Illustration by Matt Weismantel
Warranty Line: Inbound | Zoe Ace Richards
"Where can I find the serial number?" huffs the voice in my ear.
"On the box your phone came in. Or inside your phone, behind the battery."
"Okay, just a tic." I hear rustling and a click, and the line goes dead. I sigh and lean back in my office chair, take off my headset and look out over the grey cubicles and grey carpet, out the window to the grey sky.
"What do you mean? You’ve lost my phone?" she screeches in my ear.
"I’m sorry, but there’s not a lot I can do. I can give you the truth."
"We make phones that don’t work. Have you noticed that the screen is pretty much cellophane? Super dodgy."
"Yes, I thought that when it arrived." She sounds surprised, but a bit calmer. I pour water from my water bottle into my terrarium, a micro fern in a glasshouse, a tiny little world. "We require you to send your faulty phone to us. We will lose them," I continue.
"I’m not sure why. The warehouse doesn’t have a phone. Because why would a warehouse have a phone? That would be nuts right? Maybe they have one of ours." I laugh.
"You’re crazy, lady."
Tinny laughter in my headset, a man on the line this time.
"Every phone that goes through the warehouse gets lost." I explain for the fourth time since lunch. "I’m assuming that it’s just a big black room, probably with no lights, where they just piff the phones in without labelling them. But like I said, I’ve never seen it. The warehouse is in Sydney." I’m leaning back in my chair and waving my hands around. I’m on a fucking roll.
"Err. Why are you telling me all this?"
"Huh? Oh. Trying to get fired. Now. When you call to ask about the progress of your claim, I email the warehouse, they email back in two to three working days, saying they have no record of the phone. At this stage, you will, of course, instinctively know to call me back, and I will inform you the warehouse has no record of your phone. Remember, pretty sure, it’s just a cavernous room full of broken phones."
"Bloody hell," he laughs. "Why don’t you quit?"
"Egh. Reasons. Now. Because apparently we don’t catalogue the phones, you’ll have to contact Australia Post and provide us with a receipt number to prove it arrived at the warehouse. If you didn’t send your phone registered post, this is where the process ends. We will claim it never arrived."
"That’s ridiculous! Just not right!"
"Totally agree! But hang on," I pause for effect, rocking back in my chair, "it gets worse. Now. If you did send it registered post, we will send another email to the warehouse and they will look for it. I’m imagining one guy sitting in a dark room—maybe his name is Hank?—taking phones apart, looking for the serial numbers with a torch. Once again, I haven’t been to the warehouse, so this is all conjecture."
The voice in my ear has turned into a full-on belly laugh. "Now. Once Hank finds your phone, he’ll send it to the workshop and, after two weeks, it’s sent back to you but, and I cannot stress this enough, the phone will still not work. It may come back with a completely different problem, but I guarantee, it will not work. Now. To get out of your contract, you have to go through this process three times. My advice? Cut your losses and run. Get a Nokia or something."
"Wow, OK. Thanks for being honest, I guess?"
"No problem. As I said, I’m trying to get fired. If you have time, please call and make a complaint about me. Try to make me sound truly awful if you can. My employee number is…"
"Thank you, I will."
I disconnect the call and carry my inflatable airline pillow to the toilet, go to my usual cubicle furthest from the door, wedge the pillow up against the toilet-roll dispenser, and doze in relative comfort until five.
Wednesday, I turn up forty-five minutes late. No one seems to notice. A new guy, named Colin, has moved into the cubicle next to mine. He has bleary eyes and long dreadlocks scraped into a ponytail. He’s wearing a crumpled work shirt, and black dress pants that he constantly hikes up. He drums his fingers on the desk.
At 11.15am we take the windowless elevator down thirty floors. Colin bums a tailor from Dave, a call centre lifer, a boiled ham of a man whose white blonde hair flakes off into the weak sunlight, trying to escape his head. After Dave heads upstairs we drag out our fifteen minutes into twenty-five, sitting on milk crates I keep stashed behind the dumpster in the alley.
"Bear with me while I take a look?"
"Of course, take your time. Where are you?" The man’s voice is warm and slow and I take my time looking up his details.
"I’m in Melbourne, right in the middle of the city. How about you?"
"I’m in South Australia. The Barossa. I run a vineyard."
"That sounds beautiful." I pause. "Ah, it says that the warehouse never received your phone."
"Now what I’m going to do, is tell you the truth. We make phones that don’t work."
I lean back in my chair and launch into my spiel. My fern looks sick. Shrivelled. I pour the dregs of my water bottle into the terrarium.
"Wow. Just wow. That’s outrageous."
"It’s a total rort. You should call consumer trading or someone, the ombudsman."
"Thanks. But why tell me all this?"
"I’ve been trying to get fired for months. They just won’t do it."
"Why don’t you just quit?"
"If I quit I can’t get unemployment and then I won’t be able to pay my rent blah blah blah. I have to get fired or find another job, which is pretty hard working five days a week. To be honest, I really didn’t think it was going to be this hard."
"Do you want to work on a vineyard?"
"No, I’m serious. Let me give you my address and phone number and you can come whenever."
"Sure," I laugh again. "Maybe I’ll turn up one day."
"No I mean it," he says. "Come whenever."
Colin comes downstairs again at 2.30pm and bludges a rollie off me. We sit behind the dumpster and throw our butts in a Milo tin half-full of sand.
"So what do you do when you’re not doing this?" I gesture vaguely at the alley, at the cigarette butts and fast food wrappers in the gutter.
He draws his shoulders up toward his ears and hunches in on himself as he sucks down the last drag of his cigarette. Right down to the filter. "I play drums. Just started a new band. I produce music too. Just waiting for my big break."
"Hah. Yeah. Aren’t we all?" I roll my eyes, tossing another butt into the tin. "What are you doing after work? Wanna drink some wine by the river?"
"All good, I’m sure there’s some shrapnel in the bottom of my bag." I scrounge around and find lint, loose tampons, gum wrappers, and a handful of change.
We sit by the Yarra under heavy clouds, and drink a bottle of five-dollar wine while the sun goes down. Office workers stream over Swanston Street Bridge into Flinders Street Station. The oily river washes by, laden with newspapers, Coke cans and coffee cups, some caught in the rubbish nets under the bridge, but most flowing on, carried out to Port Philip Bay.
Later, wedged between armpits on a packed tram, my reflection stares back at me, greasy, like a thumbprint on the glass. I seem to exist at least as much out there on the other side as I do here. In the reflection, I watch the man pressed up against me pick his nose.
"I demand to talk to a manager."
"Well. I could say I’ll get a manger for you. But, to be completely truthful, we’ve been told to put a customer on hold for six minutes and then tell them our manager is busy. He doesn’t take calls."
"That is unacceptable. I demand to speak to your supervisor."
"Umm. Okay. I’ll have to put you on hold."
I put her on hold for six minutes and make a cup of tea. The supervisor’s office is empty. I stare out the grimy window at the matchbox cars stuck in gridlock down on Spencer Street. I step right up to the floor-to-ceiling glass. If it weren’t for my breath fogging the window, it would seem as if I could step right out into empty space.
A week later, I get to work at 9.55am. Colin is sitting in the gutter out the front smoking a rollie.
"What you doing?"
"Lost my lanyard." He grinds his cigarette into the pavement with his shoe and kicks it into the gutter.
"Ugh that sucks. Come on then."
The elevator is stainless steel. It would have looked schmick and shiny once, but now it’s so scratched our reflections are just vague shadows. Colin hunches in the corner. He looks like shit.
"You look like shit," I say. "Everything okay?"
He shrugs. "Yeah. You know, just waiting around to die."
"We live remote. My husband has a heart condition. We can’t be without a phone. This is the second time! The second time I’ve had to do this. It’s just not right." Her voice is thin and wet and reminds me of my grandma’s.
"No, it’s not. And I’m so sorry. The best I can do is tell you the truth…"
At 3.45pm Colin is on the phone, arms crossed, staring at the ceiling.
I hear him say "I can understand your frustration," in a flat voice. "My manager? I’ll see if he’s available." He clicks the hold button and takes off his headset, yawning.
My fern is totally dead now, shrivelled and curled—a skeleton on barren ground. I pour some water in anyway, and watch it creep around the inside of the glass before soaking in. I look at the queue—thirty-six customers waiting.
“Wanna go drink some wine by the river?” I ask.
“Yeah sure,” he shrugs.
We drink a cleanskin each on the pontoon behind Flinders Street Station, watching dark clouds gather. They were only six bucks each, but they go down smooth and sweet. The wine tastes the way I imagine sunshine would taste.
I look at the bottle and laugh. It’s from the Barossa.
"What?" Colin asks.
Zoe Ace Richards is a Southern Cross University student undertaking a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English and Creative Writing. She is the recent winner of the Ewing Trust Writers' Prize. This story has also been accepted for publication in Coastlines 8