Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Short Fiction with Taut Friction gets your Thoughts Itchin'

I like short stories. I like reading them and I like writing them. Here's one I wrote about harmony:


By Sam West

Martin Mackenzie sat at his cubical and scribbled away. It was one of those doodles that starts off as a simple blue square then, as the minutes and tens-of-minutes pass by, splinters off into all sorts of pointless and interesting directions. He was just about to link up a nice-looking rhomboid when a chubby arm reached past his ear and snatched the paper away.

‘Michael. I had a chat to you about this last shift buddy’

It was the TL. Martin looked up and nodded blankly.

‘Now I don’t mind you having a bit of R&R if you’re due for an RDO or you’ve reached your KPI’

Martin gave another nod (it was a sterner nod this time.)

‘But you’ve been struggling with your KPIs all week mate and this sort of mucking around just isn’t on.’

What is it with this place and abbreviations? thought Martin.

It was as if everyone in management considered extra syllables to be like gangrenous limbs or something; like they were infecting productivity from the inside out and were in constant need of amputation. And it wasn’t just confined to the office either. It was everywhere. He’d heard someone on the train that very afternoon respond to a joke by giggling out the word ‘LOL’. No apparent irony; oblivious to the fact that giggling was its own abbreviation.

‘Now you’re gonna have to pull your head in a bit champ, I’ve spoken to the big man upstairs and it turns out we’re going to be holding a quick Q&A at the end of the week for all the guys who are slipping down the ladder a bit. It’s going to be pretty caj to start with –

Caj? thought Martin, what the fuck is caj? It was a legitimate question. He was still a bit stoned and was having trouble keeping up.

‘Just fifteen maybe twenty mins one-on-one with the TLs and probably Mad-dog if he’s still keen – hey Mad-dog, are you still keen to help out Friday?’

Mad-dog – who was mid-sale in the cubical opposite – gave the TL a quick high five on the flipside in agreement.

Catamaran, thought Martin – whose eyes had landed on a motivational poster featuring a yacht – now that’s a word with some fun syllables.

‘I was listening back through your calls on Thursday and I couldn’t help but notice a few choice ops to cross-sell went begging’

Balloon, thought Martin, not as fun as catamaran unless you stretch it out. Ballooooon, thought Martin.

‘It’s all about finding a solution for the customer. Do you remember what I told you last week? Identify, empathise, consolidate, solve – ‘

Ballooon, lagoooon, baboon, bongo –

Martin had to stop. Furrow his brow and tense his jaw. Giggles were starting to inflate in his face like some kind of hysterical sneeze. He was in danger of a serious LOL.

You see, he’d never really noticed it before but the TL’s smooth, round head, flat features and portly frame made him look remarkably like a bongo.

‘Also… don’t be afraid to make up a couple of cheat-sheets. Nothing too detailed just something to look at if a sale starts to go a bit pear-shaped. Check out some of Mad-dog’s if you want.’

Martin swivelled around to look at Mad-dog’s cubical. The TL wasn’t wrong; the thing was completely wall-papered with cheat sheets; scripts and contingency plans for every possible cross-sell, up-sell, re-sell or objection.

Jesus, thought Martin, I wonder if he has a script that tells him how to be less intense. Why the hell does he wear that suit? It’s a phone selling job, no one sees you on the other end.

The TLs had to wear suits. Which made sense considering a few of them looked like they were just out of high school and a suit was pretty much the only prop they had that gave them authority over the older employees. But Mad-dog wore his suit on his own volition, even on casual Fridays, just so he could walk out his house every morning looking important. Suddenly the image of Mad-dog pretending he was some kind of day-trading hotshot was becoming just as funny as the walking bongo. Martin studied the highlights and dot-points on the cheat-sheets to calm himself down then swung back around to face the TL.

Unfortunately, he’d completely underestimated how much the TL did in fact look like a bongo. Swallowing hard, Martin fixed his gaze squarely at the wall but it was no use; what was once a little giggle had now lodged itself firmly in his throat and was gestating into a full-blown cackle.

‘Are you ok Mikey mate?’

Martin cupped his hands over stifled whimper.


He shut his eyes, and clenched his toes.

‘Michael, can you do me a favour and look at me when I’m talking to you mate?’

It was clearly a lose, lose situation so Martin shut his eyes even tighter as the beginnings of a cackle started to snort through his fingers. It came out in spasmodic little bursts at first then exploded all at once; a sweet release of dribble and noise; diaphragm-shaking, rib-tickling noise, that shrieked through the repetition of sales-scripts and caused the entire row of cubicles to his left and right to collectively swivel and do a double take.

Once Martin had finally settled down, he realised he had snot on his chin and a very puzzled TL glaring at him. Save to say he was pretty much fucked. But then something strange happened: a voice came over the loud speaker.

Could Brendan Lonsdale and all six TLs please report to the board room ASAP. I repeat: urgent meeting for Brendan Lonsdale and all TLs.

Martin didn’t even know the place had a PA system. The TL scrunched his glare into a frustrated scowl. He’d clearly just about formulated a response to the cackling when the loud speaker had come along and snatched away his authority. Unable to get it together in time, he was left with no other option but to shake his head and shuffle off towards the board room. Island rhythms, thought Martin.

Mad-dog (who looked visibly pleased that his name had been mentioned over the loud speaker in the same sentence as the Team Leaders) cut off his most recent sale with a flourish and skipped along to catch up with the TL.

Martin was once again left to his own devices. So, feeling newly liberated by the fact he was almost certainly about to be fired, he leaned back on his chair and stared up at the rectangular light fittings until they started to blur in and out of focus. After a couple of minutes he sat up straight, connected his headset, opened up the TeleChoice Optimum ‘black list’, clicked the random dial button and did something he’d always wanted to do.

‘Hello?’ the voice on the other end sounded exhausted. Martin could hear two or more siblings in a high-pitched squabble in the background.

‘Hello, is that Mrs Nyugen?’


‘Hello my name’s Martin Mackenzie I’m calling from TeleChoice Optimum how are you going?’


‘That’s good to hear, now our records show that you’ve been having trouble keeping up with the repayments on your recently upgraded credit plan is that right?’

‘Yes?’ it was the unmistakable tone of someone who wished they’d left the phone on the hook.

‘Now, we here at TeleChoice realise that approving such a high credit limit for someone with your current income and assets was perhaps a bit irresponsible on our behalf.’

‘Irresponsible?’ the clanging and whining of the background argument was reaching an even more urgent pitch.

‘Yes, irresponsible, and we also realise that enforcing a 23 per cent interest rate on repayments after four months of initial debt could perhaps be considered a little bit excessive.’

‘What’s this all about? Look I’m cooking at the moment – ’

‘Please Mrs. Nyugen, hear me out. As I was saying, a recent internal assessment has found that our current credit model has some irreconcilable flaws that are incongruous with a few of claims we have been making in our advertisements.’ It started to sound like one of the siblings had latched onto their mother’s leg and was appealing to her directly.

‘Listen, I can’t really talk right now – ‘

‘So in light of this fact Mrs. Nyugen we here at TeleChoice Optimum have decided to completely erase your current debt on the condition that you cut up your card and avoid all further dealings with us in the future.’ By now Martin was deep inside Mrs. Nyugen’s file tinkering with things he wasn’t supposed to.

‘Excuse me? – Thomas go apologise to your sister, mummy’s on the phone! – sorry, what was that?’

‘As I was saying Mrs. Nyugen, your file has been amended and you will have no further debt with us on the proviso that you destroy your card and avoid any further dealings with the TeleChoice Optimum brand or any of it’s subsidiaries.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘One hundred per cent serious Mrs. Nyugen, in addition I’d also like to add that you have a great evening and a terrific meal.’

‘Wait, what’s the catch with this?’

‘No catch Mrs. Nyugen, we are just trying to consolidate our liabilities’

‘So I don’t owe you anymore, if I cut up my card?’

‘That’s correct.’

‘That can’t be right?’

‘I can assure you that it is, oh and one last thing Mrs. Nyugen’

‘What’s that?’

‘We here at Telechoice Optimum would also like to remind you that you’re perfect just the way you are.’ Martin clicked the end call button and finished up deleting Mrs. Nyugen’s file.

God! He was on a roll now. He pushed both hands against the desk, wheeled his chair into the centre of the aisle, then spun himself around and around with glee. When he finally slowed to a stop he was a bit too dizzy to see but he definitely felt everyone’s eyes on him. Something strange was happening. Sell-script weren’t being repeated like some kind of perverse musical round. All Martin could hear was humming computers and concerned murmurings.

After a couple of seconds Martin’s eyes and brain synced back together and he realised why the room was at a standstill: no one was even looking at him, they all had their worried sideways glances firmly fixed on Mad-dog who was hunched over his desk breathing heavily. The only other time Martin had ever seen Mad-dog look even slightly discomposed was about three weeks ago after he’d been briefly bumped out of top spot on sales ladder. But this was something else altogether. Mad-dog had now undone his tie and was slowly wrapping and unwrapping it around his fist. Jesus, thought Martin, Mad-dog needs an RDO ASAP.

Then Martin did something stupid. At the time it didn’t seem that stupid, he was on a roll after all, but in hindsight it really wasn’t a wise move. You see Martin had always found it hilarious that Mad-dog would only let the TLs call him Mad-dog; to everyone else it was Brendan. Martin found this out the hard way in his first week at the call centre. He’d seen that Mad-dog had just lost a sale so he said ‘Cheer up Mad-dog, it’s Friday man’ and gave him a friendly punch in the shoulder. Mad-dog responded by complaining to the people in OH&S and Martin was given an official warning for ‘rough physical conduct.’

Now that Martin had nothing to lose he thought to himself: what the hell?

‘Hey Mad-dog,’ he said ‘Cheer up a bit dude, it’s Friday.’

Mad-dog’s breathing got shallower and he stopped wrapping his tie.


Mad-dog still didn’t respond.




Martin took the baiting tone out of his voice. ‘Brendan, seriously man, are you alright?’

Mad-dog ripped his computer monitor out of the wall and launched it squarely at Martin’s head. Martin ducked and swivelled out of the way as the black prism sailed past his eyebrow and cracked against his desk.

‘Jesus fucking Christ Brendan!’ yelled Martin ‘what the fuck?’

Mad-dog said nothing, he just marched over to the mangled monitor, picked it up, carried the remains over to his own desk and started systemically smashing them apart; not even flinching as the shards of plastic cut through his fists and blood started smudging into the circuits.

Once blood started flinging up and splattering against Mad-dog’s cheat sheets everyone’s script-atrophied brain officially switched into panic-mode. Anxious murmurings burst into shrieks of alarm. Rows upon rows of frightened co-workers scattered out towards the exits. Three of Mad-dog’s favourite TLs valiantly edged back slower than the others.

‘Calm down Brendan!’ yelled one.

‘Yeah just settle down buddy.’ soothed another. Mad-dog ignored them both, took a big, steady run-up and spear-tackled the back wall of his cubical.

‘Shit! someone call OH&S right now!’ directed the other one.

‘Are you fucking joking? Don’t call OH&S. Call the MD’

‘Call HR! Why the hell would we call Mad-dog?’

‘Not MD the MD’

Mad-dog, having successfully demolished his cubical wall, limped over to a fire extinguisher, dislodged it and started attacking the photocopier.

‘Call the fucking police’ screamed the first one.

Martin was trying to get the hell out of there but he saw that the big rush to escape had bottle-necked the revolving doors; some colleagues were trying to wedge themselves through, while others were shouting pleas for order from behind. Seeing that there was no way out, Martin switched direction and bounded up the stairs into the big glass office that overlooked the centre. From up there he could see a bird’s eye view of the damage; by now the photocopier was nothing but a pile of wires and paper trays and Mad-dog was using the fire extinguisher to destroy each workspace individually. Martin saw the grids of cubicals collapse into little heaps; one by one they splintered off into interesting, pointless directions.

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