Phone Bill by Chris Green
I read somewhere that over half of all the people in the world have never received a telephone call. Sometimes I wish I was one of these. The phone should be a comfort but it can also be a curse. Unwanted calls can outnumber the ones from family and friends. Every day, for instance, Bill phones me up from Swindon to try to sell me solar panels. It is, of course, a scam. While the numbers he comes out with are designed to look favourable, the solar panels would never be mine. His company, BiSolar just want to use my roof so that they can generate electricity to sell back to the grid and keep their directors in the lap of luxury. Bill is fully aware by now I have no intention of taking up BiSolar’s offer.
I also read that more than half the people in the world have never made a telephone call. In these days of fibre optics and satellite communication, this is a difficult statistic to believe. But whoever these people are, Bill compensates for them. Bill sits in a cubicle making calls all day. Although he must have targets to meet, I have reached the conclusion that he keeps ringing me because he is lonely. He needs someone he can talk to. He talks about the weather, his arthritic hip and Swindon Town’s problems in defence. Sometimes he gives me a tip for the 3:30 at Catterick or the 4:15 at Fontwell Park, but invariably his horse falls at the thirteenth or comes in second to last. I sense that there is a black cloud hanging over him while he is talking. I can see it poised inches above his head waiting to deposit rain. I haven’t the heart to tell him not to keep calling. For all I know, I might be his lifeline. Tracey always used to say that I had good listening skills. Had I thought of becoming a counsellor? This was, of course, before our great falling out.
Linzi is another caller from this surprising global minority. She too phones me almost daily about compensation for mis-sold PPI. She must know by now that I have never taken out PPI. I didn’t even know what PPI was until she started phoning me. Mostly though, Linzi wants to talk about which carpet she should buy for the lounge. Or what she should do about her son’s truanting from St Bartholomew’s. Linzi sometimes sounds off about her husband Derek’s drinking. I dare not tell her that Derek is probably an alcoholic. No-one should be getting through two cans of Special Brew during an episode of Emmerdale, even if it is an extended episode to build up the tension before the murder of another tractor driver.
Some days, Barry phones to tell me my life insurance has lapsed. It actually lapsed back in 1996, but Barry’s company, ZZT or some hopeless acronym at the tail end of the alphabet, is still hopeful that I might resume the payments. Barry is keen on golf and gives me detailed accounts of his bunker shots and his new putter. He updates me on his handicap, 44, I believe at last count. Although I know next to nothing about golf, I am sure this is not good. My friend, Geoffrey has a handicap of 19, and he has a wooden leg.
Wednesdays are the worst. I’m not sure why this should be so but no sooner have I got home from my shift at the packaging plant than the phone starts to ring. One call follows another throughout the afternoon. Sometimes it is Linzi first and sometimes it is Bill. For some reason, Barry’s call usually comes in the middle. Oh! I haven’t mentioned Martin yet have I? Each Wednesday, Martin phones to see whether I have changed my mind about the double glazing offer. UltraGlaze can do all my windows for a little over £3000, he says. Each time he points out that his competitors would charge up to a thousand more and they would not offer a twenty-year guarantee. Once this little charade is out of the way, Martin likes to talk about his tropical fish, which are prone to an encyclopaedia of diseases. After he has run through the latest casualties, we move on seamlessly to his amateur dramatics. The Empty House Players are doing a production The Likely Lads and he is playing Bob. He is from Streatham and is having trouble with the Newcastle accent. Each week he gives me a progress report on this and we have the same conversation about what the pub names were in the TV series. We take it in turns to name The Fat Ox, The Black Horse, The Drift Inn, and The Wheatsheaf. Martin is possibly the most tiring of all the callers. It’s a good thing he only phones once a week.
‘What have you been doing? Your phone’s been off all afternoon,’ Diane says, angrily. ‘She’s not there is she?’
‘No. I told you, Diane. Tracey moved out last month.’
‘But she’s still got her stuff there.’
‘Hardly anything, and as you have seen its all packed away in the spare room.’
‘H’mm. Then what has been going on? You can’t have been on the phone all afternoon.’
‘It is Wednesday, Diane. You know that everyone calls on a Wednesday.’
‘You don’t have to answer the phone, do you?’
‘If I didn’t answer it, then I wouldn’t be talking to you now.’
‘Why don’t you have caller display, like everyone else?’
‘Probably because CheapNet don’t do caller display. It was you that suggested CheapNet.’
‘It wouldn’t be so bad if you got another mobile. Or got the old one repaired.’
‘It’s beyond that I think. They don’t like being immersed in buckets of bleach.’
‘But why don’t you just put the phone down when these people ring?’
‘Well, you know how it is, once you get talking.’
‘These are salesmen, Clive. They keep you talking and before you know it you’ve bought a brussels sprout farm, or a time-share in Turkmenistan or, knowing you, Beyonce’s underwear or something.’
Diane and I have been seeing each other for several months now. We met at that supermarket pub. Oh, what’s its name? The one that is not Wetherspoons. I was minding my own business, quietly drowning my sorrows having just had a row with Tracey. Diane was on a girls night out. She became upset about something one of her friends said about what she was wearing and came over to join me. Do I look like a slut to you, she said. I said no, you don’t and somehow we ended up spending the night together. These things happen. You can’t plan everything in life. Life’s what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. Someone famous said that. I can’t remember who. Not that I ever have. Make plans that is, but the following day Tracey having put two and two together, packed her bags and left. Her plan hasn’t changed. She has shared it with her solicitor, Mr Doonican and he keeps writing me letters regarding the sale of the house. I suppose I can count myself lucky that Tracey and I did not have children.
Diane is a few years older than me. She is divorced and lives on Canal Street. She has a fluctuating number of teenage children. They keep moving out and moving back in again, depending on their fitful relationships, their finances and their oscillating states of mind. I blame Kites. You can buy anything over the counter there and they even have a delivery service for their research chemicals and plant food. There’s one called Herbal Haze that the kids seem to like and another called Blue Cheese. And of course, the old favourite Go-Caine. Riley, the eldest is probably the worst. But Randall and Regan are nearly as bad and a couple of weeks ago we even found Rhiannon calling God down the great white trumpet after a binge on something. Rhiannon is only fifteen. It’s no wonder that Diane wants to come over and spend so much time at my house.
‘OK, I get your point,’ I say. ‘I’ll change my phone number. I will call CheapNet as soon as I’ve put the phone down.’
‘I’ll be over in twenty minutes’ says Diane. ‘It’s bedlam here with Ryan’s hip hop music. …… Do you want me to wear anything special?’
‘No. just come as you are,’ I say.
‘I’d better not do that,’ she laughs. ‘I think I ought to put some clothes on first. I’m in the bath, lover.’
I explain that I am receiving nuisance calls and CheapNet are quick to change my number. Everything is in place within twenty four hours, phone, internet, the whole caboodle. Other providers might take weeks and still charge a colossal admin fee, but CheapNet charge nothing for the service. They even have a Welsh call centre, and in answer to my query, Dewi explains that CheapNet would be offering the Caller Display facility within a matter of weeks.
There are no missed calls when I come home from working late on Friday and Diane and I are able to enjoy a pleasant weekend at the seaside, the only interruption being when on Sunday morning, Diane gets a call that Riley has been arrested in the early hours for Affray. She handles it very well. She does not rush back to bail him out or anything like that. It is not entirely unexpected, she says. Diane has a measured approach, she takes things in her stride.
I get home from an early shift on Monday and am looking forward to an afternoon nap. I put the tiredness down to the late nights we had over the weekend. But, no sooner have I got through the front door than the phone rings. It is quite a pleasant melody. Mozart I think. Or is it REM? Much better though than the old ringtone. I am thinking it must be Diane calling. She is the only one who has my new number. I wonder what she might want. I hope it’s not about Riley. We had enough about his troubles yesterday. Perhaps she has just left her keys in my car or something. I pick up the phone and am greeted by Bill’s familiar voice.
‘The Robins didn’t do so well at the weekend, did they?’ he says. He means Swindon Town. This is their nickname. Swindon lost four one at home to Crewe, after being one nil up with twenty minutes to go. This apparently ruins their chances of promotion.
I am too taken aback to respond or even to ask how he got hold of my new number.
He is quite happy to guide the conversation. He tells me his hip has been giving him gyp over the past few days. He thinks he may need a replacement.
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ I say.
‘But being on a zero hours contract, I don’t know how I am going to be able to afford the time off work.’
‘That sucks,’ I say. I do not tell him that at the packaging plant, I do not have any kind of contract. Job security does not seem to be something that is on their agenda.
‘But I do have some hot tips for you,’ he says. ‘And you will get good prices if you get in quick.’
‘I have to say, Bill, your horses have not done so well lately,’ I tell him.
‘These two will,’ he says. ‘Have you got a pen handy?’
‘Oh, go on then. Fire away!’ I say. The question of how he got my new number is fading. I must be a soft touch.
‘In the 3:30 at Pontefract, Forgive and Forget,’ he says. ‘And in the 4:15 At Market Rasen, Cold Call.’
‘I’d better get the laptop out and get on to BetterBet,’ I say.
I almost say ‘Speak to you tomorrow, Bill. I’ll give you a ring,’ but manage to catch myself. Why would I want to phone Bill?
Forgive and Forget falls at the first. I reason that Cold Call will probably do the same. But, what makes me think of betting on Brave New World instead, I don’t know. It has no chance. It is thirteen years old and has yet to finish a race. It probably has only three legs or something. What makes me put £50 on the nose is something I cannot begin to comprehend ……… but Brave New World storms in at 100 to 1.
No sooner have I got the notification from BetterBet than the phone rings. It is PPI Linzi ringing to talk about her troubles.
Without giving me the opportunity to ask how she has got hold of my new number, Linzi begins to update me on her husband Derek’s drinking, a bottle of Bacardi during last Friday’s EastEnders special, six pints yesterday lunchtime. Half a bottle of ……. I gently put the receiver back in its cradle.
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved