ZDNet Australia is proud to bring you a serialised version of Phil Dobbie's novel The Incumbent. A new chapter will be published here as part of his blog each week on Tuesday. You can also buy the entire book by clicking here.
Sydney Musson had long suspected there was a strong element of fiction creeping into his quarterly phone account. Now he had the proof, 48 pages of it. At least three quarters of the charges were for international calls to the McDonald Islands. This was a glaring mistake for a number of reasons. First of all, Musson didn't know anyone who lived there. Secondly, no one did live there. There was a volcano that had taken to erupting on a regular basis, much to the annoyance of the local penguins, and not much else. This tiny group of Australian sub-Antarctic islands are so remote and desolate that there's not even a Leagues Club there, and certainly no telephones.
'Ah ha, I've got them!' bellowed Musson, jumping on his lounge chair with a vigour he hadn't displayed since the day he finally agreed to lose his virginity to himself. 'If there are no phones there, how can I have been calling them?'
You couldn't fault the logic, but phone bills around the world have little to do with logic, and those from VastTel even less so.
Musson was now ready to vent the full force of his spleen, probably to an underpaid middle-aged call centre worker, no doubt living in the Philippines, or possibly Huddersfield. He grabbed the phone, his blood now pumping fast enough to dislodge the cholesterol that was settling in to clog his arteries, unknowingly adding at least five years to his life.
His hands were shaking with anticipation as he punched in the number for what VastTel dubiously called its 'customer care line'. It was the best name the company could come up with after use of the term 'customer service' had been challenged by the regulatory authorities as misleading. With the threat of massive punitive damages, wording around the limited service VastTel provided was now carefully compiled by specialist legal teams. For example, 'ask our customer care line a question' was not acceptable because it implied someone would be available to talk to you. 'Got a question? Call our customer care line' was permissible because you might have a question, you might call, but anything beyond that was not promised and was, in reality, highly unlikely. The on-hold message that said 'your call is important to us' was removed after a class-action lawsuit conclusively proved the company couldn't care less.
An eager Musson navigated his way through a long and complicated series of voice menus, before eventually clicking numbers at random and finding himself placed in a queue. A queue was good, he thought, because it implied that, at some stage, not necessarily today, he would get to talk to a human being. It was a bold assumption.
For what seemed like hours Musson listened to 'Greensleeves', over and over again. It brought back memories. His father had been Mr Whippy, when Mr Whippy was a noble profession, untainted by suspicion of paedophilia. In fact, having a dad with an ice cream van, for a time, made Musson enormously popular at school, until his fair-weather friends realised there were actually 674 Mr Whippys in the country, all with a white van that played 'Greensleeves'. There was nothing special about him, they concluded, and they were right.
The on-hold music was interrupted occasionally by a message that started: 'Even though your call has the potential to be important to us...' In the meantime, more 'Greensleeves'. Musson felt like he needed an ice cream.
After a while the music was starting to get tedious. That was intentional; of course, they wanted you to hang up. Musson figured that out and it increased his resolve to stay in there. The only question in his mind was, could he walk away from the phone long enough to grab some Raspberry Ripple out of the freezer?
'Have you heard about our new Stateside Supersaver Special?' said a woman at the end of the line, 'with the first 10 minutes free on all calls to Canada,' adding in a hurried voice 'provided you call after 1am and before 3 on the first Friday after a new moon.'
'Just press one,' she said.
'What about cheap calls to the McDonald Islands?' muttered Musson.
'I'm sorry I didn't understand that,' said a rather matronly computer-generated voice that passed him back to the end of the queue for insubordination.
'Greensleeves' came back on, only slight slower than before. Musson was now starting to feel sleepy as well as hungry. 'What about a new mobile phone?' interjected the next voice. 'The Eric 55-10 has all the features of the Eric 55-09, but it's 2mm smaller and comes in more colours,' said the woman, who sounded alluring, but was actually a 64-year-old transsexual called Tasmin.
There was even more 'Greensleeves', then it stopped. Two hours had now passed. Musson's anger had quelled a little as hunger and tiredness became more entrenched. It was difficult to remain quite that irate for so long. Generally callers would collapse from exhaustion before they reached the front of the queue.
There was a slight pause and a click on the line. Musson mistakenly thought he was about to speak to someone, a real human being. But no, the audio charade continued. 'Please wait,' said a voice he'd heard at least 50 times already, 'we'll be with you shortly', to which the words had been added 'please see our terms and conditions for a definition of shortly'.
The reassurance that 'we'll be with you shortly' was repeated frequently. The words, although not particularly original, had been carefully scripted by a psychologist who had been paid a year's salary for her work. In her submission she had recommended that 'the tone adopted for the word 'please' display the right blend of confidence and desperation. The hint of desperation shows empathy, as though the whole of VastTel is there sharing the pain with the caller — the confidence shows that, despite this short-term inconvenience, VastTel is a company able to offer you a partnership into the connected world of the future.
It was all bullshit, of course, but big corporations love this sort of stuff. The psychologist submitted her 80-page report, with entirely fabricated studies of non-existent customers, to VastTel's overpaid 'Director of Interactive Menus — Tiers Four and Five' (who had recently been promoted from a position dealing with tiers six and seven), before landing him with an invoice for $250,000.
The psychologist earned a lot of money from VastTel. Not just the $250,000 for scripting eight words and the supporting 80,000 words of documentation. She understood the way large telephone companies worked so, after VastTel paid the bill, she waited a month, changed a few words, and then sent another invoice for the same amount to a different department. It was paid without question. She did this several times and, once she had been through all departments, she started again, knowing full well that the head of the first department would have forgotten, moved to a different role or gone into a coma, possibly unnoticed. Likely as not, someone new would be in charge, unaware of what work had been commissioned beforehand and happy to sign off the accounts without much analysis, probably because he or she couldn't understand them.
None of this was any concern to Sydney Musson who, after three hours, was finally patched through to a phone on the 10th floor of the VastTel head office. This rarely happened and the girl who answered was somewhat put off by being placed in direct contact with a customer.
'Hello, welcome to VastTel, my name is Mandy,' said Sally who, like most VastTel people who had sporadic dealings with the public, liked to remain anonymous. She had learned from experience that people expected a higher level of service than VastTel employees were trained to give. Most calls resulted in a formal complaint from the customer and, from that point, VastTel was obliged to follow a complex procedure that you'd be lucky to see the end of before you died. In fact, the formal process had recently been extended to reflect the increasing life expectancy of the customer base.
While Sally answered the phone as Mandy, somewhere else a Mandy was answering a call as Sally and, after a short argument, ended up suggesting that the customer go stick his head in his least accessible orifice. Complaints from such remarks were usually taken slightly more seriously than straightforward ineptitude. Ineptitude was part of the character of the company, but outright abuse of customers was less common. It rarely happened more than once an hour; whereas the ineptitude was ongoing.
Anyone found offending a customer would be subject to disciplinary action. For example, Mandy would earn Sally a written warning. After six more written warnings, four three-month counselling courses, and eight fortnights of paid recuperative leave, if Sally's attitude hadn't improved, she would be moved to a different department. If this happened eight times in less than 12 months then dismissal was a real possibility, unless she was in a union or she changed her name, in which case the whole thing got far too complicated and was subsequently dropped.
Fortunately for Sally, by the time she answered his call Musson's anger had diminished somewhat. In fact, he was grateful to be talking to someone at long last. 'Mandy, thank God. Do you know how long I have been hanging on waiting?'
'Four hours, 12 minutes and 23 seconds,' said Sally.
'Would you like me to hold while you go and get some ice cream?'
'No,' said Musson, fearing, quite rightly, that she wouldn't be there when he got back.
'Now listen,' he continued, 'I have a problem with my phone bill.'
'Oh, I'm sorry,' said Sally. 'You have a bill enquiry, that's a different number. I'll put you through.'
'No!' he screamed, but it was too late, she was gone. There was a click on the line and a slight pause, a short burst of 'Greensleeves', then the message that finally made him lose it. 'Thank you for waiting. You are number ... seventy eight ... in the queue. But don't worry, because your call is important to us, possibly.'
'You baaaasssstarrrrds!' yelled Musson, his face red with anger. The colour spread down his various chins and came out in a nasty rash across his chest, strangely in the shape of the Virgin Mary. It would take several weeks and appearances on 359 websites, before it cleared up.
The blood pumped through Musson's veins, stretching his muscles and ripping his shirt at the seams, which sounds impressive except it was a worn-out seventies cheesecloth shirt that would have split if he'd so much as sneezed in it.
His scream of anger was enough to alert the Chinese restaurant downstairs. It was a high-pitched squeal that tormented the dogs in the kitchen. Even the lobsters started to look worried. They hated high-pitched squeals, especially when they came from a family member around dinner time.
The proprietors downstairs became more alarmed when Musson started throwing objects around the room. Lamps were being smashed, shoes were being thrown, the television was chucked through the window. Soon the whole neighbourhood was aware that something was going on, but they all decided to keep to themselves. People didn't want to get involved, mainly because the police would want to ask lots of questions, which would take time and they didn't want to miss the last half hour of breakfast TV. There was a military coup in New Zealand that had got some coverage, but most people were hanging out for a new way of making chocolate brownies.
'I'll kill them!' Musson screamed, bent on revenge on the VastTel call staff. 'Kill them I will.'
'Did you say Whimplestein?' said the voice recognition system at VastTel. When Musson had flung the phone across the room he inadvertently selected the option to be put through to directory enquiries. The voice recognition software was not able to understand the screams of a demented man. Or anyone else really, but the software vendors had specifically stated that its accuracy was severely impacted by someone speaking in a heightened state of anxiety, which, unfortunately, described practically everyone making a call to VastTel.
'Kill them I will,' he yelled again, saliva flying from his mouth in a continual stream.
'Did you mean Doctor Whimplestein?' asked the automated voice, seemingly picking a name at random.
'Yes, I will kill them. That's what I'll do!'
'To be put through to Doctor Whimplestein say "yes" now.'
'Bastards!' yelled Musson, which was close enough and within seconds Sophie, Doctor Whimplestein's receptionist, was on the line.
'Doctor Whimplestein, I think you'd better listen to this,' said Sophie after listening to Musson's rants for a few minutes. She was used to dealing with lunatics because, as a clinical psychologist, that was pretty much all of Whimplestein's patients, and a fairly accurate description of the doctor himself.
'Where are you calling from?' said Sophie, slowly and deliberately.
'Fuck you!' yelled Musson, who still wasn't aware that anyone was on the phone.
'That must be the Happy Fu King,' Sophie assumed rather quickly, before passing the call through to her boss. As chance would have it, Musson lived directly above the receptionist's favourite Chinese restaurant and she was able to give precise directions to the mental health authorities who made it there in record time. What an extraordinary coincidence.
Only 20 minutes passed before a hospital van had pulled up outside Musson's flat, along with a couple of police cars and four burly officers. They soon cautioned the owners of the restaurant for talking in an incoherent fashion before one officer, the only smart one, explained it was Mandarin.
Moments later they heard Musson from upstairs. 'Bastards!' he yelled.
Two of the officers quickly headed up there and battered down Musson's door, while the other two and the supervising doctor stayed below and ordered Sweet and Sour Pork with a generous helping of prawn crackers.
The officers upstairs were not prepared for what they saw. It was not a pretty sight. Musson was naked, sitting in his own excrement, surrounded by the torn remnants of a phone bill.
'I shit on their bogus charges,' he said, smiling up at the officers like a madman.
'Come with us sir,' said the largest of the officers, pulling Musson to his feet, twisting his arm behind his back, whilst trying to avoid touching the excrement. It wasn't easy. He wasn't used to poo; he'd never had kids and so far didn't have an incontinence problem of his own.
'Where are we going?' asked Musson. Whilst he was pleased to have his protest recognised by the authorities he wasn't ready to be arrested. Surely he was the victim here?
'Where would you like to go?' joked the officer, in response to the question.
'I want to stay here,' said Musson firmly.
'We're going to take you on holiday,' said another officer, who had been trained that, when speaking to someone in a state of high anxiety always speak in a condescending way. It's bound to calm them down.
'Where?' snapped Musson, who suspected he was being talked down to but, as he'd never been treated as an equal by anyone, was never really sure when someone was taking the piss.
'Where are we taking you?' said the first officer. 'On holiday to...' He said the first destination that came into his head. That place that was mentioned in the pub quiz last night. The one full of penguins and with no RSL club. What was it again?
'We're going to take you to the MacDonald Islands,' he said, when he remembered it.
'The MacDonald Islands!' screamed Musson, pointing to page after page of calls supposedly made from his phone.
'What is this, a conspiracy? Who are you people?'
His voice sounded possessed. His eyes were bulging, his skin had turned a ghostly white, even whiter than usual, and from nowhere he acquired a new-found strength with which he broke free of the officer's hold. His hands clasped themselves tightly around the neck of one of the largest and most senior members of the squad. All of a sudden he garnered the strength to crush the man's oesophagus before the other policeman could do anything to stop him. The sound of their senior officer choking to death was so horrifying that the others, hearing the noise echoing down the stairs, cut short the fried dim sims they had ordered and headed up to help, almost straight away.
'You're all in this together,' Musson yelled, as the officers tried to lever his grip apart. 'What do you know about the MacDonald Islands?'
His hands gripped tighter and tighter around the officer's neck, with an exertion so intense that Musson's eyes were starting to bleed. 'You must die,' said the maniac. 'I must kill VastTel. Kill them! Do you hear me? '
And with that, the officer stopped struggling. His body slumped to the floor and Musson released his grip. The three remaining officers, shocked for a few seconds, restrained the madman and locked him in the van. It was all done so quickly and efficiently that they were able to return to their dim sims before they went cold.
An hour later they returned to the station and filed the paperwork; always an extensive process when a policeman had been killed in the course of duty. Their Commander looked it over. He was a stickler for administrative processes. In fact, in the last 12 months there had been a 20 percent improvement in the accuracy of police paperwork. It annoyed him that, with such a pleasing result, the media would focus on the 40 percent increase in violent crimes.
'Nice job,' he said to the officer who handed over the report. 'A few punctuation errors and three spelling mistakes, but I can't fault the grammar,' he said, before looking to the last page where in the box marked 'reason for death' the officer had written 'dispute over phone bill'.
'Not another one,' said the commanding officer. 'This is getting out of hand.'
The Incumbent is Phil Dobbie's first novel and these excerpts have been used with his permission. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. To purchase the entire novel in digital format, click here. It is also available in printed format ... for more details click here.