“Is Ian there?” the voice said.
Not having an Ian in the family I knew this to be a wrong number. I’d half expected it to be the hospital with my results, so I was a little annoyed that this call was blocking the line.
“No, sorry. No one of that name here I’m afraid,” I said.
“Is this Newark 5763?” said the young person, “Only he’s got my key and I’ve got his. My mum’s going to kill me if I go home without it again.”
Like a line from a long-forgotten song, these last few words hung in the air, shapeless, but forming.
“Sorry,” I said after a wide-eyed pause of no time at all; still grasping.
“Not to worry. Sorry I bothered you, and he was about to say “bye” when I reached out and grabbed him back before he disappeared.
“Who’s Ian?” I asked him.
“Ian Wesley. This is the third time we’ve mixed up our keys.”
The name of Ian Wesley slammed into my brain like a meteor, the bit about the keys rocketing in after it. Ian had been the name of my best buddy at school. The short phone number confirmed it. It was hard to believe that this was really happening.
“Ian Wesley?” I asked trying to hide my discomfort.
“Yeah, you know him?”
And I knew what I was going to ask next.
“He has ferrets doesn’t he?”
And the answer came just as I knew it would.
“How do you know that? Not even his dad’s supposed to know that. Oh shit, you’re not Mr. Wesley, are you?”
“No, I’m not him,” I said.
“Do you know him then?” the voice said after a second or so.
What was I supposed to answer? I thought of putting the phone down. I thought of all sorts; a tsunami of notions, barely baked ones, all without conclusion. It mattered you see. It mattered who ended the call first. It even mattered how long we talked for.
“Are you still there?” he said.
“What was to come next? I had to know what came next. One wrong word could change everything. My blood pressure must have been sky high. Out of an ordinary day, with only the hospital on my mind, I had come to this otherworldly abyss, unprepared, suddenly frightened. Perhaps my next sentence would be the agent that would bring my existence to an end. All I could see before me might vanish into an eternity. One little change could set off a chain reaction; could change everything that preceded today; now, right now.
“Do you smoke?” I asked, hoping I’d said the right thing
He had to smoke. I needed him to run the risk of getting lung cancer. He had to get hospital treatment from it. A day had to arrive one day in the far off future when he’d be waiting for hospital results. It was a terrible thing to cause in someone; especially this someone.
“No,” he said.
I waited for what seemed like forever, breathing what I guessed was my last. I was still here, thankful to be gripping the phone. Picking up on his negative answer I uttered ‘Bugger’ under my breath.
“Of course,” I blurted out without thinking. “It was Linda who got you hooked in the first place.”
“How do you know her name?” he asked. “Hey, I’ve only told Ian about her so far. How come you know who she is? Have you been following me?”
“You met three weeks ago at the church barn dance.”
My sentiments exactly, I thought.
This phone call had, until now, been one of life’s ancient curiosities. It had lain buried for almost forty years of my life. I had made a wrong number that evening trying to get hold of Ian, hoping to catch him before he set off with his parents for the Social Club. I’d hoped there might have been time, a chance to get hold of him and make the exchange of the keys that we’d muddled up. Now, trying to grasp the strands of a memory I wracked my brains trying to remember the strange chat I’d had with a weird old bloke on the line back then, and how it had all turned out back when I was a teenager.
“Look I’ve got to go,” he said.
“You’ve got to stay. You’ve got to stay on the line.”
“You’d never believe me if I told you,” I said.
The phone call that late afternoon all those years ago had gone on for too long. By the time I’d rung off I missed Ian. I’d bumped into Linda soon after. She’d given me my first fag. I had to keep him talking.
“Has Titch bitten you yet?” I asked.
Ian owned two ferrets, Tiger and later one called Titch. It might even have been me who’d suggested the name of Titch because it was one of my many nicknames at school. Funny how you forget details; but Ian could only have had Tiger at the time of the phone call.
“Tiger I meant, sorry.”
“This is freaking me out; how do you know…how come…who the hell are you? Have you been spying on me?
“Do you believe in fate?” I asked
“Sod fate. Who are you? Come on, how do you know all this stuff about me?”
I could vaguely remember getting mad. This was good. It meant that the conversation was still balancing on its tightrope.
“Your mum’s name’s Fay, your dad’s called Hugh. You’ve got a scar on your right index finger caused by an accident on a wooden go cart when you were seven. You’re good at art; shall I go on?
“This can’t be happening,” he said. “You’re a creep, that’s what you are.”
“And you’re Chopin,” I said.
“God, how do you know they call me that too?” Then he paused and gave a little laugh. “Oh, very funny Ian. Brilliant. Oh God you almost got me going there you stupid bastard.”
“What year is it?” I asked unmoved
“Oh come off it, enough’s enough now.”
“The year,” I persisted.
“Nineteen seventy-five. Ok? Happy?”
“You’re talking to someone in twenty ten.”
“The year two thousand and ten.”
“Yeah, and I’m George Best.”
By now I’d remembered the phone box that this call had been made from, just outside the Rose & Crown. Behind me was a bus shelter, and Linda had been there waiting to go to the pictures.
“If you turn round and look over the road you’ll see Linda waiting,” I said.
I could hear him move the receiver away to look.
“Shit, how do you know all this?”
“You really want to know who you’re talking to?”
“Yeah, I bloody do.”
“I’ll tell you in thirty-five years’ time,” I said “Now off you go. Your future wife is waiting for you.”
I heard the phone click and then waited for something to happen, something bad. A moment later I was aware that I was still in the same spot. My heart was pounding. All I could hear was my breathing. I still existed; thank God.
Not long after my wife Linda came home from town going on about the grandkids and clattering about with the shopping. I couldn’t help but smile, even as a tear rested in the corner of my eye. Things had worked out just as they were supposed to have done. My wife, my kids, they’d still happened. I hadn’t changed anything. Oh, the relief of it.
As Linda chatted away the phone rang. With an instant reflex, panic ran through me like electricity. Trembling I picked up the receiver; afraid. But it was just the hospital. They said that they had my results though they were reluctant to give them to me over the phone. They wanted to see me, so I made an appointment. As I put the receiver down I allowed my past to come to rest. The future, whatever it was made of was beckoning. Only I did ponder on how I’d ever tackle making a wrong number again. I imagined talking to some doddery old git of eighty. Only this time I’d know that I was talking to myself thirty odd years into the future just as I’d done unwittingly thirty-five years before and in a way, just a moment ago. I even half hoped it would happen, just to give me the satisfaction of knowing that I’d got through to such a future. I guess though, that we’re just never meant to know that really, are we?
The Phone Call a Short Story by Richard Coppin
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