Peter Farrell

Turning the Tables

‘Samaritans, can I help you?’ The standard words tumbled mechanically from his mouth as he struggled to surface from a deep sleep. There was no response from the caller but Brendan knew there was someone there. He could hear the soft breathing. It had been a quiet night but one call could change all that.

‘It’s okay. Take your time. I’ve got all night. I’ll just stay with you,’ he said, scrabbling around for the bedside light switch. It was 1.30 in the morning. ‘Are you still there? My name’s Brendan.’ He could still hear the breathing and strained for other sounds that might give him some idea where the call was coming from. He found it easier if he could picture what was going on at the other end of the line. Everyone had their own way of trying to get over this bit when the caller just stayed at the other end of the phone, saying nothing. Brendan’s way was to intersperse the silences with gentle conversational openers. This served two purposes for the overnight shifts. It let the caller know you were still there and it stopped you falling back to sleep.

‘What’s the night like out there? We can’t see it in here. It looked like a storm was blowing up when I came in earlier.’

There was a click as the caller hung up.

Brendan lay on the narrow, hard bed. Now wide awake, he was alert to the smells and sounds around him. The room, crammed into the back of a church hall, was occupied twenty-four hours a day. Two curtained-off cubicles provided some superficial privacy for the overnight shift. He could hear his companion for the night, Sophie, shifting and grunting in her sleep on the other side of the curtain. It was curiously intimate. There was an institutional smell of sweat, disinfectant and warm feet.

They took it in four-hour shifts to answer the phone first. Brendan’s four hours had another hour or so to run. Boredom and exhaustion competed for his senses.

He enjoyed being on with Sophie. She had been around for years and had an instinct for the work that few of the others could emulate. Face to face she had a quiet, matter of fact way about her that you could easily underestimate. On the phones, she provided just the right balance of calmness and good humour. She sparred with the regular callers but would never let them get away with any bullshit. Brendan always remembered that time when he heard her deal with a heavy breather, a regular who found a phone call to the Samaritans gave him a captive audience and a good chance of catching a female recipient for his fantasies. ‘Sammy, you really should do something about that asthma of yours. Why don’t you run off and get your inhaler and then we can talk,’ she’d said, giving Brendan a wink. It was good to know Sophie was there.

There were a few more calls during the next hour. They were mostly the regular insomniacs who had used up the patience of radio talkback hosts and just wanted someone else to talk at.

He was drifting back to sleep when the phone rang.

‘Samaritans, can I help you?’

‘Oh Jesus, not you again. I’m sitting here with my life flushing away and you’re going to want to talk about the fucking weather!’

Brendan tensed. The voice was well balanced, neutral, as if the speaker was not a regular user of profanities. Probably forty or so, Brendan thought.

‘I’m Brendan.’ Brendan heard the clink of bottle on glass. The hollowness to the sound placed the caller in a tiled or uncarpeted room, possibly a bathroom. He knew that now the man had broken the silence, there was a good chance that he wouldn’t hang up again just yet. Brendan waited.

‘Well, Brendan, you’ll have to do. I’ve written down what I am going to say to someone but I want to read it out to an independent third party just to make sure there is no misunderstanding. I’d have preferred a woman for this but I don’t have a helluva lot of time. In your business, you’d probably call it a suicide note. Do you want to hear it?’ The voice was calm, controlled. Brendan’s mouth went dry as he racked his brain for those role-plays he went through on the training weekends earlier in the year.

‘Go on. I’m listening.’

‘Of course you’re bloody listening. You know you’ve got the real oil here, don’t you, Brendan? I bet you’re wetting your bloody pants.’ There was something about the use of words that caused Brendan to guess the caller had dealt with the crises of others – policeman, teacher, social worker. Whatever, it wasn’t going to make things any easier. He found the continual repetition of his name unnerving. ‘I don’t think I’ll do it this way, Brendan. I’ve changed my mind. I’ll tear up the note. Let them speculate. A little bit of speculation never did anyone any harm. What do you reckon, Brendan?’

‘What would you want them to speculate about?’

The voice rolled on, oblivious to the question.

‘Here’s a little picture for you, Brendan. I’ve got the phone with me in the bathroom. I’m in the bathroom because I’m shitting myself with fear. I’ve got a bottle of some cheap whisky because that bitch took all the good stuff when she took up with young Lochinvar. Best of all I’ve got plenty of packets of the trusty old Panadol. She has no use for pills now she has The Boy to look after her. Doesn’t get many headaches these days, I shouldn’t think. The packets are all past their use-by date – a bit like us, Brendan, eh? Still, they should do the job provided I pour enough down me. Waddya think, Brendan?’

‘Have you thought about who is going to find you? Have you got kids?’ It was a risk but Brendan needed to break down what seemed like a rehearsed soliloquy. The phone was warm and slippery with his sweat.

‘Of course I’ve thought about who is going to bloody find me.’ Brendan noted he didn’t mention kids. ‘I’ve deliberately ordered a breakfast so that some poor sod of a room service waiter gets the privilege. I know what you’re thinking, Brendan. Very smart. You’re thinking this sick bastard must be at some posh hotel, one that has a phone in the loo. Wrong, Brendan. Haven’t you heard of mobile phones?’ There was a brief coyness in the voice. A cat playing with a mouse. ‘I lied. I’m actually in the bathroom at home or what roughly passes for the description of the place I live in.’

‘This woman who left you, does she have a name?’ said Brendan, struggling to keep the conversation going.

‘Oh, nice one, Brendan. Keep him talking. Find out whether this is genuine or whether it’s some nutter acting out a fantasy. You’re really quite good, do you know that? I thought when you gave me all the stuff about the weather that I’d got hold of some novice do-gooder, but I was wrong. I’ll give you that. Yeah, she’s got a name.’ The tone was now coldly ironic. ‘What say we call her Lizzie? No, not Lizzie, that sounds like fun. How about Cynthia? That sounds like a cold, tight-arsed, frigid sort of a name. What do you want to know about her, Brendan? You’re this anonymous but caring voice at the end of the phone. You’re the one who is going to help me decide to put these pills down all by myself. You know that you can’t get help to me unless I ask for it. In any case, you don’t know where I am. You force the pace with someone as serious as me and you are likely to end up as chief witness at the Coroner’s Court and we couldn’t have that, could we, Brendan?’ The voice mocked. ‘Anyway, to hell with Lizzie or was it Cynthia? How about you, Brendan?  Why’s a nice fellow like you talking to garbage like me in the middle of the night when you could be tucked at home in bed with the wife?’

Brendan hesitated. He felt the direction of the conversation slipping away from him and he was powerless to stop it. He knew the caller had sensed the hesitation. ‘Or perhaps there isn’t a wife, Brendan? Boyfriend? I don’t think so. No, I’m pretty sure there’s a woman somewhere, Brendan. There always is for the likes of you and me. Cherchez la bloody femme, I always say, and I’m seldom wrong. You know what I reckon? I reckon about a year ago she came to you and said that she was off with Cedric next door because she could no longer sleep with someone who could only talk about the weather. Cedric was probably a better screw too.’

This was such a twisted parody of what really happened with his marriage that Brendan could find no adequate response.

‘You think by talking to poor bastards like me, you are somehow going to put everything right with your own pathetic life. I was wrong. You really are a closet do-gooder.’

A very basic rule in the training was you could never hang up on a caller, but they never said the caller was going to turn the tables in quite this way. He had the uneasy feeling that there was a drowning man tugging at his foot, pulling him under. He considered waking Sophie up but he knew there would be nothing she could do. He had to deal with it himself. It was getting personal.

‘I was right! Old Cedric, eh? Fancy that, and you not knowing it had been going on for months! I bet you’ve gone back on all those times she was just “popping next door” and run through how she was with you when she got back. Did she put on a good show, Brendan? All the moans and groans in the right places, were they?’ The voice needled away, remorseless as a dentist’s drill.

‘Look. This isn’t getting us anywhere. You tell me you are going to kill yourself. You’re drinking. You’ve got enough Panadol to do the job. This is not about me. It’s about you and what you want to do with your life.’

Brendan’s words fluttered inadequately. He could hear the clink of bottle against glass and long, noisy gulps.

‘It’s funny, isn’t it. Here I am pouring myself a whisky rather than drinking it straight from the bottle. My old man was very strong on that sort of thing. Upbringing is a wonderful thing, Brendan, don’t you think?’ There was some slurring of the words but the menace remained.

‘Do you want me to get someone to you? I can do that if you tell me where you are.’ This was standard stuff. If he got the address, he could wake Sophie up and put her on to the job of getting an ambulance there while he kept the caller talking. Then he would be back in control of the situation.

‘Nice change of subject, Brendan, but it won’t work. We could just about swap roles, you and me. Difference is I’ve actually come to terms with what the bitch did to me. You, you won’t even let yourself think about it. You’d prefer to be off doing good works rather than think about her and Cedric together, skin to skin. His hands in those secret places. Allow yourself the luxury of jealousy. The pleasure of hate.’

Brendan smashed the receiver down on the cradle and then took it off again so that Sophie would take the next call. Sure enough, he heard her phone ring in the next cubicle and the murmuring of the introductory phrases. He couldn’t sleep. Those long-suppressed images of intimacy wormed their way into his subconscious, fanning his anger and hurt.

Dawn was a long time coming.

‘You okay?’ Sophie said, as she brought him a morning mug of tea. It was usual for the two overnighters to have a debrief before the daytime shift came on. They often needed to talk to someone before going out into the normal world – the world without shadows. ‘You look a bit knackered.’

‘It was quite busy on my shift but nothing difficult.’ He was non-committal.

‘Me too, although I did have that creepy bloke with the posh voice.’

‘Oh, who’s that?’ Brendan already knew the answer.

‘The one that used to work in here. Dunno what happened or why he left but he has gone right round the twist. He seems to know just how to unsettle the new ones on the phone. He didn’t try anything on an old bag like me. I told him if he was gonna top himself, he’d better get a move on because my shift was due to finish.’ The New Age training philosophy had had little impact on Sophie.

Brendan made a decision. ‘I had a long call from a bloke who’d found out his wife had been having it off with someone from his work. The poor sod had no idea it had been going on for nearly a year. Worse still, that was two years ago and I was the first person in all that time he had told how angry and jealous he was. I tried to get him to see that his response was perfectly normal. It’s a pity he didn’t just kick them both up the arse at the time and then get on with his life, but I guess it’s always easier on this side of the phone. What do you think? Is there any other way I could have handled it?’ He trusted her to respond to the facts as presented.

‘No, sounds like you did very well. If he had got me, I’d have probably been a bit harder on him. I’d have pushed him a bit and he may not have thanked me for that. At least he can now stop being so bloody nice about it all. It’s always the nice ones that suffer. You see it in here all the time.

‘Want sugar with your tea?’

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