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'Connecting you now ...' Writing of the Week from SSOA emerging writers


CONNECTING YOU NOW

I remember those words so clearly - 'Connecting you now' - as the operator tweaked a few knobs in some far land and your coins clunked into the box. And those waiting in the queue outside sighed relief to see you speaking at long last!

‘Hallo, hallo!’ - as you get the tone right and recognise a particular family member’s voice. ‘How are you?’ repeated five times and not really answered. ‘What time is it there?’ asked, and the multiple vagaries of the weather discussed. The important words remain unsaid - 'We worry about you', or 'We miss you'. Back in 1990, there was no coming home willy nilly from Australia for a holiday.

These days, I sit in the comfort of my living room, peering into my 7 cm by 15 cm mobile phone or looking at my computer screen where the family in that other land gather close, peering over shoulders and all trying to get a word it. These days there's no need to repeat the questions four times over, and it can truly seem like a get-together in the one room.


'Look - here’s the great book I’m reading,’ as I hold it up. ‘What’s that you’re munching on?'. Or 'Wow! I like that vibrant sweatshirt, Hannah.’

And the facial expressions are all clear - the bored, the tired and the joyous - until the zoom screen freezes at the worst possible moment, with someone’s mouth wide open.

We take such connection for granted these days, the sectioned faces on one screen representing four corners of the globe - Dublin, Basel, Boston and Sydney.

But I miss the hug - and reach for my old tattered teddy bear. Gerdette Rooney



CONNECTING YOU NOW



The old-style music-on-hold machine would terrorise us callers. We would hang up immediately rather than watch our limited earnings flow through the coin-op phone, or have a heart attack when the unwanted telephone bill found its way into our letterbox.

If we were rich or brave, we might sit on the chair by the wall telephone, holding the heavy handset against an ear, cheek and chin, wearying our hands, our arms and our patience.

Times are a-changing. Digital pulsing enabled us to choose options. Charges fell. And, luxury of luxuries, I can prop up my Huawei smartphone on the kitchen table. And make myself useful while I wait. On Whatsapp the call is free.

Let me sort out the details of my new bank account.

‘Welcome to Southpac Customer Services. We are always pleased to hear from you. If you are calling from Australia, please press #1. If from any other country, press #2.’

I press #1.

‘If you want to learn more about Southpac services and new home loans, press #1. If you have an enquiry about a bank account balance or payment, press #2. Or to discuss any other enquiry, press #3.’

I have a quandary about whether to try #1 or #3. Either one could lead to me following a false trail into the dark woods or the ether (I’m not sure which), and wasting more of my time. I opt for #3.

A soft recorded female voice tells me to press #1 if I want to hear Southpac’s pre-recorded privacy statement. I press #2, certain that I do not want to hear it. She then warns me that anything I say to one of the customer service staff may be recorded for training services.

My blood is already beginning to boil in anticipation of the long wait. The music begins, followed by: ‘We regret to inform you that due to COVID restrictions, waiting times are longer than usual’.

More music, irritating muzak from the 1970s, a cheap version of Kenny G designed to sooth the generic average customer. No, not me, never!

‘Your call is important to us.’

‘F..k off’, I yell at my smartphone. ‘If it were so important, you would have answered by now.’

But then I am reassured by real information, practical advice. There are sixteen in the queue ahead of me. One minute later, fifteen; thirty seconds later, fourteen.

I switch on the kettle, then take a quick trip to the loo. Down to seven. I pour water over the teabag in the cup. Still seven. Who are these customers slowing down my progress?

I don’t care who they are, they can get off the phone. Lunch is coming soon. I prepare a sandwich, but I am listening carefully. Those slow buggers are all finishing at once. Six, five, four, three and two in quick succession. Yes, yes, yes, only one customer ahead of me. I sit down again in front of my Huawei.

‘Thank you for waiting. Connecting you now ...’

Silence. The connection has dropped out. Roger Guinery


CONNECTING YOU NOW

The twelve men and women astronauts and scientists were six months into the twelve month simulation exercise, living in a sealed bubble somewhere in America’s Mojave Desert.

In preparation for a three year mission to expedite a Mars landing, six of the subjects would be selected for the eventual assignment. Dan Milano was the putative commander of this trial and it was clear to him and everybody else, that if all went well, he would lead the undertaking. It would not be an understatement to suggest that Dan’s life trajectory had led him to this place and that at forty-five, he knew full well that this would probably be his last chance at the commander role.

His first marriage to a woman he had loved deeply foundered when the relationship was pitched against the demands of what NASA expected of him. The experience had wounded him deeply and he considered it a miracle that years later he had met Melinda, who worked on the ground at Nasa and understood what was expected of her partner.

During the six months in the bubble, communication with the outside world had been off limits as the watchers looked on to see how the subjects dealt with total isolation. This was necessary to see how they would deal with an extreme situation if contact was lost with earth. All twelve of the team, including Dan, were excited at the prospect of being in internet contact with their selected loved ones for thirty minutes in a guaranteed private call. Dan chose to be last cab off the rank as his colleagues entered and exited the communication module, exhibiting a variety of expressions ranging from elation to disquiet.

Then came Dan’s turn. He sat down at a table in a small, sterile cubicle and stared at a laptop screen. Through the speaker, a flat voice announced, ‘Connecting you now. You have thirty minutes.’ The screen flickered and Melinda’s face looked back at him. It was awkward as the two of them waited for the other to speak. Dan was immediately aware that Melinda looked uncomfortable. He was desperate to see the right look, which would assuage his fears but instead, Melinda’s eyes tried unsuccessfully to remain focussed on the laptop camera lens.

Eventually, Dan spoke. ‘Hi Honey, it’s so good to see your face. ‘ Melinda responded so quietly that Dan could hardly hear her. ‘Hi Dan. It’s good to see you too. How are you doing?’ ’I guess as well as can be expected. It’s tough going but that’s what we all trained for and I guess that’s why we were selected. So what’s your news?’ ‘Same, same. The job’s good and life goes on but ….’ She paused.

‘What’s up baby, is something wrong?’ ‘Dan, I can’t do it. This is just a foretaste of what’s to come. I miss you and I miss our life. The thought that if you get this assignment, we’ll have another three years of this ...’ Her voice tailed off. ‘Melinda, we don’t have much time to work this out. Are you telling me I have to make a choice?’ He watched the screen as tears slowly fell onto Melinda’s cheeks. Lawrence Goodstone

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