Gregor Samson as Artist Extraordinaire
Imagine being mistaken for someone famous, inhabiting their appearance and yet knowing you are not them. What kind of day could you have and how satisfying would it feel, to experience the life of an international celebrity? Might it be rather exciting, just for one day? Gregor Samson is about to find out, in this, his second easy read, short story adventure.
Interrupted by an early morning telephone call, we find our confused protagonist advised to expect an imminent delivery and collection. What follows is a journey during which Gregor meets warm-hearted individuals, discovers the language of dance, acts as guide to royalty and finally, meets face-to-face with his nemesis.
After reading, you may well ask yourself this, “Given control of the life belonging to someone famous, what exactly might I do?”
Utilising the marvels of interweb technology, the following is the transcript of my recent radio show broadcast where I am in interview with Jan Futchinelle, l’enfant terrible investigative reporter creating a name for himself in the modern medieval city of Oxford and well beyond these county lines. For anyone out there who calls living under a stone home, Jan has spent the last few weeks talking up the #roadsituation.
I invited him onto the show, to learn a bit more about both the story and the man. Judging by the several emails received following broadcast, audience feedback suggests public opinion sits firmly behind the journalist.
Without further ado, here!
“A-nd welcome back after the news, you’re tuned into Brinkinfield’s Fried Breakfast on Radio OX72FM. If you’re travelling into Oxford city today, I have been passed some traffic info for you to take heed of. The lights are out at the Wolverine roundabout, causing some cavalier cavorting by road-users with the area classified as immediately dangerous for all nearby pedestrians. We’ve also just received news of the Botter’s Road bridge down to one lane, cordoned off by police while frogmen search the canal. This follows the report of a rather large man falling from the bridge during yesterday’s rush hour. Police are appealing for witnesses.
“Right, back to business. As listeners, you may be interested in my next guest on this morning’s show Jan Futchinelle, who’s writings on the road situation has attracted stacks of attention over the last month or so.
“Welcome Jan, I am glad for us to meet.”
“Thank you and thanks for asking me onto your show.”
“It’s a pleasure Jan, I feel we share many of the same ideas. Which is why I’ve asked you to come on and discuss what has become known as, the road situation in Oxford.”
“Yes, well, of course it’s not only effecting Oxford. Towns, villages, hamlets and cities all over the country are suffering in the same way as here.”
“Right, but here in Oxford, this is where you live and what you know and what you see, am I right Jan?”
“Oh, a little bit of French there Jan!”
“I speak 7 languages, French, Swiss, Italian, German, Austrian, a little Scandinavian.”
“I imagine it must come in handy from time to time.”
“Very occasionally, yes.”
“So Jan, what’s it all about, this road situation you’ve been writing of for the last few weeks?”
“Well, it’s been more like a year now. It breaks down into three inter-linked component parts: potholes, congestion and road-user behaviour.”
“Ok, briefly take me through them.”
“Well, has it occurred to anyone listening the idea of there existing a more suitable product for surfacing roads than the current materials, with all the technology we have at our disposal today?”
“Yes Jan, it has occurred to me before. There’s got to be, surely!”
“It’s an absolute certainty. Look at our present situation, whatever the weather conditions the roads crumble, crack and sink. The surfaces break down, unable to take the extremes of cold, warmth and wetness our seasons produce. The current materials used simply aren’t fit for purpose.”
“Certainly Jan, the road I travel in on each day provides a dreadfully bumpy ride, physically lifting me off my seat. I find myself weaving around the road to avoid the worst potholes.”
“And it is unsafe, the potential for accidents doesn’t require much imagination.”
“Agreed, I worry about my suspension and wheel axles too. I don’t believe cars are made to withstand this kind of exposure. What material do you believe would do a better job for surfacing roads?”
“Almost anything, but my favourites are re-cycled rubber from tires and re-cycled plastic. At a stroke, the inadequacies of the current recycling system we have, would be solved. There’d even be money in dredging the oceans to remove the vast tracts of discarded plastic floating around, which endanger sea life. The technology is here, the raw material is close to being free, it is a no-brainer.”
“Okay, we’re going to take a break for a tune by the Velvet Underground, Sister Ray, picked to help ease your journey into work this morning. When we come back, I’ll be reading out some recipes you’ve tweeted in, specially themed to this morning’s interview. Then we’ll talk more with Jan, on the subject of Oxford’s road situation.”
“A-nd, as we fade that out, you’re listening to Brinkinfield’s Fried Breakfast on Radio OX72FM where I’m in conversation with Jan Futchinelle, journalist, writer and all round good egg.”
“That’s a long track, Sister Ray.”
“Indeed it is Jan. Let-me-see, it comes in at 17 minutes 28 seconds… I hope no one minded me talking over the last 12 seconds as it played out.
“Now Jan, where were we?”
“Christ-alive, I’ve forgotten. Your listeners won’t know this, but during the musical interlude I got a quick trim at the barber shop located underneath the studios here.”
“Just so listeners know, Jan is sporting a clippered haircut – what would that be Jan, a zero on the number?”
“Yes, that’s right, zero.”
“But it looks like Francesco trimmed and conditioned your beard too.”
“Yes, well we could hear the Sister Ray track coming through the ceiling, and both being familiar with the song, we worked out we had enough time.”
“And you brought me back up a latte too, thank you Jan. Right, where were we? Oh, I am getting a voice in my ear saying we have enough time for some listener’s themed recipes and then we’ll go to the news.”
“I could hear that voice in your ear. It sounded like a busy bumble bee inside the flower of a daffodil. Can I just quickly mention about road tax?”
” – Not just yet Jan.”
” – About how less than 25% of the road tax goes on road maintenance?”
” – Later Jan. Okay, with the time now at exactly… six fifty seven, let’s go through some of the recipe ideas our listeners have tweeted in. Right, here’s one from Balthazar, thank you ma’am. Hm, what have we here? It looks like a hotdog from the photo – oh I see, the hotdog has cocktail sticks pinning cherry tomatoes and slices of cucumber into the side of the bread finger roll to look like car wheels. Yes, very good. And the wiggly line of mustard, that could be like a go faster stripe down the centre.”
“Normally, go-faster stripes are displayed along both sides of a vehicle rather than running down the centre.”
“True Jan, yes, but the mustard would just run and look messy I don’t doubt.”
“Depends on the mustard.”
“And what’s this we have from… Ge-ronimo…Cheeks, I think I have that right, okay let’s see, th-is, loo-ks like… oh, okay, it’s a slice of apple, with four grapes. Again, wooden cocktail sticks used as the axles. Right, I can definitely see a car theme developing here – keep them coming in. Okay, here comes the latest news and weather and we’ll be back right after this.”
“And that’s the sublime sound of Jason Lytle, formerly of the band Grandaddy, with a tune to melt your heart and make your eyes cry. In case you’ve just joined us, I am here with journalist and campaigner Jan Futchinelle, to talk about the Oxford road situation.
“Jan, we’ve talked about the road surfaces and what can be done about them.”
“Yes we have.”
“And I believe your campaigning initially came to my attention after you wrote an article entitled car ban or carbon? about the city council’s plan to exclude cars from Oxford. I also understand you have something to say about road-users, too.”
“Correct. Drivers of vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians sometimes too.”
“So what’s your beef, Jan?”
“That’s an unusual verb… but anyway, way back in the 20th century in the very early nineteen thirties, the Ministry of Transport published an 18 page booklet called the Highway Code.”
“And we’re still using it?”
“It’s been revised many times.”
“How many times Jan?”
“Regularly. The point is, the booklet contains guidance and rules about driving. Every learner driver knows that questions about the Highway Code form part of the test to acquire a full driving license.”
“Oh yes, I remember, all that stuff about stopping distances?”
“Yes and much more. Now, some of the rules explained are compulsory, whilst others are recommendations.”
“Like giving way to traffic on the right at roundabouts?”
“Correct, that’ll be a must-do rule. If you are brought to a British courtroom on a traffic violation, the Highway Code may – and probably will be referenced in a case against you.”
“I’m with you. So, what’s your point Jan?”
“My point is, the rules are pretty basic.”
“If you are sat at a junction to a main road, you give way to the traffic both ways, until the road is clear and safe to pull onto.”
“Seems like common sense there Jan.”
“But how many times have your listeners seen car drivers edge out onto main roads, as if they are entitled to some kind of special exemption from the rules?”
“Well, I’ve certainly seen this, whether they are turning left or right, or cutting across traffic to come off the main road. Often people in big four-by-fours, but not exclusively.”
“Indeed. And people blithely wave them on without consideration of possible consequences. Have you seen this happen – when a cyclist or pedestrian is endangered as a car turns? Have you seen the confusion being waved-on creates when there are two or more cars vying to take advantage of a situation? It’s madness. People, I say, just drive by the rules! That’s all I ask. Life would be so much easier.”
“Life would be better.”
“Life would be safer.”
“And that’s what really counts Jan. I am afraid we have run out of time, thank you so much for coming onto the show.”
“My pleasure. Lastly can I just say ‘cyclists, use lights day and night‘ and also mention I am giving a talk later this afternoon at Holywell’s Bookshop, inviting a Q&A session immediately afterwards.”
“Indeed Jan you can, and I believe you just have. We have time for one more themed recipe and okay, let’s see what we have here and from whom…”
“It’s a banana and are those four cherries, run through with a cocktail stick?”
“Yes I think you’re right Jan. Our thanks to justcantgetenuff for tweeting that one in. This next song is regularly requested by listeners of the show, after which we’ll go to the news and weather with Randolph Spencer. But first, here’s the Palace Brothers, with Merida …
Following on from a groundbreaking article (car ban or carbon?) written on the traffic congestion plague affecting Oxford, investigative journalist Jan Futchinelle’s latest piece focuses on the roads themselves. With kind permission, what follows is the full and recently published article, which many point to as responsible for triggering the recent wave of local popular support, lying beyond the city’s college halls. We are talking here, about the #roadsituation.
THE STATE OF OUR ROADS
Controversy broke out yesterday, after a leaked budgetary document sourced from the luxuriously furnished office of the city council’s head spokesperson Heather Headwoman (42), confirmed less than 20% of road tax revenue is spent on maintaining the county’s road system.
Asked to comment, resident city analyst Marc Bolam (70) told me, “I’m no expert but neither am I surprised by this finding. Nearly everyone in Oxford knows that unless you wish for a broken axle, some roads are effectively no-go areas as a result of potholes. This includes several main arterial routes leading into the city centre.”
Invited to join him if I bought him a sandwich, we both stood standing at a majorly busy inter-section. We watched as cars, motorcycles and bicycle riders bobbing and weaving around potholes as large in diameter and circumference as a family-sized frying pan and as deep as your average common or garden jam jar.
Recognised by passerby Atricia Partmann (52), long time resident of Pigeon Toe Lane for more than fifty years and counting, I asked for her own two penneth on the subject and got back three and six.
“How long before an accident occurs due to a driver swerving to avoid a pothole, or being theatrically thrown off course by driving into one? But nobody cares!” She continued, her eyes watering up. “There’s global developmental delay rife and abundant within the council chambers, while the college knobs mostly travel around Oxford using the university-owned underground tunnel network. You’ll not get any change out of those ƒ∇⊆Κ∃ℜš!”
Elsewhere, I found emotions running high on the subject. Despite displaying my credentials, one elderly gentleman I approached for interview angrily beat me off with an antique walking stick. Although he hadn’t fought in the war, if he had, it wouldn’t have been this he’d have been fighting for, he told me.
A burly youth who helped me off the pavement, shared his experience of remedying potholes himself, in his own street.
“A week later, I woke up to the sound of workmen outside my house, digging out all the repairs I’d done.” He told me. “When challenged, they said it was all about liability and only the council could commission repairs!”
The council is failing in its statutory responsibility to maintain the road network. In place of repairs, expensive leather upholstered office chairs are bought to seat over-salaried senior managers. For the upcoming local elections, I encourage each of my readers to simply write across their ballot paper: “FIX THE BLOODY ROADS”.
My dearly devoted Readers, how often I am asked: “What news of Oxford, friend! Tell us, won’t you just?” Alright, alright, okay, I press pause on my own humble ramblings and offer-up an answer to this very query. Here, I present a shooting star amongst Oxford’s Glitterati, a journalist I strongly identify with, delivering the qualities of both intrigue and insight. I discovered his writing in a local publication found folded underneath the leg of a wobbly wooden table in Dank Cafe, the basement eatery at the university’s esteemed museum of antiquity. Enjoy! That’s all that’s really left to say. Read-on Reader, and enjoy!
CAR BAN OR CARBON?
As anyone familiar with the sprawling shanty town of Oxford, in southerly central England knows, we are the world leaders in traffic congestion. Los Angeles? Give-us-all-a-break! Shanghai? A mere tootle around Toyland. The dodgems of Rome and Paris? The famous Delhi welli? No, not if you combined the entire list, would you get within spittoon distance of the plight Oxfordian’s experience, each and every single day of their lives.
Recent social media attention, surprisingly, is accurate and true! The ‘road situation’, as it is referred to, means visitors have practically ceased to arrive here. According to the last count-up of statistics compiled by the Classified Central Government Information Service, reports indicate numbers lower than figures recorded in the early part of the 20th century. Ironically, this coincides with the period in history dating back to just before the mass production of civilian vehicles entered full swing.
I caught up with one former expert on the subject, on his regular walk through each of the ancient university parks. Reduced to a single mantra, he robotically quotes meticulously calligraphed black ink writing from the sandwich board he now wears: “The full circle has cometh!”
It is measurable to actually see how far we have come, when members of the public are witnessed openly agreeing with “Professor Bonkers”, as he is affectionately referred to. This, despite his close resemblance to an aged version of a caveman, from a low-budget 1960’s British film I have in mind. I witnessed many of them for myself, people commonly spotted with phone cameras held aloft, cheek-to-cheek, a ‘thumbs-up’ gesture, smiling and laughing with the hirsute, smelly and trouserless old man.
A motion tabled by the council in recent days looks to enforce a ban, proposing an as yet ill-defined and tactlessly named ‘Total Exclusion Zone’ for all motorised vehicles, with introduction set for next year. Although details remain sketchy at present, it is believed the ban will extend to include bicycles within the next three years. On Thursday evening, The Oppositional Party will seek an amendment to encompass the prohibition of all bikes with child trailers “…within the next 28 days.” Sources close to senior officials say this is likely to meet with approval, with the Lord Mayor expected to rubber stamp the decree, within the next 72 hours.
When asked what will happen to anyone in breach of the ban, the same senior official is reported to have replied: “I suggest you do not doubt us! Vee have our vays.” At which point, with a click of his heels, the representative retreated behind the oak doors of the Jacobethan town hall, locking them noisily with a large key seen dangling from a chain attached to the belt of his pinstripes.
Public opinion appears divided between apathy and fanatical hysteria, with little hope emerging for any kind of middle ground. Hospitals have issued a joint statement, urging residents to ‘keep taking the medicine.’
On the international stage, the Estonian president has cancelled her planned trip, quoted as saying “The prospect of closer trade relations with Oxford, has today been irreparably damaged.”
In reply, the head woman for the town council Heather Headwoman insisted, “We don’t really care, to be honest.”
Other cities around the world are watching the current course of unfolding events, with differing degrees of interest. A spokesgirl for the world read a statement to the gathered media pack earlier this morning, in which she mentioned the new shopping mall as good enough reason to walk into Oxford.
She might be right, I’m not sure, but what I am sure about is that we will certainly all see if she is right, soon enough!
Journalist, Jan Futchinelle
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 around an expansive waist, held up his trousers. For a hat, he had chosen an aviator’s leather helmet, complete with 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 roughly-hewn wooden stick, along with an armful of plastic bags weighing him down, seemed ill-conceived. Put altogether, he brought to mind the 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 could only watch as two empty buses sailed past at the halfway point of my journey. A few moments later, as another 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 and his gaze apparently transfixed, on 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 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 across the canal waterway. Watching the pinkish light of the sunset play amongst the ripples of the water, I suddenly came over all queer and reached out with my hand to the cast-iron guard rail for support. From the corner of my eye, I saw the fellow repeatedly pushing his bottom lip outwards, then drawing it back over his top lip. The act appeared much exaggerated, because of the wiry beard sprouting from his face. The image of an exotic sea anemone came to mind, convulsing its body, unfurling 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, also. The man appeared unaware of the state of unsteadiness in composure befallen to me. Nor did he notice my frantic hand fanning, directed toward my face. Right then, I wished for the existence of a portable air pumping device designed specifically for such situations, where revival of the senses is urgently required. 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 transmogrify into a negative, such as an addiction?
“Do you have a phone?”
“Yes I do.” I replied, “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 incredulousness.
“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 randomly selected the sequence and numbers. 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 were reached, it was unlikely the call would be answered and I’d hang up. There wasn’t any 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 hold on, for seventeen rings?” It had been a rhetorical question. I held my hand up in a vertical position, palm facing outwards at chest height to stifle his response. Repositioning the goggles on his forehead by several sixteenths of an inch, he 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. Pretending to dial a number, I then 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 not hold on for more than this number.
My antics had been observed, shrewdly no doubt and 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 at 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 way 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 into 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 got caught out by this question.” He told me, dropping the pretence momentarily. “I couldn’t actually remember what 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 are 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 didn’t get upset, 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 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 because of the requirement to maintain 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 the following 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 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 before 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 an alternative 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. “What about ‘Pay-As-You-Go’?” I spurted out. “You don’t have to have a phone contract.”
“That was when things got really bad. I found myself jogging along 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, with 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 chap named Anay from Dharavi, a locality in Mumbai. But as I probed more deeply, he became less willing to talk with me. Ultimately, 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. As the neurons in my brain reached the febrile level of a 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 members of staff at the bus terminus.
Sat in the cafe, after finishing a modest lunchtime breakfast of scrambled egg on fried bread, I rolled a cigarette, as is customary, to smoke on my way back to work. As I finished the task, an elderly white-haired man seated at the table next to mine leant forward, extending a shaking hand and placing considerable effort into straightening-out a stubbornly curled index finger to point in my direction.
Earlier, I had observed him retrieve a folded newspaper, sliding it out from an aged and well-used plastic carrier bag, onto the table top in front of him. Unfolded, he’d proceeded to read, while eating a plain cheese sandwich, from which crumbs of bread dropped onto his knees.
“Young man,” he said in a voice as shaky as his hand, “here, in this country, it is unlawful to smoke inside a public space.”
Having been mistaken as a visitor in a foreign land, unfamiliar with the smoking ban, I decided to playfully maintain his misimpression.
“Ah. Sankyou m’sieur, I am forgetting the rules, merci-beaucoup.” I replied, in a delicately understated accent. At this, the old man’s eyes sparkled. Caught in mid-action rising from the table, I felt his wobbly hand rest in the crook of my elbow, exerting a gentle – if uneven pressure, suggesting his desire for me to sit back down.
“Mon ami, asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît. Je suis désolé, je voulais pas être désagréable. J’essayais seulement de vous aider.”
His fluency took me by surprise and realising I must reply, I drew upon the little grasp of school-boy french I had.
“Oui, merci beaucoup, vraiment.”
“Asseyez-vous, asseyez-vous, s’il vous plaît.” he repeated, and from there, he began talking to me in perfect, beautifully pronounced french. With a prickly feeling on the back of my neck, I nodded periodically and interjected at various intervals.
“Oui, c’est vrai”, “Bien sûr que non!”, “Je suis totalement d’accord” and “Quand les poules auront des dents!”.
I’d understood about 20% of what he was saying and yet somehow managed to pull it off. By carefully watching the expressions on his face, I found myself making judgements regarding which phrase to use. If a look of surprise arose, I quickly said something like “Je rigole, c’est tout.”
Monitoring the cafe wall clock, I knew I’d sat through twelve minutes filled by a somewhat one-sided conversation. When the old man reached a pause and sat back in his chair smiling at me, I quickly fumbled with the sleeve of my pullover to examine my wristwatch. Exclaiming some abstract french phrases about time and lateness, begging his pardon, I excused myself.
Offering gracious thanks for the chat, he bid me farewell. With aplomb, I took my leave, privately amazed and relieved to have got through and out the other side of the situation. What if we were both ‘irregular’ patrons of the cafe I wondered, would I be forced to continue with the charade if our visits coincided in the future?