Lucy Warren: Sorry for the Delay

‘And this’, announced Damien, pausing outside grey swing double doors, ‘is the beating heart of…Ooof’.

One of the doors had burst open, directly into the now slightly dazed manager.

‘Sorry Damo, only got a few minutes to grab a coffee. You ok?’ This concern was shouted over the shoulder of the speeding culprit as he headed for the canteen, positioned a mere ten second dash outside the call centre.

‘Are you OK?’ asked Rachael, ignoring the sniggers she could hear from members of the group. ‘That must’ve hurt like hell’.

Damien, bent double with his hands over his nose, merely nodded in answer, checked to make sure he wasn’t bleeding, and stood upright.

His much-practised speech was due to reach its hysterical peak soon, after his tour of the centre with the new recruits, and he couldn’t be diverted. He was planning to highlight the commission they could expect. That always raised the excitement level a few notches. Had he been honest, he would have ended his commission speech with the addendum that the money on offer was really only achievable by working 18 hour days, keeping every phone call to under 90 seconds, and selling at least one unnecessary item to every caller.

Rachael, unlike the majority of the group, was not fresh out of college. At 29, she knew she was cynical and that her bullshitometer was well tuned. Said meter had been going off at increasing volume since the training course for Attire had begun three weeks previously. As she arrived at the centre itself (rather than at the college classroom rented to Attire), her bullshitometer had been screaming like a banshee with its fingers caught in a blender. She glanced at Jake, who raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Lovely Jake, who had been her partner in crime since day one. He too was slightly older than the other participants and merely observed the training – unless called upon directly, at which point he invariably gave a well considered response to the question posed.

‘But I run a boutique! Well, I did run a boutique,’ Rachael had moaned to him after a particularly horrendous role-playing session with Damien in front of the group. Attire’s customer service manager had played the part of a complaining customer mercilessly, cutting to the quick Rachael’s offers of help and leaving her feeling useless. ‘I never let anyone speak to me like that when I was a boss, so why the hell am I so crap now that I’ have a fucking Star Trek headset to wear?’ Rachael looked at the earphones they’d been given in their first week.

‘Because, my love, you’re confidenceless at the moment. Give it time,’ Jake had said, before adding, ‘Anyway Lieutenant Uhura, fancy a coffee?’

Jake, jobbing writer for various travel sites, was only working at ‘Attire’ because he and his husband were moving to Spain to open a small B&B in a property they’d bought on the outskirts of Jerez. ‘Being an author’s all well and good, darling, but it’s not fucking steady is it? And I can’t live off Pablo – he works all the hours God sends as it is. Time to knuckle down for six months, think of the cash and the life it’ll help us start. And, let’s face it, I’ve done worse.’

Looking at him, Rachael didn’t doubt it, and that made her warm to him even more. But she noticed that even he had a slight air of resignation about the inevitability of their current situation

On the other side of the swing doors, Rachael was met with row upon row of Customer Service Executives. Seated in front of computer screens, they wore headsets and talked to invisible punters. Damien ushered his group to a meeting room where he explained that, if they had taken on board all the knowledge imparted over the previous few weeks, their paths would indeed be paved with gold. He was exhausted after putting on a high energy performance for ten long days. His nose hurt like buggery and he was preaching to a group whose numbers would be depleted by at least half within months as reality hit them, but he’d at least get them to their start date in one piece if it killed him. His very last flourish was to introduce the new employees to their teams.

Damien read out each placement and Rachael felt elated when she heard that she and Jake were both to be in a team optimistically called ‘Victory’.

‘Oh that’s good darling, we can get matching tattoos,’ whispered Jake as they followed Damien to a row in the middle of the room.

‘Susie, here are Rachael and Jake, your new team members. This is Susie, Victory’s team leader.’ Damien stepped aside, gesturing to a seated figure with a mass of blonde hair who was talking to her neighbour. The figure spun round in her chair and Rachael heard a snort from Jake.

Susie extended her hand. ‘Hi, Susie Trent, nice to have you on board. Any issues just come to me. Have you enjoyed the training?’

If Rachael could have talked, she would have, just to appear friendly, but she had been rendered speechless by Susie’s teeth which were truly terrifying. Susie continued, turning to look at her computer screen. ‘Victory’s’ second on the leaderboard this month behind ‘Endeavour’, so if we all get our heads down and crack through those calls, we should be able to knock them off. Lunch is in half an hour. You can find out what time yours is each morning on the timetable when you log in. You’ll need to remember to log off before lunch and log back in exactly 30 minutes later. Any discrepancy with timings could result in your commission being docked. You also get a fifteen minute break morning and afternoon. Oh, and I like to see everyone smiling – the customers can hear it!’

Rachael would have found this information easier to absorb if Jake’s shoulders hadn’t been distracting her by shaking so much, although his face was devoid of expression. At Susie’s instruction, the two were sent to vacant seats at the far end of the row, the other team members smiling in greeting as they looked up from their calls. Susie left them with the recommendation: ‘just take some time to get used to your computer for now,’ adding ‘remember your lunch break is at two. You can take some calls this afternoon once you’re sure what’s what.’

Rachael sat, trying to remain positive as she reached down the side of her chair to get a bottle of water from her handbag.

‘Fucking hell what’s that all about?’ whispered Jake, ‘woman’s got a mouth like a 17th century graveyard! I thought bats were going to fly out when she started.’

Rachael snorted and grinned but shook her head, refusing to be drawn, and, for the next hour, attempted to concentrate on the job in hand. That job was, she realised, going to be stripping the world of fashion, a world she had loved for so long, down to its bare bones. Most of the customer queries, she thought, as she read the first five pages of the manual, were about leg length, hip and bust measurement, and washing instructions. Then, reading further, she realised that wasn’t strictly true, as the following fifteen pages were devoted to customer complaints, refunds and how not to give them. Rachael decided to concentrate on the chapter covering contacting the suppliers. Refunds were never fun. So far she was getting every indication that taking this job might not have been one of her greatest decisions. Fuck it, at least I can pay my rent, she thought.

At two o’clock, Rachael and Jake received a frantic wave from Susie and headed through the swing doors to the canteen. Having purchased a sandwich each, they managed to find an empty table.

‘Right, lovely, we’ve got fifteen minutes to eat this and get back to the desks of death and blood, so no time for chit-chat’, said Jake as he unwrapped his food.

‘Unless the chit-chat involves a plan to tunnel out, in which case I’m right behind you.’

‘It might not be so bad, you know.’

Rachael picked up her sandwich and put it down again. ‘Oh bollocks, Jake, this is just going to be hideous! I feel like I’m in a bloody work camp. How did this even happen?’

Jake looked at her. ‘You know how it happened Rache, and the sooner you accept that shite things happen to good people, the better. Come round tonight for dinner. Pabs is cooking so it’ll be good. You can’t spend the evening on your own again. Come on, Nobby-No-Mates, cancel Colin Farrell and we’ll see you at about seven.’

‘Just so long as you spend the evening talking about Spain and not about this. I don’t think I could handle a whole evening of ‘Attire’.’

They returned to their desks at 2.30 pm, only to be met by a thunderous looking Susie. ‘It’s your first day, so we’ll overlook it, but any other time and commission will be docked. A minute late logging on will be noted upstairs, so you need to be ready to go on the dot.’

‘Sorry Susie,’ said Rachael, ‘there was a huge queue and we couldn’t-’

‘There always is,’ interrupted Susie sharply, ‘and it’s not an excuse. Right. So I’d like the pair of you on the phones this afternoon to see how you cope with real people.’

Rachael decided her best option was to keep her mouth shut. The alternative suggested immediate firing. She adopted a calm expression and sat down.

Jake did the same and put his headset on, waiting until Susie had left before swivelling round on his chair, pressing one finger to his headset, and saying ‘Captain, the ship is at warp speed, we’re nae’ gonna make it.’

‘Your accent’s terrible, Scotty,’ said Rachael, ‘but I think you might be right. Anyway, here we go.’

The afternoon passed in a blur of customers, all of whom began their conversation with reference to the length of time they’d been in the call queue. As a result, all operators began with a bright ‘Hello, sorry for the delay. How may I help you today?’, in the misplaced belief that the apology would put the caller on the back foot. Many customers chose to ignore it and went straight into the reason for the call, but some were so apoplectic with rage after a twenty or, Rachael glanced up at the digital call board, fifty minute wait, that they had forgotten why they were calling and merely wanted to shout.

‘Nearly an hour I’ve been bloody holding’, came an enraged voice as Rachael prepared for another onslaught. ‘A bloody hour! I know you lot can just sit in your nice warm office and pick up the fucking phone when you’ve finished gassing, but some of us have got real bloody jobs.’

Rachael adopted her soothing voice, which she hadn’t actually realised she had until the training, ‘I really am so sorry but we’re helping cus-’

‘Helping? The company’s shit. I waited over a week and when the trousers arrived, they didn’t bloody fit. So how’s that helping?’

That evening, Rachael sat on Jake and Pablo’s squashy sofa in their cottage, nursing a large glass of wine. ‘And she didn’t accept that she could have been a size 16. “I’m a fucking 12” she kept saying, and even when I got her to give me her measurements, she refused to accept that a larger size would fit her. In the end I told her the company’s sizes were on the neat side and she finally let me send out a larger pair.’

‘I thought you’d had enough of work today. Jake said you wanted to hear about Spain,’ said Pablo, wandering in from the kitchen.

Rachael realised she’d been moaning since she arrived and felt guilty. She had been over at Jake and Pablo’s almost every evening since the course had begun. Pablo was a more chilled version of his husband and Rachael had warmed to him immediately – especially when he had given his opinion on the catastrophic end of her wedding plans when he had said: ‘You found out before the big day that he was a lying bastard Rache, be glad you didn’t get hitched. I feel sorry for the poor cow he cheated with. She’s going to be looking over her shoulder for the rest of that relationship.’

‘I’m sorry Pabs!’ Rachael said. ‘I’m not a self-obsessed social nightmare you know, I’m really not. I do want to hear about Spain. Tell me everything. Well, everything that Jake hasn’t told me anyway. It’s so exciting! A new start. You’re going to be living the dream.’

The next day Rachael was surprised to see Jake already in his place when she arrived the office at 8.15. a.m.

‘It’s my new leaf, darling – at least for the next six months,’ he confided, as she took her coat off. ‘Another job would be such a faff at this point. I just keep telling myself that I won’t even remember this place or Toothella once we’ve been in Jerez for a few days.’

Rachael concentrated on setting up her computer and didn’t remove her eyes from the screen as she said in a small voice, ‘I’ll really bloody miss you when you go, you know?’

But worrying about something so far in advance was swiftly superseded by the problems of Rachael’s telephone customers, who believed that their issues made world hunger and a rapidly warming planet pale into insignificance. Forty calls in, it dawned on Rachael that the only thing she had to do was sound concerned. She didn’t actually have to be concerned. In fact, not being concerned was going to help her get through the days. That, and occasionally listening to Jake, who had taken his insincerity to new levels and even, on occasion, swapped horror stories about ruthless online companies with the customer.

‘No, I’m not surprised at all that the late delivery of your dress almost ruined your anniversary,’ Rachael heard him say. ‘I’m just relieved that when it did arrive you loved it, and I bet you looked gorgeous on the night anyway…. no, honestly, that’s … no, I’m pleased you didn’t cry for long too… no I’’ll… well that’s very understanding of you, Mrs Graham. Don’t hesitate to call again if we can be of further assistance. Thank you so much…. yes, you too… bye bye.’

Rachael looked in awe at him as he leant back in his chair grinning. ‘Glad she’s got her priorities sorted. No point in blowing things out of proportion is there?’

The days melded into one long, rigidly structured and fairly repetitive lump after the first week, and both Rachael and Jake even volunteered for overtime once they had passed their initial trial period of eight weeks. That milestone was with an interview with Susie, who ensured that, although both of them were now accepted Attire employees, their figures would be analysed regularly and any commissions would not be paid for a further six weeks.

‘You were in a boutique before, weren’t you?’ she asked Rachael.

‘Yes, part owner and full-time manager for six years,’ Rachael replied. ‘Very much customer oriented; lots of events and shows as well.’

‘Mmmm, but you packed it in? Not that successful then, I guess?’

Rachael wanted to upturn the wastepaper bin over Susie’s head but adopted the same mindset as she did with her most testing customers. ‘No.’ She wanted to say so much more. She wanted to tell Susie and her tombstone teeth how she had loved what she did, how she had built up relationships with her customers and how, in the really successful times before the high street had begun to look more like war-torn Beirut, her boutique had been an essential part of so many women’s lives. But online shopping had ripped the heart out of her business. It hadn’t been quick enough to embrace the huge changes hitting retail.

Susie continued, ‘Mmm, I always fancied my own boutique, but I think I’d just get a bit…you know…bored. Find the pace here much more exhilarating. Anyway, the only thing I’ll say for you is: try not to spend so long on each call and use the phrases written down for you as often as you can. You need to be a bit more ‘Attire’. Still, keep at it and you could be applying for team leader in another 12 months, all being well.’ She smiled rather insincerely at Rachael, who tried not to think of horses.

Rachael decided that silence was the way forward. As Susie was sporting a huge fleece that appeared to have the remnants of several meals down it, she couldn’t immediately decide where the target audience for Susie’s boutique would have come from anyway, but it was clearly a moot point.

Returning to her chair, she smiled broadly at Jake, who was about to take a call. He logged out when he saw her.

‘I’ve not been made CEO if that’s what you’re thinking,’ Rachael said. ‘You’ll be having exactly the same this afternoon. She’ll probably tell you she was going to move abroad but decided against opening her own five star hotel. So be warned’.

Rachael was right, and when Jake emerged from his meeting, heard how Susie had indeed told him that she’d considered hospitality, but had decided that Attire’ was a better option in the long term. ‘Understandable,’ he told Rachael. ‘I mean, she’s living the dream here,isn’t she? Apparently, there’s a tour group booked to come round this afternoon. It was either this or whale-watching.’

The following months passed in something of a blur for Rachael. It was difficult to separate one day’s callers from the next, but she got through without the crushing self-doubt emerging on a regular basis. Her social life had dwindled since her fiancé had ended their relationship, but she wasn’t too bothered. At present she really didn’t want to be going out with her friends, many of whom had been his friends too, and the upside was that her bank account was back to black. She mentioned this to Jake and Pabs one evening after they had come to hers for supper, regretting it immediately as they attempted an excruciating rendition of Amy Winehouse’s song.

‘Yeah… no very good.. it’s really…. I MEAN I THINK I’LL START PUTTING MYSELF OUT THERE AGAIN.’

The men stopped singing, and Rachel continued in a more normal voice. ‘Sorry…I mean, I think I should look to see what’s around, other than the bloody call centre.’

Jake glanced at Pabs and cleared his throat. ‘Actually, we wanted to talk to you about your next move. We’ve been talking and, well… how do you fancy coming to Jerez to work with us at the B&B? We need the help and God knows you won’t be speaking to anyone face to face who’s more mental than the ones you speak to on the phone here…’ He tailed off, looking anxiously at Rachael, who was staring at him.

‘It’s worth thinking about, Rache.’ Pabs said. Rachael burst into tears, prompting him to add, ‘But if you’re going to be this much of a drama queen, we might have to reconsider.’

Jake hugged her and said, ‘We should keep this to ourselves at Attire. We can go another month and then hand in our notices and work our four weeks. Hopefully without having to listen to the time that Susie almost opened her own luxury Spa resort in the Maldives.’

‘Did she?’ Pabs asked incredulously. ‘Bloody hell fire… oh hang on Susie? .. No…. with you,’ and he filled three glasses to toast their new plans.

That toast was swiftly followed by the rest of the bottle, which was followed by another bottle, which was followed by a third. This was followed by Jake arriving at work at 8.25 the next morning, looking decidedly the worse for wear although, as he threw himself into his chair, he remarked, ‘You do look rubbish, darling. You need to find a different class of friends. The ones you’ve got are obviously taking you down a dark road’.

‘Morning! Ready for a killer day today, people. There’s already a bit of a queue, so there’s no time for taking it easy today. I’ll be watching everyone in ‘Victory!’’ Susie was back in full inspirational team leader mode, although Rachael noticed the fleece was back too, slightly dulling the top executive gloss.

Being hungover at least took her mind off the barrage of complaints coming through, and she even managed to placate a few customers enough to sell them tops to go with their trousers, which didn’t currently fit them but which soon would when she sent out new sizes.

‘That’s a shame,’ remarked Susie on the day that they gave in their notices, ‘you both could have gone a long way, but if you’re happy to risk everything pissing off to Spain, then so be it.’

‘Well it’s not really pissing off,’ retorted Jake. ‘My husband and I have a property out there and Rachael is going to be our receptionist. It’s a permanent move rather than a holiday job.’

‘Bit risky if you ask me, giving up this for some dream in the sun,’ sniffed Susie

‘But that’s just it.’ said Rachael, ‘It’s not just a dream, it’s real.’

This is Lucy’s first story for Funny Pearls.

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