I wait until deep in the night before I make calls that span the city. The couple in the flat above hoover their carpets till late, shaking the ceilings so violently the light fittings swing. My other neighbours make love with disquieting muffled yelps so they don’t wake their baby who, when conscious, stomps around her cot, rattling the bars, demanding her freedom.
Once the block of flats settles down, I slip into bed with a giant mug of coffee and turn the TV to the religion channel, which helps ensure I’m alert through the night. Around 1am is when the fun begins.
I get the numbers wherever I can and I collect them in a kind of collage. None of the people I call are usually awake. This is how I like it. I want to cut through people’s dreams and discover their shadow selves beyond their public image; politicians, lovers, architects, bin men, athletes, dancers, lawyers. Who do they really think they are, with only the night and their bedsheets to shield them?
They mustn’t know who I really am so I talk to them in my secret voice, as I lie in bed and they lie in theirs.
They yawn, they are confused, they become angry.
A man in a grey pinstripe suit dominates an auditorium of faithful followers on television. He’s fleecing them but they have no doubt. Everyone is resolute. I take a sip of lukewarm arabica brew.
One time I pretended to be a landlord, demanding a student’s rent. The student pleaded with me for more time. I said if he isn’t gone by sunrise some men with chains and crowbars would knock sense into him with some cartoon-style violence.
One time I phoned a Syrian immigrant, living in a bedsit, at 4am and demanded his papers. He could hardly string three English words together but he understood my point when it suited him, that’s for damn sure. It was only when he started to cry did I hang up. I felt laughter rise like hiccups through my body and as the line was cut I sighed with satisfaction in the gloom of my bedroom.
I thought of pranking my family who I hadn’t spoken to in months. The last time I called my mum I pretended to be an absentminded old man inquiring about a lost dog. My mum listened and was sympathetic. She would never normally listen to me that way. I soon realised it’s always easier being someone else.
I called my sister who lives up north with her husband and a large brood of children and intrepid cats that explore the local fields at night. My brother-in-law answered and whispered down the line, saying “She won’t talk to you until you phone your mum and apologise. She was really cut up by what you said. To be honest, we all were.”
I hung up and bit into my lip. It’s easier phoning strangers but sometimes it’s good to ring people you know and challenge yourself.
I called my mum, pretending to sell funeral services.
“Why are you calling me so late, Jack? Why can’t you call like a normal boy and why can’t you apologise for what you said?”
I was speechless. I waited for a beat then hung up.
I made a list of who to dial next but this time I unblocked my number. Then when I would make my calls, they would no longer be secret. I made myself accountable and after each call I waited nervously to see if anyone called me back.
As the sun rose, forcing itself languidly out of the horizon, I fell asleep. Then my phone rang. There was no caller ID.
A preacher chastised his flock and they shed tears.
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published over sixty times in journals including Able Muse, Bourbon Penn, Intrinsick, Menacing Hedge, Literally Stories, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and The Fiction Pool. He has been nominated for The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2020. He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse.