Category Archives: Telephone

Telephone – Directors Commentary

What is this? Well I rather enjoyed the discussion around the short story I posted the other month here called Airborne. After the story was published there was some conversation about how the story ended and I realised that perhaps it was uncomfortable for people to directly comment on the story posts on the blog and that perhaps it would be easier if there was a post that described the writing process and that would help attract comment.I wrote the first part of Telephone about a year and a half ago when something similar to the opening scene happened to me. Katherine and I were out at an exhibition and at the end of the exhibition Katherine was looking around the gift shop and I found a bench to rest on. It was actually really cold rather than hot and a woman sat down next to me and was desperately looking through her pockets for a phone. I suggested that she try calling her phone and she said she must have left it at the estate agents she’d been at. That was it. As she walked away I thought about how if I had offered to call her she would have got hold of my number and so some kind of kernel of a story was born.

So I had some vague notes about the story and then at some point around July 2010 I worked it into the first part of Part 1. Up until this line – “There is no ringing from her jacket. I put the phone to my ear it is ringing… Somewhere.”

I had always envisioned this as something of a four part story but I wrote that first half of part one in a night when I had written a lot of other articles and I ran out of time. I think I was trying to give myself an excuse to end it as a little bit of an ultrashort. But luckily I wasn’t really satisfied with that so I saved it in my drafts folder.

In January this year the story popped back into my head and I pulled it up while in Goring-on-sea train station. There is something nice and bleak about seaside towns in winter and that informed my writing I’m sure. I seem to remember that when I first considered the story it was going to be a scary action based thriller type story. The sort of thing where the woman turned out to be a spy or something and where our hero ended up being dragged into an adventure against his will. And I’m pretty sure, but I can’t remember the details, but I think the woman with the phone was going to be supernatural in some way. Maybe you would have preferred that story. But as chance would have it I had just written Airborne and so I was on the supernatural rebound.

There was something of the realism of description in Airborne that I’d enjoyed writing and so I kind of kept that bit. I briefly considered turning the story back to the incidents original cold but I decided that I was happy with hot oppression rather than cold isolation. And considering how cold it was I was quite happy to go on a hot holiday in my head.

I wrote the rest of part 1 and half of part 2 on the train. A rewrite of everything so far and the second half of part two happened in a pub. A pub which overlooks a coffee shop. You can, it seems, look out of the window and stare straight into the coffee shop and they don’t seem to see you – very handy for a writer. I was waiting for a friend to join me and so the waiting elements got added throughout.

And then…. Airborne was published and we started talking about it. I’m quite used to editing, I know it can cause blocks for some writers, some writers start second guessing everything. I’m one of them, I know. But in this case the pieces were unrelated and so it didn’t really affect things… But…

I had written that last bit of Part 2 just before Airborne was published:

“I’m glad you could make it.”
“I thought Sarah would never leave.”
“So did I.”

And this is what stopped me. I wondered then about what happened next. I had originally had quite a keen idea of the plot when it was going to be a mysterious adventure. But now it had turned out to be quite different. But then this last line presented a tricky question.

It invited some kind of suggestion of complicity. That had been the only thing in my mind at the time. But now I worried that this might also suggest that this was going to move into some kind of spy story or something like that. Having just published an article where we were talking about the lingering impact of last lines I thought it would be interesting to see what you thought. I wondered if this might mean that you thought they were in on something together and that that something was external to the story so far. Or if you thought it might be that, as intended, it was supposed to make you think that perhaps Sarah was right and these two were having an affair.

At this point I seem to have decided that I didn’t know what was coming next. Suddenly I was reading it as a reader. Where they complicit? Had the meeting in the shoe shop been a trick on Sarah and the reader? I didn’t know. Was that a good direction to go?

I thought about writing this article – and then realised that I would probably mention the other style of story and then started thinking about if it might have been better to make this more actiony. I had written a story with a lot of pauses in it – I thought. I reread part one and two again and decided that I liked the air in the story. The space that had been left between things. I decided I wanted to keep that and preserve it.

A question inevitably arises at this juncture – what is the point of this story? Why should the reader be interested? I try and convince myself sometimes that it is interesting enough to just live inside the characters head. Maybe I was putting too much pressure on the story? Should I just stop the story after part two?

Several people had said Airborne had gone on too long, maybe I didn’t need to add the weight of a point on the story?

I decided to just start writing part three about these two in the bar. I had liked the interplay in part one so I figured that could nicely come back. But I wanted to add our main characters detachment from part two.

This pulled things forward and I decided to avoid describing anything of a sordid nature. Which I think has to be the right way to go. Anything you say about any specifics is going to be so cringeworthy that it isn’t worth reading. Personally I included kissing in this. But I wanted that to happen while we were there, rather than between parts, so we knew something was happening while we were waiting for part four. I didn’t want you to leave having to wonder how the steps had been taken, or importantly who had led who up the steps.

But maybe you’d have rather had explicit detail, or even just more detail? I worried about cliche more than anything else, but maybe that leaves us without enough meat on the story?

I am trying to remember where the idea for the ending of the story came from but i’m not sure. I can remember finding myself struggling with how to start part three, but knowing how part four ended. I was sorely tempted to write the end of part four at one point and then somehow work backwards. This isn’t something that’s ever worked particularly well for me so I decided that I wouldn’t do that.

So I’m not sure where the idea came from exactly but suddenly there it was. I am pretty certain that I didn’t have the ending in place when I started. But I think it was there before I got to the end of part 2.

So. What did you think? How did it hang together for you? Do you feel it was satisfying? Should I have left it at the end of part 2? Or would you have rather the promise of the opening had led to an action adventure story?

Please don’t hold back.

Telephone – Part 4

She was already gone. Before I had fallen asleep I had wondered if she would wake me. I guessed she wouldn’t and she hadn’t. I think I liked that.I got up and padded into the kitchen. It was already too hot. I opened the window and stepped onto the balcony. It was cooler but you could sense the heat coming. I remembered something about not opening the windows in the day. But I knew I always felt stifled without fresh air.

Back in the kitchen I got the cold pleasure of reaching in the freezer for the can of coffee. I poured the cold water in the machine, put the coffee in the filter and put the coffee back. The smell hits you pretty quick. You almost start waking up when you hear the liquid fall in the warm jug. You wake up in anticipation of the coffee.

I walked back to the balcony with a cup and started smoking. This is the time, I tell myself, every day, that I do my best thinking. I actually just watch traffic. I hope it isn’t my best thinking.

I drain my cup and think about going in for some more. I stop myself. I want to hold on to this, before whatever is coming comes. Even now as I remember this, I feel I knew at this moment. This was the moment when I began to realise, to guess, that I had been betrayed.

It wasn’t when Sarah’s lawyer showed me the photos. It was when I stood there on the balcony and that’s my problem.

I apologise too much, I over think everything, so I say sorry before I ever did anything. I never give myself any damn credit. And so I knew, as I thought about what had happened, that I couldn’t have got somebody like that to come back with me. There must have been an angle for her. I knew it. So that’s when I knew. Or that’s when I convinced myself I knew.

And I’m not sure I’m happy about that. Even if I was right, that lack of self confidence, meant I probably created the circumstances that made it possible. When I’d stepped out on to the balcony I hadn’t realised, but I knew that when I walked back inside I would be admitting that I knew. So I wanted to stay outside more than I wanted that next cup of coffee. That next cup of coffee meant admitting I knew everything was about to change. Maybe I did do my best thinking out on that balcony?

Telephone – Part 3

How did she know Sarah had been in? How did she know who Sarah was? How did she know I had wanted Sarah to leave?”I didn’t used to?”
“Of course you did.”
“What do you mean?”
“Of course you used to want her to go out. That’s what happens in a healthy relationship. You want to be together so much sometimes you crave the other person going out. Maybe just so you can have a break, maybe just so you have a chance to miss them.”When had the change come? I had wanted more space at one point. I remembered feeling suffocated by love. She started talking again, and I realised I didn’t know her name.

“I gave you back that feeling. I gave you back the feeling of wanting her to leave.”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s yours?” she said.

Neither of us answered. I drank my shot and took a pull on my beer.

There was a pinball machine in the corner of the bar near where I was sitting. This was not coincidental. Somebody had just started playing and the noise of the play rattled over the music. I looked at the guy playing – he looked like he was having a good time. But I guessed he was like me when I played. I was trying to remember how things were when I had played as a kid, then it had been pure adventure and joy and now it was mindless brain-numbing reaction.

I found myself speaking, “I am so sorry for myself. I don’t know how to…”
“I think you probably need to shut up. I don’t just mean out loud I mean… If your brain is saying the things your face is expressing then I certainly don’t want to hear them and neither should you.”
“Should I just pretend life’s not happening to me? Am I supposed to just check out and not experience anything?”
“Idiot. That’s what you’ve been doing. You’re fully checked out. Teach me how to play pinball.”
“That guy’s playing.”
“He hasn’t got any quarters on the glass.”
“You don’t sound like you need lessons.”

Her forced jollity was annoying me. I was happy being sad.

I mean that, I… What Sarah had done to me had meant I had got a chance to earn the right to wallow. People were supposed to feel sorry for me. I was happy with this arrangement.

“I know how games work, not this, teach me pinball.”

I looked up at her, she seemed serious and I’m a pushover.

“You really don’t know how to play?” I asked.

She turned to the bartender, “Two more beers here”.

“No,” she said, looking at me, but checking for her beers, “I don’t think I ever have.”

I showed her the flippers, and I thought, ‘maybe’. But when she pulled the spring, the way she slammed it back, gave away that this wasn’t her first time.

I felt better for that somehow. She’d lied, but she’d lied to make me feel better.

The evening was just starting too cool off. The doors at the front of Eldon’s were propped open with fire extinguishers and the cooler air was mixing with the heat inside. I felt that cooler air on my face as I watched the lights of the back board jangle and blink.

“I thought you were supposed to be teaching me?”

I looked back down at the table and for a moment I found it hard to focus.

“Sorry.”
“Stop apologising.”

The ball she was playing dropped down the gutter. I’d missed the whole thing.

I looked at her in the strange coloured light. There was certainly something striking about her. The breeze gently moved a strand of hair that was caught on the corner of her lip.

“Sorry,” I said, ignoring her insistence, “I”m not really with it tonight. Maybe another time.”
“There isn’t going to be another time.”
“No?”
“No. This is a moment to seize.”
“I’m not really sure that I’m very good at that kind of thing.”
“You just need a little shove, I’m sure.”

She was standing very close to me. She slipped one hand around my neck and placed the other on my chest, and suddenly I remembered what I was supposed to do.

Afterwards we walked back to the bar. I had thought I would smile uncontrollably but that wasn’t how I felt. What was this feeling? I felt like I do sometimes at a wonderful restaurant, you look at the menu and everything looks great, so many interesting things to choose from so you don’t want to choose anything for fear of making a mistake.

“You think too much,” she said.
“Two more beers, two more shots.”

[This is part three of a four part story. A new part will be published each day this week, and will be followed by a directors commentary.]

Telephone – Part 2

I feel like I’m stuck to the mattress. Sarah’s not here, neither is the sheet. I’m holding the telephone in my hand – it hasn’t rung. I get up and think about showering. I open the refrigerator catch a smell, realise it’s me, and I head to the shower.

The telephone is ringing and I run dripping to it. I’m disappointed to see that it’s Sarah. Her picture is showing on the phone. Really, she looks the same now but the picture was from before, so I still like to see it. I like to see it more than I’d like to hear her excuse about last night.

I’ve stopped even making dinner for her now. I leave it to go to voicemail, she lies better on the voicemail, and go back to get a towel.

I’m eating toast with caramelised sugar on it when the telephone rings again. I started doing this recently, I don’t know why. I don’t think I even really like it. It’s her ringing, not Sarah, the other woman.

I look at it for a few rings more, but fewer than the number that it would take to go to voicemail, and I pretend that I am thinking about why I am going to answer it. But all of the time I know I am going to answer.

“Hello.”
“Hi.”
“Hello.”
“Hi, are you there?”
“Yes.”
“Hello, can you hear me?”
“Yes. I can hear you.”
“Who is this?” she asks.
“You rang me.”
“You rang me first. I had a missed call from you yesterday.”
“You asked me to…”
“I had lost my phone, but when I found my phone you had rang…”
“Yes – I was the man in the shop.”
“…but you didn’t leave a message so I didn’t know who you were.”

She seemed to have stopped talking so I tried again.

“Yes, I was the man in the shop, in the shoe shop, I mean the shoe department, on the bench, you sat next to me and…”
“Oh, the cute guy.”
“Heh.”
“The cute guy who never did anything wrong in his life, but spent his whole life apologising for it.”
“I don’t know how many people you sat down next to in the shoe shop, I mean department, yesterday.”
“Yeah, it was definitely you.”
“Well, that clears that up then.”
“So are you going to meet me for a drink?”
“Um… I’m not sure that’s such a good…”
“I need to say thank you, and, anyway… Do you know this place… Eldon’s. I like to have a drink around seven o’clock.”
“That place is at the end of my…”
“I know…”

And suddenly I was talking to a disconnected telephone.

I munch some cereal and pour some coffee. I sit there trying to decide if I should start thinking about what just happened. I decide not to. I consider going for a run, but I know that that would mean that I was preparing for a date and I wasn’t sure I was ready to start thinking like that.

I picked up an apple and my book and sat at the window not reading or eating.

Long drawn out spaces in time are my speciality. I sit and zone out, I’m just staring into space. I’m not even sure I’m thinking. I realise that I haven’t moved for hours when my legs fall asleep before the rest of my body. I get up and stretch. I realise that I have been holding the telephone. I don’t remember picking it up.

There’s a noise at the door. It will be Sarah and I remember that I haven’t even got around to listening to her voicemail message. The door opens with the key and she is standing at the door. It hurts to look at her. Why am I so attracted to the pain she brings? I turn away.

She looks across the room of half-eaten breakfast things to me half-dressed and asks, “Busy morning?”

“Busy evening?”

She used to ask if I’d heard her excuse, now she doesn’t bother. She has the best of both worlds. Freedom and a place to stay. And what do I want? To get revenge with this telephone woman? For Sarah to finally leave and make things easier? For Sarah to leave David or whoever and come back to me? No, I wanted things back as they were, but really back. Not a fake, ‘let’s pretend the last six months didn’t happen’.

I’d like especially not to have started thinking that perhaps the thing I found most attractive in Sarah was exactly the same character trait that had driven her away from our, in my words, ‘contented’ relationship. She called it ‘boring’. Doomed to only want to screw women who wanted to screw me over.

I try and think, if that were the case, would that mean that I would love her more or less now that she had done this to me? That way madness lies. I walked to the fridge, opened it, I didn’t open a beer, and closed the door again.

“How’s the work going?” she asked.
“About as good as usual, maybe better.”
“That’s good news Mark, that’s really good news.”

She decided the conversation was finished and walked into the bedroom with her overnight bag. She spent some time in there unpacking and repacking it. It must be a Wednesday, the maid would be coming later. With my left hand, I wrote myself a note to say, ‘get dressed, maid coming’ on the dry erase board on the freezer door, while I grabbed a beer from the refrigerator with my right hand.

I looked down at my watch, but it wasn’t there. I was just a skinny man in boxer shorts, a cuckold who hadn’t even got married yet. Was it too early to drink this beer? Without the watch I thought it might be hard to tell, but then I wondered if there might be a rule about getting dressed before you have a beer. How many hours had I been looking out of the window?

There was a noise behind me and I realised it was Sarah calling from the other room. “You might want to get dressed, Marta will be here soon.” So it was afternoon. I opened the beer and started drinking. She continued, “I’m going to take a bath, do you have any questions for me before I go in? I don’t need you to come in to try and take a look at me naked… So ask your questions now.” We have been in a relationship for seven years. I think about this and this new restriction, and to the early days when it felt like we could have gone in the bath together but we never did.

“Mark?” she’s suddenly right by me.
“Yes.”
“Did you hear me? I don’t want you coming in.”
“There’s a lock.”
“I don’t want to feel I have to use it.”
“Neither do I. Sorry, I won’t come in, I’ll get dressed. Sorry. Marta’s coming, I’ll get dressed. The work’s going great by the way, did I say?”
“Yeah you did, that’s great.”
“Yeah it is.”

Four hours later Marta’s been and gone, so has Sarah, Marta has got her a clean set of clothes. I check I have my keys in my jacket, lock the door and walk to Eldon’s.

The noise in Eldon’s seems to pound in my ears more than it should. I find myself feeling tense as I walk to the bar. I suddenly realise that I forgot my telephone, but I haven’t – it’s in my jacket pocket. I remember that I’ve been checking a lot and feel stupid, then I remember I’ve forgotten it and check again. I’m doing this subtly, just touching the outside of my jacket where the phone is.

I sit down at the bar, my beer and a shot arrive and she turns to me.

“I’m glad you could make it.”
“I thought Sarah would never leave.”
“So did I.”

[This is part two of a four part story. A new part will be published each day this week, and will be followed by a directors commentary.]

Telephone – Part 1

It’s hot. A stifling oppressive heat that makes breathing a chore. A day for sitting on the balcony under shade drinking margaritas. Not this. Not out here consuming. Not more shopping. How much more crap does she need? None. A drip of sweat forms in my armpit and runs down the inside of my arm. Sarah keeps moving forward. Now into a shop – shoes. Maybe that’s how she moves so fast? Never wears the same pair of shoes twice – new leather.

Now it’s cold. The aircon on full. It’s too much. My head spins a little. Sarah is oblivious. I head for the row of chairs and sit. I close my eyes for a second. Head clearer, I open them again. There is a woman sitting next to me. I straighten myself in the chair. She turns to me.

“Excuse me,” she says.
“Yes?”

Her hands keep moving around in her pockets. She takes her jacket off and is searching for something inside.

“I’ve… I think I’ve lost my phone. But the lining of my jacket is… There’s a hole in one of the pockets and…”
“Right…”

Was she about to ask me for money?

“Do you think you could… Could you call me? On my number. So I can tell if my telephone is in here somewhere?”
“Sure.”

I type her number into the keypad on my phone… Press call… I am holding the phone in front of me, I realise I can’t tell if it’s connected. There is no ringing from her jacket. I put the phone to my ear. It is ringing… somewhere.

“Sorry,” I say.

“It’s ringing?”
“Yes.”
“Oh, never mind, thank you.”

She looked away.
“Do you know where you last saw it?” I found myself asking.
She turned back to me. Looking right into me.
“If I knew that..”
“Yes, sorry.” Why was I apologising?
“They don’t move on their own you know.”
“Yes, of course, it was… Just something to say.”
“I didn’t expect you to say something banal.”
“Sorry.” Why was I so apologetic all the time? Why did I care what this woman thought?
“I’m renting a flat, I was just at the agents. I bet the phone is in the folds of their sofa.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
“Why wouldn’t it?”

The woman gets up to leave, I find my self getting ready to say sorry for not being more of a help but I decide against it.

I close my eyes again and when I open them a second later Sarah is standing in front of me.

“Who was that?”
“No-one.”
“No one? You exchanged numbers with her.”
“Oh, I didn’t think you had seen.”
“Well here on the shoe changing bench in the shoe department of a store I am shopping in is hardly ‘in private’ is it?”
“No I didn’t mean it like that. She was just some woman, a total random, she had lost her phone and wanted me to ring it to see if it rang.”
“And did it?”
“Yes, just not here.”

She looked unconvinced. God! Like she had a right. At least my story sounded even vaguely plausible.

“Look, if you want revenge then there are better ways to hurt me. I mean she wasn’t even pretty.”

She hadn’t been pretty exactly, but there had been something about her. Maybe it was a lack of something, and I don’t mean her telephone. She had a lack of charm that I felt myself mistaking for her being guileless. She wouldn’t call a spade a digging apparatus. Maybe she had been beautiful?

I had felt something for her, I was sure. And I have to try and remember that… Because…

When she called that evening, I felt it. I was smoking out on the balcony, I heard the telephone ringing and I was annoyed. I was halfway through my coffee and a quarter of the way through my cigarette. I let the telephone go to the message. But the interruption ruined the rest of both. I looked down at a geranium in a terracotta pot. The flowers just couldn’t cope with this temperature and any water you gave it was gone before the plant had a chance to drink it. I sipped and puffed, and I knew this moment was withered. The sun setting on the hot day, with the smoke and burnt caffeine, had been a symphony. But the discordant telephone had broken it.

I ducked in through the sash and picked up the phone. I had been annoyed but as I looked at the number I was confused. Who was this? I clicked back through the recently contacts list and I realised where I knew it from. I suddenly understood. I joked in my head, remembering Sarah’s conclusion, “I thought I told you never to call me here.”

It wouldn’t matter, Sarah would never know anyway. She was never here any more. Always working late. Even after I’d caught the two of them she still called it “working late”, like it made it better.

I picked up my keys, closed the sash and walked out. For some reason I felt the urge to not even bother to close the front door.

Down on the street the heat had slacked off but it was making me thirsty. I walked down the block to Eldon’s and sat at the bar. A beer and a shot arrived. I drank them and smoked. I took my telephone out of my jacket pocket and placed it on the bar. I wanted it to ring again.

[This is part one of a four part story. A new part will be published each day this week, and will be followed by a directors commentary.]