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AFTER THE TONE (Short Story) by PATRICIA M WILSON

© PATRICIA M WILSON

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AFTER THE TONE (short story)

In the small hours, Jack Hornby turned onto his side, hunched his shoulders and pulled the duvet up to his ears. It must be post traumatic shock, he told himself, understandable after what he had been through. A fierce chill seemed to permeate his body. He shivered and made a conscious effort to relax. I could be dreaming… a dream within a dream, he thought. Desperate for sleep, he tried to concentrate on his breathing, long slow breaths, steady rhythm, in – out – in – out.

Perhaps the accident hadn’t happened and, in the real world, his wife lay beside him in their comfy bed. He tried to say her name, ‘Janice,’ but the word wouldn’t form. He slid his hand between the sheets to his wife’s side and found a cold empty place.

*It’s true then, Janice is dead.*

Of course it was true. Hadn’t he seen the damage a Victorian lamppost had done to the passenger side of the car, miraculously leaving the driver's side unscathed? Yet, in the back of his mind, something wasn’t right. It teased him like an itch he couldn’t reach. His bedtime horrors had started the night after the crash. Her voice in the dark.

'I know you can't see me, Jack, but I'm right here, by the bed.'

He flicked on the bedside light, slid his feet into Burberry slippers and shuffled to the wardrobe for an extra blanket.

Since the funeral, a different scenario had played like repeated ‘Scenes’ on a DVD. Nightmare and reality fused in the twilight zone. He reached for the pewter knob on the old wardrobe, hesitated, and then heard her voice.

‘Open the door, Jack.’

His hands shook, sensing the ghoulish figure that awaited him. Jack turned the latch. He stared into a space between his best charcoal suit and a turquoise outfit from a recent wedding-reception. Janice, decomposing, gazed back at him. Her eyes were opaque, unblinking in dark sockets; her skin pallid with the luminescence of death. Janice’s body, naked and obscene, leaned against the brightest thing she had ever worn. She had been an unobtrusive woman.

‘Put me in the bed, Jack.’

His feet wouldn’t move, even as she started to slide forward. Her rotting body hit him with a thud that jerked him awake.

He was still in bed. It was a nightmare. His wife was dead and buried.

At the kitchen table the next morning, he closed his eyes and sipped his coffee while trying to recall life before Janice. He couldn’t remember having been in love, but he guessed he was once. Janice had certainly been in love with him. For forty years, she had cooked his favourite food and kept their house immaculate. He had no complaints.

The phone rang – more condolences? She had so many friends, a fact that baffled him. He sighed; the charade starts again. He would answer and make an effort to keep his voice low and sombre. The caller, always a sniff away from weepy, would be dramatically supportive. The whole fiasco irritated him. Janice was dead and that was that. He had given her a good life, guided her in his expectations, and he had turned off the life support machine at the appropriate time. End of story.

Their lives together hadn’t been without problems. When the kids left home, he and Janice went through a couple of years of bickering and sniping. Janice had wanted adventure, travel, and new friends. He didn’t feel the need for change, anyway, it unsettled him, made him nervous. His life was full enough with the Freemason’s lodge and his golf.

Eventually, they reached a compromise. Janice joined the WI and the art club, at the Adult Education Centre. He allowed her to go on intermittent weekend trips and sometimes week-long breaks with one group or another. In Janice’s absence, he had a secret adventure or two of his own. A night of gambling at the casino or, more daringly, he paid a visit to the local Beauty & Health Salon for a full-body massage. Janice knew nothing of these escapades.

The arrangement pleased them both. He remembered it was at this time Janice started paying a little attention to her looks. A preening woman is a happy woman, he knew that.

The phone rang again. He decided not to answer it. The constant condolences were having an effect on his subconscious. A person can have too much sympathy. This weekend, he planned to go to the local car boot sale and search for a telephone answering machine. Nobody used them these days. People preferred computerised communication or, worse, some invisible big-brother entity who saved your phone messages God knows where. With a bit of luck he’d get a simple old fashioned gadget for less than a tenner. No point in splashing out good money on a new one. Thinking back, he seemed to remember that they’d had one once before – a cream plastic thing with a little tape recorder inside.

Early on Sunday, he stepped outside. The bracing December air filled his lungs and zinged through his body like a peppermint mouthwash. One of those ‘good to be alive’ mornings. Overnight, a white sheet of snow had levelled road and pavement. Everything around him seemed Christmas-card pristine.

He embraced the cold; it helped dispel the horrors that had disrupted his sleep. Janice came back sometime before dawn, her decomposition horribly advanced. He knew she would when he saw the dead flies on his windowsill at bedtime. Still, it was a shock. His stomach rolled and clenched as the nightmare clawed its way back into his thoughts. It had made him feel so sick he couldn’t face breakfast.

Striding out to find his telephone answering machine, his mood lifted. He didn’t see another soul and as he walked, he listened to the rhythmic scrunch of polished leather shoes sinking into virgin snow. After a few paces, he glanced back pleased to see his lonely footprints. Jack suddenly entertained a ludicrous idea of lying in the centre of the cul-de-sac and making a snow angel. Bursting with life, he chuckled and continued on his walk to the boot sale. Why was everyone so determined that he should be miserable when his mood was unquestionably buoyant?

The snow-covered playing fields, filled with rows of vehicles and trestles, reflected light that seemed to charge the colours with vibrancy, giving the scene a Disney quality. He looked around and was surprised to see such a good turnout. Stallholders blew steamy breaths into cupped hands and tried to reel him in with their greedy eyes. He peered down the first aisle, past a battered lawn mower and several pushchairs.

Further along, he spotted an old television and electrical stuff. A ghetto-blaster throbbed, the cacophony hardly more than the regular thud of a base. He thought of Frank Sinatra and The Everly Brothers; they knew a tune or two. His hopes rose and he paced onward, the pounding clamour still thrumming in his ears. While marching past a table of garden gnomes, for a crazy moment, he could have sworn one of them winked.

‘Mr Hornby, Jack,’ a voice called out from the parallel aisle. He looked over to see Harry Thornton, his golfing partner and fellow Freemason. Harry squeezed between a Mini and a Jeep, stepped over a crate of crockery, and then shook his hand. ‘It’s good to see you,’ he said, ‘I was so sorry to hear about the accident.’

‘Thanks, Harry. What are you after?’

‘Golf balls... You..?’

‘A telephone answering machine, have you seen one?’

‘Can’t recall,’ he said, stroking his chin. ‘I saw some fax machines and old telephones in row six. You might be lucky there.’

‘Thanks, Harry. Good luck with the golf balls.’ Excited, he strode away.

Darting up the centre of aisle six, eyes swivelling from left to right, he feared approaching the stall only to see his answering machine in someone else’s hands. For a moment, he considered his excitement ridiculous, but couldn’t be cheated now. He hurried past rails of clothes, caught somebody’s shoulder and called, ‘Sorry!’ without looking back. Then he saw it, a trestle with old telephones. He stopped, slightly breathless, his skin greased with a thin film of sweat and his pulse racing. His eyes scanned the paraphernalia on the table: a Xerox machine, two Bakelite phones, an old Spectrum computer and a Citizen Band radio set.

‘Can I help you?’ asked a gaunt guy with dirty-blond dreadlocks pulled into a fat ponytail.

‘Yes, I’m looking for a telephone answering machine.’

‘Yo, man. I haven’t been asked for one of those in yonks. Hang on, I had one once, think it’s still here somewhere.’ He dragged open the door of his orange camper-van and hefted a cardboard box with Smirnoff Vodka printed on the side. Jack watched him lift an ex-army Morse code box and a walkie-talkie set from the top.

‘Ah, here we are, mate. I’ve had it for five or more years, but I think it works okay.’

‘How much…?’

‘Ten quid.’

‘Five.’

‘Seven, and you’re robbing me, mate.’

‘Deal.’

Mr Dreadlocks tossed the gadget into an old supermarket bag and money changed hands.

Jack raced back home, hardly noticing his neighbours shovelling and salting their paths. Once inside his front door, he left the bag on the hall table and dashed upstairs to change into dry trousers.

He glanced at the unmade bed, irritated to see the English rose duvet half on the floor and one pillowcase crumpled.

*Damned inconvenient having to start making my own bed after forty years of marriage.*

He pulled on a pair of corduroy slacks and quickly straightened the bedcover, running his hand tenderly over Janice’s pillow. Now they would both find peace, thanks to the answering machine. He glanced at the wardrobe before going down to deal with his purchase. At the bottom of the stairs, he slid into cotton-lined slippers and then took his answering machine into the kitchen.

It needed cleaning. He set about it with a soft cloth and a bottle of bathroom cleaner, enjoying the strong antiseptic smell. Twenty minutes later, he admired his work. Apart from a hairline crack in the red on-off light, the machine appeared in perfect condition. He made a mug of tea, savouring the moment when he would turn it on. There was something special about an old gadget brought back to life.

Placing the machine on the kitchen worktop between the kettle and the wall-mounted phone, he made all the connections and flicked a switch on the back. A menu on the front of the machine had a button and small red light next to each option.

All the lights flashed but, after a second, only the ‘Tape full’ light continued to oscillate. About to stab the ‘Erase tape’ button, he paused, changed his mind, and pressed ‘Rewind’ and then ‘Play message.’

He laughed. It was wrong, so unscrupulous, to listen to somebody else’s messages – like opening their mail. Who knows what he might discover, and about whom? Janice wouldn’t approve. However, Janice was dead so he could do whatever he liked.

He picked up his tea and stood watching the tape through a small Perspex window. It rewound, clicked and then hissed into action.

Beep: ‘I’m missing you already.’

The mug of boiling tea slipped through his hands and exploded on the black slate floor. Shards of white china rocketed in all directions, skidding and spinning through splashes of liquid. His insides also seemed to drop while his heart thumped on the verge of an aneurysm. He slapped the stop button and stared at the machine.

He had recognised the voice immediately – a voice he never expected to hear again. His dead wife.

Aware of blistering pain radiating from his feet, he hurried to the bathroom. After kicking his slippers off, he rolled his trousers up and stood in the shower tray. Cold water sprayed over his scalded skin, the pain easing. His thoughts returned to the message. Had he been mistaken? The words clanged around in his head.

*I’m missing you already.*

It was so long ago. Until that moment, he’d completely forgotten Janice’s amusing catchphrase. In the clinical space of the bathroom, the odour of pine disinfectant hung in the air. Memories of his early years with Janice came back with surprising clarity.

After an evening together, he would walk Janice to her parents’ house, pin her against the wall next to their back door and kiss her goodnight. The kiss lasted until he almost lost control and then he would break away.

‘I’m missing you already,’ she would whisper and laugh before turning indoors. Now, he remembered her beauty. Her sparkling eyes and full lips had captivated him. He recalled her dark hair, shoulder-length in those days. He had always noticed the slightly resinous scent of lacquer when he nuzzled her ear. Jack, in love, could hardly concentrate on anything but Janice.

After turning off the shower, he dabbed his feet with a towel and returned to the kitchen in damp slippers.

‘Be sensible. It couldn’t possibly have been Janice,’ he said aloud. ‘Stress got the better of you.’ He had lost his wife, after all.

He surveyed the kitchen floor – what a disaster. While he cleaned it, and then made a fresh mug of tea, the sentence played and replayed in his head.

*I’m missing you already.*

Again, he recalled the past. Outside her parents’ house, Jack’s body would turn hard against hers. His hands around her back, plucked at her bra clasp, his knuckles scraped by the rough brickwork. He had dreamt of the day he would release it and feel her bare breasts.

It couldn’t have been Janice’s voice. First, although it was obvious that the machine hadn’t been used for a very long time, Janice hadn’t said those words for over forty years. As far as he knew, there were no answering machines in those days.

He rewound the tape and told himself that this time he would recognise a subtle difference between his wife’s voice and the voice on the tape.

Beep: ‘I’m missing you already.’

He shook his head. It was definitely her. He had no doubt, regardless of how impossible it seemed.

Beep: ‘Thank you for everything, my darling,’ she said.

He pressed the stop button and noticed that his hand was shaking. Who was she talking to – their daughter or son? Or was Janice having an affair? His mouth dried. Had she called her secret lover and left a message on his machine? Surely not… Who would want to have an affair with his wife? Anyway, she was satisfied with her lot, wasn’t she? He gave her everything she could want. There was no need for Janice to play away from home.

Then, he thought he understood. He had actually bought their old answering machine. Come to think of it, it looked exactly like the one they’d had about twenty years ago. It must have lain in some boot sale stock box for decades. Pure coincidence, he had purchased the very same gadget.

He smiled at the irony. She’d given it away and then he’d bought it back – penny-pinching Jack. He took a deep breath and tried to soothe his nerves before he pressed play once more.

Beep: ‘I’ve tried to do what we agreed, my darling, but I can’t. I’m just not strong enough. We’ve had such good times together. I’m so very sorry. It’s impossible for me to just turn and walk away from the man I married all those years ago.’ There was a moment of silence and then a sniff. She was crying.

This wasn’t his old machine. Damn it. Janice was talking to her lover, explaining why she couldn’t leave Jack. For a moment, he experienced intense anger, then tears welled in his eyes. Although it now seemed that his wife was in love with another, she obviously still cared about Jack so much she couldn’t hurt him.

Beep: ‘Poor Jack... I just can’t do it.’ After a short silence, she continued. ‘Please forgive me, my darling. I’ll see you at the same time tomorrow. I love you so much.’

A thought flashed into his head. He stabbed at the stop button. This wasn’t right... four messages and long gaps in-between. Why was it only Janice’s voice on the machine? He sat at the kitchen table, sipped his tea and stared at the contraption, trying to figure it out.

The owner of the machine had erased the other recordings, apart from Janice’s. Her damned lover. That explained the long silences between each message. He got up, poured his tea into the sink and reached into the kitchen cupboard for a bottle of whisky. The wall clock read eleven thirty and he hadn’t eaten yet, but these were extenuating circumstances. He poured a generous measure before placing the whisky bottle next to his glass.

Damn the man who took his wife, his Janice. Damn the man who slept with her, naked, hands on her breasts, made love to her when she belonged to him. He hated the man who had stolen his wife, his property, with an intensity of which he had not thought himself capable. Revengeful thoughts crashed through his mind while his fist gripped an imaginary dagger. If this toad were a fellow Freemason, he’d have him disrobed. If he belonged to the golf club, he’d have his membership revoked. Jack would find out who the bastard was – perhaps that very information waited for him further down the tape.

Resigned to hearing the worst, he restarted the machine and took a hefty slug of neat whisky. A bead of sweat broke from his forehead and coursed a slow and itchy slither past his eye. Although he was sweating, his insides were cold and fluttery and he felt physically sick. It took a moment for him to realise the emotion that he was experiencing – fear. He had been deceived, made a fool of. His wife had loved another man more than him. He’d lost control of his marriage and not even realised it. While smug in his cocoon of domesticity, the rest of the world had laughed at him.

Beep: ‘Hi, Jack, can you hear me?’ Janice said.

Shocked at hearing his own name, he stared at the device and watched the small tape wind on to its adjacent spool. He wanted to speak back to the machine, but he couldn’t. Knowing his wife had betrayed him was so traumatic that his mouth wouldn’t shape the words for a response.

Beep: ‘It’s too late to change anything, Jack, but at least I can tell you the truth.’

He didn’t want to hear the truth. He had heard enough. It was better to forget the past and just get on with living. He should turn the machine off and erase the tape... never knowing what his wife wanted to tell him. Before his hand reached the stop button, her voice continued. He laid into the whisky.

Beep: ‘It was wonderful being married to you, Jack. Thank you. I tried hard to be a good wife; hopefully, I didn’t let you down.’

How could this be coming out of the old telephone answering machine? Mr Dreadlocks said it had been in his van for ages – Janice had only just died. Now he wished with all his heart that he had given her more. Jack wished he had gone with her to Venice. He remembered her asking him, almost pleading with him to go.

Beep: ‘I have loved you from the moment I first saw you, Jack, when I was just a sixteen-year-old girl, and I love you just as much today.’

He took a sip of whisky, put the glass down, and then clasped one hand in the other. He closed his eyes and imagined that it was Janice holding his hand. All the anger left him and, for the first time since the accident, he experienced the intense vacuum of grief.

Beep: ‘Venice was wonderful, Jack. If only you had come with me, I would have loved to share the experience with you. Was it too much to ask, one week out of the fifty-two I devoted to you? But you didn’t even want to hear about it when I got home and that spoiled it a bit. It destroyed a little of what we had. So when I went to Barcelona, and you didn’t want to accompany me, I realised I was on my own when it came to holidays.’

He remembered his relief when she didn’t go on and on about fantastic Barcelona. Anyway, she had a lot of catching up to do after a week away from the housework and garden.

Beep: ‘It was on the next trip, wine tasting in the Loire Valley, that Jeffery and I got together.’

Jack’s skin seemed to tighten over his body.

Beep: ‘Jeffery and I have been very close friends for the past fifteen years, Jack. I don’t think you’ll care, but you deserve to know the truth. I owe you that. I don’t ‘love’ Jeffery the way I’ve loved you but, without his friendship, I would have gone insane from boredom years ago. Jeffery is the treasurer of the Adult Education Centre where I go for my art lessons. He has all my paintings on the walls of his house, as you didn’t want them in ours.’

Glancing around the spacious kitchen with its stark walls, he couldn’t remember why he wouldn’t allow her to hang some of her pictures. She was so proud of them. He’d been unkind. His whisky glass was empty and, despite a distinct feeling of light-headedness, he poured himself another.

Beep: ‘I want you to know you don’t have to worry about me, Jack. I’m okay. You should also know that Jeffery is very supportive. In fact, if you look through the glass, you’ll see he’s waiting outside at this moment, in case he can be of any assistance.’

Shocked at the thought of seeing his wife’s lover, Jack jumped up and stopped the tape. He dashed into the lounge, and stared out of the front window. There, through the glass across the way, stood the lonely figure of a man holding a bunch of white roses. The stranger stared straight at him. Jack tore the front door open and met a blast of freezing air, an almost overpowering scent of roses, and an empty street. He glanced this way and that. The snowy cul-de-sac with its scraped paths lay deserted. He must have imagined it – too much whisky before lunch.

It seemed so real.

His neighbour’s house alarm had triggered, probably set off by the weather, snow sliding down the roof. The oscillating red light swiped its beam over his white lawn, the irritating siren, pulsing. They’d turn it off when they returned from church.

He closed the front door and returned to the kitchen.

The tape had almost ended. He turned it back on, sat at the table, and emptied his whisky glass.

Beep: ‘I’ll always love you, Jack. I wanted to say that before the machine went off. Goodbye, my darling.’

Jack Hornby listened to a hiss, click, and then a continuous beep. The telephone answering machine had automatically closed down at the end of the tape. The whisky filled his senses. He folded his arms on the kitchen table, rested his head on them, and almost immediately drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep.

***

Janice Hornby sat next to the hospital bed and watched her husband as the life support machine closed down. The steady beep turned into a monotonous tone. Behind the bed, the hills and valleys of the moving red graph levelled into a flat line. She held his hand for a while longer before placing it gently on the snow-white sheet, draped across his chest.

If only she hadn't offered to drive on that terrible day. She couldn't bear thinking about it.

‘Do you think he could hear me?’ she asked the nurse.

‘Possibly, Mrs Hornby. Who can know for sure? We can only be certain he wasn’t suffering any pain – the morphine took care of that.’

‘Good,’ Janice said, standing and turning towards the corridor. She smiled softly and nodded at the man holding a large bunch of white roses, waiting for her on the other side of the glass partition.

THE END

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