Thirty Thousand Streets

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Apologist

I needed a job to tide me over. I had a small grant, a rapidly dwindling student loan, a pittance from my mum and dad. I’d work weekends and university holidays. Not having any particularly well-defined skill set, I signed up with a general employment agency called Avid! Recruitment.

Avid!’s offices were at the corner of Liverpool Road and Chanson Street, a short walk from my flat above Your Food City. They usually found work for Islington’s factions of itinerant Australians, but they were happy to have an English boy on their books, especially as I could segue into an RP accent pretty much on demand. This was back when RP was still fashionable, and they wanted me to work phones. A lot of their clients ran call-centers.

My first job was as an Apologist in the Complaints Department of a parcel delivery company, Black Arrow, based up in Wood Green. Black Arrow distributed catalogues for Grattan, Argos furniture, and hardcore pornography for mail-order suppliers like Melody, Curious Times, and The Gentleman’s Equine Review.

They weren’t very good at it.

To make matters worse, they had no complaints procedure. My job was to lift the phone when it rang and accept whatever abuse the disappointed customer in question threw at me. I was also authorised to make three basic levels of apology, as well as variants thereof:

Level 1: “We’re sorry.” Simple.

Level 2: “Please accept our sincerest apologies, and forgive the Black Arrow operative in question. He’s been under a great deal of pressure recently.” Elaborate.

Level 3: “On behalf of Black Arrow Ltd, I’m so fucking sorry this has happened. So fucking sorry.” Abject.

I was rationed to five Level 3s per day, beyond which the boss feared his company would descend into a sort of existential freefall - “there’s only so much past you can repudiate” - so I had to pace myself. This was stressful work. In mute acknowledgement of that fact I was plied with chamomile tea and Marlboro Yellows. I learnt to apologise with a cigarette dangling permanently from one corner of my mouth.

“One of your operatives has just delivered a pigeon to my house.”

“A pigeon?”

I scrabbled on the desk for my fallen cigarette.

“I thought the package looked a bit bulky, and the wrong shape, but I signed for it anyway, bloody idiot that I am. Inside was an iron birdcage.”

“Madam, I - “

“Do Grattan know how often you mess this up? The door on the sodding cage was open, and now I’ve got a pigeon flying around my house. And I’d like to know,” voice hardening, “what you intend to do about it…”

Level 1, proceeding to a Level 2. My final recourse was always to put the customer in question through to the Logistical Procedures Department, a room at the very back of the Black Arrow depot, bare except for a desk with a phone on it, a yellowing note pad on which someone had doodled a picture of an erect penis in Biro, and a small, devoted congregation of dust bunnies. The door was always closed. No-one worked in Logistical Procedures, and the phone could pretty much ring forever as far as the dust bunnies were concerned.

“Listen son.” Voice thick with cigarettes and grief. “Your driver threw the parcel over my garden wall. Now I happen to breed Siamese. The parcel’s come over - ” he breaks off to sob. “The bloody parcel’s only come over and killed Siouxie...”

Level 2. Level 2. Then, later the same morning:


“Madam, please could you -.”


“The Gentleman’s Equine Re-“


Level 3. Level 3. Level 3. Then over to my “colleagues” in Logistical Procedures.

I lasted for two weeks, which my handler at Avid later told me was an agency record. Then I threw up my hands. I felt like a fucking sin-eater. And please, please, no more dealing with the public. So he found me another placement, this time working shifts up at Heathrow, preparing airline meals for a French company called Le gout des ciels - Taste of the Skies. Those little trays would come gliding inexorably along a conveyor belt.

The first guy would deposit a pinch of salad. The next guy along would scoop in caucasian-coloured prawns in Marie-rose sauce. I’d add a slice of lemon and a sprig of parsley. And repeat. We worked the belt three hours at a stretch sometimes, and when the time came for a coffee break and the supervisor switched it off we’d all stagger sideways to compensate for the lack of motion.

I met my first London girlfriend at the Gout des ciel plant. Her name was Zoe. She was beautiful. She looked a bit like a stuffed owl. I clocked her reading a Marc Behm novel in the canteen before the shift. We used to sneak cigarettes together in the car park, and she started giving me lifts home. Her flat was just up the road from mine, in Seven Sisters. She told me her flatmate, Rhianna, stole all her boyfriends, so she used to make me ride in the boot to protect me from acquisitive eyes.

The relationship ran into trouble fairly soon. She had a broad sadistic streak which wasn’t even wired directly to her sex drive. She liked to tie her boyfriends to a wall in her bedroom and throw small objects at them - Rubiks Cubes, pencil-sharpeners, Stickle Bricks, juggling balls, anything she could find lying around the flatshare.

She kept a fat magic-marker handy, and whenever she scored a particularly satisfying hit she’d draw a circle around the spot so that she could strike it again and again and cultivate a good bruise.

Zoe used to hang around the derelict Lido on Seven Sisters Road in the middle of the night with a group of friends. They called themselves the Awkward Squad, and I’ll tell you more about them another time. We’d all sit in a ring on the edge of the empty swimming pool on the roof, drinking slivovitz and watching crack pipes glow like fireflies amongst the trees in Finsbury Park. I loved it. This was how I had imagined life in London might be.

University term started at the end of September, so I quit the Heathrow job, and Zoe and I began to see less of each other. Her birthday was in October and staggering back drunk from the lido in the early hours of the morning I agreed to be tied up for old time’s sake. Big mistake. She threw a fucking stapler at me and cracked one of my ribs. That pretty much signified the end of that first phase of our relationship, though we’ve stayed friends. She’s great. But I tend not to set her up with men I know unless I’m harbouring a very specific kind of grudge against someone.

I carried on working for Avid! the whole time I was at university, though I never let them send me back to Black Arrow. In a distracted moment I recently ordered some flat-pack bookshelves from Argos. I stayed home waiting for the damn things to turn up for 48 hours straight. Eventually I had to go out for cigarettes. When I got back there was a parcel sitting on my doorstep.

It had been on fire until recently. Still was, I realised, just about, a couple of embers tumbling along the garden path in the breeze. I glimpsed the driver slipping surreptitiously across the road, breaking into an all-out run when I called out to him.

I nearly picked up the phone. I nearly did. Then I had a sudden mental picture of half a dozen dust bunnies dancing on a convection current in an otherwise empty room.


Merrin said...

This illustrated blog is brilliant.

I especially like the picture of the dead Siamese cat.

Ha ha.



Zeno Cosini said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zeno Cosini said...

Thanks Tom!