Delicate Signals by Anthony Holness

His key mistake, the big one, was not telling his daughter immediately.

She was still at school. Events moved too quickly to contact the staff, or pick her up.

When he reached St.Thomas’ hospital – alone and breathless – a brief window of time opened. But he was too disorientated by his wife’s pain to use it. When time accelerated away from her, it was already too late. Time to arrange for someone to drop his daughter at the hospital had gone.

If he had reacted quickly, Margot may have caught a last glimpse of her mother Naomi before she died.

But he hadn’t reacted quickly.

Martin couldn’t find the hospital car park. He stumbled toward a bench overlooking a small lawn. He didn’t know what to say to Margot. His first instinct, in his bewildered state, was to ask his wife for advice. Naomi would have kept it together. She was the calm, level-headed one. She would have reassured him, known what he should say to Margot. But Naomi had died less than an hour ago.

A jaundiced middle-aged woman wearing a nasal cannula was on the bench beside him. She whispered impatiently down her phone. He could tell by her blunt intimacy it was with her partner. Martin squeezed his own phone in his pocket, conscious of the twinge of jealousy he felt. Just yesterday, Naomi had rung before he left the office. They had only discussed when her train would arrive at King’s Cross today. But still, he could reach her.

He must have accidentally stared at the jaundiced woman too long, too intensely.

‘What?’ she said cautiously, fending him away with a sharp edge to her tone.

Martin lowered his gaze to the phone in her frail, papery hands. He had always taken this world for granted. Now he realised he didn’t even know how mobile phones work. How is that plastic and silicon hewn into a scoop, to scrape thoughts out of the air?

Martin looked back up at her face, but said nothing. She was teetering at the edge of death, without knowing it herself. The elegant streaks of grey in her hair looked like death creeping in, blowing on her embers. But instead of asking why she wasn’t daunted by her own fragility, he said:

‘Sorry, do you know the way to the Car Park?’

‘You need to use the lift, past reception,’ she said.

Now that Naomi was gone, he was mesmerised by this delicately rotting person, politely keeping him at arms length as their bodies slowly crumbled together.

‘I’m lost,’ he pleaded.

‘You need to use the lift.’

Martin drove home to Herne Hill. He switched the engine off automatically, leaving the key in the ignition. He couldn’t breathe deeply. He slowly placed both hands back on the steering wheel, feeling himself dangling. He didn’t have the urge to drive away, but struggled to get out. If he went home, if he told Margot, it would somehow make the day real.

Martin unlocked his phone and scrolled through his contacts. No one leapt out to confide in just yet. He only noticed a frustrating new crack at the edge of the screen. As he walked to his front door, he felt that small crack on the phone screen, weighing in his jacket pocket.

He called out to his daughter from the hallway. Standing at the foot of the stairs, his mind had organised the first few mollifying phrases he could use. But as she descended the stairs everything abandoned him. He stared at his daughter’s waiting face. She had the echo of her mother’s features.

‘Mum’s going to be away for a bit longer,’ he said.

‘When is she coming back?’

‘Soon,’ he said, his entire body encased in such pain he could barely speak. He resolved to tell Margot in the morning. After a few hours sleep. He had already been through so much in the last three hours. He just needed some rest; a chance to process the day alone. He could face the world in the morning.

But instead of telling Margot in the morning, he made her breakfast as usual. He hadn’t deliberately kept the death from her, at the time. He stared at her bowed head, while she nibbled the edge of an omelette. She might never quite trust him again. But he still didn’t tell her.

After Margot left he went upstairs. When he opened Naomi’s wardrobe her clothes still hung, patiently waiting – as though she could come back. He lifted the sleeve of a summer dress; it still carried her perfume. Martin closed the wardrobe. He collapsed onto the bed, fully clothed and numb.

Distant, elderly relations had died before. He only felt a small, deceiving cut of pain at their funeral. Mildly sad, he still thought he had learned what death meant. He thought he knew death. But only now someone he truly loved had died, only when the very darling of his heart was gone, was he in turn destroyed. Brick by brick, he was demolished. Those unseen foundations of innocence were suddenly dug up, until he was a pit of agony. Martin lay on the bed, only surviving each breath reassembled in a mortar of pain. He wasn’t prepared for how thoroughly grief would grip his body. His lung tissue, his diaphragm as he breathed, were sheathed in pain. It hurt just to lie on the bed with his eyes open, feeling light seep into his corneas. Time dripped through him painfully: five minutes, ten minutes.

After twenty minutes a gentle breeze rolled across the room, even though the curtains were closed. It suffused the air with the fragrance of lavender blended with citrus, amber and a hint of Rosemary. When his phone rang he didn’t recognise the ringtone. Martin sat up. He looked at the phone vibrating on the bedside table, waiting for it to stop.

The wistful ringtone swirled around the bedroom, beating rhythmically at the lining of his skull. He picked it up. The number on the screen was an impossible mess.

‘Hello?’ Martin said. He was certain it was a wrong number.

‘Hi Martin, it’s me,’ she said. Although he didn’t believe it, he knew her voice in every fibre of his body: Naomi, his wife, was on the other end.

‘Who is this?’ he said, even though he knew in his heart it was her.

‘It’s me Martin,’ she said patiently. The line had broken up momentarily, but he still recognised those fragments of her voice with a heart-stopping chill.

‘Who is doing this? This isn’t funny,’ he said, wanting to believe. Desperate to believe. But knowing he saw her dead body yesterday afternoon.

‘It’s me Martin,’ Naomi said crisply. The mushy line had cleared.

‘But you died. I saw it.’

‘I know,’ she said. ‘I died yesterday.’

‘Are you still alive now? What’s happening?’ Can I meet you?’ Martin stood beside the bed, looking between the curtains at leaves quivering on the tree outside.

He could hear her voice from beyond death. He could anchor it in the present moment, but couldn’t imagine where it came from.

‘You can’t meet me. I really am dead,’ Naomi said.

‘But –’

Naomi interrupted quickly, saying:

‘We need to talk. I don’t have long. I’ve only got about three calls, including this one.’

‘This is amazing. I never thought I would speak to you again!’

‘Don’t get too carried away, you haven’t heard what I’ve got to say yet.’

‘What is it? Where are you?’ He said. There was no echo behind her voice. It had a noiseless background; a pristine silence woven from darkness itself. Martin waited for her answer.

‘Can you see anything?’ he said, still looking at the leaves quivering outside the bedroom window.

‘Not really.’

He had forgotten the name of that tree outside their house; she had once told it to him, in both English and Latin.

‘What’s it like,’ he said, ‘Where you are now?’

‘I didn’t call about that,’ she said

‘Margot. You need to tell her what happened to me. You need to tell her that I died.’

‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘It’s too hard.’

‘I know, that’s why I’m calling. You need to tell her – now, straight away – otherwise things don’t go well.’

‘What happens?’

‘Just promise to tell her today,’ Naomi said.

‘Okay.’

‘And look after this phone. I’ve only got about two more calls left,’ she said. ‘I’ve got something important to tell you, about what happens after you die. You won’t believe it. This is something big you would never guess.’

‘Do I have to keep the phone charged?’ He said. ‘There’s a crack on the screen. Can I put the sim card in another phone?’

‘No! Just look after this phone!’

‘Okay,’ he said.

‘And make sure you meet someone else,’ she said.

‘I can’t. I don’t want to. How can I, if I know we’ll speak again?’

‘Waiting for a phone to ring isn’t a life. You’re alive still. I want you to live your life.’

She hung up. Martin stared at the blank screen.

Eighteen years passed. His daughter had long moved out. He hadn’t told Margot about her mother’s death straight away, despite Naomi’s advice. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Martin now kept the phone locked in an ornate, glossy black lacquered wooden box. The box was hand crafted to his specification, lined with cushioned velvet. It had ventilation holes in a hexagon shaped grid on the lid, so that he could hear it ring. He kept the box under his bed.

Every night before going to bed, he took it out. He plugged the phone in, checking for missed calls. He lovingly placed it back in the box afterwards. The fracture at the corner of the screen was now an established fixture in his life, its crack a fault line in his personality. It embodied his strained relationship with his daughter every time he saw it. He wanted to mend that crack, but didn’t know how.

He wondered if Naomi was going to call every single night. His bed floated on the presence of the phone beneath it, the immensity of all its endless possibility, as though buoyed on a sea. He kept a framed picture of Naomi rambling in the Cotswolds on the table beside his bed. He always glanced at it before switching off the bedside lamp. For years he waited briefly, in the fresh dark just after the lamplight vanished, alert and awake. For years nothing happened. And then last Wednesday a gentle breeze flooded into the room, through the open windows. It suffused the air with the strong smell of lavender blended with citrus, amber and a hint of Rosemary. The hairs on his forearms stood up, his skin tingled. He sat up in bed, waiting. The phone started to ring inside the lacquered box.

‘It’s me,’ Naomi said, after he hurried to answer it. He hadn’t recognised the ringtone, but it still clattered through him. He was frightened, excited and confused.

The pain from her sudden absence eighteen years ago had never quite left him. The sharp, crystalline intensity of it in those first few hours had diminished. But all these years later, not a day went by when his wife didn’t pass through his thoughts. In some way, at some point every day, a memory of her would blow through him. At first they brought great gales of pain. But now her passing memory was a brief, gentle gust, tinged with a hint of mystery.

‘I’ve been waiting for you to call – literally – for years,’ he said.

‘I know. I was worried that would happen,’ she said. It was a soggy, fraying line this time. Her words were barely intact – but the silence behind her voice was still immaculate.

‘There’s so much I want to ask you. I never got the chance last time.’

‘Like what?’ She said.

‘Will I be able to speak to you again?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean after I’ve died. Will we see each other again?’

‘Not that I’m aware of. This is it,’ she said.

‘I thought, since you’ve been calling. I thought we would be able to.’

‘Nope.’

‘What’s it like, being there?’

‘You mean being dead? It’s funny,’ she said. ‘A lot less happens than you would think.’

‘I never told you how much I loved you,’ he said. ‘I never knew how much.’

‘I know,’ she said quietly. ‘You said some nice things about me at the funeral.’

‘That’s because I knew you would be listening!’ He said. ‘I meant them,’ he added. His sincerity hurt slightly, in its depth.

‘You made a promise.’

‘What promise?’

‘You’re not keeping it. You promised to meet someone. You’re supposed to be in another relationship by now.’

‘I don’t need anyone else,’ he said.

They both said nothing. The silence was in harmony with their last few moments together, when Naomi was alive but so steeped in medication she was gone in spirit.

‘You promised,’ she said. ‘You only have one life. You need to live it now. Today. No more staring at this phone all the time.’

‘I’ll try,’ he said.

‘You don’t have as much time as you think. Nobody does. That phone is a miniature coffin. It’s very quietly killing you. Can’t you feel it chewing your soul?’ she said.

‘But how else can we keep in touch?’

‘All that happens is that you die. That’s it.  Nobody is keeping a scorecard. Every day is a fresh beginning,’ she said.

‘I don’t want a fresh beginning. I want an old beginning. I just want you back.’

‘You’re just romanticising our marriage,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t perfect, Marty. There was many a time I couldn’t bare to have you anywhere near me. You slept on the sofa more than once. It happened. You could be so selfish and disappointing. Sorry. And you didn’t think of me as so perfect before I died,’ she said. Martin was silent. They knew each others’ intimate psychological bruises, and had pressed them for ignoble reasons – sometimes just to win petty arguments about where to go on holiday, or even the washing up. He had called her, with utter sincerity, a selfish twat. She had once called him Lord Bullshit.

‘But I’ve forgotten all of that. All I can remember is how much we shared. How much I loved you, really.’

‘Well, I’m calling to remind you it wasn’t all sweetness and light.’

‘Where are you?’ He whispered. ‘Can you see anything?’

‘Not really,’ she said. ‘All I have is the sound of your voice now and —

But she didn’t finish. The line cut off abruptly.

A year later, Martin received surprising news from his daughter. She was pregnant. It was unplanned, and she didn’t know whether to keep the child.  She had never wanted a child so early, but now that she was pregnant it felt less clear cut. Her career was just taking off. She was in a new relationship; the father was charming but unreliable.

‘What should I do?’ Margot asked him, on the phone.

To buy time he asked her to come to his flat, so they could discuss it face to face.

‘I’m already there,’ she said.

When he got home, Margot was indeed already at his flat. She was in his bedroom, sitting on the bed with the black lacquered box open in her lap.

‘What’s so important about this?’ She said, waving the phone at Martin.

‘Nothing.’

‘Nothing? Why did you flinch when you saw me holding it? I always wondered what was in this weird box,’ she said.

‘It’s just a phone,’ Martin pleaded. A gust blew into the room, billowing the curtains at the window.

‘Can you smell that?’ She said, closing her eyes. Martin could: it smelled of lavender, citrus, with a hint of Rosemary.

‘It’s a bit strong,’ she said. ‘We should open the windows.’

Margot raised the sash window. The phone started ringing in her hand. She smiled broadly, when she saw the distress on Martin’s face.

‘You kept this stupid phone for years. Why?’

‘Please, put it down,’ Martin begged over the ringtone. ‘Please.’

‘Who’s calling?’ Margot said, laughing bitterly. Martin stared at her face. She looked so angry, almost vicious.

She lobbed the phone out the window. Martin could hear the ringtone falling away. The noise descended through the air, before clattering onto the pavement with the full force of its delicacy.

He looked out the window, down onto the street. The phone was cracked, but not broken into fragments. It had stopped ringing. His daughter’s eyes were still fierce with anger and defiance. But when he hugged her, she started crying.

The cracked phone below started ringing again, from the pavement. Margot flinched in his arms.

‘The phone’s ringing, dad,’ she said through her tears.

‘Leave it,’ he said, closing his eyes. ‘We should leave it.’

The fragrance of lavender blended with citrus, amber and a hint of Rosemary still carried on the air. Only Naomi’s body had died. Her presence within him was bright and strong and always. The ringtone below began to slowly mangle and fade, like a broken music box. He listened, still holding his daughter in his arms, until the phone stopped ringing and he could hear nothing but an immense, subtle silence.


Anthony Holness lives and works in London. His poetry and short stories have been published by Popshot magazine, Eunoia Review and online.

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