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Megan was never early for work. She deliberately caught the bus that gave her exactly ten minutes to walk through Chadstone Shopping Centre to a parking lot exit where the elevator to the call centre was.
Bus timetables and the increments of time around them were all Megan could think about recently. From her mother’s apartment to the bus stop was a twelve-minute walk, from the bus stop to Chadstone was a twenty-seven-minute ride, then it took six minutes to walk to the elevator, and then two minutes or so to get up to the office and to the back of the line to receive her survey assignment.
Sometimes Megan considered taking the earlier bus, this would give her forty-five minutes of spare time before her shift. She imagined herself in this scenario somehow cleaner looking, happier, overall more put together. In these imagined minutes she would sit with a healthy juice and plan her meals for the week, instead of what she knew she would do which was read magazines at the newsagency. Megan liked to imagine herself improved, though she would feel every minute of the forty-five counting down somewhere in the pit of her stomach, and none of those minutes would be enjoyed as long as they lead to the start of her shift.
The last bus home left at nine o’clock. Megan had not had to stay back yet to finish a survey, but she dreaded the thought of missing the last bus, dreaded it even on her way to work. When the bus turned off the highway towards the shopping centre, Megan always thought that she wouldn’t get off.
Megan cleared her throat.
“Hi Lorraine, this is Megan from Media Market Research, I’m calling about your recent car service –”
Megan sat up a little straighter and began to repeat the intro.
“This is Megan from –”
“Gotcha! You know I don’t check this thing, call me on my mobile.”
Megan heard the beep of Lorraine’s answering machine and hung up the call. She always fell for trick answering machine messages, but this was still better than talking to an actual person.
“Hi Jim, this is Megan from Media Market Research –”
“Oh fuck off, and tell your boss about do not call lists.”
“I’m sorry Jim, we’re actually not a telemarketing agency. I’m calling about your recent car service.”
“I still don’t want to talk.”
“Would you mind giving me a reason you don’t want to so that I can log it for feedback?”
“You’re all a bunch of curry munchers who take Australian jobs.”
Megan hung up the call and paused for a moment with her hand hovering over the keyboard. Next to her, she could hear Sandeep trying to start a survey.
“My parents are from Nepal actually, not India – so Mr. Virgil can we get started on the survey?”
Sandeep sighed. He turned to Megan.
“This guy at least seemed genuinely curious about my ethnicity before he hung up.”
Megan laughed and got up from her seat. At seven o’clock it was mandatory to take a twenty-minute shift break.
“Let’s go get a sushi roll.”
Sandeep looked up, a worried expression on his face, “I can’t, I should have done at least four surveys by now.”
Megan knew there was no arguing with Sandeep on this, he cared so much about reaching the hourly targets. Megan considered telling him that she suspected no one was really monitoring their calls.
“Just say your name is Sam.”
“I shouldn’t have to change my name.”
“Yeah, but you shouldn’t have to stress out so much either.”
Megan clocked out and walked towards the elevator. She felt her phone vibrate in her pocket.
“For fuck sake,” Megan said under her breath. She stopped in the hallway and deleted a few happy birthday messages so the new message could come through.
“Hey Megan, come in here for a sec.”
Megan looked up. Her supervisor Tom had called out to her from his office.
“I’ve already clocked out!”
“I need to put you on a different survey after your break.”
Megan walked into Tom’s office and sat down. She half-listened to Tom while wondering who had messaged her.
“We got a new social research contract. If this keeps going, no more dip and chip surveys.”
“I like the dip and chip surveys.”
“You like talking to suburban mums about their favourite brand of Tzatziki?”
“Yeah, and they like talking to me. They don’t hang up.”
“That’s because you’re organising for them to come in and get paid to eat dip.”
“What’s the new survey about?”
“It’s a long study into people on the dole. The participants get called every six months. I thought you’d be interested because you used to get the dole right?”
Megan felt her jaw muscles tighten.
“We want to tell management that we’re starting this one right away so there’s no time for training on it. Just read the script once through after your break and then get started. Try and complete one survey before you go home. I think it’s a half-hour one.”
“And we tell them it’s half an hour?”
“No, we say it will be ten minutes like always.”
Megan checked her phone when she got to the elevator. She had about thirteen minutes to find food and get back to her cubicle.
Sandeep was still having no luck starting a survey when Megan got back. His head was in his hands.
“Megan, I don’t want to get fired.”
“Ask Tom if you can go on this social research survey. We’re talking to people on the dole. They won’t be assholes.”
“I already asked to be changed to a different survey, but they said I have to prove I can hit the hourly target on this one.”
“What? How does that make sense?”
Megan looked over at the team leader’s desk. Tom was glaring at her.
“Megan, move into the other room. Cubicle eighty-eight. Sandeep, go on your break.”
Megan grabbed her bag from under her desk and walked over to Tom to get the new survey paperwork.
Cubicles seventy to one hundred were in a separate room. Megan walked in and turned on the light. The call centre hadn’t been operating at full capacity and the air in the room was musty. Megan turned on her computer and watched green letters and numbers fill the screen. She opened up the survey application and looked for the social research survey on the list. Megan selected “Start Fresh – Wave 1” and read over the introduction of the survey script:
“Hi [client name], this is [insert your name here] from Media Market Research. I am calling because you currently receive the Start Fresh benefit and indicated to your job service provider that you would like to participate in the Department of Human Services study into how people on benefits cope long term. Is now a good time to take the call?”
Megan put on her headset and began fielding calls. She felt the familiar sensation of her stomach dropping at the sound of a phone ringing in her ears.
“You have reached the home of Barry and Jacqueline Smith –”
Megan hung up and let the next number auto-dial.
“You have reached the home of Jessica Edgewell –”
Megan yawned and checked the clock over the empty team leader’s desk. It was seven-thirty.
“You have reached the home –”
“You have reached –”
“Hi Andalee, this is Megan from Media Market Research –”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Megan, and I’m calling from Media Market Research, as you are currently receiving government benefits, and indicated to your job provider that you would be willing to answer a few questions about that?”
“Remind me what this is for?”
“This is part of an ongoing study into how those who receive government benefits are coping long term.”
“You mean, how long are they sucking taxpayers dry?”
Megan looked over the introduction again and thought quickly.
“This is a survey that will track how long some are receiving government benefits, but it is also to gauge how beneficial your job help provider has been to help you find work.”
“Not very good. Can I say that yet?”
“Not yet. Would you like to begin now?”
“Yes. Wait, just a moment.”
Megan sipped water from her water bottle. She could hear Andalee place the phone down, and speak in what sounded like Arabic to a man who spoke back in Arabic. Megan checked her phone, the new message had come through. It was from her mother: MICHELINA, I NEED $87 FOR ELECTRICITY. Megan’s mother always texted in all caps when speaking English, as though that made it more understandable, and she only used Megan’s real name when she was stressed.
After a few moments, Andalee came back on the line.
“Okay, yes you can start.”
“Can I please have your age?”
“And in what country were you born?”
“And what year did you move to Australia?”
“And what year did you begin receiving government benefits?”
“And what was your main reason for receiving these benefits?”
“And when were you diagnosed with –”
“Sorry, I am not the one who is sick, it is my son.”
Megan went back to the previous question but could only see “personal illness” as an option to select.
“Sorry hold on a minute. I’m just trying to figure something out. Do you mind if I put you on hold?”
“Let me guess, my response isn’t on your list?”
Megan paused with her hand on the hold button.
“I’m afraid you are going to find that that happens a lot.”
“It’s no trouble, just bear with me.”
For a moment Megan considered going to tell Tom that Andalee’s response wasn’t on the list, but she knew what the answer would be – “Just pick the closest option” – or something like that.
Megan selected prefer not to answer and moved on.
“And how soon after you started receiving benefits did you start looking for work?”
“About six or seven months. Megan, how old are you? If you do not mind me asking.”
“I am twenty-three.”
“Ah! I was wondering. You have such a nice speaking voice. I thought maybe you were in your thirties, but you are still brand new. Sorry, continue.”
Megan’s jaw clenched. It was the pleasant tilt to Andalee’s voice that was irritating it.
“And how soon did you find work?”
“I have still not found work. I need to be with my son twenty-four hours a day.”
Megan stared at the screen.
Andalee laughed, “Maybe you need to type in my response?”
“No. I am happy for the opportunity to talk.”
Megan selected prefer not to answer.
“Do you think this survey will help me?“
Megan looked behind her to check the door to the main room was closed. Maybe the calls really were monitored and this was a test.
“This is an ongoing study. I can put my supervisor on the phone if you like.“
“That is okay. Continue.“
Relieved, Megan looked at the next question, but because a response hadn’t been given twice in a row the survey had shortened and was now at the end. Something jabbed Megan in what felt like her soul.
“Finishing up now. What is your highest level of education?“
“A master’s degree. We are done already?“
“Almost. Please select your housing type: House, Apartment, Homeless, or Other.“
“And what is the combined total household income, including taxes? Is it between 30,000 and 50,000 dollars, 50,000 and 80,0000 –“
“You don’t have to answer the question.“
“It is not that. If I could specify what ‘Other’ is my answer will make sense.“
Megan felt it again, annoyance at Andalee’s expectation that the survey sound like it was written for humans.
“Sure, let me go back.“
Megan pressed forward to the final page with the goodbye message and government website information.
“Okay, you can specify now.“
Megan lifted her legs up onto her chair. She decided she would go home after she got off the phone with Andalee. She had technically completed one survey like Tom asked her to. Megan noticed a run in her stocking over the knee and closed her eyes.
“I live with my son in a room we rent. We live with two other families from Sudan. My husband stays over when he can, but he has a shift job and sleeps at work a lot. I have tried many times to rent an apartment or a house but the application is always rejected. I enjoy living with the other families though, so it does not feel like it is not a home. Can you put that in?“
Megan’s eyes had teared up and she paused to wipe them.
“Yes, I put that in.“
“You have already typed all of that? You are very fast, thank you.“
“Would you like to answer the income question now?“
“What is after 80,000?“
“80,000 to 120,000.“
“That sounds right. Do you see that the answer makes sense now after I explained?“
“Yes. Thank you for your time. If you would like more information you can visit the Department Of Human Services’ website.“
“I will do that. Have a good night.“
During the bus ride home, it rained. Water cascaded down the bus windows making traffic lights and headlights blur in a way that Megan thought was beautiful. When she was young, Megan liked the idea of coming home in the rain because it seemed like a grown-up thing to do. She thought by her age now she would be calling her husband or lover to say her flight was delayed so she couldn’t make dinner, or she had tried to hail a cab after the theatre but none would stop for her. She would be late again, missed again.
Megan thought of Andalee. She would probably be getting ready for bed about now. If Megan told someone about the call, most likely she would hear that she should be grateful to not have experienced what Andalee had. Grateful to not be a migrant with an ill son. But gratitude wasn’t enough to understand how Andalee was still so pleasant to talk to. Government research couldn’t capture that, and Megan found the idea of being grateful too patronising to think of even someone she had spoken to on the phone for less than thirty minutes. Maybe Andalee was grateful to not work in a call centre anyway. Megan knew that there had to be something she could focus on that would actually bring her comfort after these evenings. She looked out at the wet highway through the bus window, at rows and rows of headlights flowing like a river, and wondered what that thing could be.