The intensity of being

This is a work of fiction. A short story, of less than 1400 words.

“Morning, Anna.” Sally didn’t look up as she spoke the greeting. Her gaze was fixed on the screen of her phone. Checking last night’s Facebook updates probably, Anna thought. She sat down at the desk and switched on her terminal. She had to be logged on by 09.00, or Malcolm would be moaning about her being late again. Another day of complaining customers lay ahead. They talked to you as if you were a machine, but complained if they got a machine. You couldn’t win.

She pressed the button, to accept the first call. “Customer services, Anna speaking, how may I help you?” How many times had she said this during the last twelve months? One day she reckoned, she would work out just how many calls she had taken, and then she would know how often she had repeated this mindless greeting. The woman on the other end spoke to her as if she was a peasant. Her new washing machine hadn’t been delivered the previous day, because she wasn’t at home when the delivery van arrived. ” I want it today, I tell you. I absolutely insist.” Her tone was high-handed, and Anna knew this one was gong to be difficult, especially as she was aware that there was zero chance of that happening. She read out the options from the computer screen, ignoring the customer’s constant interruptions. When she had finished, the woman yelled, “Not good enough, let me speak to your supervisor. Now.” Anna transferred the call, knowing that this would mean another black mark against her. She would liked to have screamed herself. She would dearly love to have told that woman that she was a stupid bitch, for not being in when delivery was arranged. She would like to have asked her what more they could have done, after sending two emails, and a text message, confirming date and time of the delivery. But she couldn’t.

Anna went to lunch alone, as she did every day. On nice days, she sat in the park, reading a book and eating her sandwich. When the weather was bad, she walked up to the bus station, and sat in the waiting room. Since leaving hospital, and moving to this town, she tried to avoid other people as much as possible. Working at the call centre was one way of doing this, as the people she had to deal with were all at the other end of a telephone. Except for Sally, who sat opposite, and Malcolm, who she had to speak to, she hardly knew anyone, and that suited her just fine. That day in the park, at her usual bench, an old man came and sat near her. He smiled, but she didn’t meet his gaze. She picked up her bag and book, and moved some way off, to a different bench. She could sense him watching her though, and still smell him, that smell of decay and badly washed clothes that hangs around the elderly.

She would ideally liked to have lived somewhere remote. A place where she didn’t have to see anyone, except shop assistants, or postmen. But she couldn’t afford that, and had to work. She chose the smallest town possible, one that had employment opportunities, but was a long way from the nearest city. The hospital helped her at the time. They found her the small flat, and arranged for the job interview, explaining her absence from the job market for so long to her new employer. That saved her having to talk about it to anyone. She didn’t like talking to people at all, which was strange, considering the job she was doing. For her, the detachment worked. She didn’t get emotional, failed to engage in banter, or chit-chat, and didn’t respond to being flattered, or chatted up. Malcolm said that she should be friendlier, try to sympathise with the problems that the customers rang up about. Anna laughed at this inside. Why would she do that? They were all stupid, after all. Anna made sure that she did enough to keep the job, and give them no reason to sack her, as she was sure they would like to have done. Her call rate was above average, and her feedback and supervised calls were both well within the required level. When she had her six-monthly review, all they could raise as a negative was her lack of friendliness, but they couldn’t knock her efficiency.

Anna didn’t go to work parties. She put some money into the collections for presents, and sponsored the staff who were doing silly things for charity. But she never went with the others for drinks after work, or to the Mexican restaurant, or pizza place. She liked to get home, to get away from them. Their mindless chatter, their Instagrams, Facebook tags, Twitter comments, and stupid celebrity gossip, all so inane. The trouble was, even when she was home alone, secure in the knowledge that nobody would call, she couldn’t get away from them. Their conversations played in her head like recordings. The rise and fall of their voices, the mumbling, the screeching, it all swirled around like the sounds of the lost souls in Hell. Her headphones were her only friend. After a bath and change of clothes, she would curl up in bed with her audio book, or classical music. The large headphones helped to shut out the rest, though even with the volume turned up, they still managed to sneak in occasionally.

She knew that they talked about her. For one thing, she didn’t possess a mobile phone. That was just unacceptable to the others. How did she live without one? How could she keep in touch with anyone? What did she do in an emergency? She shrugged in reply. In her head, she answered their questions. She lived quite well without a mobile thank you very much. As for keeping in touch, she didn’t need to. So there. Emergencies? She didn’t have any, unless you counted everyday life, which to her, was one long emergency played out from the time her eyes opened. She didn’t tell them all this of course. They were too stupid to understand anyway. As well as talking about her, they watched her, she knew that too. Every time she looked up, either Sally or Malcolm would be looking in her direction, trying to pretend that they were not actually staring directly at her. The others in the huge room were always glancing too, she caught them doing it all the time.

It was the same outside. In the park, at the shops, or in the bus station, people stood too close, and assumed a familiarity that was unacceptable. Their open mouths were disgusting to her, and the smells emanating from them assaulted her senses. The noises they made gave her the headaches too, she was sure. At least with the headset at work, she could turn down the volume, or cover the earpiece. She might have to hear them there, but she didn’t have to look at them, or feel them close by. At all times, the proximity of a stranger made her whole body tingle uncomfortably, like an electric shock. She trained herself to cope with it at work, slowly getting used to the few people who just had to be nearby. But outside, she was on her guard; avoiding queues, choosing where to sit, and never making eye contact.

The afternoon was much the same as the morning, and the day before that. She walked home quickly, looking forward to getting inside, and locking the door behind her. If she hurried, she might be able to avoid seeing any of the other tenants, as they also arrived home from work. Once in, washed and changed, she went to the small drawer, in the unit next to her tiny bed. She took out the bottle and opened the cap. The noises inside her head were beginning to build. Tonight, she must get some rest, so she decided that she should take two Lithium tablets, instead of one. She lay back on the pillow, and glanced at the clock. 6.45 pm. It was going to be a long time until morning.

11 thoughts on “The intensity of being

  1. I just hope she doesn’t take too many extra Lithium tablets, although one hopes they will check her levels regularly as they should do, as it’s very toxic (very useful too, but has a narrow therapeutic window). Great story. Sorry, you got the psychiatrist out. Oh yes, the care in the community. Not an easy transition for all, indeed.


  2. Written with your imaginative sympathy for other people’s states of mind, especially ones disturbed by depression or other long term conditions. I have the greatest respect for Anna holding down a call centre job, which I couldn’t do in the best of moods. “Intensity of being” is far more accurate, I think, than “mental illness”.


    1. Thanks, David, you are very kind. I am so pleased that you liked it.
      I met many people like this, when I was in the Ambulance Service. The psychiatric hospitals were all being closed, and the patients were ‘helped back into the community.’ Generally, most found it impossible to cope, after many years in institutions.
      Very best wishes, Pete.


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