The Withheld Caller

“I’m not him. I’m not the person you thought I was when I answered the phone.”

“I know that.”

“Yeah, I guess you do.”

She went quiet. Nothing new there. It was the flavour of the hour.

I thought she might have been thinking about it. About what I just said. But then she said something different. She said that she’d never …

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Ahead of the story. Let me start back closer to the beginning.

The landline rang. That’s funny; no one calls on the landline anymore. Embracing the mystery, I picked it up without looking at the display.

“Hello?” I put as much curiosity and bafflement as I could into my voice.

“Hello, who’s this?” A warm contralto. (Like Lady Gaga. Or Cher if you’re a bit older. Or Marlene Detrich if you’re older still.)

“Sam.”

“For real?”

Not an unusual question to get, but I let it pass. I just said: “Yup.”

“Oh. I wanted someone else.”

“Why? What’s wrong with me?”

“Well, you’re not Paul for a start.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“What’s wrong with me not being Paul?”

“Well, he’s the one I want to talk to. Is he there?”

I told her a little lie then. Not a whopper. Just an omission. The truth, but not the whole of it. I told her: “No.”

“No?”

“No; Paul’s not here.”

You see, Paul had never been here. There was no one called Paul at that address and there never had been. I should now; I’d been there from when it had been built.

“Well, when’s he going to be back?”

I didn’t want to tell no more lies so I changed the subject. She sounded nice. I wanted to carry on talking to her. Not that I didn’t have anything to do. It’s just that; well; talking to her seemed better. Just better. So I asked her a question: “What do you want to talk to him about?”

“You know. Just stuff.”

Nothing. I smiled. She just wanted to shoot the breeze. She could do that with me. I was good at that.

“Talk to me.”

I could tell she was changing gears by her pause. The sun came out then, and it was as if my head filled with sunshine and my lungs with fresh air. I stood. Felt lightheaded. Took three steps towards the patch of sunlight on the sofa. Sat down right in the middle of it. Closed my eyes and just let myself go into the comfort of that moment.

“Okay,” she said.

Yes!

“Tell me about you. Start at the tips of your hair and work your way down.”

“Sam; that’s a weird thing to say, but I’m going to suppose for now that you’re special.”

“I am.” With a smile in my voice. “So tell me.”

“I’m on my bed. The sun’s just come out and it’s shining on my face. It’s warm. Reminds me of the holidays. Reminds me of laying on the beach. My hair was long then. Now it’s all shaved off. I don’t even have hair tips to tell you about. Not on the outside. They’re all hibernating inside my skin. Waiting for summer; for my summer to come around again. I won’t tell you any more about that.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yeah. It’s okay.”

“Thank you, Sam.”

I felt something sweet pass through my heart when I heard her say my name. She’d remembered it and she’d used it. And it sounded good in her mouth.

I wanted to throw her. I wanted to see what she was really made of, so I said: “What do your lips taste of?”

“Honey.”

She answered before I even finished asking. Like she knew what I was going to say before I said it. I tried to keep up so I said: “What kind?”

“Burt’s Bees.”

And I knew what she meant. I had one too. A little stick of lip moisturiser in a honey-coloured tube. I told her: “you like it because it doesn’t make you look like you’re wearing lipstick. And it tastes nice when you accidentally lick your lips.”

“Yeah. Crazy, right?”

“Lick your lips.”

“My, aren’t you the demanding one!” Mock outrage sounded good on her.

“Yes, ma’am.” Americanisms don’t sit too well on me, but I guessed she’d cope. And I was thinking that she was about twenty-two; same as me. And she sounded like she was free. It was a Saturday morning, and we had the whole weekend stretching in front of us like a lifetime. I relaxed a notch. Settled back. Smiled.

“Listen, I got to go. Nice talking to you, Sam.”

I opened my eyes and the sun tried to blind me. I sat forward on the sofa. Bolt upright.

“Wait. I don’t know your name.”

“You don’t.” Straightforward, but a little playful.

“So …”

“So I’ve got to go.”

“Can I call you back?”

“Why?”

“Because you’re nice. And because I … because of the way you smile.”

“You can’t see my smile.”

“I can hear it.”

“Get away with you.”

“Like DJs on the radio. You can tell which ones are smiling and which ones aren’t. They mostly smile.”

I stopped. I was waffling. Desperate to keep her on the line. Trying to hook her again.

“Listen, Sam …”

“I know; you’ve got to go.”

“No. Well, yeah. But I just wanted to tell you that I like the way you sound and I’d like to talk to you again sometime. It’s just that now’s not good for me. I got to go somewhere.”

“Where?”

“I’ll tell you later.”

“That sounds like a promise.”

“It is. I’ll call you.”

“When?”

“Bye, Sam.”

I said bye but she’d already gone. I looked at the display on the phone. It was one of those cordless ones with a fancy little screen that told you the number that had just called so I fiddled with it for a while and got a list of previous callers. There, at the top was the one I needed: Withheld. I closed my eyes. She had me on the line and I didn’t even know her name.

The next day was a long one. Sunday always was, but staying in all of Saturday waiting for a call that never came and staying in Sunday morning; not daring to move more than a room away from the phone sat it its cradle, rubbed me up something rotten. I looked at my mobile instead, but there was nothing on it that grabbed me. It’s funny how interesting it’d been the day before. Gateway to the world and all of that. Now it was just a shiny slice of nothing much to say.

I stood up to make a sandwich. Not that I felt particularly hungry. It was just that time of day: lunchtime.

The phone rang …

You can tell how it’s going to go on that call. You can see that it’ll be her. You can say that we’ll get on very well and that it’ll escalate to the point where we both want to talk more and more. Aside from one problem, we’ll be happy ever after. And you’d want that for us, right? Well, it didn’t turn out quite like that. Not in the long run. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Hello?”

“Hi, nameless caller.”

“Julie. Call me Julie.”

“Is that your real name?”

“Is it July now?”

“Err, yeah!” With a hint of a duh in the middle.

“Then call me Julie.”

I wasn’t convinced, but I swallowed it and said, “Hi, Julie.”

“Hi, Sam.”

There was silence. It stretched on and the clouds scudded across the sky. I knew that I’d hyped this call, in my mind, so that it could never be perfect whatever we said. I wondered if she’d done the same. Then she unpaused the pause. Pressed play. And just like that, we forgot who we thought we were and got on with being ourselves.

I tried not to flirt. I did!

My friend Victoria had told me that I always flirt when I talk to women. I’d told Victoria that I was just being iconoclastic. Just trying to break out of my mould. She’d then said that I could either flirting or try to destroy society and that I needed to choose. I’d said that she was a fool and had asked her what colour panties she was wearing. Victoria had laughed and told me that society was safe in my hands.

Here’s me not flirting: “So, Julie – tell me what colour … (I thought about it and then decided not to go there until Thursday) is the wallpaper where you’re at?”

“Pink, with little flowers sewn into the crotch.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. She was reading my mind. Or something.

“You?” she said. Challenging. Playing my game.

“Not got any on,” I said. “And magnolia. The colour of the wall, that is.”

And we went on like that. And it was good. I didn’t have no ties to no-one and she never mentioned Paul again; not like that. And so we were free to be what we were.

We followed the weather as it painted itself across the sky. The sun came out for her at the same time as it did for me. And the same grit pattered itself into her windowpanes as into mine. Our rain and shine synchronised like our houses were joined at the inglenook. Blue skies turned to autumn leaves while we watched and talked and turned nothing into something that should have been forever. Except that it wasn’t. Don’t ask me why. I just don’t know. I could guess, but mine would only be as good as yours, so I’ll let you do it.

There was a lull one dull day as I watched leaves clump into the compost of next spring in a darkish corner of the garden. And I sensed that it was an awkward one. I asked her what her lips tasted like, hoping to pull a smile out of her; the first of the week.

“Like ashes.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said this: “I’m not him. I’m not the person you thought I was when I answered the phone.”

“I know that.”

“Yeah, I guess you do.”

She went quiet. Nothing new there. It was the flavour of the hour.

I thought she might have been thinking about it. About what I just said. But then she said something different. She said that she’d never intended to call Paul.

“Who is Paul anyway?” I said.

“There is no Paul. He doesn’t exist. Not in the way you think.”

“He’s not here; that’s for sure.” I tried to laugh as I spoke, but it came out as a dry cough.

“Oh, he is.”

“What?”

“He’s there.”

“Erm, I think I’d know.”

“You do. It’s you. You’re Paul.” She went on before I had a chance to deny it. “Paul is whoever answered the phone. You’re my Paul. You’re the person I dialled.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was just playing a game. Not a trick; not on you. It was just wordplay. Like when I insisted on talking to Paul; that was just, you know, play.”

“Okay. That’s cool. I get it. No harm, no foul.”

She carried on as if I hadn’t spoken. As if she was following a script she’d worked out in advance. “I just needed something. I needed someone. I needed you. And you were there. And you’ve been there ever since. And …”

She stopped.

“And?” I prompted.

“And now I’ve got to go somewhere. I don’t want to, but I have to, Sam.”

“Where?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“When will you be back?”

“It’s not that kind of a somewhere.”

“Then …”

“Then, nothing, Sam.”

I knew. Of course, I knew. But I didn’t want to say it. And she wouldn’t. And that was that really. We said something about love. Something vague that intended to heat the heart but only really ended up being cold comfort for both of us. And then she put the phone down. And I did too. And the sun went out.

I look at the phone sometimes. I tell it to ring. But it never does. I even pick it up and listen for a voice. A warm contralto with a smile in it. But all I get is that stupid dial tone. And then I sometimes look at the list of callers, but it always tells me the same old story; the one we all hear eventually: Withheld, Withheld, Withheld.