A Little Fiction – Conversations with a Bearded Man (part 7) – Helpline

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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?”
“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?”
“Tired? Lonely?”
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.”
“Have you?”
“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.”
“And?”
“…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…
 

A Little Fiction – A Further Excerpt from a Different Unfinished Novel (Conversations with a Bearded Man part two)

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This is the second fragment from a far-away unfinished story that I played with for months before deciding that I didn’t know where to take it.  Recently Dinah and Shaw have appeared in my life and I suddenly understand where everyone is going.  Now all I have to do is to get them there…

…I was walking along some god-forsaken ‘B’ road, somewhere between the middle of nowhere and the middle of nowhere else.  The rain was falling so hard that it was bouncing back from the road surface and having another go at making me wet.  It cut through my clothes like icy spears and made its way down into my very heart and soul – and drowned them.  It had already made its way into the engine of my car which was residing, hopefully beneath several feet of extremely acid rain, in a lay-by somewhere short of the middle of nowhere, whilst I was trudging, huddled and freezing, along this unlit country road searching for somewhere which, for all I knew, quite possibly did not exist.  However low my previous lowest ebb, my present one was even lower and I was beginning to ponder the possibility of drowning by syphonic action.   It was then that I first became aware of the car that had stopped beside me.  I hadn’t heard its approach, nor had I seen its lights, yet there it was, stationary and alongside me; engine running, lights on.  I didn’t wait for an invitation to open the door.

The warmth from within billowed out and enveloped me as I lowered myself into the passenger seat and closed the door behind me.  My glasses steamed up instantly so that, with or without them, I was practically blind.  The car began to move smoothly away as I tried to wipe away the condensation from my spectacle lenses on a sodden jacket that just made the problem worse.  The heat made me feel a little light-headed and the music from the stereo seemed to increase in volume as the car accelerated.

“Persephone,” I said.

“You really do know your Wishbone,” said a voice that I vaguely recollected.

Now, I’ve never been one for putting two and two together and coming up with five, but suddenly I was into double figures.  I went through my pockets, frantically trying to find something dry with which to restore my eyesight.  I felt an arm reach across me and I’m ashamed to admit that I flinched.  The glove compartment dropped open in front of me.  “There’s a box of tissues in there,” he said.  I fumbled around, expecting to come across a gun or a knife or… I don’t know what I expected to come across, but all I actually found was a box of tissues.  “I keep the gun under the seat,” he said.

I was suddenly profoundly uneasy.  I knew from the tone of his voice that what he had said was nothing more than a joke, a light-hearted remark, but it was as if he knew exactly what I had been thinking.  I needed to see him properly.  I pulled out a tissue and wiped the lenses unnecessarily hard.  It crossed my mind that if I continued it might alter the prescription.  I put the glasses back on.  It was him.  A slightly blurry him, but him none-the-less.  Tall, distinguished, white-grey hair, long, but immaculately neat, the beard full, but neatly trimmed.  He looked like an anorexic God, in jeans and a checked shirt. 

“Where are you heading?” he asked.

“To find someone who can mend my car.  It’s broken down, about two miles back I think, probably more by now.  I know it’s in a lay-by, near some trees…  That’s not going to help is it?” I looked through the windscreen at the rain-sodden trees hanging limply to either side of us as far as the eye could see.  “I’ll have to come back this way in the morning, in the light, when it’s stopped raining.  I’m sure I’ll find it then, as long as no-one’s set fire to it.”

“Don’t suppose it would burn in this,” he said.

“No, I guess not.  Well then, I suppose I’ll have to find somewhere to spend the night.  Can you drop me at the next town?”

“Of course,” he said and we lapsed into silence, both entranced by the swish of the wipers on the rain-spattered windscreen and the sound of the tyres on the road.  “I don’t suppose you know where the next town is, do you?” he asked.

“Don’t you?”

“No, I was just out for a drive really, when the rain started falling and I saw you walking.  I never really pay too much attention to where I’m going.  I just sort of know when I get there.  Where were you going?”

“I’m not sure, I just sort of drove.  I was in a temper, I suppose.  I needed to cool down.  It’s something I do; I just get in the car and go.  I think I was driving for quite a long time, I’m not sure, the car just sort of stopped really.  All the lights came on and it stopped.”

“Like you’d run out of petrol?”

“Exactly.”   Light dawned somewhere in the declining grey ooze behind my eyes. “I ran out of petrol.  Stupid, stupid.  Why didn’t I check the fuel?  I…”  The car began to slow.  “Why are you stopping?” I asked.

“I think we’ve arrived,” he said.

Puzzled, I looked around.  The rain had eased, but everything else was as it had been for miles.  Trees, trees and more trees.  And a lay-by.  And my car…

“Erm, thanks,” I said.  “I really… That is how…?”

“It’s good that you’ve cooled down,” he said.  “But I think your family might be wondering where you are.”

“I don’t have one,” I said, instantly aware that I sounded really pathetic, “but you’re right, I ought to be getting home.”

“There’s petrol in the boot,” he said.

I eased myself from the seat and went round to the back of the car.  I wasn’t surprised to see the petrol can, alone in the centre of an otherwise empty boot.  I carried it quickly to my car; the rain had eased, but it was still cold and wetting.   I heard his car begin to pull away behind me.  I wasn’t surprised.  I think I had expected it. 

“Hang on,” I yelled.  “Your petrol can.”

His window opened slightly. “Don’t worry,” he said “I’ll get it next time I see you…”

The third part of this conversation is here:

A Little Fiction – New Book (Title Unknown) – Introduction (Conversations with a Bearded Man part one)

blur book stack books bookshelves
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I was going through some old files on my computer when I found this. It is just titled ‘New Book – Title Unknown’. I thought you might like it…

i.

The first time I saw him he was peering under the bonnet of a car, pulling at wires and whistling “Blowin’ Free”.
“Wishbone Ash,” I said.
“You know them?” he asked. He neither looked my way, nor ceased his wire pulling. I took a couple of steps backwards to stand alongside him. “Every note,” I said.
He lifted his head from his work and peered at me. He had a smudge of oil across the bridge of his nose that I wanted to wipe away. He didn’t speak. I fidgeted, unnerved by the silence. I looked down at the engine. “You got a problem?” I asked.
“Just looking for something,” he said.
“Anything I might know?”
“I think there’s a sensor.”
“What kind of sensor?”
He straightened his back and looked at me properly for the first time, swatting his hand across his face, aiming for something that as far as I could see, wasn’t there. And then he leaned back under the bonnet and recommenced his wire pulling, but I noticed that he’d shifted over a little, just enough to allow me to stoop down at his side. I peered inside.
“The lights,” he said finally.
“The lights?”
“The lights. They know when I’m coming. They turn red… always.”
I stared at the engine, uncertain whether he was serious. He could have been psychotic, or neurotic, one of them, I’m never sure. He turned towards me, his face now only inches from my own. I realised he wore spectacles and it struck me as strange that I hadn’t noticed them before. Underneath his beard his face was tanned, not overly, but he had a weatherworn skin that actively defied any attempt to age him. There was something, I don’t quite know what, but there was something in his eyes. Was he mocking me? I felt uneasy and I realised that he hadn’t blinked. I don’t know why I noticed that. Why should I notice that? He turned back to the engine and pulled enthusiastically at a wire that might just have been very important.
“I don’t know too much about cars,” I said, “but I don’t think you want to go pulling too many of those.”
He grinned, suddenly and fleetingly and I wondered whether I had imagined it.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I know I’ll never find it, but it’s important that they think I’m looking.”
He shook his head in a theatrical way and eased himself upright. I followed and he closed the bonnet.
“I don’t drive as much as I used to. Don’t seem to have much of a place to go these days.” We lapsed into silence again.
“Well,” he said, wiping his hands on his trousers.
“Yes,” I said. “Well…”
He held out his hand and I shook it. “Better be going, I suppose,” he said.
“You have oil on your nose.” I pointed and he wiped across his face with his sleeve. The oil spread further, the stain became paler.
“OK?” he said.
“OK.”
I continued on my way and he wandered off across the road ahead, when a thought struck me.
“Your car,” I shouted after him.
“My car?”
“Your car, you haven’t locked it.”
I could see the amusement bubbling across his face as he slowly turned away. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not my car.”

© Colin McQueen 2019

Episode 2 of this little saga is here.A Little Fiction – A Further Excerpt from a Different Unfinished Novel (Conversations with a Bearded Man part two)