*

DEAD-ENDS by DF Lewis

            Pete kept meeting dead-ends.  Yet, the city was easy to negotiate during the day which he had in fact accomplished more or less regularly before tonight.  However, with the hours of daytime drawing shorter these days, he was almost certain to be caught out sooner or later.

He had been delayed on the telephone, by an ugly customer – though Pete couldn’t be sure just how ugly.  The others in the office had turned off almost all the overhead strips before heading for home.  They had then filled all the lifts and staircases with clambering bodies – like crabs in a fisherman’s basket.

Pete’s desk-lamp, gleaming waxily across his yet untidied papers, spotlit his hallowe’en mask of a mask of a face, while he tried to put paid to the hard-buy customer at the other end of the telephone.  What cheek!  What brass neck, giving Pete an earful, trying to be a paying customer at this time of day, when even the clock had clocked off!  After all, the salesman’s always right…

But Pete was not really a proper salesman.  He possessed the soul of a backroom-johnny, a jerk-of-an-erk, one who felt out of his depth when trying to persuade (or, even, dissuade) someone to buy something.  At the moment, he didn’t mind which it was, as long as he, Pete, could go home and put up his feet with a nice cup of his wife’s freshly brewed tea.

It then dawned on him that he couldn’t separate his ear from the phone – as if the customer’s voice was really an audible glue.  Pete realised that he must slam the phone down rudely – the only way to close the sale.  But, there he was, struggling horrifically with the handset: yanking at his fleshy lug as he would a cheesy pizza from its pan.

He glanced in desperation at the sepia photograph in an ancient gold frame of his dear wife on the desk, winking in the flickering desk-lamp, with his two kiddywinks either side – usually a comfort to him during normal office hours, since his work was for them, after all, wasn’t it?  Whenever a particularly ingratiating client came on the line to chat him up – well, his family’s images were a godsend, a heart-warming consolation.  Damn!  Every sale meant extra paperwork for poor Pete and, indeed, commission thus earned would simply encourage his wife to want another extension of the family or desire better accommodation or, even, BOTH!   Still, she did make a comforting cup of tea.

Slamming the phone down was normally the only answer…

He wandered the darkness of narrowing city streets, dazed and lost.  The buses seemed to have stopped running – or merely turned over their engines somewhere out of sight, always around the next corner.  The underground stations padlocked.  Black cabs blacker than night itself.  Every thoroughfare identical or so similar it was hardly worth walking from one to the other – leading round and round the oblong city squares.  For a while, he sat on a park bench, feeling the side of his head.  Thankfully the ear was still more or less intact…

But the voice inside it droned on.

The parlour was quiet, except for the woman’s relentless clacking needles.  She didn’t know what she was making or, indeed, from what it was made, but the flowing grey matter, which the candlelight made to seem as if it were extruding from her revolving ear, had knitted together, spreading over her lap to the carpet – and back again.

“Mummy, what are you making?” asked a attractive little girl with a disfiguring lisp.

“Mummy, why don’t you ever say anything?” asked an even littler boy smelling of the Vick spread across his chest to ease the breathing.

They saw her glance at the oval gold-framed photograph of her husband on the writing-bureau, where a candle guttered.  Pete was late.  They hoped she’d put the kettle on for a pot of tea – that always did the trick.  They’d hear the garden gate go – and then…

The phone rang.  The little girl scampered to answer it, delighted to be sufficiently grown up for this duty.

“Hello, theven, four, thix, thix, three…”

Pete discovered one of those old-fashioned red telephone boxes tucked away in a back-double.  It should have been a welcoming sight, a throwback to the days before portable car-phones – but, in the circumstances, it was strangely off-putting.  He felt the side of his head again and found something slimy drooling from an ear-hole.  Mind slipping sideways, he tried to poke it back.

He managed to tug the heavy door open and squeezed himself in before it shut again.  Damn!  The phone was a left-ear one, and that happened to be the ear in trouble.  Nevertheless, Pete picked up the handset from its cradle.  But even before he had the chance to poke his digit in the various numbered holes in the dial, he heard a series of ratchets slipping home at the Telephone Exchange.  Then, a babble of strangers’ voices: the whole city talking to itself.  At one point, he heard his own disguised voice.  He wept bitterly when, in the distance, he made out the faint lisping of a little girl he knew he once loved – fading in and quickly fading out amid the aural mush.

Soon, all he could hear were the quick buck deals that everyone ripped each other off with…

“…five, thix, thix … Mummy, Mummy, this phone’s getting wet and thticky.”  The little girl held out the handset for inspection.  The woman looked up from her knitting and smiled knowingly, her ticking needles weaving a cat’s cradle of crossed-lines around her little boy’s sleepy snorting head.  After all, Pete had worked for an insurance company and knew all the best life assurance policies to sell – and buy.  As far as customers went, Mummy had been Pete’s best, and decidedly not ugly in any shape or form.

The one for the pot could be hers.  But it was bound to end up with dead ants at the bottom of the cup, as she had lost the tea-strainer years ago.  The garden gate didn’t go.  She saw there was a single silver tealeaf of a tear under of the little girl’s eyes, but nobody said anything, particularly the mother.

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