Staring, catatonic at the screen; before him, young men jumped and ran, crowds cheered their heroes on, and in his mind, he almost forgot that he existed on this brown, sagging couch. A shrill and electronic interruption of the phone jolted his spine straight and his heart all but stopped for that moment, before commencing its stuttering pace. And so the phone carried on and on. He gripped the side of the couch and the cushions below him firmly as he rose and began his way to the phone. He was almost halfway when the click of the answering machine preluded a smooth voice: “Hello, this is Julie calling from Media Reach Surveys. I was just calling to collect Jim’s survey results –”
Jim grabbed hold of the phone and raised it to the side of his head, calling out, “I’m here! I’m here! Hello.”
In the midst of her automatic answering machine spiel, Julie heard Jim. She started, unprepared for actual human interaction, “Oh! Hello, Jim. I’m Julie from Media Reach Surveys. How are you?”
“Very well, thank you, just watching the telly, the Bombers are playing! And yourself?”
She could hear the dust in his voice as it quavered and cracked after days of silence. Their eagerness to talk always made her uncomfortable. Most people, nowadays, slammed phones down on cold callers, giving a curt goodbye at most. She was guilty of this herself. And yet, these people that she called, these generous, waning people, were always so pleased to hear from her. “I’m pleased to hear that,” – her expression had plateaued two hours ago at a dull glare, but through the phone she sounded sweet – “Is this a good time to collect your survey results?”
“Oh yes! I filled it out just as it arrived in the mail; I’ve been keeping it next to the phone since then.”
Julie heard the rustle of papers and she knew that he would take a while to get to the page starting the survey itself. They always did; their dry and papery fingers fumbled and couldn’t turn the pages.
“Hang on a minute, would’ya love? I just need to find my specs,” before his eyes, the numbers swam and drifted upstream.
Jim hurried off to the bedroom to locate his glasses, his slippers scuffing the wooden floorboards. He settled back by the phone, heart racing, he gasped, “Are you ready?”
Julie’s cheery reply spread a smile thick across his face: “Ready when you are!”
“Steady! Go! 3 – 3 – 7 – 1 – 2…4 – 3 – 7 – 6 – 1 – I’m not going too fast for you?”
“Not at all,” Julie sighed away from the mouthpiece.
They almost never were. She kept her eyes fixed on the paper; the satisfaction of filling in each blank square was wearing thin. Each number corresponded to the rating of a show or a personality. She never knew which shows they liked or hated, because she never bothered to check; but she did know that box 72 got a 7, so he must have liked it, whatever or whomever it pertained to.
And so for eleven minutes and twenty-three seconds it went on – Jim droning on from one end, and at the other, Julie hastily filling in blanks. Until, all at once, Jim, in the middle of a four, inhaled sharply and toppled over.
The phone hit the ground and Julie, on the other end, jerked away from the noise and whilst the thud wasn’t distinctly human, what had happened was unmistakable. “Jim? … Jim, are you there?”
Through the line came the tinny voice of the footy commentator. Julie hesitated before calling out again. After a minute she lowered the phone and hung up. She looked down at the half finished survey and clutching the sides of the desk, pushed away from it, the wheels on her chair spinning into the carpet. Her tongue was rough against the roof of her mouth. Picking up the empty mug beside the phone, Julie left the room.
She wandered through the narrow corridor. Glossy photo portraits of men in suits hung around and her shoulder twinged with the sensation of being watched. Their stares dropped away as the corridor opened up into a wide room. There was a white kitchenette off to the side, sticky dishes tottering in the sink, a bench and a coffee machine in the centre, and a corner of vending machines. The broadcasting station was always empty at the time of night that she worked. Julie poured herself a mug of hot water and dunked a tea bag into the steam a few times. As she turned back towards the corridor, a disgruntled South-East Asian lady came around the corner dragging a cart of cleaning equipment. The two exchanged fleeting smiles as they passed, the cleaner all but smearing her face with war paint as she approached the sink.
Back at her desk, Julie dialled Jim’s number, she was greeted with a hollow beep, his phone was off the hook. On her left lay a stack of surveys yet to filled, on her right, the few that she’d already completed, and in the centre, Jim’s half-filled sheet. She could not move forward with the others with this one incomplete, however; she now had no way of completing it. She picked up her phone for the final time that night and dialled three numbers. Glancing down at the sheet, she relayed Jim’s address and details to the emergency services before packing up her things and heading out into the night.