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Sam felt like a spy. Trailing Anton along Tottenham Court Road, down Store Street, hanging back in a doorway when his quarry crossed the street, and keeping pace on the other side. It was the kind of game they’d played together as kids. Wearing false moustaches and oversized hats, they’d followed suspicious characters round the neighbourhood. Made notes about their ‘activities’ in a little leather book Anton had kept in a secret compartment in his backpack.
Before Sam even worked out it was Anton, his eye had zoomed in on this gangly figure leaning forward as he marched through the ambling crowds with a battered briefcase in hand. Anton looked different, not fashionable, but better defined than the pale kid Sam remembered. Dressed in a tailored brown wool suit that was too warm for the season, there was something a little out-dated about his get up. He stood out from the other office workers who, like Sam, were dressed in off the hanger suits.
Anton had been a weird one. Always alert to the possibility of plots and conspiracies he’d keep an eye out for cracks in their safe suburban reality that might lead them to an entirely different and thrillingly dangerous underworld. One time they’d followed a tramp back to his ‘lair’ because Anton had said he was a dangerous catnapper, responsible for the spate of feline disappearances in the neighbourhood. They’d staked out this abandoned building, waiting for him to leave so they could collect evidence. But all they’d found was smashed glass and a bunch of metal beer bottle tops which Anton had pocketed for his collection. Still, it had been a proper adventure.
Perhaps it was in this spirit that Sam found himself stalking his old friend instead of calling out to him. He had to find out what he was up to, for though he’d Googled Anton over the years, he had always come up empty. Strange not to have a web presence in this day and age.
Anton turned off Store Street and Sam slowed his pace to put a bit of distance between them. Anton’s footsteps rang out. Tock, tock, tock; a measured beat audible now the cacophony of central London had faded. Anton rounded a corner and Sam sprinted to close the distance between them, past rows of frowning dark stone houses.
He was just in time to see Anton disappear inside an elegant town house. Though it was still light outside, blinds had been drawn down over the street level windows. Beside the door was a brass plaque:
by Appointment Only.
Sam looked at his phone. A large blue circle hovered over the map of Bloomsbury.
‘Google cannot pinpoint your location.’
Droplets of rain began to spot the pavement and Sam’s resolution to ring the ivory bell above the plaque faded. Instead, he dashed into a pub across the road.
Inside it was dead quiet; only a few old jossers sat in silence contemplating their pints. He ordered a lager.
‘Nice little pub you’ve got here,’ said Sam.
The barman, a willowy aristocratic man in his sixties, didn’t smile to acknowledge the complement, but simply demanded payment. That pissed Sam off; people thinking they were better than you. He earned more in an hour probably that this snotty old git did in a day. Sam took his pint to a table that overlooked the street and got his phone out, began searching the web, but there were no hits for a telephone museum in London.
He gazed at the building. Appointment only… He wondered if it was the kind of exclusive place hipsters went to: the sort of tossers who embraced obsolete technology by riding around on penny farthings and writing pretentious fanzines on old fashioned typewriters; who kept plebeian netizens out by transmitting information about the latest trends by word of mouth.
There had been nothing fashionable about Anton back in the day. The kid had still carried a Postman Pat lunchbox around at the age of 12. His house had been dusty and quiet. Even though his mum was around, she was always laid up in bed. So they had the run of the place: could slide down bannisters; set up science experiments on top of radiators; and make secret bases out of musty old blankets that were left up for weeks. Nothing since had ever really come close to measuring up to the excitement of those days.
What was he doing here really? Trying to relive his childhood? Nostalgia was for these old men dribbling into their pints. His life wasn’t over, it was just starting. He ought to be somewhere lively. But just as he was about to throw in the towel, the door to the Telephone Museum opened and he spotted Anton leaving the shop.
‘It’s back on,’ thought Sam.
He waited a few more minutes then headed out the door. It was getting dark and the streetlights had come on. He rang the bell.
‘Yes.’ A female voice crackled through the speaker.
‘I’ve got an appointment.’
‘I’m sorry. You are not in the book.’
‘I’m here to meet Anton Costa.’
‘He’s just left.’
‘Could I come in and leave a message?’
A moment’s silence then footsteps approaching. A woman in her 30s, dark, Mediterranean looking, opened the door and led the way into the museum.
There must have been hundreds of telephones lined up on every available surface. Beautiful powerful silent machines. Even unplugged, they seemed to carry a magnetic charge.
‘I was about to lock up.’
The woman had her hands on her hips. Her painted nails gleamed with the same lacquered sheen as the telephones.
‘Do you happen to have a pen and paper?’ He smiled at her, turning on the charm he used to woo clients.
She looked at him intently, as if she could sense the act was fake. Then turned and returned with a pad and pencil.
Anton, long time no see. Here’s my number, drop me a text or find me on Facebook. Best, Sam Spence.
The message looked silly, pathetic even.
Got some business to discuss.
He finished off, with a burst of inspiration.
He looked up and smiled at the woman.
The woman stroked the silk material as if it were a pet animal.
‘Where are you from? You’ve got lovely dark colouring.’
‘Like Anton’s parents.’
She drummed her nails on the counter. They made a clicking sound like the dial of an old telephone being spun.
‘I have to ask you to leave. It is closing time.’
‘If you’re just closing up perhaps you could come out for a drink.’
‘I do not have time.’
Her English was precise, correct and direct. Pleasantries clipped away.
Sam decided to drop the obsequious act and change tack.
‘You look done in though, if you don’t mind me saying. It would do you some good to relax a bit. Too much time spent with dusty old telephones could get to anybody. What you need is a tipple in a lively pub. Get the sparkle back in your eyes.’
The subtle put down was usually a brilliant way to reel them in, but he’d misjudged his mark. Her fingers froze and her eyes went dead.
‘I have no time for this, I am sorry.’
‘But I’d like to buy a telephone.’
‘Who told you you could buy a telephone?’
Her talons were now pressing so hard against the glass counter that the skin around them went white.
‘The telephones aren’t for sale?’
She crossed her arms.
‘We are a museum. Appointment only. If you do not have an appointment, I cannot help you.’
She walked towards the door and opened it.
‘How do I get an appointment?’
He walked out into the street and turned to ask if he could take down the number, but she had already shut the door. Cut him right off.
Sam wasn’t one to dwell. It was a critical time for him. He’d just been given a promotion and didn’t want to disappoint. He worked for one of the market leaders in telecommunications in modern offices that were a world away from that musty room in Bloomsbury. Funny that; both working with telephones, but practically in different universes. Sam was right at the cutting edge and where was Anton? Moldering in some forgotten side street. Totally out of touch.
Still, it bothered Sam. There were so many unanswered questions. Where had he got the cash for the place? Did it turn a profit? Back in the day his parents didn’t even have the money for a fridge, let alone the Internet. Was the place a front? Anton’s parents were from Malta, had come over before Anton was born. His dad had spoken English with only a trace of an accent, but his mum had barely been able to speak a word. Not surprizing when she was shut up in her room like that.
There had been something off about the whole set up; a wild garden full of rotting furniture and boxes of random stuff stacked up in their lounge: DVD players, kid’s toys, marble table tops… When Sam told his parents about it, his dad said that half the contents of the house must have fallen off the back of a lorry.
Anton’s mum freaked him out, lying there propped up in bed, smoking endless cigarettes. Staring glassy eyed at these creepy religious pictures on the walls. She used to get Anton to buy fags for her round the corner shop. Silk Cuts. They had a jar full of cash on a top shelf of the kitchen and Anton would just take out a twenty. They’d spend the change on crisps and sweets; would gorge themselves sick. Must have been what Anton grew up on, because he’d be lucky if there was a loaf of stale bread in the kitchen.
These memories and unanswered questions buzzed around Sam’s head. He’d shoo them away by working really hard, scoring contracts, calling clients and taking them out to lunch, but as soon as he took a break they were back like a cloud of flies. Something stank about the situation.
So he began to go to the Heart in Hand after work every night, hoping he’d see Anton coming out. It’d be better to bump into him that way, Sam reasoned, on neutral ground. And it was nice to go there and have a few pints before going home. Usually he didn’t make a habit of drinking straight after work, but he found that if he got a bit of a glow on before catching the train, he’d go to bed earlier after wolfing down a quick bite in front of the tele.
When he wasn’t staring at the closed door of the Telephone Museum, he passed the time reading up on the history of the telephone on the web. Some of these things old phones were works of art really. Not that he’d want to trade in his smartphone or anything, but he could see the appeal of having something like that on your mantelpiece. A conversation piece. Something to talk about. Something nobody else had.
All that week Sam didn’t once see anyone leave the museum and he was ready to give up. He stared out at the street and supped on his pint, his fourth that night. His strained eyes lost focus for a moment and the orange pool of light that spilled onto the pavement outside the museum wobbled and split, like an amoeba reproducing. He shook his head and refocused in time to see a small balding man dashing out of the museum. Under his arm was a package about the same size and heft of an antique telephone. Sam grabbed his coat and dashed out into the street. They’d sell a phone to this shambolic looking bloke, but not him? How come? Did they think they were so much better than him?
Despite his small size, the balding man moved fast. They went down past Brunswick Square and up to the Euston Road. The sudden rush of noise and light was exhilarating. At Kings Cross, he pursued the man through the ticket gates onto a packed commuter train. The man put the package up on the rack, but had to sit across the aisle as all the seats underneath were filled up. Sam stood near the rack. His fingers tingled. The train doors beeped and hissed shut and the train slid out of the station.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 8:10 service to Watford.’
They were going back to his home town. The place where he and Anton had grown up. He hadn’t been back in years, not since his parents had moved away. He’d never known what had happened to Anton after that. They’d moved when he was about 14, but they’d grown apart by then anyway. Anton just didn’t fit in with anyone at school. He’d been a bit of an embarrassment. He didn’t have a PlayStation or anything. But thinking back on it, Sam had had a lot more fun playing in that creepy old house than round the clean modern houses of his new mates.
A large woman got on and Sam let her squeeze in between him and the man, her well-upholstered bulk providing the perfect barrier. Now, the man had to crane his neck every time he looked up from his paper to check the package. Sam fingered the Oyster card in his pocket. At the next stop he waited a few seconds after the door had opened before grabbing the package and leaping off the train. He heard a shout as he dashed off down platform, but didn’t look behind him. Even if the balding man had managed to get out onto the platform, Sam figured could outrun him easily. When he reached the ticket gates he had his Oyster card ready. There was a taxi stand right outside. He jumped into a cab and shouted. ‘Drive!’
‘Where to mate?’ The taxi driver leaned back and looked at him.
Sam blurted out his address and the driver sucked in air through his teeth, but began to pull out. ‘That’ll cost you.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Sam, turning to check and see if there was anyone following them. The lights flared in the dark and the shadowy figures inside the cars couldn’t be identified. It wasn’t until they’d been driving a while that Sam could be sure there wasn’t another cab tailing them. He leaned back and took a deep breath. He felt fantastic. The rush reminded him of the time him and Anton had broken into the grounds of a nearby private school and been chased out by a security guard. They’d practically pissed themselves. Anton had always wanted to push the boundaries, do stuff that could get them into trouble. He wanted to find out what was lurking in all the dark corners. What went on when nobody was looking.
It took about two hours and cost him over a hundred pounds to go back through central London. The whole way Sam was itching to tear open the brown paper package, but he stopped himself. If it was something not entirely kosher or downright illegal, he didn’t need a witness.
Back at the flat he locked the door and went to the window to check there was nobody watching. What did he expect, a guy in a felt hat smoking a cigarette under a streetlamp? There was nobody about. He turned round and looked at the package on the sofa. If what he suspected was true, he was in deep shit. But he couldn’t believe that Anton was mixed up in anything too dangerous. He’d always had this innocent air about him.
Sam ripped open the package. The muffled chime coming from inside was like distant sleigh bells. Beneath the brown paper and bubble wrap was a jet black rotary telephone. Something from the sixties perhaps. He put his finger in the dial and spun it to make sure nothing was jamming up the works. The wheel clicked round easily. If the museum was a front, its exhibits would be a great way to hide contraband.
Sam got out a screwdriver. After he’d removed the screws from the base, the casing came away to reveal the gleaming silver workings. But there were no tell-tale plastic packets attached to its innards. What had Sam expected? Drugs, diamonds, USB sticks containing secret information? Did he think he was in a spy movie? He got a beer from the fridge and took a long pull.
He tossed down the beer and began tearing apart the mechanism, anxious to find something, anything. After an hour or so the parts were scattered over the floor. The adrenalin kick was beginning to wear off and he could feel the effects of the beer hitting him. Leaving the gutted phone spilled all over the lounge, he went to the bedroom and passed out fully clothed.
The headlights of a car slid over the ceiling, like a searchlight sweeping the room. Something rustled in the corner and he tried to lift his head, only he couldn’t move. The noise made him think of scrabbling fingernails. Something was inside the room, scuttling around, closing in. He wanted to shout out, but he couldn’t open his mouth. Now he felt that something clamber onto his leg. He looked down and could see it crawling up over his crotch towards his chest. It gleamed, shiny and insectile. When it reached Sam’s chest it stopped, thunked down and the pressure made difficult to breath. Its dial was weird, elongated, almost in the shape of a grin. A hand shot out from underneath, female with long painted talons. The scrabbling fingers crawled over his face, slotted into his nose and began to dial. It was trying to pull his face apart, trying to get at his innards. Black bile began bubbling up through his nostrils. He woke up gasping for air.
For a moment it seemed like phone in the other room had really reassembled itself, but logic kicked in when he recognised his mobile’s ringtone. He turned on the light and looked at the clock: gone two. His phone stopped ringing.
He went into the other room and surveyed the pieces of the antique phone. When his phone started up again he jumped.
The display flashed number withheld.
He could hear breathing at the other end.
‘I think you have something that doesn’t belong to you. I thought that I’d give you the chance to bring the item back no questions asked.’
The adult male voice surprized him. Somehow he’d expected to hear the same unsteady little boy over the phone.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I see you haven’t changed. Back to your old tricks.’
What was Anton implying? That he was a liar?
‘You were seen. Mr Harp at the Heart in Hand is a good friend of mine. He told me he saw you there all this week, snooping. And my client’s description of you sealed the matter in my mind. So if you’ll stop being silly and bring back the telephone we can forget all about it.’
‘So now you call. Didn’t want to get in touch before did you?’
‘You need to understand that this is rather urgent. So if you could see your way to handing the phone over to my assistant tonight then we can consider the matter at rest.’
Sam didn’t reply.
‘What exactly are you hoping to achieve?’ asked Anton.
‘I want an answer. I want to know what you’re into.’
‘Into? I run a museum.’
‘Come off it.’
Sam was stalling. He couldn’t hand the phone over like this, in pieces. He needed to see Anton face to face to straighten this all out. He heard Anton say something in another language to someone.
‘How about my assistant drives you over with the phone and you can hand it to me in person. In return, I promise I’ll show you round the museum and answer any questions you might have.’
‘She will come and pick you up in half an hour. I believe you’ve met before.’
The car pulled up about 40 minutes later. Vintage, black, sleek. The foreign woman he’d met before was at the wheel.
‘You have the telephone.’
Sam held up a shopping bag which contained the dismembered telephone stored in an old cardboard box.
At two am on a weekday night London was a ghost town. Only the down and outs not yet drunk or tired enough to pass out in shop doorways were still wandering about like zombies. A different world entirely. They reached the museum in just under half an hour.
The rows of mute phones gleamed in the lamplight, like pristine soldiers out on parade, ready to start marching in unison.
‘Shall I pour?’
Anton was sat in a leather armchair by the window. Laid out on a table beside him was a tea set. Sam sat down on and placed the small plastic bag on the floor. The shattered parts clinked.
‘It was quite a surprise to get your message. Sugar?’
Anton handed him a teacup. It tinkled in Sam’s hand, so he picked up the cup and took a steadying sip.
‘I never knew what happened to you, you just dropped off the map. I searched online, but it seems like you weren’t living in this century.’
‘Seeing you brings back so many memories.’ Anton flicked a piece of dust off his knee.
‘You’re telling me. You don’t get friendships like that anymore out in the real world.’
Anton raised an eyebrow.
‘What are you after Sam?’
‘All this, what’s it about?’
‘It’s a telephone museum. More of a glorified shop, really, something for a special sort of collector.’
‘Come off it. You’re up to something.’
Anton cocked his head, as if Sam were a puzzling object that might be better understood from a slightly different angle. Sam felt a bit wonky.
‘I must say all this is a bit rich coming from you.’
They both looked at the plastic bag by Sam’s side. As if the thought of the damage he’d done was bringing him down, Sam leaned to the side, and the floor tilted. The teacup clattered to the floor.
‘Sorry, I should have taken that sooner. I forgot how fast this stuff works.’
Sam tried to reply but his tongue had wadded up inside his mouth.
‘Mum didn’t notice all the cash going missing from the jar in the kitchen. She wasn’t really aware of much by that point. But dad did. Thought I was responsible. Quite an intimidating man my dad. Not someone you’d want to piss off. And it was you all along. You’d sneak in wouldn’t you on your way out and pocket the odd tenner. I never quite knew how to confront you and when I did you turned on me. Started making fun of me at school in front of your new mates. Telling everyone my mum was loony and my dad was a crook…’
A ringing noise, as if all the telephones in the shop had started trilling at the same time, began to drown out Anton’s words. Sam closed his eyes. He could smell burning plastic.
The first thing he was aware of when he came to was a faint whine in his ears. The second thing was that everything in the shop bar the glass counter had been cleared out. He checked his phone. Late afternoon. He’d slept for over 12 hours. He got to his feet with difficulty and looked out onto the street. The sky was grey. Droplets of rain hit the window pane. Sam’s eyes unfocused and the whine in his ears grew louder, a dead tone.