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The Woman in White Marble

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Shaun Gardiner

 

 

 

Shaun Gardiner is an artist, writer and graphic novelist currently based in Stromness, Orkney.

Born in the Middle East, he moved to the UK when he was fifteen. He's usually to be found hunched over a keyboard or drawing board, sometimes with a cat in his lap, often in the company of his wife and fellow arty type, Anna.

To visit Shaun’s website Basement Garden click here. 

Saturday
Feb202016

Making a Loss

“How much for it?”

The other, the one who had his hood pulled up, kept his palms pressed together, but shrugged with one shoulder.

“Fiver.”

“Fiver?” repeated the younger man, whose name, to his lasting displeasure, was Ralph.

He looked at the phone skeptically. Had he got the model wrong? He squinted, looking for an indication that he was being stung. Who'd sting anyone for a fiver? Still. He wanted to look close at the phone but something about the other's manner – as far as he, as anyone, could read a stranger – implied that Ralph shouldn't touch it, at least until the money had exchanged hands.

Finally he settled for asking, “What's wrong with it?”

“It works fine,” the man in the hood said, and then surprised Ralph by saying “Try it out. Take a photo.”

Ralph picked up the phone. It was reassuringly heavy. He'd wondered if was just a hollow shell, all bag and no cat. He pointed it without thinking at the other man, who immediately threw his hands up in front of his face. The effect, with the hood, was to make him look, Ralph thought, like a spastic monk.

“Not me, not me,” the man said. He had a trace of an accent under stress, Ralph detected. European? His shyness confirmed, for Ralph, certain suspicions about the phone's origin. “Not me,” said the man again. “Something else. Take a picture of the dog.”

The animal in question was a collie, dozing under a table on the other side of the pub, just visible through a weave of legs. Ralph pointed the phone. The dog, observant as all of its breed, rolled its eyes in his direction a few seconds before he pressed the button.

He noticed that the camera made no sound when the photo was taken. The screen only tinged momentarily with silent blue. He thought they had to make a sound when they took a photo, like a legal requirement, and a number of uncomfortable possibilities occurred to him.

“There you see?” said the hooded man. The photo had appeared on the screen.

“Dunno,” said Ralph. “Something's up with it. It screwed up the eyes look.”

The man didn't look, but he said “You moved your hand. I saw.”

“Didn't,” said Ralph, and remembered his drink, and took a pull, and wished you could still smoke in pubs. He didn't like this guy. Wanker. 

The rest of the photo was perfectly in focus. Only the dog's eyes...

“Just red eye then,” said the hooded man. “They have got this thing, this, dogs, this reflective part at the back of the eye – ”

“That's cats,” said Ralph, whose mum had two. “And it's not red eye, look.” But the man wouldn't look.

“Well,” he said. “So you, you see it works.”

Ralph wasn't convinced, was less convinced than before. It was a new phone, only released in the last month or so. He'd seen the queues reported on the telly, people with sleeping bags, thermos flasks, stoves (the police confiscated those). A fiver?

“Can I call someone on it?” he asked.

The hooded man, from what could be seen of his face, looked troubled. 

He hesitated, began to say something, and then took a pull on his drink as if to prevent himself. He choked, began to cough. Ralph could almost believe it was intentional. Stalling.

Seized by a sudden thought, Ralph shot his glance swiftly round the pub. Setup? He looked to see if anyone was watching them, anyone paying too much attention. He scanned for short back and sides, clean shaven for men, hair tied down tight for women. Police haircuts. Less to grab in a fight. But he didn't see anyone. The idea, in any case, was ridiculous. Ralph tended to think too much of himself.

By now the hooded man had finished coughing, and seemed to have made a decision. Nodding, he said, “Do it.”

Ralph picked up the phone again. Heavy. He thought this version was supposed to be, and yet again, the lightest ever. (“So light you'll think you've lost it.” So claimed the advert.) But his own phone, the contacts on which he was scrolling through with his other hand, still felt lighter than it. He found the number he was looking for.

He dialled it, and while it rang the hooded man began to ask, suddenly, in a burst, “Who – ?” and then subsided into silence.

Ralph wouldn't have told him anyway. That was his business.

The phone was answered. He heard the familiar voice on the other end of the phone, and he tried not to grin, because the hooded man was watching very close.

But almost immediately there was static on the line. Static. Not static. Worst static ever. Her voice was hidden behind several layers of what sounded like many people shouting, many thousands, like listening to a football match when the crowd gets aggressive. And over the voices occasional sharp sounds, the aural equivalent, he thought, of stepping on a nail in the dark. Trumpets? Under that, a strange rhythmic pulse too deep for the phone's speaker, but which made itself felt in a slight fluctuation in the volume of all the rest. Her voice fragmented in the mess.

She sounded upset, he thought. He wondered what had happened. He asked her a few questions, to no answer. The presence of the hooded man hindered him. He tried to explain that it was him, that this wasn't his phone, but no luck. She couldn't hear – or if she could hear, he couldn't hear her say so.

By now her voice had seemed to blend into the noise, so that what Ralph had to think of as the crowd was no longer a screen between him and her words, or an intrusive background against which she failed to stand out – but she became a part of it, wove, assimilated to it. The feeling, a strange one, was that she had moved nearer to him, spatially, in doing so.

He told her he was going to hang up, and then did. He thought he heard her begin to protest, but too late. The sounds carried on for a moment after he cut the connection. The phone was sluggish, he thought – probably too much on it, not enough memory.

“So,” said the hooded man. “See? Working.” His throat sounded raw from the coughing.

“Worst reception I ever had.”

“Crossed line,” said the hooded man. This time there was no conflict in his manner. Ralph thought that even if he, the man,  had been lying the entire rest of the evening, ever since this whispered haggle began – you want to buy a phone? untraceable – in that one moment he'd told the truth, or what he thought was true. Could you even get crossed wires any more, with modern networks? He said 'lines', Ralph remembered, but that was the same thing.

“So,” said the hooded man again, but this time that was all.

Ralph looked at the phone. It really did look fine. There was a small crack in one corner of the screen, obscuring the time and date display (they looked as if they were wrongly set anyway). But that was all.

A fiver ...

“Sure,” said Ralph.

The hooded man did nothing, didn't move. He didn't even seem, to Ralph, to breathe. Tense as a piano string.

He felt capricious. He didn't like the man. “Sure you don't want more than a fiver?” He somehow knew this would needle the guy, don't ask him how, it was the insistence of the man upon the word: fiver. But the response surprised him.

“No!” Almost shouting. Then a string of syllables, probably, Ralph thought, expletives, quiet, to himself; like someone who sees they might be about to squander prolonged effort; who'd climbed a day-long ladder and suddenly thought there might be a snake at the top.

“No,” he said, more calmly. “It needs to be five pounds.” He seemed to be smiling. He looked sick, Ralph thought. Must need the money. Still smiling, the hooded man said, “Making a loss, I am, you know.” He said it loudly, as if he wanted to be overheard.

Ralph pulled out the money, wadding the note into a tight contemptuous little ball on its way from pocket to table.

In one movement the man caught it up and was out of his seat, leaving.

Ralph had a thought. “What about the SIM?” he called.

The man stumbled, but he kept going. “It's yours,” he called back, but he did not turn. Then he was lost in the crowd. Over the music and the talk, Ralph heard the pub door open and shut.

So. His now. He was pleased, despite the problems. Even if he just had to throw it away, even if it couldn't be fixed. What's a fiver? The hooded man had left his drink, he saw, over half-full, and long gone flat. The glass was greasy with fingerprints.

He raised the phone, turned it to face him. He snapped a photo. 

Actually he snapped three, forgetting that it didn't make a sound as he expected.

Then, after he had a proper look at the results, wishing still more fervently he could have a cigarette here at the table – because abruptly he didn't trust his legs to carry him outside – he took another, and another, and another, and another.

Copyright © 2016 Shaun Gardiner