Peter kept moving so he kept appearing, like he was a ghost that couldn’t quite make its mind up to come back. You’d hear a sound, a ruffle of paper, a shift in a chair, a gruff clear of the throat and Peter would appear. The main speaker was getting quite annoyed. It was the best thing about the morning.
“Folks, if we could, all microphone’s off when I am talking.”
Peter paid no heed, ruffle, shift, gruff and appear. Speaker talks and Peter would disappear and we’d all wait for it to happen again.
My microphone was off, permanently. That was precisely how I wanted it. Who works this way? Eugh! Work is bad enough without this and then the gift of Covid, Zoom. There’s that noise again. It fascinates me. The clouds are low so you can’t see them. Those magnificent men in their flying machines. I shift in my chair, the window is always to the left of me, the rumble of distant thunder, was how I’d describe it but it isn’t that. Nothing original in me. It is upon us before we know it. The rumble, such a rumble, you can actually feel it. I try to work out is it one, or two, today? Two, I believe, there is a rumble and another rumble, two rumbles together, like two hungry kids running, both fearing they’d be missing out on their dinner. It comes, the rumble, bigger, better, more real, above me, a tingle in the atmosphere, zoom, one, two, planes fly above me at some speed and they are gone. The crows take flight. The rumble moves on from here. I imagine it to be supersonic but it is probably nowhere near. They and the rumble are gone completely and it is back to the speaker, a drone droning on, talking at me, at all of us Peter, flashing on and off on my screen, Peter interrupting him with his ghosting.
F15’s I believe. Some guy at the newspaper always manages to get a picture. I don’t. I’ve tried. How does he? With the low cloud. I can not see how the guy who gets the picture gets the picture as I cannot see. Eugh! The speaker wants me. Well, not me specifically, nobody wants me specifically but he wants me and my colleagues to now pay particular attention. It is a good sign as it means we must be coming to the end of the training. The window is so lovely here, there are sheep in the fields and green grass hills to look out on to. The crows are returning, bitterly complaining, the rudeness of the mechanical beasts. They are settling again in the trees, buzzing among themselves in conversation, I imagine they are placing a hex upon the fighter jets, for causing such a disturbance to the peace.
The speaker had told us he is a helpline advisor specialist and he was here to help us, but he hasn’t helped so far. I can tell, everyone’s faces are bored out of their dog boxes, it is a form of mind control, everyone’s faces are stuck someplace else, everyone’s faces… are stupidly moronic, they fascinate me. Peter flashes onto the screen. I like his face the best. But Roger and Carl’s are good too. I imagine they are a couple. Roger is in Michigan and Carl is in Denver. It seems fitting that Carl is in Denver, why I don’t quite know. Their faces are the roundest faces today, ballooned, expanded, gaseous explosions waiting to happen. A pin could prick their rosy red cheeks, pop would go the weasel and they’d become over-expanded and explode. That would be lovely to see. There is Stanley. Why does nobody call a kid Stanley these days? His face? He is impoverished, I know for a fact, last year he didn’t earn his bonus and nor did he the year before that. Not all of us do. Peter appears fleetingly again, the speaker is still talking at me, it is like he and Peter are arguing over changing tv channels.
Wait, Ma’s shouting.
“No Ma, not finished yet, another fifteen minutes.”
She is making coffee and has bought donuts. She became a balloon herself after second Dad left and this is now our regular lunch. I prefer the sandwiches we used to have but she buys the donuts and claims she is treating me. Sugar and jam is not me, not really.
The speaker is speaking at me. I pick up my pen but he tells me I don’t need to as my manager is emailing me. Performance targets. They mean nothing to me as I never meet them. My uncle got me the job, after second Dad left. I am still saying thank you twelve years later. I still haven’t left the job that was always going to be temporary. It’s a great gig, you can work from home, the spare bedroom was turned into a study for me. That consisted of replacing the bed with a foldout settee so that when visitors came they had somewhere to sleep. We’ve not had any visitors in twelve years. And we bought second hand. this high architect’s desk that is too big for anywhere else, I sit on a stool and work upon. If it is too big for anywhere else then it is way too big for here and it takes up a whole wall side. The foldout settee on one side and the architects desk on the other, the window wall is between them. This room has everything I need.
“Who could ask for anything more?”
Ma singing in the kitchen. Most think of it as that song but really it is; “I Got Rhythm” the Gershwin brothers, one of Ma’s favourites. One of mine too, if I am honest. She sings along to the radio, her favourite station, they only play show tunes and songs from the musicals. She has the pot on the stove and I can hear her moving about, doing things in the kitchen, I’d say making lunch, but I have covered that already so it must be some over task she has found. Ma used to be in am dram, that was where she met both her husbands but not now, says she no longer has the voice, but she still sounds good to me. What do I know?
“I got starlight. .. I got sweet dreams…”
The speaker is speaking to Stanley. They play pop-up ping-pong on Zoom tv in front of me; Speaker speaks and is on the screen – Stanley speaks and is on the screen – Speaker – Stanley – Speaker and then Peter gruffs and puts in another unwelcome appearance – Speaker – Stanley – Speaker. Speaker tells him to mute. Apparently Stanley doesn’t deliver his performance expectations either but he likes to argue about it. He too will get an email and, I imagine a follow up call from his manager. That’s what you got if you questioned things. The pain in listening to her is unimaginable, so best not to imagine it, best not to, consequences and actions, best just to accept the performance intentions knowing you’ll never reach them and wait then for the manager to call you but, by then, she can do nothing about it. You can let her drone on and it can mean nothing to you. Stanley is old. At least fifty. Stanley looks impoverished. Stanley doesn’t learn. We’ve seen this from Stanley before. He is the longest standing employee, he got a bonus for that, his only one. Ever. I have five years to go to match him, although I will never catch him, time doesn’t work like that. Not here.
And we are done. Zoom closes. I have thirty minutes for coffee and donuts. Training session over, time for lunch and I can then get back to my job. Can’t wait. Just kidding. People can be very rude when they finally get to speak with me after being in a queue and being told every thirty seconds for forty minutes,
“Your call is in a queue, your call is important to us, we are experiencing a high volume of calls today, please bear with us.”
I have a script to read but it doesn’t inspire me. I read it dutifully.
“Calls are recorded for training purposes.”
They listen in sometimes and we all live in fear that they listen in to us and we get the call from the manager who is never happy with us. I stick to the script. It works better for me. Callers get very rude, try to beat humanity out of me. I stare out of the window, I won’t be beaten. Sometimes I let my headphones rest around my neck, I can hear them still talking at me so I know when they finish and I can pick the script back up. Their call isn’t very important to me and it isn’t very important to anyone, except them, them and their problems. Things go wrong, what can I tell you. But that isn’t in the script, I often think it should be. We once had a prize among ourselves, if you could get away with saying,
“Have you tried switching it on and off?”
But they sacked Matt for that so we all had to stop doing it.
Coffee and donuts with Ma are fine, I’d still have preferred sandwiches for a change. The radio plays Mack the Knife, now that is one of my favourites, the Billy Vaugh Singers whistling rendition, even better. Thankfully, this station never plays the Frank Sinatra take on it, like us, they think he murdered the song, but then he murdered most things. I blame his connections with the mafia, he wanted to kill things, I guess he thought it would impress them. Don’t start Ma on My Way by the way, best not to go there. I tell Ma, about Peter ghosting in and out of the screen and she laughs. She doesn’t know Peter but she can only imagine and it tickles her. I knew it would. Sometimes they play a whole soundtrack from start to finish, and this puts Ma in Heaven. Her and Tony, her second husband, not my dad, used to dance around the kitchen table to whole albums. Soon after they met at the am dram we came here to live with him. It is his house. Dad was bereft. Never got over how she just left. Tony left too, about three years later but she’d already married him and the judge gave the house to her for as long as I lived here. I live here still. I am thirty-two, I have a friend and he thinks it weird and if I am honest, I do too. Tony is still furious but too broke to go back to court. Dad is dead, he never had fury in him, just tonnes of self-pity. To be honest I could see why Ma left him. I left him too didn’t I, but I sometimes forget that.
We’d only just said, “Did you hear the planes?” When the iPad notification ping pinged. News alert. We always stop dead and wonder who is dead when it does that. Ma reads it out. I always hope it is the Queen of England. I don’t know why her particularly but that is what I always hope for. That would make the news.
“Reports coming in … Two military planes have crashed in Mistral Valley. Rescuers are on the scene.”
“Oh God!” Ma says.
“Yes, God.” I say and as it isn’t the Queen of England, I leave her to listen for more news, updates as they have them but that’s already the news for me, why do they labour it so? I put my headphones on, give it ten seconds, see whose name is next calling and say,
“Welcome to IT caller service, how may I help you today … Joleen? How are you today Joleen?”
They drone on and I listen, not to them, but for the sound, a rumble. I know though that now, it will be some days again before others come again. Wings touched, that will be the explanation, it happens every few years, training, bit more exciting than ours. So I listen, I wait, the rumble will come again, they can’t stay away.
Short story writer finished and now looking for a home for debut novel. Previous stories in The Honest Ulsterman, Here Comes Everyone and Nottingham City Short Story Competition, highly commended. Bit of poetry out there as well. Follow @mikeyboywriter