The worst calls often begin with an appeal for empathy, a last-ditch attempt by the caller to grab on to any spark of humanity they can sense in you and not let go until you’re swayed. I suppose they’re hoping that you will be so moved by their story that you will bend the rules just for them. They don’t ever consider that you receive upwards of twenty of these calls per day.
“I have two children. Please. Their mother isn’t here anymore. I’m just trying to do my best,” he pleaded, his voice wavering on the verge of tears.
“I know, sir, but as I have explained, since you have made no attempt to set up a payment plan with your energy company they have passed your debt on to us. And we now must start the process of relinquishing the debt unless you can pay at least part of the outstanding balance today. Can you do that, sir?”
In the space of a second the tone of his voice turned from feeble, to outright murderous. “I, just…I cannot believe this. What am I supposed to do? Your fucking evil company woke my kids up at 6:30 this morning with your bailiffs banging on my door, fucking cunts, fucking sick it is, and what are you telling me when I call up and try to sort out this mess? Who the fuck even are you, telling me I owe this debt that isn’t even mine, you fucking bitch?” He was spitting his words now. “You’re a cunt, a fucking ugly one I bet. I can hear it in your voice. I hope you die.” The call cut off sharply and I imagined the force of his slamming down the phone reverberating through the line like ripples across water.
Death threats are part of the job, of course. It’s not as though this was my first. But for some reason, as I clicked open the word document containing the form I was required to fill out every time a caller threatened me, I felt…shaken. My fingers hovering over the keyboard, I sat still at my desk as the lasting imprint of his words settled in my mind. When I lifted off my headset I noticed my hands were clammy and shaking. What was wrong with me?
I set my phone to ‘comfort break’ to stop any other calls coming through and rushed to the toilet. Luckily there was nobody else in there. I sat splay-legged in a cubicle and burst into tears.
There was only half an hour of my shift left, and as soon as it was over I gathered my things and left without saying goodbye to anyone, not that my colleagues noticed. I’m pretty sure if I stopped turning up to work entirely my disappearance would be little more than a mild inconvenience for one or two people. My boss, Mr Winters, would huff and puff around his office and rant to his PA about how much extra work this would cause him, how there would be paperwork to file and rotas to rearrange.
I decided to walk home that day instead of taking the bus, instantly regretting my decision as soon as the rain started. Normally I don’t mind the rain – I like how it gives people something to complain about, a unifying opposition – but today, getting caught in the downpour without an umbrella just intensified my bad mood. When I got home I was completely soaked through. Shivering and exhausted, I ran straight upstairs and collapsed onto my bed, my face hot against the pillow. Eventually Mum came and knocked at my bedroom door and I barked at her to go away as if I were a moody teenager. How pathetic I would look, I thought, to anyone watching. But of course, nobody was. When I eventually got up, my sopping clothes had left a damp imprint on the duvet. I kicked the bed frame in frustration and immediately regretted it, hopping around the room as pain shot through my foot.
Everything became clear when I went to run a bath. As the tiny room filled with steam and I grumpily peeled off each layer of wet clothing, I realised that my period had started. Almost as soon as I saw that ugly dark stain in my underwear, an explosion of pain detonated in my lower abdomen and I crouched down to the floor, panting. My cramps had always been severe, and on the first day of each period I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to handle them, that the agony would surely kill me this time. But somehow, I always made it through.
Once the bath was ready I lowered myself into the scalding hot water and floated there like a fallen leaf as fresh pain continued to boil through my body. I sat in the bathwater until it turned grey and tepid, my skin shrivelling, the sky turning navy through the frosted glass of the window. After an hour or so Mum banged on the door to ask if I was okay. She panics easily. Rolling my eyes at no-one I called out ‘yeee-eeees’, then heard her shuffling away down the stairs.
Eventually I slid out of the bath and wrapped myself in a towel, standing by to watch the grimy water recede as the sucking sound of the plug changed pitch. My head was light, and I could feel the many gallons of blood pumping through my body, and it was as though all that blood was trying to drain from my body like the bathwater. I caught sight of my steamy reflection in the mirror and made a face at myself, suddenly put off by my own existence.
The pain accompanied me for the next few days, paralysing me whenever I stood up, lay down, walked, sneezed, took a breath. At work Mr Winters furrowed his brow as I passed him in the hallway on my seventh trip to the bathroom with a wrapped tampon stuffed up my sleeve, as if he thought I was just going in there to avoid answering calls. He hated all his employees, but it was clear the young women were especially reviled. I’d probably be issued with some kind of warning once all of the minutes from my comfort breaks were added up at the end of the month and compared against my colleagues’ in the stupid league tables they hung in the kitchen. They treated us like primary school children.
But almost as abruptly as it started, over the following week the pain began to subside, and my menstrual blood darkened in colour before slowing to a stop. And the same thing that happened at this point every month happened once more; the world got a little brighter. I felt less tired. My trips to the bathroom went back to normal. Even the rain stopped.
And my memory of the pain, along with the storm of emotions that had preceded it, was wiped clean, ready for the next phase.
Clear skies and fresh air greeted me as I stepped out of work. The rain had washed away all the dirt leaving the pavements shimmering. Walking to the bus stop, I had a change of mind at the last second and turned on my heels to walk in the opposite direction, taking a more scenic route home through the park.
Mud-spattered children filled the football field and the pathways snaking through the park were dotted with dog walkers and mothers with prams. The trees bristled with energy and I took a deep breath of the light air, smiling to myself, not caring for once how I looked to the people walking by.
It was in the shadow of one of the large ceramic planters near the park gates that I saw it; a brief flash of gold as something on the ground caught the sun. Looking around, I approached the planter and stuck a foot out to feel around behind it. My toe made contact with an object, which moved under the weight of my shoe as I gently pushed it, scraping against the tarmac. After another quick look around, I bent down to pick it up.
It was cold and metallic, and when I brought it up into the sunlight I was blinded by its brilliance. A coin made of shiny gold, unlike any coin I’d ever seen before, with intricate carvings of birds and ribbons on its face. When I flipped it over to examine the other side, I saw that it was totally smooth apart from a tiny roman numeral etched in its centre.
The coin was also heavier than any other I’d ever handled and fit pleasingly into the depression in the middle of my palm, nestling there inside my warmth as I closed my fingers around it and continued to walk. There was nobody around. The thrill of my discovery caused my chest to flutter.
For the rest of that week I kept the coin with me at all times. It seemed to elevate my mood, increase my luck, bring me better fortune somehow. On Friday, my renewed spirit caught the attention of a person I had been longing for ever since I started working at the call centre six months ago. His name was Mark, and he sat two desks over from me.
It was just a silly work crush, of course. I expected nothing to ever come of it; pining after Mark was simply a welcome distraction from the drudgery of the job. But that Friday morning, as I was stirring my coffee and thinking deeply about the coin nestled in my trouser pocket, I sensed a presence beside me and flinched when I saw him standing there. He was smiling his wonderful smile, the dimples in his cheeks almost blindingly perfect, holding out a hand. I quickly suppressed the impulse to reach out and stroke it, gathering myself together to say something.
“Spoon?” he said, still smiling.
“Oh…uhh…yes. Here you go.” I snaked a hand into the open drawer near my thigh and handed it to him. My cheeks were burning, and a prickling sensation started at my neck and travelled down my spine as he moved closer and our arms brushed against each other.
“How are you finding it?” he asked, dropping a spoonful of instant coffee into his cup and filling it with hot water from the kettle.
“I…” no more words would come out, so I just shook my head and shrugged. I was stunned. Did he know who I was?
“It’s pretty shit, I know,” he continued. “But hey…it pays the bills, and that’s more than these poor fuckers can manage to do!” He made a sweeping gesture across the office floor with his arm, winked, and then strolled off with his cup.
My mouth was on auto-pilot answering calls for the rest of the day as my heart did somersaults and my mind went into overdrive thinking about Mark and going over and over every word he had said.
As soon as I got home I shut myself in my room, stripped off my clothes and dove under the duvet. All day I had kept my hands restrained, but now they were free to roam. I masturbated until my fingers cramped and the sheet beneath me was saturated. I felt as though I were melting into the bed, skin aflame and every muscle in my body turned to liquid.
On Saturday morning I caught sight of the ‘missing’ poster sellotaped to a lamppost near the entrance to the park. Having held on to the coin for over a week, I had grown accustomed to the idea that it now belonged to me and hadn’t given much thought to its true owner. But when I saw the poster I realised that my days holding onto the coin might be numbered.
I never do much on Saturdays, but since starting my new job I’d been making more of an effort to go outside at the weekends and get some exercise. ‘Exercise’ to me meant walking briskly around and around the outskirts of the park for as long as my legs could manage it – I had never been one for gyms or team sports. I had started out early that morning, before Mum was awake and the world was just on the brink of opening its curtains and letting the light in. I felt good, striding along the pavement until I was just about at the park gates, but the poster stopped me in my tracks.
It was a dog-eared sheet of white A4 paper that looked as though it might be a letter or bill flipped over, thick black handwriting filling its blank side. On it was scrawled:
PRESHUS GOLD ANTEEK COIN, LOST LAST WEEK, BILONGED TO GRAN. PLZ RETURN.
and a mobile number scribbled beneath.
I stood there for a while, re-reading the poster, my heart thumping. Then I got scared I might be being watched and turned and walked quickly out of the park, back in the direction of home.
My mind was in conflict for the rest of that week, which went by in a blur. Part of me wanted to forget about the poster, claim the coin as my own, move on. I considered it my good luck charm and feared something awful would happen to me if I gave it up. But another part of me knew that if I kept the coin, the words on that poster would haunt me forever, and that giving it back was the right thing to do.
Besides, my ‘good luck’ appeared to have run out anyway; there had been no further interactions with Mark, and he had even ignored me when I passed him in the foyer one morning. I figured he must have changed his mind, realized I was a fat, ugly loner, found a girl in his own league. Like I ever had a chance to begin with!
Every call I took that week was long and complicated and the callers just kept getting louder and angrier. I was deflated, useless. What difference did it make if I returned the coin to its rightful owner?
After another week or so I finally plucked up the courage to call the number on the poster, jotting it on the back of my hand on the way home one afternoon.
A thick, raspy voice answered. At first, I couldn’t tell if it belonged to a man or woman.
“Hi. I, erm…I found your coin. In the park. I wanted to get it back to you. Sorry it’s taken…”
“Wha? My coin?” I deduced the person on the other end of the line was a woman. “Fuckin’ ell I’ve been losin’ it. Can you bring it ‘round tonight?”
“Oh. I suppose I could…”
“Good. I’m in all night, I’ll text me address,” and she hung up.
That evening I told Mum I was nipping out to the shop and started in the direction of the woman’s address, which I received moments after the call. According to the map on my phone she lived on the opposite side of the park to where I had found the coin. The tenor of her voice had creeped me out and as I set off into the gloomy night I couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling in my stomach. Walking through the park, I could sense an agitation in the air. Somewhere behind the empty children’s playground I could hear people arguing. I quickened my pace until I found the road.
When I got to her house I became even more unsettled. It was a squat, dirty end-terrace, its front garden filled with rubbish, all the curtains tightly drawn. Barely a flicker of light emanated from within. I gripped the coin tightly in my jacket pocket and stepped around piles of cardboard and broken furniture until I reached the front door. After a brief hesitation, I knocked.
She answered almost immediately, opening the door just a crack and poking her head out of the shadows. It was difficult to tell how old she was, as her whole face appeared to be caked in filth, framed by a brown-grey matted mess of hair.
“Hello…” I started with a gulp, “I’m the person who found your coin.”
The door opened wider and she stood squinting at me as though she were fumbling through her limited bank of memories. Then her eyes lit up. “Yes! I’remember. Come in.” She stood to one side. The acrid smell of cigarette smoke and cat piss seeped out, and my stomach turned over.
“I have the coin here, I can just give it to you now,” I fumbled in my pocket and presented the coin, hot and sticky from my hand.
“No!” she barked, “come in. Put that away. I don’t want none o’ me neighbours gettin’ any ideas, like.”
I should have known that something wasn’t right, but I was too scared to leave now, scared she might chase me down and beat me up.
“Oh. Well, okay…” replacing the coin in my pocket, I stepped gingerly into the hallway and she slammed the door behind me, plunging the house into almost-darkness.
I followed her through a long corridor into a dankly lit kitchen with dirty pots and pans piled everywhere. There was a small Formica table and stools pushed against one wall and she instructed me to sit, which I did. A coffee cup on the table was filled with green mould, and I had to look away to stop myself from gagging.
“So, here is the coin.” Again, I took it out of my pocket and put it on the table. Its brilliance had dulled a little in the preceding weeks and it looked oddly sad in its new environment.
She had her back turned to me and was rattling around in one of the drawers under the sink.
“Well, I’ll be going now, I suppose,” I said, standing up.
But before I could leave she swivelled around, brandishing a large kitchen knife.
“Sit back down!” she bellowed, “you ain’t goin’ nowhere!”
Shocked, I had no choice but to drop back onto the stool, my back tense against the wall. I tried to speak.
“Shuddup! You’re a little cow, aren’t yah, stealin’ my property and thinkin’ it’s okay! You been plannin’ this. I know it.” She snatched the coin from the table, the knife wobbling in her hand. Her eyes blazed red. “I gotta keep you here until we settled this. So don’t get brave or nothin’.”
She went and fetched a length of rope from a cabinet and tied my hands together at the wrists, muttering to herself the whole time, swearing intermittently. The knife was gripped under her arm.
“I’m sorry I took your coin,” I stammered, “please. I didn’t mean any offence. I just found it in the park!”
“Shut up, shut up!” she shrieked, squeezing her eyes shut. “Lemme think. You ain’t gettin’ away with this! None of you will get away with it, never!”
I kept my mouth shut. She wandered off into the living room, leaving me tied. As soon as she was gone I attempted to untie my hands, pulling at the rope with my teeth, but the knot was too tight.
I could hear her swearing in the other room.
Looking around the kitchen with increasing desperation, I realised that I was far away from any immediate exits; there was no back door that I could see, the windows were sealed over with newspaper and to get to the front door I had to go past the living room and risk being caught by the madwoman.
I sat on my stool as the day outside faded and the only light left came from a pale bulb swinging from the ceiling. Although I was alert with adrenaline, my eyes were beginning to droop and I could feel my remaining energy draining away.
Soon she was back, angrier, having apparently got her second wind. I snapped out of my trance to find the knife in front of my face.
“You fuckin’ bitch!” she was yelling, “I knew it was you all along, see. You been after me for years!” There were tears in her eyes and she stank of alcohol. I ducked away from the knife and fell off the stool, curling up on the linoleum like a trapped spider. She continued waving the knife and shouting incoherently as she stood over me. After what felt like hours she grew tired and ambled back off into her cave.
I started to cry, remaining in my foetal position on the floor until I had no tears left, falling into a tumultuous sleep. Dreams of Mark bursting through the front door to rescue me flitted and faded in and out of my awareness, interspersed with the sounds of frenzied activity from the living room.
When I woke up the house was silent.
Lifting my achy body up off the floor, I rested on my knees for a moment and strained to listen. All I could hear was the distant rumble of traffic, but it was difficult to tell what time of day it was due to the newspaper on the windows. I guessed it must be early morning. Crawling up into a standing position, I surveyed the hallway leading to the front door.
This had to be my chance. Peering into the shadows of the living room, I could see no sign of the woman. I shuffled through the hallway until I got to the front door and used my free fingers to pull down on the handle.
I yanked hard, but nothing happened. She had locked the door.
Sweating, I fumbled frantically through stacks of junk mail and old phone books on a nearby table; there were several random keys but none of them would fit the lock.
I turned back to the hallway and with trepidation, made my way to the living room door.
Once I was inside I had to feel my way through the mess, grabbing hold of furniture with my tied hands and stepping over more piles of junk. It stank in there, and I had to try not to breathe in too deeply for fear of vomiting.
Finally, when I was satisfied the woman was not occupying the living room, I went to the window and slid one curtain open a couple of inches to let in some light. Dusty furniture, broken toys and laundry baskets filled with clothes were scattered everywhere, grimly illuminated. I opened the curtain a little more and searched the room until I came upon a set of keys kicked beneath the coffee table.
As I picked them up I heard a noise from upstairs. Footsteps, unmistakable, made their way across the ceiling above my head, accompanied by an inhuman-sounding shriek. It was her. The footsteps got heavier as if her anger was increasing with each passing second, and I knew I had to leave, that she would kill me if I stayed.
I turned to the door but lost my footing as I tried to move through the piles and fell flat on my face with my tied wrists stretched outwards. Something popped in my shoulder and pain shot through my body. The noises were getting louder and I could hear her moving to the stairs.
Scrabbling to my feet and trying to ignore the pain in my shoulder, I held the keys in my mouth and sprinted through the hallway and to the front door. She was behind me on the stairs, thudding and swearing, and I took the keys in my hands to grapple with the lock.
“You bitch!” she shouted, her voice right behind me now, but it was too late and the door was unlocked and I pulled at the handle with all my might, adrenaline pushing away the pain in my arm, and then I was out in the street running as fast as I could, far away, crying and laughing and looking for a sane human to lift me out of this mess and make everything normal again.
As I reached the park, the sky made a rumble and spots of rain began to spit at my skin.