ON THE LINE • by David Brookes

I was on the line with Ava. She was asking me where I was and I said, “Chakupat, in Kathmandu still.”

“Oh,” she said. “Flight delayed?”

I passed the receiver to my other hand and looked out the hotel window. It was dark out. In Kathmandu the valley is full of light during the day, but at night is darker than anywhere else in the world.

“Yeah,” I said, “delayed. Until tomorrow night. Something about the weather, they said, but I couldn’t really make it out.”

“Are you sure?”

“Well, I couldn’t really make it out.”

“I mean, are you sure it was delayed or did you miss it?”

At first I thought she said something and then “I miss you”, but the line wasn’t great. The phones routinely go out in the valley. Maybe something to do with the mountains. I think somebody said that most of the phones and internet are run off a hardline somewhere. I’m not sure how that would work.

“I didn’t miss it. It was delayed because of the weather. Anyway … what have you been up to?”

There was a pause on the line during which I heard only a few static crackles. It was as though she was thinking about her answer before she said it. Or maybe she’d been distracted by something. Then she said, “Just work. I got back late.”

“Didn’t you have a report due this week?”

“That was last week.” She sounded exasperated. I didn’t really apologise about stuff like that anymore. It’s hard to keep track when you’re out of the country. “Do you want to Skype?”

“The internet’s as bad here as the phones,” I told her, which was true, but actually seeing her face-to-face and fighting against the bad video connection seemed like too much effort. And I liked it when we could talk without her seeing my face. She only seemed to suggest video-chat when the line was bad, never when it was good.

She said, “So where are you going next?”

“I told you. Lhasa next, in Tibet. That’s where the plane lands, remember?”

“Well. I just didn’t know if you’d changed your mind, like you do. Decided you wanted something else.”

“No. Still Lhasa.”

She said something that I didn’t hear. I said, “The connection’s not very good.”

“—home,” she said.

I said, “What?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.

I moved around the bed to look out of the other window. The cord on the phone would have stretched to the roof if I’d felt like it. The phone had a dial wheel like the kind I remembered from when I was a kid. The windows were dirty on the outside with spots of mildew and other crud.

“You know it always annoys me when you say things don’t matter.”

“I can’t hear you very well,” she said, crystal clear.

I held my breath for a second. The line was rustles and silence.

It seemed like I’d been on the line with her every night for the last two months. I knew that wasn’t true: there were days when I was travelling and couldn’t call even if I’d wanted to, and nights when the time zones clashed or she was out with friends or somebody. Those times were becoming more frequent, but what could I say? It was me that left for a rolling contract on the other side of the world.

When we did speak, the hellos and goodbyes didn’t really count for anything, so we just picked up where we’d left off the last time.

“So what else have you been doing?” she asked. Whenever she asked that it sounded like, “So which other girls have you been seeing?”

“Nothing much, really. Just the research.”

“Don’t lie,” she said. “You must have done something else.”

“I really haven’t.” Although it was true, I must have. Sometimes it was hard to remember what I’d told her and what I hadn’t.

“Don’t lie! You did something, I know you did.”

“You can’t know I did, Ava. You can’t see inside my head. I’m telling you.”

“You’re always telling me things.”

It wasn’t really an argument. Our conversations went like this sometimes.

I think that’s what she said. You’re always telling me things. “There’s not much of a connection,” I said. Then, “Did anyone reply to the ad about the room?”

“Yeah, someone moved in last week. I told you. When are you coming home?”

“You didn’t tell me. What’re they like?”

“He’s nice,” she said. “A bit like you, but different.”

A bit like me.

But different.

“I’m not sure when I’ll be back. The channel wants me to stay here near the university for a bit and get some pictures of the term coming back in. They said they’ll think about another piece in Lhasa. So what’s he called?”

“Say again? About Lhasa?”

“I said what’s the lodger called?”

I sat on the bed. Crackles. I thought I could hear someone talking but it might not even have been Ava. Then: “—said he’s nice. You know. Just for a few weeks, and definitely by the time you’re home, if—”

I asked her to repeat the last bit, but she must not have caught it.

“What’s the place you’re in now?” she asked.

“Chakupat,” I said, “Chakupat.”

“I’m not hearing you,” she said.

I said, “I’ll call you another time. The connection is really bad.”

David Brookes is a writer and poet. He runs his editing and proofreading business from his home in Sheffield, England.

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