For Ellie (Mrs Underfelt) – who said she liked this character.
“…I knew it would be you as soon as I dialled. How do you do it?”
The voice at the other end of the phone was exactly as I had grown to know, except for an air of confusion with which I was not familiar but, never being one to let doubt get in the way of indignation, I pressed on none-the-less. “Your card in the newsagent’s: how did you know that I would see it? How did you know that I would call?”
I quoted directly from the card that I had removed from the shop window. “‘Tired? Lonely? Need to hear a friendly voice? Just ring,’ and then it’s got your phone number.”
“My number? Are you sure?”
“It’s the number I just dialled.”
“But I don’t have a card in the newsagent’s.”
“Yeh, right.” I said, regretting my tone instantly. “So how come I just got you?”
“You must have mis-dialled.”
“That really is…” I wanted to say preposterous, but the notion was simply so far-fetched that I was already checking the number on the card against the number I had dialled. It was, of course, one digit different. That single digit had connected me with the man I know as Lorelei. But how? How is it even possible to dial what now amounts to a virtually random phone number, and get him. It must be some kind of trick – a mind-game or something. Maybe I was having some kind of psychotic episode. Perhaps I’d been brainwashed, or hypnotised, or… I have no idea what… I would wake up soon and find that this was all a dream.
“So, are you?” His voice pricked into my brain like defeat into an ego.
“Am I what?”
I wanted to say ‘no’, but I knew that he would see right through that. Why had I rung the number in that case? I really didn’t want this man to think that I might have been trying to contact the kind of person who routinely displays their phone number in the newsagent’s window. “Well, I’m tired of how things are. Does that make sense?”
“I don’t know. What sort of things?”
“I thought I was making progress. I thought that she might have been ready to change her mind, but instead she just told me that she was getting married again and…”
“Ah, this will be your ex-wife.”
“The new man is called Duncan. Bloody Duncan! He sounds like a Blue Peter presenter.”
“I thought you had put that particular situation behind you. I thought you said you were moving on.”
“Duncan has a sports car. Duncan has his own house. Duncan, apparently, wears clean socks every day and doesn’t behave like a three year old when things don’t go his way.”
“Ah, so you’ve not moved on quite so far as you might have hoped then?”
“The thing is, I’ve done everything she asked.”
“Well, I listened.” Even through the mobile phone I could sense his eyebrows arching. “There was a lot to take in,” I explained. “She had a lot to say. It appears that I have quite a lot of faults.”
“I don’t suppose you can remember what any of them are?”
“Not really – she might have a point with the not listening thing I suppose – but the other stuff… I’m willing to try.”
“She doesn’t want you to though, does she?”
“Not now she’s got Duncan. Good old Dunc’…”
“She was alone too, just like you, although without the six foot pile of takeaway containers in the kitchen and a mound of dirty socks in the bidet, obviously.”
“She left me. She started the divorce. She said we were both unhappy.”
“…It’s bloody infuriating.”
“She doesn’t want you to be lonely.”
“She wants me to meet somebody. To ease her conscience.”
He sighed the kind of sigh that, even over the phone, comes accompanied with a world-weary roll of the eyes. “Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m in the park,” I answered. “It’s the nearest thing I get to excitement these days. Can I get home without treading in dog shit? Can I sit on a bench without having my hat stolen by a gang of feral kids?”
“You’re not even wearing a hat.”
“How can you possibly know that? I…” I looked at my phone only briefly before ending the call. “Don’t tell me,” I said, turning to face the man who I knew I would find standing beside me, “you just happened to be in the park as well.”
“I like to walk,” he said. “I like to meet people. It’s a good way to meet people, don’t you think?”
“I’m not really lonely you know,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “Let’s have an ice cream.” We joined the short queue to the kiosk. “And we’ll see where life takes us.”
“Beautiful day,” said the woman in front of us, trying to defy gravity by remaining upright with a bouncing toddler dangling erratically from her arm. She smiled apologetically as a whirling hand caught me a glancing blow a-midriff and gently eased the child out of range. “I brought my nephew to play. An ice cream is a small price to pay, don’t you think? It’s so nice not to be staring at the walls.”
I waited for Lorelei to fill the void, but he was silent; smiling benignly at me, the woman and the world in general. He had a look of contentment that, as ever, I found impossible to understand. I tried to grin my way out of the situation, but the silence was becoming increasingly awkward.
“Do they still do 99’s?” I asked nobody in particular.
“I hope so,” said the woman. “Otherwise I’ll have to get a Flake from the newsagents on the way home. I’ll be particularly unhappy if they don’t do sprinkles.” She smiled. Quite a nice smile, in its own way. “Sara,” she said. “My name is Sara.”
“Jim,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you. And this is?…” I looked down at the child clinging to Sara’s hand.
“Oh this,” she said. “I’ve really no idea. He’s not my nephew really, I just picked him up at the playground. It’s so much easier to talk to people if you’ve got a child with you, don’t you think?” I could feel my mouth dropping open. “It’s a joke,” she grinned. “Of course I know his name… It’s written in the back of his coat.” The smile again. “This is Tom. Say hello Tom.”
“Aunty Sara’s going to buy me an ice cream,” said Tom clinging tightly to her hand. “We’re both having sprinkles.”
Lorelei coughed quietly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve just…” He turned to the woman in the queue. “I’m sorry Sara – I hope it’s ok for me to call you Sara – I hope you don’t think me terribly rude, but I have to go. It’s been good to meet you. I hope you enjoy your ice cream.”
“We will,” I replied in perfect harmony with Sara and Tom as Lorelei turned and wandered quietly away.
“And don’t be lonely,” he said. “I’m just a call away…”
“I know,” said Sara…
The first conversation with the bearded man is here: A Little Fiction – New Book (Title Unknown) – Introduction (Conversations with a Bearded Man part one)
The second conversation is here: A Little Fiction – A Further Excerpt from a Different Unfinished Novel (Conversations with a Bearded Man part two)
The third conversation is here: A Little Fiction – A Further Further Excerpt from a Different Unfinished Novel (Conversations with a Bearded Man part 3)
Conversation four is here: A Little Fiction – Lorelei (Conversations with a Bearded Man, part 4)
Conversation five: A Little Fiction – Conversations with a Bearded Man (part 5) A Pre-Christmas Exchange
Conversation six: A Little Fiction – Conversations with the Bearded Man (part 6)
I believed that these conversations might end here, but I’ve been asked a number of times to resurrect this character and so I’m trying to think how I might do it without him wandering out of a shower to find that it’s all been a dream…