“You’re having a laugh, mate! How was I supposed to know my bank account was about to go into default? I was in Thailand! Absolute con artists, you lot are, slapping on charges whenever you fancy it!”
“I understand your frustration, sir. Did you notify the bank of your change of address so that they could redirect your letters?”
“What do you mean, “change of address”? I didn’t move to Thailand, ya numpty, I was only there for six months! I had loads of letters when I got home!”
Working in a call-centre is hell.
“…so you can go back to the bank and tell ’em I’m not paying a penny! It’s not right, sticking on all these charges when I wasn’t even in the country! And you know what? If you won’t help me, I’ll go to the ombudsman! I’m not being funny, but I’m gonna stand up for my rights and I…”
The digital clock in the bottom-right corner of Oscar’s computer screen ticked over from 19:29 to 19:30. His shift was finally over, only not really.
Not only is working in a call-centre boring, it’s also bad for your health. The rotating shifts obliterate any chance at a work-life balance, and for what? Most shift-based jobs are designed that way because the work is so important that it can’t ever stop – nurses, firemen, suicide hotliners – but that’s not the case with call-centres. The only reason they open so early and close so late is because British culture is built upon complaining, and there always needs to be a faceless drone clocked in to eat shit.
All too often, Oscar had left the call-centre at nine o’clock at night only to drag himself, bleary-eyed, back into the grey building at eight o’clock the following morning, wondering if he should have perhaps just slept at his desk.
The digital clock on his computer screen now read 19:45 and Oscar’s customer was beginning to run out of steam. Oscar began to gather his belongings whilst reeling off a dull paragraph about the collections process that he could probably now recite in his sleep.
Minutes later, Oscar had raced down five flights of stairs (the lift was tiny and packed full of other tired drones) and was striding out of The Maltings business park. It was Friday evening, he had a whole sixteen hours until he needed to be back at work, and he was going to spend as many of those hours as possible away from his silent, empty flat. He and the lads were going to get absolutely wankered.
The Lion and Key pub in Old Town was alive with the excitement of the weekend. Drunk patrons were crammed into every inch of space in the small pub, most of them getting rowdy in a benign sort of way. Ordinarily it would be quite difficult to find one’s friends in such a dense crowd, but Oscar moved through the revellers with purpose. His friends would be sat at the same corner table they’d been at for the past decade.
“Alright, boys?” Oscar took a swig from the lukewarm pint of beer that had been left in his vacant space at the table. The beer had been there so long that a wet ring was soaked into the cardboard coaster beneath it and the glass was sweating water droplets.
“Oh, now he decides to show up!” Mankey grinned. “I was just about to neck ya pint, mate.”
“Cheers, boys. I’ll get the next round in,” Oscar said. His friends laughed and waved their empty glasses in his face, to which he grinned and downed his beer in a few seconds flat. As he jostled his way through the Friday evening crowd to the bar, a memory whispered into his mind – Izzy’s face of concern, telling him that he needed to slow down his drinking.
“It’s getting bad, Ozzy…”
Nope. Not thinking about that tonight.
As the night wore on, talk turned to the weeks they’d each had. Josh regaled the group with dodgy stories of how he and the other solicitors on Parliament Street had been hazing their new apprentices. Luke, who was exhausted, described the tiring week he’d had at Hull Royal Infirmary’s A&E department, where they’d had to deal with a slew of hypochondriacs. Even Mankey had a few interesting anecdotes from his life as a secondary school teacher.
If there had been a moment in which Oscar could take his turn to talk about his job, he’d intentionally let it pass by, unspoken. When he had started working at the call-centre four years ago, he had delighted in telling his friends funny stories about weird callers and the insane things that they would complain about. But now that he was nearing the end of his twenties, he no longer enjoyed telling these stories. Far from being funny, the stories were markers of an adult stuck in a juvenile job. Everybody he had started with had long since left the company, moved onto brighter prospects.
All week long, he had been looking forward to being in the pub with his mates, but now that he was there, he felt stale and awkward.
It was almost one o’clock in the morning by the time Oscar fell through his front door after struggling to slot his key into the lock. He found himself face down in the grey carpet of his hallway, his ears ringing with pub noise and his eyes blurring with alcohol. He suddenly became aware that his bladder was about to burst, and so he used all his concentration to flop onto his back and relieve the pressure.
Don’t piss on the floor again!
Thankfully, this turned out to be one of the nights where he managed to make it to the bathroom without defiling the carpet along the way.
As he was relieving himself, he became dimly aware of an irritating noise; the soft, rhythmic sound of water dropping against ceramic. The shower head was dripping. That was strange, because whilst it was an ancient shower head that always dripped for about an hour after use, it hadn’t been used since Oscar’s rushed shower that morning. There was nobody else in the house – Izzy was long gone.
He flushed the toilet and staggered to the sink, where he found that the mirror was fogged up.
Oscar staggered to bed, too drunk to pay any notice to the sense of unease buried deep within him.
Over the next few days, the atmosphere in Oscar’s flat grew increasingly strange as the sensation of unseen, unwanted companionship persisted. On Sunday evening, he walked into the kitchen to find that one of his mugs (the one with the cartoon pig) was sitting next to the sink – he knew that he hadn’t put it there, and there certainly hadn’t been anybody else in his flat that could’ve done it. Stranger still, there were tea dregs in the mug. Oscar didn’t even drink tea – the dusty box of PG Tips had been bought out of obligation for guests.
On Tuesday morning, before his late shift at the call-centre, he drew back the curtains in the living room and was hit with the acrid stench of old cigarette smoke. Confused, he rubbed the curtains between his thumb and forefinger and found that they were grimy with smoke, as though somebody had been smoking indoors for decades. Oscar only smoked when he was out with the lads and certainly never indoors.
About an hour later he stepped outside to drop a full bin liner into the communal waste bin, only to be accosted by Maeve Doherty, the elderly lady who lived below Oscar in the lower half of the maisonette. She was furious and accused him of having his music too loud the night before.
“I don’t want to be listening to that racket, all guitars and high-pitched nonsense!” she had yelled from her doorstep, before slamming her front door shut.
Her complaint struck Oscar as strange, because not only did he not tend to listen to the sort of music she was describing, but he had been working so late the night before that he had simply come home, eaten a Pot Noodle and fallen asleep before being woken by his alarm early the next morning for work.
She’s old. Must be losing it.
It didn’t take long for Oscar to see the man for the first time. It was a gloomy night with an unusually heavy amount of rainfall. Oscar had crashed into the flat, soaked and frozen to the bone, shaking the rain off his broken umbrella and tracking mud into the hallway carpet. He had ripped off his sodden jacket and kicked off his waterlogged trainers only to find that his socks were also soaked through. He’d peeled them off, intending to put them in for a wash.
He trudged into his sitting room and found an older gentleman sitting on the sofa, smoking a cigarette and watching what looked like a World War Two documentary on the television. A beagle was curled up at his feet, asleep, and the pig mug was balanced on the arm of the sofa.
Oscar stood in the doorway, frozen in fear and confusion, and dripping rain onto the carpet.
Suddenly, the man noticed Oscar. He leapt from the sofa, knocking the half-full mug to the floor, tea splattering everywhere, including onto the beagle. The dog awoke with a start and began yapping and darting about the room in an attempt to understand why her master was yelling, why she was covered in lukewarm tea and who the stranger in the doorway was.
“Who the flaming heck are you?” the man shouted.
“What? I’m… this is… I live here!” Oscar spluttered. “Who the hell are you, pal?”
For a moment, the two men stood opposite one another utter confusion, both too flabbergasted to know what to do. The man looked like he was a few decades older than Oscar. His face was weathered with a lifetime of hard work, and what was left of his hair was wispy and grey. His outdated clothes were slightly oversized, old, like he had lost some weight and not updated his wardrobe. There was something about him – perhaps his stance, or his pattern of speech, or even just the way he looked – that gave Oscar the anxious feeling that he was from a different time.
The dog was now crouching behind her master and growling at Oscar.
“I dunno who you think you are, ya jumped up little idiot, but I’ve lived in this bloody house for longer than you’ve been alive!” The old man began to stride towards Oscar, pulling back an arm as if to strike a blow. Incensed at the man’s audacity, Oscar threw his sodden socks to the floor and raised his fists to his face, ready for a fight. The man threw a fist, only just before the moment of impact he abruptly vanished into a puff of grey smoke, taking his noisy dog with him. The cigarette that he’d been holding between his fingers dropped onto the carpet. Oscar stayed where he was with his fists raised and his eyes squeezed shut. Eventually, he dropped his fists and opened his eyes.
He was alone again.
Did that really just happen?
The cigarette was burning a hole through the carpet. Oscar instinctively tried to stamp it out but yelped in pain – he was barefoot. He quickly picked up the cigarette and stubbed it out on the coffee table (Izzy definitely would’ve moaned about that, the wood would never look the same again). He glanced at the television, which was still playing The History Channel. Oscar hadn’t even known he got that channel.
Yeah, that really just happened.
Over the next few weeks, the old man kept popping up at odd and inconvenient times. Sometimes several days would pass without him making an appearance, but then he’d appear again, watching television or staring out the sitting room window at the street below. As soon as he noticed Oscar watching him, he would always start shouting at him, which always set his dog off too.
One time, the old man particularly full of rage. He was yelling at Oscar to “get the flaming ’eck outtuv my ’ouse!”, when he worked himself into such a heightened state of ire that he stomped into the spare bedroom, where he slammed the door behind him like a teenager having a tantrum. When Oscar wrenched the door to the spare room open, he found the room was empty, but that familiar cigarette stench hung in the air.
Oscar decided that he needed to get to the bottom of the issue. What was the alternative? Become reluctant flatmates with an angry ghost bloke in his sixties?
He had the following Wednesday off work, so he made time that afternoon to sit down with his laptop and research the history of his flat. It was surprisingly difficult to find much information in this age of technology, but after almost an hour of varying his search terms and falling down a rabbit hole of old Hull news stories, he found the obituary.
In loving memory of Fred Welton, who sadly passed away at home on 9th January 1963, aged 68, at the side of his beloved dog, Clover. Loving husband of Maggie Welton, he is now reunited with her once more.
The sad little paragraph was accompanied by a grainy, black and white photo of the angry ghost man, before he became a ghost. He still looked rather angry.
Oscar closed his laptop and stared at the wall for a long time.
He’s not been reunited with her though, has he?
The following evening, Oscar slumped face down onto the sofa after a long day of customers screaming at him (his ears were still ringing, which was sadly not unusual). On evenings like this one, he used to text Izzy during the bus ride home and by the time he got in, she’d be waiting for him with a heated up ready meal and a cold bottle of San Miguel, and she would sit opposite him at the table and listen intently whilst he unloaded his troubles.
He wondered what she was doing at that moment.
“Din’t I tell you ta sling yer hook, kid?”
Oscar groaned and yelled into the sofa cushion, “For god’s sake! Not today, Fred!”
He whipped up into a seated position and saw Fred staring back at him blankly.
“You know my name.”
“Yeah. I Googled you.”
“You did what to me, kid?”
“Oh, I, uh… I looked you up.”
This revelation seemed to have completely disarmed Fred, who had sunk into the armchair by the window and seemed to be contemplating something. Oscar stared at his feet and felt extremely awkward. The air in the room had shifted.
“You go so many years without hearing it,” Fred said, suddenly. “Your name, I mean. You go that long without hearing your own bloody name, and then one day, out of nowhere…”
Alarmingly, he appeared to be tearing up. Oscar froze in horror. Was he supposed to comfort his poltergeist now?
Luckily, Fred straightened up, took a deep breath, and pushed the emotion back down. Slowly, he took in the room. It was as if he was only now noticing how different it looked – realising that Oscar’s belongings had replaced his own. When he next addressed Oscar, his voice was less combative.
“How long’ve you lived here, pal?”
“Couple of years. I moved in with my girlfriend. She doesn’t live here anymore.”
Fred nodded gravely. “I know that feeling.”
“Yeah, I read about that online. Uh, when I was researching you. I’m really sorry.”
Fred smiled into his lap. “She was… my light.”
“I wish I knew that feeling,” Oscar muttered. He was still staring at his feet, and so he didn’t notice the intensity with which Fred was studying him, taking in his waxen complexion, his greasy hair, his trembling hands. He didn’t notice that for a brief moment, Fred’s face broke with the realisation of what he was seeing.
Empty beer cans were everywhere – on the coffee table, strewn across the floor, there was even one on the end of mantlepiece like an ornament. Full beer cans were in the fridge in place of food.
A shiver ran though Fred’s entire, dead body as he realised what he had stumbled upon.
He and Maggie had always longed for children. He imagined that this was the feeling of which parents spoke, that intense feeling of being innately protective of another person. He hadn’t meant to haunt this poor young man. But perhaps in doing so, their souls had become linked somehow?
Subconsciously, Fred gently passed his thumbs over the thick, raised scars on his wrists.
He rose out of the armchair and marched into the kitchen. Oscar sensed this but didn’t bother to look up. All the energy in his body had been gradually sapped over the past few weeks. He could feel tears welling in his eyes, but he didn’t want Fred to see him cry. Fred was from the 1960s, he’d probably deck him and tell him to stop being a stupid poofter.
Oscar looked up, blinking away tears that Fred pretended not to see. He smiled weakly and took the cup of tea that he was being offered.
“So, tell me, pal. What do you do for a living?” Fred asked, easing himself back into the armchair and setting the steaming pig mug onto the armrest.
“Nothing interesting. I work in a call-centre.”
“A what, now?”
Oscar laughed despite himself. “Oh Fred, we’ve got a lot to talk about.”
It was a strange sort of relationship. As the years passed, Oscar came to view Fred as an older friend, not a father, simply a strange companion of whom he had become very fond. Fred remained protective of Oscar and fancied himself a guardian angel from beyond the grave (he wasn’t religious, just in need of a sense of purpose). Deep down, they both knew they were living in a sort of purgatory, a comfortable stage of life (or death?) that would not last forever.
J.L. Corbett is the editor of Idle Ink, an online publisher of all things curious. Her stories have been published in The Daily Drunk, The Cabinet of Heed, STORGY Magazine and others. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read and doesn’t get out much. To read more of her work, visit www.jlcorbett.org. Twitter: @JL_Corbett