Dial Tone: A Short Story by John Miskelly

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Toby by now had moved beyond the mere act of lying on the couch. He was of the couch—absorbed into it, coalesced and conjoined like a successful hand transplant. In the murky, distant recesses of his memory he recalled a wider world than this. He recalled fresh air He remembered pavements and other people walking to destinations of varying worth and interest; a whole world of pavements and destinations to be walked on and arrived at. He remembered pubs, real ale, and late night London longboard sessions. He remembered theatrical tirades against Tory privilege, against privatization and antiquated Eton pomp. Once, he was sure, he possessed a working set of lungs, and a tongue that lashed out harder than any London Met police baton. But now there was just this place: this couch, this TV, this Spaced DVD on repeat, this half-eaten bowl of Sainsbury’s own brand something-or-other.

It’d been two weeks since the last job. He’d had six in the last five months; six different firms, six different cubicles, six different roles—jobs so similar to one another they’d amalgamated into one single generic memory, one giant Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that enveloped and suffocated his brain with formulas and tedium whenever he tried to recall the nuances of any one. And it was expanding beyond this year, into the next, as far into the distance as his mind’s eye could see.

For the first couple of days he’d enjoy the freedom of unemployment; he’d do the stuff he liked doing. But then desire would change into a sense of obligation, to keep busy and be constructive, and these things became chores. So he’d put them off and just sit and clot and shrivel. By about the fourth day he realized he quite liked parameters, quite liked having the sense of usefulness and consequence these jobs gave him, however minor and illusionary that might be. This was too scary to really dwell on, this possibility that he might in any way find satisfaction, even comfort, in cyclical tedium.

From his horizontal position on the sofa he gawped without seeing, at a pristine man, handsome but unthreatening, and his female equivalent, attractive but sexlessly wholesome. They smiled incessantly, mercilessly at Toby, with an inhuman bright-eyed enthusiasm that goaded him. He groped on the floor for the remote, his hand clattering clumsily into bowls of half-eaten instant noodles and plates of Marmite smeared toast. He found it, turned off the TV, and then rolled over, burying his face into the warm, dark crux between the sofa cushion and the armrest. It smelt earthy and organic. Sometimes he could kill whole hours in this position, drifting between dream-filled wakefulness and lifeless sleep.

But something was digging into his hip that he couldn’t ignore. He reached underneath himself and pulled out his phone, staring at it accusingly for a moment. Instinctively he flipped it open, scrolled through the names, chose one at random and pressed the call button.

“What?” The voice was curt, a hissed whisper. It was Toby’s younger brother, a lawyer of some kind. Toby couldn’t remember for certain. He wore a suit and worked in one of the buildings downtown that was very tall, made entirely out of glass, and employed burly security guys to chase away skaters. In the background were the swaddled tones of polite mid-morning conversation. Toby could hear the gentle clinking of coffee cups on saucers.

“Hi Mike.”

“I’m in a meeting. This better be an emergency.”

“I—no; I’ m just… I’m just calling you, for whatever.”

“Jesus man, don’t call me in the middle of the day just because you’ve lost the fucking TV remote,” Mike hissed. “People have lives to lead, you know.”

Immediately, instinctively, Toby countered. “Actually, yeah, it is an emergency. I slipped in the shower and fell in the toilet and drowned and you need to come and mourn me. Also, Mum called to remind you that you were a mistake.”

“Very funny Toby. You know you really need to bloody grow up—”

“And also that you were conceived behind the portaloos at a fucking Status Quo gig and it wasn’t even with Dad, it was—”

But Mike had already gone. Toby hoped he’d at least heard the bit about Status Quo. He scrolled further down the phone and picked another number.

“No free lunch today Toby. We’re flat out here.”

Sophie worked at a sandwich café type place in the part of town still residing in that optimum stage between mundane gentrification and threatening squalor; the part of town where young dreadlocked baristas served not-actually-that-cheap Zapatista coffee to people with artful aspirations.

“Actually I just called because I have nothing better to do. But don’t you think it’s a measure of our friendship that I can just admit that to you outright?”

“Well I’m really honored to be your fucking Rubik’s Cube for the day, but my livelihood depends on me making this tuna mayo sandwich.”

“Okay, but you have a break coming up though, yeah? Come over and entertain me.”

“I’m not your au pair Toby.”

“And there’s definitely no sandwiches going spare?”

“Bye Toby,” said Sophie, hanging up.

“It’s nice to be loved,” Toby said to himself out loud, picking out another victim. The phone had barely rung once before—

“Hi Toby,” said a heavy, wearisome voice at the end of the line.

“Roger, how about closing the shop and coming over here with a bunch of beers?”

“How about getting off your ass for once and helping me with these accounts?”

“Can’t help thinking my beer idea’s a bit more appealing, mate.”

“Accounts,” said Roger.

“Cerveza,” said Toby.

“It doesn’t matter what language you say it in Toby, I—”

“Brewskis.”

“That’s not even—” Roger pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. “Well, anyway, it looks like we’ve reached a stalemate. What a shame. I’m gonna go now, okay? Bye.”

“Mate, I’ve phoned, like, literally everyone we know.”

“It’s sunny. Go on a bike ride.”

“Something I can do in the fetal position.”

“Shit, this is even worse than the last time,” Roger muttered in a nearly inaudible voice. “Okay, how about prank calls? That could kill some time.”

“I’m twenty-five, Rog.”

“That’s my suggestion, take it or leave it. I’ve got a business to run into the ground.”

“So how do I do it?”

“Just like we did at school. 0800 then a random number ‘til you get some poor hapless wanker in a call center somewhere. I once kept some Glaswegian guy on the line for, like, twenty minutes talking about bus timetables or something.”

Roger could barely keep the pride out of his voice.

“You do this a lot?” said Toby.

“The economy—sometimes business is slow and I get bored. Don’t judge me. Anyway, I now consider my friend duties fulfilled. Bye. Oh yeah, there’s this thing on tonight at that place, if you feel like it, at least come out for a pint?”

“Maybe. I dunno. Text me, yeah?” said Toby, hoping his ambiguity carried just enough subtext to erase any expectation on his behalf. “Enjoy your accounts.”

“I will. Enjoy congealing.”

“I will.”

Toby hung up and lay back on the sofa, tapping the phone against his lower lip and pondering whether Roger’s suggestion constituted a further degradation on his part or merely a continuation of a current and on-going stagnation.

“I’ll just say I’m being ironic, nostalgically ironic,” he thought, then quickly dialed.

The first two numbers were duds. The third one rang, sending Toby into a mild panic: what was he actually going to—?

Suddenly a greeting, not recorded, but so rehearsed and impersonal as to be immediately forgettable. Roger cleared his throat.

“Is, um, is Mike Hunt—”

He hesitated

“Wait. You’re a girl.”

“Guilty, but I can check if you want,” said a voice, chirpy and good natured.

“Shit. Fuck. Sorry.”

Toby hung up, dropped the phone onto the carpet, and buried his head back into the womb-like recesses of the sofa.

The phone rang. Without retracting himself from the darkness he picked it up and wordlessly placed it against his ear.

“Hello? I just thought I’d ring back and say I think it’s okay.”

Toby shifted his head just enough to free a small corner of his mouth. “Sorry, who is this?”

“The girl you just pranked. I just thought I’d ring back and say I think it’s okay to say the ‘C’ word to a girl these days. Not that you’d actually be saying it. I guess technically I’d be saying it, or at least people would think I was saying it. Anyway, I just thought I’d call to say don’t worry about it.”

Toby sat up in gormless silence.

“Hello?” continued the congenial voice. “You know; ‘Mike Hunt. Is Mike Hunt there? I need to speak to Mike Hunt.’ Kind of sounds like I’m saying ‘my cu—’”

Toby writhed with discomfort. “Okay. I get it,” he blurted, “Just—please—stop.”

“Oh you’re still there. I thought you might have had a stroke or something.”

“I just thought saying it to a girl stranger might be a bit inappropriate.”

“But you’d say it to a bloke? I think that might be sexist,” said the voice, still amiable but with a trace of indignation.

“I was being… chivalrous,” Toby said.

“Yeah, I think that’s just another word for patronizing asshole nowadays.”

“I’ll remember that next time I’m holding the door open for a girl.”

“I think you’re just meant to hold the door for everyone now, without prejudice or discrimination: girls, boys, kids, the aged.”

“Even the disabled? Can I carry on ignoring the disabled?” said Toby, smiling at his own deadpan humour.

There was a heavy pause at the other end of the line.

“Sorry,” said Toby, “that was a joke, a bad joke.”

Toby closed his eyes and shook his head in self-disgust.

“Right,” the voice said.

“Cool,” Toby said.

There was another laboured pause.

“Can I just clarify that I’m definitely not a member of the English Defense League and that I actually voted for the Green Party at the local elections. And I buy fair trade coffee even though the other stuffs, like, half the price,” groped Toby.

“That’s good. It’s good to make the effort. Small steps,” the voice said encouragingly.

“Yeah, I guess it is,” Toby said.

“And at least you didn’t say ‘mongs’.”

Toby’s brain fogged up with confusion. It sounded even uglier in such a gregarious voice.

“I’m joking,” the voice said.

Toby exhaled. “Ha-ha! You got me,” he said, laughing, although more out of relief and politeness than any actual amusement. “So, I’m Toby, by the way,” he ventured, gingerly.

“Hello Toby. I’m guessing since you’re resorting to prank calling help lines in the middle of the afternoon you’re unemployed?” The voice was back to its original, inviting tone.

“Yeah. Right now I am anyway. I’m waiting on a call from the temp agency. It’s been a couple of weeks. I can sense myself going a bit Stanley fucking Kubrickif I’m honest. I know I should probably leave the house but I’ve still got maybe a week’s worth of Super Noodles left, so… yeah.”

“What’s the plan then?”

“Plan?”

“I mean you can’t temp forever can you, unless you’re in a band or something. Are you in a band? Or something?”

“No I’m not in a band, or anything. I never really thought about it beyond paying rent,” said Toby, glancing with a pang of guilt at the guitar gathering dust in the corner of the room—a graduation present from his parents.

“So there’s nothing big you’re working on, no magnum opus, no greater ambition?”

“Not really,” Toby gave a chuckle,” When I was six I wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, then I realized that probably wouldn’t happen and everything just seemed a bit futile after that.”

The voice laughed; “Hmm, jokes. Do you always make jokes about your own failings?”

Toby sensed a sudden change in direction that he might not like; “No. Sometimes. Why are you—?”

“It’s probably some kind of self-defense type thing then, so you don’t ever have to have a serious conversation about how you’re staring into the abyss and your world is shrinking by the day.”

“You presume to know a lot about me, considering we’ve only been talking for about two seconds,” Toby said, firmly, then checked his watch despite himself, recalling Roger’s previous boast. Twenty minutes was an awful long time. “Can you stop profiling me please? You’re not working for the government are you?”

“Toby, you’re getting hysterical. Firstly it’s ‘assume’ not ‘presume,’ secondly, you called me, remember?”

“Yeah! For fun! To have a laugh, at your expense! Not my expense!”

Toby realised he was standing up. He sat down, biting his lip.

“Who’s laughing Toby? Actually I think it’s a bit sad. I’d hate to be one of your friends, watching you fade away in their rear view mirrors while they carry on with their lives.”

“My friends are just like me,” Toby snapped back.

But even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t true. Roger owned a business, a struggling one but a worthy one, and Sophie’s art was turning up in all kinds of respected places. There were others too, traveling down their chosen roads and far away from Toby.

And there was Mike of course. But fuck Mike.

“Well they’re your friends. You know them better than me,” said the voice, still so amiable, like a stoic TV presenter.

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. You’ve ruined the game.”

“Don’t sulk Toby. Remember; small steps. Bye.”

And he was alone again.

He shivered. He felt violated, cheated, deceived—stripped naked in his own home and ritually humiliated. How dare she do that to him? How dare she (whoever she was) come into his own flat (kind of, in a way) and make a tit out of him like he was nothing more than a wretched animal in a cage, to be prodded and provoked for the general amusement of others?

“Un-fucking-believable,” he said, and then pointedly, defiantly, switched the TV back on.

But he couldn’t settle down, couldn’t lose himself in that river of dross like he was usually so adept at doing. He felt a new pestering restlessness, impossible to ignore, like the phone sticking into his hip earlier. He gave in, and for the first time in days put on his shoes and left the flat. He emerged into the late-afternoon sun blinking and rubbing his eyes. He texted Roger, telling him he’d make it to that thing at that place after all. Then he walked off down the pavement, still muttering angrily under his breath.

* * *

“You know Alice, we’re really not supposed to do that.”

Until a couple of weeks ago Alice had sat next to Ralph, a polite middle-aged man who liked to talk about the band Devo and the virtues of peanut butter. Sometimes he wore a bow tie to work, for no other reason than that he liked bow ties. Alice had liked Ralph.

Alice didn’t like Zara. For a start, she chewed her gum obnoxiously loudly—chewed it at people, the way a cat arches its back and hisses at a perceived threat—and wore a permanent, ugly scowl that seemed to deepen whenever she was talking to Alice. She spent most of her shifts talking about town centre chain bars and flavored vodka shots.

“Do what?” said Alice, keeping her eyes fixed on the computer monitor in front of her.

“Chatting; harassing; flirting,” spat Zara. “Whatever it is you do with those hoax call weirdos.”

“It passes the time,” Alice replied as blankly as she could.

Zara rolled her chair further towards Alice, who still refused to look at her.

“We’re a helpline for furniture polish, Alice, not an advice line for dumbasses. I didn’t hear you talk about polish once during that call. Although I did hear you say ‘mongs,’ which is on the banned words sheet, BTW. You can’t say ‘mong’ Alice, everyone knows that. What if you said it to a real life spaz? Bit bloody stupid, Al.”

“Please don’t call me Al, Zara. Also, FYI, it’s quicker to just say ‘by the way’.”

Finally Alice turned to look at Zara, and the two of them glared at each other for a moment, Alice a blank picture of hate, Zara wearing her usual permanent smirk, her fake tan a particularly sickly shade of orange under the harsh mix of strip light and PC monitor.

“Everyone log off, we’re knocking off a bit early,” said a voice from the far side of the office, “going to the pub, and if I so much as sense someone thinking about fucking furniture polish they’re buying everyone a triple mixer.”

Cheers from the team.

Alice’s phone rang. “I’ll catch up with you guys, just need to take one more to get my commission up.”

Zara narrowed her eyes with suspicion, observing Alice a second longer, and then walked out with the others.

“Hello, you’ve reached the Spit Shine Furniture Solutions Assistance Hotline, Alice speaking, how can I help today?”

“Umm yeah, err, I’ve lost my cow? And I was wondering if maybe you’d seen it? It’s got udders and hooves and it’s, like, a cow n’ shit?”

The voice shook with repressed laughter, and Alice grinned into the handset.

John Miskelly continues to exist in Bristol. Bristol is home to popular online movie database IMDb as well as numerous middle-aged acid burnouts. Recently, he moved into a new flat and now sleeps on a double bed in a room with a real window in it, so things are looking up. He is currently working his sixth administrative temp job in two years. John writes an irregular blog at www.protagonistcomplex.blogspot.com but spends most of his free time watching Netflix with an ever deepening sense of shame and guilt. Things were not supposed to turn out like this. He is twenty-seven years old.