It’s easy to have a pop at call centres. They’re the post-90s equivalent of the McJob, a CV standard for anyone who’s spent a portion of their life not knowing what they’re going to do next. I worked at one in my last year at University, and revelled in the fact I was earning ten quid an hour whilst my mates were slaving their arses behind bars and in kitchens for minimum wage. Two years later I was still there, somehow promoted to a supervisory role, and commuting from East to South West London for a job that I knew was call-by-call wringing out all the nice bits of my soul.
Mine was a story repeated many times over. No one was parked in a call centre. Everyone was en route to or from somewhere infinitelymore interesting: a band; a business venture; a bad break-up/divorce/redundancy that meant they had to get their head down for six months and work there. Of course those six months turned into six years and they were still in day shift after late shift, and moaning about it every time you saw them. But they were still clocking in, still making the calls, despite themselves feeling that sick little buzz every time they made a sale.
As I say, it’s far too easy to have a pop at call centres and I don’t exactly look back on them fondly, but they do attract some great human beings. That’s not to say I didn’t meet my fair share of Shyster Sallys and Brylcreem Steves, who used to whoop and slam the headset down each time they made some old dear part with half a grand because she didn’t want to say no to the nice voice at the other end of the line. In amongst them, though, were some cracking characters, each memorable for a different reason. Here’s some of my favourites:
My first call centre job was for a dating agency, when I was at Sixth Form back in Maidstone. They employed a gaggle of students to run through a monolithic database of names, each of us leading with the opening line of: “Excuse me sir/madam, but I was just wondering if you are married?”
I’m not quite sure what role Alana had really, team leader, supervisor, sort-of-boss. She must have been mid-50s, always in see-through sequinned tops, perma-tanned boobs bubbling out over the top, lipstick red mini-skirts and doddery heels that used to make her trip and stumble onto you when she walked past: “Oooh Dave, sorry love. It musta been all the gins last night, up to my tits in them I was.” She looked like she was permanently on a hen-do in an episode of Benidorm Uncovered. I liked her.
Anyway, one day I came out of the toilet and she was standing there, leaning against the door to the cleaner’s cupboard, twirling the keys on her index finger and whistling the tune to ‘Hey Big Spender’.
“Er, hi, Alana.”
“I see the way you look me Dave.”
“Really? How’s that?”
“Don’t act stupid. We both know what you’re thinking.”
(I really didn’t know)
“Yes,” she stepped up to me, grabbed my shirt and pulled me close enough to smell the hairspray, “let’s go in there.”
She kissed me richly and put her hand on the back of my head. I was shocked but not so shocked I didn’t kiss back. Her other hand went to my arse and she pulled me to her. I was turgid in the time it takes to say “Shirley Bassey”.
“I want you Dave, now.”
“I think I want you too.”
She turned round to unlock the door, her other hand behind her back playing with my now ragingly hard cock. As she got the door open my workmate Matt bundled round the corner and stopped short in front of us, and she whipped her hand off me. He had the cannon-balling grin of someone that knew they would now always have the upper hand.
“Erm, sorry Alana,” said Matt, eyeing me, “I’ve got a bloke on the phone, he’s going spare, says we shouldn’t be calling him, wants to talk to a superior.”
“Can it not wait?” She asked.
“No, sorry, he’s talking about trading standards or some shit.”
“ Right,” she looked at him, back at me and with a straightening of sequins and the merest elevation on an eyebrow, said “well I guess I’d better come speak to him.”
I left the job a week later and didn't have Alana working on any subsequent shifts, so we never did get each other in the cupboard. Every time I came out of a toilet now, though, I listen out hopefully for that tune.
Phil was an odd man. He worked for the travel company I ended up being a supervisor at. He was employee of the month/year/decade, in every day, sitting in the corner, always making shitloads of sales. At first I thought he was super camp, then over the years realised it went a bit deeper. He seemed completely asexual, still a child in many ways, a few phones short of a call centre, if you will. The only time he ever mentioned women was slightly catty comments about his overbearing “mother”. He told me he slept in a single bed. He didn’t seem to be able to experience empathy in any form.
To Phil, the call centre was life. He didn’t do anything else. His entire day was built around those four evening hours when he’d come in and speak to 150 odd strangers about timeshares. He’d come in half an hour early, at one point I actually had to tell him off for being too early. Everyone else on the team thought he was a bit of weirdo and, to be fair to them, he did give off a bit of suburban serial killer vibe. He stared a lot, and ate a multipack of prawn cocktail crisps every shift. Someone once sat in the seat he liked (it was a hot-desking office). He completely flipped out, ran out of the office and refused to speak to the guy that did it ever again. I had to buy him a milkshake to calm him down.
Phil both loved and hated me. Loved me because I could occasionally dripfeed him information about what was happening behind the scenes, which was a world he desperately believed he should inhabit. This was exactly the reason he hated me; he’d been at the company for eight odd years, applied for my job every time it change hands, always got knocked back.
I often thought call centres were cursed places for those lacking in motivation and/or confidence, as they sucked people in with their very inanity; they could make (relatively) easy money, and all they had to do was take loads of abuse and dick over a bunch of people they’d never met. But for someone like Phil, a man-child who struggled to engage on a human level with the real world, they call centre gave him a place he could go do job, and do it well. I left that job 7 odd years ago now. Last thing I heard, he was still there.
Imraan and Cara
There were a lot of Muslim guys in my team. I always really enjoyed their company; they seemed so intrinsically different as they expressed their bemusement at my weekend tales. I was always moved by their generosity. If they had something to offer, they would offer it, and not because they’d worry that they’d seem rude if they didn’t: they wanted you to have some. Similarly, they were generous with their time, always asking questions about me and taking the time to reflect on what I said, and then answer me properly whenever I asked them anything.
One of them, Imraan, was pretty hardcore in his beliefs. I toned down my tail-chasing stories around him, I could see that it was something he didn’t really approve of, which is fair enough. He was a generally nice bloke, but out of all the Muslim guys there he was the one I felt was less warm towards; he was seemed so entrenched in his religion that we found it hard to find any common ground.
One day Cara started in the team, and I heard her before I saw her, sauntering down the hallway in a bright yellow jumpsuit and sunglasses, yapping loudly in her South London twang about how she was still up from last night. It turned out this was pretty much Cara in her everyday state. She was only 20 and acted it, though her relentless enthusiasm rendered this irrelative. Even if she wasn’t making any sales she was good to have around because she could always be relied upon to keep chipper even when everyone else was killing themselves with the boredom.
On paper, she was the one person Imraan shouldn’t have got on with. She took drugs and wasn’t shy about telling us. She talked gleefully about bodily functions, and would impart her sexual wisdom to anyone who would listen. She didn’t seem to put any stock in toning down her behaviour to suit her company, whether it was me, Imraan or a company director.
Yet, somehow over time they became best of pals. Every shift was soundtracked by her berating him for something he did or didn’t do. She gently mocked his religion, and the fact he didn’t have a girlfriend. He’d try and defend himself, but it would just be “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever Imraan.” All the while she was doing it you could Imraan grinning like a fool, revelling in the attention. They always tried to sit together, and over the course of a year embarked on this rather sweet plutonic love affair. I often wondered whether Imraan actually harboured some secret feelings for her, but obviously never asked him. I think Cara was a positive influence on him, and gave him a type of female companionship he was unlikely to have with his immediate peers which he wouldn’t have had but for the call centre. When she quit, he followed three weeks later.
Follow David on Twitter- @Gobshout