Steven had no real idea what he was doing here and he was starting to think that the impatient blinking of the cursor was taunting him. His situation was exacerbated by the cacophony of keystrokes that surrounded him; dull thuds of young men venting their aggression on their keyboards, click clacking rat-tat-tats of old women’s manicured fingernails. It was as if the sound was getting louder, the taunt of the cursor punctuating each increase in volume, the white empty space of his desktop emitting a high pitched hum; he was drowning under the noise of shuffling feet and murmuring voices and glugging water coolers and droning fans.
His phone rang.
It rang again. His phone never rang.
He was a back office worker. Nobody had his phone number. He didn’t even know what his number was.
Steven finally snapped out of the maelstrom of office boredom and reached out for the handset. It was an old phone, made of cheap charcoal plastic complete with fat number buttons, a faded blue display bordered by thin buttons that Steven had never figured out how to use, and light-up flashing glass boxes for each line. Line 1 flashed at twice the rate of the frequency of the rings. He picked up the receiver and the light fixed on.
These were the first words he had spoken since greeting the security guard upon his arrival to the office at 8.25am that morning and his voice was thick and croaky.
“Mr Tillman, Good morning, my name is -”
Static interfered with the line for a few seconds. Steven was about to speak when the voice returned.
“- you’ll forgive the intrusion I’m sure. I thought it best to reach you right away given the circumstances.”
“Sorry – the line dropped out there. What did you say your name was? What circumstances?”
“Yes it’s a bad connection here I’m afraid. We are quite remote so the service is pretty unreliable. As I was saying, my name is Doctor -”
Static. Three, Two, One.
“-we tried you at home but managed to find this number in her next of kin information.”
“Doctor? Are you from a hospital?”
“Oh my it is bad today isn’t it? Not exactly Mr Tillman – we specialise in ongoing care for our residents, making them comfortable. Unfortunately there’s not much even hospitals can do for those that end up here.”
“And where is that?”
“As I said, -”
Static. The longest one yet, must have been five seconds this time. Steven was stammering politely into the receiver when the voice returned.
“-you are listed as her next of kin in her entry file. She was brought to us almost five years ago now and, to be honest, we were all amazed she made it through the first week the state she was in, but now here we are. So we thought you should know.”
“Sorry – doctor – the line keeps on cutting out. Who are you calling about? I don’t know anyone in…well, wherever you are. Where are you calling from?”
“Mr Tillman I’m afraid it’s not that simple to explain. Think of us less as a where, more of a-”
Thankfully this pause was brief.
“-as I said, it’s a bit complicated to explain over the phone. I think it’s best if you came in to see her yourself before we have to begin the next steps.”
Steven racked his brains. Even though the line was poor it was obvious this was a doctor calling from a hospice or similar facility, to inform him of the death of a female patient. This woman had spent five years in their care and when she arrived, in a poor condition, had listed him as her next of kin. Five years ago he was twenty-two and living in Clapham with his university housemates; the most traumatic thing that happened to him in that period was when he got barred from Inferno’s for being caught with a gram of coke in the gents’. He really had no idea what this doctor was calling about, and was sure it must have been a wrong number, only with the freak coincidence of having the right surname.
“Mr Tillman? Are you still there?”
“Yes – sorry. It’s a bad line. I’m afraid I don’t know who you are talking about. I really think you must have got the wrong number. I’m very sorry, but really, I really don’t know how I can help.”
“Oh. Oh I do apologise. This is Steven Tillman?”
First name too – can’t be.
“Well yes, but I think you must have logged the numbers incorrectly or something, because I don’t know a-”
The man on the other end hung up.