life in the bowl

There’s never a good time to have a difficult conversation, but I have to say, despite the Covid measures, the office is as busy as I’ve seen it. I have to scrunch up my shoulders and stick a finger in my ear to have a chance of following what the man is saying to me on the phone.
‘Sorry. Could you repeat that?’
‘I said I’m putting you on speaker.’
‘Oh. Okay.’
‘There!’ he says.
‘Hello!’ says a woman’s voice. ‘Hello?’
‘Hi!’
I flash an irritated look around me.
Social distancing has only made the noise level worse, because although there are half the number of people you’d usually get at the end of a busy afternoon, everyone’s talking twice as loud to make up for it. And to compensate for the loss of half the desk space, people are improvising by putting their laptops on the tops of the low shelves that mark out the various sections. So in the end, it feels and sounds as if I’m completely surrounded, and the place is as hectic as ever, even though the numbers are reduced and the two metre rule is – more or less – being observed. A gang of people is standing close to my desk, laughing and screaming at something Artie just said. I can see that Artie has cut his hair over the weekend. He’s shaved the sides close but left a wild tuft on top, pulled up into a bunch like the leaves on a knitted pineapple. I guess it’s his hair they’re laughing about because when he whips off the grips and shakes the curls out, they all jump back and scream.
‘Sorry?’ I say, leaning harder into the phone. ‘It’s a bad line…’
‘I said it can’t go on like this.’
‘I know it’s difficult,’ I say, scrolling through the notes on screen. ‘I’m just having a quick look at some of the things our carers and clinicians have said so far…’
‘Difficult?’ says the woman in the background. ‘That’s the understatement of the century. We get calls, all the time, day and night. Mum’s done this. Mum’s done that. Mum’s so worried she’s taken to her bed. I can’t keep going over there. There is a limit. I’ve got my own health to worry about. And Stan is at breaking point. He can’t be at work and sort his parents out. I mean – it’s not as if this was a surprise to anyone. Not to anyone who knows the situation. I told them at the hospital, I said to them…’
It’s been a long and tiring day. It also doesn’t help that both the man and the woman talk very quickly and musically, their voices high up in their noses, blending into each other, overlapping, echoing around whatever room they’re in (the bathroom? a swimming pool?), until it starts to feel as if two bumblebees have popped into my head through my right ear, and are turning figures of eight behind my eyes. I have to give myself a little shake to stay on track.
‘So – let me see if I’ve got this right,’ I say, straightening in the chair. ‘Your mum has been discharged from hospital. Your dad isn’t coping. You think they need more help.’
‘You make it sound easy,’ says the man.
‘Thank you.’
‘I can assure you it isn’t.’
‘Oh.’
Artie looks over at me, points at his hair, then scrunches up his face and makes the perfect sign with his fingers.
‘Are you still there?’ says the man.
‘Has he hung up?’ says the woman.
‘No, no. I’m still here. I’m just getting the number of the social workers for you…’

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