“I thought you were meant to leave ages ago?”
“I got distracted.”
“Are you on Buzzfeed again?”
Alex sighed and failed to keep the frustration out of his voice.
“You love that website. For someone so smart I just don’t get how you can buy into it, it’s all just clickbait.”
“I knowwwwww – I can’t help it. I think I’m addicted.”
“What, to Buzzfeed? Or to wasting time?”
Jean playfully kicked Alex’ leg. They were spending the afternoon curled up on the sofa, Alex engrossed in the latest Robert Galbraith thriller and Jean taking Buzzfeed quizzes to find out which limited edition flavor of Walkers crisps she was; turns out she was Chilli & Chocolate, the sassy finalist of 2009’s ‘Do Us A Flavour’ campaign, and she was pretty happy with that.
“What time is your train?”
Jean groaned and reluctantly shut down the app, just a few clicks away from finding out who her 2016 Love Island boyfriend would have been.
“Alexa, what time is the next train from Vauxhall to Waterloo?”
The speaker on the bookshelf lit up for a second as Jean’s request was transmitted to the cloud.
“The next train from Vauxhall to London Waterloo departs at 16:47. There is another departure at 16:52. Would you like to hear any later options?”
Jean knew she’d have to rush to make the 16:47 and still be on time for dinner tonight. At least she’d already decided on an outfit – the long black dress with the new shoes, and the earrings that Alex had bought her on his last trip to the city. She downed the rest of her tea and carried the mug through to the kitchen. The floor was cold, she’d left her slippers upstairs. “Alexa, what’s the weather like tonight?”
“In London, tonight you can expect showers with a high of 13 degrees and a low of 6 degrees.”
Brilliant, she thought to herself. “Babe, can I take your umbrella?” she called through to the living room.
“Is it going to rain?”
“No, I just wanted to take it for fun.” Stupid answer for a stupid question.
“Alright bozo. It’s by the door, make sure you don’t lose it.” As much as Jean loved Alex, the fact he never trusted her with any of his possessions still pissed her off. She thought about making some snarky comment in return but held her tongue; she had, after all, recently lost two of his scarves, one of which he didn’t even know about yet. She ran the kitchen tap and poured herself a large glass of water, greedily gulping it down.
“Jean, you should leave in the next 5 minutes to make your train from Vauxhall to London Waterloo. Would you like me to set an alarm for 5 minutes?”
Jean placed the glass and her mug in the dishwasher and went upstairs to get changed.
It was around 8pm when Alex got the call. At least, he thought it was, everything was sort of a blur. It’s such a cliché to say that but it’s true. He was still reading on the sofa, waiting for a delivery of Chinese food to arrive when his phone rang. His first natural assumption was that the driver was having a hard time finding the flat, so he answered straight away. If he’d paused and read the display he would have seen the strange area code, but he was craving that crispy chilli beef.
Silence on the other end as the phone connected. A brief crackle and then:
“Alex? Alex, is that you?”
A woman’s voice buzzed from the speakers. It sounded vaguely familiar. Alex still thought it was a delivery driver.
“Yes, are you the deliveroo driver? You need the building behind the bus stop, opposite Tesco, not on the same side of the road, I’m on the right behind that.” He was awful at giving directions.
The line fizzed with static –
“A- Ale-“ cracks and pops of electronic signals “Ca – ear me?” He still didn’t give any thought as to why this delivery driver kept using his first name, let alone why they knew it in the first place.
“Yes – hello? Sorry, it’s a terrible line, I can’t really hear you. You need to go to the large building, it’s like, right next to bus stop G, I’ll come and wave from the front door.”
“Al – it’s Jea –“ the voice interrupted.
“Jean? Jean, is that you?”
“You need to g- ut. Do you he – me? Alex? Don’t g- ith hi-”
“I can’t hear you babe – what’s going on, are you OK? Where are you? It sounds awful.”
A few seconds of garbled sounds and then silence. There was a faint whirring and click as if a tape were being rewound and replayed, then the voice on the other end of the line repeated its message a few more times. The integrity of the line was awful and it dropped every other syllable but eventually Alex pieced the words together.
“Alex. Alex is that you? Can you hear me? Alex it’s Jean. You need to get out. Do you hear me? Alex? Don’t go with him”
He listened once more and his mind filled in the blanks. It was Jean. She was in trouble. Or, it was her and her friends playing a prank. A weird, twisted prank. His heart hoped for the latter but his gut told him the former.
Alex dialed Jean’s number. There was a long pause, before the three beeps that signified number unavailable came up. He pressed the green call back symbol and waited until he heard the same three beeps. Shit, he thought. ‘What’s going on’, he typed into Whatsapp, ‘where are you?’. The artificial click clack of the keyboard was the only sound he could hear. He hit send and waited; one tick. One tick. One tick. Shit, shit shit.
He called a few more times, each time getting the same ‘user busy’ screen. He tried exactly thirteen times, although he lost track after number two. Good thing he wasn’t superstitious anyway.
Was that definitely her? It must have been, right? What was that weird number she called from? He checked his call log.
+0 001 002 003
What the hell? What sort of number is that, he thought as he stared at his iphone display. He pressed the entry and nothing happened. He pressed it a few times and still nothing happened, so he scrolled up and down to check if the screen was working; it was. He switched to the keypad and dialed it, on speakerphone and –
Beep beep beep.
Calling… switched to call ended in barely half a second.
Right, nothing else for it. Resolving he’d rather look stupid than he would carry on worrying for the rest of the evening, he scrolled to the Wedding group chat on whatsapp, went to the info page and found Alice’s number. Half-hesitating, his thumb hovered over the minute picture of Alice and Jean smiling on a summer’s day with an ocean backdrop. Had he studied the photo closer before touching the icon he might have noticed there was something amiss about that photo; Alice and Jean not standing in front of an ocean, nor was it a sunny day. But that’s a story for later.
He sighed and selected ‘voice call’ from the popup menu and, steeling himself for the potential embarrassment, began to role play the conversation in his head.
“Hi Alice, sorry to interrupt your evening but I’m trying to get hold of Jean – are you still with her?”
No doubt he’d hear giggles down the phone as the girls, overcome with excitement, congratulated themselves on an excellent prank. He then had two options; he could play this up as ‘over the line’, the sort of prank that had he played on her would have resulted in mass hysteria and, who knows, if he played it right, might even result in sex by way of an apology. The second option was the opposite – to invent an excuse to need to get hold of Jean. He was heading out for drinks with the boys and wanted to be sure she had keys, for instance. Both scenarios, although potentially embarrassing and annoying, where somewhat comforting. The truth was that phone conversation had unsettled him a great deal and he just needed to hear Jean’s voice.
Unfortunately that was not the next thing he heard.
Five swift raps on his front door made Alex jump. He disconnected the call before it had connected (not that it was ever going to, but again, that’s for later) and peered curiously up the stairs.
Alex and Jean had an unusual flat in that it was split level, with the bedrooms and bathroom on the ground floor, the front door opening onto a staircase that led down to the living room and kitchen. It was an old building in Brixton, likely built post-war to serve as a hospital or infirmary, with lofty ceilings and a warren of corridors interconnecting all the flats to a large garden out the back and two separate entrances. Once you opened the door to their flat, however, it was a stark contrast to the dark blue establishment carpets and plain green walls; the landlord had designed it to be ultra-modern, a veritable Ikea showroom, with monochrome white walls and floorboards throughout, a dark grey sofa against the far wall atop a lighter grey rug that served as a bridge to their whitewash dining table with four futuristic bucket shaped plastic chairs tucked underneath each leg in the opposite corner. On either wall of the nook the table sat in hung a diptych of canvases with swirls of reds, lilacs, purples and blues, illuminated by a spotlight directly above them. It was fair to say their flat had an aesthetic. What is also had was an electric gate, and two heavy, double locked front doors, both of which required a resident of the building to open from within their respective flats. It was therefore highly unusual for someone to be knocking directly on Alex’ front door.
Another five swift knocks. Much like the way he was later unable to recall the time of the mysterious phone call, Alex was not thinking clearly and went up the stairs and opened his front door.
A man stood in front of him. At least, Alex thought it was a man. This was a man of such slight proportions that it was actually hard to say for sure what he was. With legs as thin as matchsticks, his checked black suit trousers hung off them and billowed around his ankles with the breeze of the door being opened. His trousers (black check? dark grey pinstripe? Alex wasn’t sure, they were very faded) were held in place by a pair of black leather braces fastened to them by elastic loops and hazel brown buttons in buttonholes where belt loops would have been on a more modern pair. Tucked into the waistband was a thick and starchy white shirt, but due to the frame of its owner it was puffy and loose, swathing its inhabitant in a 1930s city-pirate look. The man’s torso was reedy and he held one long, gangly arm by his side, the other holding a matching suit jacket over his scrawny shoulder.
The man spoke Alex’ name with an implausibly cockney accent.
“Yes, that’s me?” Alex involuntarily inflected the last word so it came out a question. This made the man on his doorstep smile a broad smile, revealing yellowing teeth underneath a pencil moustache and thin lips.
“Pleased to meetcha. I’m The Guv’nor. Can I come in?”