I like a nice hot shower to help me recover from a heavy night out, and last night had been one of the heaviest. It had been the birthday of the girlfriend of a friend of someone I worked with so naturally I wanted to help her celebrate. It would be rude not to. About thirty of us started the evening in the usual manner in the nearest pub to the railway station and then moved on from venue to venue, losing inhibitions and companions along the way as the lightweights pleaded a need for sleep. It had been a largely forgettable evening with too much to drink, too little to eat, and no prospect of beastly carnal entertainment presenting itself.
A memory suddenly pierced my sluggish reverie. Toward the end of the evening there had been a glimmer of hope after all. A girl in a short pink dress, decent legs, brown hair (or dark blonde, or something nondescript) and an expression on her face that hinted at playfulness. There hadn’t been time for anything more than a long kiss and a squeeze or two, but she had happily scrawled her mobile number on my arm. I quickly moved away from the hot thumping of the water and looked – the number was still there, blurry but legible. I washed around it, dried off and dressed, and then scrawled it down on a pad of paper next to my computer while I went to cook an early afternoon breakfast.
A week later I found the number again and swore at my lack of foresight. I hadn’t written her name down next to the number and I was not sure now what it was. Angie. Angela. Something like that. Angelina Ballerina? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I picked up my mobile and dialled the number. A long tone, broken by buzzing, and then an odd ring tone. I wondered if she was out of the country enjoying a holiday or a hen party somewhere cheap and nasty.
Four rings later there was a click and then a voice
It didn’t sound like Angelina Ballerina. She’d had a cheeky mockney accent and this speaker’s voice was crisp and cultured.
“Hi,” I said, “Is.. Angie there?” Angie would do as a generic approximation.
“This is Miss Clarke,” replied the woman on the other end of the line. Her voice conjured up ideas of finishing schools and hockey matches where everyone was such a good sport. She didn’t sound remotely like the girl I’d fumbled with outside Majestyk’s night club the week before.
“Can I speak to Angie please?” I persisted wondering if this Miss Clarke were her sister, unlikely as that seemed.
“I’m Anne Clarke,” she said, “I don’t know anyone called Angie. Who’s that?”
“Finn,” I replied glancing at the scrawled number and wondering if I’d misdialled entirely.
“That’s an Irish name isn’t it?” Miss Clarke enquired cheerfully, “You don’t sound Irish. Or do you mean you’re from Finland? Once again your accent suggests otherwise.”
I couldn’t help grinning at that. It sounded like she was trying to have fun with me, which is hardly something I shy away from.
“You’re a student of accents?” I asked, playing along.
“One likes to pay attention,” Miss Clarke replied, “and I’m dreadfully sorry but I think you must have dialled incorrectly. I’ve never met an Irishman from Finland before, so thank you for a new experience.”
I could tell she was about to end the call, and that struck me as a dreadful waste.
“I was calling to invite someone out for an evening,” I said quickly, “Since she’s not there it seems a shame to waste the moment..”
Miss Clarke laughed delightfully. “That is quite the most roguish thing I’ve ever heard. But I must decline. Nice to have spoken to you, Finn, goodbye.”
“Bye,” I said and heard her hang up. I felt strangely let down by that. And it wasn’t just the chance of missing out on a more prolonged exploration of Angelina Ballerina’s recreational possibilities, but the feeling that I’d missed out on something infinitely more interesting. I put the television on and ignored a programme about volcanoes for an hour before heading out to meet up with a couple of friends for a random drink or five. I didn’t enjoy it, still feeling a profound sense of anticlimax and being irritated at myself because of it.
The next day was Sunday and I awoke in the mid morning after a dream of walking through empty half-ruined buildings listening to a cultured female voice teasing me about potatoes and getting almighty frustrated at not being able to find the speaker, and I decided there and then to stop being a brooding idiot and take the bull by the horns. I grabbed up my phone and pulled up the number from my recent calls list.
Again the line took a while to connect and rang oddly before being answered.
“I was trying to reach Angie,” I lied, “I hope I’ve dialled the wrong number again.”
Miss Clarke laughed.
“I half expected you to call again,” she said, “you really shouldn’t have. My fiancé will be dreadfully suspicious.”
Something in her tone… too light-hearted. I’ve always been good at reading people and took a risk, trusting my intuition.
“You don’t have a fiancé.” I said simply. There was a pause and then more laughter. Miss Clarke sounded delighted.
“Guilty,” she said, “What a dreadful liar I am. How very clever of you, or was that simply optimism?”
“Definitely clever,” I said, “and optimistic too. Fate wouldn’t lead me to your number only to disappoint me with some lurking boyfriend. So, where would you like to have dinner this evening?”
She paused again before answering.
“Actually there is a lurking boyfriend,” she said a little more sombre, “of a sort. But I try not to bother about him anymore.”
The serious tone in her voice bothered me, and I replied carefully, “The type that won’t let go easily?”
“Exactly that type,” she said, and it was clear she was forcing the happiness back into her voice. “Still. Yesterday’s news and all that… and in the spirit of carpe diem I’d love to say yes to your invitation..”
“Brilliant,” I said, “Where..”
“Rein in!” Miss Clarke said, “I said I’d love to say yes.. but I honestly can’t, not tonight. I’ve already arranged to dine with relatives.”
“I’m telling the truth you goose,” said Miss Clarke, “but telephone me again tomorrow and we’ll see. I have to go now though. Speak to you tomorrow Finn,”
That was an unexpected bonus on which to end the call.
“I promise,” I said and after exchanging goodbyes we hung up.
I was at work the next day of course and about to start googling some appropriate restaurants in the hope of making a reservation when it dawned on me that I had no idea where Miss Clarke lived. I’d look a complete idiot arranging a dinner date with someone that lived a hundred miles away, or further, or… Actually. Actually no, forget that. This was an adventure worth making an effort for – the outrageously random nature of our introduction couldn’t be wasted without seeing it through. Still, finding out how far I’d have to travel would be useful. I waited until lunchtime and dialled her number, heading out of the office into the rather scenic car-park outside. The phone rang out several times and I was wondering when her voicemail would kick in when the dial tone stopped and a man’s voice demanded
“Who is this?”
The tone was angry and aggressive, challenging, and I guessed that this might be the boyfriend. I was about to feign a role as a telemarketer to spare Miss Clarke’s need for explanations when the man on the phone escalated things
“You’re that Finn bastard aren’t you? Aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said coldly, “who the hell are you?”
“Stay away from Anne, or I’ll break your legs!” he declared. Beneath the volume of his shouting I could hear a softer noise, but infinitely more upsetting than the blustering threats of the speaker. Crying. Unrestrained sobbing, and unmistakeably it was a woman who was doing it.
“Put Anne on the phone,” I said angrily, “I want to speak to her.”
“Fuck off!” he snapped and slammed the phone down. I was left listening to an empty line, dumbstruck and helpless. I had no idea where Anne lived, I couldn’t even speed round there to stick my nose into the situation and make things worse in my usual way. I redialled, but the line was busy. And again, and again. I gave up that when my lunch hour ended, but I was preoccupied and snappy throughout the afternoon.
Once at home I called again, still in my coat. If need be I was ready to get back in my car and drive all night. When the phone was answered I was braced for conflict but there was an empty silence which I ended.
A gasp of relief at the other end of the line.
“Oh Finn,” she said, “I’m so sorry about earlier I really am.”
“Are you alright? Did he hurt-”
She cut me off
“I’m absolutely fine. He was just in a temper and shouted a lot. I promise. But I think he’s finally got the message, and told me in no uncertain terms he shan’t be wasting his time on me from now on. Imagine my desolation.”
“Did he hurt you?” I insisted. She paused enough to answer the question without speaking and I stood up. “I want to come over, what’s your address.”
“Finn.. there’s no need, really,” There was a rising and falling noise in the background of her speech, “Oh blast I have to go. Jerry.”
“He’s come back?” I said sharply
“What? No, you twit, his name is Edgar. I mean it’s Jerry. The Germans. Another air raid.”
“The Blitz you donkey. Call me back in an hour or two, eh? The blighters should have given up by then.”
The noise of that siren drowned out her goodbye and she hung up. The line remained unanswered each time I called back over the next half hour. After that the line was dead, completely dead, and stayed that way.