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Winter 2006

Family with Young Children

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A. L. Kennedy

"Hello?"

My loudest telephone is in the bedroom.

"Hello?"

There's something about the arrangement which suggests an urgent life: late-night callers who want every ring to count.

"He-llo."

In fact, it just means that I'm stupidly easy to wake, even for an almost silence, an opened blank around my voice: no breathing, no obscenities, no phone box background din, only the press of an unknown room at the receiver.

"Okay. I'm ringing off now."

Which I did, because—light on and check the clock—it was 3:56 in the morning and I couldn't recall asking anyone to phone me up and let me hear their house. And I already understood I'd be tired in the morning— this morning, today—because of the disturbance and because it would take me a while to slip back asleep and I also understood that I shouldn't begin to wonder who had rung me, because then I wouldn't sleep at all —because someone I'd met, a friend, a person I cared about, would have spoken, would have been sensible, would have phoned during the day, but once I start thinking, night thinking, I can worry, I can fret, I can imagine God knows what—bad, dumbstruck injuries to loved ones and distress—only then I was interrupted.

The telephone rang again.

I needn't have answered. It's partly the volume that seems demanding and a level of curiosity leaks in and there was a tiny chance that something important, some assistance, might be asked of me.

So, "Hello." Quite an abrupt tone from me, nonetheless, no more time for nonsense.

"Ah...I'm sorry." A man speaking, blurry with some kind of personal dark, but sounding quite regretful and there's this other voice, shrill and digging behind his, "Go on. Tell her. Her." A woman shouting, "Go on! Try it—as if..." and slightly in the distance, "As if!" although not so far away that she has to shout, "Go on! You called her, you tell her, you just fucking tell her." She is plainly screaming because she wants to, because her emotions are leaning that way.

Next, the man, as if he'd forgotten he had called me and now remembers, murmurs in with, "Ah, yes...I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—" and stops himself in the way I'd wished he would, because clearly I was a mistake the first time, a misdial, an error provoked by stress, and now he wants to show the screaming woman that he isn't involved with me, maybe hopes that he won't seem involved with anyone—except that he can't say, "I didn't mean to call you," or anything like that, not without sounding as if he is sorry for being caught instead of sorry for inconveniencing a stranger.

I am a stranger. This is why I can't make suggestions which might help and, in any case, I can guess from the tightness about his words, the stunned delivery, that no advice could save him at this point.

He starts again, "I was the wrong number. A few minutes ago."

"Bastard. You think I believe—" The sound of some object dropping, perhaps breaking, in a way that is muffled, unclear, "Fuck-ing. Bas-tard," while the woman's voice sheers off on the final syllable, subsides.

The man is whispering by this time and possibly thinking of somebody else, someone I am not. "I am very sorry about this."

And I am very sorry, too. And very tired. "Yeah. Okay. I hope it works out."

"Do you?" This waking something younger in him, perhaps nearer his usual self, a slightly happy flicker of surprise. "Do you."

"Well, I—"

"Fucker! "

"Yes, I do hope that it works out, but I'm going to go now. Good night."

Of course, I shouldn't have said good night to him, I should have said good morning. But, mainly, I should have been unconscious and not saying anything.

Ten minutes later, he made his third call-at least, I supposed it might be the screaming woman this time, whoever she was: pressing redial, wanting to scream at me now and badger out a vindicating truth. So I lifted the receiver and snapped it down again at once.

The phone kicked back into ringing immediately, but I ignored it, let it drill and drill, not giving up, until I had to disconnect it at the wall, listen to the softer nagging from the living room, the hallway, and the kitchen. I don't have a large flat, but every room is wired up ready for a telephone—a previous owner's obsession—and so it seems odd not to take advantage and have some about. In the end, I unplugged all five of them and then went back to bed.

And this is why I am currently exhausted, irritable, twitchy round one eye. So I have opted for a stroll—Monday evening and quiet: dead leaves softening the pavement, the tang of them freeing the air, letting it play at being cleaner, forested and far away. All of which should clear the head before I go home for an early night feeling content—except that people, they won't leave you be, they have to spoil things and upset your interior state. The street would be perfectly fine if it weren't for the pictures on the lamp posts—on every bloody lamp post—pictures of a missing dog. These things are always depressing—plaintive flyers showing monochrome snaps of unrecognizable creatures that already look run over, or drowned, or dropped from heights. But this is worse. This is someone else's panic trying to hook itself into me: pin-sharp color shots of a tubby old retriever that's looking up at the camera as if it trusts me, trusts everybody: a few white hairs on the muzzle and sitting in a kind of happy slump surrounded by what seems a pleasant garden, a pleasant existence, the kind that pleasant people would want to make, people who care about animals and render them unwary and who own a good computer that can print across an image in crisp type


MISSING
FROM THE AFTERNOON OF 21st NOVEMBER
MUCH LOVED FRIEND AND PET
WHOLE FAMILY WITH YOUNG CHILDREN DEVASTATED
PLEASE HELP US WE ARE AT A LOSS


Why would they want me to know this? What harm have I ever done to them?

It's so unnecessary. I can already see that the dog is a nice dog, a dog I would like if we met, and I would prefer if it wasn't lost; but I never have met it and I don't know where it's gone and there is nothing I can do. What purpose is served by making me feel guilty?

Beyond that, the levels of sadness involved couldn't possibly need explaining—they're what I'd assume, because I am not a psychopath, not someone entirely without imagination. Of course you don't want your dog to disappear: you feed him and look after him so he won't. All right. So we can dispense with the full-scale advertisement of household misery: dragging the kids in to make things more grisly, suggesting tears and sleepless nights and maybe—why not?—the terrible scene where Mummy, or Daddy, or possibly both, will be driven to talk with their children, however many they happen to have, and tell them all about the Facts of Death. They will be the kind of parents who explain things and by doing this will helplessly imply that every single one of the people their children see and like may leave them without notice eternally and meanwhile something shadowed and appalling may have happened to their dog, their big lovable dog with the soft, greyed muzzle and patient eyes.

Enough.

Much more than enough.

I take it for granted that dogs and mums and dads and children and people who have been children and the whole of the rest of everything will die and this will frequently be sudden and insupportable and unfair and in the end I'll join them and I am not even remotely in favor of that, but also I choose not to think of it unless I am over-tired and lack the strength to fight it back. I don't want my existence to seem impractical, unlikely. Plus, I can't deal properly with other people when all I feel is sorry they'll being leaving fairly soon and sad so many unimportant things are so distracting.

The dog keeps looking at me right along the street. Down by the crossroads he's there, too: repeating a regular perspective, unwittingly mournful in four directions. I find it impossible not to feel his household waiting somewhere close, planning further strategies. Like anyone else, they'll want to believe that effort is always rewarded.

I'd be the same. In fact, I would have to admit that I am the same.

Not that it isn't decades since I owned a dog, although naturally they've made me think of it. A red setter: lanky and enthusiastic, prone to spasms of beauty and poetic staring. Butch could stare at anything as if it was the windswept view of a sinking ship and broken hearts were just around the corner. And the first time I showed him open country, let him loose: he stood, only stood, couldn't begin to pick a direction, simply crouched down and looked at me, on the point of springing into everywhere, tail mad, taking that last breath to check this was really possible—the offer of so much grass and scent and joy and running. You don't forget incidents like that, they can seem important.

Because you decide they are important. You pretend that two different species might share emotions, communicate. And if you are thirteen and thereabouts and full of the pressure of new time and too much complicated future then you will run beside your dog until it wins, until you are hollowed and comfortable for a while and can sit and when he's tired he comes and sits beside you as if you are two friends.

Bastards. I haven't remembered him in years, precisely because it's depressing when I do. I couldn't run my own length now and Butch is long gone and, as it happens, still missed. Fuck-ing bas-tards.

Except they're not really responsible for my mood—it's that call, it threw me. Because years ago there were nights when the phone would ring, regular nights. Dawn would be aching through the curtains and I'd be in bed and groggy with sex, the dream of sex, the mumbled, hoarse-throated dive of it from one phone to another, talking and talking and talking and sweated out with trying to be two people and only managing to be one: faking it for myself just to get some sleep. Not a relationship, to be honest, more a very long conversation in installments —this and the strongly nocturnal element having to do with the other life he led elsewhere and a woman who may have screamed, although I never heard her, and some other people, some additional women, not that it matters any more.

Funny thing was, in the small hours of one morning, the telephone rang and I fumbled across to pick it up, got the usual questions—what was I wearing, how did I feel—and it took minutes before I realized that I wasn't talking to him. This was a stranger.

I swore a lot, once I'd finally worked things out, and mentioned the police, and the man rang off. But I didn't sleep after that, not once I'd realized I was in love with someone I couldn't recognize, someone who sounded just like any pervert, ringing round to try his luck. I didn't know what that made us.

Something else I'd rather not have on my mind.

I think I'll head home; I've had enough posters for today and, once I'm inside in the warm, I can be more rational. I mean, the dog could be back by now, you never know, he could already be spoiled and drowsy with the big welcome he's got and the special meal and here's a new toy we bought you, just in case.

You don't fucking see that on lamp posts, do you?


FOUND
EXACTLY WHAT WE ALL WERE LOOKING FOR
THANKS TO EVERYONE FOR YOUR CONCERN
NICE FAMILY SO HAPPY NOW
NO PROBLEMS ANYWHERE


Because somebody out for a walk could need to read that, could be waiting for a phone call, a personal phone call, and slightly tense, with maybe things they'd like to say to some good person they care about and with whom they may be at the start of something, because they have shared certain incidents they can't forget, and perhaps they are nervous or even afraid of actually starting anything because of past mistakes they've made and the waiting—not horrible waiting, just a while, but even so—the waiting has made them worse and they are surviving from migraine to migraine by indulging in too much work and they are therefore what you might call fragile and every time they rush for that first ringing—from the land line, from the mobile, it makes no odds—they may be braced for a disappointment, but also unsteady, willing to be tipped over into possibilities: so many possibilities they may already have stood inside them for a bit and looked about and wanted to check with some other person if it's going to be fine, if things might very, very occasionally turn out for the best.

Somebody in that position might need cheering up.

A sign of exterior fucking grace might sometimes be required.

I believe it would do no harm if people could remember that.



A. L. Kennedy has written two books of nonfiction and eight of fiction; her latest novel is Paradise. She has sold brushes door-to-door, but now lectures part-time in the Creative Writing program at St. Andrew's University in Scotland.
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