• Ganesha Lamps and Kitten Heels

    When I get home, all that’s left of Varji is a plastic plate of half eaten instant curry.
    “On the 3:45 Qantas flight,” says a word document left open on the computer, “ditched Air India. Left the ring on the counter for you to return to the shop. Will phone.”
    Inventory: Beginning of the day: toast, earrings, hope for the future. End: broken heel, useless engagement ring, and half a plate of cold curry, hunks of dead meat floating in a spicy brown sea.

    Notably absent: laptop, Varji’s clothes, the watercolour, food in fridge. Boyfriend. Love, warmth, affection.

    Next day, he does phone, at 2am. Too black to find the receiver. Grasping. Knock his Ganesha lamp off the dresser. It shatters. I pick up the phone.
    “Hey Claire. Eating dinner?” The moon laughs at me through the grimy bedroom window.
    “Australia’s 4 hours ahead? Really?”
    Varji “hasn’t got long”, but he’s “done me a favor.” Rattles off a three line address, phone number, before I find a pen, “show up at 9,” hangs up.

    Seven hours later, with a super-glued kitten heel and a gymnastic stomach, I arrive outside a hulking glass building. It’s all blue tint and black frames. Effective as looming, a failure as elegant. The doors are a glass carousel. A suit-man enters from the opposite side. I flounder. We do a few back-and-forths until he pushes hard enough to send me sprawling into the building.

    Floor 12.
    Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, ding.
    A call centre.

    Bored Indian male with a half-windsor knot looks up at me.
    “Varji…” A flash of recognition, he stands up, opens a glass door, “follow me please”. Slight accent, reminds me of Varji. Wave of nausea.
    Inside, rows of black Dells, headsets, white fingers on keyboards, click-clack and Australian voices. Number 43 is unoccupied.
    “Sit.” Enters a number. Clicks the words “first time”, written in blue bubble writing on the screen. Gives me a glare. I slam on the headset, greeted by a barking voice “Your first time?” Look around for Mr-Friendly, but he’s vanished into the glass hedge-maze.

    An hour later, my task becomes clear.
    I am working for UdanaPrivate, manufacturer of private jets for self-indulgent Indian billionaires. Owned by Indian Australians, vegemite curry. Customers demand English speaking call centers.
    The place was a machine. White cattle with headsets, curry managers strolling along the computer highways, nodding or yelling. Reminded me of my McDonalds’ job.

    Lunchtime, and a school-choir-round of “windows is shutting down.” Chatter starts, the flurry of activity leaves me feeling underwater. The huge room empties. First the workers, like spilling milk. Then the managers, jocular and shoving, drawling in what sounds like Varji’s Telugu.
    I am the only one left, in this sea of ones and zeros.
    I stand up to leave, but then I realize, I don’t know what time to come back. Stare at the ceiling. Swivel my chair round and round in circles. Yell at Varji and end up crying, which gives me a headache. Check on the kitten heel. Swivel someone else’s chair. And then the rush comes back, in reverse order, and the afternoon begins.

    After work (beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, ding), I stop at the jewelers to return the ring.
    “Back so soon?” says the well-meaning brunette behind the counter.
    “Didn’t fit.”
    “I’ll just…” She struggles with the cash register, which beeps and groans.
    “Actually, I lied.” Dripping out of me.
    “It doesn’t like returns...”
    “He didn’t want it.”
    She gives the register a whack, and it finally opens, shooting the drawer like an insult.
    “Right. What were you saying?” Gives me the money, takes the receipt. I leave. Linger longingly around the bottle shop, but have long since abandoned it because I can’t operate the self-serve.

    Day two in the machine, my kitten heel snaps on a piece of black cabling.
    At lunch I stay inside again, and saw the other heel off with a discarded piece of RAM. The experience is almost spiritual, the dull fluoros blinking rays of God onto my hands.
    The room is wide and empty, and I play marbles with the chairs, scooting them around and lifting them up again, damaging property. How did I get here, into this rent-a-world? Through the portal. Through the beeping, rising cloud, pulling me past the heavens, past the silent angels watching a metal capsule levitate until it turns into electricity.
    Through the lift.
    Through traction, using worm gears to control the mechanical movement of the elevator, rolling steel hoist ropes over a drive sheave attached to a gearbox driven by a high speed motor.
    Through science.
    I put the chairs back neatly; wipe off scuffs with my shirt sleeve. Everything the way it was, recreating the past like a renaissance museum. Because things have already changed.

    After work, I look around, noticing things. ATM receipts, zig zags of cigarette butts, other people.
    There is a man from the call centre who travels half my trip home. I watch him from the other side of the train, wrinkling his skinny jeans, and reading books in Russian.
    He has a weekly train pass, and uses a tape recorder.
    Don’t go for white guys. Too much like myself.

    Work at the call centre, though less stimulating than big brother repeats, keeps me crossing the days off my wonders-of-the-world calendar. Varji does not phone again. I am redirecting his mail to the trash. Junk, junk, bill.
    At night, the dreams are vivid and irritating. Hamsters, bunnies, other cute and warm things people who do not live in flats have to keep them company. Everyday, I throw away the second half of my easy-mac for two. Becomes a ritual.
    Can’t eat vegemite. Can’t eat curry.
    “Where R U?” screams the text message in my mind.

    One day, I’m tapping away in the dell hell, incoming call.
    “Hello, UdanaPrivate, how may I help you?” a pause on the other side of the line. Already, a picture. Expensive suit, greasy hair, shelves full of unread books in beautiful Telugu script. Mobile phone, Nokia E90.
    “Uh…” Familiar. Like every voice, English airs on a stumbling Indian tongue.
    “I need the activation code for my bosses’ jet.” I froze. A white freeze. And the world turned into bits of white around me. The white lights, my white hands, white desk, locked me in place.
    “The activation code. For my boss.”
    “It’s Claire.”
    “Chemmanoor. C-H-E-M…”
    And then, like electric pulses in my head, or rebooting computers, it clicked. This man wasn’t my Varji. Varji, with his French Connection shirts, and his cracked sunglasses, home-smell, and his puppy dog smile. This was Varji of Armani, E90s, foreign languages. Varji of India.
    I looked around. Everyone else, talk-talking. Smiles in their voices, blank faced. Button pressers. The machine.
    And with a click, I transferred him to my manager.