Ten Twenty-Four by Chris Green
You may not have heard of Trethowan. Most people haven’t. It is a tiny hamlet, remote even by Cornish standards. Although I keep hearing that providers are investing millions to tackle poor reception in rural areas, I have no phone signal where I am staying at Cosy Cottage, a rural retreat, accessible only along a windy track. I only pick up the voicemail message from Unknown Caller when I come into range the next day. There is no spoken message, just a background track which sounds like footsteps in the rain.
I put it down to a phone in someone’s pocket accidentally dialling my number. Although I do not use the phone much, the unknown caller could be a casual acquaintance or a trades-person I have contacted in the past. The odds that the keypad itself could hit eleven digits in the right order to correspond with a mobile phone number are ten to the power of something astronomical.
I think nothing more of it, but to my alarm, the same thing happens again the next day. It is a carbon copy of the first. Both calls were made at 10:24 p.m. by an unknown caller and both times the message consists of footsteps tramping in the rain, lasting for one minute thirty seconds. This really spooks me. It is not something that can have happened accidentally. This is way beyond the realms of coincidence. Something is not right.
I listen carefully to the calls several times, playing them back through the car’s speakers. It sounds like a single set of footsteps. The tread is rhythmic and purposeful. There is the suggestion of waterproofs rubbing together, perhaps from a jacket or pair of wet-weather trousers. It has been raining heavily on and off for days here in Cornwall. The calls may not have been from Cornwall of course. Why would they have come from Cornwall? I know few people here. They could have come from anywhere. Alaska, China, anywhere, although I cannot recall having contact with anyone so far-flung. I think I detect a suggestion of light traffic on a wet road in the background, but I am not sure. There are no voices to be heard on either recording.
The man in the dark suit and the Men In Black sunglasses standing outside the village post office in Chenoweth looks distinctly out of place. I give the sinister figure a wide birth but as I walk past, he barks out something in a foreign language. Whether or not he is addressing me, I cannot tell. Then I notice another figure in a dark suit with even blacker sunglasses talking into a phone outside the twelfth-century church. How is it he can get a signal around here when I am not? He is pointing in my direction.
I don’t aim to stay and find out what these outsiders are doing in this sleepy backwater. I double back over the stone bridge where my Golf is parked and dive into it. It is not a fast car but after some cute manoeuvres, I lose the black sedan that I find following me up the narrow muddy country lanes. I have been here for several days and have become used to the lie of the land. My pursuers clearly have not.
Nothing seems to make sense. Why am I being hounded? I have come down here to do some writing. To put the finishing touches to a story about fly-fishing in time for publication next month. And to spend some time with my partner, Ellie. She’ll be here later. She was supposed to arrive yesterday but was delayed. Ellie is in advertising. Precise arrangements can be difficult as project times often overrun with television campaigns.
Perhaps these interlopers, whoever they are, have confused me with someone else. If they want me, why don’t they just confront me directly? Why would they make their presence so obvious? Are they just trying to frighten me? If this is the case they are succeeding. I am terrified.
When I get back to the apartment, I find to my relief Ellie is there. I explain to her what has been happening. She is not impressed. I am a little disappointed. I was hoping she might be more understanding and supportive.
‘So you had a couple of strange voicemail messages,’ she says. ‘I get lots of them. I don’t know why but that’s the way it is with phones these days.’
‘But the two calls were identical, and at exactly the same time on consecutive nights,’ I protest.
‘Even less reason to be concerned. It’s just a technical glitch at Vodafone.’
‘O2,’ I correct her.
‘OK. A gremlin at O2. I’m sure these things happen all the time.’
‘What about the men in the village?’ I say.
‘Two men wearing shades. In a holiday destination. Don’t you feel you are being a little over-sensitive?’
‘But it wasn’t sunny,’ I say. ‘They chased after me in the black sedan.’
‘Oh, come on now! If professionals were tailing you, don’t you think they might have managed to keep up with you on these slow roads? They turned off. They were going somewhere else. The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.’
‘I guess not,’ I concede.
‘Anyway,’ she says, putting her arms around me. ‘Aren’t you pleased to see me?’
‘So! Where are you going to take me? What delights does the back of beyond have to offer?’
I tell her that there is not much going on out of season.
‘I know a place,’ she says. ‘The one that was named after that Daphne Du Maurier book’
‘No, not that one. The other one.’
We drive a few miles to The House On The Strand. We take Ellie’s car just in case. No-one follows us. Since we were last down here, The House In The Strand has been converted into a gastropub and has a French chef.
I have Boudin Blanc in Leeks and Mustard Sauce which turns out to be sausages in cream and Ellie has Battered Cod with Marie Rose Sauce and Chick Pea Fries which looks very much like fish and chips. The presentation is nice though and the Pistachio Mascarpone with Milk Chocolate Port Truffle, and the Dulce de Leche Creme Fraiche with Almond are both delicious. The second bottle of Shiraz is even better than the first. While we are trying to decide who is the fittest to drive back, Ellie goes off to the Ladies.
I have almost forgotten about the earlier traumas. Perhaps Ellie is right. Perhaps I do occasionally indulge a little paranoia. I am looking forward to a few days relaxation with her now. We can wine and dine and make love. We can investigate the historic Kernow of St Piran. Tintagel and the Arthurian legend. See that new sculpture of the King with Excalibur at the castle. We can swim in the sea and perhaps hire a boat to explore the rugged bays. We can take in the beautiful landscape. We can visit the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. The Minack Theatre. St Michaels Mount. Cornwall has plenty to offer.
Ellie often spends a few minutes powdering her nose, so at first, I am not concerned when she doesn’t return. But after ten minutes I begin to worry. She has never spent quite this long. She has taken her handbag, so I give her mobile a ring. While mine is working fine here, she seems to have hers switched off. My next thought is that she may have gone out to the car. I go over to the window and take a look outside. Her Polo is still in the car park. She is not in it.
A waiter comes over, concerned perhaps that we are trying to do a runner. Frantically I explain the situation to him. He asks me to calm down and offers to send a colleague to the Ladies to investigate. His colleague returns. Ellie is not there. I am beside myself. My paranoia comes flooding back, this time with interest. Perhaps the lady has just gone for a walk to clear her head, the maître d’ says, pointing out that we have had quite a lot of wine. And the second bottle was 13.5%. Just then my phone rings. Thinking it must be Ellie, complete with an explanation, I answer it. It is not Ellie. There is no-one on the other end. All I can hear are the familiar footsteps in the rain. It is not raining outside. It is 10:24.
‘Who Is This?’ I yell into the phone. ‘Why do you keep phoning me? What Do You Want?’
The caller does not respond. The footsteps continue, their dull trudging rhythm regular as a metronome.
Everyone in the pub is looking at me. I don’t care. It seems unlikely that the caller will respond, but like a madman, I keep shouting into the phone. After an eternity, the call ends. The display says that the call has lasted just ninety seconds.
I turn my attention back to Ellie’s disappearance. I begin to ask other diners if they saw anything. Having witnessed my behaviour on the phone, they are reluctant to cooperate. Several of them are already asking for their bills. None of the few left saw Ellie go to the Ladies and no-one saw her leave the establishment. No-one saw anything suspicious. They are of the view that we have had a lover’s tiff, Ellie stormed off and that I called her on my mobile and started shouting at her. The maître d’ is asking me to leave. He threatens to call the police. There is no need. There and then, the constabulary arrive as if they had just been waiting up the road, four officers in blue fatigues, all built like Bulgarian shot-putters. They issue stock commands from the police lexicon, all of which suggest I should not move. The press arrive. Legions of them. What is going on? Surely the crime rate around here cannot be so low that a small disagreement in a pub can warrant so much attention. But as they put the handcuffs on and lead me away to the patrol car, the paparazzi snap away like I’m a disgraced celebrity.
I have not been in this position before, but police custody is probably the same the world over. You are bundled into a cell, probably drunk, by burly officers, and subjected to maximum indignity and discomfort for the duration of your stay. The cell probably has concrete floors and walls, with bars on one side so the duty officer can keep an eye on you and a wooden bench for you to sober up on. It probably smells of urine, body odour and vomit. In all these ways the one in which I find myself at a remote location in Cornwall might be seen as typical.
What may be different here is that there is country music playing, loudly. Very loudly. This cannot be with the motive of settling the prisoner in. It can only promote thoughts of self-harm or worse. Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is followed by Waiting Around to Die and the daddy of them all, Merle Haggard’s Misery and Gin. The pounding in my head makes me think I may have had a lot more and didn’t I start off with a pint of beer? This is not the time to be listening to Achy Breaky Heart and I believe they have turned it up. Do they know how much I hate country music? Is this a special programme for my benefit? Eddy Arnold’s Make The World Go Away is now playing, over and over. They must have left it on repeat and left me to stew. Is this perhaps a technique learned from Guantanamo Bay?
Everything is escalating out of my control. I lie down on the bench to try to temper the bouts of nausea. Hard though it is, I try to arrange my chaotic thoughts into those of reason. My captors didn’t seem concerned with charging me so much as just banging me up. This is odd. Police like their procedures. Perhaps they are not real police, but villains.
I am concerned about what might be happening to Ellie. She must have been abducted too. If I can be detained like this, then perhaps she is too. God forbid! Ellie likes her creature comforts. I like her to have her creature comforts. I do my best to ensure she has her creature comforts. I love Ellie more than anything in the world. But to get back to my situation, if she too is being held, she is not going to be available to bail me out. How am I going to get out of here to help her get out of wherever she is? Will I ever see her again?
As the night wears on, my mind returns to the footsteps. That haunting repetitive sound keeps thumping away in my head. What is it about those footsteps? From somewhere at the back of my consciousness, I dredge up a faint recollection of an advertising campaign that Ellie was involved with a year or so ago, a series of television adverts. They were filmed in black and white with a retro man trudging home through sludgy snow late at night. He is looking forward to his cup of hot drinking chocolate and as he does so a red glow forms around him. There are no words or music on the ads, just the hypnotic sound of the footsteps and logo of the company in the corner of the screen.
Could Ellie be responsible for my predicament? Might she have made those phonecalls from an unregistered phone, arranged the men in black and the car chase? Having raised my paranoia levels, it would be easy for her to get me drunk and then disappear. She is in a position to recruit actors to be paparazzi and brutish policemen. It would be like casting an advertising campaign. But here’s the coup de grâce. More than anyone, Ellie knows how much I hate country music. But why would she do this to me?
Oh! My! God! Might Ellie have discovered that I slept with her friend, Charlotte, when she was away at that conference last year? I wondered what she had the hump about when she came back from Pilates last Thursday. Pilates normally relaxes her. I heard a while back that Charlotte’s friend, Sophie had started going to the class. I am aware that Sophie can be spiteful. She must have spilled the beans about our clandestine liaison.
Ellie would have realised that tackling me about it there and then would have met with my denial. Nevertheless, she must have thought, no smoke without fire. Keeping her discovery to herself then would then have given her the chance to quietly plan her revenge. To further humiliate me, she may even be making a film of my entire Cornwall odyssey. In all probability, I am being filmed right now. Movie cameras are so inconspicuous these days, indistinguishable from the CCTV cameras we are so used to seeing every day, like ….. that one over there.
© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved