PLEASE MAKE SURE YOU TAKE ALL YOUR PERSONAL BELONGINGS WITH YOU | Gemma Fairclough’s fiction explores the perils of communication
by Gemma Fairclough
Peter finds a subtle but profound eroticism in the automated voice of lifts, trains, telemarketing calls, voicemail and Sainsbury’s self-service checkouts.
Why he likes this voice:
a) Voice is usually female, white, middle class. The working class timbre of the Metrolink is an irritating exception (see 1.(b)).
b) Soothing similarity of vocal pitch and tone. While definitely female, the voice cannot evoke a specific image of a woman – not even a silhouette. Peter enjoys his failure of imagination. Only on the Metrolink does the voice take coherent form, her juicy Mancunian lilt irrevocably confused with the unsmiling, middle-aged conductress who checked his ticket one morning.
a) On the train, she informs him of the next stop and potential changes; she anticipates his needs. He appreciates her kindly servitude, too honest to seem unctuous. Service with a smile – a smile in sound. Never demanding, never chastising.
b) She’s never sarcastic – perhaps her most attractive quality. Whatever she says is lucid and unambiguous. At the self-service checkout, how cutting it would be to hear: Please take your change this time.
a) Her obedience. In the lift up to the office, it pleases him how he can make her speak at the touch of a button: Going up. Doors closing. First floor.
b) Gorgeously laconic, she never says more than strictly necessary. He loathes the excess of conversation: exchanging words being only a tiny part of the intricate play of gesture, facial expression, eye contact, posture, expectations. The last thing he wants at eight-thirty in the morning is for Karen, the office manager, to join him in the lift and ask him about his weekend.
On the way home from work, following a text prompt from Nicola, Peter calls at Sainsbury’s to pick up a bag of potatoes and a pint of milk. Despite there being no queue for the checkout he waits in line for the self-service machines. They are the best thing about contemporary supermarkets. Though Tesco has an idiot male voice that says: Scan your Clubcard to win Clubcard points. Without even first asking if Peter owns a Tesco Clubcard. Tesco’s voice irritates Peter, indicating the cultural decline of masculinity.
“Peter wishes for all conversations to be this one-sided. There are no misunderstandings. No one gets hurt.”
At home Peter tries to watch TV while Nicola prattles on beside him, when his phone buzzes in his pocket, crotch-level. Unknown number; he knows what’s coming. A familiar pause as though the line is dead – then her clear and pleasing automated voice comes through, stiffening his cock as Nicola’s voice makes him soft: this equilibrium reassures him.
In bed, after Nicola has fallen asleep following mutually disappointing intercourse, Peter dials the number for his spare phone that he keeps switched off and stowed away in his sock drawer.
‘I’m sorry, but the person you’re trying to call isn’t around right now. Please leave a message after the tone.’
He leaves no message, hangs up, and dials again.
‘I’m sorry, but the person you’re trying to call isn’t around right now…’
Peter wishes for all conversations to be this one-sided. There are no misunderstandings. No one gets hurt.
Gemma Fairclough is a writer, English Literature Master’s graduate, Write Like a Grrrl alumna, and Buffy advocate from Manchester. Presumably a duck in a former life, Gemma spends as little time as possible out of the bath.