The morning I may win a life-changing amount of money, I try to look worthy of it. My new dress hangs, tags intact, as I watch the clock in my Park Hyatt bathrobe. Ten minutes pass. I send a Facebook message. No reply. I’ve already deposited $100. If I’m being ghosted, I only have myself to blame. Starving artists shouldn’t waste money on professional hair-and-makeup. Twentynine-year-old women should know how to apply foundation.
‘What’s the event?’ the HMUA asks, laying out her kit in the smarting Canberra sunshine.
‘An awards ceremony. For books.’
‘I mostly do weddings,’ she tells me. Last weekend, a wedding in the Blue Mountains, which paid well but came at a cost. Four hours’ travel in each direction. Overpriced fuel. A cold caught from a bridesmaid. Straightening my hair, she resolves to cancel tomorrow’s client. Better that than get sicker, infect her children, lose a whole week tending to runny noses. ‘Sometimes the money doesn’t seem worth it.’
I hum in sympathy, inhaling the expensive scorch of my hair.
‘How old are you?’ she asks, out of nowhere. When I answer, it’s her turn to hum. ‘You have a little grey coming through. I got mine early, too.’
I’ve never had a full-time job. I used to tell myself that this was a lifestyle choice; that the flexibility was worth the insecurity; that 9 to 5, five days a week would kill my creativity. Truthfully, I’ve never had an offer. Interviewing for full-time positions – data-entry, marketing assistant, medical receptionist – I was asked about my Creative Writing degree. I was asked about career aspirations. ‘To live and write,’ was my answer. Not a good answer.
Late in 2013, my year of Centrelink appointments, I’m offered a trial at a 24-hour flower shop. The manager sends me home with ten pages of workplace rules, which I read with mounting incredulity. DO NOT OVER-WATER FLOWERS OR YOUR PAY WILL BE CUT. DO NOT LET FLOWERS DRY OUT IN THE SUN OR YOUR PAY WILL BE CUT. DO NOT MOVE FLOWERS FROM THE BACK FRIDGE OR YOUR PAY WILL BE CUT. I don’t show up for the trial.
In January, a woman rings and fires off a bunch of words: CV, Gumtree, mystery shopping, ‘writer’?
I confirm, yes, I am a writer.
‘That’s good.’ She laughs: a wheezy smoker’s laugh, like old pipes heating up. ‘We could use you.’
The flower shop, it turns out, was a drug front. I feel vindicated when the news breaks, but also a sting of disappointment. Imagine the stories.
Parliament House stands on stolen land in Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri country. If anyone needs reminding, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is one kilometre down the road, established as a site of protest in 1972 in front of what was then Parliament House. Lining up for security clearance, I’m unsure what to do with this knowledge, except add it to the cumulative discomfort. Half an hour earlier, I swallowed four dollhouse-pink beta-blockers, but my heart hasn’t noticed. My blood, pumping through my veins, feels corrosive as battery acid.
After passing through security, I make my husband photograph me in the Mural Hall. We proceed to the morning tea. There are platters of macarons, fruit tarts, but I know a single bite will turn to nervous diarrhea within five minutes. What was it Richard Flanagan said, when he won this award back in 2014? Money is like shit. Pile it up and it stinks.
My purse vibrates; my agent wishing me luck. I delay replying, not wanting to seem desperate, then forget altogether. Noticing a wall filled with framed pictures of middle-aged white men, my husband and I play at finding the most ghoulish. Then I check the time and think of clunky computers, bowls of alcohol wipes, the foamy padding of my headset, construction workers suspended in the milky-grey Melbourne sky.
‘I wish I was at work,’ I lament.
Mystery shopping doesn’t have much to do with shopping, I soon learn. A minority of clients are Commercial – automakers, airlines, telecommunications. Then there’s Utilities. Education. Finance. Councils. Lots of councils. Sometimes a special project comes along, like the public housing calls where we pretend we’re disabled, mentally ill, mothers of seven children, fleeing domestic abuse, etc. We’re encouraged to ‘sound sad’ for these calls. We’re encouraged to ‘sound angry’ for complaint calls, such as the scenario that has us posing as homeowners, bristling over rumours of upcoming housing developments in our area. ‘Scenario’ is what we call the things we call about. ‘Agent’ is what we call the people we talk to. There are many turns a scenario can take, many variations of agent and agent behaviour, which is why they can use me, a ‘writer’.
‘Why wouldn’t I just check their website?’ I ask Dane, my training buddy, after bringing up a scenario requesting library opening hours.
‘Because we hired you off Dumbtree.’ He smirks. ‘Or your internet’s down. You can say that, if they ask. They won’t, though. It’s their job to be nice, no matter how dumb you sound.’
Dane has grey hair but a young face. He seems distinctly ‘Melbourne’, so I’m surprised to learn he’s a Perth transplant like me, from my side of Perth. ‘Ah, Single Mum Valley,’ he muses, when I tell him my old suburb. ‘No offence.’
I’m too busy multitasking to be offended: dialling, timing, listening, lining up my words. ‘Have you checked the website?’ the agent immediately asks.
After hanging up, I click through a series of ‘YES/NO’ ratings, then reach a box for ‘commentary’. I type a few sentences, look back at Dane.
‘That’s enough,’ he tells me. ‘That’s good.’
I’m on a Pacific Island with limited internet, on the home-stretch of my new novel, when I get the news that the old novel has been shortlisted for the big award. Timing’s a bitch. A year ago, when I wasn’t writing, wasn’t sure I’d write again, news like this would’ve been a lifeline. News like this might’ve reassured me that the labour was worth the burnout, might’ve prevented me from feeling personally injured by the high-octane, highly-Instagrammable success of a multi-award-winning peer. News like this might’ve made inspiration, when it struck again, seem less like a lightning-bolt I had to stab myself in the chest with, and more like something mundanely precious – a fresh green shoot, sun after rain.
Now, I’m on an island, drinking island wine, watching The Bachelor, with an avocado the size of a baby’s head waiting to be cut open and a novel waiting to be written, and why this, why now, for fuck’s sake? I started the year in ICU.
The Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (PMLA)…are held annually and initially provided a tax-free prize of $100,000 in each category, making it Australia’s richest literary award in total. In 2011, the prize money was split into $80,000 for each category winner and $5,000 for up to four short-listed entries.Wikipedia
I send messages. I watch the final brunette fail to receive a rose. I agonise over how to announce the news, though not for as long as I normally would (island internet). I eventually opt for a bathroom-mirror underwear selfie, which I had no reason for posting before. I look good. Or maybe I just look conceited. The picture doesn’t show the fang-like scar inside my thigh, from the femoral vas-cath I received dialysis through, back in March.
Beautiful commentary! Chantelle, the woman who hired me, emails throughout that first year, with examples of sentences I’ve written. Just beautiful!
Sometimes emails are sent to the wider team, containing my commentary and educational dot-points on what’s good about it. Sometimes I’m asked to proofread commentary written by my co-workers, especially if a project is important. Sometimes someone isn’t sure if something is grammatical, or needs a synonym. Sometimes we mystery shop via email, and my emails, with their calculated spelling errors and TMIs, cause snorts of laughter.
I’m not the only creative in the call centre. Scrap paper is evidence of this: sketches, caricatures, lyrics. There are musicians among us. DJs. A filmmaker. A light-installation artist. A taxidermist. Some of us possess arts degrees. Others study social work, architecture, PhDs.
It’s the best job I’ve ever had – which is to say, it isn’t a factory, or a supermarket, or the bakery that underpaid me, or the juice bar that scolded me for not smiling enough, or the discount clothing store where I sold $20 jeans to boomer men. Which is to say, it pays more than $25/hr. But there’s more I can say.
I can say: I write little stories every day, about agents and their actions and the implications of these actions. I can say: I lie every day. I’m a better liar. I’m a better listener. I’m better at noticing patterns of speech; hesitations, interruptions, assumptions, unspoken wants and needs. Before this job, my dialogue wasn’t worth shit.
I can say: I talk to people every day. I like my workmates. I like the in-jokes about companies, agents at those companies, their mannerisms, improvements, backslides. I can say: sometimes something so ridiculous happens – like the agent who responds to an email enquiry with a video of himself preening and beaming, entreating our female alias to call him, please – I shake with silent laughter every time I think of it.
I can say: I know things. Bin days of streets I’ll never live on. How to retrieve credit from a deceased family member’s account. How many pet chickens I can legally keep. I know the cost of houses across the country; not only to buy, but to live in – and while this knowledge may not be useful or reassuring, knowledge is power. I know the cost of living.
I can say: sure, there are bad days. Days when there’s no conceivable way out. Days when I hate the sound of my own voice, and other people’s. Days when I envy the construction workers in the opposite tower, because at least they’re outside, doing something real and dangerous, rather than sitting at a desk trying not to break the fourth wall. I can say: on these days, a kind voice on the other end of the line means more than ever. Because even if she’s calling me Anna, or Julia, or Marissa, it’s the tone that matters, that reminds I’m real.
The representative from the federal Department of Communications and the Arts has such a delightful email manner, I want to assess it and write beautiful commentary. Instead, I meet her in person. She’s wearing the outfit she described in her email. She’s excited; asks if I am, too.
‘Well…nervous.’ Actually, I’m pure fight-or-flight.
Some days, working on autopilot, I’ll jolt awake inside my favourite toilet cubicle around midday, with no memory of how I got there or the events of the day so far. I try to switch into autopilot in the Parliament House bathroom, reading over the one-minute speech in my Notes app. All shortlistees were told to prepare a one-minute speech, just in case. The speech is probably fine. It thanks the people closest to me and the book. It says nothing about money or politics.
Money is like shit, Richard Flanagan said, before publicly donating his prize money to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. I like this statement. But I also know Flanagan wasn’t working in a call centre when he made it, was already a Booker Prize winner, probably living somewhere nicer than a unit with black mould and dripping fixtures. Which begs the question: at what point does the smell become offensive?
The week after I return from the island, training begins for a special project, which will provide us a month of full-time work – overtime, even – if we want it. We want it. We know, as casuals, that dry spells are beyond our control; a side-effect of client whims, managerial blunders, holidays, bushfires, pandemics. When it’s raining, we reach for our buckets.
The client is a multinational automaker. We’re mystery shopping every dealership in the country: metropolitan, provincial, rural; service and sales departments. Half of us can’t drive. Our aliases, however, want to test-drive the latest hatchback, worth $37,000.
‘But why are we replacing our 2012 hatchback, if we like it and it still works?’ the light-installation artist asks.
‘You’re upgrading it.’
Chantelle, looking in on the training session, tells the project manager she’ll have to explain the concept of upgrading to us ‘left-wing hippies’. Falteringly, she does. Afterwards, the light-installation artist shakes her head and repeats, ‘But…why?’
Scott Morrison’s head looks as big and round IRL as it does on TV. He bobs into the auditorium, starts speaking, then bobs out again, on more pressing business. In his absence, Annabel Crabb, who’s MCing, roasts him. She roasts him again when he returns. Grinning, he tells the audience his wife is a big fan of Crabb’s books – her cookbooks.
I get a photo before he leaves again; post it to my Stories. Omg ew, my sister DMs.
He comes and goes so many times, I lose count. Announces the winner of Australian History, then bails. Meredith Lake sneaks back to her seat, which gives me hope that we can all just take the money and run. Then the Minister of Arts takes over and Lake is called back onstage. I don’t absorb her speech, but it seems better than whatever’s in my Notes app.
Within the next two months, the Department of Communications and the Arts will be slashed, merged into a conglomerate covering Transport, Infrastructure, and Regional Development. Within the next three months, the PM will piss off to Hawaii while the country burns. Within the next year, the Coalition will rule to double the cost of arts degrees, rendering them prohibitively expensive. I’m one of the lucky ones. Seven years after graduation, I’m a guest at Parliament House. I still don’t know if I’ll ever pay off my HECs debt.
I’m a lawyer. I’m an accountant. I’m a veterinarian. I’m a psychologist. I’m a bullshit artist, impersonating a person who buys $37,000 vehicles. ‘Grief,’ I say, when the agent asks what kind of psychology I specialise in. ‘I’m a grief counsellor.’
As he clucks over my important job, I mark him ‘YES’ for ‘personalised moment’.
I’m an author, in the running to win double what I earned last financial year, between writing and my day-job. Enough to afford two brand-new hatchbacks, and more. A new face. A mortgage. A mortgage on the island, with its baby-head avocadoes and limited internet. Or, donate it. Donate a portion, and keep the rest for myself, to live and write. Just that: live and write.
Days before the ceremony, I collapse on the carpet after work with my laptop-heavy backpack, groceries in a reusable bag. ‘But, what if I win, and can’t write?’ I fret. ‘What if I get so comfortable, I stop trying?’
My husband just shakes his head, says that’s what they want us to think: that our labour has more value when it’s uncompensated.
Before the Fiction category winner is announced, our book covers appear on-screen, accompanied by grave instrumental music and the judges’ comments. It’s a proud moment, theoretically. Physically, I’d rather be elsewhere. An hour forward in time, drinking free wine, reconciled to my fate, whatever it is. A few weeks back in time, happy on the island. Further back: hospital, cold with numbing cream, trying not to spew as the hard trapezium-shaped pillow jabs my stomach and the biopsy needle jabs my kidney. Even further: before hospital; before the lightning storm of can’t-eat can’t-sleep productivity that landed me there; before the year of not-writing; before the choice to write instead of doing something ‘useful’ – the kind of job where $80,000 is an annual salary expectation rather than a once-in-a-lifetime boon from a government that would prefer we didn’t exist.
Thanks for the money, I imagine saying, then slipping offstage. Would that be too ungracious? Uninspiring? Thanks for the money. It’s a lot. I wish there was more to go around.
It’s a proud moment, theoretically. Physically, I want the earth to swallow me. When Crabb calls a name, not mine, the sinking of my heart doesn’t register as disappointment. It’s a return to normalcy.
The day after the ceremony, I’m rostered 9 to 7: eight hours of regular mystery shopping, two of after-hours voicemails. When workmates ask about Canberra, I describe ScoMo’s disappearing act, and nobody is surprised. Nobody mentions the money.
‘How was Canberra?’ Annie asks, coming in for her half-day at the 1pm reshuffle. She’s seven months pregnant, mostly on half-days.
‘Alright.’ I shrug. ‘I didn’t win.’
I don’t know why I say it: vanity, misery, a desire to break from routine? ‘Yeah. I’m a bit sad. It was a lot of money.’
‘Wow, okay.’ Annie laughs. ‘I’d be sad, too.’
I watch her sterilise her headset. Failing to do so can cause colds, breakouts of jawline acne. ‘It’s not so bad,’ I say. ‘I still get $5000. All the shortlistees do.’
‘Well, that’s nice. What’re you spending it on?’
‘Bali for my 30th, probably.’
I smile and slip my headset back on, slip back into character.
The sky behind the opposite towers is an inorganic, starless black when Chantelle shuffles up to my desk in the last half-hour of my shift. ‘How’re the voicemails going?’
‘I can’t get through.’ I grimace. ‘The agents keep picking up.’
‘Tell me about it. Eva was here till eight the other night and didn’t get any.’
‘Which is my way of saying, you’re welcome to stay longer.’
‘Oh. How long?’
She wheezes a laugh. ‘How desperate are you?’
I shrug, smile.
‘I’ll be here for a while, anyway.’
I wonder why, when she’s not paid by the hour, then figure it’s probably for the same reason I write on my lunchbreaks, the same reason the agents won’t let my calls go to voicemail. If you’re not working overtime, you’re not working hard enough.
‘___ Sales Department, ___ speaking. HowcanIhelpyou?’
I text my husband. Check Instagram; stray likes still sprouting up for yesterday’s post, sprawled out on Parliament lawn with a bladder full of free wine. Dial again.
‘Nice work.’ Chantelle picks up her bag at 7:30. ‘Don’t forget to lock up.’
Twelve hours have passed since my alarm went off. I’ll have to go to bed in the next four hours if I want eight hours’ sleep. It takes thirty minutes to tram home; ten to earn my tram fare. Walking is free and good exercise, but will take over an hour.
‘___ Sales Department, ___ speaking. HowcanIhelpyou?’
7:52: I’m wavery, neon, a screen stared at too long. I can keep staring, for the money.
‘___ Sales Department, ___ speaking. HowcanIhelpyou?’
But sometimes the money doesn’t seem worth it.