View from the Bridge: 19

by John Morrison


19: Answering the Call

Autumn has arrived in Milltown. Having delivered his usual post-mortem on yet another lacklustre season of predictable under-achievement, our cricket captain offers his resignation - as he has done every October for the last twenty years. He's tired, disillusioned and nauseated by the smell of horse liniment. As he hurls his unwashed kit into the back of the wardrobe, he insists he's played his last game.

But winter will wipe away the feelings of failure that smart so much today. Next spring he will have a change of heart, think "maybe just one more season" and discover that the indelible grass stains on his flannels have been supplemented by a bad case of mildew. And, unaccountably, the waistband of his trousers will have shrunk by about an inch.

As the evenings becoming shorter, the locals get a depressing foretaste of the long Pennine winter to come. Wounded Man feels the seasonal changes more than most. Indeed, it was to assuage his own feelings of futility and despair that he decided to join the Milltown branch of the Samaritans. He hoped that listening to other peoples' misery might help to cheer him up.

It wasn't long before he saw ways to bring the organisation more up-to date. Why, he wondered, should listening to callers' problems preclude spinning a little profit? He supplied his own answer by brokering a ground-breaking sponsorship deal with the Milltown Kebab Take-Away. It had to be shelved, though, when volunteers were instructed to substitute their opening question, "Can I help you?", for the more familiar fast-food mantra, "Is that to eat in or take out?".

While no-one doubted his sincerity, there were some who questioned his methods. His enthusiasm for change extended to the setting up of an automated answering service. Callers would hear a well-modulated female voice enjoining those with a touch-tone phone to "Press 1 if you feel suicidal, press 2 if you want to have a wank, press 3 if you just want to waste our time". However, putting non-urgent callers on hold and forcing them to listen to a tinny rendition of the Last Post was reckoned to fall below the Samaritans' high standards of empathy and understanding.

What finally brought his career as a Samaritan to a premature halt was his suggestion for a uniform that would give the Samaritans a recognisable identity and help put despairing visitors at their ease. But when he turned up at the centre one day, wearing a full-face leather mask, with zips down the side and the word 'Samaritan' picked out in brass studs on the forehead, his fellow volunteers showed him the door with a collective and heartfelt sigh of relief.

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