Bye BYE, says Ciggie Annie, finishing her survey with the customary high-volume flourish and coughing fit.
Faint mocking echoes from around the call centre, everyone in their rabbit hutches-no-pods so you can’t see who’s doing it:
Bye BYE …
Bye BYE …
Over my head hangs a giant spider in black sugar paper, with orange-and-silver eyes. I don’t mind spiders but every time I look up this one is getting lower. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble. There are artificial cobwebs sprayed silver. There’s a hand with black fingernails poking out from behind the flickering strip-light. A fire risk, no doubt.
In the kitchen someone is on their ten-minute break and is microwaving a curry. It is a meaty one, I can tell.
In what type of…type of housing does your target customer live?
Duplex? Mobile Home? Military Housing? Apartment? Houseboat? Condo…condo…condo…minny-um, thank you. Single-family house?
Who lives with your target customer?
Parent? Grandparent? Child? Romantic partner? Romantic partner?
(They mean like spouse, or boyfriend)
Romantic partner? Grandparent? Nobody?
Giving Margaret the woolly bear was a mistake. I just meant it as a good luck gift for the radiotherapy but she got better afterwards, or for the time being better, and now she can’t throw it away. I just meant it for luck but it’s become a talisman to her, a kind of amulet. She daren’t lose it. Did the wrong thing there.
In what type of housing does your target customer live?
The one who looks like a witch, except it isn’t fancy dress. Never remember her name but she’s sat next to me tonight. She says she can see my aura. It’s purple, she says, and purple is a really, really excellent colour for an aura. It means… I can’t remember what it means. Since then I’ve been squinting sideways in between surveys trying to catch other people’s auras by surprise, which she says is the best thing to do. But I still can’t see them.
Duplex? Mobile Home? Military Housing? Apartment?
Apartment? Like flat? That you live in?
Why can’t I see other people’s auras? If only I could. You’d thing I’d be able to. At least mine’s purple. I expect that’s something royal, something highly advanced on the spiritual plane.
Oh, yoghurts again.
Which of the following qualities would you say you most appreciate in a store-bought yoghurt?
Tasty? Fruit pieces? Thicker texture?
We were told we could come in fancy dress but not many people have. One of the floor-walkers has a witches’ hat with streamers. Agency punk girl flounces past in a pink tutu and shredded black stockings. Spiders’ webs painted on her cheeks with eyeliner.
Which is most important to you when selecting a store-bought yoghurt?
All the men are looking. Still surveying, but looking. Are they actually suspenders?
Value for money? Attractive packaging?
Positive. Vivacious. BUBBLY. At all costs, bubbly.
The very old guy in the corner is sinking lower and lower, as if hoping eventually to merge with the fabric of the desk. He came back from the colonies expecting to be still employable as something high up in an office, like he used to be. He told me once what it was. Something responsible and administrative in connection with accounts. But he wasn’t. Employable. No one wanted him. He has a lovely voice for the phones though. Deep. Respondents like deep. Soothing. Trustworthy. They like the sound of older men but not older women. Particularly Ciggie Annie.
He has a much-younger wife from some middle-European country – Slavic or Baltic or something – and he loves her. Perhaps she was mail order. He’s desperate to earn money to regain her respect, keep her stitched to him, and this is all he can get. Despair bows him lower and lower as the evening wears on. He’ll no doubt die here. Fall off his swivel chair. Or if he stays on his chair the Certified First Aiders will wheel him out, one on either side to keep him sat up. I’ve seen that happen.
Which of the following qualities would you say you most appreciate in your store-bought yoghurt?
That curry’s disgusting.
Why is Ginger Martin wearing a baby-gro with ears?
They’re called onesies. He’s come as a teddy-bear.
You know those pumpkin faces you light candles in – how do you actually make them?
You don’t know that either? Good God, woman, where have you been?
How do you tell someone – concisely – that no one ever carved a pumpkin for you, and you couldn’t have children so you never got to carve pumpkins for them? How do you tell them you’ve never so much as touched a pumpkin, or a child for that matter?
How do you tell them that on your birthday party, which consisted of the little fat girl from down the road since Mum didn’t like people coming in, your Dad arrived home from work and sat at the tea table, a giant in his green overalls, and ate all four of the chocolate swiss-rolls on the plate, and you found yourself throwing a tantrum because at least one of the chocolate swiss-rolls was meant to be for you and one for the little fat girl because it was after all your birthday party. And then Dad hit you round the ears and the little fat girl got sent home with a smug look on her face and there were no more birthday parties after that.
How do you tell them you spend every Christmas morning alone with your Mum, looking out at her sunny, overgrown garden and dead hydrangea heads? And that she might eat half the microwave meal you brought with you and microwaved for her in her microwave that’s all rusty and manky before jabbing her bony old finger at you and starting on the usual litany:
It’s All Your Fault, Whoever You Are.
I’m Going To Walk Out And Drown Myself Tomorrow.
You Might As Well Go Home Now I’m Sure I Don’t Want You.
How do you tell them you’ve never had fun, ever, not once in your life, and if fun were to happen to show signs of happening to you nowadays you’d be terrified?
I’m standing here naked, says the man.
Oh, I see, I say, thankful that I can’t.
Do you mind me answering your questions Naked, Young Lady?
Young Lady! I got a Young Lady!
No, I don’t mind. But would you like a chance to fetch your dressing gown?
No, I’m fine as I am. Naked. I like to be Naked sometimes. On the phone. He sighs, in a suspiciously shuddery way.
Well then, I say. Which of the following qualities would you say you most appreciate in your store-bought yoghurt? Tasty? Fruit pieces? Thicker texture?
Thicker texture, he says. Oh definitely. The thicker texture.
There is a wrenching of polystyrene panelling as part of the ceiling sags down into the room. Luckily it’s sagging over some other woman’s head not mine. Ginger Martin in his baby-gro-no-onesie, clatters out with a giant aluminium stepladder and teeters plumply at the top of it trying to push the panel back. It doesn’t want to go. The woman below him is a real pro, none of your temp trash, and goes on with her survey. I can just about hear she’s on Hair Care:
Which of the following products do you use at least once a week?
Volumizer? Curl activator?
What’s curl activator, I wonder.
Straightener? Sculpting wax?
Wax? In your hair!
The polystyrene panelling still teeters over her head, as does Ginger Martin on his stepladder in his onesie. She’d have an interesting view if she looked up, but she doesn’t.
If you could choose only one hair care product other than shampoo, which would you choose?
Volumizer? Curl activator? Sculpting wax?
On my other side, Jonathan stands up, turns around and sits down. He does that that every now and again, and in between he’s rocking. There’s something a bit wrong with Jonathan. This job’s ideal for someone with something a bit wrong. Most of us fall into that category.
Do you have any paracetamol? he asks.
I give him two from my stash. I don’t use them myself, they don’t touch my headaches, worse than useless, but I bring a packet in because everybody kind of expects Old Biddies to have handbags-full of pain-killers, safety-pins and paper tissues.
Any indigestion tablets while you’re at it? He asks, standing up, turning round and sitting down again. He gets incredibly stressed, does Jonathan. I like him. We have something in common but I don’t know what. He can only ever sit facing the door, otherwise he falls into a panic and throws a hissy fit. I pass him a whole sheet of Rennies. It’s a big box.
Keep the rest for later.
He blows his nose, loud and squelchy, and throws the wet rag onto the growing heap in the back corner of his cubicle. He’s getting the cold that’s going round. He begins to rock in his chair. I saw a Gnu do that in the zoo, once.
In what type of (sniff!) housing does your target customer live?
Any minute, the paper spider’s going to get me.
That curry just doesn’t dissipate.