Non-fiction

At the end of the line

A stranger calls

THE CALLS STARTED the night I was released from hospital. My lungs again. I’d coughed so hard inside my motorcycle helmet that I’d blacked out as I slowed down for a traffic light, slipped off and under my bike, and out into a rain-slick intersection. I scraped off the toe of my right shoe, the pocket of my good pants, the palm of my riding gloves – the ones with the Kevlar knuckles that made me feel like I knew how to throw a punch. A mean gouge ran down the side of my helmet. Gravel in the waistband of my knickers. Not a scratch on the bike.

The colleague I least expected volunteered to drive me to the ER. He wore black shirts and crimson ties with his pinstripe suits, like a cartoon Mafioso, and used to have his more exorbitant online shopping delivered to the work mailroom to skite. A parcel of his tech gadgetry set off a half-day bomb scare; a king-size pop-up tent erupted out of its packaging between our desks, and none of us could work out how to fold it up again.

On the drive, he showed off the seat warmers in his black BMW and turned the stereo up until the bass made my pelvis rattle. ‘Isn’t she something?’ he yelled over the music. ‘Isn’t she gorgeous?’ The car was for sale on the office intranet. I seemed ripe, perhaps, for a trade-up.

I coughed my way through spinal X-rays and a brain scan. Coughed in that thick, terrifying way I’d come to cough, like I was trying to untether something deep in my guts. Half my films were blurry because I couldn’t lie still. There were no bleeds or breaks – no lurking accident damage – and so the pictures were filed away with the ones they’d taken of my chest months ago, when I was diagnosed with pneumonia, my lungs mossed in spectral radiography white.

The Mafioso drove me home. He’d waited for me, a kindness he dismissed as ‘scoring a sickie by proxy’, but we both knew it was bluster. I knew that commiserative gentleness too well, knew all the limp shades of pity. I’d spent the second half of my twenties sick. Immune crash after immune crash; lung infection after lung infection; fatigue as soul-consuming as a love affair. My apartment shared a street with an old folks’ home, and the ladies with walkers beat me up the hill. I dragged myself through a four-day work week and slept through the rest. I’d eat breakfast as the day birds ceded the sky to bats. My symptoms were idiopathic, which is the word doctors use when they mean ‘I don’t know.’

 

THE FIRST CALL came in just after sunset. It was the middle of the day in Addis Ababa, where my husband, Sam, would be working for the next month, wrangling the Aussie contingent of a geopolitical summit. (Gillard was newly PM, and Rudd was haunting the front bench as Foreign Minister, an indiscreet Banquo.) It was an unknown phone number – so common then. Sam’s work phone was unknown, my office switchboard, my doctor’s office. How to explain it all, now: the unremarkable end of the pre-smartphone world? How little our phones told us, and how little they knew of us. How separate life could still feel from that jangling, jittery machine.

When I picked up, the voice was avuncular, intimate – so nearly familiar. A voice I did not know, but one that seemed to know me.

‘Where are you my lovely?’

I answered, trusting that recognition would follow.

‘I’m just home, curled up in bed.’

‘Good girl,’ he said, tone curdling. ‘You’re already waiting for me. Now just lie back, darling. I’m going to fuck you till it hurts.’

The stranger hung up before I could reply. My bruising was settling in – a dark echo of impact. I had icepacks strapped to my right side from wrist to ankle and a heat pack on my chest to calm my skittish breathing. I remember thinking: But I’m already hurt.

 

IT WAS THE week the Arab Spring was twitching into life with all its contagious rage and exultant possibility, January of 2011. I only know because I’ve been reminded. The phone call is a flashbulb memory amid years of haze. I had encounters in those years that I remember with the slurred logic of dreams, and I dreamed things that had the tactile solidity of life. The dozens of old movies I watched from bed – Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, His Girl Friday – feel like stories I conjured myself. When I watch them now, it’s as if someone has stolen something from me, something intrinsic and subterranean – a kind of cortical plagiarism.

But these minutes in my Canberra bedroom are a high-resolution indignity: the summer dark, the post-accident ache, my Nokia ringtone, the stranger’s voice. The pleasure he took from every word, like they were chicken bones and he was sucking the meat off them.

 

HE CALLED THREE more times that night. My grubby bitch. My little slut. My bedroom toy. Mine, mine, mine.

By the time Sam rang, it was midnight. We talked of the accident, of my unbroken ribs and the gash in my helmet – the soul-rattling luck of it all. We talked of Addis and the frenetic logistics of the summit schedule, Rudd’s imminent – dreaded – arrival.

We didn’t talk of the stranger. I didn’t tell him. I was practising for what I knew was coming: Sam had been posted to Uruzgan, a southern province of Afghanistan. For the next eighteen months, he’d live in a shipping container on a joint-forces army base, and we’d talk once a week – condense our lives into a snatched hour where we’d both pretend to be invulnerable. I’d send genial letters, good soap, a DVD box set of M*A*S*H. He’d come home for decompression leave and show me pictures of almond groves and ochred deserts that looked like the surface of Mars. It’s a double-edged cruelty, that kind of armoured pact – unkind in its kindness. But we did not know that. Not yet.

 

WHEN I WAS eleven or so, I’d answered the phone to some hopeful masturbator. He claimed to be from the big-city paper, writing a piece on sports stars of the future. Was my sister at home? The swimmer he’d seen in the community pages in her blue bathers? She wasn’t? No matter. Families often know a person better than they know themselves, don’t they, sweetheart? He’d ask me questions about her instead: her fastest stroke, favourite food, best subject at school. The colour of her underwear, her nipples.

I was a bookish kid with dreams of legal stardom. I wanted to strut in front of a jury and make imperial speeches. Point fingers at villainy. Glow in the spotlight of justice. And so, that summer, I’d taught myself the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child in preparation for schoolyard clients. When the would-be wanker asked about my little sister’s knickers, I recited those principles with the clipped diction of the righteous.

‘What the fuck is this, kid?’ he yelled down the phone. ‘Some kind of prank?’

I told that story at work the morning after the accident, coupled with the tale of the stranger’s call. The grand joke of them, these men with their dicks in their hands.

‘Imagine the look on his face,’ said a desk-mate. ‘The guy last night – he thinks he’s talking to some sultry ingenue with a bedroom voice, and it’s you! A public servant with half a lung, covered in gravel rash.’ How she laughed.

When I checked my phone at lunchtime, I had twenty missed calls. Voicemail after voicemail of nothing but juddering breath. By nightfall it was fifty. The next time the phone rang, I answered and told the stranger to fuck off. How he laughed.

 

HE CALLED THROUGH the nights and into the thin dark of early mornings. He called as I pulled my body through the small rituals that gave shape to those days: scalding showers, tinned tomato soup, the assiduous minutes I’d spend at the mirror trying to hide the dark circles under my eyes with paints and powders and misdirection. He called as I dressed and undressed and as I swallowed my handfuls of meds. He called as I sat at my desk and turned months of policy research into pic-heavy PowerPoint slides for decision-makers too busy to read. He called while my GP listened to the ragged music of my lungs and sent me off for another round of tests. My phone began to feel creaturely, feral. Full of gnaw and scurry. 

 

I’LL TRY TO skip the tedious middle of it all. The hundreds of calls I didn’t pick up. The few I mistakenly did – so tirelessly anatomical. My telco telling me to call the cops; the cops telling me to call my telco. The hours of hold music, with its gaudy marimba. It’s easy to forget how opaque it was. I could muzzle the stranger now with a few finger taps. These quiet efficiencies have been hard-earned.

‘We get these guys occasionally,’ the guy on the telco help desk explained. ‘They’re kind of professional creeps. They trawl around until they hit a voice that turns them on, and then it’s just a barrage, but from a hoard of different numbers. And I can’t block an unlisted number for you unless you can tell me the exact number to block.’

‘But it’s unlisted, so I can’t tell you.’

‘Exactly.’

He told me to buy an umpire’s whistle and blow it down the phone when the stranger called, or – even easier – just have a man answer the phone.

‘That’ll shatter the fantasy quick smart,’ he laughed. ‘Because you do – if you don’t mind me saying – you do have a lovely voice.’

 

MY BOSS WAS a man who had no time for clowns, and you could hear it – a world-burnished edge, a volatile impatience. He answered my phone as if it were his own, and the stranger said nothing.

The onslaught stopped. I had a weekend of silence and thick, dreamless sleep. The phone became inert again – I could hold it without fearing it would bite. Tentatively, I turned the sound back on and spoke to people I loved. When it rang just after midnight on Sunday night, I was certain it was Sam. It would have been 5 pm in Addis, the sun low and defanged, the shadows stretching. 

‘Bitch,’ the stranger spat down the line. ‘You can’t fool me. I know you’re alone.’

 

I MET A guy once who was certain he knew me – one of those late-’90s Perth lawyers, all swagger and wet-look gel. I was at uni, waiting tables at a swanky seafood place on the Swan River next door to the pub where Bob Hawke honed his beer-sculling skills: Perth’s larrikin shrine. I have a brain for faces, and the lawyer’s was entirely unfamiliar. But he insisted. Wouldn’t place his damn drinks order until he’d puzzled me out. Did I used to date his rugby mate, Pete? Did I sail?

His table turned it into a game: imagining my life beyond the fish grill. Who I might be underneath the waistcoat and the stink of mud crab. Underneath, underneath. Was I a drunken nightclub hook-up? Someone’s little sister, all grown up?

They cracked the mystery over dessert. (These were the coulis years, where every plate was Pollocked with berry sauce, a table of red wreckage.)

‘You live in the block of student flats around the corner! You have a green couch and a goldfish tank,’ he thumped the table with satisfaction. ‘I live across the road in the townhouses. I can see into your lounge room from my bedroom. I told you! I told you I knew you. You’re the girl who’s always reading.’

I did have a green couch. I still do. The fish were named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I swapped sections with another waiter and we split the tip.

I worked a double shift that night. When I came home, the lawyer had left a message on the answering machine. He apologised for his friends. Hoped they hadn’t made me feel uncomfortable. Could he make it up to me?

I don’t know how he got my number.

When I thought about the stranger’s certainty – I know you’re alone – I stared out of my bedroom window through the slats of the blinds and wondered who had been looking in. A eucalypt stood sentry in the Canberra dark, a stately alpine ash. It was full of the luminous eyes of possums, their territorial hissing.

 

IN THE END, I changed my mobile number. I surrendered to the grand hassle of it: the business card reprints and the administrative sprawl.

‘If he contacts you again, then you should worry,’ the telco told me. ‘Then it means he knows who you are, and he’s got a means of access.’

He never did. But it was harder to surrender to the not knowing, the precarity of each day’s silence. To study the face of every person I knew and wonder if they were the conduit; to stretch my hearing across every room and crowd, searching for his voice.

My bruises healed; my lungs didn’t. Sam flew home with a string of silver beads that jangled as I walked – a necklace of disorderly bells. When I wore it I felt like I was being followed. He packed a trunk and a duffle bag and left for Afghanistan. I dropped my Nokia in the toilet and fried its circuitry. The news was so alive in my new phone – so raw and quick – and I gorged on it and could feel it twitching in me. Within the year, my exhaustion outmatched my ambition, and I moved home to live in my parents’ shed. For months, I was asleep more hours of the day than I was awake. Wild mice ran across my pillows in the dark. In my waking hours, I stared too long into mirrors searching for my own face. I set mousetraps. I began to recover. And I grieved for all of it: those pointless PowerPoint decks, my Kevlar glove, Sam alone in his shipping container. The snapped spines of the mice.

 

BUT MEMORY KEPT calling me back to the night of that first call: the dark gathering, the phone ringing. I could recall the texture of the light; the crack in the plaster like a trapped bolt of lightning; the bedside table with its paraphernalia of convalescence; the spine-broken Ishiguro novel it would take months to finish, one bare paragraph at a time. The weave of my sheets.

I hadn’t written for pleasure since high school, but I bought a spiral-bound notebook and set down the rhythms of that remembered bedroom. In its pages I looked at the girl in ways I’d been afraid to look when I was inside her skin: the steroid swell of her, that croup-rubble voice. I watched how deliberately she moved, like the air was as muscled and adversarial as an undertow. I let her tell me how desperately she wished to slip loose of herself. I let myself be disgusted with her and her simpering, pitiable weakness. I let myself hate her. ‘There had always been some limbic part of her that feared she had earned this sickness – somehow willed or summoned or conjured it down,’ I wrote. ‘Now, with every call, she seemed to be gathering proof.’ I hadn’t realised, until I read it back, how true that had been.

I wrote the stranger, too. I rooted around in his invented brain until I found some seed of hatred, and I planted it on the page and let it bloom.

I turned the phone calls into the opening act of a story and watched it all now from some mental theatre seat – front row, centre – as if the bedroom were a stage set. The phone would ring and the girl in the bed would answer it and I would not stop her. But it wasn’t terror that pulled me back to these minutes, it was their coiled possibilities. There was an elegance to the containment of it – the conceit of it. And there was power. I could do what I wanted to him, to her. I could wreck or redeem them.

I toyed with a crime thriller, where the stranger is a serial murderer and the girl is the only person who might learn enough to catch him. I sketched out a draft where she stops breathing on a call and the stranger saves her life. There’s a version where he is someone she knows and the truth is discovered in a monstrous reveal; and the obverse, where the stranger has chosen the girl at random only to realise he’s menacing someone he loves. I pondered a slaughter and a love story. A suicide pact.

In the story I finished, she answers him. She pretends to be the woman he wants because the stranger is the only person in her life who imagines her whole, the only person who doesn’t look at her with weighted, sorrowful eyes. I shook for an hour after I wrote it, jittery with the grotesqueness of it – how right my ending felt. I was on a train from Trenton, New Jersey, to New York City in the winter of the polar vortex, and I struggled to button my coat. Perhaps I’d thought my story would be an end, a kind of inked vengeance, a chance to pin the stranger to the page like some desiccating insect. But it was the beginning of it all. That story would win me a scholarship and the tools of a new career.

I zipped the notebook into my backpack and walked from Penn Station down to Union Square, through Madison Square Park. It was the long grey of the afternoon, and the city felt crouched and waiting. You could smell the snow coming – that thin, ozone blue. The air burned, and my lungs were full, and I was just so fucking hungry.

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