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 since 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, 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 psychic 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.
It is best to be accurate when speaking to the faithful departed.
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.
He had never used my name before.
("Vigler, Oh please Vigler, answer me now")
"Is it dark there?"
"Yes, Dad, it's dark now."
"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."
"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.
"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
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