David Ball

I’m sorry, but I don’t have a listing for that party.” Said operator one four seven into the headset. “But it’s not ex-directory. You must have”, came the reply. “Listen, will you. No listing. OK”, was all she was prepared to offer.

She let the line go blank instead of suggesting alternatives to the listing. In other words she made no attempt to help the enquirer and it was on purpose. The man down the line was about to become yet another in the list of unsatisfied customers that morning. One four seven was doing her best to stretch that list as far as it could be stretched during her eight hour plus one for lunch shift. One nine two was probably four or five calls in front of one four seven and one two nine was running a close third. One four one was way behind because she’d been heard to be helpful on at least two occasions that day and the supervisor had received less complaints about one four one than the other participant operators. Perhaps a few words in her ear before the afternoon shift would do the trick and have her contesting pole position before the day was out.

One four one tried hard to improve her performance but finished the week in third position behind one nine two and one four seven. Having been in pole position for the last three weeks, one four one decided to pull her socks up and get back to the top of the local division. She would practise by being as rude as possible to her family and neighbours over the weekend. She was determined to get to the area finals and go on to the national heats later that year. She knew competition would be strong and it would take superhuman effort to wrench the title away from the operators in the north. But, it was time the trophy came south and one four one knew she was in with the best chance of capturing it. That was enough to spur her on and that weekend at home she spent the waking hours polishing up her act.

Mister one four one was a placid, thirty seven year old chartered accountant working for a biscuit making company five miles away. His leisure hours were largely taken up by being secretary to the local round table, which meant arranging meetings and functions for his colleagues in the brotherhood. And, of course, there was the customary pint or so in the pub with the lads to finalise the arrangements. On the nights when he wasn’t round tabling, Mister one four one worked in his converted garage which he used as a study, keeping sets of books for local traders who, to his constant amazement, went perpetually white on receipt of the quarterly V.A.T. return. This brought in that little bit of extra revenue needed to keep the eight year old daughter one four one at private school and to ensure the two week annual holiday during the biscuit firm’s shut down could be paid for. All in all, Mister one four one qualified nicely for the title of Mister Average. In fact, everything about him was average. His house in an identical estate of thirty, his British made one point six “L” saloon car, his two grey suits and his blue jeans for weekends were all average. His treasured flying ducks on the lounge wall, his Spanish brass bellows by the mock open fire and his black plastic Japanese hi-fi unit set inside a black vinyl coated case, with black smoked plastic door, complemented the garish yellow and brown banana patterned carpet that ran all over the very average house.

Which was the primary reason Misses one four one had entered the competition in the first place. She had become so bored with her mundane life in recent months. It had dawned on her that this family was rutted into being nothing more than a number on a council tax form, no different to the clones in the other twenty nine houses. She now felt the need to be somebody, something out of the ordinary. She wanted to brighten up her family’s life and sweep it away from the daily drudge it had become in the last few years. She’d spoken to Mister one four one about her problem but he had always been adamant their life and lifestyle was comfortable and secure, far from boring. She’d argued that his life was full of other activities and that meant she and her daughter had little or nothing to occupy their spare time. Mister one four one countered by saying the daughter was content to play her computer games and visit the pony club at weekends. He couldn’t understand what his wife’s problem was and discouraged any further debate on the matter, always having to go to the converted garage to do somebody’s books.

The frustration grew and grew until the inner hell that Missus one four one was living just had to escape. When the opportunity to enter the heats of rudest telephone operator of the year came along, Misses one four one jumped at it with a previously unknown zest. This was her lifeline, a chance to do something and make a name for herself. The prize money had nothing to do with it in Misses one four one’s mind. She craved the notoriety and fame that came with the title, envying last year’s winner from Huddersfield who had gone on to appear in commercials and who was now becoming a household name as a television presenter. She imagined herself on Graham Norton and the Jonathan Ross show, mixing with the stars and becoming a celebrity in her own right. She’d show her husband there was more to life, more than the tedium that made him so content. She’d be opening fetes and giving interviews, signing autographs and having her picture taken with the boring people who thought she was a star. Her whole life would change for the better; a prospect which filled her with relish and sparked off an instinct she never knew she had.

She found the change quite remarkable. Her in-laws, weekend visitors to her average house for as long as she could remember, reduced their visits to monthly and then quarterly before they stopped coming all together. Now they would phone once a week and would hang up if she answered it, so Mister one four one became heated about the increase in the average telephone bill, after spending time apologising for his wife’s rudeness.

It was like dangling a carrot in front of a starving donkey every time he mentioned it, giving his wife yet another opportunity to think of something even ruder than before. Consequently, Mister one four one took on five new customers to meet the extra phone costs, balancing the financial burden set before him by his rude wife. He didn’t mind so much when the milkman stopped delivering because of his wife’s rudeness, but he thought she had overstepped the mark when the neighbours in the average house numbers fourteen and eighteen put their houses on the market. This brought on a now rare argument with his wife, one which lasted as long as it took for her to dream up a string of gutter level abusive language such as he wouldn’t even hear in at the rugby club. Needless to say, the short lived row was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Mister one four one, who took to sleeping in the converted garage of the average house despite his wife’s pleas for forgiveness. She was only trying to win the competition and didn’t really mean a word of it she told him, but his average mind was made up and once that happened, Mister one four one became as stubborn as a mule.

The doctor refused to call on Misses one four one but took a note of her symptoms over the phone and left a prescription at the surgery. She was banned from her local pharmacy for abusive behaviour and had to drive five miles to the nearest pharmacy to get the medication for her flu, which, as it hadn’t been treated immediately due to her rudeness to the doctor, turned to pneumonia. She was taken to hospital and kept in a single room not to avoid the risk of infection but to keep her from being rude to the other in-patients. After ten days she was allowed to go home, but ordered to rest for a month. During the period of her isolation at home she became rusty, due to the lack of opportunities to be rude. She had no visitors to average house number sixteen and her husband’s clients now called him at the biscuit factory. Mister one four one had also put a lock on daughter one four one’s bedroom door so the child could be allowed some peace to play her computer games. Without victims, she could not maintain the high standard required to win the southern area title and go on to the national finals in three weeks time. Everything she had worked for in the last year was going to be lost unless she could get out and meet people, but she was still very weak and the enormous effort required to keep in verbal shape was beyond her.

Mister one four one emerged from the converted garage to make himself a cup of tea in the kitchen, only to find his wife sitting at the table looking tired and drawn. He wanted in his heart of hearts to ask if he could help her at all, but he knew that all he would get in reply was a mouthful of abuse, so he didn’t. He boiled the kettle, put a tea bag in a cup and was back in the converted garage of the average house within two minutes, the door locked firmly behind him.

A week later Misses one four one made the supreme effort and returned to work. The only person to greet her was operator one four seven, who had held the mantle in her absence. She was told to see the supervisor before returning to her position on the switchboard. This she did and was immediately ordered home, being unfit for work, only after being told she had also not supplied a medical certificate. This gave Misses one four one the chance to flex her muscles for the first time in five or six weeks and she responded magnificently, giving the supervisor an x-rated stream of dialogue. At home the following day she was surprised to see a letter from her employers on the doormat; nothing to the surprise she had reading the letter, to find out she had been sacked for taking time off without supplying a medical certificate. She screamed abuse at herself because there was no-one to scream at, before calling the surgery to get a sick note. She cursed even louder when the receptionist told her she was no longer registered at the surgery and as such, couldn’t be given a certificate. That day had probably been the worst day her life. Everything had gone wrong for her and she despaired about the lost chance of stardom, not thinking about all the other things she had lost along the way. She convinced herself that she really was a nice person once and could be again. She knew her husband loved her and her daughter and she, in turn, really loved them twice as much. She loved her in-laws and they used to love her. If she could be nice to them maybe they would start visiting her again. Perhaps things could be normal again. She must have been crazy to abuse everyone around her. After her fifth scotch she knew she could win them all back, return to the blissfully happy life she once had. She must have been out of her mind to think her life was boring. It was never boring before but it had become so in the last eight or nine months. She poured another scotch and willed herself to battle herself back to where she had been before getting mixed up in the competition at work.

At two o’clock the phone rang but Misses one four one didn’t hear it. At three it rang again and again at four. She came out of her drunken sleep at five but wouldn’t have if the phone hadn’t have rung. She answered it and listened to the operators laughing down the line. She hadn’t even thought about it being April the first, taking her dismissal from the company so seriously the balance of her life had shifted a full three hundred and fifty degrees within the last few hours. She was so ashamed of herself because the dismissal letter had truly brought her back to reality. She politely thanked the girls for the joke at her expense and replaced the receiver.

Mister one four one came home as usual, expecting his wife to be upstairs and his dinner to be in the oven. Two scented candles illuminated the perfectly laid kitchen table and a bottle of wine sat in an ice bucket between them. His wife was beautifully dressed and the makeup hid the lingering traces of tiredness in her face. She said nothing as she dished up the average sort of meal reserved for Thursday. He sat down in silence and started his dinner. Misses one four one sat opposite him in silence, slowly picking at the boring food on the plate. She poured him a glass of wine but mixed hers with mineral water. He raised his glass to her without saying a word and sipped the wine. She took his empty plate away and placed a desert of blackberry crumble and custard in front of him. He looked at her, his eyes showing an element of confusion, although he felt she may have been trying to get through to him for the first time in a long time. He was weary, rightly feeling that this could be a way of trapping him into speaking, and thus fuelling his wife’s mind for an argument. So he said nothing, finished his crumble and departed for the converted garage in average house number sixteen.

The following evening it was a dinner brought to him on a neatly laid tray in the converted garage, pink and white roses adorning either side of his dinner plate. But still he said nothing, happy to elevate their relationship to nodding terms. A month later he was sleeping in the matrimonial bed and found his silent wife there, more than happy to accommodate his physical desires, although not a word was spoken. And so it went on.

Misses one four one watched the news over a cup of coffee and was startled to learn the police had unearthed a massive infiltration into the phone company she used to work for, by a rival outfit. They had tried to devalue the company by offering its operators enormous cash sums to be rude to customers, hoping those customers would change to their service, and driving the competitors into liquidation. The guilty operators had all been given prison sentences of two years for deception. She figured they would be out in one and it was only fair that her sentence should be the same. She had not spoken to her husband for four months, which left eight months to go. It was going to be a long, hard slog for Misses one four one but she had to serve her time, her overriding sense of guilt telling her so.

Two weeks before Misses one four one was eligible for parole from herself inflicted sentence, Mister average one four one left her. He took daughter one four one with him and set up home with one of his clients, an attractive deaf mute recently widowed and of considerable wealth; it would be their pleasure to learn sign language!