Thank you. I have no-one here to listen to me anymore. I guess that’s why I always call. I know it’s not your fault, dear.” The final piece of your mosaic slots into my mind. I want to give you a hug or make a light-hearted joke.
“You must hate me, rattling on all the time! But it’s truly my fault for everything. I guess I should have been more careful, it all seems stupid now, what happened. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time.” I want to frame this moment as the conclusion to our long-fought battle.
“I couldn’t understand, after the police left, why no one would just listen to me, why they accused me of all those horrible lies. But they aren’t lies. I see that now. I don’t know why I’m surprised, the same thing happened to me when I was a child. It should be painted all over my face— Anyway, thank you again for listening to me.”
Safeguarding Lead, on receiving this transcript, replies, “Thanks for this, will pass on to the appropriate bodies.”
I close your file down. I think about the other file, with your name on it, out there, featuring a chapter of my transcripts. An appendix, a footnote, to a larger report.
I would never like to read that file.