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It was Maeve who told me that there were openings at the call center. I thought perhaps the job would be stressful, but I reasoned that it would only ever be temporary. And besides, the fact that Maeve already worked there all but guaranteed that they would hire me.

I was interviewed in a beige room on the seventh floor of a building in Darling Harbour, in the office of the country’s largest labor hire company. Four women were hired that day, and I was the only one who had finished high school. I figured out later that the hiring policy was based on the likelihood that the applicants would stick around, and the four of us didn’t look like we were doing anything else. As we left the group-interview stage and emerged from the elevator into the rush-hour foot traffic on Market Street, a girl with bleached hair and three inches of black roots told me she had failed the spelling test but was pleased that they’d told her she’d receive a call in a couple of days. She made a sound that I think was meant to be laughter. I told her I had studied literature, and she asked me if that meant books.

The actual office was located on the other side of the city. It spanned the second floor of a skyscraper on the corner of Bathurst and Elizabeth Streets, overlooking Hyde Park. Technically, the office was on the same street that I lived on, and I could walk to work, but my stretch of Elizabeth Street was all kebab shops and bars and brothels, as though in the half hour it took to walk down Elizabeth Street to my house the city was gradually loosening its belt and taking off its clothes.

The proximity of the office to Hyde Park made it easy for me to imagine that I might enjoy the job, and in the morning it was soothing to see busy, professional people making their way through crowds that streamed steadily along beneath the Moreton Bay figs that lined the street. But the managers drew the blinds at dusk and, besides, most of the time you were not sitting near the window, and the window was not much of a reprieve from the trilateral smog-colored workstations and the fluorescent lighting and the constant ringing of phones.

After a morning of training that encompassed company policy and instructions on how to navigate the procedures and regulations of the nation’s largest telecommunications company, a woman with corkscrew curls and broken teeth named Pat showed me how to use the desktop computers where we received the calls. I was handed a headset and placed at a workstation. I started answering the phone.

People were meant to dial 000 but every single person who called was in a panic, and some people who had been confused by watching too much American television would slip up and dial 911 instead. It didn’t matter. The calls came through anyway. Every emergency phone call in the country came through to centers in either Sydney or Melbourne. In these centers spoke the first voice a person would hear in a crisis. After establishing whether someone was in need of the police, the ambulance, or the fire brigade, it was my job to determine a person’s state and town and connect the calls through to the dispatch centers.

The first one wasn’t too bad. Emergency police, fire, or ambulance?

I asked.

The man on the other end of the line said, Ah, ah, police. There’s been a crash on the M4.

What state and town is the emergency in?

Ah shit. Well, it’s the M4. Um, there’s a sign for Wet ’N’ Wild up ahead, so what’s that? Merrylands?

Merrylands in which state?

Oh, New South Wales.

Connecting to the police for Merrylands, New South Wales.

The line rang twice, the police answered, I read them the job number, waited for the police and the man to begin talking, pressed the right-arrow key three times, hit enter, and hung up. It was even boring.

The calls went on like that, until late afternoon. At a quarter to five a red siren above the windows that overlooked the park began to blare. It means there’s high traffic, Pat explained, with all her curls and her teeth.

A car crash, a breakdown, asphyxia, a wrong number, a misdial, a car crash, and then screaming.
Ambulance. I need the ambulance the ambulance the ambulance. What state and town is the emergency in?
Werribee. Victoria. I need an ambulance an ambulance.

And the phone rang, and it rang, and the woman screamed once more, and I connected to another number, and told her the ambulance service would answer as soon as they could, and it rang twelve times while she screamed and the siren blared above the windows while the rush-hour crowds streamed through Hyde Park. But eventually the ambulance answered. And eventually the siren went quiet.

In my first afternoon working at Triple Zero, I took calls from angry drivers, an old man with chest pains, a white woman who didn’t like the look of the brown boys on the corner, teenagers fucking around after school, a woman hiding from her ex-boyfriend under the bed, and a mother whose baby had turned blue.

The phone calls came from everywhere in the country, at every time of day. In a few months, I learned to spell the names of all the tricky towns, regardless of the fact that my knowledge of their location on the map was usually hazy. Towns with hidden “u”s got to be my favorite—Aurukun. Wauchope. Nhulunbuy. Gradually, I learned the dangerous parts of every city by the number of calls coming through. I winced hearing the names of places I had never been. Mount Isa and Eagleby, Bourke and Mount Druitt, Narre Warren and Frankston, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. I made a vow that I would never set foot in Cairns or Townsville. If callers didn’t give us a location, or the noise on the phone sounded like screaming or struggle, we could connect to the capital city of whatever state we thought the call was coming from. There was data on the screen, but it didn’t reveal much. We could see neither names nor precise locations that might illuminate a caller’s emergency, only their state and phone number. Calls for domestics on Thursday Island, a location so remote it was practically Papua New Guinea, could be referred to the Brisbane police dispatch center, regardless of the place being half a continent away. Because it was, after all, in Queensland.

A shift of eight hours involved being dropped into emergencies and pulled out, hearing only pieces of whatever the story was, up to fifty times an hour. We asked the questions we were meant to ask, we did it quickly, we stuck to the script. The script we were taught on our first day was meant to shield us from distress. If all went as planned, the person calling didn’t tell us about the fire raging down their cliff or the body they’d discovered at the bottom of a gully. We waited to hear the caller engage with the paramedic or the firefighter and then quietly hung up before hearing the details. We were not meant to hear the problem. We were not meant to hear the woman howl for the baby turning blue in her arms. But the woman howling couldn’t know that I was not the person she was meant to tell. She didn’t know that I couldn’t help her.

The centers never closed. We worked in eight-hour shifts around the clock, and so we tended to fall into three categories: the morning group, peopled mostly by senior citizens in orthopedic shoes; the overnight shift, filled mostly with erratic cosplayers, the autistic, obese, or formerly incarcerated; and the afternoon shift, where the rest of us ended up. There were actors and sculptors, high school dropouts, TAFE students, the listless, the aimless, and those who had fallen into the job because it seemed like a worthwhile way station between one thing and the next. Pat, who trained me, had been an environmental lawyer, and I never learned why she was a lawyer no longer.

The shifts we worked could change according to the whims of the contractor we were technically employed by. Some weeks would be filled with shifts that began at four in the afternoon and ended at midnight, followed by a shift that began at five in the morning and ended at one. Without the windows, there was very little to look at or do in the call center. Televisions were mounted on the walls on either side of the room. They were never turned off, but they didn’t have sound. We were not allowed to watch subtitled programs. We were not allowed to read, to have our phones, or to eat. We were not trusted with distractions. To fill the time, we talked to those at the phones around us, but nobody talked about the calls. Why should you care? Pat asked, whenever, in the first week, I expressed distress.

Occasionally I would lean over to Maeve if we were working at the same time, and try to tell her about something strange or funny or horrific.

I don’t want to hear it, she said each time. She had worked there for four years.

When I’d first met Maeve in our Honors seminar a year earlier, she had shown me the tattoo of a heart she had got in Oaxaca from a man with a dirty needle. She had been twenty when she’d had her wrist tattooed, and she was only three years older now, but she had begun to hide the heart with bracelets and long sleeves. Maeve had shorthair and a nose ring, and when I’d met her she had stood outside the Woolley Building with one hip pushed against the low brick wall and told me that she was probably a lesbian. But she gradually eased away from the assuredness of that first heady identification, so that by the time we have reached now, she had recently described herself to me as seven-eighths straight. The tattoo in Oaxaca would be the last of the risks she ever really took. Maeve was dating a Jewish boy who lived by Centennial Park with his parents. His friends were music producers and private school junkies and convicted felons. Maeve lingered in their world like she belonged there, but she didn’t do drugs, and she believed in the rules, and she was planning on applying to law school. She had a plan for the future, and she knew precisely what it looked like. I tried to talk to her about the emergencies. But she was not interested in my feelings, or my thoughts. I never saw her shake after hanging up the phone.

During my first week, Pat with the terrible teeth and corkscrew curls tried to explain the way the place worked. Some people can’t hack it, she said. They take the calls personally, and those are the ones that are out of here in three weeks. You’ve got to get it into your head that this is just a job.

I nodded. I did not want to be one of the weak ones who couldn’t hack it. She explained the center’s social dynamics. She pointed out the couple in the far corner who were having an affair. She pointed to the middle-aged man who went to Thailand every year to get a hair transplant. She pointed out the pair of skinny men with soft bellies. The dumbest fucks here, she said. They knew nothing about anything. Climate change is real, she advised me as I finished another call. I nodded. She told me about the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, the melting of the permafrost, the rising incidences of freak weather activities, as though I believed it wasn’t happening. The glaciers were melting, she said. And I nodded. The sea would rise by a hundred meters, maybe more. The Maldives were already sinking below the surface. The oceans were acidifying. The state government was soon to begin fracking the Great Artesian Basin, the underground water source that covered a quarter of the continent, the real-deal shadow of the mythical inland sea the nineteenth century had earnestly supposed was Out There. The water would be poisoned. The land would dry up. The ground would quake. There was no turning back. And those dumb fucks, she pointed again, all they give a shit about is footy and lunch.

I nodded.

Hey, you’ve got to answer in three seconds, you know, she gestured to the screen, where the incoming call icon was displayed. If you don’t answer within three seconds, you’re gone.

It occurred to me only later that perhaps I was not suited to this type of work, not having much in the way of appropriate boundaries between myself and the rest of the world.

On the first free day after my initial week at Triple Zero, I woke up near noon and found that there were no coffee beans left in the biscuit tin by the stove. I pulled on a too-big sweater over a tatty dress and left the house without showering. Outside, I fumbled with the keys to the iron security door. A week earlier I had tried to leave the house to find that, overnight, somebody had wrenched the heavy couch underneath the front window across our door to bar our exit. There was no way to push it out of the way. I woke up my housemate Paul. With Joe, who lived in the room next to mine but who I barely ever saw, I watched Paul climb out my window and shimmy down the drainpipe. We watched him jump from the awning and push the couch back into place and use his key to open up the door and walk back into the house.

The couch barring the door seemed like an augury. It seemed to confirm my suspicion that everything contained the potential for menace. After a week taking emergency calls, everything did. The Greek lady next door was sitting beneath the trellised grapevine that grew over our stairwell to the street, but she turned away from me as I locked the iron security door and pretended to organize the wool in her sewing basket. For a moment I saw myself from her perspective—the knotted hair and rumpled clothes—and I realized that I looked quite as “wild” to her eyes as the kind of people the architects had been afraid of when they’d built these houses up above the street. And this troubled me, because I wanted the lady and her husband next door to like me. I walked by her and turned left under the dappled light of the trees, toward Redfern Street and the cafés with their croissants and good coffee. As I walked, I couldn’t help but take everything personally. Every billboard. Every flyer in the gutter. A woman on the street by the florist saw me and called her husband to hurry into their idling car, slamming the door shut. The car seemed to veer toward me. Every driver I saw had unreliable wrists. The man who owned the Italian deli watered the laneway potted plants with his back to me. On the corner of Redfern Street an ibis perched atop a rubbish bin opened the big black garden shears of its beak as I passed. There were magpies, which I also took personally. In the corner of my vision I sensed them preparing to swoop at my head.

After just a week I had already began to adjust to a life where there was no time to analyze information if you were going to be one of the ones who could hack it, and where three seconds was all it took to get gone. I was primed for gut reactions. I was attuned to all the reflex tests of the psyche: hot takes and pop-ups and “Act Now” demands.

In January of the year I left Sydney I became afraid of walking too close to the gutter and the cars that veered around corners too quickly. I was afraid of cyclists, people in tracksuits by traffic lights, afraid of staircases and lit cigarettes and power lines. I was afraid of men. I was afraid of just about everything.

Madeleine Watts

Madeleine Watts grew up in Sydney, Australia and currently lives in New York. She has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and her fiction has been published in The White Review and The Lifted Brow. Her novella, Afraid of Waking It was awarded the Griffith Review Novella Prize. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Literary Hub. The Inland Sea is her first novel.