A story about loss and that which follows
THE eeriest sound I ever heard? No question, I can lay that down for you right now, pin it to the goalpost and say, “LOOK!” It was the sound of two hundred conversations being murdered, one by one, in the space of five minutes – like a spree-killing in a Colorado school: “Believe in God?” “Yes!” BANG!
It happened in a call-centre – April 1999 – this one shrill with the jungle-screech of two hundred chirruping Scousers, post-uni, pre-life, sampling the hostile Ganymede terrain of their first ever job in Liverpool’s newly-revamped Harrington Dock.
It was the tenth anniversary of Hillsborough, and we’d been told we’d be marking the occasion with a two-minute silence. There were no complaints– but then, this was Liverpool; there are things Scousers complain about, things they fight about, and then there’s this. When it comes to Hillsborough, there is no dissent, no argument, there is simply Before and After. New York has its 9/11, Liverpool has this.
At five-to-three the room was in uproar. It was coming to the end of the deadline for employers to return their P35s (Employers Annual Returns), and we’d been ‘trained’ (I use the term loosely) to guide them through the process and make it as effortless as possible. As stress-levels go it must rank up there with Hostage Negotiator or Bomb Disposal Expert. Every time someone in our section was told to go and f**k themselves, they put a quid into a mug, and at the end of the week the one who’d been told to go and f**k themselves the most pocketed the money – which would normally stretch to three or four pints at The Pumphouse.
With three minutes to go the calls stopped coming in. A series of red lights appeared atop each phone indicating that it was no longer taking calls. The volume of the room dimmed as each fraught, one-way conversation slowly died away, lowering to a distant bear-growl, then a far-off hum, then a whisper, until, eventually, there was just one single voice remaining: Dan ‘the Man’ (you know Dan, there’s one in every office); not particularly a friend of mine, but someone the same age, smartly dressed, hair-gelled to the max, a sometime jazz pianist, taking a temping job to fill the void between cruise-ship assignments.
His voice adopted the obligatory note of panic the moment demanded, especially when he realised he was the only one still wittering on in the Bat-cave vastness of the room. He swapped looks with us, his brow bubbling like the perforated lid of a microwave meal. With the seconds ticking away, Scott, a future runner-up on Big Brother, nervously found nourishment in his nails, Vicki, a soon-to-be solicitor, made doodles on her pad, and the rest of us picked at threads on our sleeves or drummed fingers on desks, as Colin, our ex-military duty manager, stalked towards us, slicing his hand back and forth in front of his throat, silently urging Dan to “Kill it!”
Dan flicked a quick glance up at the clock, saw the time, then looked down and saw our eyes, all four hundred of them, fixed on him and glazed over in pitying empathy. Obviously he had a ‘moaner’ on the line, one of those over-zealous young self-starters who simply couldn’t grasp the rules, a United fan, perhaps. We each got our fair share of them, spaced out over the week; young men (mostly men) driven from the cot to succeed, to be their own boss, to be Masters of their own Puniverse; and in doing so their egos steer them into setting up their own companies without ever truly getting a handle on the intricacies of Employment Law, Tax Law, or the more essential law of how not to behave like a complete f**kwit once they’re in charge. Conversation with these types always ran along similar lines, and invariably resulted in another quid being thrown into the mug.
There was no end in sight, and Dan tugged at his collar. He knew he couldn’t just hang up on a customer, it was more than his job was worth. He knew there’d be complaints, knew he’d be hauled into the back-office and forced to listen again to the conversation and defend his actions.
But this time he didn’t need to. A pasty hand reached down, sporting EFC cufflinks, and gently disconnected the call for him. Dan looked up, and his eyes met the gaze of Colin, whose own eyes reflected back the reassurance he needed: “It’s okay,” they beamed, “we’re all in this together.” And we were.
For the next two minutes Liverpool had only one cathedral: the city itself.
Three o’clock arrived and the silence was profound.
Cars turned off their engines, birds stopped their singing.
It was like an eclipse: the sorrowful sun momentarily hidden behind a full moon of buried memories.
I counted the people in my section – twelve around the table, six within whispering distance. Ninety six people is eight times that, and there were eight tables on my side of the building. That means the exact amount of people on one half of the room – a sprawling Victorian warehouse – stopped cheering that afternoon. Some say football itself died that day. The Premiership was just around the corner; so too Sky, so too those salaries.
A fly examined the ink on one of Vicki’s doodles. You could hear its legs on the paper. I watched as it traced the outline of Mickey Mouse’s Hitler moustache.
Two hundred sets of eyes then steadily glazed over as the images of that day moved reluctantly out of memory and into the spotlight. The blue lips on the front-pages, eyes wide in terror, red scarves knitted for waving, hanging limp around posts.
And flowers. A sea of flowers.
On a million private pitches, ghosts climbed to their feet. Like candle flames they flickered briefly, and, buoyed by love and echoes of laughter, they lived for two precious minutes entire lives that a simple error of judgement denied them.
At school on Monday, seats remained empty.
Wednesday, the same.
Someone shifted – a rude belch of creaking plastic – the violation as violent as a dropped lunch tray in a monastery canteen.
The few eyes that had so far batted away tears put down their shields and surrendered. Two minutes is simply too long to take on such a remorseless enemy. Blinking didn’t help, just made them stream.
A sob erupted, volcanoed. It was like a shout, and belonged to a man, a bald man with broad shoulders and muscular arms. I didn’t know his name, never will, but for a moment we were brothers. What was his connection to that day, I wondered? Could it be the faded tattoo on his arm? Jon-Paul.
We all knew someone you see, that was the thing. That’s why every eye was red, even the blue ones; that’s why the car engines were silent. Not all of us were there, but we were all there.
Right up the spine. All these people, psychically connected to one shared memory.
The empty seats: they remained empty for the rest of the year. No one dared go near them, no one sat on them.
The children who sit in those seats now can’t possibly know what those desks once represented. Even the eldest of them would not have known life until eight years after the school had wiped away the last of its tears and slipped on its black arm-band, and its pupils had stared vacantly into space during lessons for weeks and months after. “What was that, sir, what did you say?”
No one told us when the two minutes were over. A call simply came in and a breezy Scouse voice met it with a soft chirrup, then another, then another, then it was my turn.
The fly took off. Must’ve got bored of Vicki’s doodle. Apparently they live up to a month, flies.
I always thought it was just a day.
About the Author
Neil A. Edwards is a Leeds-based writer with a background in acting and journalism. He has written for film, theatre and radio (running Liverpool Playwrights from 2003-2007), and has been twice nominated for the Manchester Evening News Theatre Award.