This was yesterday.
No, this was earlier today. This was 2.56 in the morning and I couldn’t recall asking anyone to phone up and make me listen to their house.
I could hear no more than that, just their house—the sound of their furniture perhaps, a room with ornaments and carpet, the kind of space that wouldn’t raise an echo, that would give no signs of independent life. None of that messy background you’ll get from a mobile, or a late night place of work, this was the noise of a person waiting in their home, not moving and not speaking, not a word.
I imagined the person standing, possibly breathing a touch more than intended and maybe their free hand at their side, or maybe both hands hanging, made weighty by some stroke of fate. I imagined, I suppose, some kind of despair.
An aeroplane worried distantly off to the East. Far and high.
And meanwhile I couldn’t remember reaching out for my telephone, answering the ring, because this had happened, I had to assume, as I fought back my sheet and surfaced, started to wake.
I did know—was quite sure—that I hadn’t spoken and neither had he—or she. There was only this complicated silence burrowing in along the line, dragging a sense of my possible counterpart and their receiver, the curl of fingers holding, the hint of sweat. Late night calling, that always did suggest a sweat: the symptoms of emergency, personal accident, failure to break in a timely manner, loss of money and orientation, the inrush of need.
Both hands by the sides and this despairing need, a thing beyond speaking. That was my guess.
And by this time I should have hung up, or shouted hello with increasing alarm, the way people do in a film. Instead I smiled.
I don’t believe that smiles are audible.
But the line snapped shut on me at once, died.
I rolled back and dipped into a dream beginning with my hand being cold and stretching out to warm itself, push its fingernails deep inside hot sound.
The telephone ringing again. Pushing me back out into the room, into the dark.
I needn’t have answered.
It was just that I had the idea now of a person standing and that ring; that sound in itself is so demanding; and there was a tiny chance that something, some material assistance, might be asked of me.
‘Hello.’ I made a point of speaking—loudly. I was abrupt in a way that seemed appropriate, a defence against what might be happening elsewhere.
‘Ah… I’m sorry.’ A man’s voice, blurry with a kind of indecision. Not really filled or even touched, it would seem, by despair.
There’s this other voice, too, shrill and hacking up behind his words. ‘ Go on. Tell her. Her.’ A woman is shouting, ‘Go on! Try it—as if…’ She’s at a slight distance, ‘As if!’ although not so far away that she has to shout, ‘Go on! You called her, you tell her, you just fucking tell her.’ She is plainly screaming because she wants to, because her emotions are leading her that way.
I had imagined the person standing alone and despairing. That was wrong. And as if he had forgotten that he’d called me and now remembers, the man murmurs in with, ‘Ah, yes… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—’ and then he stops himself.
Clearly he’d like to prove for the screaming woman that he doesn’t know me. He may also wish to seem incapable of sustaining a thing as complex as an affair. But he can’t be too inept, he can’t simply say ‘I didn’t mean to call you.’ That would sound as if he is sorry for being caught instead of being sorry for inconveniencing a stranger.
Half-asleep, I can’t think of suggestions which might help him and, in any case, it’s past three in the morning and someone who knows him is screaming at him in his house—no advice could save him at this point.
He starts again, ‘I was the wrong number. When I rang a few minutes ago.’
‘Bastard. You think I believe—’
There is the sound of some object dropping, perhaps breaking, in a way that is muffled and unclear, ‘Fu-cking. Bas-tard.’ The woman’s voice sheers off on her final syllable and subsides.
The man is whispering by this time, ‘I am very sorry. I didn’t…’ His voice seems to huddle in close.
And I am immediately very sorry, too. ‘Yes. Yes, I know.’ I want him to picture me standing, heavy-handed, alone in a silent room. I want, for some reason, to show solidarity.
‘Do you?’ There’s nothing accusatory about his question, only a type of innocence which makes me need to reassure.
I try, ‘Well, I…’ and run out of gentleness after two syllables. ‘Fucker!’
Another object, undoubtedly glass, hits an unforgiving surface with audible results and I say, more softly than I might have hoped to, ‘I’m going to hang up now. Good night.’
Of course, I shouldn’t have said good night to him. I should have said good morning.
Ten minutes later, he made his third call. Or else, I supposed it might be the screaming woman this time, whoever she was: pressing redial, wanting to scream at me now and badger out a vindicating truth. So I raised the receiver and snapped it down again at once.
The phone kicked back into ringing almost immediately, but I ignored it, let it drill and drill, not giving up, until I had to disconnect it at the wall, listen to the milder nagging from the kitchen and the living room. In the end I unplugged the lot then abandoned my bed, went through and watched my television.
Twenty-four hour news. Some survey. An occupied population soon happier with lower murder levels, but worried by abductions and also rapes. Mutilations up fifteen percent. Degrees of normality returning, expectations readjusted, many officials pleased.
Pictures of sand and litter, a low house with something unbalanced about it, out of kilter—I don’t see it long enough to find out what, because I change the channel. I know what I like.
No. I know what I require.
When I don’t sleep, I have to watch the quiz shows. Apparently people all over the country are sleepless and ringing up strangers—television’s friendly strangers—they’re paying to call and to guess out mysterious things: what names might be included in a list of high street shops, or prominent adulterers, or which fatal diseases can be spelled within a thirty letter grid, or suggesting the missing word that completes two important others, or what could have been blanked over in famous headlines, popular proverbs, debt collector’s letters, film titles, declarations of martial law—it doesn’t matter, the sleepless are eager to take part. As long as there’s somebody inside the screen talking back like a loud acquaintance—not really their pal, but perhaps an acquaintance—and filling up the night, then they’re happy to guess. They need to.
Last night they were calling a slimmish presenter with heavy eyebrows and an honest face—a good man doing a bad job. He talked quite slowly, comfortingly, didn’t badger, ‘Set a limit on your calls—that’s seventy five pence a call whether you get to take part in the quiz or not. So you set a limit. I’d suggest five. But maybe less. And stick to your limit. That’s what a limit is for. That’s what I’d do. And if I think you sound too young, I will ask your birth date. Don’t be offended—in fact, I’ve given you time to prepare there— but I will ask. Chance to win twenty thousand pounds. Twenty. How much could you do with that…’
If he made jokes they were self-deprecating and never cruel. He looked directly at the camera and smiled just enough. ‘Top line… P, blank, C, K. Could be anything, really, couldn’t it? Write down the wrong answers, cross them off. And your ideas. Make a note of them.’ He was someone you could take to.
I tuned in for over an hour. No one guessed correctly.
Which is why the quizzes are so perfect. They’re like watching your own life happen to other people —No, you’re wrong. No, sorry you didn’t quite make it. Close, very close. Try again. Do try again. And should you ring up and join in yourself at any point, then at least you made that choice, are a volunteer, you weren’t born inside it and very much under eighteen and no permission asked. They let you sit on the sofa and get fake company instead of what you want—how much could you do with that…
Anyway, last night is why I am currently exhausted. I have no other plausible reason. And today is the first Sunday after the clocks are adjusted for spring. So lose one hour of the sleep you didn’t get and remember to alter your watch and your alarm and never mind the effort on your mantelpiece because it doesn’t work and you can’t be fussed to get it mended—it’s more to look at, like a clock-shaped ornament—and you sit in the garden all afternoon and think there is too much light, more than an hour’s worth of extra light, intrusive. You spend a significant period in a condition which feels like being lost, internally lost, your self neither dreaming, nor free of night, only caught in some gap. A gap of light. The birds sing piercingly in the hedge until you bang a stick along it and send them fluttering, the blackbirds scattering with those hard, little chips of alarm, crying like somebody hammering slate. I think there are nests hidden in the privet, several, and even if I am mistaken I know that the birds will be back, unstoppably.
So I leave the garden, the house, take a walk—for health and fitness—and in the street that curls around my garden wall it is even more clear that the new year is rising, gathering strength. The air is softer, moister, the distances changed by oncoming growth, the breath of seething earth. Enough to make you feel grubby, interfered with, claustrophobic.
But that’s tolerable, because I will rush for the shoreline, take the lane by the ploughed field which is barely stirring yet—the quiet, clotted one, seeds perhaps dead in it, or unwilling—and I will reach the sand and be with freshness while I pad along the beach. Silly to live so close by the sea and not take advantage.
The town catches me first, though. It’s riddled with Associations and Committees, folk who set up hanging baskets for competitions, who impose their hopes on others. This is a place where we are supposed to think well of each other and expect the best. Which is why every lamppost I pass has a picture taped to it. Someone has lost a dog. Someone imagines that I will help them look for it, give it back if I have stolen it, apologise if I have made it into gloves. On either side of the road for as far as I can see, they’ve set up pictures of their missing dog.
This kind of thing is always depressing—plaintive flyers showing monochrome snaps of unrecognisable creatures that already look run over, or drowned, or vivisected, or dropped from heights. But this is worse than usual. This is tangible panic, set out on display and trying to trap me: pin-sharp colour shots of a tubby old retriever that’s looking up at the camera as if it trusts me, trusts children, trusts absolutely everyone: a few white hairs on the muzzle and sitting in a kind of happy slump surrounded by what seems a pleasant garden—much neater and bigger than mine—and signs of a pleasant existence, the kind that pleasant people would make, people who care about animals and render them fat and unwary and who own a good computer that can print across an image in crisp, high type:
FROM THE AFTERNOON OF 21st MARCH
HE IS A MUCH LOVED FRIEND AND PET
WHOLE FAMILY WITH YOUNG CHILDREN DEVASTATED
PLEASE HELP US WE ARE AT A LOSS
Why force me to know this. I’ve done nothing to them.
All that detail—it’s unnecessary. I can already see that the dog is a nice dog, a dog I would like if we met, and I would prefer if it wasn’t lost; but I never have met it and I don’t know where it’s gone and there is nothing I can do. What purpose is served by making me feel guilty?
Beyond that, the levels of sadness involved couldn’t possibly need explaining—they’re what I’d assume, because I am not a psychopath, not someone entirely without imagination. Of course you don’t want your dog to disappear: you feed him and look after him so he won’t. Which means you can dispense with the full- scale advertisement of household misery: dragging the kids in to make things more grisly: suggesting tears and sleepless nights and maybe—why not?—the terrible scene where Mummy, or Daddy, or possibly both, will be driven to talk with their children, however many they happen to have, and tell them all about the Facts of Death.
They will be the kind of parents who explain things and by doing this will helplessly imply that every single one of the people their children see, play with, talk to, love may leave them without notice eternally and meanwhile something shadowed and appalling may have happened to their dog, their big loveable dog with the tender muzzle and the patient eyes.
Much more than enough.
I take it for granted that dogs and mums and dads and children and people who have been children and the whole of the rest of everything will die and this will frequently be sudden and insupportable and unfair and in the end— no, at my end, the rest of reality rolling on beyond me when I stop—at the end of me I will join them and I am not even remotely in favour of that, but also I choose not to think of it unless I am over-tired and lack the strength to fight it back. I don’t want my existence to seem impractical, unlikely. Plus, I can’t deal properly with other people when all I feel is sorry they’ll be leaving fairly soon and sad so many unimportant things are so distracting.
The dog keeps looking at me right along the street. Down by the crossroads he’s there, too: repeating a regular perspective, unwittingly mournful in four directions. I find it impossible not to feel his household waiting somewhere close, planning further strategies. Like anyone else, they’ll want to believe that effort is always rewarded.
I’d be the same. Because it should.
Lots of dogs on the beach—unmistakable, that final pelt they make towards the sea grass, knowing how great it’ll be when they get there: over and onto the sand, when they bark at the wave fronts, gouge the water, run themselves hoarse.
Then they come and sit beside you when they’re tired, up in the dunes. They lean against you as if two different species can communicate at certain levels and be friends. It’s a nice feeling. Had it. Owned a dog when I was kid. Don’t exactly want to focus on that now—the long-ago, lamented companion—but naturally I am tempted because of those bloody pictures, that bloody family. Fu-cking bas-tards.
Concentrate on my surroundings—step beyond the dogs and loving owners, children and loving parents, arm-in-arm loving couples, hair flaming away from them in the wind, tangling, binding. Always a good, stiff breeze here.
So. The fact of my surroundings, not the Sunday window dressing.
I see there must have been a storm. I don’t remember one, nothing dramatic, but the beach is banded and heaped with dead razor shells, mussels, sea urchins, some type of delicate, pale little bivalve that I don’t recognise, everything washed ashore. And a dark, new granular surface has been laid down here and there, a layer of pale grit beneath it. Signs everywhere of some great upheaval out to sea and now all this evidence of death.
Remarkable how perfect many of the shells have remained, clinking and rattling like bone when you walk in amongst them. I work myself deeper inside the wind, head West, away from the closed -up ice cream huts and the people and their pets. After forty minutes or so, I can relax, be solitary by choice and therefore not feel it.
At the heel end of the beach everything is scoured, flat: ghosts of dust are writhing and flaring across it at ankle height. Pebbles, sticks, shells, they balance on their own little towers of the sand they’ve shielded, everything else rushed to nothing. The sun is odd, as if it’s a hole punched through to somewhere white, and it’s finally sinking for today, throwing light lower and lower until shadows are cast from almost nothing—the sand towers and fragments gaining substance, weight, beginning to look architectural, like the ruins of a city far away, miles below, deserted.
I go up and sit in the dunes and watch little gusts take a grass stem and make it write its name, or secrets, this ridiculous calligraphy scratched and dabbed and then worked over and then reworked, unknown word after unknown word. Dunlins run through the shallows, too identical: tucked heads, tiny prodding beaks, pattering feet—I don’t hear them patter, but at some level they must—everything the same, and then they are frightened and gather themselves to the air, barrel off.
Dusk settles, silvered at its edges and strands of red under the clouds out to sea. Which means I shouldn’t be here. I’m too near the airbase and the fighters prefer to exercise when conditions become misleading, not quite day and not quite night. I can catch the sick tang of jet fuel from over the inlet. As I turn away the engine noise leaps and tears until it is not a sound any more, but a disturbance underfoot, in lungs, in muscles, a desire to scream while nobody will hear it.
When I get back home the day is gone, the sunset bled away.
I go into my kitchen, open up a box of spaghetti and something and then wonder what to do with it. I make a short whisky for myself and carry it into the bedroom, set it down and lie on the bed, while the room ticks and breathes, lets go of the heat it found in the day. I listen while a fighter circles and heads up the coast. Another follows. They train in pairs.
I wonder if the dog is home yet. He might be. That could happen— shambling in after romping too long in woods, or jumping down from a benefactor’s car—we took him in a couple of days ago. Knew somebody would want him back—such a lovely old lad. He could already be spoiled and drowsy with the big welcome he’s got and the special meal and here’s a new toy we bought you, just in case.
EXACTLY WHAT WE HOPED FOR
THANKS TO EVERYONE FOR YOUR CONCERN
WE ARE SO HAPPY NOW
NO PROBLEMS ANYWHERE
I’d like a Sunday when I see that on every lamppost. And maybe a picture of them together in the garden, evidence that everything’s okay.
I try and doze for a while to dream of that. It’s too early for sleep, but then again I’m tired. Being this tired is tiring—which seems unfair.
‘Hello?’ As usual answering the phone before I’m aware it’s been ringing. ‘Hi. You okay?’My feet are cold and I’m thirsty. ‘Yeah. You?’ There’s a little discomfort where I’ve lain too long on my arm.
‘Been better.’ His voice is cautious, a murmur. ‘What time is it?’
‘About one, I think.’ I can hear that he is walking, moving through his house—an echoless place, muffled furniture, soft fittings. ‘She’s gone for the week. Left the kids. So I have to mind them.’ I imagine that any ornaments, slivers of broken china and glass, would be tidied responsibly, quickly, in that kind of house. I assume all is in good order—good order for a house with kids. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m in the bedroom.’
‘Did I wake you?’
‘Do you want to?’
And there’s a silence in which I am aware of his lips, their smooth inside, and the breadth of his fingers, sturdy, relatively hot. They are holding my voice. I am holding his.
‘I said, do you want to?’
I am almost in my living room now and almost walking beside him, ‘I do. Of course I do. I just have to find… that’s it.’ I don’t want to turn on the light, so I have to feel for the remote control, snatch at it because I am impatient.
‘The one with the woman. Jenny? The blonde woman. I’m watching her.’
I stand in the blue shade of the television and look through the channels until I find the right one. ‘No, that’s not Jenny. She’s Tracy, surely. I think.’ Until we’re seeing the same picture.
‘Jenny. Tracy… Are you sure you’re okay? With last night?’
‘Will it happen again?’
‘I don’t know.’
Jenny or Tracy has pairs of words and blank spaces in between them. We have to find that extra word, the one to suit them both.
‘Silver sand, sand paper.’
‘I was on the beach today.’ I change the channel. Suicide levels are down, unexplained mortality rising. There are reasons for optimism. A chart displays the reasons as a segmented wheel.
‘That’s nice.’ His breathing is audible, it would be warm if it were here. ‘It’s not sand. Silver sand… Rubber band, band practice.’ He shifts position. I can tell he is sitting now. He sighs. This has no colour to it, no explicit sense—it could come from tiredness, impatience, despair, ‘As long as you’re all right.’ His hands weighted and mine too far away to lift them.
‘No, I’m not all right.’
‘I know, but—as long as it’s as good as possible.’ There’s a depth in voices when you know them, have learned them. There are nights when he’s turned to a monotone, numb—times when you can hear him younger and some trick of his mother’s maybe echoed through, her phrasing—times when he’s older, as old as he’ll ever get—what he was, could be—the sense of him lost in breath.
Myself, I am nothing but shallows, thin, ‘Are you all right?’
‘I’d guess not.’
I think I hear him shift, perhaps rub his face, his hair, ‘Yeah.’ He shifts again. ‘Me too.’
‘Can I see you.’
‘I don’t think so. Did she say tree?’
‘Yes.’ I lie and change the channel back. I feel too much light in my head. ‘Rubber tree—tree practice. That’s completely absurd.’
‘I was thinking of you today.’
‘I know. And I was thinking of you.’