‘Anonymity is golden Paul.’ I can still hear Dr Flores in the induction session an age ago. ‘Never reveal anything personal to a caller, it confuses the issue and the issue is them. Provide only the sketchiest details, your name only in the direst circumstance and never ever agree to meet.’
So I work the phones. I prefer nights and now nights are all I do. When it’s warm I turn the computers off and lie on the floor and listen. I’m a good listener. I can hear the meanings in the words and what’s behind them, and there’s always one word that’s a door into something deeper, and it’ll ring just like a bell. The word can be anything: ‘puppy’ or ‘mother’ or ‘cowardly’ or ‘bitten’. Right then I’ll say something like, ‘Tell me about being bitten.’
You hear a lot on the phone, more than you’d think.
‘Hey AnneMarie,’ I said. AnneMarie is one of my regulars: middle-aged, alcohol, married, calls fortnightly, late nights, Sundays.
‘Paulee…I tried…tried show hard but I…’ she slurred.
‘It’s okay,’ I said.
‘Iss nod K.’
‘Wanting to give up is the first step and you made it four days this time.’
‘Four loushy days. I’m a gutless—’
‘—No you’re not,’ I said.
I know what AnneMarie needs. She needs to get her act together. She needs to hire Lenny and Pete to visit on that abusive mongrel of husband of hers. She needs to put that spoilt brat of a son into some military school with buzz haircuts and spit-shine leather thwacking across pink backsides. But most of all, she needs to stop dancing with mama vodka.
‘You think I’m pathetic,’ she continued.
‘What I think isn’t important, it’s what you do that counts,’ I said emphasising the do, move them on, move them to action.
Here at the helpline we have a drycleaners approach to counselling: all care, but no responsibility. For the price of a call you get reflective counselling and unconditional positive regard, that’s all.
I know what you’re thinking. All this sounds like some smart-bastard rationalisation for not really helping. Well, after one failed marriage and a second freewheeling downhill my current theory is that nobody can really help anybody else and sure-as-shooting everyone ignores sensible advice. All you can do is be there and listen.
I listen to all types: the pervs, ‘…my daughter is so beautiful, her beautiful blonde hair…’; the crazies, ‘…and there are these statues on Mars that tell me…’; and once in a while the goners who are falling away while they’re talking, ‘I’m so sleepy, I’m going to lay the phone down now…’
You also listen to other things. Sometimes when it’s quiet, I’ll lie in the dark, put the phone under my shirt on my belly and listen. Listen viscerally. Listen with my gut.
My gut wasn’t much use the night Nenne called. Truth was, I was tired. It was a big full October moon and when the moon shines on the Emerald City it’s like yeast and spit in a sugar bowl. Seems like the whole city’s lying in their beds groaning, thinking about their lives; listening to the lump next to them snoring; adding up the overdue bills over and over as if they might sum to something more manageable in the moonlight. In every bedroom, souls are thinking about what they’ve just done or planning what they’re about to do. And some of them call a service like ours. The night Nenne called the phones had been running hot for hours.
But when Nenne called she’d dialled the wrong number
‘Don’t say anything Perry,’ she insisted right off. ‘Not a word. Just let me tell you this.’ So I sat back and listened. ‘I am a bad person,’ she said, ‘and I’m sorry for ever hurting you. It’s my twisted way of saying I love you.’
I tried to stop her but her script had been rehearsed and she was well prepared.
‘There,’ she said, ‘I said it at last. I love you.’
I let her tell me about feeling. Feeling hurt by the coldness, the aloofness. How worried she got in the silences day after day. How she saw silence as criticism and only when she got it right would I tell her. But so much of it was guesswork, inching a way through a minefield.
Then she started to project stuff into the spaces between us. Crazy stuff, like I wanted to hurt her or she wanted to hurt me. For a while she was so scared she stayed in her room. This went on for a week or so, and then she decided to change. She stopped the protests and became quiet, listening for clues. She became an emotional detective examining the traces, a fragment of conversation, an uneaten meal, a fallen gesture.
But the harder she tried, the more I withdrew and when I didn’t come home that first evening she became frantic. She called our friends then the cops and the hospitals asking after a car accident, the shelters asking for an amnesiac. The cops took her number and told her not to worry. The hospitals were too busy and the shelters just laughed. So she sat there in the dark of our living room, smoking and worrying.
Slowly through that first night alone it dawned on her. The problem between us wasn’t what she did, it wasn’t her behaviour, it was something deeper; it was the self that was wrong.
Once I’d let her go on it was easy, perverse but easy. I was merely giving her what she asked for. She’d asked me to say nothing, insisted. This was on her.
So I sat silent as she worked through her story, erected her narrative. And there it was like a crazy edifice of chairs balanced one atop another, towering over the forehead of some misguided Chinese acrobat—it swayed and teetered but kind of made sense.
I started to understand.
I could see how she could mistake my reticence for reluctance, quietude for criticality, absence for annoyance. My responses were plain, obvious to anyone who could step away and observe. And that’s all it took, a little distance. My staying away had allowed that objectivity. Wasn’t that what I intended all along, she asked? To grant her the clarity that was impossible while we were together troubling the waters.
Nenne talked for hours. We were still on the phone when the morning-shift arrived and the first sun threw low yellow lines against the wall. She was slowing down—the observations, the dissections, the cataloguing was done. The sentences shortened, then just a few words. She paused, breathed and stopped. We both did.
I let it rest for a moment and then I ventured the question. It was a doomed gesture but I had to.
‘So what do we do?’ I said.
Silence. There was nothing down the line. Just her breathing. There. She knew, we both knew. There could be no misunderstanding. She had in fact misdialled…and I was not…yet I had…and she had.
‘Meet me,’ she breathed.
What I was thinking? There I was smiling like an idiot and hurrying past the street cleaners down the back roads of The Cross to The Greasy Cat. Somehow it was going to be OK. We’d work this out.
It was early and The Cat was dim and deserted. Max at the counter looked up from his paper and nodded towards the figure up the back in the shadows. Nenne was sitting straight up and jumpy. I saw my reflection in her large black glasses, coming up close, watched the stupid smile fall from my face.
Ashamed now, I braced for her slap, the raking clawing, the spitting. But her fingers were gentle over my face, mapping its geography, pressing and moulding my features. And then her arms were around my neck and she was pulling me to her hard and desperate.
‘Oh Perry, Perry baby,’ she sobbed in my ear. I tried to pull away, but her nails were sharp at the side of my neck. Then she’s saying ‘oh’ over and over and I felt dizzy and hot like I wanted to turn away and vomit but she’s holding my head, following me down as I slumped into the chair.
And she’s crying and pulling me tight against her and I’m tingling and arching with white pleasure erupting behind my eyes as she’s biting at my neck.
Next thing we were outside. She’s running before me, pulling me along and we’re hurrying down alleys hard against the receding pools of darkness. There’s a midnight doorway in front of us and she’s through but I stopped there on the verge for a moment and looked back onto the brightening day. The sky was crackling electric with unbelievably harsh light. Out in the street people were walking through blades of charged brightness, the light spearing them, passing straight through their bodies.
So I came home. Four days is long enough. Nenne knows now. We don’t speak but there is an eloquence between us deeper than language—the minor gesture a caress, a breath become song. We lie in the dark and at night I work the phones. And once in a while there’ll be a caller, someone special and there’ll be rapport and in the early morning I might agree to meet them. Meet them up the back in the dark of The Greasy Cat.