44 - The Red Telephone
She was upstairs when the telephone rang but she had no problem hearing it. The polished wood flooring of the hallway and lack of soft furnishings created a hard space where the loud bell could echo and resonate throughout the house. She was sitting on the bed filing her nails into shape, the scraping she knew scratched at his nerves which was why she was doing it now. To avoid a later minor skirmish. She saved the doing of it in his presence for when she wanted to make a point, to emphasize an issue, to deliberately get under his skin. She did not rush to answer the call. She was not that sort of person. She rarely rushed to do anything. Slowly she put down the nail file on the bedside table deliberately placing it where she had asked for a phone to be installed just to remind her how ludicrous it was to deny such a simple and necessary luxury.
The stairs were low rise meaning a long flight with shallow, wide steps, the consequence of having an expansive hallway and wide landing. She could slowly walk her way down, theatrically emphasising the placing of each step, resting her hand on the highly polished handrail, the American white oak darkened on top by years of constant rubbing. Imagining she was making a grand entrance to greet a multitude of guests for an evening soiree. With a long white dress and pearls and of course superbly manicured fingernails. Today though she is in a blue top and casual, cream slacks. The calf length type. But with the pearls and her newly fashioned nails.
The telephone sitting snugly towards the back of a long oak console table, the front drawer slightly open giving him something to do when he came home. The phone book partially protruding was a particular annoyance. Every time he would say, “Why do we need a phone book in the digital age?” To aggravate you of course she would think. Ammunition. But the book was not visible. Today was to be a calm day she had decided. It was a 1950’s style, red Bakelite telephone, the handset nestling neatly on the top cradle. The dial with its ten finger holes over cream coloured numerals. The centre with DERWENT 7022 under the round, clear plastic cover. Bought at auction a few years ago. Even though she did not know the exchange she had left the number in place. It added authenticity. She thought it cool. And it had an added extra. He hated it. The bell, the dial - too slow - and of course the handset. The twisted cord was on the base of the mouthpiece so, being right handed, she replaced the handset with the cord facing the right. The irritation this caused was to be believed and prompted, together with the drawer closing, a nightly arriving home ritual. He was left handed.
She sat on the leather padded hall chair and waited staring at the stain rings on the wooden surface. Many a cold, stiff gin and tonic and glass with a damp, condensated base. Next door's dog was barking. Well not so much barking as a high pitched yapping. It was a terrier something or another and doted on by its owner who, even so, yelled at it in a loud, annoyed voice. That was ironic. She was annoyed and it was her dog….. The phone was still ringing but about the twelfth ring it stopped. She knew it was him, it was four o’clock, and she knew what the conversation would be about and she knew it would ring again. She picked up the receiver, “Hello darling,” she said as sweetly as possible with some composure, “how is your day going?”
“Tiring and tedious,” he replied with a lack of enthusiasm. In fact he sounded like the effort of phoning was all too much. “I just phoned and let it ring, why didn't you….”
“Oh dear. I was in the bedroom darling. Too far from the phone. Shall I cook you something special for dinner? Open a nice bottle of red?” but she already knew the reply.
“No, I have to work late. It's this China thing. Got to get it done this week and time is getting short. Will be late so don’t stay up.”
“Well don’t work too hard,” and without another word she hung up.
“That bloody dog,” she shouted as loud as she could and picked up the phone and dialled.
“Hello, Mary,” she said just as sweetly as she had to her husband. “Is your dog in pain? Is there anything I can do to help? It must be having a really torrid time to make so much noise.”
“Jane darling…. No, it’s alright. Thank you, just a bit excited. I’m sure it…..”
“Oh good. I won’t bother you then. Just thought I would offer.” She said, and hung up.
“That will do. Just a little prod. The bitch.'' She thought.
And now, “To hell with the calm day,” She made sure the cord was to the right and opened the drawer fully and pulled out a good half of the telephone book and regretted having done her nails. But she had an especially coarse nail file that would definitely come out when he came home. Preferably when they were in bed. Because she would wait up. Boy, would she wait up. Nails a bit shorter would be worth it.
She went into the lounge to the drinks trolley. Why they needed a hideous drinks trolley she did not know, For someone so keen on “the digital age” and all things modern his pride and joy was so out of place. Anyway, from the crammed bottles she selected Bombay Sapphire and a large, tall, heavy bottomed glass from the lower shelf. Poured at least a triple, added full on tonic then to the fridge for ice and lime. A good few chunks and she gave the very thick slice a slight squeeze as she put it in the glass and stirred with a black swizzle stick. Then back to the hall to increase the number of rings. He had put a mat there. But she put it in the drawer. To hell with him. She knew he would notice. Ha.
She picked up the handset and dialled a long number, taking great pleasure in the length of time it took for the dial to return each time. Zero two zero nine eight eight…. All mostly high numbers. Long and time consuming. “I must ask Jack to dial my mother sometime. Ha.”
The answer came quickly. It was Wednesday, their day and time. She knew her mother would be sitting by the phone waiting and she did not want to disappoint.
She took a sip replacing the glass just slightly off centre, then said, “Hi mum it’s me. How are you?”
“I’m fine Jane. Is that next door’s dog I can hear?”
“Yes mum. That dog is so annoying. It just never stops. I’ve spoken to Mary but a fat lot of good that will do. Anyway I’m OK. On my own as usual with my friendly glass.” She said with an exaggerated, resigned sigh.
“Oh dear. Things are not too good with Jack again then?”
“No, they never are these days. It’s so dull around the house. And the rows.” She said with a longer sigh. She took another sip, a long one and made sure the base of her glass was wet before she replaced it.
“Do you think he is seeing someone else?” her mother said, obviously concerned.
“Oh I don’t know. Maybe. But perhaps I don’t care if he is. All I know is I cannot go on like this. If he is, maybe that’s a good thing. Sometimes I just want to be on my own. And that bloody dog. I hope it…. Well you know. It’s just so much yapping.”
“That’s no way to talk Jane. Can’t you….”
“No Mum there’s nothing. Let’s not talk about this anymore. Tell me all your news.........”
The next day, after a brief but heated row, sleeping in the spare room and shorter nails, the heavy fox head knocker on the front door took a beating and the echoey hallway did its job. She was in the kitchen making lunch and looked up from her chopping with irritation obvious as her face scowled at the row. She put down the sharp knife and wiped her hands on her apron which she undid and took off. Without any rush she went down the hall stopping at the large mirror on the wall opposite the console table and checked her hair. Flicked a couple of strands and wiped her right hand over her face, shifting hair from her eyes as the door crashed again. The dog was continuing its incessant row
She pulled open the heavy oak, “Morning Mrs Charles, got a package for Mr Charles that needs signing for. That dog’s something else. Eh” said the postman standing in the cold rain and looking under-dressed in his grey shorts and shirt. Red bag hanging over his shoulder. “I think I stirred it up well and good.”
“Hi Mike. You look wet. No coat? Where do I sign?” she said with a genuine and happy smile. She liked Mike.
The small, thick Jiffy bag had a white address label with BONHAMS printed on the top. She felt all over, up, down and sideways, poking with her long nails. Intrigued, she returned to the kitchen, filled the enamel hob kettle with water, lit the gas and put it on to boil. The seal came apart easily to reveal two brown, felt pouches. Inside these were a pair of diamond and pearl drop earrings and a matching pendant necklace with delicate white gold chain. They were beautiful and she knew probably the most expensive things he had ever bought. Three days later it would be her birthday. She went into the hall and put the resealed package next to the phone. He would see it there; it was the first place he looked when he came in.
At five fifteen the phone rang. She was in the conservatory, one of the only places that muffled the yapping and was reading a never ending novel even though it was only three hundred pages long. She was sitting in a wicker chair with the cushions all puffed up, was comfortable and resented the intrusion. With her irritation making up her mind she closed the book and threw it in the bin consigning it to where it should have been put two days ago. Better still as soon as she had got it home. It was a long way to the phone and she looked menacingly at the empty phone socket in the wall next to the small table beside her chair that was supporting her five o’clock cocktail. The phone stopped before she got to the hall but started again after a few seconds. On about the sixth ring she picked it up.
“Can’t you get to the phone a bit quicker for just once? For a change.” Jack was in a mood she could tell. Stressed and in a mood.
But with her birthday coming up and an expected surprise she was resigned to be nice. “I’m sorry Jack, I was in the conservatory. I came as quickly as I could though. You know it is quite a way in this big house. Don’t you?”
“I’ll be home at about seven tonight.”
She was surprised, “That will be nice,” she said, “i’ll have dinner on the table.”
“Actually I’ve booked a take-away. Thai from the Blue Elephant that you like so much. All your favourite things. I’ll be on the six o’clock train. Do you think you could nip out and get it? I said you would be there at seven. Then we can eat as soon as you are back.”
“Well OK. I’ve just started my cocktail but that can wait so I’ll be alright to drive. How long will it take me to get to the restaurant, do you think? I haven't been there for so long but I’m sure I can remember where it is.” she said with a little excitement.
“You should leave by six thirty at the latest to be there at seven. Say ten minutes in the restaurant and thirty minutes back will give me plenty of time to get changed.”
“OK and thank you Jack. I’ll see you about seven forty five all being well.”
She hung up, placing the handset facing left, stowed the telephone book, closed the console drawer after taking out a mat and placing it over the ring stains, then dashed upstairs, the quickest she had moved in a while, to shower and get ready. She had about an hour. That should be enough. Just before six thirty she was outside getting in the car. Mary was in the front garden and waved. The dog yapped loudly.
The drive was easy enough and she quickly remembered the way although it did take a bit longer than she thought it would. At the counter there was a carrier bag in the shape of a fat, blue elephant sitting on the somewhat sticky surface with her name on it. She waited a few minutes then called out the back and someone came, a pretty young girl, who took payment and she left.
The trip back seemed slightly quicker and at just after seven forty five she was through the door and flying down the hall yelling, “I’m back and setting the table.”
She went into the kitchen, put the bag on the round, beech table, pulled two plates and two glasses from the cupboards, sets of cutlery from the drawer and a bottle of cold, white wine from the fridge which she opened and filled the glasses. She unpacked the bag, setting the contents neatly in the centre of the table with their covers loosened. She then sat and waited.
After a couple of minutes she went into the hall thinking Jack was upstairs and shouted that everything was ready. With no response, she went upstairs and into their bedroom. It was empty and so was the bathroom. Jack’s work suit, shirt and tie were thrown on the bed, in an uncustomary pile, discarded in haste. His wardrobe doors were open, drawers pulled out. All were empty. His bathroom stuff had gone. Taken with the same speed as the clothes were discarded. Some of her things and smaller items from the cabinet spilled onto the floor.
She took in the scene and could envisage the frenzied activity. A fevered haste, fearful of her early return. The coward. He always was a coward. Six foot two and muscular but lacking any backbone.
Downstairs in the hall the package on the console table had gone. The phone handset was facing right. The console drawer was half open. The phone book was hanging out and her cocktail glass with fresh ice and wet base was on top of the ring stains with no mat in sight. In place of the package was a note. She did not need to read it, she knew what it would say. The spineless coward. He could not even bring himself to tell her to her face. Then she smiled. A smile of resignation. A laughing smile so full of the purest relief. A smile that drew a line under this episode of her life.
She stood in the lounge wistfully looking out the window sipping her cocktail. The first thing that will happen, she thought, is that damn drinks trolley will go. It will follow him straight out the door. The window was open and it was peacefully quiet. Then she suddenly laughed, a long knowing laugh, as she realised the dog next door had stopped yapping.