Drawing out a moment and defining it by its emotive parts, Eley Williams has crafted a short story that dances on the intimacies of human interaction. A mundane action becomes the swan song for the narrator and their counterpart.
I put my eye to the three holes in the telephone receiver. You are speaking and I am staring and the wire coiled through my fingers connects our present tenses.
You are using short sentences and I blink for each clause directly against the phone so that you might hear a kissing scrape of eyelashes. We are off the hook; I am quick to replace my eye with my mouth to calm you when the wheedles of your voice become pitched more urgently.
The phone’s plastic is held to my face, I think, with a grip usually only ever exercised in times of panic: my knuckles have formed a row of white ‘ms’ and ‘w’s, spelling out a mumble or a warble along the cusp of my fist. I know that should one ever wander onto quicksand one should lie flat and try to gain purchase on a nearby bough or rope; such is my grip on the telephone receiver. It is an overhanging branch, then, but also a branch sprung from the stronger trunk of my wrist. It is blooming twin-budded, my mouth and ear at either end: both buds flapping, receiving and transmitting, Venus flytraps. I wait for you to speak once more and for our conversation to present itself through tenses in our throats and flicks at the three delicate bones of the inner ear. We attend the clicks of satellites and teeth and caveats, and I eye the telephone in my hand and wait for your line.
The body of the telephone itself deserves a closer look. It is black and squat. It is shiny. In sum: it reminds me of spat-out liquorice. The table on which it stands has been here so long its legs have notched crop-circles into the carpet.
A dialling tone. You have hung up, called off, and I am speaking in the highest room in the house to the absence of you with the cord of the phone still hanging heavy in my hand.
I put my eye again to the holes punched into the receiver. They look like a series of black moons or umlauts trailing in the wake of your vowels. These holes remind me of a dovecote, the capacity for something to crawl out rather than to speak into. Alice’s rabbit hole; the magician’s hat from which one might pull the rabbit. A nostril in plastic, a pore, a piercing, a cavity James Bond walks across: the round cross-hair in the opening credits. A black hole is a bowler hat viewed from above. The hole is an upended tin of boot polish, smarting and rebuffed, no, smartening and buffing.
I was cut-off mid-conversation, trying to tell you something and – annoyingly – I now can’t remember what that was: the moment’s gone though the phone remains. It had a vowel in it. I can tell because my mouth is caught open, mid-howl or mid-coo. My mouth is a parody of the hole in the receiver.
The dialling tone I know as well as the intonations of your laugh, the curve of a fingerprint or of a spine. It is making a tuning fork of my head.
From below, a bell would be a flat circle of black. The bell might toll, a rolling knell, but it’s just a noisy hole to me. While I was listening in this room you were in a strange part of town, and I could hear the unseen bustle and the gravity in the grappling-hooks in your tongue and your teeth and the lids of your eyes coming down the phone line, answered with a bump and grind and a jarring of my jaw.
The hole in the phone, I was thinking, looks like a full stop. An exclamation mark is a full-stop with a Mohican. Fullstops, three full-stops, you were waiting for me to finish off your sentence. Lichtenstein dots, Seurat dots: you can’t see the whole picture without counting on the importance of dots, motes, specks. The idea of a black hole. I consider the black hole in the phone’s receiver. Black holes in space sucking on something. The pupil is an absence in your eye. I know every flex of that absence. It’s the ‘That’s All, Folks!’ black hole that a cartoon pig giggles, stutters, disappears into at the end of Looney Toons. An eye socket, something gaping, torn, without a uvula, the dangling bell-rope of your throat. A river-smoothed disc of black stone that would skip, like a heartbeat, if skimmed across a flat enough surface. An espresso.
I put my eye again to the hole and pretend it could be a periscope, reliving the moment your hand slammed down your receiver at your end. The sense of depth. No, It has not sense of depth, it is an eclipse approaching totality. Your voice churning out from each of the (counts) five holes punched into the plastic: an ‘Ooooo!’ of camp surprise that you slammed the phone down. Slammed is the right word for a phone, isn’t it?
The sun outside is an ‘O’. The traffic light stacks its circles, like the beads of a necklace. I see everything a good deal sharper. The flies fry on the neon spittoon of bedroom light.
In short: you waited for me to return the goodbye and when you realised I couldn’t, you hung up.
I stare down the phoneline.
Eley Williams is a writer of short fiction and poetry and will be part of our upcoming literary festival. (more on that soon!)
More of her work can be found here.
Illustration by Mir-0