So You Don’t Have To: [Part 1]

“Take another little piece of my soul now, baby!”

Tory is singing again.

The first time, she had to explain to some girls who Janis Joplin was. Now she just needs to hum the opening bars of her appropriated chorus and the room joins in. Tory sways and gradually sings more loudly. She finds it difficult to keep going as the singing swells; she always ends up laughing.

“You’re all awesome, you know that?” she calls. Then we go back to work.

One night Clementine walked the gaps between us, dispersing tiny wrapped chocolates, not even watching where they were falling. “Here — have another little piece of your soul back, ladies!” Clementine said. Girls cheered. We all thought she was very clever, riffing off Tory, but I saw Tory watching Clementine, unsmiling. Clementine might grab the limelight as second-in-charge now and again, but if Tory had her way she’d hold Clementine’s head underwater.

I remember the chocolate was warm and soft, but I didn’t have time to put it in the fridge and besides, somebody might steal it. So I popped it into my mouth, closed my eyes and absorbed the sweet gooey distraction for 20 seconds.

They do recommend that we close our eyes regularly. It helps.

Tonight I wish I had singing and I wish I had chocolate, because I have drawn the worst shift. Some of the other girls have patted me on the back. They’ve said “Onya, Bek”, “It’ll be over before you know it” and “Christ, he’s a fuckhead isn’t he … let us know if you want to talk later”.

Yes, Senator Frank Wakefield is a fuckhead.

And there’s plenty of people to tell him that, not just us girls. Even my parents curse about him. They wish I didn’t have to do this work and I wish I hadn’t told them about it, especially Mum.

She says: “Bek, this work can’t be good for you.”

Dad says: “It was s’posed to be a short term thing. Are you still looking for other jobs?”

Mum says: “Bek, I think you should take a break. The longer you do this, the more it’ll play with your mind.”

They think they understand this job, but they don’t. They think I hate it.

But we help people. They need us.

Tory is marching towards me now, her halo of curly hair bobbing along with her, Rascal trotting by her side with his tongue hanging out. Tory’s lips are pressed together like they are at the beginning of most nights, especially when she has to gee-up someone on the Senator Wakefield shift.

“How’s it goin’, Bek?” Tory asks, hands on hips.

I shrug. “All right.”

Tory touches my shoulder. “Just remember, sweetie …”

“I know: it’s not about me, he’s flaming, just focus on the work. Don’t worry, I know the drill …” I crouch to stroke Rascal’s soft head.

Tory studies me. “I’ll be back to see how you’re doing.”

“You don’t have to. Really, I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll see you soon,” she says firmly, and continues down the row of cubicles with Rascal in tow.

There are about 50 of us in the room, multi-coloured cardboard walls snaking over the floor like a maze. Once, this seventh level housed telemarketers. Now we sit under the fluoro lights, we tap at the keyboards, we walk the grey carpets.

I fall into my high-backed seat and log onto the computer. I ready my work station as I wait for the system to fire up; whoever had the last shift left the desk nice and clean for me. From my bag, I remove my water bottle, my lip balm, my chewing gum, my container of mixed nuts, and pictures of baby hedgehogs — essential for maintaining sanity. There’s already a box of tissues on the desk.

I push my earbuds in and turn on my favourite jazz soundtrack. Jazz is good. I don’t pretend to understand it, and I can’t name more than three jazz artists, but the trumpet and the piano and the saxophone make me feel elevated above all of this. I keep it turned low in case I need to hear instructions from Tory.

The cubicle clock says 22:05. It’s time to begin.

I pull Senator Wakefield’s channels up on my screen. There’s a tab for his Facebook page, a tab for his personal Twitter account, his party’s Twitter account, his blog … There are no red flags and just a dozen yellow ones. That’s to be expected; the Senator has been quiet this week. I feel sorry for whoever has the next shifts — it’s only a matter of time before the Senator craves the limelight again and then there’ll be red flags everywhere. He’s probably brainstorming with his vile team right now, poring over newspaper sites and listening to panel shows, searching for the next debate to raid.

Well now, I’m ranting to myself.

And it’s only 22.08 hours.

Such is the Senator Wakefield shift.

I click onto the yellow flags and while they’re offensive comments attacking the Senator, they’re not overly aggressive or weird. I dip into the commenters’ profiles. They’re all long-term account holders, most of them living in Australia, one in Hong Kong, one in Indonesia; they’re male and female, with what look like genuine headshots and bios. Recent posts suggest they’re regular political commentators who also post about other topics like movies or football; nothing raises any questions in my mind. “Carry on, people,” I mutter.

Time to scan the non-flagged posts and hashtags. There could be something hidden away in there. An account called @Shickdik has tweeted about Senator ‘Wankfield’.

He’s a fascist!! Ive had enough of the racist bigot being in parliament Seriously whos gonna put a bullet in that dudes tiny collection of brain matter?

It was easy to see how the system missed that. Before I categorise it, I quickly study Shickdik’s profiles. He has just 27 Twitter followers and a private Instagram account with no followers and no posts. Mmm, that’s a small galaxy. His favourite subject? Senator Wakefield.

I flag it as red. Let the Senator’s security team mull over that one.

The globe on my desk flashes. My first 23 minutes is up. Twenty-three, such a forgotten number, now my favourite.

I stand before the chimes can warn me again, grab my water bottle and walk to the nearest break room.

Katie is there; she must be on the same shift cycle as me. She’s holding an open box of crackers and stuffing some into her mouth.

“Bad night?” I ask.

“I’m on Purple duty,” she pulls a sad face.

“What? I thought you were going to stay off Purple! You know it upsets you.”

“It does — but I need the extra money,” Katie says. Her straw-coloured hair is held back by a black headband and the make-up around her eyes is smudged.

“And Tory let you?” I go to the sink and put my bottle under the tap. There’s a sign taped above the sink: Don’t take it personally.

“She made me go to an extra counselling session and I promised if this shift doesn’t work, I’ll never ask to go on Purple again.”

I raise my arms and stretch my back. “Is it really bad tonight?”

“The Deputy PM has announced she’s pregnant — what do you think?”

“Oh fuck, I’m sorry. It’s gonna be a shitstorm. How many people has Tory put on it?”

“There’s seven of us, and she’s working Purple too.”

The Purple shift is ‘Feminism’ and tonight with the Deputy Prime Minister’s announcement, the misogyny brigade will be wired and tapping away at their screens until the early hours. There’s dozens of clients who will want hourly summaries — everyone from the morning talk shows to the Prime Minister’s office, to university researchers. We’ve got a few high profile feminists on our client books too, and if they’ve made any comment on the Deputy PM’s pregnancy, they’ll be included in Purple’s work tonight. While they grab some sleep, we’ll monitor their feeds, alert the security team to any code reds, and have our trademark short summaries for them ready to read over their morning coffee.

Whenever Mum claims to not understand what I do, I show her a few screenshots to remind her.

“That’s just awful,” she says.

“Would you pay somebody else to deal with it, instead of you?” I ask.

She pulls a face. “I wouldn’t ask anyone to look at that. Why can’t we all ignore it?”

“That just takes our clients out of the debate and that wouldn’t be fair,” I say.

She strokes my hair and I try not to pull away. “Please take care of yourself. And please, please … try to get a different job.”

Mum and Dad tell their friends I work in sub-editing.

Ha! As if there are any sub-editors anymore.

In the break room, the green bulbs on the walls begin to flash. “Better get back,” I say.

Katie and I walk between the cubicles together, past the shelf of soft toys. At the last moment, Katie grabs one of the bears — a sparkly white one that looks like a carnival sideshow prize — and squeezes it to her chest.

All images thanks to Pexels.com

“It’s not even the hate that gets me anymore,” Katie says, tucking the bear under one arm. “It’s the repetition, you know? The same dumb ass comments over and over, and the idea that these wankers think they’ve come up with something original, and the way they ignore all the data … argh, it drives me crazy!”

Then Clementine is by our side. “Everything all right?” she asks. She’s wearing her favourite chunky sneakers and a T-shirt with a picture of a Corgi on it.

“Yep,” Katie says. She doesn’t want to be summoned to the Feelings Room. That’s not it’s official title — we’re not insane — it’s the name we’ve secretly given to the corner meeting space which Clementine has commandeered for counselling sessions. She asks questions and searches your eyes like they hold the key to hidden treasure, and won’t let you leave until you’ve sobbed about something. It’s hard work.

“Well, you know where I am if you need me,” Clementine smiles.

Katie gives me a little wave and continues on her way. I sit down just in time and the globe in my cubicle blinks off. I push my earbuds in again, and it’s hello jazz, hello Senator Wakefield. I read his latest blog post, reminding myself to skim and to not become immersed in his regular tirade against abortion. I scan the comments. I feel my heart racing; I take a sip of water and pop gum into my mouth. I close my eyes for a moment and return to the screen.

Our system has blocked the offensive stuff from being posted, now I need to re-read those and decide if they can be edited and published. As usual, many of the comments are diatribes about ex-wives or girlfriends — all sluts and whores apparently. With some of the comments, the job is simple — to remove misspelt swear words which are trying to fly under the radar, or block out their partner’s or children’s real names. I work through the sentences, cleaning them up and ignoring spelling errors and text speak. One bloke has ranted for more than 500 words about what he’d like to do to his ex.

I close my eyes again.

There are no threats against the Senator, and he’s the client. There’s nothing to alert security to. I must move on.

I go back to the ranting bloke and his 500 words.

I copy the poster’s name, Datsun678, and paste it into a search field. There are dozens of results. With geographic and profile picture filters, I narrow it down to a likely suspect — someone called Marc Scharenberg, who lives in the same city I’m working in right now.

I glance at the cubicle clock. There’s just 30 seconds until my next break.

Leaning over my keyboard, I swiftly search and paste, search and paste, opening a Facebook and Instagram tab for Marc Scharenberg. But before I can examine his history, the globe flashes and my screen blinks …

Part Two is ready to read here.