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How May I Help You Today by Sofie De Smyter

We’re not sure when exactly she cut off her ears. All we know is that they were gone by the end of the day, when she came out of one of the restrooms with an ear in each palm. We knew the ears weren’t fake. Not because we saw blood squirting, or saw traces of it glued to the side of her face. The ears in her hands took up so much of our attention we forgot she had a face. We knew the ears were real because she hadn’t managed to wash off all the blood. They were still wet too, in spite of easy-to-use hand dryers, and the fluorescent office lights had a feast on the wetness and cartilage. We were sure the ears were hers since all of ours were still inside our headphones. Most of us believed she’d rinsed them in the sinks, but several people were convinced she’d tried to flush them and that the toilets had spewed them out again. The drains are notoriously narrow. 

We were asked if none of us had heard but we hadn’t. How could we? We’re in the largest inbound call centre in the country. Some say it’s the size of ten football fields, others say it’s at least twice that big. It has four main entrances and two bus stops and moving walkways for those with cubicles in the middle. Our ears are covered from dawn till dusk. When we leave, they look deformed, the way babies’ heads do when they’ve been forced into this world. 

Some of the callers did hear: those of us closest to the woman’s cubicle later confessed there’d been several complaints about background noise. But as there’s always someone eating a salad somewhere, or trying to break the world stapling record, none of us had been surprised to get extra grief over noise, even when that noise was said to sound “like an ear being cut off.”  We didn’t flag those callers. We might have if they had threatened to cut off our ears but we’re all Alex on Mondays and Billy on Tuesdays and cutting off all our ears would be a hell of a job. 

The girl had only started two days prior to the cutting, and most of us had known she wouldn’t last. You have to be one of two types to make it here: you have to believe that people can’t be helped or – preferably – that they won’t be helped, and the girl had a Messiah-complex written all over her face. You could tell by the veins visible underneath her forehead: if you held your head a certain way you could see Christ in their pattern. Tinnitus assuages the calls, as does a history of mothering or teaching – but it was clear the girl still listened, and, worse, believed.

We all know it doesn’t do to come in with a mindset. Unless it’s a mind set on, say, collecting swearwords for Scrabble competitions, or making money off the calls. It wouldn’t be the first time a recording was leaked that exposed someone famous as less upstanding and more foulmouthed than we all believed. 

The incident left us with a couple of questions. The most obvious one was how she’d done it. We all have access to approximately the same set of office supplies: stapler, sharpener, scissors, pencils and biros. ‘Approximately’ because the call centre’s turnover is rather spectacular and management has stopped handing out sets. Even before we all knew about the incident, they collected our scissors as well as a number of other items. Rumoured among them were a microwave, a chainsaw, an inflatable sleeping mattress and a mandolin. 

We didn’t believe the girl had used the scissors because many of us have already tried. They’re worthless. A chainsaw would have caused more customer complaints in addition to cross-cubicle splattering. That led us to assume the person reporting the mandolin had been imprecise – a not uncommon occupational hazard – and had really meant a mandolin slicer, used to cut up vegetables and potatoes. The more observant among us pointed out that the girl’s ears had been in one piece, not slices, but most mandolins have a 7mm razor and an ear is really not much thicker than a steak-cut fry.

The mandolin also helped explain why there was no blood. Not near her desk, not in the restroom: it was obvious she’d used the drip tray attached to many a slicer model to dispose of the blood. That did gain her back some of the respect she’d lost by cutting off her ears because she had lost it. Why couldn’t she have done what most of us do: wear earphones under the headset and listen to podcasts or whale sounds? And didn’t she know you don’t actually need the outer part of your ear to hear? It’s much more effective to punch your eardrums with a pencil. 

A second question that entertained the office was what would be the best way to carry around small body parts. Some suggested pockets, others fists – maybe even a single fist, although we were unsure whether you could crumple up freshly cut ears. Fact was that none of us would present our ears the way she had: on outstretched hands, as if she was waiting for one of us to take them off her and carry their weight. 

That’s why the theory of the mandolin was dismissed and another one became generally accepted: the girl was obviously not human but a convincing piece of AI installed by management. That’s why there was no shouting. It also explains why there was no real blood, even though we all agreed that bit of ketchup on the 3D-printed ears had been deviously convincing. 

But the best news is that we all passed the test: we’d all stayed in our cubicles, as prescribed, and answered the next call, as prescribed.

‘Hello, this is Cameron – how may I help you today?’

Sofie de Smyter is an English Teaching Assistant at KU Leuven (Belgium) Her fiction has appeared in The Belfield Literary Review, Bright Flash Literary Review and she has just had a story accepted for publication by The Tangerine and another by Litro Magazine. She took part in last year’s The Stinging Fly’s summer workshop.

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