The struggle to stay solid when you're left hanging on the telephone | Steve Canavan

I’m in the midst of renewing our mortgage at the moment (even by my standards that is an incredibly dull start to a column. If someone came up to me at a party and began a conversation like that, I’d feign a cardiac arrest and slump to the floor).

Friday, 13th August 2021, 5:00 pm
Steve Canavan's been driven to distraction on the phone while trying to renew his mortgage. Picture by Shutterstock

The very word ‘mortgage’ makes me feel like shutting myself in a darkened room while supping a large glass of whisky, swallowing an anti-depressant, and listening to Leonard Cohen’s back catalogue on a loop.

There’s something utterly joyless about it, something that tears the soul from you.

It signifies forward planning and being grown up and settled and sensible and basically everything your 18-year-old self would have loathed.

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The process of renewing a mortgage involves – from my experiences over the past fortnight – filling in a lot of paperwork (how much is there to pay on the existing mortgage? Is it a freehold or leasehold? What is your credit history? Which is your favourite ever episode of Holby City?) and talking on the phone to a lot of different people, all of whom are the type you’d try and sit farthest away from at a dinner party.

My favourite is Brian, the fella arranging our life insurance.

We have had six phone conversations thus far and I think he might be lonely.

He told me, quite bitterly, he’s working from home because the rest of the office went to watch an England football game in the pub and got Covid, so everyone has to self-isolate.

It is clear from his telling of the story that he was not part of the night out and doesn’t get on with his work-mates, which makes me wonder if the office is actually open and everyone is going in, but they’ve told Brian it’s still shut.

Anyway, because Brian hasn’t got friends at work, he wants to be friends with the people he calls.

But while he is a pleasant, well-meaning chap, I have no interest in building any sort of relationship with someone trying to sell me life insurance (‘Steve, how did you and Brian meet?’ ‘Well, it’s the strangest thing Jemima, we got to know each other on the phone when discussing insurance and now we play badminton together every second Tuesday.’)

You don’t want the person dealing with your insurance to ask about your children, as Brian does, or enquire how your day is going.

You just want them to say: ‘Listen, I know you don’t want to be doing this, and I certainly don’t because I detest my job and live alone in a one-bedroomed flat, so no small-talk – let’s just get the sodding thing done okay?’

You do not under any circumstances want bonhomie and cod-friendliness.

But Brian doesn’t get this, and every telephone call follows a set pattern.

‘Is that Mr Canavan?’ he’ll say, and when I confirm it is he’ll follow up with some lame quirky remark like, ‘I’m on the late shift tonight, but someone’s got to do it, hey?’

He laughs heartily, as if he is on stage at the London Palladium and has just delivered his best gag.

‘Now I know we’ve spoken before,’ Brian says, ‘but I need your name, address, postcode and email address for security reasons.’

When I give him the information, he’ll reply, without fail, ‘you’ve passed the test!’ in a comedy voice.

It’s all I can do not to let out a groan and hang up.

What I most find interesting about Brian, however, is the way he ends a conversation.

I’ll say for the 15th time – because he hasn’t taken the hint the previous 14 times: ‘Well, great to speak to you Brian’, and then, when he’s finally ready to end the chat, he signs off with: ‘Okay Mr Canavan, stay solid’.

I’ve never heard anyone say this before and have no idea what it means.

Is he saying I’m in danger of turning into liquid? Very odd.

Of course, while these mortgage people are happy to ring when they need something from you, when you try to get through to them it is a different matter altogether.

When I call, it rings twice before a recorded message clicks in, spoken by a man with an annoyingly upbeat manner.

‘Hello and thanks for getting in touch. Your call means so much. Press one if you want to use touch phone or press two to speak to a person’.

Naturally, because I’m not insane, I press two.

But you don’t get to speak to a person.

Instead, the same voice continues, ‘That’s great. For Investor Relations press one, for Mortgage Loan Default it’s two, for Collateral Management press three, for Application Processing press four, for a Department You’ve Never Heard Of Before And Don’t Even Know What It Does press five, for those wondering how I learned to speak like a cheery idiot press six, and for a gun to blow your own brains out with, press seven.’

And you can guarantee that whatever button you press there will be another recorded message.

This is repeated a further half-dozen times before finally, just as you’re considering popping a cyanide pill in your mouth, you hear: ‘Please hold and the first available operator will speak to you’.

Some dreary Coldplay-esque song will come on but, hey, it’s okay because your call is about to be answered, when another message clicks in.

‘Due to an abnormal volume of calls there is an unusually long waiting time, but rest assured we’ll answer as soon as we can. Your position in the queue is 79’.

At which point you fling your phone hard against the nearest wall and watch it smash into several pieces but feel quite happy about it.

The good news is that, at the time of writing, the mortgage is almost sorted and won’t need addressing for another five years.

Brian, stay solid and we’ll speak again soon.