pugs!

If you work on the coordination desk long enough you’ll feel yourself change.

Nothing dramatic or immediate, but imperceptibly, stealthily. It’s a hazard of the job, the frantic business of it, tapping away at the computer keys, answering two phones at once, taking questions from colleagues who wait in a restive line like shoppers at the Deli counter. A function of the distracted firing of your brain cells, the agitated beating of your heart, the immobility of your body in the chair. All these things will take hold, come together and warp you at a genetic level, cannoning your atoms into novel patterns like a drunken God with a billiard cue until – too late – you realise you ARE the phone, you have BECOME the computer, you have ABSORBED the notepad. You’ll only notice at the end of the day, when you go to stretch and your arm snaps in half because it’s changed into a pencil. Or you roll your neck to ease the cramp and your head logs off. Or you go to stand up but you can’t because your vasculature is now the furniture and your spinal cord has extended through the floor tiles and uploaded you to the network.

That’s the down side.

The upside is that eventually you’ll find yourself in synch with the office. You’ll be tuned-in to everything happening around you without even trying. You’ll be working the desk like a dreaming, caffeine-crazed spider, a little bored maybe, a little restless, your compound eyes flickering with the light of the database, whilst you unconsciously monitor the action around you by the vibrations you feel through your feet.

Which is a complicated way of saying I was aware Karen was on the phone before I really knew it.

Sophie was talking to her. Sophie is one of the administrators. She’s on the frontline of the operation, taking calls, giving information, directions, advice, or deciding where to redirect – which more often than not means patching them through to the coordinators. Sophie is great at her job. She’s warm and friendly, however long the day or trying the circumstances. I love the way she answers each call with the same intonation – saying the company name with a flourish like she was throwing a fancy tablecloth over a workbench. But then her tone changes immediately, coming down a notch, and within seconds she’s speaking to the caller as if she was gossiping with a favourite aunt.

Only this time, she wasn’t.

Sometimes even Sophie struggles to connect with the caller – especially if the caller is Karen.

Karen has been referred to us many times before. She’s difficult, in the way that Medusa was difficult, except in Karen’s case it’s not snakes but pugs. She lives in a state of constant war with everyone and everything, storming through the world with a half dozen pugs clutched to her chest, their bug eyes an expression of the stress she’s under, or the strength of her grip, or both.

I zone into the conversation half way through.

‘…Karen? Karen? I’m afraid you’ll have to put the dogs in another room or something because I can’t hear a word you’re saying…. Karen? Karen? Honestly – it’s impossible. Put the pugs in another room, Karen. Yes. That’s right. Another room. And shut the door… I’m sure they’ll be fine… it’s just for a minute, Karen, so I can understand what the problem is. Lovely. Thank you. Could you start again, please? …. Okay… Okay…. So you need help of some kind, is that right? A nurse. Okay. Well – I see from the notes here that a nurse came round to see you about an hour ago and you didn’t let them in… Is that right, Karen? …. Okay…. Okay…. Well, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, it’s difficult for us to specify male or female… No, Karen. They’re all nurses. They’ve taken the same qualification…. It’s very difficult to do that, Karen. We can try, but it may mean a delay in getting you the help… Yes. I understand that, Karen…. I’m sorry you feel that, Karen…. but they probably only knocked like the police because they didn’t know whether you’d heard them or not… Well, because of the dogs barking….Yes, well, I’m sorry your dogs were upset by that… I’m sure they do… Karen? If you want to put in a complaint you’re more than welcome to do so. But if I could just… if I could just… No, that’s not what I’m saying, Karen…. if I could just…Have you let the dogs back in, Karen?..Karen…?’

Sophie holds the phone away from her ear, catches my eye, shakes her head, plunges back in.

‘Let me put you through to Jim,’ she says. ‘Maybe he can help…’

She punches in my extension.

‘Karen for you,’ she says when I pick up. ‘Good luck.’

And when my phone connects, it’s like a bone being tossed in the middle of a dog fight.

‘Karen? Karen…?’

two from the queue

Maybe in the future they’ll have an AI coordinator. Something with a wipe-clean face and a decent range of expressions. Something that can reply to an email, accept a referral, schedule a visit, settle an argument, make a clinical decision, take a note, make an amendment, triage a patient, liaise with a pharmacist, sort out an IT problem and laugh sympathetically at the struggles of a new member of staff – whilst at the same time keeping tabs on the thirty or so patient visits that are happening at any given moment. Until they do, though, they’re stuck with us.

Coordinating makes you crazy. Uncoordinated. Or, if not that, exactly, more hyper-coordinated, so that everything you do, even the little things, are done so intensely and with such purpose, you feel a little shaky by lunchtime – something which all the coffee you drink does nothing to ease.

You’re besieged by nurses and therapists, managers and carers, cleaners and admin staff, a constant coming and going, everyone wanting something, from a shift swap to an update to a pencil sharpener. I’m so conscious of the noise levels I’ve toyed with the idea of wearing a Daft Punk-style helmet – maybe with a light on the top that’ll flash when I’m available. I feel sorry for whoever it is I happen to be speaking to on the phone. They must think I’m calling from a bus station or a call centre. It can’t sound good.

There are some perks, though. Limitless coffee is one. The buzz of getting things in order is another. But one of the best are the random conversations you overhear when people are waiting to handover.

For example:

A: I went on that dating app you told me about.
B: Yeah? How d’you get on?
A: Alright. I struggled a bit with my profile. I thought I sounded a bit boring, so when it said hobbies I put chess.
B: Chess?
A: Yeah. Why?
B: Can you even play chess?
A: No.
B: Aren’t you worried you’ll get found out?
A: We’re hardly likely to be playing chess on our first date, are we? Unless they’re a complete perv.
B: But what if they ask you about it?
A: I’ll just say I like to play it now and again and that’s it.
B: But what if they ask you stuff?
A: Like what?
B: I don’t know. Who your favourite player is.
A: (laughs) They won’t.
(pause)
B: Don’t you think it might put them off?
A: I’ve already had two dates.
B: Two?
A: Two.
(pause)
B: They must be desperate.
A: Thanks a lot.

And another:

A: I was at the doctor’s the other day and there’s this kid with his hoodie up standing in front of me in the queue, shuffling about. And I think to myself – hang on a minute, that’s Tiffany’s youngest, Brandon. So I tap him on the shoulder, and he turns round, and fuck me, it was! So I says to him “What are you doing here, Brandon?” – but then I think – No! Noooo no no! That’s naughty. I can’t be asking him that. I mean, he might go and tell me, and that’d be awkward. For both of us. I mean – I’m best mates with Tiffany and I might struggle not to spill the beans. But do you know what he says? He says “I’m too embarrassed”. So I say “Well you gotta tell me now.” And he goes: “No. You’ll just think I’m a dullard.”
B: A dullard?
A: A dullard. That’s what he says. A dullard. I didn’t even know what it meant. I thought it was a kind of duck.
B: What teenage boy uses a word like dullard?
A: A Brandon-type boy, obviously Shell. Anyway, I say to him: “Whatever it is I won’t think any the worse of you. Promise.” So he says: ‘I’ve got a fingernail stuck in my throat”.
B: A fingernail?
A: He bites his nails and swallows it. And a bit got stuck in his throat.
B: Urgh! Who bites their nails and swallows it? Gack!
A: Yeah? Well – sorry to ruin your world, Shell, but a lot of people do. And not everyone who picks their nose flicks it, neither.