Although a familiar face and often seen in the city of Oxford, I had no idea as to his name. Adopting the style of an over-fed 11th Century Anglo-Saxon peasant, he wore the same brown rags and moss-green, holed jumper every day. A length of thick rope tied tightly around an expansive waist, held up his trousers. For a hat, he’d chosen an aviator’s leather helmet, complete with the goggles parked up onto his forehead. A red and blotchy face suggested poor health, while a bushy, grey coloured beard grew out in all directions from his chin, cheeks and jowels. As a cyclist, his proclivity for carrying a rough-hewn, tall wooden stick, along with two armfuls of plastic bags weighing him down, seemed ill-conceived. Put altogether, he conjured up a surreal caricature of a rather plain-looking jouster.How did I ever get talking with him? Unusually, the initiation of conversation had been by me. Earlier, having grown bored of waiting for a bus, I’d set off for the next stop on the main road heading out south from the city. As is often the way with these things, I watched two half-empty buses sail past at the halfway point of my journey. A few moments later, as the next bus stop came into view, I saw him standing motionless on the brow of an arched road bridge. With the bike leaning against his hip, the stick held upright, his gaze appeared transfixed, on exactly what I knew not.
I can’t remember why the decision to chat with him came about. I recall anticipating a considerable wait for the next bus and had felt emboldened, following the consumption of a double espresso coffee an hour beforehand. With the caffeine coursing through my veins, the option to engage in light conversation with the fellow presented no difficulty. “You sir!” I called out, as I doffed and re-donned my cap in his direction. “I wish to enquire of your position and the circumstances leading to where you find yourself now.”
Eyes widening and then quickly narrowing, his expression flickered from surprise to suspicion, as he processed the greeting I’d extended to him. “I want to know,” I said, seeing further explanation as necessary, “how did you get to be like this?” It was an upfront, honest question delivered with eye-contact for additional impact.
He stared at me blankly, while a spasmodic facial tic underneath his left eye contracted and expanded in rapid succession. I could hear his breath wheezing and whistling out of his lungs and noticed mint green coloured nasal mucus pulsating at the entrance to both nostrils. Preparing himself to reply, he’d wiped his nose with a dirty sleeve and drew in a lungful of air.
“I was once like you, not so long ago. I had what you had.” Hearing this, I suppressed the urge to inform him of how unlikely I felt this to be the case. Instead, I smiled kindly and nodded my head sympathetically. “I once had a life,” he continued, “but I made some errors, wandered from the path of righteousness. Just a few small mistakes is all it takes for you to wind-up like me.”
“There but for the grace of God go I.” My reply sounded wistful, yet lacking in conviction.
“Everything I once owned,” he continued, oblivious to my unconvincing interjection, “I threw away, gave away or had it taken from me.”
At this, there followed a moment of funereal silence, as we both cast our stares out upon the canal waterway. Watching the pinkish light of the sunset play amongst the ripples of the water, I came over all queer and reached out a hand for support on the cast-iron guard rail. From the corner of my eye I could see the man repeatedly pushing his bottom lip outwards, then drawing it back over his top lip. The act appeared much exaggerated, due to the wiry beard sprouting from his face. The image of an exotic sea anemone came to mind, convulsing its body and then and unfurling its tentacles, sensing food nearby.
The lip movement had been a precursor to the resumption of our conversation. “It was addiction that done it for me.” He said, without turning his head. I believed it had ‘done it’ for his powers of observation, too. The man appeared unaware of the sudden state of unsteadiness in composure, which had befallen me. Nor did he notice my frantic hand fanning, directed toward my face. I wished for the existence of a portable air pumping device designed specifically for such situations, where revival is urgently needed.
Through short gasps of breath, I managed an utterance to maintain the rhythm our exchanges were beginning to develop. “What was your poison, dare I ask? Several flutters too many on the horses, the cursed drink or perhaps the smoking of opium?”
“Friendship. I was addicted to friendship, due to an overwhelming sense of loneliness.” Reluctant to countenance the idea of friendship as a cause for addiction, I implored – nay demanded the man to explain.
“How could this possibly be so?” I asked, my face frozen in an expression of dramatic disbelief. The very concept of having friends is akin to the air I breathe, both necessary and something I had taken for granted up to now. Decades of therapy had taught me, the world was brimming full of strangers yearning to be friends. How could this be transmogrified into a negative, such as an addiction?
“Do you have a phone?”
“Yes I do,” I said, “a so-called smart-phone, the very latest, swankiest model.” I wished not to rub his nose in my good fortune and yet, a fact is a fact!
“How, on this world,” I spluttered, “could a handheld telecommunication device possibly serve towards your downfall?” I gasped at what I perceived as his growing incredibility.
“I made calls with it. Calls to people I didn’t know, made up numbers, random-like.”
“For what purpose?” I enquired.
“To talk to people, to create a chance to make a friend. It had started off with three or four calls in the first hour, but by the end of the day, I’d racked up thirty calls and conversations with complete strangers. It developed from there.” Turning from a notably taciturn disposition, the man’s explanation of himself began expanding rapidly. “Each morning, I had my own routine, one I rarely strayed from. Once sat with a coffee, an open packet of biscuits, pen and pad of paper on my lap, I began dialling. Beyond a legitimate telephone code, I selected the sequence and the numbers at random. Occasionally, I’d get a continuous tone indicating a dead line, but on most occasions, I got through.”
“Complete strangers! Random numbers!”
“That’s right. Although I kept most of my dialling to landline numbers, rather than mobile phones. With the privacy settings on my phone as they were, it quickly became obvious that most people refused to accept calls from a withheld number.”
“A shrewd observation, may I say.”
“Shrewd and observation are my two middle names. I worked out a reasonably reliable system, based upon the number of rings. Once seventeen rings had been reached, it was unlikely the call would be answered and I’d hang up. There wasn’t any no point waiting for an eighteenth ring, as this would likely trigger an automated message service, requesting that I please leave a message, after the tone.”
“You would hang on, for seventeen rings?” It had been a rhetorical question, therefore I held my hand up in vertical position, palm outwards at chest height to stifle his response. Repositioning the goggles on his forehead by several sixteenths of an inch, the man appeared simultaneously hesitant and unsure of what to do next. During this moment of confusion, I withdrew a phone from the inside pocket of my plaid patterned jacket and proceeded to mime the act of making a call. Having pretended to dial a number, I pressed the handset to my ear and imagined the pulse of a ringing tone. By nine make-believe rings, I gave up, concluding with certainty I would never hold on for more than this number.
My antics had been observed, shrewdly no doubt and become the cause of some amusement to my conversationally skilled companion. After he’d finished chuckling, I noticed his confidence had returned. “You didn’t get past nine, did you?”
Rolling eyes upwards and from side to side, I scrunched both my lips together allowing them to come to rest in the lower-left quadrant of my face. As I wrestled myself free from a vague feeling of discomfort, he continued. “An answer after seventeen rings suggests an array of possibilities. A chance the person is busy at the bottom of the garden, upstairs asleep or involved in an intimate moment. Perhaps they are frantically fumbling with their keys outside the front door, balancing overflowing bags of food shopping in their arms.”
I assumed a quizzical pose, right hand supporting left elbow, while bent index finger gently rubbed against the vestigial medial depression between my nose and upper lip. “Surely,” I proposed, “an extended number of rings would influence the approach in which a person accepted a call. The sleeper, bather or lover would certainly be annoyed at the interruption. Whereas I would consider the gardener and returning shopper more likely to answer with a tremor of anxiety, having rushed to reach the phone.”
“Let me show you how a typical conversation goes.” He said. “I’ll be me and you can be you.” His logic appeared obvious, but then he changed his mind. “No. You be a woman answering.” With this, he formed his hand into a position to suggest a telephone handset. Three fingers curled on to his palm, while his thumb and pinkie extended outwards. Using his thumb with unusual dexterity, he typed out an imaginary telephone number, before placing the ‘phone’ to the side of his face. Next, a sound designed to imitate the British style of a ringing tone, emitted from his lips. “Broobe-broobe, broobe-broobe, broobe-broobe…” Whilst doing so, he motioned for me to answer. I scrambled for my phone once more, but he flapped his fingers at me in an annoyed fashion, jabbing a stubby index finger at my hand. I deduced he wished for me to create my own ‘hand phone’. In compliance with this demand, hand to ear, I answered his call.
“Hello?” I said, slightly hesitantly. He looked at me and sighed.
“You’re a woman.” He said as his hand slid off the side of his face revealing an expression of mild exasperation. With an air of frustration, he motioned for me to answer again.
Self-consciously, stood there on a bridge and busy pavement, I raised the pitch of my voice an octave. “Hel-lo?” I said, clearing my throat awkwardly. Thankfully, his face relaxed as he grinned, satisfied with my second attempt.
“Hello, may I speak with Caroline please?”
I didn’t mean to play hardball with him, but the chances must be stacked against dialling a random number and getting the name right. “I’m sorry, there’s no one here called Caroline, you have the wrong number.”
“Oh, I am sorry, I was sure I had the correct number.”
“What number did you dial?”
“In the early days I was caught out by this question.” He told me, dropping the pretence momentarily. “I couldn’t actually remember what random sequence of numbers I’d dialled, so I learnt to scribble them down. With one digit changed, I could confidently answer this query.” Moving back into character, he reeled off a telephone number.
“Ah, I see what you’ve done.” I said, playing my part loyally. “You’re one digit out, the last number here ends in a seven, not six, it’s an easy mistake.”
“I can’t believe I did that, how clumsy am I?”
Wanting to return to normal speech, I decided to curtail the conversation without further delay. “Well, a simple mistake really, never mind, goodbye!”
Undeniably, he appeared disappointed. “This is how many a phone call would unfold.” He said, looking down at his unlaced, scuffed leather boots. “But I never got upset, there was no reason to, just because a call didn’t work out, life is too short. The prize of one meaningful conversation in a day out of fifty or so attempts, made for a good enough return.”
“Fifty calls, every day?”
“At least. You know how some people say their name when they answer the phone?” As a customary practice I indulged in myself, I nodded my head in acknowledgement. “Well when this happens, it provides a whole new opportunity. I’ll give you an example.” With his hand at the ready to symbolise a telephone handset, once again he made a noise similar to the electronic pulse of a ring tone. Quickly, I composed myself and formed my hand in the same way. Seeing this, he furiously waved an out-stretched hand and shook his head. At seventeen rings, he switched hands.
“Hello, Marcus speaking.”
As I realised his commitment to play both parties in the conversation, a wave of disappointment washed through me. Yes, I had been uncomfortable before, but this had been largely due to the need for maintaining a squeaky feminine voice in an exposed public space. For the character of Marcus, the man used a masculine, well-spoken and educated tone. The image of a stylish gentleman answering the telephone in the entrance hall to an impressive Victorian mansion-house, possibly situated a short distance off the Holloway Road in Islington, sprung to mind.
“Hello Marcus, Graham here.”
“Yes. Marcus, how are you fixed for next weekend? I have two day-permits for Saturday and Sunday up at the old quarry carp lakes. People have been pulling out 50 lb. beauties since the season opened. What do you think?” He’d quickly found his stride during the re-enactment, switching smoothly between hands and characters.
“Old quarry what? Sorry, who is this please?”
“Marcus, it’s Graham. Look, it’s been a while since we’ve got out together and when I bumped into Cheryl recently, she mentioned you feeling a little low-spirited and having not been yourself lately. So how about it chap?”
“Cheryl? Who’s Cheryl?”
“I’ve still got that little fold-away barbecue, I’ll pick up some sausages, some finger rolls, a crate of lager. Are you up for it?”
“Who’s Cheryl and what has she been telling you about me?””
“Who’s Cheryl? Marcus, Cheryl is your step-sister and my ex-wife.”
“Hold up, hold up, hold up, no no no no no.” Although tested, I guessed from the dialogue Marcus’ sense of reality had begun to return.
“Look I’m sorry friend, there’s been some kind of very odd mix-up here. I have two brothers and as I don’t have a step-sister, let alone know anyone called Cheryl, it follows that I don’t have an ex-brother-in-law called Graham. Contrary to whatever you have been told by whoever, I am feeling perfectly fine, thank you. And furthermore, I have never gone fishing in my life so why would I want to next weekend? And last but not least, I am a vegetarian!”
“What..?! Look, who do you think you are speaking to? Please tell me, then we can clear up this misunderstanding.”
“Marcus. You are Marcus aren’t you?”
“I am Marcus, but Marcus who?
“You don’t know?”
“I am asking you.”
“Well, Marcus Robertson of course.”
“My name is Marcus Richardson.”
“Oh, that’s quite similar, how curious!”
I could only agree, what were the chances of such a similarity of names when he’d simply plucked Robertson from thin air?
“Curious it maybe friend, but it’s not me. I am afraid you have the wrong Marcus.”
I clapped my hands together in delight at this point, bringing them to my chest and under my chin, as if I were in prayer. My storytelling acquaintance hung up both hand phones one after the other in a highly precise manner, suggesting a fair degree of self-satisfaction.
“The conversation finished shortly afterwards.” He said, returning to his natural voice. “But as an example, it serves as an insight into what rapidly became part of my day-to-day life. Some calls I made weren’t picked up, or ended abruptly. I can’t begin to imagine the number of times I heard the singular phrase ‘Sorry, wrong number’ said to me. On other occasions, I received rather colourful, two-worded closing statements.”
“Really?” I replied, taken aback.
“Hmm, unpleasant and unnecessary. To be honest, in such instances I’d fire a salvo of expletives back at them.”
“Well, I wouldn’t condone such a response, but I can see why you felt the need to.”
Rudeness, I cannot abide, nor the simplistic approach of fighting fire with fire. Yet, I felt a twinge of genuine sympathy towards the man standing in front of me. Beyond instilling a sense of bemusement in the people he’d called, what harm had come about from his actions? I had one more pressing question for him.
“Still, I don’t quite understand, how you got from there, to here?”
“I exceeded my phone plan,” he replied. “Five hundred minutes per month as an allowance doesn’t go far when your making the number of calls I had come to make, especially as nearly all of them were to different networks. You pay full price on those babies.”
“Couldn’t you have opted for a different contract, or simply topped up? I know my network provider affords this option on data. I am often over my limit before the end of the month, due to the numerous videos I watch online with my phone.” As a solution, it had seemed the obvious answer to me.
“I tried, they weren’t interested, they correctly identified a problem with this. I exceeded my agreement with them more than ten times over. They could see, no plan they could offer, would cover my usage.”
“So they cancelled your contract with them?” Absorbing the inevitability of the situation, I pinched at the bony part of my nose. With the setting sun casting a long silhouette upon the pavement, this despairing gesture projected a shadow puppet rabbit kissing my forehead. Then sudden inspiration struck, I spurted out “What about ‘Pay-As-You-Go’? You don’t have to have a phone contract.”
“That was when things got really bad. Found myself jogging to the corner shop to buy credit vouchers ten times a day, at its peak. I lost a little weight for a while, but this coincided with the period when I turned to selling all my possessions.”
“Well, every cloud…” I said, puffing out my cheeks and holding my hands at waist height, supporting a large, imaginary gut overhanging my trousers.
“Not for long.” He replied, as a shot of snot leapt from his left nostril. “Once I had sold the cooker, I ate take-away food only and soon discovered these meals are highly calorific. For every few ounces I burnt off journeying back and forth, my diet added three or four pounds more each day.”
“Escalation, in every part of your life!”
“You better believe it. My only relief came from receiving cold calls from companies selling things, generally regarded by most as a nuisance, but manna from heaven to me. I loved it, the challenge of moving the tele-sales person off script. It could take a while, but more times than not, I did it.”
I thought to offer him my handkerchief, but as my fingers closed around the fine silk fabric nestled in my pocket, I reconsidered. “I can remember reading an article in the FT,” I said, “about how less than 3% of cold calls lasted no more than five seconds in duration. The report stated this to be the case until a year ago, at which point the statistics suddenly spiked. Research had shown the average call time lengthening considerably and marketing companies around the world went into a frenzy. Claims about cold-calling as a valid and proven advertising tool abounded within the industry!”
“That was down to me.”
“Down to you?”
“Entirely, me.” He nodded his head, his expression deadly serious.
“Well, yes.” I blinked my eyes in momentary disbelief. “And, I suppose this would have cost you nothing!”
“Well, let’s say I viewed it as a bonus. It cost me nothing until I traced their numbers and phoned them back. Most of the calls emanated from India and Bangladesh. I was dialling on international rates and rapid consumption of the credit vouchers accelerated.”
“And did you make any friends?”
“Not really.” With the mournful expression of a Bassett Hound, he punctuated his answer with an abrupt bottom burp. “For a short while, I got to know a young man named Anay from a locality in Mumbai, called Dharavi. But the more deeply I probed, the less willing he was to talk with me. In the end, after I’d begun asking to speak with him specifically, he started refusing to take my calls and the company blocked my number.”
“What confounded bad luck!” I exclaimed. “If I was you sir, I would most surely consider throwing myself off from this bridge!” He grinned back at me exposing gingivitis gums and yellowed teeth. At the exact same moment a double-decker bus roared past sending vibrations through my head and chest, expelling any remnants of the queerness I had felt earlier. At this, the man sprung into action and with surprising agility, swung his foot up and levered himself onto the top edge of the guard rail with his stick. Before I could gather my senses, he’d rolled over and dropped to the water below.
Wrong-footed by the spectacle and scarcely able to believe my own eyes, I hesitantly looked over the edge and scanned the brownish-green coloured water below. Mostly, the sound of the large splash had been drowned out, by the passing bus. I could discern a few bubbles rising to the water surface, yet all immediate indications suggested he had sunk to the bottom like a stone. Only his poorly whittled stick lay floating on the surface, moving off downstream upon the gentle current.
While faintly regretting the delivery of my advice, I abided by my unilateral pledge of conscientious non-interference. Straightening my back and adjusting the cuffs of my shirt, once again I doffed my cap.
“Adieu mon ami, and farewell.”
As luck would have it and aided by a long stride gifted to me by mother nature, I caught a ride on the very same catalyst bus which had passed moments earlier. I made no specific mention of the incident to the driver, who inexplicably appeared reluctant to engage in conversation. Perched in an uncomfortable and smelly seat on the top deck, gradually enveloped by the unpleasant odour one associates with an elderly widower, I gave consideration to recent events.
After musing on this for a short time, recalcitrant thoughts materialised in my wayward mind in the manner of undiluted thuggery. Mental memoranda, lists, questions and assertions all began competing for the same, limited attention span available. Just as the neurones in my brain reached the activity level of a febrile stock exchange in meltdown, I experienced a severe caffeine crash and with great ease, slipped into the arms of Morpheus. There, rocking back and forth as the bus swung sharply around bends on the country roads, I slept as sound as a baby, until discourteously ejected by several irritable staff at the bus terminal.