Lori looked at her watch. 6:02 PM. An hour gone, and she had hardly begun straightening out the mess the new girl had made of the accounts. She was alone in her office, which was draped in shadows; the only illumination came from the lamp on her desk. Yawning, she rubbed her eyes, then tipped her head this way and that until her neck creaked.

A photograph pinned to a corkboard next to her desk caught her eye, making her smile sadly. Taken when she was about ten years old, it was a picture of Lori and her parents, Brian and Evelyn, smiling away on a beach somewhere. Her parents were dead now: Brian the victim of a brain tumour about five years after the picture was taken; Evelyn killed just three years ago, run down while crossing the street by a drunk driver.

Lori sighed. No time for wallowing. Reluctantly, she dragged her eyes back to the paperwork in front of her.

The telephone on her desk started ringing, its shrill tone startlingly loud in the empty office.

Lori made an annoyed sound. She picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

There was no reply. All she could hear was a faint hiss. “Hello…? Hello?”

No one answered, so Lori replaced the receiver. Must have been a wrong number, she thought.

She felt her parents’ eyes on her again. “Yes, Mum, I know you don’t like talking on the telephone, dear,” she joked halfheartedly, mimicking Evelyn’s reedy voice.

After Lori had moved from the country town she had grown up in to the city, she had found it hard to visit her mother more than once every month or two. Calling was not much easier, for Evelyn had an aversion to talking on the telephone–“They gave me the bad news about your father by phone”–to the extent she could hardly be trusted to answer the bloody thing. If she did answer, she would always say, “I can only talk for a few minutes, dear.” After those few minutes had elapsed, Evelyn would find some excuse to end the call: “There’s someone at the door, dear,” or “I have to get the dinner out of the oven, dear.”

Lori grimaced, remembering the last time she had visited her mother, a couple of weeks before the accident, an occasion that had ended acrimoniously.

“Have some time off, Lori,” Evelyn had said. “You must have plenty of leave saved up. Come and stay for a week. You never stay anymore.”

“I can’t, Mum. I can’t just take time off every time you miss Dad. Get Auntie Ellen to hold your hand.”

This reply had, of course, started an argument. Lori had ended up driving away, tyres squealing, from her mother’s house. She could still remember the look of hurt and, worse, the disappointment on Evelyn’s face.

If only Lori had agreed to stay–she’d had plenty of leave accrued, but was saving it for a theoretical romantic holiday with a theoretical boyfriend. If only… but now nothing could change what had been said and done.

Wiping a tear from her eye, Lori reluctantly returned her attention to the task at hand.

She had begun to make progress on unravelling the tangle of the accounts–apparently some credit note figures had been entered on the debit side of the ledger–when the telephone rang again.

“Bloody phone!” Lori picked up the receiver. “Hello, who is this?” she demanded.

As before, there was no answer, but the same indistinct whisper. “Is this some kind of pervert? I can find out your number, you know.”

Lori expected this threat to produce results. No pervert was going to wait for someone to do a number check on him. To her surprise, the connection was not broken. But neither was there a reply beyond the faint, distant sound. She slammed the receiver down. “I really hate phones.” She looked at the photo on the corkboard again and grinned ruefully. “Just like you, eh, Mum?”

The telephone rang again.

“For God’s sake!” Lori cried, snatching up the receiver. “Who the hell is this?”

Again there was nothing beyond a slight hiss. Lori slammed the receiver into its cradle. She clenched her fists and forced out a breath. She did not need this! She really didn’t, not while doing unwanted overtime because of some silly bimbo’s cockup. A cockup that probably had a lot to do with the same silly bimbo’s wanting to take off right on 5 PM.

Lori forced herself to take a few deep breaths. Feeling calmer, she picked up an invoice.

The telephone rang.

“What the fuck is going on?” she screamed into the empty office, surprising herself with the vehemence of her outburst.

The telephone kept ringing.

She stood up from her chair, snatching at the cord attached to base of the telephone. Following the cord to its source, she yanked its connection from the wall socket, and…

The telephone kept ringing.

Lori’s anger drained out of her in an instant, replaced by amazement and not a little unease.

The telephone kept ringing.

Slowly, as if drawn, her hand reached for the receiver and lifted it to her ear.

“Hello?” she said tentatively, still staring at the end of the disconnected telephone cord.

“Lori?” said a female voice. “Lori, are you there?” It was hesitant, soft, but familiar and missed and very much loved.

“Mum? Oh, Mum! Is it really you?”

“Yes, Lori, it is. But I can only talk for a few minutes…”

Tom Williams writes in Western Australia.

Rate this story:
 average 5 stars • 1 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction