That Phone Call

That Phone Call

A Story by Peter Regal Whittam

The warm, pleasantly heavy air inside Harleton’s hung with the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee and just-out-of-the-oven croissants, proving to be more than a match for the wintry November gusts whipping around outside the cozy little building. Breakfast at the diner was always rowdy business, as men and women of all age and social standing jostled around with mouthfuls of doughnuts or arms laden with newspapers and steaming mugs of caffeinated “morning fuel”, as Joseph, the owner of the diner, liked to call it. Businessmen, lawyers, policemen, doctors, teachers, mechanics �" if you could name an occupation, chances were, someone of that profession would be found there.

Little was known as the owner of the little establishment, Joseph Harleton. It was common knowledge that his father had opened the diner almost three decades ago, and the flourishing business passed from father to son. However, that was about all that we knew about him. As a person, Joseph was in his early thirties, a towering lad with a balding head, a bushy beard, twinkling eyes and a kind heart that reflected on his ever-cheerful face. “The Jolly Giant” was his affectionate nickname amongst his customers, reviving images of Rubeus Hagrid from the ever-popular Harry Potter series. But he was not the type to talk about his past; indeed, his avid interest in whatever topic of conversation was at hand and the fact that he never took a day off from his job often gave off the impression that he led the most uneventful life in the history of the city. Any knowledge of his family, apart from that of his deceased father, was virtually non-existent. Not that many people bothered, though; for most, it was enough to see Joseph’s jovial, bustling self every morning without the need to delve any deeper. But that was not to say there was no one curious about the mysterious fellow’s past. As an author, I spent many an hour sitting in my usual spot in the diner, a comfortable booth near the window at the far end of the diner, scribbling down brainstorms on a scrap of paper, and oftentimes, my attention would drift towards Joseph as he busily served his customers coffee, my eyes searching, probing for any telltale slip about his past that would appease my morbidly inquisitive mind. But alas, no such luck ever befell the ill-fated writer, who seemed destined to amble aimlessly in search of answers until he stumbled into his grave.

That day was no different. Slouched over a notepad with a pencil in hand, I looked up when a pretty, green-eyed redhead approached me, her high heels clicking on the tiled floor. “Is there anything else I can get you?” she asked, smiling warmly �" the waitress were accustomed to my regular brainstorming sessions and knew I would probably starve before snapping out of my reveries.

“Another cup of coffee would be great,” I replied with a tired, lopsided attempt at a smile. As she walked off to fetch my fourth order of coffee of that morning, I threw my pencil down in acute frustration: sitting at the helm of paper for over three hours, I was unable to pen down a single line for a manuscript my editor called and demanded that I hand in pronto. Granted, a noisy diner did not seem to be too appropriate a place for one’s concentration to bloom, but any writer worth his or her salt knew inspiration could strike from the unlikeliest places �" an overheard dialogue, a whistle of a kettle, a bark of a dog. Personally, I had found the boisterous air inside Harleton’s to be quite stimulating for my creativity, resulting in my many returns to the cozy eatery. However, inspiration seemed an elusive construct for me on that day…or so I thought before it practically strolled to me in the shape of the Jolly Giant.

Without so much as a moment’s notice, Joseph Harleton materialized out of thin air and plopped in the seat across the table. “So, how is it going for the author of the next bestseller?” he boomed, expression amiable as always.

“Not too well, I’m afraid.” I let out a low whistle. “At this rate, the next bestseller might take a century more to come out.”

Joseph’s laugh was less than a roar, but not by much. I couldn’t help but let out a reluctant smile; it was impossible not to be lifted by that explosion of a laugh that resonated from such a large man. “I’ll leave you to your own devices, then,” he grinned. “Don’t mind me. I’ll just be here for a few minutes till my break is over.”

In Joseph’s hand was a cell phone. He seemed to be dialing a number, putting the receiver end to his ear and disconnecting before trying again. It seemed as if he was trying to reach someone, but to no avail. Despite my mind constantly warning me against prying, it did not take me too long to realize that it was my long-awaited chance to find out something about him. Even so, I hesitated for quite a few seconds before finally blurting out, “Calling your girlfriend?”

The response came faster than expected. “No, old sport. Wife.” He smiled once again before a slight frown creased his forehead. “It keeps going to voice-mail, though.”

My interest was far from quenched, flaring up more than ever before at this tidbit of information. “The old ball-and-chain, eh? I didn’t know you had one.” I allowed a pause in order to feign an impression of pondering over what he said before adding, “Come to think of it, you never told me about her, did you?”

“Well, there isn’t much to say, to be honest,” replied Joseph. “I had married a gorgeous woman five years ago, and every day since then, I can’t help but fall in love with her all over again.”

“Is he intentionally being evasive?” I asked myself. Alarms kept screaming shrilly at the back of my head, imploring me not to meddle, but it was too late for me to back down without revealing at least a part of the truth. “Oh, come on now!” I exclaimed, throwing my hands dramatically into the air before resting them on the table in front of me. “There has to be something special in her to have ensnared the big Joseph’s heart, right?”

There was a few seconds of silence before Joseph answered, filled only with a puff from a nearby espresso machine. Even though it was there for a moment, the silence seemed to solidify the air around us, weighing down on both men with a decisive characteristic on an impending earthquake. But the voice that followed was anything but. Rather, it was by far the gentlest tone I, or anyone, for that matter, heard Joseph speak in. “She was beautiful, my Daisy was,” he murmured softly, his eyes suddenly acquiring a misted, far-away gaze. “And I’m not referring just to her appearance, mind you. She was beautiful as a person. Her heart was pure gold, and it showed. Everything she touched was bathed in a heavenly glow. She was an angel, I tell you.” It was almost as if Joseph was caressing flower petals with his lips. “And her smile…oh, what a smile she had! It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it. Seeing her smile would light up my world in autumn’s golden sunlight, and at that moment, my world would stop spinning.” His voice rose and, miraculously, grew just as softer. “My world would stop spinning, and she became the center of my universe. She became the person who would breathe life into me, who would fill my bared soul with the same sunlight that gave her the impossible warmth of a seraph. And at that moment, I would readily agree to pass an eternity staring at that smile, my only fear being that eternity was certain not to be long enough.”

I could do little but gape at the giant seated across me. Never had I expected such eloquence from someone as rustic as Joseph Harleton. It was akin to the most expensive wine in the world flowing out of a cracked bottle of ale. But there was something beyond the magnificence of his words that struck me, setting down on me with a distinct sense of confusion and dread. “Wait, ‘Seph…she was beautiful?”

The smile Joseph sent my way was filled with the pain of a thousand tortured spirits tearing through every fiber of his being and laying bare the red in his veins. The emotion was so powerful, I could not help but cringe �" it was almost as if I was sharing the ache that was less physical and more of the souls: sadness, sorrow and grief that far transcended the realms of wounds and scars. A part of me wanted to run away and not hear what the man had to say, but I was transfixed, hanging onto every word.

“Daisy died of a congenital lung disease two years ago.” Joseph’s bushy moustache flickered momentarily as his smile faltered. “I did everything I could to save her, but no one can change fate, see? And yes, I know,” he added as I opened my mouth to protest. “I know you will ask about the phone call. You see, I know you’re sure to think of me as a madman for calling a dead person, but I’ve been paying Daisy’s phone bill for the past two years, simply so I could call her every day.”

“But why?” It took me all of my strength to stop myself from pounding my fist on the table in bewilderment, quite in contrast to the still-smiling Joseph, who simply flipped open his phone and dialed a number, holding the speaker to me. Unsure of what to expect, I took the phone and raised it to my temple, listening intently. There were a few beeping dial tones before my ears were filled with the most mellifluous voice I had ever had the fortune to witness.

Hi, this is Daisy Harleton. I’m away from the phone now, but you can leave a message for me at the beep. Lots of love!”

And at that very moment, I understood. Realization cascaded down on me with the force of a tornado, sending me headfirst into a tangle of countless emotions, each indistinguishable from the next. The sudden comprehension pushed my surroundings into the back of my mind. Nothing else mattered, not even Joseph’s seemingly faraway voice offering the unneeded explanation.

“I kept her phone running just so I could hear her voice every day,” shrugged Joseph. “It’s expensive and almost on the point of being in denial, but it’s a small price to pay when it allows me to listening to the darling every day, offering me love. God knows that’s what has been keeping me sane for this long.” For the second time in the conversation, I could do nothing but stare at the Jolly Giant in utter awe and fascination. He didn’t seem to notice, though: his eyes still had the misted, glassy gaze to them. The silence stretched as if for eternity, broken not by the two men, both of whom seemed to have been lost in the depths of their own imaginations, but by the arrival of the waitress. “Here you go,” she cooed softly, placing the mug of piping hot espresso on a coaster right in front of me.

That seemed to break Joseph out of his reverie, as he jumped to his feet in his usual amiable conduct and boomed, “Well, great talking to you, old sport. Hope I didn’t take too much of your time.” And with that, he strolled off, happy and cheerful and genial as ever, while I stared at him as he walked off. The great writers were right,I muttered to myself, putting my pencil to my notepad, eager to pen down my latest brainstorm, “Inspiration can indeed strike from the unlikeliest of sources.”

© 2014 Peter Regal Whittam

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Added on November 27, 2014
Last Updated on November 27, 2014
Tags: Love, death, lover, husband, marriage, loved one, sad


Peter Regal Whittam
Peter Regal Whittam

Chittagong, Bangladesh

Hello, I'm Peter, a hobbyist writer. I have always had an attraction towards what I like to call "text-based art", but my passion for writing did not bloom until recently, and it has been growing ever.. more..