Even a doona can be cold to the touch

Shortlisted entry in the Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2022.

When I interviewed for this job, TJ – who seemed much less of a dickhead then – asked me what I already knew about the doomsday accommodation industry.

My brain scrambled and landed on an episode of The Simpsons – from that sweet season 6-10 peak – where Homer goes to inspect a bomb shelter: the beguilingly-named Withstandanator. It’s grim: a spartan single room with army-style bunks and can after can of army-ration baked beans. 

That was literally all I had. 

My naive, blank-slateness must have been appealing though, because somehow I got the job.

I quickly learned that seeing out natural disaster and nuclear fallout had come a long way from the Withstandanator and those Cold War-era days of cramming into crumbling backyard pillboxes. We sell – in the official lingo – ‘residences in luxury safe haven communities’. Our off-the-plan residences are all in New Zealand – the South Island is sooo hot right now amongst cashed-up neurotics. Think fortified mansions integrated seamlessly into rolling green hills, industrial-chic converted grain silos, super-reinforced concrete and steel, rich leather, marble everything, helipads, personal chefs and doctors, theatre rooms, armoured transport vehicles, and very scary private security personnel with very ugly mirrored sunglasses. 

The job itself – not quite so glamorous.

I linger in the kitchen this morning. To be fair, I linger in the kitchen at home too, because where’s a better place to linger right. But I do my best, most deliberate lingering in the work kitchen. Like the rest of the 1970s red brick home to the offices of ‘Steel Eagle Group’, the kitchen is shabby, and has just three plastic folding chairs despite the fact that there are between four to six of us working here on any given shift. 

My pleasant lingering is interrupted by the discovery that TJ has bought the cheap peanut butter! Again! I scoop the substandard peanut butter with a handful of Vita-Weats. Everyone else is at their phones already. I have a little ritual every shift before entering the office proper, when no-one’s around: I do this thing where I rub my temples, grimace, and suck air through my teeth – the pain of the day to come must be acknowledged. So I do my weird thing, and then I slowly slowly slowly amble to my cubicle.

There’s a hot pink post-it on my headset. ‘3 contracts today mate xx’ scrawled in TJ’s ugly writing. A contract basically means a sale – assuming the customer is happy with the terms that legal draws up. Three sales is a LOT to ask. Do the kisses make it better, or worse? Much worse, I decide quickly.

Look, I suppose there are things I can be grateful for. Like for starters, we don’t have one of those relentless auto-dial systems I’ve heard about from friends with other telemarketing gigs. So at least there’s little moments for me to be human between calls.

Oh and also, it isn’t cold-calling. That’s a huge one. Can you imagine what trying to sell $US400,000+ luxury accommodation to randoms would be like? No, these are all technically ‘call-backs’. Stupid people who had, for whatever stupid reason, gotten it in their heads that they absolutely needed one of these stupid bunkers on the other side of the world, and elected to be called back at – in the case of this particular shift – 7:30am–1:30pm Sydney time. So they are already interested. Or, more accurately, in 95% of cases, they had been interested. Had been gripped by panic after reading one alarmist ‘news’ item too many at 2am, did some frantic googling, and fell into our SEO trap.

But this interest generally wanes come morning time. And, of late, I seemed to have slammed into a hot streak of being matched with the least interested of these callbackees. Which is to say, my sales numbers have been low. Last week, TJ literally used the words ‘thin ice’ in describing the precarity of my employment. ‘Thin ice’ is the phrase you use when complaining to your friends about your job and exaggerating what your boss said – no one literally tells you you’re on thin ice to your face! Things are looking bleak indeed.

I’d been hired in the golden, heady days of the Corona rush, when bunkers in seemingly germ-free, far-flung New Zealand were going like hotcakes. I’m told the relevant authorities were even considering changing the expression ‘going like hotcakes’ to ‘going like bunkers’ – the demand was that great! Oh, and when those sweet commissions funded twice-weekly trips to the fancy Harris Farm with its own cheese room and overpriced veggies and that premium creamy hummus.

But the virus no longer inspires the same hysteria it once did. Sales are well and truly eked out now. And just FYI, eking things out sucks. In fact, I’ve had to admit to myself that I am genuinely emotionally compromised about COVID being less of a thing now. I eagerly check my news feed in the morning hoping for catacylsm. Let’s go new Iranian nuclear facility! Fingers crossed for an ebola resurgence! Oh and what I would give for Kim Jong-un to test a super-long range missile – come on you beautiful chubby bastard! 

This job has totally fucked me up.

I put my headset on. The one where the bud doesn’t quite properly sit in my ear. I jiggle it. Do I have a weird ear canal? I open the spreadsheet with my callback list, then jiggle the headset again. With the fat profits the company’s making here, they could at least splash out for functional equipment. I sigh. Like a big proper sigh. Then dial my first number. 

Generally, the Americans are smart. Or smart-ish. Tech types, hedge-fund types, crypto bro types. Smart enough to sometimes even realise that my accent is Australian, not Kiwi. Occasionally, it’s middle Americans who have just lucked into their money. These are the easier sells. Retired footballers, Texans raking in oil and gas royalties, lottery winners, insurance beneficiaries, ranchers, Wallmart-esque heiresses – that kind of thing. 

This guy sounds like he is going to be one of the latter: Emmet McMullen, 53, of Lexington, South Carolina. We begin with niceties (‘Wow I hear the plantations are beautiful in spring’; ‘Yes sir, they do speak English in New Zealand’). 

Then it’s time to ‘push the threat’, as TJ calls it. I loatheeee this part, although, don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten quite good at it. 

‘Can I ask you sir’, I begin. 

Rule number 1: be non-committal when you first feed a callbackee a prompt – it might not be the right threat to push.

I continue:

‘Have you been following the news on what’s going on in the Ukraine?’

I like to open with this one because Russians scare everyone – no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. 

I start doodling bombs and guns and soldiers on the back of TJ’s post-it as Emmet McMullen responds. It’s tepid. No bites.

I change tack to my Chinese spiel – equal parts implicit xenophobia and explicit Communist-phobia. But I don’t seem to be getting much traction here either; maybe he’s one of those types that ignores any non-American news.

TJ pokes his huge, annoying head round the corner of my cubicle. ‘Push the threat’, he mouths slowly. I avoid his eyes and turn back to my screen.

‘Vaccine mandates!’ he scrawls on a piece of paper and shoves it under my nose. He scratches back and forth with red pen to underline. I um and ahh but TJ isn’t going to leave ‘til I mention it. I grab the notepad and write and underline my own demands: ‘Dark roasted peanut butter TJ!’ 

Back to the call. I swallow.

‘You know sir, we’ve been hearing a lot about the forced vaccines over here…’ 

BINGO! But also, damn TJ for knowing what would work.

I manage to sell Emmet McMullen on our mid-tier option (‘Survival Plus’), which includes a premium bunker with three years’ worth of supplies and guaranteed private transfers to NZ in the event of apocalypse (Steel Eagle promises spots on board for the pilots’ families to make sure they don’t flake when push comes to shove, but who knows if this will even work…).

Those crappy Vita-Weats were a measly breakfast, so I celebrate by ripping through half the open pack of Arnott’s assorted creams in the kitchen (minus the Monte Carlos), and return to my phone with a sugar-deliriummy pep to my step. I start to let myself think that maybe three contracts are achievable today after all! 

Misplaced optimism.

I reattach my janky headset and make a series of fruitless, cringey, depressing calls. I get close with one guy, but he tells me he’s going to go with a competitor, Vivos xPoint in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Another callbackee cries to me for twenty minutes about her spouse having gained weight while at least three devil-children screech in the background. 

The sugar high plateaus and gives way to post-sugar fatigue. My eyelids weigh heavily. I stare at the time on my phone.

Then I call Donna L. Yeates, 45, of Providence, Rhode Island. The ring tone repeats several times and I almost hang up, before a thin female voice answers. I introduce myself, and launch straight into the spiel, but Donna interrupts me.

‘Look I’m not actually interested in buying, I wanted to speak to someone about some concerns I have about the residences in New Zealand.’

Yuck. I hate dealing with complaints. Yes, I already know our company sucks, ok!

‘Oh well m’am, these callbacks are actually for sales only. I can give you the appropriate email address – do you have a pen?’

Donna sounds exasperated.

‘I’ve actually sent about six emails already but no-one has replied. This was the only way I thought I could get someone to actually listen to me.’

‘Look I’m very sorry about that ma’m, if you send an email again I will make sure somebody gets back to you within seven-to-14 business days. Can I please confirm the address you’ve been sending emails to?’

‘Listen, my name is Donna Yeates. I’m an associate professor here at the University of Rhode Island, in the geosciences department.’

God, Americans are so into themselves. 

‘Ma’m, again I’m really very sorry bu–’

‘SON A FALL LINE!’ she suddenly shouts over the top of me.

Hmm weird. Maybe bad-weird.

‘Ahhh sorry Ma’m? I don’t think I quite got that.’ 

This time she draws it out.

‘It’s on a fault line.’

‘Sorry, what’s on a fault line?’ What is this lady on about?

Donna inhales slowly.

‘Listen, I was doing some work with colleagues in New Zealand – geological survey stuff. And we realised that one of your residential community things, or whatever you call them, is built on a fault line. A strike-slip fault. Do you understand what that means?’ 

Donna doesn’t wait for me to reply.

‘I don’t think you do because you’ve all been ignoring my emails.’

Well, there was nothing in the two-day batshit boring induction seminar about this kind of phone call. I rub my fingers slowly back and forth across my forehead. 

‘Huh. That’s um, wow ok. Not to be rude, but are you sure about that?’ 

Steel Eagle is FAR from perfect, but that seems like a pretty insane oversight.

‘Not to be rude, but yes, I’m sure’. 

Sarcasm from an American! This is shaping up to be an unusual call indeed.

‘Wait so… like, are you saying people shouldn’t be living there?’

‘Unless they’re keen for an earthquake in the next five-to-10 years, then probably not.’ says Donna. ‘Now can you please put me through to someone important.’

I take my headset off and smile. ‘TJ’, I yell loudly across the office. ‘Ohhhh TJJJ’. 

He sidles up with his disgruntled, giant head. 

‘What. What is it?’

‘Oh nothing’, I grin. ‘Just that I’ve got some advice to share about the doomsday accommodation industry.’

This piece was an entry in the 2022 Honi Soit Writing Competition.