“It just doesn’t feel right…”
Sally gave John The Look. The Look was actually a suite of looks, but John lumped them all together because one way or another he was in trouble when she looked at him like that. Maybe it was more nuanced than he supposed, but John played it safe all the same, and so far he’d kept the fallout restricted to the initiating trouble and held off most escalations. As far as was possible anyway. He wasn’t dull and limited, he understood things well enough to know that sometimes the initial trouble was an opening gambit and there was more trouble in the pipeline come what may.
He sighed and countered the look. He wasn’t going to back down that easily.
“Look,” Sally said in a placatory manner, “you loved the woman and she loved you. She did this for you so you didn’t…” she trailed off, not quite knowing how to frame it.
“Have to grieve?” said John, “miss her? There’s something about it that doesn’t sit right with me.”
“And what’s that?” Sally was frosty now. She looked stern. When she got like this John felt diminished. A child being reprimanded by a teacher. Defence was futile.
“It’s cheating,” John conformed to his fear of being small and childish, even his voice sounded thin and reedy and far from masculine. Sally deployed kryptonite at will and she wasn’t fair or even-handed about it.
John was cornered and knew he was being railroaded. He didn’t want to resent Sally, so he shrugged and acceded to her demands. He was already squaring it with himself. He should at least try and see how it went. Giving up before he ever started wouldn’t sit right with him either. Best not to think about how he’d been put in an awkward position where whatever he did wasn’t going to feel like winning. Lose-lose situations were a complete bummer and stressed John out. As far as he was aware, all of those losing situations were foisted upon people so that they landed hard thanks to the lack of control and zero sense of ownership.
Most of his loses had taken place at work, and he was beginning to think that he was destined for a life in middle management where he was caught between intransigent senior management and disgruntled junior staff. The lot of middle managers was to be blamed in multifarious ways right up until the company was bought out and rationalised, at which point John would be in the layer of management that was removed to streamline the company. That eventuality was pending, John knew. He knew it because he was now of an age, and that age equated to long term unemployment or a big step down in the world, collecting trolleys in a supermarket car park or picking up rubbish on the verges of busy roads. He hadn’t quite worked out whether he was getting too expensive or his skillsets were becoming less and less relevant. He thought it was probably a combination of both. That was getting old for you, even when you weren’t officially old. Age wasn’t a number, it was what the world decided to do to you.
He sighed again. This was not a sigh of resignation, more of resolve. Don’t let the bastards grind you down, he reminded himself. There was life in the old dog yet.
Nodding at Sally he got up from his seat, then he found himself shaking his head and smiling, “my Nan always had the last bloody word, but this is taking the biscuit.”
Holding his tongue and his counsel he opened the booth and went in. The booth was no help to his cause, nor his feelings about this technological endeavour. He stood before the phone set and once again wondered why they had opted for this design. Oh, he’d seen the ads and heard the crap they’d spouted about the reassuring quality of their retro booths, but John found them to be disconcerting and verging on the insidious. Who the hell had a phone booth in their house, and not even a proper one at that. These were the later, plain metal and glass monstrosities, not the iconic red booths that reminded John of the original Mini and the swinging sixties.
“Give me the Tardis any day of the week,” he muttered to himself before picking up the phone.
He stood for a moment, with the phone in his hand. He could hear the phone’s incessant beeping. Apparently this was the exact sound phones of yore used to sport. There was something so odd about all of this and being in a small glass cell with Sally’s expectant eyes burrowing into a spot between his shoulder blades did not help matters.
The dial was a simple push button affair. Sally had opted for the very simple option of John’s Nan being a press of the one button away. Some people were nostalgic for their loved one’s phone number, but John thought they must be in the minority as he’d never learnt a phone number in his life. People’s names were difficult enough to commit to memory and he seemed to be getting worse on that front of late. A file deletion protocol running in the back of his head.
Fighting a treacherous urge to flee the phone booth, he brought the phone to his ear and after another procrastinating pause, he pushed the one button. In the moment before the connection John swore he heard someone whisper his name. The voice was familiar but he had not heard it in a long time. An icy blast from the past that dizzied him and inexplicably took him to the brink of weeping.
Breathing. That was how the call proper commenced. There was something reassuring about that. John heard that irregular breath and it took him back.
“Nan?” he said tentatively.
“John?” said his Nan, “is that you, John?”
“Yes,” he replied, “it’s so good to hear your voice!”
“Why wouldn’t you hear my voice, you soppy lummox?!” said his Nan.
“Don’t mind me, Nan. I’ve just had a hard week is all.”
“Hard? Your Granddad would chuckle at your notion of hard! You remember his hands don’t you? Even after he retired his hands were good, honest working men’s hands.”
“You could sand the window frames with those hands,” John smiled as he enjoined his Nan in one of their well-trodden topics of conversation.
“Yes you could!” she agreed, and John knew what was coming next, “the dirt was so ingrained in your Granddad’s hands that it was a living part of him! Never came out after fifty years of working in that factory!”
The rest of their conversation followed an unwritten script that had always been led by John’s Nan. A verbal ritual that was a part of John and his world. He smiled even as tears fell from his face. When it ended he felt drained. It had only been twenty minutes, but it felt like much longer. As though he’d been interviewed under a spot light for the most important role in his life, and with a critical audience in tow.
He should have felt grounded, but instead he felt totally exposed and vulnerable in a way he never had before. Like he had a red dot painted on his heart and he could feel the sniper’s predatory gaze, knew his intent to kill. The pressure on the trigger was already most of the way to a calamitous moment in John’s personal history.
Not intending to, he burst from the phone booth. He was breathing heavily as though he’d been starved of oxygen. His legs unsteady as he ignored Sally and made his way to the kitchen. Then he did something he seldom did. He retrieved a bottle of bourbon from the back of a cupboard and poured himself a generous measure. He swallowed a large mouthful whilst still facing the kitchen units. He felt beaded sweat emerge from his hair line and run in rivulets down his forehead.
“You OK?” Sally was standing a short distance behind him. She hadn’t drawn in close. He mopped his brow with his free forearm before turning to face her.
Her expression was accusatory as opposed to concerned, “you’re not supposed to be doing that. You promised.”
“I know,” said John, “but…”
She stepped forward and looked set on taking the tumbler from him. Before that was a possibility, he raised the glass to his lips and downed the lot. He did it and only as he emptied the glass did he wonder at why he would do such a thing.
Sally obviously concurred with that question of John’s, her face was now a mask of shocked horror, “you promised!” she gasped. Her face contorted from shock to rage and then she turned from him and stormed from the room.
John watched her go. Then he looked at the empty tumbler. Something about that tumbler and the golden legs of bourbon around its inner edges made him deeply uncomfortable. Automatically, with no conscious thought, he refilled the tumbler and banished the discomfort.
Returning to the now empty living room with the obelisk of a booth in one corner, he slumped on an easy chair and tried to ignore the foreign object that contained something of his Nan. He couldn’t ignore it though, even when he obscured it with the bottom of the tumbler.
Was that his Nan in there?
He’d never been one for phone calls, or voice calls as they were now referred to. Video calls were, if anything, more awkward. Images trapped behind a screen, making the people on the call looked like caged animals. It just wasn’t natural. But this? This went beyond anything he could comprehend.
He’d once heard something about a tribe refusing to have their image captured by the camera. There was only one real image of them and they were it. To make copies of that image was to diminish them and reduce them into something insubstantial. That tribe protected their image in order to keep their soul intact.
Where was Nan’s soul? thought John. He’d had a conversation with her today, but she was dead and her soul was supposed to move on to wherever it went to. John didn’t have a clue as to where souls went. He liked the notion of people living on in one way or another and he knew everyone had an electrical charge to them. That had to go somewhere didn’t it? Had it gone into whatever system had delivered that call though? That question vexed John and then some.
A week later, John made his second call to his deceased Nan. His week had not gone well. Sally was not talking to him and in those isolated circumstances he felt some justification in indulging in more of the bourbon. He couldn’t quite remember how many bottles there were at the back of the cupboard but that hardly mattered as long as there was sufficient to refill his tumbler.
“Hi Nan,” said John to the breaths that could only be his Nan’s.
“Oh John!” exclaimed his Nan, “we’ve just been talking about you!”
“We?” asked John perturbed by this development. He wondered whether the we his Nan was referring to had anything to do with the disembodied voice that had yet again whispered his name prior to connection to this call.
“Yes! You’re Uncle Matthew is here! Do you want to have a word with him?”
John didn’t, but questions such as these on a phone call were rhetorical. John would cause great offence if he refused, “sure,” he said, “that would be nice, Nan.”
He heard the sounds of the phone being handed over and his Uncle clearing his throat. Uncle Matt always did that before he spoke. The attention to detail on this thing was remarkable. John remembered himself and the big rule that must be adhered to during any and all of these calls. There could never be reference to the death of any of the participants on the call or anything that would bring that subject into question. All the same, John had this surge of questions for his Uncle. Uncle Matt was a forthright man and quite a laugh. John had had some of his first drinks with the man. Cheeky drinks before he was ever old enough to legally drink. That was part of what made his Uncle cool. John’s parents would have called it reckless were they ever to have found out. Uncle Matt had remained unmarried, although he did have girlfriends and flash cars to drive them around in. John’s Uncle had been The Man as far as John was concerned. But now he was dead and he shouldn’t be here. Uncle Matt had never signed up for the download and so nothing of him remained. So what was he about to speak to?
“Johnny Boy!” roared Matt.
His voice was so crisp and clear he could have been stood in the booth with John.
“Uncle Matt!” replied John, “how you doin’?”
“Oh you know me!”
“I’m afraid I do, yeah!”
“Oy! Less of the cheek!”
Again, John slipped into the familiar groove of this track and when it was time for the needle to bump across to his Nan, that song played along seamlessly also.
In no time at all, the booth ingratiated itself into John’s household and his life and the calls became routine. It seemed that with each call, there was someone else for John to speak to. His Nan was always there at the start and the end of the call, but he’d have time with another member of the family. Sometimes he’d hear sounds in the background. More voices. Always there was the voice that said his name prior to the call with his Nan.
Every week John called his Nan. He entered the booth and he pressed one and awaited the ring tone and his Nan picking up after eight or nine rings. He pictured her there on her favourite seat. The phone beside her on an occasional table. She could pick up within a couple of rings, but she never would. She needed to ready herself prior to the call. That’s what that generation did, it was the equivalent of Uncle Matt’s throat clearing. Of course, there was no favourite chair. Not anymore. Nan’s house was long gone and all the possessions within it. John regretted not keeping anything. He’d not been in his right mind at the time and nothing his Nan owned would have gone well in his home. That wasn’t his decision of course and that deepened his regret.
No, all that remained of his Nan was code. She was ones and zeroes. Electrical or magnetic pulses. This was all an illusion. A digital fantasy.
So what was it that spooked him so much that he bolted from the booth after each and every call and hit the bourbon? Hard. Some of it was that voice whispering his name. But that wasn’t all of it. The call itself and his connection with the supposedly dead souls on the other side of the call was all wrong. He felt a nostalgia and a familiarity tinged with a bottomless sadness. There was something else though. Something he couldn’t put his finger on. Something like dread. A terrible fear, but what of he knew not.
One evening, an hour after his regular call, he was slumped in his easy chair with only a third of the current bottle of bourbon remaining. The process of emptying the bottles was a blur, but then the time and the space between the calls was as much of a blur as that as well. John thought he slept in the easy chair full time now. Couldn’t remember sleeping in his bed for some while. The rift with Sally had not been broached and if anything it was growing wider and increasingly unassailable.
He sat there in the unpalatable silence of the room and his fingers released the tumbler and its half consumed contents casually as though they were always going to do so once they heard their cue. And the cue in question was the ringing of the phone in the booth. That phone had never rung and John had mistakenly believed that it was outgoing calls only. If that technological aberration was calling him than what could this mean?
John watched as the tumbler fell to the soft carpet and lay stricken on the floor, bleeding its golden blood out from its gasping mouth. He stared at it, trying his best to zone the screams of the phone out, but he could not. They were incessant and insistent.
Against his will, he arose and with leaden feet traversed the room to the booth. The door was already open, but he barely registered this anomaly and the phone was in hand and at his ear without him thinking about it.
He did not speak.
He knew what would happen next.
“John?” the familiar, whispered voice. The voice he dared not hope to hear again. The voice from a past he thought he’d forgotten and was forever lost to him.
“Sally? Is that really you?” he replied.
“Oh John! I miss you so much!”
She almost said something she shouldn’t have, thought John. She almost didn’t call, came another unbidden thought.
They spoke for a while and although she cried, he somehow knew she was happy and that she was going to be OK.
As the call ended, he paused. This time he was in no hurry to go anywhere and the bourbon held no interest to him. Slowly, he padded to the closed curtains of the living room and pulled them to one side. Beyond the curtains was a sight that told John everything he needed to know.
This was no living room.