There was a reassuring ring of Time having been unspoilt, having not moved in the decade since I last dialled the number that was scrawled out on a rough piece of paper, torn at the edges, almost in the shape of a child’s jagged, over physical idea of what shape an island lost in some storm tossed sea should be like. Hurriedly torn from a freshly bought notebook, the lack of thought in the action that would ultimately lead to the early demise of the re-pulped paper, by my mother as she passed me as we exchanged a Christmas Card on the train, the ragged island now sat comfortably on my desk before me, pride of place for a phone call I never truly wanted to make.
Time may have been unspoilt, Time may have stood still but in amongst the mess that resided around me, never having the most tidy of men, the island, storm tossed written note though it may be, was probably the most immaculate piece of abandoned memorabilia in the whole of my study. Noticing the time of day, the shadows creeping through the latticed windows like some moveable prison cell window mocking the convict as it entices the thought of possible escape, I put off the phone call for the night and allowed myself to sink into melancholy, I allowed the bleak darkness of the shortest day, one that had threatened to snow but had failed so far to materialise, to give way into bitter memories, of recriminations and sulky disassociation and walked over to the hearth and turn on the old gas fire, to allow the warmth I needed to envelope my bones and to replace the chill I was experiencing since my mother handed me the ripped piece of paper.
I sank back in my chair, as worn out as I felt as the cheated resentment that had crushed me for the last ten years, and asked myself with a sigh if making this call was the right thing to do. I looked down at the piles of books, of half dead ideas, of poems and essays relegated to a history in which was now closer to the fires of Hell and damnation than to ever being seen or cared for on another Human being’s bookcase or perhaps litter strewn floor, next to a couple of cups of stone cold tea and the dogged remains of a half smoked cigarettes. There was a bin of course, somewhere, but it only ever seemed to collect dust, Time’s resulting sweep through my study, it never collected anything more than the dead.
Next to books on James Herbert, of sexual impression in Horror and the representation of aggressive behaviour in repressive scenarios, I saw the blue crisscrossed plastic tray with the trail of phone calls that were never made, that were put off, that I ignored as the thought of finally writing the book, of signing my life away, became a more distinct possibility.
I picked up the small paperback that rested on top of the pile, a personal favourite of my youth and flicked through the pages till I came across the particular paragraph that had been highlighted in blue and the reference marker to a portion earlier in the novel, the juxtaposition of a nurse trapped in a bunker in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange and having the stirrings of a lesbian thought trouble her and the worker cleaning the Post Office tower, perhaps the most phallic sight in the centre of a London and the one that obviously resembled the insane power at the hands, the raw heat at the command of the world’s leaders. The man on the tower, who finds himself flying momentarily across the London skyline, the man who senses perhaps that Time can stand still for a fleeting second as the climax builds to his inevitable death, the rise and fall of the phallic symbol, pushed over by Kitten Kong, destroyed by humanity’s inalienable right to misunderstand each other, all these thoughts running through my head as I slowly drifted off to the Domain of Morpheus.
I’ve never been a good sleeper but of late the amount of work I had been doing, the amount writing I had been putting off, I had become too tired of it all; the constant headaches and the feeling of nausea as I argued that I was becoming perhaps finally spent with looking at words, at groping in the dark for the right sentence to carry the meaning I could never convey when talking to someone at a ludicrous faculty party or having a conversation down the phone. I had never been a good sleeper, the dreams I had made it all too easy to scare myself awake and of late the dreams, the disturbing nightmares had really started to become more real, it felt like there was something rattling around in my brain, something bulbous, something drawing its own web across the myriad of memories that the brain once stored, the spider of illusion was hungry.
The evening passed silently, thoughts of ringing the number lost in the sweat filled hours, of cheeks blowing against the cold and my hands tucked into my threadbare but comfortable cardigan’s pockets. I slept until the shrill of a message beeping on my phone announced itself like the trumpet of Joshua and my vision, shrouded in the darkness of the room and the outline of the now departed Sun’s own wayward shadow, the flickering light of the phone’s display screen was both enticing and somehow welcoming, my mother’s text version of summoning me to do her bidding a pleasing sensation in the face of yet more hallucinations, more deluded mirages in which in which the heroic nature of life was reduced to nothing more than ash and being in the Sun’s eternal ghost like silhouette
The void was filled with this screen and I hazily read the message, “Ring him now, I’m on my way to the hospital but might not make it in time, make it right, speak to him before it’s too late”.
So he was dying then, so finally the chapter was closing on the life of a man I had not spoken too in over a decade, a man who had belittled me to the extreme when I was a young boy and who once told me that my obsession with words was a waste of time, that stories were for children; adults had no right to have their heads filled with such nonsense. I knew my mother was right, that even to just to dial his number and say hello as the nurse held the phone to his ear, as he wheezed and took in the smallest amount of oxygen that kept the lungs going, as he breathed and found the time, perhaps only in his wandering thoughts in his head, to once more find the right word, the right way of making me feel small. What was the price of a phone call to allow someone that final victory, to apologise for something you never did wrong but in the other person’s diminishing recess of functioning life, of the dimming of the light, they could say, I told you so.
I reached up behind me to switch on the light but in the darkness, in the coldness of my stiff joints and the ache in my head making me feel fuzzy and disoriented, I could not seem to find the switch, to be in shadow, to be illuminated by phone light was to be the best I could do. I felt cold, somehow distant from my own life and I knew deep down it was the feeling of regression, of suffering the womb again, of understanding that I was not wanted in the life of this man and the pain of that hurt.
It took a moment but I found the number on the desk, the small sliver of light afforded me by the phone groping its way across the table, like a searchlight from an overhead helicopter frantically probing the deep waves for any sign of life after a shipwreck or possibly even the same helicopter flying low across a city covered in illumination, adding its own bright light as it pinpoints a stolen Jaguar being driven at speed past frightened revellers and the odd Chinese student. With difficulty I tapped the number into my phone and saved it, not a usual habit of mine but for some reason I thought it might be the last connection I had with the man I was about to ring.
The nurse answered his phone, it had been the same nurse he had employed when he could no longer enjoy my mum’s company, he wanted someone to argue with, someone who could argue back with him, he always respected that, he always found a way to be proud of someone who would stand up to him. My mother never could, all she wanted was peace, a wonderful feminine virtue which I personally preferred, her sister also found it hard to verbally spar with their father, she gave it a go, a real go, one in which caused her to suffer from depression and it took the care offered by my mother to help her through. Me? I just found it easier to ignore him, a man who took me on a long walk through country lanes near my aunt’s house when I was six as I still suffered from the cramp and embarrassment of constant diarrhoea.
The phone line was crackly, static filled and the noise verging on the unbearable, like the sirens that warned Londoners in The Domain, for all the good it would do them, that the world was about to become a playground for insanity, it ran through my head like an ulcer bleeding out, incessant, painful, seemingly never ending. Then suddenly the line became clear and I was surprised that far from sounding like a badly fitted exhaust on a clapped out car, one that had been sturdy, perhaps even majestic in its day, the voice on the other end of the line sounded lucid, strong, full of vigour and vitality; this was not the voice of a man allowing Time to finally wrap him in blankets, this was a voice I barely recognised and after all ten years had passed, what would I know about how he would sound, except he was dying, he was close to being kissed one last time by the eternal stranger.
I heard him say, “Well, what is it, speak up, you always did sound so faint.” Silence reigned for a moment, all I had to say, all that had ever gone on between us, the miscommunication, the stifled conversations, the bonding that should have happened naturally curbed by distance and blood that had run its course. “It’s me”, I heard myself say with tentative expression, like a guide dog knowing that it may lead the way for the blind person but who instinctively understood it was still on the end of a chain, that it was never truly in control. I always wanted to be that dog I thought, the first set of traffic lights I would lead the cruel right out into the middle of the road and wait for the inevitable collision.
“Yes, I do know, your number flashed up on the phone, I presume you have called me to make peace with yourself, to ask for my forgiveness?”
Being stunned is not part of my nature, I have met students who thought their excuse for not bothering to do the required reading was acceptable, that those easily offended by the subject matter perhaps needed to find another way of expressing their displeasure rather than proclaiming at the end of every tutorial, ‘oh well you see, the author obviously didn’t have clue about real life; I would have written it differently’ and too whom always found a spluttering defiance when I casually mentioned, “Well write it then”.
Being stunned is not in my genetic make-up but for a brief tiny moment I remembered the young boy rushing off behind a hedge and having humiliation heaped upon him as he had to walk back to his aunt’s house with a couple of carrier bags hiding his shame. This was not what I was expecting; this was the sound of a confident man, a man who knew exactly which buttons to press, a man who knew each one of my weaknesses despite the ten year gap that stood between us as the electronic pulse in the sky relayed one misjudged sentence after another.
I phoned I guess to say goodbye, I phoned because it was the right thing to do and yet somewhere in my soul I want to scream at you for all the hurtful things you said, the neglect you found it easy to show, I want to tell you that despite it all, I did something good in my life, it might not be the best I could have been in your eyes but I certainly gave it my all to achieve a modicum of self respect that I will not allow you to take away from me. I might not be as good as you, however I’m not you and as I sit here at my desk, the darkness that surrounds me, punctuated by a single light from this damn telephone, is somehow preferable to talking to you.
Of course none of that was said, who in their right mind would do that, only the truly despicable would even think it.
I thought I heard him hiss, the slightly audible sound of disapproval, of relationship shame, the hiss of condemnation, of criticism displayed in the tone of a man fed up with talking and to who was anxious to carry out sentence, to leave me burning forever in my own Hell as he enjoyed the peace and serenity of afterlife conviction.
“You were always weak, a big girls blouse looking for affection, of asking for love and a mutual understanding, I despise you.”
I remember groping in mid air, my mouth open, flapping for a word, any sense of truth in which to retort, to stand my ground in the dark, to scream at him, to wrap the sound of the constant hiss coming down the phone round the I.V. bag and let it suffocate in mid-air, let the words be drowned out by asphyxiation.
“You should get down on your knees, you should get back into that shell of yours and find salvation, for there is none here down the end of a phone, I’m not here to save your life, I’m not here to show you love, get down on your knees and pray that somehow you survive this.”
I started to scream at that point, he continued on, he repeated the last vile words to me over and over again and he hissed throughout, the absurd notion of a snake hovering by the end of a phone, its forked tongue glistening with moisture as it teased the space and air around it and all the while able to tell me to pray, to get down on my knees, to seek salvation…
I felt the violent push and still screaming I found myself on my knees, then curled into a ball as I cried out from behind my desk. Darkness was now not the preserve of the night but of my soul, darkness which exploded before me as the fire of a new sun burned brightly in the fireplace and the rocking of a house under siege.
I was found alive, burned but alive, scorched but breathing. The gas leak had done damage to the house, my books, my research had gone up in flames, cinders and ash, letters now tattered remains of a life that had barely existed and yet I was alive. For all the screaming had alerted my neighbours who had feared my safety and who had already called the police when the gas ripped through the house, that screaming down the line to a man who didn’t care had saved me; that outpouring of ancient grief, of bottled up resentment on both sides had been enough to spare me.
The funny thing was, the downright weird part was when my mother came in to the hospital to see me. I told her all that happened and when I had finished she showed me my phone which had survived the blast and clicked the screen to both messages and phone calls made and received. There was no text from her saying to call him, there was no phone call made to his phone, the hiss I must have heard as I sat restless on my chair before falling to the ground was from the gas escaping…as for him, as for the man who made me scream, he had already died in the early evening, around the time I was re-reading the annotated notes on how sex and horror were intrinsically linked…
Ian D. Hall 2015