Notes from the Helpline

One of our helpline volunteers Chris Inge shares his amusing and touching experience of his first day.

It is Wednesday.  Another day under lockdown when couples forced into each other’s exclusive company bicker bad-temperedly over chores ignored or poorly executed until Opening Time brings gin and respite.

Not this couple, though.  Today, WE HAVE A PURPOSE.  Between 12 and 2, I am to be the public face of the Wells Coronavirus Network.  Or more accurately its interactive voice.

During this time, calls to the network’s helpline will be channelled to me.  At 2pm, the baton passes to the missus, and she will ride the storm for the next two hours.

There is no time to snipe over who has, or should have, taken the rubbish out for recycling; the phone is ringing.

It is 12.01 on this, my very first stint on the frontline.  St Trisha Leigh, one of the original Magnificent Seven who started WCN, has trained me but I almost forget my new identity and start in on my usual jokey persona:

“Hi, you have reached the SAVE MY AMERICA, REELECT TRUMP (SMART 24) CAMPAIGN.  We accept bitcoin, roubles and, of course, dollars…”

Just in time I say “You have reached the Wells Coronavirus Network.  My name is Chris.  How can I help you?”

There is quite a lot of housekeeping to do before we get to the meat of the call.  We need to know the name and contact details of the caller, whether they are the potential service user or a Good Samaritan calling on their behalf.  You would think this stuff would be straightforward and quickly dispatched, but you would be wrong.  I’ve had a charming, well educated lady searching under her bed for her phone number; an old soldier who demanded to know what a mobile was, and wanted to know if I was a scammer trying to sell him one of those “scooter things” that block pavements and terrorise pedestrians; and another old boy who was about to give me his details, then stopped and said he’d rather talk to me instead.  Some 20 minutes later, as well as a peripatetic life story, I learned that he hadn’t seen another soul for five days and was longing for a bit of human interaction.  That, and some shopping essentials to keep body and soul together.

My first call, though, was none of these.  It was far more complex, and demonstrates the extraordinary reach and savvy of an organisation that has only existed since the pandemic hit its stride.

The voice was young, male, slightly uncertain but more than slightly desperate, too.  He was calling from Chilkwell Street in Glastonbury.  I didn’t know if Glastonbury was part of my remit but I listened on.  He wanted – needed – a meal.  He’d gone to the Connect Centre in Wells but they couldn’t help; could I?

Being young in the organisation, I know only one or two of its grandees.  I gave the few scant facts I had to my mentor who contacted two of our ground workers with a background in social work.  They tracked down the caller from my exiguous description – but it gets better because it turned out that he had migrated from his Chilkwell Street base (a caravan, by the way) to a site some distance away.  There, they found – and fed –  not only my caller but two near-starving young men with him.

It just shows you, doesn’t it.  It has certainly shown me.