The side and rear panels of your work cubicle are lined with little red bulbs whose shine you can still see when you try to sleep at night. Some of your co-workers have adorned their cubicles with family photos and cutesy calendars depicting tender animal scenes but you have chosen to keep yours totally plain. The implied permanence of decoration is something you want to avoid, and you have worked hard to keep things to a bare minimum. Achieving this involves an unchanging daily routine. Conceived a week into your employment, it involves submitting to the intricacies of the job itself and shunning your co-workers. The shunning takes less effort than the submission. You have assembled an efficient means to complete all the tasks you’re set. On your desk is a carefully arranged system that includes Post-It notes, colour-coded page-flags, and a complexly organised spreadsheet. This all keeps you concentrated so that you rarely have to make eye contact with those sitting at desks nearby.
Twelve months since you started, your commitment to getting through your shifts in this way has not altered. You have seen what working at Hear4U can do to people even in a relatively short period of time—the deep-lying disillusionment, the grisly sight of skin paled by too much monitor light exposure, the exhaustion that kills any suggestion of out-of-work leisure time. To cheat discontent, you have decided to make use of the long periods of boredom between calls by creating allocations of time where you are free to think about issues that require deep thought. These include contemplating the possibilities of love and happiness, tattoo designs, online dating, the suspicion that you might one day need to wear glasses, and, lately, what the future might hold in store.
You are twenty-eight. You do not want to slip into the type of existence that leaves you half-dead at thirty. This means getting out of your job and going somewhere and doing something worth doing before the desire to do so leaves. It is now June. You have set a November deadline.
Executing the particularities of the job was hard at first but comes naturally now. Michael, who trained you over two intense, role-play-heavy weeks, said it would be like learning to ride a motorcycle—the threat of something going wrong would always hover, but practice would limit the probability of catastrophic failure. Your fundamental role, he said, was to truly master attentiveness, to pay undivided attention to the words. Their meanings were less relevant than their specific sounds and the patterns they were likely to follow. You needed to remember this. The trick was to infer, to be accustomed to sentence structures. The ultimate goal was to learn how to predict what someone was going to say before they said it.
Michael, who was very careful in how he spoke, said that really, the whole thing could be seen as a fun game between you and whoever was on the other end of the line. These instructions were needlessly opaque and made your brain feel like it was on fire. It was only after studying the manual and reducing its confusing terms to digestible points that you were able to understand the type of service provided.
The company’s ethos, highlighted in bold font throughout the employee starter-pack, espoused a fervent belief in the delivery of flawless communication services to its hearing-impaired clientele. All call-facilitators are expected to subscribe to this principle.
The role is pretty simple. When the phone rings, you pick up. You listen to one side of a conversation between two people. One is deaf or partially deaf, the other isn’t. The hearing impaired person is never heard. All you do is repeat into a microphone what the non-deaf person says and the computer transcribes it for the other party. Michael said it would always feel like spying on the disabled. This statement convinced you that he is way beyond weird. It’s not like spying because, so far at least, you’ve heard nothing ground-breaking. No private snippet that would be of public interest, nothing legally dubious, not even the slight suggestion of a brewing family scandal. In fact, it’s not unlike eavesdropping on a conversation between strangers on the street.
Getting used to the job took about a month. To get to the point of being semi-confident at fulfilling your duties, you spent sleepless nights reciting the stipulations of your two-year contract. Even now during quiet moments in a day, they wriggle into your head. If a caller says something illegal, you’re to report to head office immediately using extension line seven. The light will be red until it flashes green. When it does, the incident is to be described as succinctly as possible. Everything else during a call is to be dictated verbatim as you hear it. This includes all profanities, vocal disfluencies, and background noise. The word of any sound that cannot be vocally replicated is to be typed in and enclosed in brackets and quotation marks. This includes but is not restricted to “[Laughter],” “[Siren],” “[Cough],” and “[Music Playing].” You are never—under any circumstances—to dictate something that has not been said.
Yesterday, a Tuesday, was a busy day. The first call, which came before you had even settled into your swivel-seat, was the voice of a woman who seemed on the edge of exhaustion. When it was over, you sat staring at the screen that still retained the captured dialogue.
- Mom, it’s Clare.
- It’s Clare, Mom. Your daughter Clare.
- Your daughter, Mom. It’s Clare. Me. Clare.
- Yes, that’s it.
- I’m sorry. I spoke to Dr. Higgins. He mentioned something called Carmustine.
- Yes, and the sleep apnoea.
- The sleep apnoea, Mom.
- Just a moment, Mom. I’ll be right back.
You figured the unheard party was bed-bound and heavily medicated. So many of them are. When the call ended, to get a better idea of who this unseen woman was, you Googled Carmustine, a new drug you had not yet heard of, and the complications of sleep apnoea. During the call, the daughter, Clare, could be heard muffling the mouthpiece. When she returned to speak, her low tone and excessive sniffling indicated that she had become upset. This is not uncommon. During a lunch break a fortnight ago, you sat on one of the plastic benches in the high-domed foyer of the building with a pencil, jotter, and calculator and worked out that 38% of calls received involve the sound or suggestion of crying. You have no idea why you did this and something in you told you to not dwell on the possible reasons.
You do your job assiduously and regularly surpass the individual goals the company sets. In the monthly Service Execution Success Chart, taped to the canteen billboard on the first Friday of every month, you have come first four times and have never fallen out of the top five.
Hear4U is the kind of company that goes all out in order to make its employees feel wanted, valued, part of a family. In elaborate prize-giving ceremonies, they present the highest-performing facilitators with everything from initials-engraved iPad Airs to faux-gilded certificates championing the individual’s accomplishments. A temporary stage is set up. Charts hits are piped through the building’s internal PA system. A beaming Michael encourages prolonged applause.
It’s the worst part of the job and being a regular winner makes others hate you.
At first, you thought you might’ve been imagining it, but lately you’ve become aware of your co-workers’ quiet but nevertheless clearly projected envy. And it’s not just that. Janet, your team supervisor, has made you uncomfortable in the extreme with the steady stream of praise she has been directing your way. It’s all a bit unneeded and you wish someone would for once start outperforming you. Then they’d get the attention, the cringe-worthy acclaim. To be unnoticed, unseen if possible, is the goal.
You are not looked on favourably by those seated nearby. Rachel and Christopher flat out do not like you. Their rapid, sharp glares, their subtle but unmistakable micro-aggressions, their barely concealed whispers and sly laughter between calls. Just this week, an email entitled “Voice Loud!” came in from Rachel in which she requested you to, “Please, if at all possible, keep it down.”
For your part, you’re driven less by the desire to succeed and outdo others and more by keeping your mind as occupied as it can possibly be during each shift. Rachel and Christopher are more than likely good people and probably have a lot of internal difficulties. Maybe Rachel’s passive-aggression is rooted in a troubling childhood she hasn’t been able to move beyond. Perhaps Christopher’s sneering and all that pent-up rage are symptoms of an undiagnosed mental illness. It’s not impossible that they’re both weighed down with anguish.
More anguish than you, maybe.
Not that things are great right now.
Lately, something unspecifiable has begun to feel heavy.
The feeling, which comes in inconsistent waves, is made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that you lack the words to come even close to describing it. All you know is that when it’s present it feels like it will never leave.
Your life has been largely good, entitled, devoid of paralysing shock. There persists, however, a hard-to-ignore agitation that in its worst moments feels bone-deep.
Some mornings, your blood, or what seems like your blood, feels funny. Funny isn’t exactly the right word, but then no word seems to properly fit. Your blood, or what you think is your blood, feels as though it’s passing through your body at a rate far slower than normal. Thinking of it makes you feel ill. There’s also the weird, embarrassing and enduring fear your skeleton is only a step or two away from shattering to dust.
You can recognise such fears are irrational but typically it brings zero comfort. In fact, when you dwell on the delusional aspects of your fears it makes you feel worse, because you know that being sad about nonsensical worries is shameful and silly and dumb. The fact that you can observe this feeling as though you’re entirely removed from its accompanying distress doesn’t help either. That psychic pain always remains.
On the radio, which plays loudly all day in the staff canteen, you recently heard a woman, an expert of some sort, referring to invisible stressors. She said these unseen factors contributed to the building of a cognitive load. The trick to overcoming it all, she stated, was to practise mindfulness on a near daily basis.
You looked up mindfulness and downloaded a heap of meditative tracks to listen to on your breaks. The instructor’s voice was Russian and sounded stoic and sure and he spoke to the backdrop of bells. The theory that body stillness and a complete focus on the breath would help seemed promising.
It didn’t work out. All attempts to fix your entire awareness on your breath made you feel in places you’d never felt before. The centre of your chest felt vacant, your neck newly timid and vulnerable. Your legs didn’t feel like they belonged to you. Sitting upright, you became far too conscious of your spine and your lifelong dependence on it, and it was nauseating.
Mindfulness, you soon concluded, should actually be called mindlessness, given its aim to free the brain of thinking. You have never been able to not think. When you have tried to not think, you have only ended up thinking about trying to not think.
Thought alone might eventually be the death of you.
You regularly feel as though tiny things will end up killing you. Conversing with your parents is one. They’re both congenial, hard-working people. Decent people. But talking to them is hellish. Their habits make it seem like you’re living the same day every day. Their empty gestures, use of hackneyed phrases and those routine titbits at the dinner table, delivered every night without fail.
Other things make you feel similarly death-ready. Walking through department stores and seeing the endless choices on display. Being on a bus stuck in traffic, waiting in line at the post office, waiting for web pages to load. You can’t even begin to comprehend where any of this is coming from and any attempts to do so have made you feel brattish and small.
To their eternal credit, your parents have been able to recognise, on some small scale, your familiarity with discontent. In their clumsy Mom and Dad way, they called a family meeting. Their full attention was on you. They restated their ceaseless love. They promised, with smiles, to provide you with whatever it is you feel you lack. Is there anything we can do, honey? Anything at all? Just say the word, pumpkin. Invent a time-machine, Mom, and unfuck Dad. How about a murder-suicide, Pop? In reality, you just smiled. Nodded. Said, Sure, I know you’re there, and I’ll call on both of you if there’s ever anything I need, but really, I promise, everything will pass, it always does. They hugged you. You’ve always been a well behaved daughter. Their sole child and delight. They wholeheartedly trust you. This makes reality even harder to digest. You are deeply loved, sure, but you do not feel and have never felt remotely understood, by them or anyone else.
There’s also the matter of your secret. The one that both comforts and makes you feel perverse, inane, utterly laughable, and mentally unwell. Why does it comfort you? It helps with self-expression, with mind-drift, with feeling, even temporarily, as though you are not you. It makes you feel perverse because that’s how you’d be looked upon if anyone ever found out about it. No one can ever find out about it.
It started with desire.
After the mindfulness thing didn’t work out, you began to feel a need to create. To have your hands make something complete from different materials. Ruling out what was undoable was the first step. Painting, writing, learning to play a musical instrument—all of these were attempted and rapidly given up during an adolescence you’d like to totally forget.
After studying its methodologies through Youtube clips, you eventually settled on crochet. The tutorials were conducted by a smiling, moon-faced Canadian with a welcoming voice. In the beginning, you liked to sit back, cup of tea in hand, and just listen to this woman, Carmel, speak to you. Staring enthusiastically into the camera, she said things like, “We’re going to make you a star,” and, “This time next week, you’ll not need me anymore!” and after a while she sounded like someone you really knew and liked in a profound way.
With Carmel’s gentle encouragement, you went out and bought the requisite materials, spending a chunk of your weekly wage on skeins of yarn, plastic hooks, tape measure, weaving needles, and stitch markers. You had to fight the idea that doing so had aged you by fifty years. To reduce that feeling, you decided to focus on making a host of little animal figures, all of which you ended up giving names. The first, a miniature monkey with a top hat, you called Mr. Bluz. As he was your first and most difficult, he became your favourite.
Getting used to the feeling of the needles in your hands took time. They kept slipping out of your small, slim fingers and you had to keep hitting pause on the tutorials to keep track of Carmel’s words. You aren’t to worry, she said, making mistakes is half the fun. Now’s as good a time as any to make them! In an episode dedicated to technique, she showed you how to delicately place the yarn, how to let the needles become an extension of your hand. Really soon, she guaranteed, you won’t even have to think about the doing of it. It will do itself.
It took weeks, but you finally got there. After Mr. Bluz came Topsy, a giraffe with a slightly too elongated neck; Benji, a snow leopard whose colouring you were quite proud of; and Kayla, an owl with huge indigo eyes. You placed them on your bedside table and liked to look at them in the glow of candlelight. Something in their immobility made you feel safe.
You’re not sure how the whole speaking to them on a daily basis thing happened, it just did. It started with whispers and has evolved into a routine you fully recognise as peculiar. The conversations follow no patterns. You just speak, out loud but not loudly, at them, about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes you mumble incoherently, but not always. You recently told Topsy that you wished he was bigger so you could hug him. Mr. Bluz is the one you turn to when you feel like rambling on about the Big Things.
There have been times when your parents have heard you. The job, thankfully, lends you the perfect excuse you need to explain yourself. Jesus, sorry, Mom, I’m just practising, still getting used to this dumb thing. I’ll try to do it more quietly! The interruptions have unsettled you and forced you to question what on earth you’re doing. But you haven’t stopped, because there’s no real harm in doing it. It’s just talking, ultimately. And that’s the thing. Right now, there’s no one to talk to. Not in any meaningful way. Which is the real problem: you could do with someone who, rather than just listen, might actually, on some level, respond to you.
Recently, the calls at work have made you think hard about love.
The word itself, which at different times has struck you as beautiful and grandiose and abstract, is used in nearly every conversation you work on. It is usually said passingly, but every now and then you hear it said with such intensity that you have teared up in your cubicle.
Once, Alison, a French girl with a glittering tongue-stud, walked in on you as you wept.
During the call, a father was speaking to his young son. The father sounded broken and spent much of the time deeply apologising for his absence. Repeating all his sad offerings into the voice recorder felt awful. You sat there and said things like:
- I’m here so I can be there one day, buddy.
- I saw a little champ like you on the subway today and he was dressed as a green Power Ranger. He looked brave, like you.
- Even though you can’t see me, champ, I’m right there. Always there, right beside you. Please remember that.
Something that hurts you is the sense that you don’t need to literally see something to know it is true. The kid was sitting somewhere, looking at those words, the screen’s glow shining on his sad face. You figured he was maybe seven or eight. There could be no other way this scene was playing out.
Alison walked in then, saw that you had been weeping and responded with an expression that said, I know. She sat on the edge of your desk and used a nail to scrape the sticker off a Tipp-Ex tube.
Was it a terminal?
No, you said, a kid. Some fucking kid and his father. They seemed to be a million miles away from one another, or on different planets.
You grimaced and bit your lip hard.
She sighed and placed the palm of her hand on the back of yours and brushed her thumb along your knuckles.
I had one last week, she said. A kid too. In a hospital. A boy. I think it was the kid’s grandfather I was listening to. He kept calling the kid his little soldier.
You told Alison you didn’t know why this particular call had gotten to you. You’d fielded much sadder conversations. Usually you aren’t affected by them because, on some level, the calls don’t seem real.
She stood then and lightly squeezed your shoulder and said, It’s hard to be shatterproof.
You spent the rest of that afternoon daydreaming about love and all its associated aching. The absences, the mad desires, the uncertainty underlying all human connections. You know you don’t need anyone, but you want someone, and recently you’ve begun looking. Online, as everyone your age does now.
Communicating with young men through dating applications on your iPhone has created another kind of anxiety. Corkboi93, whose profile photo displayed an iguana wearing a sombrero, wanted to know if you had a shaved cunt. Eagle-EyeDaze—31, accountant, looking for fun—said you looked like you’d be a mad fuck. You have been described at different stages as hot as fuckkkk, sexily depressed looking, attractively detached, and a dull, no-fun prude. You’ve been asked for tit-pics, your number for phone-sex, your home address.
You have hated and pitied and wanted to kill and felt wholly indifferent towards these men. The creep you hated one day is the loner you see as emotionally stunted the next. It is possible that everyone is a victim. Or so you like, or maybe just need, to believe. Nearly all woes, you think, are the direct result of unawareness. It follows, then, that every other woe is the product of deep thought. Coming to such conclusions does not help.
In the last week, however, you have come into contact with someone who is hard to stop thinking about. His first message was not about the photographs on your profile, but about the books referred to in your attached biography. Have you read the latest Palahniuk? Wasn’t it godawful? Lucia Berlin, have you heard of her? No? Not many have. One of the best at gritty shorts. You can borrow her collection some time. He mentioned literary second names you’d never heard of: Ozick, Fante, Hamsun, Barthelme. You said you’d like to try them all.
His name is David. He has a sleepy face. He also struggles to settle into sleep every night. He told you this almost immediately because it was 3AM and you were both wondering what it meant to be online at such a time, looking for someone. It was agreed that it was a sucky thing to be doing—lying awake, dead of night, hoping that someone else was too. As morning closed in, the conversation grew more intense. He wanted to know: Was there ever a day in human history when someone wasn’t murdered in their own home? Were humans drawn to the sea because life emerged from it? Was humanity’s great flaw its inability to accept death? You answered yes to all of them.
You sensed he asked himself these questions all the time and probably would until a time came when they didn’t matter to him anymore. He said he liked to ask questions to which there were no definitive answers and you thought about this and typed, Yeah, I get that, I think I get that. The mystery, he replied, is beautiful enough on its own. You asked him to send you a photograph of his face. Nah, you’re all right, he wrote, to which you responded with an emoji of a crying frog. Sigh. Go on then, he messaged back, but we’ll both regret it.
He looked slightly but not significantly different to his blurred profile photo, which had been taken in a Marrakesh marketplace two summers ago. His eyes were droopy and bloodshot and seemed to be staring off into some place faraway. He neither smiled nor looked at the camera directly. His face was bird-like and looked both boyish and ancient. See, you replied, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?
He wanted to hear your voice. You asked him why. Just because. You asked again and he gave the same reason.
Until 6AM, you sent brief voice messages back and forth over Whatsapp. His whispers were croaky and deliberately drawn-out and before the morning had come he had mimicked Popeye and hummed you a lullaby you hadn’t heard since you were a young girl.
This exchanging of voice recordings has become routine. Night-time is your time. You unravel yourselves to one another as the early hours creep in. He wants to write but feels he can’t. His aunt, who he hates for reasons he doesn’t want to get into, has cancer of the throat. She won’t die but he wishes she would. You asked why and he groaned and said, Some other time. He has a tattoo down his forearm of his favourite quote from Borges, a limp from a cracked metatarsal which hasn’t healed. His parents are, by and large, okay. Boring, but okay.
And you, he asked, what about you?
The fact he wasn’t there made it easier. You told him about Mom—her perpetual, grating cheeriness, her endless baking—and about Dad’s impending redundancy. They were also boring, but were more or less fine. He asked you about Hear4U—about what your role involved, how long you’d been at it, what the people you worked with were like. You described it to him casually, afraid that anything more detailed might bore him into blocking you. He didn’t, thank God, jokingly try to imply you’re working as a spy for a sinister agency. His response was actually surprising. He said he saw a beauty in it. Bearing witness, being a quiet observer, acting as the vital medium—you’re doing something that matters, something that is larger than you. It’s not just another shitty call-centre job—you’re bringing people together, every day. Think hard, he said, about the larger truth you’re contributing to.
You laughed and told him you wished the larger truth, whatever it was, consisted of not having to think at all. Then you thanked him. Tomorrow, he said in his next recording, let’s meet tomorrow.
Look at the street you are walking down now as wholly new. Have you ever really seen it? Take it in. Focus on the faint waft of hot concrete beneath your feet. What’s around you right now? Cars to your left are grounded in gridlock. In them are people you will never see again. This should haunt you. Look in through the windshields. Look for long enough to know you saw the expressions on each of their faces. One of the faces you see will be that of a teenage girl whose last phone call to her now dead grandfather you dictated. During the call, she had expressed a concern that her mother would hold her back from pursuing her dream of becoming a car mechanic. You couldn’t hear the grandfather’s response but were able to infer that he’d told her to never give in to anything but what the heart urged. You will never know that you just saw this girl, but it will be true, it will still matter. In the windows of the department stores you are passing right now, don’t look at the products they display. Stare instead at the reflections their windows mirror back to you. Look hard. Look at yourself uncritically. You will never be able to see yourself the way others do. Take this in and then stop thinking about it. Do this by shifting your attention to what can be heard—the constant sounds of the city. Usually you can only hear the loudest sound closest to you. Identify it now as the wailing siren of a nearby fire-engine and in the moment try to separate all of the other sounds from it. You haven’t ever tried this, but it’s not difficult. Pick up on the sentences of strangers and exist for a flashing minute in the margins of their lives. Concentrate on the rumble of engines and the intermittent squawks of circling crows and gulls. Listen hard. An infant’s hysterical cry, the distant drone of a low-flying red-winged aircraft passing over the city hall, the clang of a shop shutter, all those people, strangers, constantly moving by. Walk to where you need to go. See everything. The warped spine of that elderly woman right there, dragging behind her a crammed shopping cart with a squeaking wheel. The cloud of steam shooting from the vent jutting from the side-wall of the cafe you’re about to pass. The graffiti-slogans: Conformity is Criminal, Pa Twomey 4 President, Enda Kenny Rolls Shit Joints, Death to Suicide. Move, keep moving, and feel that movement completely in every part of you. In the constant flexing of your legs in motion, the light swaying of your arms, and in your neck as your head darts left and right and left again.
You feel the straps from your backpack cutting ever so slightly into your armpits. Your bag is not heavy, the straps are just pulled too tightly and are in need of readjustment. Inside, you have a half empty bottle of water you can hear sloshing around. You have a notepad in which you scribble random thoughts. And you have a newly crocheted miniature purple hippopotamus named Sally. You have spent more than eighteen hours of your last week making her. You wanted to make sure the measurements were perfect. The eyes were difficult. You wanted her to have warm, welcoming eyes. Eyes that looked at someone with a look of unmoving love. You really feel they’re capable of this. That they are not real eyes does not matter. The idea is sometimes more meaningful than the reality. You haven’t spoken to Sally. She isn’t for you. And that thought now—that Sally isn’t for you—has made you think about what you’ve been trying to not think about all day. Here is where you’ll become aware of the speed of your own heart. Observe it. Nothing you’re going to feel right now can kill or even damage you. Keep walking. Keep focused. Keep going. There, that’s it. That’s it.
Mark Kelleher, 28, is from Cork, Ireland. He received an undergraduate degree in English and Psychology from UCC in 2015 and completed his MA in Creative Writing in 2016. He has previously written for The Evening Echo, The Huffington Post and United We Stand.