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It seemed Conrad Tolli had been delivered into darkness. November. The year shrinking down to scarce light, scarcer resources, many of them human. Money and goodwill had run out, especially since becoming ill. Friends, in particular, appeared few and far between: a strange phenomenon when one’s health crashes, he thought, as if one still lived in a medieval world of irrational fear and contagion. All of a sudden, nobody wanted to know him, or about his troubles. And the Manor House bedsit, whose under-floor cavities rattled with rats all night, didn’t help. He was plague-afflicted. Ostracized. A dead man.
It hadn’t always been that way. Two months previously, Susan, his common-law-wife of eight years had ejected him from the flat they shared, a place conveniently located around the corner from his Kentish Town workshop. Eight years of effortful cohabitation down the pan at once. He thought he had detected a yelp of delight from behind the bedroom door of Zoe, his step-daughter, as he furiously carted his last cardboard box of possessions down the hallway. Sixteen, with her hair permanently yanked back into an unforgiving Croydon facelift that accentuated her big hooped earrings, Zoe had just embarked on a relationship with Leon, a bad black boy from the neighbouring estate. He had known Zoe since she was a little girl and his heart broke for her. And it was Leon, he was sure, who was with her behind that judgemental closed door, doing God knows what with the daughter he had come to love as his own.
But what could he do? What could he alter in the face of Fate and its implacable army? The surprising detours decided in advance, over which one had no power? His illness had the hallmark of fate too. A carpenter by trade, the recent economic downturn had forced Conrad to use a cheap Latvian wood-glue while constructing the tables, chairs and bedframes from which he once earned a good living. Six months before his fortieth birthday he had woken up one morning to discover a harlequin patchwork of crimson lesions and welts covering his body. He hands had inflated like foie gras geese, and his forehead, to his horror, was a swarm of raspberry stippling. Dispensing with the wood-glue immediately, he checked into the Whittington hospital where his consultant, Dr Bushell, told him a full recovery could be expected. Although, the doctor added gravely, certain side effects were sometimes experienced after contact with the spirit agent that had caused the adverse reaction. “What kind of effects?” “Oh, skin irritation, muscle tremors – fasciculations – sometimes a loss of strength in the limbs…” “Nothing that would put me out of business?” “Let’s just wait and see, shall we,” smiled the reassuring doctor.
But he nearly had been put out of business. In the subsequent six months after his split from Susan (a fissure long anticipated), he had experienced all the side-effects Dr Bushell had warned of. Though the lesions had calmed down, a critical loss of strength in his hands, principally his pinch-grip, had forced him to work a three-day week. Then the itching had begun – quietly at first, then chronically. At any given moment of the day he found himself furiously scratching a new part of his body: neck, belly, elbow, armpit. Commuters on the bus he now took to work, a ride which dragged him past the blackened melancholy contours of Finsbury Park, would stare at him as if he were a lice-infested vagrant. Then the muscle tremors – the strangest of all. These too would start up unpredictably in any part of his anatomy – flank, wrist, thigh, Adam’s apple, eye-lid – and continue spasmodically for up to half an hour at a time. Sometimes they resembled repeated nudges from behind; others, an ominous tapping on the shoulder or stomach. At other times still, the fasciculations were like having a trapped squirming rodent under his skin. He felt like a carrier. A host animal. He sensed he was falling apart, as if his whole superstructure had been delivered a fatal, weakening blow.
And now real rodents were a part of his life.
The Manor House bedsit, in contrast to the basic but clean council flat he had shared with Susan and Zoe, revealed a new imperfection, or infestation, every day. First cockroaches, then bed-bugs, then neighbours who would pump deep-groining Grime music through the floorboards on his enforced days off. Previously a slim, athletic fellow, unusually fit and sinewy, with filament-blond hair and corn-flower blue eyes, he was now a wreck. And a budding alcoholic. Every night he would sit in semi-darkness waiting for the call from Susan that never came, downing a bottle of cheap red wine. If the muscle tremors were particularly shocking, it would be two bottles… And then the stunned awakening in the middle of the night from the scrabbling of his nocturnal visitors. At first it seemed they were in the room with him. Leaping out of bed to grab a flash-light, he would inevitably find no evidence of rats or any other vermin. It was only after the third night he realised they were underneath him, invisible below the cracked lacquered floorboards.
And then, without warning, the crank calls began. As if to compound his mental and physical agonies, someone – a ghost it seemed, as they never said anything – was intent on fucking him around. The first call came at ten to midnight as he was preparing to flop under his duvet. An unfamiliar number lit up the screen of his phone. Thinking, hoping, that Susan might have purchased a new mobile, he pressed Accept.
Silence. Just traffic noise, vague and ambient.
“Who is that?”
No reply came. Nor did it when he frantically called the number back.
“Stop messing around. Come on… Who gave you this number?”
A bus sloshed past in the background. And then he was cut off.
The next night, the same rigmarole.
And the following, and the one after that. Often he would ignore the vibrating, jangling phone, but this would only force his tormentor to persist until he picked up.
One evening, the last of November, with the prospect of Christmas alone, with only the rats and a crocked body for company, he decided to engage his mystery assailant. On cue, just before midnight, the hateful screen lit up.
“You just don’t get the message do ya?”
No response. A new innovation, over the past few calls, had been the faint sound of childish tweetings or burblings, like a toddler trying to baby-talk. This absurd noise came at Conrad now, mixed with the usual street-sounds. They always phoned from outdoors.
“…If you call me again I’m going straight to the police. Jesus Christ, I should have done it days ago…”
And then, tremblingly, on a guess: “…That’s not Zoe, is it?”
He didn’t think it was. For some reason, he had an intuition that the caller was male, completely groundless, as they had never spoken a word. But the thought that is was his step-daughter gave him a strange measure of comfort.
“Zoe, if that’s you, tell your mum to call me…”
He felt as if he were talking into an immense silence or darkness, like a nineteenth-century explorer shouting into an Alpine ravine.
“Okay, that’s it! One more call and it’s the cops!” and he hurled the phone across the room.
Rising to pick it up after a minute, his put the phone to his ear to find the prankster was still on the line. Carefully closing the mobile, he went to fetch another bottle of red from the kitchen, eye-lids and arms spasmodically twitching, more angry than he’d ever been in his life.
December came, and with it the depressing carnival pre-amble to Christmas. On pavements sheeted with ice, the moon still in the sky like a silver florin, he would shiver his way to work. The calls, the rats, the damaged body where all too much after the failure of his relationship. He longed for sunshine, or for some interior sun to defrost the layers of pain… but none broke through. The cops had predictably told him they couldn’t help. Only if the caller made themselves known, and became classified as a stalker, could they get involved. Finally, on Christmas Eve, he decided to play his tormentor at their own game. He would stay on the line until they had had enough. He had all the time in the world, after all.
Midnight. The lit screen. Already gone on two bottles of cheap Shiraz, a third open in front of him, Conrad felt ready to confront the unknown.
“Happy Christmas, scumbag.”
The baby noises. Infuriating. Even more so, as he was certain they were being put on by a man.
“You don’t give up, do ya…”
An ambulance in the background. And wind noises, as if the caller were high up.
“I’m going to talk until you’ve had enough… that okay?”
For a long time Conrad had been certain that the caller was Leon, Zoe’s wayward boyfriend. He knew Zoe to within an inch, and giving his number to this nutter and getting him to make prank-calls was the sort of thing she would instigate, as a bizarre punishment. It had to be Leon. He had gone over again and again in his mind, the few people who possessed his number and who might use it in this way. Old flames? Dissatisfied customers? Gangsters after his Kentish town workshop? No, he had always stayed on the right side of the law.
“It’s Leon, isn’t it…?”
Just for an imperceptible spit-second, the gurgling baby-talk let up.
Ah, ha! Now he had him…!
“Thought so. Tell you what, Leon, why don’t you go and get yourself…” And here, though never having been even mildly racist in his life, Conrad found he was about to say “a girlfriend your own colour.” Deeply ashamed, sick of himself through the fug of alcohol, he only just managed to pull back in time. Instead, he said.
And at once he felt an immense weight descend on his shoulders. At his age, he should follow his own imperative. What was he doing with his own paltry existence?! Staying up on Christmas Eve to talk to a prank caller, bombed out of his mind on three bottles of wine! Some life that was. But maybe it was all he deserved.
Slurring now, he felt he might as well speak his mind: “Zoe’s my girl, Leon. Always has been. She knows it too. We were meant for each other… When I touched her that tim…”
The baby-noises had stopped. Just the sound of the coursing wind through the receiver.
“When I touched her, Leon, she wanted it… Oh, yes, my friend. She wanted it very badly.”
Conrad started to laugh, big shaking roars, the first time for months. The line, also for the first time, went suddenly dead.
And then Conrad was in his bedroom, stripping his clothes from his shaking body.
He lay crucified under the duvet for a long while, the room spinning, the moon bright above, thinking not about Zoe or Leon, but about Susan. He didn’t blame her for leaving him. Or for the restraining order, the one that stipulated he live no closer than half a mile from her and her family. No, he didn’t blame her. Not really. Not anymore. How could he? Under his skin, the rodent of a fasciculation squirmed and pumped. Then, as if to join it, the pattering feet of a real rodent from under his bed.
“Welcome, my friends!” he spoke into the darkness. “Welcome to my humble abode.”
And, for once, he didn’t mind them. They were company, after all.