THERE’S A GIRL WHO sits on the other side of the office called Jennifer Reynolds. I don’t know her very well. I don’t have much to do with her from day to day. In fact I’ve only spoken to her a handful of times since I was transferred into the PFP. She’s not here today and I hate it when she’s out. When Jennifer Reynolds isn’t here her duties get shared between the rest of us, and the job I have to cover today is the worst job of all—Reception. The postal address of the PFP isn’t actively broadcast but it’s on some of the correspondence we send out and it’s in the phone book and it doesn’t take much for the general public to find out where we are. We get a lot of visitors, too many in my opinion. If someone comes here it’s almost always because they’ve been fined or clamped. They’ve probably already tried to get the fine overturned or the clamp removed and, by the time they reach us, coming to argue their case in person is often the only option they have left. So those people who do turn up here are likely to already be seriously pissed off. Shouting, screaming, and threatening behavior isn’t unusual. The first place these people reach is Reception, and the first person they get to scream at, shout at, or threaten is the poor sod sitting behind the desk.
So here I am, sitting alone at the Reception desk, staring at the tatty bronzed-glass entrance door, watching anxiously for any visitors. I hate this. It’s like sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. I’m constantly watching the clock on the wall. It’s hung just above a large bulletin board covered with unread and unhelpful council posters and notices. Just to the left of the bulletin board, equally unread and unhelpful, is a small sign which warns the public against intimidating or attacking council staff. The fact that it’s there doesn’t make me feel any safer. There’s a personal-attack alarm stuck under the desk but that doesn’t make me feel any better either.
It’s four thirty-eight. Twenty-two minutes to go then I’m finished for the day.
I’m sure Tina enjoys making me come out here. It’s always me who ends up covering for Jennifer. Being out on Reception is a form of torture. You’re not allowed to bring any paperwork out here with you (something about protecting confidential data) and the lack of any distractions makes the time drag painfully slowly. So far this afternoon I’ve only had to deal with two phone calls, and they were just personal calls for members of staff.
Come on clock, speed up.
Almost there. I’m watching the clock all the time now, willing the hands to move around quickly so that I can get out of here. I’m already rehearsing my escape from the office in my head. I just have to shut down my computer and grab my coat from the cloakroom, then I’ll sprint to the station. If I can get away quickly enough I might manage to catch the early train and that’ll get me back home for…
Damn. Bloody phone’s ringing again. I hate the way it rings. It grates like an off-key alarm clock and the noise goes right through me. I pick it up and cringe at the thought of what might be waiting for me at the other end of the line.
“Good afternoon, PFP, Danny McCoyne speaking,” I mumble quickly. I’ve learned to answer the phone quietly and at speed. It makes it difficult for the caller to take your name.
“Can I speak to Mr. Fitzpatrick in Payroll please?” a heavily accented female voice asks. Thank God for that—this isn’t a screaming member of the public with a complaint, it’s just a wrong number. I relax. We get a few calls for Payroll most days. Their extensions are similar to ours. You’d think someone would do something about it. Anyway I’m relieved. The last thing I want is a problem at four fifty-five.
“You’ve come through to the wrong department,” I explain. “You’ve dialed 2300 instead of 3200. I’ll try and transfer you. If you get cut off just dial 1000 and that’ll take you through to the main exchange…”
I’m suddenly distracted and my voice trails away as the front door flies open. I instinctively move back in my chair, trying to put as much distance as possible between me and whoever it is who’s about to come storming into the building. I finish the phone call and allow myself to relax slightly when I see the front wheels of a child’s stroller being forced through the door. The stroller is jammed in the doorway and I get up to help. A short, rain-soaked woman in a green and purple jacket enters Reception. As well as the child in the stroller (which is hidden from view by a heavy plastic rain cover) two more small children follow her inside. The bedraggled family stands in the middle of the Reception area and drips water onto the grubby marble-effect floor. The woman seems harassed and is preoccupied with her kids. She snaps at the tallest child, telling him that “Mummy has a problem to sort out with this man, then we’ll get you back home for something to eat.”
She takes off her hood and I can see that she’s in her late thirties or early forties. She’s plain looking and her large, round, rain-splashed glasses are steaming up. Her face is flushed red and there are dribbles of rainwater dripping off the end of her nose. She doesn’t make eye contact with me. She slams her handbag down on the desk and begins searching through it. She stops for a moment to lift the rain cover (which is also beginning to steam up with condensation) and checks on her baby, who seems to be sleeping. She returns her attention to the contents of her handbag and I make my way back around to the other side of the counter.
“Can I help you?” I ask cautiously, deciding that it’s about time I offered. She glares at me over the rim of her glasses. This woman has an attitude, I can sense it. She’s making me feel uncomfortable. I know I’m in for a hard time.
“Wait a minute,” she snaps, talking to me as if I’m one of her kids. She takes a packet of tissues out of her bag and passes one to one of the children at her feet who keeps wiping his nose on the back of his sleeve. “Blow,” she orders sternly, shoving the tissue into the middle of the kid’s face. The child doesn’t argue.
I glance up at the clock. Four fifty-seven. Doesn’t look like I’ll be getting the early train home tonight.
“I parked my car at Leftbank Place for five minutes while I took my eldest son to the toilet,” she begins as she repacks her bag. No time for niceties, she’s straight into her complaint. “In those five minutes my car was clamped. Now I know that I shouldn’t have been parked there, but it was only for five minutes and I was only there because it was absolutely necessary. I want to speak to someone who has the authority to sort this out and I want to speak to them now. I want that clamp removed from my car so I can get my children home.”
I clear my throat and get ready to try and respond. Suddenly my mouth is dry and my tongue feels twice its normal size. It had to be Leftbank Place, didn’t it. It’s an area of waste ground just ten minutes walk from our office. Sometimes it feels like just about every other car that’s clamped in this town is clamped at Leftbank Place. The enforcement team who cover that area are notorious. Someone told me they’re on some kind of performance-related pay scheme—the more cars they clamp each week, the more they get paid. I don’t know whether or not that’s true but it doesn’t help me now. I know I have no choice but to give this woman a stock response from procedures. I also know that she’s not going to like it.
“Madam,” I begin, tensing up in anticipation of her reaction, “Leftbank Place is a strictly no-parking area. The council…”
She doesn’t give me a chance to get any further.
“I’ll tell you about the council,” she yells, her voice suddenly uncomfortably loud. “This bloody council needs to spend less time clamping people and more time making sure that public amenities are in proper working order. The only reason I had to park at bloody Leftbank Place was because the public toilets in Millennium Square have been vandalized! My son has a bowel condition. I didn’t have any choice. He couldn’t wait any longer.”
“There must have been other toilets…” I begin to say, instantly regretting having opened my mouth. Christ I hate this job. I wish I was back dealing with rubbish collections, rat infestations, or even broken street lamps again. My biggest problem is that it sounds like this woman has been genuinely hard done by and I’d probably have done exactly the same as she did if I’d been out with my kids. It sounds like she’s got a fair point and there’s nothing I’d like to do more than call off the clampers but I don’t have the authority. My options now are bleak; follow procedures and get yelled at again by this lady or get yelled at by Tina Murray if I don’t do things by the book. Chances are I’m going to cop it from both of them. Before she can react to my stupid comment I try and cover it up. “I understand what you’re saying, Madam, but…”
“Do you?” she screams, this time loud enough to wake the baby in the stroller who starts to whimper and moan. “Do you really? I don’t think you do, because if you did understand you’d be on the phone to someone right now getting that bloody clamp removed from my car so that I can get my children home. They’re cold, they’re hungry and…”
“I need to just…”
“I don’t want excuses, I want this dealt with.”
She’s not going to listen. This is pointless. She isn’t even going to give me a chance.
“I suggest you go and speak to your superiors and find someone who’s prepared to take responsibility for this shoddy mess and come and sort it out. I was forced to park at Leftbank Place because of this council’s inefficiency. I have a son who has a medical condition and I needed to get him to the toilet urgently. If the council had done their job properly in the first place and had made sure the public toilets were in full working order then I wouldn’t have been parked there, I wouldn’t have been clamped, and I wouldn’t be standing here now talking to someone who clearly can’t or won’t do anything to help me. I need to speak to someone who’s a little higher up the chain of command than the receptionist so why don’t you do us both a favor and go and find someone who is actually prepared to do something before my son needs to use the toilet again.”
Patronizing bitch. I stand and stare at her, feeling myself getting angrier and angrier. But there’s nothing I can do…
“Well?” she snaps.
“Just give me a minute, madam,” I stammer. I turn and storm back into the office and walk straight into Tina coming the other way.
“What are you doing in here, Danny?” she asks, her tone of voice as patronizing as the woman outside. “If you’re in here, who’s manning Reception?”
She knows full well there’s no one out there. I try and explain but I know it’s pointless.
“I’ve got a lady out in Reception who…”
“You should have telephoned through if you needed help,” she interrupts. “You know the rules, you’ve been here long enough now. There should always be someone at the Reception desk and you should always telephone through if you have a problem.”
“There is someone at the Reception desk,” I sigh, “and she’s having a real go at me so can I tell you what her problem is please?”
She looks up at the clock. Damn, it’s gone five. I’ll probably be stuck at the station until six now.
“Make it quick,” she sneers, making it sound as if she’s doing me a favor.
“This lady has been clamped because she parked at Leftbank Place…”
“Tough! You can’t park at Leftbank Place. There are bloody big signs up everywhere telling you not to park at Leftbank Place.”
This isn’t getting any easier.
“I know that, you know that, and she knows that. That’s not the issue.”
“What do you mean, that’s not the issue?”
I pause before speaking again. I know I’m going to have a battle convincing Tina that this lady has a genuine case. For a moment I consider giving up and taking my chances outside in Reception again.
“This lady tells me she parked at Leftbank Place because she needed to take her son to the toilet.”
“What kind of an excuse is that?”
“She needed to take him to the toilet because he has a medical condition and because the public toilets in Millennium Square have been vandalized.”
“That’s not our problem…”
“No, but her argument is that it is the council’s problem. She’s demanding we get the clamp removed. Won’t go anywhere until it’s done.”
“She can’t go anywhere,” Tina laughs to herself. “We’ll get the clamp removed when she pays the fine.”
I’m not surprised by her response, just disappointed. I want to go home. I don’t want to go out there and get yelled at again. What annoys me most of all is that we both know the longer this lady stands her ground and makes a noise in Reception, the more chance there is that the clamp will be removed. I can’t stand all this bullshit and pretense. I can’t help but say something.
“Come on, Tina, give me a break. You know as well as I do that if she shouts long enough we’ll let her off.”
She looks at me, chews her gum, and shrugs her shoulders.
“That’s as may be, but we have to try and take the fee from the client first. You know the procedure. We have to…”
There’s no point listening to any more of this rubbish. I can’t be bothered.
“I know the bloody procedure,” I sigh as I turn my back on her and trudge back toward Reception. I wonder whether I should just keep going? Should I walk straight past the woman and her kids and just leave the building and the job behind?
I open the door and she turns around to glare at me. The expression on her face is pure evil.
I take a deep breath.
“I’ve had a word with my supervisor,” I begin dejectedly, knowing what’s coming next. “We can get the clamp removed, but we must insist on payment of the charge indicated on the signs displayed at Leftbank Place. We can’t…”
And she’s off. She explodes again, shouting and yelling at me. The force, velocity, and ferocity of her outburst is remarkable. It’s an incredible (but not at all unexpected) rant and I have no defense. I can’t argue because I happen to think she has a valid case. If she’d just shut up for a second I might be able to…oh, what’s the use? I don’t know why I bother. The more she shouts at me the less I’m inclined to listen. I’ve given up trying to follow what she’s saying now. Her words have just become a constant stream of noise. I’ll wait for her to take a breath.
“Madam,” I interrupt quickly as she pauses to inhale. I hold my hand up in front of me to make it clear that it’s my turn to speak. “I’ll go and get my supervisor.”
I walk away, ignoring the muttered comments I can hear about “speaking to the organ grinder, not the monkey.” I’m long past caring. As I reach for the office door Tina pulls it open from the other side and barges past me. She stops just long enough to hiss a few venomous words in my direction.
“Well handled,” she sneers sarcastically. “You’re bloody useless, you are. I could hear her shouting from my desk. Now, what’s her name?”
“Don’t know,” I admit, cringing at the fact that I haven’t even managed to establish the most basic of details.
“Bloody useless,” she sneers again before fixing a false smile on her foul face and marching over to the bedraggled woman and her children. “My name’s Tina Murray,” she says. “How can I help you?”
I lean against the office door and watch the predictable charade being played out. Tina listens to the complaint, points out to the lady that she really shouldn’t have been parked at Leftbank Place, then makes a phone call to “see what she can do.” Ten minutes later and the clamp is removed. Tina looks fantastic and I look like an idiot. I knew it would happen like that.
I run to the station and reach the platform just in time to see the next train leave.
Pretty damn cool huh? 🙂 Looking forward to reading this book big-time! 🙂