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SHORT STORY Calling from Newcastle by Julia Darling

An outstanding new collection of short stories begins with this tragicomic tale of a call-centre worker dreaming of a life elsewhere

‘WHAT can you see?’ asked the person at the other end of the line. ‘I mean, really. Where are you?’

Gloria hung up. You weren’t supposed to hang up.

When Gloria went for the job at the call centre, she was shy. She tried to make herself shrink. She wore a loose black top, a dark brown skirt and flat shoes.

The call centre was a square box between roundabouts on the edge of a ring road just outside Newcastle. It was clever, she thought, the way it seemed to have no windows when in fact from the inside you could see out.

If Gloria stood up, she could see some bullocks in a narrow field.

She liked the way they changed position, arranging themselves like compositions for her benefit, sometimes running up and down the field shaking their young, wild heads.

It was unusual to have a view in this kind of work. Most people sat in cubicles, boxed in by thin screens.

***

The job interview had been hurried and officious. So many people didn’t stay, the interviewer said. What were her plans?

‘I’ve left school,’ she said, ‘my family is here. I’ve got no plans to go anywhere.’

The truth was she didn’t know. She had passed exams. She could go to university if she wanted, but she couldn’t imagine sleeping in a narrow bed in a strange town.

Her parents told her to take things slowly, to take a year to think about what she wanted, to dream a little. Friends from school were going to Mexico, to dig ditches in China, build schools in Malawi, but Gloria had never been on an aeroplane, and she was unlikely to go to somewhere where they spoke a foreign language when she found the idea of York or Warwick alarming.

And she loved her family. She liked the way they sat still, understanding one another, always thinking the best of each other. Most families were at each other’s throats.

She had been for other jobs. She’d answered an advert for a receptionist in Mal Maison, a swanky hotel on the edge of the River Tyne, just by the sleek bone of the new bridge. They asked her for an interview. She had worn a red velour top that was old for her age, but which her mother had thought looked sophisticated.

The interview only lasted five minutes. Gloria sat on a velvet chaise longue in a Bakelite room with a crisp, ice faced young woman behind a desk who had taken down her details with a silver fountain pen, then said they would be in touch.

She had tried shop work too, working in Next, but they had turned her away. She knew why. She was eighteen stone. She moved slowly, breathing heavily. She was a giantess.

On the other hand, her voice was light as blancmange and clear. It was the voice of a bright eighteen-year-old woman. The call centre lapped her up. In the grey building, no-one knew what size you were.

After the interview, eight of them were invited for training. She found herself with seven others, all shy, all sweet-voiced. Some had acne, some were very tall, others had twitches. It was a meeting of all the people who had never been picked for teams in sports classes.

They sat in a circle with their arms folded across their chests and were shown how to sell insurance, how to raise a fist in the air if there was a bomb scare, how to behave when customers were rude.

Mark, the supervisor, was a young man who rarely smiled. He wore a tight white shirt and the skin on his neck was over-washed and red. Gloria wondered if he might have a cleanliness phobia when she saw him wiping his biro with a handkerchief.

For six pounds an hour Gloria sat in a cubicle selling house insurance, over and over again, next to a young man called Gareth with large teeth, who smiled at her sometimes, and who once gave her a mint.

One day they stood together watching the bullocks gathering into a tight group around a pile of new hay.

‘I like animals,’ Gareth had said.

‘Me too,’ answered Gloria.

Then they had shrugged helplessly, knowing there was nothing more to be said, and returned to their cramped cubicles.

***

‘Where are you?’ asked the woman at the end of the line.

‘It’s just a job,’ Gloria replied. ‘I’m in a building in the North.’

The woman was from central London. They were usually the unfriendly ones, but she kept on asking questions.

‘How do I know you’re not in Budapest?’ she asked Gloria. ‘You could be anywhere.’

‘I suppose I could,’ said Gloria, ‘but I’m in Newcastle.’

Gloria had always been big. Her mother was monumental, and her father was generous and bearded. She had three brothers, and all of them were sturdy, well built, with polished cheeks and wide arms and legs.

At family occasions, rooms weren’t big enough for all of them, and they often hired hotels at Christmas and for birthdays.

Sometimes, Gloria’s father came to pick her up after work. He liked to tell Gloria about the coal mine that had been on the site of the call centre.

His father had been a miner. He said that once the whole place had been cluttered with blackened men and noise, and now it was as if someone had pushed it all underground and covered it up with grass and roundabouts and well-behaved cows.

Gloria was good at selling house insurance. Her voice was honest and she was always very polite. If there was a baby crying, or a dog barking she always sympathised and said she would phone back later.

It was hard to remember the actual point when Gloria began to lie. It wasn’t because she was unhappy, or restless. Afterwards, she thought that it was to do with the bullocks.

One day, as she stood up to go to the toilet, she glanced through the narrow window and saw that the field was empty. At first, she thought they had been moved temporarily, but then they didn’t return. It was as if a part of Gloria sagged a little.

Then Gareth, from the next cubicle, with eczema and thin shoulders, hung himself. Gloria read about him in the local paper. She felt angry. No one had said anything at the call centre.

The next day, in the staff room, she told Marsha and Ann as they sat eating pot noodles. They looked back at her with sad, watery eyes.

‘Why?’ asked Ann.

‘No one knows.’

‘You could get depressed, working here. No one would care,’ said Gloria, softly.

‘Yes,’ said Marsha.

‘We could get some flowers,’ said Ann. ‘We should do something.’

So they had clubbed together and bought some lilies, and put them on Gareth’s chair. Mark looked confused, but didn’t move them, and it was only when a new person started a week later that the dead flowers were thrown away.

***

Gloria phoned a number in Bristol. A man answered. He sounded as if he had just woken up and was lying in bed.

‘You’ve got a nice voice,’ he said.

‘Thank you,’ said Gloria.

‘Where are you?’ he asked.

‘I’m in the desert,’ said Gloria. ‘In a modern building. From where I am sitting, I can see a long line of camels.’

‘Are you serious?’ asked the man.

Gloria imagined him rubbing his forehead, smiling, glancing up at the grey sky through the window.

‘Absolutely,’ said Gloria. ‘You should see the light. It’s golden. Everything is filled with warm light.’

‘I wish I was there,’ said the man.

‘Are you interested in budget insurance?’ asked Gloria.

‘Not really. But the desert sounds good.’

Gloria put the phone down. She felt as if someone was standing behind her, but when she turned there was no one there.

The staff room was brown, and pockmarked, with long grey sofas. At one end you could smoke, but the whole room smelt of tobacco. Gloria sat with Deborah, whose body was like a pile of sandbags and who had hard red eyes. Gloria told her what she’d said and Deborah snorted.

‘If only,’ she said.

‘Are you happy working here?’ asked Gloria.

Deborah shrugged. ‘It’s a job,’ she said.

***

‘I’m in Iceland,’ said Gloria. ‘It never gets dark. There are whales out there. I was brought up by Eskimos, but I speak perfect English.’

‘Is that right?’ asked a man with a voice like a deep furrow.

‘Where are you?’ asked Gloria.

‘In Sunderland,’ said the man. ‘I was a welder, but now I’m a security guard.’

‘I know the North East,’ said Gloria. ‘I had a friend there, called Gareth, but unfortunately, he hung himself.’

‘I’m sorry about that,’ whispered the man.

‘He worked in a call centre,’ continued Gloria. ‘He never went out.’

‘A lot of people jump off bridges in the North East,’ said the man. ‘It’s not all as rosy as they make out, the new millennium. I thought about it once myself.’

‘Do you want to buy insurance?’ asked Gloria, aware that Mark hovered behind her.

‘Maybe,’ said the man. Mark moved on, rubbing his neck with a tissue.

‘Tell me about Sunderland, then,’ said Gloria, ‘sometimes I get tired of snow.’

‘I grew up here. I can’t see it from outside,’ said the man. ‘It’s canny, but that’s because my family are here.’

‘I know what you mean,’ said Gloria. ‘I don’t think Gareth had family. That was part of the problem.’

The man agreed to receive information through the post. That week Gloria was top employee.

***

But Gloria couldn’t stop dreaming. On her day off she went into town, wearing a bright red scarf and matching hat, moving slowly through the Saturday crowds at Monument, the animal liberationist stalls, the discordant chimes of a busker playing the xylophone. She bought an atlas and a book about world travel. She started to memorise facts about different countries.

***

That weekend she also became a vegetarian. She couldn’t stop thinking about the bullocks that had disappeared. She was afraid, in some coincidental way, that she might end up eating a part of one of them in a pie, and she found that idea horrifying, so horrifying that it made her retch.

***

‘I mean, where do you people come from?’ asked a woman with a voice like ripping silk.

‘I’m calling from the Falklands,’ said Gloria. ‘They’ve recruited a thousand telephonists from the UK and sent us all out here. We live in dormitories. It’s horrible. The sky is grey, and there are remains of war everywhere, like old shells and shipwrecks.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘Absolutely. I should never have left the North East. That’s where I belong.’

‘My husband was a soldier,’ said the woman, ‘but...’ then her voice broke up, and Gloria could hear her sliding away from the telephone, replacing the handset.

***

‘I think we should go out,’ said Gloria, to Marsha, Deborah and Ann. ‘We should go out together and talk.’

The three young women looked at her suspiciously. They were all afraid of the outside world.

‘Come on!’ said Gloria. ‘Why not?’

She wasn’t sure where her confidence was coming from. It was as if she had found a tap somewhere inside herself and turned it on, and her dried-up soul was growing green shoots.

So they met, under the statue of a golden lady above a jewellers in the centre of town. They walked together down the Bigg Market arm in arm, taking up all the pavement. The ground trembled underneath their weight. Men, giddy at the sight of them, stood back and applauded. One man shouted ‘The heifers are out!’

They squeezed through forests of thin, sapling bodies in clubs, right to the centre of the dance floor, then shimmied and kicked, arm in arm. They got mortal on Bloody Marys, vodka and ice, Tia-Maria. Deborah was sick in her handbag. Marsha lost the heel of her shoe. They ended up having to get two taxis home as they couldn’t fit into one.

They promised to go out together every Thursday.

***

‘Not another one,’ moaned a voice at the end of the phone. ‘I am sick of this. I bet you’re sitting somewhere in India, aren’t you? I hate what’s happening to the world. I don’t want insurance. I don’t want anything. Where are you? Eh?’

‘In Newcastle,’ said Gloria. ‘This is where I live.’

‘You sound like a nice person. What are you doing a job like that for?’

‘Because no one else would have me,’ said Gloria.

‘It makes me sad,’ moaned the voice, ‘no-one speaks to anyone else anymore.’

‘You have to try harder that’s all,’ said Gloria. ‘Go on. What are you doing sitting inside at this time of day?’

‘I’m in a wheelchair,’ said the voice.

‘So what,’ said Gloria. ‘I’m eighteen stone.’

Then she hung up, raised her fist in the air and shouted ‘BOMB SCARE!’ just for the hell of it, and everyone had to leave the building, stampeding down the concrete steps like a herd of freed beasts, out into the green and blue of daylight.

***

© Julia Darling, 2004 and reproduced by kind permission of Greene & Heaton Ltd. Calling from Newcastle is included in the new collection The Book of Newcastle: A City in Short Fiction, published by Comma Press, £9.99.

Julia Darling began her career as a full-time novelist, playwright and poet in 1987. She won the Northern Rock Foundation writers award in 2003 and was the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University. Her highly acclaimed novel, The Taxi Driver’s Daughter, was longlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize and was shortlisted for the Society of Author’s 2004 Encore Award. Her other writing includes the novel Crocodile Soup, longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and republished in 2015 by Mayfly, several collections of poetry and short stories and numerous plays for stage, TV and radio. She was working on a new novel, A Cure for Dying, when she passed away in April 2005.

 

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