Hilda stared out the window at the telephone poles and electricity lines etched across the damp evening. Starlings were swooping in kaleidoscopic swarms and then lining up like musical notes on the wires before taking to the air again. The sky was a spreading bruise. Wide winged gulls with stumpy beaks floated on sea currents between chimney pots. Tendrils of smoke circled up from the terraced two storey houses. A mix of acrid coal and burning peat scraped at Hilda’s throat. The wet, shining street reflected the sinking sun.
Inside her own terraced house with the blue front door, Hilda spent her time writing. During the day, she scribbled between the branches of the apple tree that scratched at her window. She herself scratched words, sentences, and doodled while waiting for her characters to emerge. At night, she listened to foreign radio stations, trying to hear their voices. When she went out, Hilda walked by the sea. Her neighbours fed the birds, operated cherry pickers, patted their dogs. She walked among them, observing, making notes.
Now, at her bedroom window, Hilda was waiting for night to fall. The sky rippled with snatches of colour, riddles of pink in amongst grey. A slash of green. She had never actually seen darkness arrive. It was always loitering in the next street. At the precise moment of its arrival, Hilda was always reading a poem or making a cup of tea. And now, again, as if a spell had been cast, Hilda felt overcome with tiredness. She lay down on her bed, propped up her pillow, settled herself in a sea of white duvet, note book on her lap to take notes and fell fast asleep.
An insistent ringing of a telephone drew Hilda back from her dream where she was untangling freshly caught fish from nets on a trawler. In her dream she couldn’t decide whether she hated or liked the smell. Hilda opened her eyes and found herself dribbling. She hastily wiped away the drool and sat up. Darkness had descended. A pool of orange-street light lit up her bedroom. Silver rain drops slid down the black window. It wasn’t her phone ringing. Hilda looked at the clock. It was 2am. She couldn’t remember her dream, though she could still feel it. It had been thick with reality, and the air in the room smelt sweaty.
Hilda got off her bed and stumbled down the stairs. The bright bulb of the kitchen light when she switched it on kept the night at bay. She made tea and returned upstairs to the bright white wood panelled bathroom to wash and undress. The phone was still ringing next door. In bed, she started to read her book, but the ringing distracted her. Then, it stopped and suddenly there was an eerie quiet. Hilda opened her book.
After a page of dialogue, Hilda heard yells and laughter coming up the street. A gang of disembodied voices. She heard stumbling loud consonants trudge on up the road, but a couplet of conversation stayed under her window. She listened, her head cocked. Words slurred on murmuring tongues. Hilda guessed a couple were leaning against her living room window sill. She often found gold burger cartons in the mornings on her living room window sill. The two voices started to move along, petering out with the click of heels. Hilda turned off her bedside lamp. In the dark, the orange streetlight flooded back into to her room, sparking her ear rings on the dresser. She pulled the duvet up to her neck and closed her eyes.
Before she was asleep, the phone next door started ringing again. Who was calling at this time, she wondered. The ringing seemed loud. Why didn’t they answer? Then, she remembered the house was empty. It continued, ringing and ringing into the night. Whomever it was would not let up. It was 4am before Hilda fell asleep with her note book in her hand.
When Hilda woke, morning had sidled in and filled her room with a white, silvery light. She hauled herself up against her pillows and out of the window watched the trails of small children making their way to school, two by two or four by four, hand in hand with each other or with their parents, back packs packed neatly on their shoulders. Would these dear, sweet little things evolve in ten years into the drunken teenagers crawling up the road late at night?
As she got dressed, the phone began to ring. Hilda gritted her teeth. She switched on the radio and turned it up a little. There was a small crafts warning. Hilda switched the radio off, and went downstairs to make tea. She heard the phone stop ringing. She went to her office to write but instead stared out at red and green apples on the apple tree. A black bird hopped along the branches and pecked away at the flesh of the fruit. The phone began to ring again. Hilda waited for the ringing to finish and when it did, she realised she was waiting for it to start again. She needed to act. Hilda rang her land lady to find out about the owner of the empty house.
“It was an old woman who lived there, Mrs Walsh, I remember her name was. Her husband died, maybe four years ago. She went into a home last year. I don’t know which one. You could try the phone company and ask them to disconnect it.”
“Do you have the phone number?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“You don’t have a key, or know who might have one?”
“No, I don’t. You could try a few of the neighbours.”
Hilda called into other neighbours but no-one had a contact for the old lady, knew where she had gone, or what her phone number was. The woman in no. 32, dressed in a startling red and blue head scarf, said
“She had a son and a daughter, but they emigrated, oh it was years ago now, love. You could try the local homes. St Endas, or Carrickdoyle.”
Hilda went home and out to the back garden. She would investigate herself. The air was cold, and thick with damp salt. Hilda stood on the roughly hewn wooden bench to look over the shared garden wall, about six foot high. On the other side, rain drops dribbled down the brown pebbledash wall. The walls of Hilda’s house and yard were white washed. Her garden was pretty, full of cottage flowers, and fruit bushes, not to mention the apple tree. On the other side, it was a yard with an old coal shed which had its door hanging off. Plastic plant pots, half filled with earth, lay on their sides. Bits of paper and rubbish, lay sodden on the paving stone. The net curtains on the windows were torn and yellowing. She could hear the phone ringing again inside. Insistently. Hilda went to get the ladder from the shed.
It could be the son, Hilda thought. Maybe he didn’t know his Mum was in a home. He was ringing to tell her that he was coming home.
“Ma, I’m coming home. I can’t wait to see you. Can you make your shepherd’s pie?”
The old woman would be so pleased.
Or maybe the son… Hilda thought…what would she call him? Vincent! …Maybe Vincent was getting married.
“Ma, I’m bringing Maeve home to meet you. I know you’ll love her. We’re going to get married.”
But, would Ma be as pleased about that, Hilda wondered as she manouvered the ladder out the door. She nearly knocked over a tin of white emulsion paint. Ma probably wouldn’t like Maeve, although Hilda made Maeve a very nice person. She wore colourful headscarves like the neighbour. Hilda got drenched in shower of drops as she knocked the wisteria bush creeping up the arbour with the ladder. Vincent was tall, dark, had a long nose, and broad shoulders. He was erudite and learned. No, thought, Hilda, that’s not right, as she leant the ladder against the wall. The house looked poor. She converted Vincent to into hippie plasterer called Lenny who had travelled the world. Hilda began to climb the ladder against her side of the wall. The rungs were round and slippery.
Or maybe it was the old woman’s daughter, Hilda thought. Hilda imagined a rotund girl with blond hair, worn in pig tails. For some reason, she was Austrian looking in Hilda’s mind and Hilda called her, Lisa. Hilda dressed her up in dungarees, though she wanted to put her in lederhosen. Lisa wanted her Ma to meet her illegitimate baby. Maybe Ma’s husband, Lisa’s dad, had been angry about the illegitimate baby and hadn’t let Lisa come home. Now he had passed away, she was contacting her mum. Hilda shook her head. No, the ringing didn’t sound that complex, she thought, it sounded more straight forward, less dramatic. She climbed up ten rungs, warily.
Or maybe it was the lotto ringing to tell the old woman she had come into a load of money. Hilda dismissed this idea too, they wouldn’t be so insistent nor would ring both night and day. Or maybe it was Ma’s long first love who was desperate to meet his girl again. He was Des. They hadn’t met for over 50 years. He had had to go to sea and she had got fed up waiting at the end of the pier (just like in the French Lieutenant’s Woman) and Ma had married Gavin. Gavin had turned out bad. If she had waited for Des they would have lived a happy healthy life, having five children. She wouldn’t be in a home now. Des was small, bald and wore baggy comfortable jeans and could skin and fillet a fish in seconds. He was brilliant with his hands. He had beady blue eyes, like that of a starling, and wore a tattoo of an anchor on his fore arm. It could be Des. He had always had a soft spot for Ma. He could rescue her.
Hilda now straddled the wall. She could feel the damp seeping into her. It took all her strength to pull up the ladder without over balancing. It flipped over and fell sideways, away from her into the yard, making a racket. Hilda waited but no one opened a window, or shouted. The phone stopped.
Or maybe it was simply a wrong number. But you wouldn’t keep ringing a wrong number, she thought. Hilda hesitated astride the wall. Should she continue? Yes, she decided. During the day her imagination was rational but at night there might monsters at the other end of the phone.
Hilda scrambled down the wall, dropping into the yard. The back door was locked. She peered in through the windows. She could make out a table, an over turned chair. A dirty silver ashtray on the table. Gavin smoked. Ma wouldn’t have. There was an old arm chair with a gaping hole revealing stuffing of some sort. Ma would have been good with a needle. She would have patched that time and time again.
Hilda lifted one of the old plant pots half full of soil and pushed it through the window, gently, not wanting to hurt herself. The smashing glass sounded loud. She could hear Ma protesting but there was no other response. The phone started to ring again. Hilda waited to hear someone shout at her but there was silence. She peered through the broken window, manouvered herself through it, and jumped down into the room just as the phone stopped ringing.
The house smelt musty, of pee. She held her breath and looked around. Rats? Hilda was scared of rats. ‘Rats indeed!’ she heard Ma say. Hilda told herself not to be silly. Her own mother always said she had an overactive imagination. Hilda walked across the room towards the door. The phone was ringing again. The house mirrored her own house next door, but the floor was dirty linoleum, not nice wooden floors like hers. ‘We didn’t have money for home improvements,’ Hilda heard Ma whisper, ‘Gavin never gave me much.’ In the hall, there was no phone table or phone as in Hilda’s house. It must be upstairs. The phone stopped ringing. The stairs were on her left, painted brown. She looked up. They were wooden, bare and dusty. On the fifth stair was a hole. ‘That’s why I took the stair carpet off,’ Ma said, ‘I was frightened of putting my foot through it.’ Hilda tiptoed up. On the landing, all the doors were closed. ‘I always kept the doors closed. Had to keep in the warmth,’ said Ma. Hilda pushed open the back bedroom. An old bed and a chest. No phone. The ringing started again. Hilda pushed open the front bedroom, the room adjacent to hers. The frame of a bed, with coiled springs, a rickety table with a phone looking just as she had imagined: black bakerlite, shiny thick coil, round dial. The ringing stopped as her hand went out to lift the receiver. Hilda sat on the edge of the bed staring at the phone. ‘Those springs make a terrible squeak,’ said Ma.
Should she wait or take the phone off the hook? Wondered Hilda. If she left, she would never find out who it was. It could be the nursing home, looking for a family member.
It started to darken outside. Had Ma slept in here, like Hilda did next door? Hilda looked around her. A threadbare arm chair sat at the window. Had Ma sat there, watching the world go past, like Hilda, waiting for day to turn to night and night to day? She walked over to the chair, put her hand on its back. A puff of dust rose. She sat down and shivered. It was cold. There was an old blanket folded on its arm. Hilda lifted it up, shook it and pulled it across her lap. It was the soft to touch. One side was pale white, the other side glorious shades of blue, sky blue, evolving into different hues of darker blue. Then it became a purple grey with riddles of pink and then the softest black, with hundreds of frayed orange stitches bleeding away to the edge, the orange of the street light. The quilt was patterned with stitches of bird wings.
Had Ma sat here and stitched day into night? Hilda stared out the window, caressing the quilt, watching. Hilda got up and picked up the phone. Not even a dial tone. She left it down, off the hook, picked up the quilt and left.
Back in her own bed, Hilda slept through the drunken cat calls of the night, slept late as the children wended their way down the pavements. She slept while the blackbird pecked the apple in the branch of the apple tree. She slept as her neighbours walked the pier. And she dreamed of Ma and Lenny, Maeve, Lisa, and Des and rats drowning in a pool of white emulsion paint. She dreamed of swans swimming and her subconscious wondered why. At three o’clock in the afternoon, in bright sunlight, she woke up, made herself a cup of English breakfast tea, and went into her office and started to write.
‘The telephone poles and electricity lines were etched across the moist evening sky outside. Starlings were swooping and diving in kaleidoscopic swarms and then lining up like musical notes on the wires before taking to the air again. The sky was a spreading bruise. Wide winged gulls with stumpy beaks floated mid-flight between chimney pots. Tendrils of smoke circled up from the small terraced two storey houses. The wet street reflected the world. Ma was stitching. She was waiting for the phone to ring.'