Cavernous and void of character, the call centre, in an aesthetic sense, offers little in the way of comfort. Imposing walls bear down from a tremendous height, painted an empty white which serves only to amplify the migraine fluorescents suspended above. In a sort of distorted stab at open plan affability, the centre consists of a single room, dizzyingly tall and split down the middle by a strip of carpeted walkway. At one end of the walkway stands a lonesome water cooler, at the other a key-coded door. Windowless, permeated with dead air and littered with blank eyes, the centre does not appear conducive to providing the kind of comforts it ostensibly offers to its callers. Dead air and an oddly disconcerting humidity imbue the workers with a heated claustrophobia. Relentlessly whirring, the ever present air conditioning unit provides a sonic backdrop against which a chorus of toneless chatter plays out. Over and over, from dawn to dusk and back around to the next breaking of distant light.
Four swift, barely audible beeps are succeeded by the click of an opening door. Mark trudges down the walkway, bearing the countenance of a man condemned to walk the plank. He plops into the ocean of cubicles at the sixteenth row, swimming slowly across to the empty space six cubicles in. His desk, like all the others, is sparsely decorated. There is a phone, a notepad and a digital clock. All three items have been chained to the table. The worrying around the edges of the clock would suggest that it has attempted escape at some point in the dreary past. For now, it remains captive at the table, the time reading 07:59. As the phone chimes into life with a jarring ring, Mark waits and watches the clock with sunken eyes. Unfortunately, the phone is still ringing when the clock rearranges its red LED lights into an 08:00. Mark drops his eyes and lifts the grey phone to his ear.
“Good morning, this is Depresco and you’re speaking to Mark. How can I help you today?”
This sentence pervades Mark’s psyche at all times. Even when he manages to settle his mind enough to halt the relentless repetition of the phrase, it lurks, obscured, in the background, ready to pounce. The events of this first phone call of the day are uninteresting in their standard issue depiction of mental illness. Mark sometimes throws a glance backward into the past and sees an empathetic man obfuscated by the enduring sound of ringing phones, whirring air conditioners and quietly cacophonous chatter. Struggling to see clearly, his eyes strain and he quickly reverts from idealised past to apathetic present.
“Good morning, this is Depresco and you’re speaking to Mark. How can I help you today?”
Caller number two continues in a similar vein. Indeed, so repetitious is the content of the first two customers of the day, that Mark cannot ascertain that they are different people. The two calls peter out in similar fashion. The customers attain some false semblance of connection to another human being and Mark, as frequently happens, fails to make the sale. You see, the sale is the point of the call. Again, looking backwards with dull nostalgia, Mark can almost remember the days when these kinds of services operated on the basis of that empathy which now seems lost. Empathy, having bravely withstood the slow numbing of contemporary society for so long, appears now incapable of awaking from its induced coma.
Despair is big business and Mark is a cog in the machine. Past Mark may be looking forward with disgust, but present Mark cannot see clearly through the fog of medication – self-prescribed, illicit and societal. A third phone call passes with a vocal fluttering of the eyelashes, an imperceptible flicker of improved mental health and the inevitable lack of closure on the part of the salesman. Mark considers that his ruthless streak may be on the wane. For a time he closed often and quickly. He could perceive the core weakness of a person’s mind and needle it. Once he had pinpointed this key piece, the rest would fall into place and he would proceed to the next caller, and then the next, with ever-growing confidence in his callous ability.
Today he felt the weakness within himself. Though he could not locate it with such cutting accuracy, another sign of his waning talent. They say that a man can only work this kind of job for so long before running out of steam and crashing hard. The ideal of easy retirement and a soft landing, like Mark’s sense of self, got lost somewhere along the journey to this point in time. As a man ages, he grows less capable of carrying the individual pieces that comprise his sprawling identity. The years roll past with exponential haste and the self must discard those characteristics which do not serve the current situation. In the poisoned work environment of Depresco, Mark found himself shedding anything that impacted his ability as a salesman. Empathy gave way to apathy and conscience grew clouded.
The emergence of depression as big business was no surprise. In a sense, depression had always been business and it had just recently become so direct. The line between finance and ill mental health had been well established in the years of Mark’s youth when advertising, largely unconscious to the public eye, operated on the basis that broken men and women could fix themselves with relentless consumption. Then, in Mark’s burgeoning adulthood, social media had sunk its talons forever. Advertising became unavoidable, penetrating every inch of existence. No longer did people merely consume products. They became products. They were to be advertised and sold, consuming one another until the world had eaten itself alive from the inside out. Like the rest of Mark’s past, he could look backward and see the outline of this shift in humanity, though he could not clearly determine the individual components. It had washed over him, forever staining his soul with dark residue.
In the role of alchemist, Mark had moulded this residue to encase his heart. This nifty contraption safeguarded Mark from all those dangerous feelings that often corrupted others. Love and hate and those other big words with the sharp edges. Far more than a simple shield, this internal craftsmanship had allowed Mark to hone the necessary skills to become one of the first great salesmen of the Depresco era. Mark’s early success with the company established his position within the firm. He required neither flattery nor promotion, not that there was much potential for career growth anyway. These early successes had alleviated the pressure upon Mark’s employment when his sales began to wane.
Mark had reckoned little of his declining ability. Slumps were a natural part of life’s rhythm and age had undoubtedly chipped away something of the old drive. Being a man with great disdain for emotional hysterics, Mark simply plodded along as the days ticked past in the fashion of a metronome. On this particular morning, however, something rather odd was afoot. The nerve endings tingled with electricity and that internal armour was succumbing to rust. A chink had appeared and for the first time in many years, Mark felt exposed as he picked up the phone to speak with caller number four.
“Good morning, this is Dep… This is Mark. How can I help you today?”
In that brief stretch of seconds before the caller responded, Mark’s sense of self dissipated into the dead air and he felt himself begin to float toward the monstrous ceiling fans. Suspended in some officious limbo, tight chested and overwhelmed by the relentless monotone chatter of his colleagues, Mark watched the whole horrific call unfold. Deaf to the voice on the other end of the line, straining to even make out his own words, he watched with disgust as he began to shake and blubber like some overgrown man child. The bellowing weeps of the greying middle-aged man cut above the droning hum of the call centre. The faceless worker bees in the adjacent cubicles stood and watched. The drones surrounding Mark betrayed no signs of genuine emotion, more the rubbernecking fascination of those passing the scene of a car crash.
The wretched, empty sobs rattled out into the wretched, empty room. All the chatter was nothing and all the faces belonged to nobody. Mark remained suspended as he watched himself feebly place the phone back on the receiver and press his wet face to the desk. Those in the surrounding cubicles soon grew tired of their colleague’s ostentatious display of grief and returned to grinding down the callers. Shortly enough, two bland men in bland suits arrived behind Mark, hooking their arms under his pits and dragging up. A limp Mark, scrawny and unresisting was lifted without difficulty or hesitance. The men pulled him from the sea of cubicles and let his dangling legs scrape against the carpeted walkway. Mark hung in the air above seat six, row sixteen. He summoned all his might to crane his neck and watch himself leave, but his might was little and his will even less. His head bowed low, Mark’s eyes grew fuzzy around the edges and the monotone chatter gave way to an unrelenting squeal. Squeal escalating, darkness descending, Mark gave himself over to a dullness beyond even the nothingness of his last few decades. Nothing flashed before him other than the fading of fluorescent lights. Cold swept through every inch of his being and Mark expired with the memory of a smile.