Once upon a time... a young girl observed a middle aged lady sitting in a confined space separated from the world by a metal grill and sucking on boiled sweets whilst smoking a cigarette. A customer appeared before her where, on the counter between them, a paper plan of the theatre auditorium lay with seats already crossed out as unavailable. The conversation went something like this:
'Alright' ( Greeting)
' Afternoon. Ticket please.'
' Where d'ya wanna sit then? I've got this 'n this.'
' Aye, that'll do.'
' £2.50 then ducky, ta'
' Lovely, thanks.'
The customer was given a raffle type ticket before trotting off happily. The lady went back to her ciggie and newspaper until someone else appeared. By her side a cup of tea just the way she liked it made with years of experience. In the background the telephone rings from time to time answered by people she has known and worked with for so long they have become her second family and she theirs. It was a place of magic and mystery full of colourful characters and all was right with the world.
I can remember thinking even then that these were the last golden days of the box-office
After the shock of computers the size of box-backed televisions were introduced, life eventually returned to normal and continued in much the same vein except now, Gladys (let's call her that for the sake of nostalgia) had to juggle ciggie, paper and a boiled sweet bag around this new beast in her domain. On the whole it served to make her job appear more important and she quite liked the way the tickets churned themselves out as her chunky painted nails clomped over the keyboard one finger at a time.
And so it began with one thing invariably leading to another until Gladys did not know if she was coming or going. Postal applications, filing, customer details, credit cards, subscriptions, booking fees, complaints procedure, no smoking whilst on duty (of course.) A uniform. The last straw was when she asked to attend a customer service course that included role-play and a script to direct her on how to speak to a volume of customers whose language she no longer understood as though she were a parrot.
Her last conversation went something like this:
' Good morning, my name is Gladys, how may I 'elp you?'
' I need seats downstairs centre but with an aisle for my wife/husband/significant other/ who suffers from depression, heart palpations, panic attacks, inertia, despair and a general sense of feeling lost in the world as well as a gammy leg.'
' I know the feeling ducky.'
And with that Gladys shuffled off into the Ether taking her ciggies, sweet wrappers and the romance of bygone days with her.
The computer screens are flat now and customers read order numbers from their phones or tablets. Grills are replaced by open plan designs to allow light and 'better interaction' with the customer. Call it what you will but for every step forward the mystery and magic is slowly diminished. It won't be long before they're printing their own tickets as they already do in some places and the need for people like me and my second family will cease to exist.
I catch myself sometimes as I walk through the Theatre, listening to the echoes of years spent in this place. Some of those voices have already moved on to that higher place, others have just simply moved on. I take comfort from the customers who still need someone to talk to, who are more confused by the modern world than we are. They still need the reassurance of a 'real' person on the end of a phone or at the counter who can navigate the maze of booking forms or Classical Subscriptions, not to mention concessions. Sometimes they just need a chat.
I know that one day we will be obsolete, another echo to add to the many, but I also know that when we are consigned to the Ether, as we surely must be, we will take so much more than our love and our laughter with us.