Long Distance

He called again last night, just like he always does.

It was after three in the morning when the phone finally rang out. I was not asleep. I lifted the handset and listened. As always, it was a poor connection. My father's voice sounded hollow and tired and very far away.

He said, "Do you know what day it is?"

"I haven't forgotten," I said, "I've bought flowers for the grave."



There was silence then, at the mention of graves, as well there should be.

The phone had woken Teddy. She raised a tired eyebrow at me and I nodded and waved her towards the tape machine in the corner. She padded over and set it running.

"How is the weather?" My father asked and I told him, just as I always do. I rarely bother to ask him questions anymore. For many years I was encouraged to do so but it was always a tiresome business. Dad was never a great one for dialogue but now he has simply given up responding to my queries altogether. Now, when he calls, all he ever does is persist with his own inane, pointless line of questioning.

Always the same questions, always the same day every year.

The anniversary of his death.

"Did you get the shoes?"

As a rule, I answer all of his questions positively, even though I usually have no idea what he is talking about. I say "Yes" to humour him, hoping to fall on the answer that has most chance of bringing him peace. It never matters anyway. He inevitably ignores me

"No, Father, I did not."

This year I am trying "No". It is harder to ignore "No".

Dad doesn't find it at all hard. He gives no reaction, not even an "Oh", just onwards to his next familiar topic.

"Is it safe?"

I can never answer this. For anyone who has seen that film there can be no serious answer. I wonder about this particular question. Perhaps it is some kind of joke from beyond the grave? But my dad was not a humorous man and he died, you see, several years before they made 'Marathon Man.' Who knows, perhaps it has played wherever he is now. Perhaps he liked it.

"Is there water in it?"

I sit on the edge of my bed, in my favourite "Neil Young" tee-shirt, wiggle my toes in the deep pile carpet, and wish that this was all over for another year. The calls neither disturb nor sadden me anymore because I have long ago stopped thinking of them as real conversations. To me, they have become like a recording. An old L.P. that you dust off once a year and play distractedly for "old times' sake".

Whatever else he is, though, my father is certainly not a recording. Though repetitive, he will often vary the questions he asks and occasionally will throw in something that I will never have heard before. The quality of his voice will also vary from Anniversary to Anniversary and, of course, there are the background voices. They are always different. Except for the woman who cries for Vigler. She is the only constant.

"Is it raining?"

"No, Dad, it's fine tonight."

"When will it be dark?"

"Now"

"When?"

"Now, Dad it's bloody dark now. It's the middle of the bloody night!"

Teddy frowns at me from across the room. My wife is the type of person who would sit and read to a coma victim for ever. She doesn't really believe that my father can hear me but still she worries that he might.

"Vigler, Vigler...where are you?"

Poor lady. Faint, insistent and always punctual, she is one of the many voices which continuously echo behind my father's. A member of that subdued cacophony of ethereal tones, each of whom has their own unfathomable agenda to follow.

"Oh Vigler, please answer."

For eight years now I have recorded these calls and kept the tapes. I have discovered that these background voices perform most eerily in playback. They vary considerably in quality and content each time I listen to them. I could, for instance, pull out the '85 recording now and hear on it voices that were not there before. Only poor Vigler is constant.

Most of what they say is unintelligible although, here and there, clear phrases will emerge, things like "I have run out of patience" or "I see Murray's off the smokes again". One shifty voice in '91 said "Bohemian Lad" quite clearly several times. I thought it might have been a tip on a horse but, if it was, I never found it. I have never traced Vigler either although I have searched.

"Is the heat up?"

"Yes Dad. So how are you, Dad, eh? How are you?". My last ditch attempt at real communication.

"Where's the dog got to?"

I don't know why I even bother.

One year we got a psychic investigator in. He arrived from Kingsbury with an anorak and some luncheon-meat sandwiches. At bedtime, he positioned himself at the foot of our bed in a tangle of Radio Shack gizmos, entreated us to pretend he wasn't there, and goggled so hard at Teddy's breasts that she had to get up and put a sweater on.

Dad was late that night but he did finally get through. Duncan, the investigator, nearly wet himself. He had listened to all of the earlier tapes in preparation but the real thing was almost too much for him. He collected himself somewhat as the call progressed and proceeded to suggest a series of ridiculous questions written with the aid of a piece of white Formica and a smelly felt tip pen. I dutifully passed them all down the line and Dad dutifully ignored them, choosing instead to touch on such favorite subjects as the price of oatmeal and the whereabouts of his other blue sock.

Afterwards, Duncan proclaimed the event to be "a class one physic encounter" and cited us a few chilling examples of similar documented experiences. One of his stories stays with me.

He told of a teenage girl in America - New Hampshire I think it was - who used to hitch her way home from University every Christmas. Almost invariably, she would phone up on Christmas Eve and explain how she had been left without a ride a few miles from home and could someone please drive out and get her? This particular year, however, it was terribly late when she got through. "Please Mum", she moaned down the line, "can somebody please come and get me? I'm cold and it's dark here and I'm very, very scared..." She was, of course, dead. She had been killed in a road accident over twelve hours before the call was made. Or so the story goes.

Duncan left us next morning promising faithfully to get us "written up" and, unfortunately, he was as good as his word. We made it into most of the tabloids, the local rag did a centre page spread and we only missed a "That's Life" spot because somebody came along who could play a passable version of "Amazing Grace" on his knee.

The year after that, we received a lot of attention. All through the night of the Anniversary, a bunch of second rate hacks fluttered around our porch light and swapped tall stories. We even admitted a few to the inner sanctum, on Duncan's recommendation. Father never called that year. He always was an awkward bastard. Duncan and the associated press went off in the morning and never came back, thank God.

I wonder why he phones on his anniversary. I wonder why he phones at all. I can picture his funeral, the Astroturf, the flash of unnatural yellow from the poorly concealed mechanical digger, the incongruous sunshine. There was no hint, that day, that he would ever speak again. I remember being at his deathbed. He almost spoke to me that day, almost gave in and said something bloody worthwhile. Maybe it is the memory of that which summons him back each year, maybe not.

"What time is it?"

I pay attention.This is a brand new question.

"3.24 A.M."

It is best to be accurate when speaking to the faithful departed.

"Is it?"

"Yes"

"Oh"

My toes stop their dance in the carpet. This is different. This is more like a real conversation than I ever remember it being before. In the corner, Teddy looks out from between her headphones with eyes like saucers, she has heard it too.

I know all the theory. I've read all the books on the subject. In case you don't know, they say that the entire "Phone-call from the dead" phenomenon is spawned by an advanced form of self hypnosis. The person left behind feels such a desire to keep in touch with the deceased that they can generate an actual manifestation of the person's voice. They can even cause a phone to ring. Although I see it to be unlikely and flawed, I have always subscribed to this theory, it being the only semi-rational one open to me. It is definitely Dad who is on the phone, He is definitely dead, what else can I believe? Hence I have always blamed my over-emotional subconscious for this annual ritual, always reprimanded myself for putting so much subliminal energy into something so intrinsically foolish.

Until tonight, that is, until Dad started to talk back.

"Sam?"

He had never used my name before.

"Yes Dad?"

("Vigler, Oh please Vigler, answer me now")

"Dad?"

"Is it dark there?"

"Yes, Dad, it's dark now."

"Right."

"Dad... can you hear me?"

A pause, such a long pause.

"Yes Sam, I hear you now."

And I cry, as I haven't cried for many years. My hair is being stroked. I look up, Teddy is beside me, smiling.

"Speak to him," she says, "Talk."

When I can finally open my mouth he beats me to it.

"Are you all right?" He asks.

"Yes, I'm fine. Are you?"

"Where are the shoes?"

"Damn it Dad, don't start with the fucking shoes again, talk to me!"

"You shouldn't swear, Sam, it never suited you."

"Sorry."

"It's all right."

His voice has started to fade now. To break up, like it always does when the call is coming to its end. Soon he will become a part of, and finally lost in, the background babble.

"Sam?"

"Yes Dad?"

"This will be... last call...won't... ... call...again."

God, he was going fast.

"I don't understand. What are you saying?"

"Last call...you'll have a...new life...good luck old..."

And that was it. I could feel him go. I shouted after him that I loved him, shamelessly for the first time, and I swear that his voice returned for a moment to say it back to me. The recording doesn't have it but I heard him, I know I did.

Then he was gone. I laid the phone gently on the bed. The other voices would continue to ebb and flow until just before dawn and I could never hang up on them. I fell back on the bed and there was Teddy above me. Huge soaking tears were flooding in her eyes. She laughed and cried at the same time.

"Oh Sam", she said, "Oh bloody hell Sam."

"It was really him, wasn't it?"

"It was him all right. 'Your new life.,' he said. Sam, oh Sam, I was going to tell you in the morning, but he knew, the bugger bloody knew!"

And then I knew too.

So I held them both for a long time.



(c) Ken Armstrong


(Would you like to read another story?)

54 comments:

~willow~ said...

awww geeeeez Ken, you gave me the shivers and goosebumps and all that fun stuff - what an excellent read! Lovely ending, or should I say, beginning? :)

Jena Isle said...

Ken, I never thought you could write a story in this genre. I love such stories. They make you ponder for a long time; make you wonder about the truth of the afterlife and the like. Awesome Ken, bravo!

terrierandy7.com said...

Damn, Ken, I'm filling up. That was a brilliant story, chilling, but heart-warming too. Beautifully written.

Merry Christmas mate!

*reaches for festive hankie*

Angel said...

Oh, wow! This was wonderful!!! The ending realy got me. Just beautiful:)

Sweetwater Designs said...

I loved that. Anyone who can write like that has to be working on a book~I can't wait to read it.

Will Knott said...

Beautiful. A touch freaky and beautiful.

hope said...

I've just come from a house filled with very LOUD relatives, a little too boisterous for a lengthy period of time. Your story made me wish Dad could phone home...I miss his sense of humor during the holidays.

Thanks for such an interesting story. :)

Waterrose said...

What a wonderful story. Thank you for writing it and publishing it on your blog --it gives you moments to ponder.

Cellobella said...

Great story...

Or at least I assume it was a story!

*shivers*

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks Willow, I'm glad of the goosebumps - they're the hardest to achieve. :)

Hi Jena, you'd never know what I might write from one day to the next.. thanks for kind words.

Merry Christmas to you, Terrier Andy - we were Bebo'ing each other this time last year, as I recall...

Hi Angel, thanks for that. I'm genuinely pleased that you enjoyed this little thing.

Sweetwater Designs: Bless you for a particularly inspirational comment - I'll get back to work on that. :)

Hey Will: Yes, a touch freaky all right! :)

Hope: I'm off to the noisy relatives myself today. I guess there are phone calls we could all use...

Waterrose: Thank you, regarding the story - you're welcome - Christmas storytelling with a tinge of regret and unease is a tradition I would like to try to keep up.

Cellobella: I'm always chuffed when you drop by, thanks for reading. Hope you're having loads of fun for the holiday - I look forward to reading about it on your blog.

Mike said...

Great work, Ken. Liked it a lot for a ghost story. Not the kind that will keep me looking over my shoulder for the next few days, but definitely with a little creepy factor thrown in there.

Plus, everybody loves a happy ending.

Margaret said...

Superb, Ken! I have all these theories rushing around in my head about the why and the where and the what-if. Got me thinking....

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Debbie said...

I love it. Thank you for sharing such a great story.

fragileheart said...

Heh. Even after the character's name was revealed as Sam, I was like... so Ken's real name is Sam? LOL

Great read Ken!

Jennifer said...

Excellent story. I'm glad I waited for a quiet moment (in a week of relatives, cooking, and activity) to read it. I'm also a little glad that I waited until daylight.

:)

Deronda designs... said...

Thank you

Ken Armstrong said...

Mike, thanks. It's not really intended to scare the do-do. Wait a minute... BOO! There! (That probably did it... come back and use this comment if ever you have hiccups). :)

Hi Margaret: Lets of theories, eh? 'Sounds like you were thinking harder than I was. :)

Thanks Debbie: It was all a ploy to impress you... glad it worked.

Hi Reggie and Bon Voyage (did you just fly over my house?). It's an interesting comments this. I'm decidedly not Sam... but my youngest son is and the fact that this story was written many years before his birth is actually a little bit spooky. Also, my Dad is (thankfully) very much alive-and-well. He knows this story and is somewhat bemused by it. :)

Hi Jennifer. Being so familiar with this story (it has a *lot* of history) I lose the sense of spookiness about it but I do remember making myself a little uneasy while writing it. that feeling is mostly from the little tale in the middle of it which *is* disturbing and is recounted as being true - whatever that might mean.

You, dear Deronda Designs, are most welcome! :)

netta said...

What a lovely story. It particularly hit home because of the recent loss of my mother -- I can't tell you how this touched me.

Excellent. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

tashabud said...

Hi Ken,
Wow! You got me there. I thought at first it was your own personal experience with your own Dad.

Excellent writing. It gave me the goosebumps. I really like the ending.

Happy New Year!
Tasha

Ken Armstrong said...

Netta: Thanks and my condolences on your loss - I know the feeling and sympathise.

Tasha: There is quite an element of truth in the story but it isn't anything related to ghosts or telephones. Goosebumps are my favorite reaction. :)

Reese said...

Wow, that was amazing

Susan said...

What a story--absolutely wonderful especially for those of us who've lost someone close. Brilliant ending! Thanks for sharing it!

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

Fabulous, Ken.
The kind of thing that leaves me torn with various emotions, not the least of which is jealousy!

Ken Armstrong said...

Hi Reese, thanks.

Susan and Catherine - really glad you both enjoyed it. You *know* I'm open to criticism particularly from active practitioners such as you. So if you see anything you don't like, do get 'stuck in'. (I have worked it and worked it but I personally still think the end is a bit twee).

Jenn Thorson said...

Gosh, nicely done, Ken! I'm a bit speechless.

lizbelle01 said...

There are still tears streaming down my face even after reading through all the comments. Thanks for the read.

Wry Beauty said...

Oh my goodness, that brought tears to my eyes. BEAUTIFUL story. Thank you for this.

Brendan Hughes said...

Wow, really touched a chord Ken. Beautifullly written. I wanted it to be true.

You have a gift. Thanks for sharing it and helping me to stop and think about my own dad who is dead. I'd love one of those phonecalls.

Ohio Real Estate said...

I didn't read any of this post or any of the comments. I like that phone though!

I'll be back.

Ckm said...

oh my freaaaaking god... that's SO good... so so good, the best in a long time.

Sue said...

Holy shit that was awesome!

Chat Blanc said...

smashingly good story!! I was captivated. well done! :)

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

The ending is perfect, Ken. Don't change it.

Larry Gist said...

WOW - what a great story - I am now following this blog!

Ken Armstrong said...

Wow!

I'm really knocked out by the positive reaction I've got to this little story over the past day or so. Thank you.

It's very encouraging to see that the story can strike a chord, as it does with me.

The story has *quite* a history which I might share in a separate post sometime but, for now, thanks again.

Erica said...

I came to this story while stumbling through cyberspace. There is nothing new for me to add because the other comments have covered my feelings quite well. Since I am not easily deterred, I will risk being redundant and tell you what I think anyway.

This is the best prose I have read in a while. I hope it turns into a book that you will share with the rest of us. It is usually hard to convey so many true emotions-eeriness, pity, sadness, hope, and closure-in such a short piece without cutting corners. Somehow you have managed to pull it off. I tip my hat to you or at least I would if I wore a hat.

Laura said...

Woah, that was truly amazing!
I really dont understand the ending though..I've tried and tried and tried.....
Once again, beautiful story!

Jennifer Crowe said...

Wow, I just got stumbled to this story. It was great from start to finish, and my eyes are filled with tears now.

Just beautiful!!

Anonymous said...

I StumbleUpon-ed this story, and it's beautiful. Very well crafted, spooky, a bit tear-jerky in the best way. I read a LOT of horror and thrillers, this is the best I've seen in a while. Good on ya!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful story, ive been looking for a great short story to inspire me and i've found it, thank you x

danny berk said...

that was amazing. truly. i want to thank you for that.

Ohio Real Estate said...

I came back!

I still haven't read the comments, but the story... yes.

Awesome.

If you go before I do, will you call me? 216.323.4620

Who is Sam?

Ken Armstrong said...

Once again, thanks to *all* the many visitors who have now come and seen this story. I'm planning a follow-up post with some background and I'll post a link to it here when it's up.

Ohio Realtor: You came back!!

If I go first (and I think I probably will), I will try to give you a call, it didn't work for Houdini but the network is better these days. No 'Spookiness' though, we'll just compare fave 80's tunes, exchange a few cryptic clues and diss the cat. :)

Turnip | Social Networking said...

Great story. I was so inspired I decided an interview was in order.

John said...

Fantastic story, very creepy. My light bulb exploded half way through and I had to read the rest in the dark!

Poetikat said...

I'm weeping now, Ken and I haven't done that for weeks. Thanks.

Kat

belongum said...

Fantastic yarn Ken... I'm new to your blog mate - via Cellobella - and I've since added you to my blogroll! I'll definitely be coming back for more mate... cheers ;-)

Ken Armstrong said...

Turnip: Thanks for the interview which can be found 'here'

John: Jees, I would have freaked out! Brave man. :)

Dear Kat: I was going to say sorry for making you cry but I won't. Crying is good for us isn't it and it reaffirms how much we loved. Best wishes to you.

belongum: Welcome along! Any friend of Cellobella's... when I used to work in the knicker-store-department of Myers Melbourne, in 1990, we all used to call each other 'mate' and I've been doing it consistently ever since, much to the dismay of my Irish friends. So, good on ya mate! :_

Poetikat said...

Oh no! I didn't mean for you to apologize - it was a sincere "Thanks".

Kat

Ken Armstrong said...

I knew that Kat. :)

Damo said...

Fecking around when I should be working, decided to pass away the last few minutes before closing shop for the weekend and came across this story.

Wonderful Ken, like many have said before. I’d like to know the ‘history’. Felt my eye well up a little, but managed to hold back, as I’m a big boy.

Divorce counselors said...

This is a nice story...sweet, moving and gave a shiver, too.

Sifu Phil said...

Fantastic story, Ken!

shinester said...

Spine chiller, thanks.