I always wanted to know who that old man was calling.
I work in Northamptonshire Library. Pretty boring job. Steady, but boring. Check in a book here, check out a book there, order a child to desist the locomotion of their maxillo (I love the blank stares I get with that one) there, but at least it pays the rent. At least, it was dull, until my boss came to me and said “Let this man use the phone.”
He gestured towards a small, elderly fellow standing beside him. Nothing seemed offensive about him at the time. In fact, he kind of reminded me of that old man from Toy Story 2. You know, the one who repaired the toys? That kind of old man. Tiny, hunched, grey haired, wrinkled, big-nosed, and kind of cartoony looking. Almost cute, in a geriatric kind of way.
“Let him use it whenever he wants.” Said my boss. I simply nodded in confusion. The old man picked up the phone. As he tapped in a few numbers with his gnarled fingers, I watched, too puzzled by this strange turn of events to do much else. He raised a shaking hand to his ear, clutching the receiver. After a pause, he said: “I’m coming home now.” Then he replaced the receiver, turned, and shuffled off. I blinked. What just happened?
After getting distracted by a woman wanting to know where to locate Michael Crichton, I forgot about the old man. My day passed, as it always does, quietly and with only the beep of the computer system to break the silence. I went home, fell into bed, and dreamed about bananas in pinstriped suits ruling the country.
The next day, the old man came back. I noticed it was at exactly the same time, half five in the evening. As I stood at the desk, wondering whether I should venture some conversation, he picked up the phone. “I’m coming home now.” Then he shuffled off. What. The. Hell. Even I wasn’t allowed to dial any numbers outside of the building. So why was he allowed to use the phone in such a way? And why had he said the same thing twice in a row?
“Hey Sam.” I said. Sam was my co-worker. “Have you seen that old guy?”
“Yeah.” She replied. “He spends all his time in the occult section. Reads all the books about magic. Not your Harry Potter books either, I mean, real magic. No one ever looks at those books except for teenage girls. And him.”
I was confused. He spends all his time in the library. Makes a phone call, then ambles off home. I didn’t understand. But I was intrigued. Who was he calling? Why didn’t they speak? Did they speak?
Did they… I could find out. After glancing around to make sure no one was looking, I picked up the phone. Dialling 1471, I held the receiver to my ear. Not knowing what to expect, I tapped my fingers nervously on the desk. One ring. Two. Three. Four. No answer. Drumming my fingers more, I waited. Five rings. Six. Seven. Wondering about the ethics of the situation even more, I went to put the phone down. But then I heard a click. Someone had answered. “He – hello?” I ventured. Nothing. “Hello?” I repeated. Nothing. “Who is this?” I asked, my curiosity overriding my manners. From the other end, nothing. Silence. “Who – “ I began again, but was interrupted by a click. They had put the phone down. Shaking with nerves now, I sat down. Who was that? Why did the old man make the same call every day? I had never experienced anything so odd in my life.
Returning home again, I fell into a deep sleep, dreaming about telephones dancing around my head, squeaking Queen songs at me. Ah, dreams.
The next day, the same thing happened. “I’m coming home now.” I was too unnerved to try dialling the number again. Deciding to distract myself with rearranging the fantasy section, I tried to forget how this small, frail man was slowly taking over my thoughts. Managing to somehow spend an entire hour putting the Anne McCaffrey’s into alphabetical order, I returned to my desk. I stared at the phone, just thinking. Thinking.
That night I dreamt about telephones battering me to death. Ah, dreams.
The day after, I had a plan. I mean, what would you do, if you were in my situation? Would you just sit back and ignore it? Just try to forget about a daily occurrence that made absolutely no sense? Well, if you would, you’d probably be in a better situation that I am now.
“I’m coming home now.” I picked up my coat. Pulling it on, I waited until the old man had gone out the door. Wishing very hard that I was not going to get fired for what I was about to do, I followed the old man. Once out of the automatic doors, I paused, allowing him to get a suitable distance ahead of me, so that I could follow without being seen. Then I walked. Trying my best to not look like a crazy stalker lady, I walked. Fortunately for me, the old man never looked behind him.
I walked for half an hour, humming to myself to avert the anxiety that I felt overwhelming my system. What was I doing? Was I really so low that I’d stalk an old man? No, I told myself. This doesn’t make sense. It needs to be investigated. It’s not normal. It’s not like I’m hurting him, or doing anything illegal. I’m just…going for a walk during work hours and breaching my terms of contract by following one of our customers who just happens to be elderly and helpless. Oh crap. I’m going to hell.
More walking. I’d been at this for forty-five minutes now. Had this fellow never heard of a bus? Or a car? This was obscene. An hour later, I started to fret. Really, if my boss didn’t notice my absence, it would be a miracle.
Eventually, he turned into a house. Sadly, it was not the creepy gothic mansion that I’d been imagining in my mind. Just a semi-detached, almost boring in its complete unthreateningness. Not being able to figure out whether I was disappointed or relieved, I made a note of the house number. 132, Church Lane. I turned and left.
Returning to the library, I found my boss asleep in his chair. For once I thanked God for his casual approach to ‘work’. I returned to my desk and checked out some Stephen Kings.
Next day. It is eleven o’ clock. I am twitching with anxiety. For I am about to take the same chance that I took yesterday. Despite being a devout atheist, I prayed to God to make my boss as sleepy as he was the last time I sneaked out. And so, as soon as my lunch hour began, I left the building. This time, I ran. It took me an hour to get to where I went yesterday. I’m a reasonably fit individual, I managed to get there in twenty minutes, instead. Eventually, I was at 132 Church Lane. I collapsed against the outer wall for a minute, while my heart popped and I got my breath back.
I know. I know. I am a fool. I should have just left it. I shouldn’t have gone back there. I should have just respected the orders of my boss, and respected the privacy of an old man. I shouldn’t be there. I should be at my desk, eating jam sandwiches. But what would you do? If you were confronted with such a situation? I dare you to not be intrigued. You want to know who that old man was calling and why, don’t you? Don’t lie. I know you want to. And I, dear reader, am about to fulfil your curiosity.
When my breathing had returned to normal, I wandered about the perimeter of the building, and peered through the front window. I saw a living room. A TV, a table, some books. Nothing weird. So I wandered further, until I found another window. This one was significantly dustier. I peered through it, and saw a kitchen. There were a few plates in the sink, a few opened cans on the table, and some bread on the side. Again, nothing out of the ordinary. Once more, I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. Again I wondered about the ethics of the situation. I was stalking around the territory of a geriatric, looking for clues.
I went back to the front door, and gripped the handle. Locked shut. I threw my entire weight into it. It didn’t budge. Admitting defeat, I tried the front window. It wouoldn’t budge. So that would mean..
I crept to behind the building, briefly thinking that eating jam sandwiches at my desk sounded like a really good idea right now. Reaching the kitchen window, I tried to pull It up.
Success. It slid open. I put one leg in, hopped onto a kitchen surface, and jumped to the floor. I was in. Mentally congratulating myself for not breaking a leg, I looked around. Immediately, I was immediately overwhelmed by how dusty the place was. I could almost taste it. The place hadn’t been cleaned in months. There was another smell to the place, too, It smelled like…bacon. Or lamb. Or beef. It smelled like meat. Like meat and blood. So what, I thought. It’s a kitchen, it’s supposed to smell like food.
Deciding to not let this perturb me, I looked around. I saw plates, tables, chairs, cupboards, and absolutely nothing abnormal. Just a regular kitchen. Half cut bread on the sideboard.I quietly slipped out of the kitchen, into a hallway. I saw stairs, and the entrance to a living room. My curiosity overcoming me, I wandered down the hallway.
Finding the stairs, I cautiously began to climb. Pushing open the first door I came to revealed a bathroom that looked like it was stuck in the 1950s. No good. Nudging open a second door, I found something promising.
I stood at the entrance to the bedroom. I desperately tried to ignore the fact that the smell of meat was far stronger here than it was in the kitchen. This was the only part of the house that wasn’t cloyed with dust. A desk with a book on it caught my eye.
‘Holy Bible’ it proclaimed. A small piece of paper rested on top of it. ‘Page 171’. Naturally, I turned to page 171.
It was the story of Lazarus. A strange symbol had been scrawled across the text. It looked like a ram. Or a goat. There was writing in the margins too, though it wasn’t any language I’d seen before. I think it might be Latin. Remembering that I’d need proof that I’d been in the house to take back to my co-workers, I tore the page from the book. Stuffing it into my pocket, I turned towards the door. If I didn’t leave soon, I’d be late for work.
I was still confused. Did the old man live alone? Or with a wife? If he did live with a wife, she was certainly very different to my grandmother. My grandmother would never have allowed strips to be torn out of the wallpaper at shoulder height all around the landing, as was done so here. The old man didn’t seem to be so debilitated that he couldn’t keep a house in order. So why the strips torn out of the walls? Why was there dust everywhere, so much that it almost clogged the respiratory system? Why was there the smell of decaying meat, in every single room? All I’d managed to do was confuse myself any more. I still wanted to know who it was that he called on the phone every day at half five, and what his cryptic message meant.
I walked back downstairs. Starting to feel nauseous from the smell now, I thought about admitting defeat and just leaving.
Then I heard…a creak. The floorboards above my head creaked. I froze. With a wrrrrr, they creaked again. I decided that now was a good time to move. I ran into the hallway, my pulse racing in my head. Facing the kitchen for the first time, I noticed that the back door had been nailed shut. And that all the nails were rusty. Who nails a door shut?
Creeeaaaaak. I felt movement above my head. Quick you idiot, hide. I ran beneath the stairs, held my breath, and hoped that whoever was out there couldn’t hear my beating heart as loudly as I could.
Creeeeeaaak. Now someone was walking down the stairs. I could hear them descending, their feet just inches away from where I was hiding. I heard someone come padding down the hallway. My breath caught as someone walked past where I was hiding. Then, through the crack in the door, I saw the occupant of the house for the first time.
It was just an old lady.
Feeling foolish for hiding from a geriatric, I sighed with relief. She had her back to me, but I could see plainly enough how frail she was. She was tiny, and I knew that underneath the old blue gown that she wore her body would be as thin as her wrists. This must be the old man’s wife. She disappeared from view and I heard her pad into the kitchen. I retreated from the crack in the door and tried to pull myself together, readying lies to use when I stepped from my hiding place and confronted her.
I almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation. Really. She’s a an old lady. I’m a 23 year old woman. What could she possibly do to me? Rap my ankles with a stick? Throw Worther’s Originals at my head? The worst she could do was shout at me. I’d simply explain that, uh, I thought someone had fallen down so I sneaked in to help them. Yeah, right. Maybe I should just push past her and go out the door. Or I could just apologise, give her her bible page back, and say it wouldn’t happen again.
I heard her move out of the kitchen and down the hallway. Taking a deep breath, I stepped outside my hiding place and turned to face her, trying to look as non-threatening as possible. I didn’t want to give the old dear a heart-attack.
I opened my mouth to speak. She still had her back to me, and leaned upon the banisters. She grasped the wood with her left hand, upon which it creaked and snapped clean in two. I closed my mouth. I watched as the old lady lifted the phone and placed it on the table. I struggled to react. I was still struggling to react when she turned to me.
As she did so, I saw her face. Part of it was still on the bone. She had only one eye, which swung from its socket, somewhere near her nose. It wobbled with every step she took, along with her jaw. Her gumless jaw, containing long, yellow teeth, also wobbled with every step she took. Every step she took, closer to me. A worm slid out of one of her exposed nostrils, and into the other one. With her long, sharp fingernails, she tore fresh strips of wallpaper off the wall. Itching with fear, I backed up against the rusty back door. I felt the nails press into my back. The smell of decaying meat clogged my nose, my mouth, choking me. I heard blood rushing in my ears. I saw my own death.
Then I realised. His calls weren’t like speaking to an answering machine at all. They were exactly like switching off a burglar alarm. She had taken the phone off the hook to make sure she couldn’t be interrupted while dealing with the intruder.
When it reached me, I was paralysed with fear. She reached out with one, frail hand, anddddddddddddddddddddd -