Black Short Stories : The Phones never stop ringing

Discussion in 'Short Stories - Authors - Writing' started by raymondobe, Oct 2, 2009.

  1. raymondobe

    raymondobe Member MEMBER

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    Tony, A 42 year-old father of two, has recently been made redundant from his office job of fifteen years.
    Due to the current credit-crunch? I say, sitting beside him on an uncomfortable blue plastic seat, with my note-pad resting on my knee.
    Well that’s what the bosses will have you believe, Tony says. You ask me it’s all part of one big conspiracy. Oh I know what you’re thinking. Wacko, right? Well of course I’m not denying that things are really tough out there right now. But I also think a lot of companies are simply taking advantage of the situation. You know, deliberately scaling down the workforce so that who ever they choose to keep on is forced to do twice the work, for exactly the same pay.

    Today is the day Tony collects his dole cheque. This is a fortnightly affair. The two of us are seating in a Jobcentre in South West London. A florescent-lighted interior, with a dark blue-carpeted floor, white walls, hardly any character. On entering the space the very first thing I notice is how down-beat and dispirited everyone appears, especially the staff, who trudge back forth like lethargic patients in a geriatric ward. Calming Tijuana musak, the type you might hear in a fancy hotel or office lifts is filtered into the room from hidden speakers probably padlocked to the wall. Even the air seems stale. It is as if the air vents have somehow been jammed up in order to restrict the amount of fresh oxygen that comes into the building.

    Perhaps this is a deliberate ploy to keep those forced to congregate inside, in a perpetual sate of near coma. Everyone seems to be moving at half-pace. And I cannot help but be reminded of the movie Enter the Dragon: ‘Men who longer care who they are or where they find themselves.’ The scene is also very reminiscent of the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. I’m referring to the insane asylum dayroom.

    I ask Tony how he finds the staff. Whether they are helpful or not.
    Right, says Tony. You mean the guys they employ to fob you off…The professional whipping boys…The arseholes that sound as if they’ve just got back from a £600 two-day seminar with the bull**** brigade.
    At that moment a young kid wearing a soiled dark-green puffa-jacket shuffles across the room and wants to know if anyone has a cigarette that he can buy. He extends his cupped hand to reveal one or two loose change resting on his dry palm.

    Few people respond and it seems that no one is prepared to take up his offer. Some nod and one or two move their eyes giving the impression that even this is more than his offer warrants. It is as if on entering the building these mostly young people have lost their will to go on, or at least function the way they normally would in their everyday lives when they’re not zonked out on weed or brain numbing alcohol…Like they’ve inadvertently wandered into a purgatory type be-in, or a temporary recess situated in deaths waiting room, where they will be forced to kill time before their lives begin again, an hour or two from now.

    Few people engage in anything you could call conversation. And if they do turn or get up from their seats, it is only to look up at the numbers electronically displayed in red neon on the boards up on the wall. Or they slouch in their chairs with sleepy sullen expressions of pure boredom on their young faces, occasionally shifting forward to bite their fingernails or to give one another furtive glances; or they checkout the fit girls or the buff boys, who saunter past. One young lady has brought a thick novel with her, which she turns away from to check that her number hasn’t been called. She looks up, squints and then goes back to reading the tomb on her lap only to repeat this rather anxious ritual a moment later.

    I look around the room and see an array of different people. Some well dressed. Some not so well dressed. Some are even wearing suits as if they are merely taking a few hours off from their normal day job. I cannot help but wonder if perhaps these well dressed folk are what the government nowadays refers to as, ‘benefit thieves’: people who work and sign-on at the same time to supplement their income. According to the adverts such swindler’s will not be tolerated, unless of course they happen to be in parliamentary office, and require the money to finance the building of a new moot, or a third mortgage, in which case an apology will suffice.

    Or perhaps these men and women wearing business suits, are the latest casualties in our current global crisis, and they have yet to inform their loved ones, that through no fault of their own, they have been ‘let go’ from Goldman Sacks or Lehman brothers…Or maybe, just maybe they are simply attempting to give off an impression of sincere professional respectability, which I for one would be the last person to criticize them for.

    Whatever their reason, I’m sure nobody really cares, except off course the staff at the Jobcentre. Not all of them of course. It depends who you get when you’re number comes up. But if they do find out your working, you might lose your benefit or worse be taken to court and end up with a criminal record.

    The place is packed to capacity. No doubt another noticeable feature of the current economic climate. The number of unemployed the media tells us is increasing steadily, 5million out of work by the end of the year the doom and gloom mongers would have us believe. This is the stuff that 1970’s Sci-fi movies were made of. The beginning of the end-Soilent Green/The Omega man/The Day the Earth Stood Still-The home-guard, city curfews…Mad Max-type vehicles, stolen Kalaschikow, balaclavas’ and home-made shanks and shivs.

    According to the papers, people are losing their homes; petty crime is on the increase…marriages are breaking up. Civilization as we have know it appears to be crumbling before our very eyes. It is the decline and fall of the west, (perhaps). The end of the world as we know it (perhaps). Capitalist dream turned into nightmarish self-annihilation, as predicted by the great nineteenth century thinker Karl Marx, (perhaps). And whether you read the papers or not, or pay attention to the foreboding TV news bulletins discussing Swine-flue and the War on Terrorism (sorry that was 2008-the age of misinformation) you will know that since the beginning of the year, food prices alone have more than doubled. Doubled!

    What about your wife? I say. Is she working?
    Yeah, he says. Karen’s got a part-time job. But it’s still quite hard going, what with our two kids as well.
    What ages are they? I say, shifting my position slightly and moving my pen towards the writing pad again.
    Russell’s six and Tony’s nine.
    Another Tony, I say looking up. Doesn’t that get confusing?
    Yeah, he says smiling. Sometimes.
    So how does Karen feel about you not working? I say.
    Well obviously neither of us is happy about it. But what can you do? Believe me, it’s not as if I haven’t been trying to find work. I’ve even mentioned the possibility of going further a field.
    Further a field, like where? I say.
    Maybe somewhere outside London. Maybe even abroad, who knows? Of course it’s not ideal. But if it’s a choice between starving and feeding my family, I know which one it’ll take.
    What does Karen think about you leaving the country? I say.
    Well she isn’t exactly keen about it either. She says her father was absent a lot of the time when she was a kid and it affected their relationship. She’s adamant that she doesn’t want the same thing to happen with the boys. People do it all the time I tell her. What about people from Poland, Eastern Europe, Africa? I say. You think they like coming over here and leaving their families behind? You don’t think they’d rather stay in their own country if they had a choice? Sometimes you have no choice. Sometimes taking up from your roots is the only option.
    What about retraining? I say.
    I’ve thought about that, says Tony. I was hoping I could get on a computer course or something with the Jobcentre, but they say I haven’t been signed on for long enough. I’d take out a loan if I could, but then if you have over a certain amount of money the Jobcentre won’t pay you. Not to mention, the banks are not exactly dying to lend me money at the moment. Like most of us I have debts.
    What about relatives? I say.
    I guess I could ask my brother for a loan, he says. But I’m sure he has his own problems to deal with. We’ll just have to see.
    Well at least if you retrained you’d have a few more options.
    True, he says. But whatever I do I’m going to have to be careful. I don’t want to mess up my benefits. For one thing, we’ve got the mortgage to pay. I make the wrong move and the next thing I know we’re out on the street, living in some council bed sit, or worse, we’re like that homeless family in that 60’s movie, Cathy Come Home.
    The Ken Loach movie? I say.
    I don’t know who directed, he says. But I remember it made quite and impression on me.
    You could try and get a job in here, I say.
    What with this mob? says Tony with a look of disgust. Do me a favour. I’m desperate but I’m not crazy.

    I lean closer and ask Tony if it would be a mistake to suggest that some the positions at the Jobcentre have been filled by the poorly motivated.
    You mean Clocker-Watchers? ‘Jobsworths?’ he says, raising his eyebrows.
    Well, yeah, I say.
    Yeah I’d say so. Yeah pretty much, he says. To be honest I don’t think anyone wants to be here. I mean look at them.

    Then Tony tells me that he’s heard rumours that some of the more proactive Jobcentres have devised their own unique ways to recruit.
    Really? I say.
    Yeah, he says, coughing into his fist to clear his throat. Basically they try and collar anyone who looks as if they can stand the intense hate vibes.
    Oh, I say, seeing the sarcastic twinkle in his eye.
    And another thing, he says. Have you noticed the phones?
    What about them? I say.
    Well they’ve been pretty much ringing non-stop since I got here.
    Actually, I say looking up. I think you’re probably right.

    Then it hits me that none of the staff seem to have noticed that the phones have been ringing non-stop either. It’s as if everyone in the building’s ears have become acoustically attuned to the continuous bring! bring! sound in a similar way that factory workers at British Leyland or people doing brain numbing work at some industrial unit become immune to the incessant hum of the machinery.
    And you know what else? says Tony.
    No what? I say.
    A friend of mine once told me that when you work in a place like this, there are certain rules that you have to adhere to. That’s it’s a common feature in local government departments.
    Like what? I say, getting ready to write down this new revelation. Maybe this is something I could base the whole article on, I think.
    Like never pick-up a phone until it’s rang through-out the building for at least ten minutes, says Tony raising a finger in the air as if he’s listening for something. That’s the first rule, he says. Then once you’ve answered the call, inform the caller that they come through to the wrong department. Then offer to transfer the call. Then hang up the phone you’re supposedly trying to put them through.
    You’re friend actually told you that? I say.
    Well no, not exactly, says Tony grinning. But nine times out of ten, when you phone these type of places, thats pretty much how it seems to work.

    Right now as I sit here observing the throng, one chap, A tall thin Trustafferian with long dirty blond locks, wearing a beige rainmack, dark tracksuit and high-top trainers is yelling at a the young black girl seated behind one of the desk about his non- existent giro, which according to him has been stopped for absolutely no reason.
    I ain’t come in here to be **** about again, says the young man placing his hands on the edge of the desk and rocking forward. I go through this every ******’ week and I’m sick of it. You hear me. I’m sick to death of it.
    A black security guard quickly approaches the pair and suddenly people being jumping out of their seats, excited by the prospected of a potential fight in the making, no doubt a prelude to rebellion and a retaking of the street- a return to the early 80’s, when the police were using peoples heads as bowling pins.
    You tell ‘em brov, somebody shouts.
    Suddenly the whole room seems to be talking at once.
    When I get home I’m gonna build be a big spliff, I hear someone say.
    Jesus Christ I’ve been sitting here for three hours, says a voice coming from somewhere behind me. Why are they taking so long?
    Because they’re just as pissed off with this **** as we are, some body else responds. They’re on a go-slow in sympathy with us brov.
    Christ waiting in here is like a job in itself.
    It’s all part of the process. It’s designed this way so that eventually you get so piss-off, you go out and get yourself a job out of desperation.
    Yeah I think it’s actually working, some one says.
    People laugh, touch fists and high-five one another.
    Yeah but the worse part is when you get used to coming here, you simply stop caring, says stony-faced man scratching his uncombed Afro.

    I look at Tony and he grins back at me. It is a smile of resignation. Like yeah, what do you expect. It is what it is. When the **** hits the fan, this is the last stop before they throw you out on the street and you go find yourself a shopping trolley. This is the difference between having a roof over your head and a hot meal, and living out the thin years in the back of your clapped out Honda, or under the motorway flying-over, or below ground in some smelly makeshift rat-infested cardboard city.

    Just then the red number in one of the neon displays up on the wall changes and Tony gives me a nod.
    Wish me luck, he says, checking the number printed on the white ticket in his hand. Here we go again. See you on the other side.
     
  2. $$RICH$$

    $$RICH$$ Lyon King Admin. STAFF

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    well told story , I like to see what happens next please do continue pt.2
     
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