The Wind Singing in the Wires
by Simon Kewin
On an impulse, Penelope McBride knelt down in the overgrown grass at the side of the lane. The ground was unexpectedly yielding, like soft butter. A good job she had her old gardening trousers on. The undergrowth was thick. A tangle of brambles and hogweed, their flowers like giant, frozen sparklers, hid the base of the telegraph pole almost completely. The overhanging sycamore branches kept the place sheltered and shadowed despite the warmth of the afternoon. She could just make out the edge of the grey metal box.
And what, exactly, was she doing? Forty-five year old women did not stop on their afternoon walks and hack their way through the vegetation to kneel with their ears to rusting boxes listening for mysterious voices. They simply did not. There was dignity to consider, as well as aching knee-joints.
She had been too busy thinking about Zack of course. Over the seven years she had thought about little else. The countless day-to-day anxieties of the first-time parent and the longer-term, background worries. Would he make friends? Would he be happy? He would be home from school soon, her hour of me-time for the day over. How she longed to have him back with her, to feel his soft arms wrapped around her neck. It was good for her, though - gave her time for some exercise. And to think.
His questions last night had thrown her, lying together in his bed, warm and safe whilst he drifted off to sleep. None of the answers she had rehearsed in her head over the years had ever sounded right. How did you explain to him that she didn't even know who his daddy was? That all she had were the biographical details provided by the clinic: career, intellect, looks, origins, approximate age. I just never met the perfect daddy. This way I could still have you without having to wait for him. How could she admit to all the failed relationships over the years? Harry, Conrad, Glen, all the bitter or selfish men that she could never bring herself to trust. Or who were too quick to anger. Or who seemed to have trouble washing often enough. Seb who was too perfect, who had been bound to leave her.
'So, granny was your mum. Didn't you have a daddy too?'
'I did. I never really knew him.'
'Did he die?'
She stroked his hair. She hadn't talked about this for years although she thought about it most days too. Strange how having children made you think about your parents; about what it was like to be a child.
'No, sweetheart. The truth is I don't know what happened to him. He left us. Granny and me and your Auntie Jane.'
'He didn't say. We don't know.'
'Millie at school said her dad left to become someone else's daddy. Didn't he love you?'
'I think so. He just didn't come home from work one day. The family story has always been that he went off somewhere.'
'Like an adventurer?'
'Something like that.'
'Was this before you were born?'
'I was a bit younger than you, sweetheart. I remember him lifting me up in the air, high up above his head and holding me there. I remember his face being scratchy when he kissed me. I don't remember much else.'
Tears came into her eyes as she spoke, although he didn't notice.
'What did he look like?'
'Would you like to see a photo?'
'I'll be back in a moment.'
She slipped out and went to her own room, taking the picture from the drawer by her bed. Here stood her father in black-and-white, smiling in the garden, wearing a suit and tie despite the heat, tall and rather handsome. He leant on the wall, relaxed, pipe in mouth, as if he had just popped outside and would be back soon. Scribbled on the back in purple ink were his initials - MM - and a number, presumably from some cataloguing system he had devised. This was the only handwriting of his she had.
'This is him. Taken before I was born.'
'What did he do?'
He had worked on the wires, erecting the 'phone lines that spread over the whole country in those years. She imagined him as a scientist, there as the first crackling, fuzzy messages came through from distant, mythical lands. He was an inventor, brilliant, a man of genius and vision.
'He helped make the telephones work.'
'Tell me more.' He was sleepy now, not really listening, just glad to hear her voice beside him.
Everyone thought he had run off with someone else, of course. Jane, her cynical elder sister, took a positive pleasure in telling everyone that their father had left for a mystery woman. That he had another family somewhere. His real family.
She had never allowed herself to believe any of it. Rather, he had been working up a telegraph pole during a storm, battling to reconnect a line as the gale buffeted him around. The wind made the flailing lines moan and sing. Then a lightning bolt picked him out, lighting him up, evaporating him into electricity, sending him into the wires he was touching at the time. He hadn't just abandoned them.
'You know sometimes at night when the 'phone makes a brief beep, as if someone is ringing you but then they think better of it? I sometimes think that's him, trying to get in touch.'
It was dark now, making it easier to speak. Zack said nothing. He was asleep, hadn't heard what she'd said, his breathing slow and deep against her breast.
But as she untangled herself from him he stirred and, whispering, asked the question at last.
'Where's my daddy, mummy?'
'Shush love. Time for sleep now. I'll tell you tomorrow.'
She stamped around some more to flatten the plants, revealing the base of the telegraph pole, the colour of treacle. Solidified drops of some viscous liquid oozed out of it. Bolted to it was the small, rusting box. A faint clicking noise came from it but whether the metal was just warming up, or whether the sound was from some switching mechanism within it, she couldn't tell. How long had it been there? Since the wires were first put up? Since her dad's day?
She brushed back a stray strand of hair that was tickling her cheek then unpicked ivy from further up the pole. Here the wood was weathered to the colour of cigarette ash. She revealed a small metal disc nailed to it. Dimly visible, all but weathered away to nothing, was the simple figure 1, as if this was the first pole ever erected in the whole telephone system, long-forgotten in the choke of weeds and branches.
The metal box was featureless, but cables ran from it, up the pole and then looping off to further poles like a washing-line sagging under the weight of wet sheets. She tapped the box with her foot and it clanged like a tea-tray. Right down at ground level, near her foot, were two small, round holes, like headphone sockets but not quite the right size. One was marked 'Line', the other 'Exchange', the writing faded and hard to make out. She pressed her ear to the box. The metal was cold against the side of her face. The whispering sound that she heard as she passed every day, louder now, was clearly coming from inside: a tinny buzzing as if flies were trapped in there.
Her muscles began to complain and she stood back up, glancing up and down the dusty, straight, single-track lane to be sure that no-one had spotted her. Only crows in the trees, eyeing her quizzically and, high up, a wheeling buzzard, hoping perhaps that she might be about to die, were there to witness her madness. The little grove of trampled greenery was like a shrine by the side of the road.
As she stood there, it came to her in a rush exactly what she had to do. She glanced at her watch. Twenty minutes: there was just about enough time. She ran back to the house, all thought of dignity forgotten, and, almost panicky, let down the rickety ladder that led up into the loft. She had very few of his things left. Some books she never looked at, a hand-grenade converted into a cigarette lighter. And a telephone, black and solid, made of bakelite, kept, so she always said, because one day it might be worth something. Cradling it in one arm she ran out of the house and back into the lane.
With trembling fingers she plugged the phone into the rusty socked marked 'Exchange'. She held the telephone to her ear. There was a crackling and hissing, and then came a jumble of voices all talking at once, so that it was impossible to make out any words. Hundreds, thousands of them. Millions, perhaps, as if she was hearing all the conversations taking place in the world all at once.
'Hello,' she said, half expecting all the voices to stop instantly, as if noticing her in the corner of a crowded room. But the buzzing continued. 'Hello!'
She disconnected the telephone and plugged it back into the 'Line' socket. It was rusty and she had to press hard to make it go in all the way. She hesitated for a moment and then began to dial the five digits from the photograph. The mechanism was stiff, taking an age to turn. Each time it slowed as it returned, so that she kept expecting it to jam completely.
There was a ringing sound. She could feel her heart beating loudly. She made herself breathe deeply, in time to the rings on the phone. The handset was heavy in her hand. Her knees were very sore now.
What was she doing? This had all gone far enough. She imagined Serena from the Rectory coming along the lane with her black Labradors, seeing her there crouched in the bushes with her ear to an ancient telephone. The look of shock, the polite words they would use to cover the situation up. In truth she would never live it down. They already thought her a bit strange.
She put her fingers onto the plug to pull it out. In the distance she could see the school-bus rounding the corner near the line of poplars. She had only to step back onto the lane and everything would be normal once again. Nothing would have happened. She could tell Zack that his daddy had left. And if he grew up thinking this was what men did, it was just one more failure, one more disaster from so many. Perhaps he would blame her, a slow poison coming between them over the years, the pattern repeating once more, perhaps for the final time. But what could she do?
There was an answer on the line. She heard a series of clicks, as if distant connections were being established.
'Hello?' said a man's voice, crackly over the old wires. Her throat refused to let her speak for a moment.
'Hello?' said the man again. 'Who is this?' He sounded as if he had just been woken up.
'It's me. It's Penelope.'
There was silence on the line, then a squall of rough noise. Through it she could just make out his words.
'Penny. At last. At long last.'
For a moment, she couldn't speak. Then she managed to get the words out, clutching the handset tight to her head.
Story Copyright © 2009 by Simon Kewin. All rights reserved.
Next: The Church Steeple by Barry Pomeroy
About the author
Simon writes fiction, poetry and computer software, although usually not at the same time. His fiction has appeared in Nemonymous, Here & Now, Abyss & Apex, Albedo One, Redsine, Quantum Muse, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Deep Magic, amongst others. He has had poetry published in a variety of magazines including Cadenza, Voice and Verse, Helicon, The Affectionate Punch, 12th Planet and Sepia.
He lives deep in rural Herefordshire (in the UK) with Alison and their two daughters Eleanor and Rose.