A Fowl Job by Robina Fisher

Helen makes another futile visit to the Job Centre, just as she has every weekday for the past two months. Times are hard, jobs increasingly scarce. Her one month’s pay in lieu of notice did not last long, and now the bills are piling up. Sitting on a hard plastic chair, she waits her turn to be interviewed. At last, ‘Advisor No 3 – Free for Service.’ flashes onto a screen. Helen recognizes the Advisor from previous ‘interviews’ and knows that this will be an unpleasant encounter. Through a speaker fitted into a dividing protective glass barrier the Advisor’s voice betrays the contempt she feels for Helen, and all the other ‘clients’, as job seekers are called.

‘You again?’ she snaps.
Helen’s face colours. ‘Yes, is there anything today?’
The Advisor leans on one elbow, and half-heartedly scrolls down a screen with one finger. After a few sighs, and shakes of her head, she says
‘You are in luck, an interview session is taking place tomorrow at a call centre for Sales Agents. If you are interested I will book you in.’
Helen knows she isn’t any good at selling. An image of a pile of bills flashes into her mind.
‘Yes, I am interested.’
‘The company is No1 Solutions. Here is the address, make sure you do something with your hair. Be there, 12 noon.’

The bus drops Helen off at the address on the slip of paper – Happy Valley Farm. She walks to the end of an overgrown lane, which opens up on to a derelict farmyard. A large corrugated barn stands at one end. ‘NO 1 SOLUTIONS’ is painted along one side. Opening a small door marked ‘Entrance’ she steps into a cramped reception area, where around ten applicants already stand shoulder to shoulder. Like battery hens, they shuffle from foot to foot and try to make space for their arms. A sallow faced woman sits at a tiny desk ticking names on a checklist. Suddenly a speaker on the wall booms ‘Cock-a-doodle-do.’ The woman signals with her thumb to a side door.
‘In there.’
After much shuffling and bumping, the applicants squeeze through the door into another small room. More awkward maneuvering is required before they can sit at a circular table. On a high chair, similar to that used by tennis referees sits an odd figure, drumming his fingers impatiently on the chair arm. His skin is yellow. A ridge of red hair runs along the top of an otherwise baldhead. Tufts of yellow hair spurt from his ears. A barrel shaped chest and spindle bowlegs give him the appearance of an aged cockerel. Falling silent, they wait. He drums his fingers for another minute, and then allows a silence to hang in the air before introducing himself.
‘I am No1, this is the title with which you will address me. To be a successful applicant you must convince me that you are worthy of employment at No1 Solutions. Are you up for the challenges ahead?’
Another short silence ensues before they take his cue and answer in chorus
‘Yes No1.’
He throws out questions like pieces of meat bait to a pack of fighting dogs, pitting one against the other…
‘If a caller becomes abusive can you show me which one of you can handle it?
‘If you are stuck on a desert island with one other person, would you share the last drop of the water? ‘
‘Would you give spare leads to another member of the team?
The atmosphere in the room heightens. Soon the session becomes survival of the fittest as each individual tries to impress No1. Arousal and excitement begin to pump around his body. He knows that the joke is on them, only the pliable and easy to control will have a chance to get a job. ‘What a bunch of fools’. He spots Helen. ‘That one looks promising, flushing cheeks, stammering and desperate, a nice little chick – perfect.’ The gladiatorial atmosphere in the room is causing Helen’s stomach to heave. Just in time, the speaker booms again
‘Cock-a-doodle-do time up, leave the premises.’
Everyone scrambles to their feet, nobody speaks and they avoid any eye contact with one another. They feel demeaned, but not quite sure why.

Helen knows she performed badly at the interview and was surprised to receive the job offer to start on Monday. Joy at her success melts over the weekend, as the prospect of working at the call centre fills her with dread. There is no alternative she needs the job. Deciding to have an early night, she lies in the dark waiting for sleep. Flash backs to the interview and visions of No1 fill her mind…
She walks down the lane, and steps in through the small door. The woman with the checklist thrusts pages of scripted questions and answers into her hands.
‘You will be identified as No22. You have daily call targets. No ifs, no buts, these must be met. Target the elderly, they are easy to persuade. Get their bankcard details. Take as much funds as you can winkle out of them. For charity, of course. No1 will see that you are well rewarded.’

Years before the building was a farm factory mass-producing eggs from battery hens. Small feathers and yellow dust still cling to the rafters above. Now an aisle runs down the middle separating two blocks of cubicles. The space is windowless, and lit by florescent tubing. Each cubicle has a number hanging from above by a chain, and a terminal wired to a call handling system. The high chair used to preside and intimidate the applicants at the interview is now located at the start of the aisle, and from its vantage point No 1 watches and rules over his domain.
Sitting at her terminal Helen’s fingers tremble as she clicks start. ‘No22 signed in’ flashes on a large screen dominating the end wall of the barn. The first call flags up as a red bar, a timer displays the call duration and an arrow indicates progress.
No11 could see No 22 from his terminal. ‘She looks a nice girl, but she is floundering already.’ His thoughts of sympathy are interrupted by No1 calling over the speaker.
‘Cock-a-doodle-do, No22 come to my office.’
Helen’s knees knock together as she enters the room where No1 is waiting. Around his shoulders, he wears a cape of black feathers. Lifting his arms wide he envelops her in its darkness.
‘My little chick, I think you need a bit more training. Now let me see what you are made off.’

Everyone turns and stares. The tap, tap noise of fingers on keyboards stops. No 22 has black feathers sticking to her hair, her bottom wiggles and elbows flap like wings as she dances down the aisle to her perch and begins screeching
Bwok, bwok…
A mist of red rage clouds No 11’s mind ‘He has gone too far this time. There might be just enough time before he returns.’ Dropping to the floor, he crawls beneath the cubicles to the bank of plugs, sockets and trailing wires feeding electricity to the work terminals and big screen. Pulling four cables from their sockets, he holds them carefully as he crawls over to No1’s watchtower and winds a wire around each of its four metal feet. ‘Soon No1 will be one large roast chicken.’ Crawling back to his terminal he clicks start ‘No11 signed in’ flashes on to the screen. Seconds later No 1 swaggers form his office over to his high chair. Making himself comfortable, he leers down and looks at No 22. ‘Yes, quite enjoyable.’ Picking up the mic, he flicks the on switch,
‘Cock-a- doodle-do’ morphs into high pitch squawking, howling and squealing. The stench of burning flesh fills the air. The workers do not look at No1, but continue taking calls until the large screen sparks, explodes and disintegrates. The workers leave their cubicles and form a column down the centre aisle knowing they are leaving ‘No1 Solutions’ for the last time. Passing No1’s high chair they chant in unison
‘Cock-a-doodle-do, Cock-a-doodle-do’.

No 11 walks over to No22. Her eyes are shut, her hair disheveled and her top twisted around her body. Gently he shakes her shoulder?’
‘What is your name?’
‘No 22.’
‘No, your real name?’
‘Mine is Mark. ’
She tries to push him away, and not to open her eyes. Mark’s voice is soft and far away.
‘Helen, wake up, you don’t want to be late for your first day at the call centre.