Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website
ADVENTURES IN THE WEB
The Chatter Down the Line
He was definitely going mad – there were no two ways about it. And if he wasn’t going mad then someone was definitely going to pay!
The inconvenience had left his blood pressure somewhere close to the boiling point of a small volcano. How could anyone be expected to run a business when they could never make a damn phone call –or even receive one?
‘All right’ he admitted it, it was his home phone – perhaps a bit wide of the mark to call it a ‘business’ but nevertheless, it was how he made his living and what the hell, he paid his bills didn’t he, paid his taxes didn’t he? Wasn’t he as entitled as the next person to at least use the bloody phone?
He brushed aside the thought of the cell phone he no longer possessed because he could no longer meet the high costs involved.
He smoothed the right side of his blonde hair, fingers lingering on the small tick, tick, tick of the muscle in his temple, pushing and stretching the skin until finally the tick stopped.
How embarrassing it had been to hand the cell back.
He cringed mentally at the memory of the salesgirl’s polite, bland but infuriatingly knowing look while he had banged on about the phone ‘no longer meeting his needs’ and being ‘forced to look elsewhere’ as he had placed it on the counter. Her small smile just before he turned to leave the shop said it all – she had been looking at his computer records and could tell that the only ‘needs’ not being met were financial ones.
He moved again to the simulated wood desk that stood about one foot in front of the small radiator in the bay window. He liked to sit there because normally the warmth of the radiator on a day like this soothed and comforted the aching bones of his back.
But no more.
In an effort to make ends meet he had turned off the central heating and now the house felt as cold and barren as it had always looked.
He picked up the offending instrument and held it to his ear. Yes – there they were again, those damned maddening voices, chattering away in the background.
There was definitely no dial tone. None whatsoever.
He strained – as he had strained countless times before this past week – to make out the words, but as usual he could not.
It was so infuriating.
He could hear them talking non-stop, just barely on the threshold of comprehension. Sometimes he could almost make sense of it and then, just as he thought he was about to catch the drift, it broke down into chaos again, coherence slipping away like an elusive lady in the night. He couldn’t even be certain if they were male or female voices he thought glumly.
He thumped the handset several times hard on the desk.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
He coughed loudly to cover the noise it made although he knew there was no one to hear. It was a habit he had retained since boyhood, exaggerated coughing to drown out the slightest hint of wrongdoing.
He pressed it to his ear again.
No. No change – except it seemed to him the rise and fall of inflection in the garbled voices had, if anything, become imbued with a greater sense of urgency.
‘It’s all right for you’ he shouted desperately ‘you haven’t got all this money to lay off. If I don’t get these bets down soon I could be in real trouble – they won’t wait to get their winnings forever and the race is already won. I’ve got to get it down, get something back or they’ll do my legs.’
He shook his head like a troubled ox.
He was already deep in the hole for bets he had been unable to place at the beginning of the week. They’d called twice for their money. He’d had to hide under the desk, pretend to be out. Just how long could he keep that up?
‘Not long at all you bloody pests’ he breathed heavily into the phone ‘ I’ll be dead meat if you don’t clear off the bloody line.’
He wondered why he bothered to say anything. He stood there even the effort to breathe seeming hardly worth the bother, clutching the phone with both hands close to his heart as if they might hear its frantic beating and take pity on him.
He knew from experience the voices on the phone couldn’t hear him. He’d shouted down the line so often that even a deaf person ‘come to that a dead one’ he thought would have heard him.
The damn phone company hadn’t been much help either. He’d had them out twice already this past fortnight – a minor miracle in itself seeing as how you could usually wait for days until they arrived.
Each time they’d left shrugging their shoulders in bafflement and muttering things like ‘Crossed lines – we’ll check it out at the main terminal.’
Of course nothing had changed.
He’d damn well refuse to pay the bill if they didn’t get a move on and get it fixed. He refused to let the thought that he might not have the money to pay it or worse yet, even be around to worry about it invade his brain.
‘Get off the damn line you morons – what are you, some kind of bloody tea party, some blasted hen night that never heard of going to bed?
He bashed the phone vigorously then held it to his ear.
The quiet indecipherable babble merely continued. There was no response. He had never received a response to his ranting and raving at them.
‘And why spoil the habits of a lifetime’ he muttered sarcastically, shaking the offending instrument as he might a dog.
He replaced the receiver and paced rapidly backwards and forwards behind the desk, his feet tracking a well worn path etched into the thin carpet, stopping every now and then to peer through the stained with God knew what net curtains into the grimy street.
It looked about as hopeful out there as his own prospects.
He turned and stared blindly into the room. It was a fairly large house for this area of town but even so, not much bigger than a first-time buyer’s home.
‘Is this all I’ve got to show for everything?’ he thought disheartedly.
He pounded the desk sending several small slips of paper floating in all directions. He grabbed awkwardly at them but they evaded his grasp, landing like small, lost butterflies one by one on the tacky brown carpet.
Thinning strands of blonde hair fell forward over his face, tickling his large (twice-broken) noise as he knelt to retrieve them. The action of bending caused him to pant as his expanding stomach hit his belt line. He was not fat but he was certainly overweight.
‘Another thing gone to pot’ he thought sadly as he rested on one knee for a moment. He laughed wryly at his unintentional pun.
Thank God he still had a sense of humour not that it would do him any good. Old sayings came grimly into his mind, sayings like ‘die laughing.’
He sat down heavily on the carpet leaning his back against the plywood panel of the desk, legs stretched out straight in front of him to ease the strain on his stomach, feeling for the first time in his life, almost completely helpless, his normal ebullient confidence at an all time low. How had it come to this?
When he had been at school all his mates had envied him his thick blonde hair, his lithe trim body. An ace at games he’d been. Girls had come and gone thick and fast – faster than he could handle them for the most part although not for want of trying.
He laughed at the memory of his dextrous juggling of females and friends, how he had sometimes even managed to avoid a mess simply by passing them on and receiving both gratitude and loyalty for the same from his lesser male friends.
Back then it had seemed the future was his to take and do what he liked with. And now, look at him.
Overweight, hair thinning, out of condition and forty three (all right forty five) years old. It had been a long time since a woman had looked his way with any hint of desire.
He grunted as he rose and, placing the pile of slips on the desk, wandered across to a small mirror that hung over the long disused open fireplace.
Most of the silvering had departed this looking glass, probably due to damp and cold although it had not been new when he had bought in the local Oxfam.
He was glad the glass was clouded and speckled when he looked at his reflection.
Bloodshot hazel eyes, once hailed as ‘warm and sexy’ by countless females peered back at him, asking questions he couldn’t answer.
His full, once sensuous mouth was now surely gone forever, a scar running diagonally from his left nostril across both lips and disappearing into the cleft that had earned him the nickname of ‘Kirk’ (after Kirk Douglas) in his youth.
‘Not many offers to kiss me these days’ he mused and who could blame them? He certainly wouldn’t want to kiss him if he were a woman.
He traced the scar gingerly with his finger.
A legacy from another time when he had stepped out of line, got too far out of his league with ambitions to do better and had been rapidly stomped on.
‘And another lesson on the way too’ he thought ‘ if I don’t get that bloody money laid off.’
He turned away from the mirror, his shoulders sagging, his posture assuming its normal defeated expression.
He moved slowly round the desk and slumped in the reject swivel chair he had purchased to give himself a sense of accomplishment. He picked up the handset and ‘Yep’ there they were again.
He frowned in concentration, his eyebrows virtually meeting in his efforts to make out the almost but not quite clear words. He strained even more his lips compressed to a thin line in his efforts to hear.
He raised his fist in a mock winner’s salute to himself.
He lowered his head, the phone pressed so hard against his ear he could feel the sweat begin a clammy suction on his flesh – no matter how much deodorant he piled on he always seemed to sweat buckets at the first sign of stress or tension. He strained, his forehead creased into three virtual canals.
‘Come on’ he muttered ‘spit it out then.’
He wrote hastily on the ancient blotting paper in front of him.
‘Break –get through – hurry – time.’
It was no use.
He leant back in the chair with a sigh, the handset dangling limply, just a faint whisper of noise penetrating his brain. He could get no more. It had reverted to its usual mindless gabble. He replaced the handset gently in is cradle.
He studied the words he had written.
They made no sense. No sense at all.
He had never been very good at crosswords and this was all so cryptic it was totally beyond him.
He stood up abruptly and faced the window.
The street was even greyer now, clouds piling up ominously overhead full to bursting with some polluted discharge they were no doubt about to drop on the ground any moment now. He squinted to see the end of the street.
He ought to wear glasses, his long sight was appalling, but his vanity had held him back. Memories of those ‘sexy eyes’ had made him loath to cover up what he considered to be one of his best features – and contacts or laser treatment were beyond his reach, certainly for the moment
‘Anyway’ he mused bleakly ‘it might be better not to see what fate approached him too clearly.’.
‘Besides let’s face it’ he thought ‘by tomorrow I’ll be lucky to have any features let alone a ‘best feature’ when those bloody goons get through with me.’
How, he wondered again, had he ever arrived at this point in his life?
It had all seemed so full of promise once.
His hand shook slightly as he raised it to brush the fog his breath had made on the window.
He had gone downhill altogether once Joy had gone taking literally the joy out of his life.
She had been so fine: in every sense of the word; fine mind; fine features; a very finely drawn body. He could still see her drawn up to her full height (the top of her head had fit neatly into his shoulder) her short black hair pushed back from her high brown, her green eyes smouldering.
She had given him an ultimatum all right.
Get out of the filthy business he was in or she would leave him – this time for good. He hadn’t believed her. She’d left him before and she always came back. He’d been sure it would be the same that time. But it wasn’t.
She’d no longer believed in him; his ‘get rich quick’ schemes, knew despite what he said the only way he was going to progress was down – and she had been right.
He stroked the glass gently, envisaging the curve of her jaw-line. He had waited for weeks but she never returned. When finally he had gone looking for her she had totally disappeared. She’d begged him to come with her; said she knew a place they could be happy. Wouldn’t tell him where. A place she used to go when she was a kid.
He had never seen her again.
The sound of a highly revved engine started him from his reverie. He brought his face closer to the window, pushing his nose against the glass, screwing up his eyes to see what was making all the racket.
It was those bloody blokes. Coming for their money or his hide, they didn’t care which and he had bugger all to give them. What the hell was he to do?
He considered his options. There was not an over-abundance of them.
He could try to sneak out the back – only the back ended in a six foot wall and he wasn’t in condition to hoist himself over it. He could lock the doors and keep shtumm – pretend he wasn’t there. But he knew this lot. They’d beat the doors down and then beat in his head.
Or, he could let them in, try to bluff and hope to get away with it. This was really his only option.
He knew deep down they wouldn’t believe him – wouldn’t believe he hadn’t been able to phone – lay the money off. They’d think he was cheating them.
He watched the sleek Mercedes pull in to park some four houses down the road.
He straightened his shoulders. If he was going out, he’d damn well give them a run for their money. He laughed. He’d just have to take his lumps and hope he survived.
The phone began to ring.
He stared at it in confusion.
He hadn’t had a single call for days.
He stood frozen like a bird before a snake. Should he answer it or not?
‘Aw what the hell difference would it make anyway?’
His hand grasped the phone and pulled it roughly towards him.
He almost screamed in exasperation.
The bloody babble was back.
‘For God’s sake if you’ve something to say then say it now. I could be dead in a few minutes or at the very least unconscious so you’d better speak up while you have the chance.’
He bawled down the phone, terror and exasperation combining in equal measure.
The words came sharp and clear with a note of pleading for the very first time.
‘You must break the connection. Then you can get through.’
He stood in stunned silence, gazing in disbelief at the phone.
Joy! It was Joy.
‘Joy’ he whispered huskily ‘Joy darling is that you – is it really you?’
Her voice seemed to come from far away, static breaking in and out as she spoke.
In some other land he could hear the knocking on the door, pounding and insistent but he barely gave it a second thought. Joy. His Joy. Somehow she was there – speaking to him.
‘Darling where are you?’
His voice sounded, even to him like it belonged to another time, another place, when he was still the man he liked to think he was.
‘There’s no time – no time to explain. It’s so difficult to get through. I don’t know how long I have. There’s so much danger. You must break the connection.’
Her voice began to fade and flicker like a dying candle. He could hear feet pounding down the hallway. Suddenly he became aware of his imminent danger. He wanted to smash something.
It wasn’t fair. That he should find her again and at such a time. He was about to lose everything, even his life and yet there she was just a heartbeat away.
‘Where are you, where are you?’
Hoarsely he pleaded with the faint trill of her voice.
‘No time, no time. You must break the connection, break the connection.’
Her voice faded and was gone.
Only the constant cackle and raucous gibberish remained, white noise shusssing in the background. He stared blankly at the phone, his knuckles white as he clenched it.
‘What did she mean, what on earth did she mean?’
He was still holding the phone when the two of them burst into the room.
The air of menace they bought with them was palpable. He knew instantly he would be unlikely to survive this encounter. Something of his spirit started to die inside him as he looked at them.
‘Joy’ he whispered ‘Joy.’
He watched almost dispassionately as they advanced towards him, only the desk between them and him providing a temporary shield. He saw one of them begin to reach into his jacket and wondered idly what might be revealed.
A knife, a gun, a blackjack?
It seemed to make little difference as he stood there his fingers twitching on the handset, playing absently up and down the coiled cord.
Break the connection!
His mind soared beyond the mundane, beyond the immediacy of his surroundings. Could that be what she meant? It made little sense to him but then nothing did right now. Besides, what had he to lose?
He yanked violently on the cord, stretching it to its limit. The jack moved rapidly out of the socket, faltered and then stopped. They were reaching for him now, hands ready to work their worst, one of them containing an evil-looking knuckle duster gleaming dully that matched the wearer’s smile.
He was fresh out of time – that’s what she’d said – no time.
He threw himself sideways down behind the desk, pulling furiously on the cord as he fell, eyes riveted on the socket. He felt his body jar with the impact of the floor, breath whooshing out of him like a beached fish. He saw the jack leap out of the socket with a flash that became a roar of white flame. His eyes blurred with the sound and light and he felt as if he was falling, falling, falling.
He wondered at this sensation and thought perhaps the knuckle duster might have connected with his head because he knew logically he was already on the floor and ergo, he could not be falling. He felt an immense satisfaction at this conclusion.
He realised his eyes were tight shut and he opened them at once.
He could see nothing but a bright haze ‘like looking too long into the sun’ he thought. A spinning sensation wrenched at the core of his being slamming it off kilter and then instantly slamming it back again.
He had no idea what was happening but was beginning to suppose they must have shot him and he was dying.
He shut his eyes again wanting to think of Joy, so see her face as his last image and not that of the two bastards who had killed him.
He felt a thump in his solar plexus and was convinced he had absorbed a bullet. He felt no pain and after a few seconds he dared to pat himself with his free hand. He could feel no blood. He became aware that, for some reason, he was still clutching the phone and he laughed aloud.
He opened his eyes.
He was still on the floor.
His nose was pressed against the carpet.
But what a carpet. Deep red plus at least an inch thick, smelling of newness and expense.
He rolled over and came to his knees at once.
The edge of the desk informed him he had now acquired a fine Georgian reproduction, inlaid with the very best leather. He grasped the edge and hauled himself up.
His shocked eyes now took in the sight of an immaculate, modern, Executive’s office. Paintings of taste and value hung on the pale pastel walls.
He sank, open mouthed, back into the chair, his thighs telling him that this was no reject. He felt the smooth, soft leather give to fit his body’s curves and weight with the ease of long usage. He glanced down at his legs. They were encased in what could only be described as a fine, hand-tailored pair of trousers.
‘Jacket to match an’ all’ he thought fingering the soft beige material. His body too. He sat upright immediately.
His stomach was lean and flat, muscular in fact with only the slightest suggestion of a spread. On the desk before him he could see a nameplate. He snatched it up.
JACK VANCEY - PRESIDENT
That was his name all right.
But President of what?
His confusion mounting he swivelled and faced the window.
He got up and walked towards it.
He passed a full- length mirror inset in the wall. He gasped in astonishment, moving closer.
Staring, he raised his hands and ran them slowly over his face. No scar! His eyes – his eyes. He smiled happily. Definitely not bloodshot and definitely sexy!
He didn’t know what was going on but he was sure beginning to enjoy it!
Through the vast expanse of glass he could see wide green vistas, stretching away before him. Cool, sleek modern buildings fronted the tree-lined walkways. He could see a large sign standing free and squinted (apparently he still needed glasses) in order to read it.
Now he knew for sure he’d died and gone to heaven.
Everything he’d ever wanted, ever dreamed about seemed to be here and as he was here too, he must have died.
He spun round as the door opened. His mouth dropped.
Joy – his Joy stood in the doorway. She was tapping her foot impatiently.
‘What’s been going on?’ she demanded ‘I’ve been trying to ring you for ages and the line’s been out of order – gabbling and stupid sounds I can’t make head nor tail of.’
He glanced at the handset he held in his hand. His eyes slid to the wall.
The jack was out of the socket lying on the floor. He placed the receiver down gently.
He didn’t understand it. Maybe he never would.
But it didn’t matter. He’d been given another chance. He sure wasn’t going to waste time debating it. He was going to make the most of it.
‘Have you thought about what I said, about taking more time off, spending it with me, changing things between us before it’s too late?’
Joy’s voice penetrated his brain and he smiled at her.
‘I’m sorry darling, whatever you want. In fact, we can start right now’ he said as he advanced around the desk towards her to sweep her into his arms.
Joy was momentarily startled and then she smiled at him, the sweetest smile he had seen in years.
‘Oh Jack’ she said, ‘Jack you’ve come back. At last you’re my old Jack, I can see it in your eyes. My loving Jack, my sweet boy.’
They kissed and his whole body felt warm as it had not done for years.
She drew back slightly from him.
‘Why didn’t you answer the phone when I rang darling, I wouldn’t have had to wait so long to know if there was still a chance for us.’
‘I’m sorry my dearest. It doesn’t really matter now. I seem to have inadvertently broken the connection. Let’s just go eh darling?’
They left the room arm in arm.
The two thugs stared vacantly at the crouching man behind the desk.
Slowly he rose to his full height.
They advanced one pace menacingly and then stopped in amazement.
He read the menace in their eyes but his own, small and plump though he was were far more menacing than theirs, spite and malice shining out of his face.
He picked up the paper- weight and hefted it at them.
‘Come on then you bastards. I don’t know who the hell you are or where the hell I am, but nobody messes with Jack Vancey. I eat chickens like you for breakfast – whole!’
The heavy lidded cold brown eyes that had long ago ceased to have any emotions for anyone or anything other than cold hard cash bored into their minds and they glanced uncertainly at each other.
He might look somewhat the same, but this wasn’t the Jack Vancey they knew.
As with one mind they slowly backed off and went out of the door, making placatory gestures as they went, closing it quietly behind them.
He sat down heavily, the reject chair groaning slightly under his bulk and surveyed the dismal room silently.
He didn’t know where the hell he was, what had happened but one thing he was sure of – that stupid bitch Joy with her constant moaning about wanting a divorce because he had no time for her anymore wasn’t here.
‘Good riddance too’ he muttered.
He fiddled and played with the pieces of paper on the desk assessing the situation.
He could make something of this. It was what he was good at after all.
Business was meat and drink to him – the very stuff of life.
He glanced down and saw the phone jack lying on the carpet.
He bent with only a slight feeling of constriction, picked it up and thrust it into the wall.
Immediately the phone began to ring.
Copyright Sandi Johnson, 2009