On Hold by Sarah Salway
She was just passing the phone box the first time it rang.
Or that’s what she said afterwards. She checked her mobile of course, but her boyfriend had recently changed her ring tone to ‘Hello Barbie’ so he could find her easily. This was an old fashioned dring-dring. It brought back so many memories that when she picked up the receiver she almost imagined it to be her mother telling her to be careful.
‘Hello,’ she breathed, ‘hello, hello, hello.’
She gently touched the four corners of one of the postcards plastered on the wall as she waited for the torrent of words in a language she couldn’t understand to finish. And then she replaced the receiver.
The second time she took the call, she’d been waiting for half an hour.
The phone box wasn’t even near her house, but she changed the route of her run so she could pass it. Every third run, she’d wait. Just to see. Her boyfriend complained that she wasn’t losing that much weight for someone who ran so much, but she told him muscle took time to build up.
When the phone rang she didn’t say anything at first, just let the voice on the other end run on, smiling at the way it rose and fell, how the consonants tripped over each other. As she listened, she let her fingers trace the women on the postcards. They were all so happy looking.
‘Sweet dreams, be safe,’ she whispered as she replaced the receiver. It was what her mother always used to say to her before she went to sleep.
She threw the cards into the bin by the park. ‘Sweet dreams,’ she whispered as she imagined them nestling together in the dark.
It was some time before she could go near the phone box again. Her boyfriend insisted on running with her and he liked easier routes, ones he could measure after on his computer. He liked to run for twenty-five minutes exactly and then have sex for another twenty-five minutes. Ten minutes for a shower. He called it their productive hour. ‘I don’t understand why you used to take so long,’ he kept saying.
It was a relief to get out without him. The roads seemed familiar, as if they were welcoming her home, and the phone box gleamed like a red present waiting for her to open it.
There were new girls pasted up, all still smiling though. She was counting them, cataloguing them in her head – brown haired, Asian, blondes – when the phone rang. Dring dring. It came as such a shock that she almost dropped her stack of girls.
It was a different man on the other end this time, but the words were the same. Unintelligible, and such a hard rhythm to the language that she shut her eyes as if that might stop her hearing.
‘Mum,’ she whispered, ‘Mum, hello, it’s me, Josie.’
She was still talking when the phone box door swung open, an arm grabbed at her, swiping the cards so they fell, forming a circle around her.
‘Sweet dreams,’ she told them. ‘Be safe, be safe, be safe.’
Sarah Salway is the author of six books: three novels (Something Beginning With, Tell Me Everything, Getting the Picture), two collections of poetry (You Do Not Need Another Self-Help Book, Digging Up Paradise), and one short story collection (Leading the Dance). She is a former Canterbury Laureate and RLF Fellow at both the London School of Economics and the University of Kent. She writes about gardens at www.writerinthegarden.com, and tweets @sarahsalway. Her website is www.sarahsalway.co.uk.