Arthur picks up a three-week old copy of his local newspaper, already folded at the classifieds–-the flats for rent page. He circles one of the ads with his small pen, just one of several pens collected from a few of his local betting shops. He pulls the small table on wheels with the phone on toward him, parking it by the side of the sofa. Picking up the handset he clears his throat, and savours the aftertaste of his earlier salmon and dill sandwich that he followed with a fresh melon medley. Arthur watched his diet; it wasn't always easy on his state pension, but he believed he was what he ate.
He carefully dials the number in front of him saying each number out loud to himself, 5-9-4-2, and as he predicts, after a few rings it connects to the answering machine of what sounds like a young woman. He is gladdened by a chirpy and energetic voice.
"Sorry, I can't take your call at the moment, please leave your message after the tone, thanks."
Arthur waits for the beeps before speaking, "Have you got my medicine yet? I'm still waiting for me medicine, you know I can't afford to be making calls out."
He then hangs up, satisfied his message would be listened to. He picks up his copy of the latest Sporting Times and tries his hand at predicting the 2.40 Kempton Park race.
Lottie drops her two bags of shopping on the kitchen floor before taking off her coat. The red light of her answer machine beckons her attention but she kicks off her shoes and walks straight back into the kitchen, telling herself she will only sit down and relax for five minutes after she has put away her groceries. As soon as she diligently puts away the empty carrier bags into the already stuffed carrier bag drawer she eyes the cushions on the sofa and breathes a sigh of relief after what has been a heavy day at work. She presses the play button on the answer machine before collapsing on to the sofa.
'You have 3 new messages' -- the robotic voice of her machine tells her.
"Hi Lottie, mum here, hope you're settling in ok, let me know if you need anything, call me."
"Hi Lot, Gemma's arranging a surprise birthday party for Serena in two weeks time, we need your help, speak later." Lottie smiles to herself as she hears her friend's plans.
"Have you got me medicine yet? I'm still waiting for me medicine, you know I can't afford to be making calls out."
Lottie lifts her head from the plump cushions, trying to work out if she knows the shaky voice of what seems to be an old man from the last message. She reluctantly gets up from the sofa and standing by the answer machine, plays back the message.
Scratching her head, she wonders what to do. She quickly realises that he's dialled the wrong number, but didn't he hear her own voice at the end of the line? That's old people though, she thinks, but maybe that didn't register with him. Lottie hesitates before picking up the phone and dialling 1471. The familiar automated message comes on the line saying, 'the last person to call was 7 495 4', Lottie quickly reaches for a pencil and scribbles down the number onto the memo pad within reach at the side of the phone.
Lottie sits on her sofa, unable to relax until she works out what to do about the message. She justifies taking no immediate action by telling herself that surely the old man already realises he's made a wrong call, surely he's got through to the right person, surely he's got his medicine by now, maybe he was trying to get through to his daughter, she would surely be checking on him on a regular basis. A hundred and one different scenarios race through Lottie's mind, until she concludes it is quicker and easier to just call the man and let him know that he has mistakenly left a message on her answering machine.
Picking up the phone Lottie presses 14713 and immediately hears the dialling tone. The phone rings and rings but no answering machine. Lottie puts the phone down, telling herself that she has at least tried to get through to her last caller – the mystery medicine man.
Arthur laughs along to his favourite radio play, only slightly interrupted by the phone ringing. He knows who it is thanks to his old friend Hazel, who had been kind enough to buy him a large caller display. He also knew the caller would try again.
After a quick meal of supermarket ready-made curry Lottie settles down once again on the sofa with a glass of red wine and the remote control. She sighs as she flicks through the channels, her favourite programme not starting for another hour. The LCD on her DVD player flashes 9.01pm. She looks over at the phone and tells herself she should try again and so she gets up and presses the redial button. The phone rings and rings until she finally gives up, putting the phone down. 10pm arrives and Lottie settles down to her favourite programme, but is unable to enjoy it as much as she usually would.
Arthur pats Felix, his cat, as it jumps up on his bed. "My true little friend aren't you Felix?" he says as the cat purrs from yet another good feed of chicken scraps. "Well, early to bed, early to rise." And Arthur climbs into his warm bed, tired but satisfied of a productive day, but knowing he would need to be on top form tomorrow.
Lottie wakes at 6.30am after a fitful night's sleep. She groans to herself as she realises she doesn't need to be at work until 10am. Her thoughts wonders to her mystery caller, would he be ok, would he have had his medicine by now, she asks herself. Unable to relax into a couple of hours extra sleep, Lottie pushes back her duvet and gets out of bed. She picks up her cold cup of half drunk Horlicks from her bedside table and makes her way through to the kitchen. Her attention is once again drawn to the scribbled number on the memo pad by her phone. She puts her cup into the sink and then picks up the phone, dialling the number again. No answer. She then puts the phone back down before picking it up again and calling 192 – directory enquiries.
Arthur finishes emptying Felix's tray of gourmet cat food into his bowl. "There you are Felix, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, enjoy." Arthur has already been awake for almost an hour when he hears the familiar ringing of the phone. He already knows who it is but makes sure by checking his trusted caller display once more. Yes, he's right, yet again. Making sure all heating is off, he makes his way round the flat and opens all his windows. The cold morning air wafts through the flat, quickly sending a chill through every room. He then opens his fridge, glad that he at least had never believed in buying in bulk, satisfied that the shelves housed only basic provisions, margarine, half a pint of milk and a carton of yoghurt two weeks past its sell by date. It is always important to plan and think ahead, he tells himself as he takes a few clean plates and dirties them by smearing them with tomato ketchup and strategically places a piece of mouldy bread on the top plate, taken from his stash of old rotting groceries from the cupboard underneath the sink.
Lottie discovers the number isn't ex-directory and in addition to her knowing from the first few digits of the phone number that the man must be local, she also manages to ascertain from the helpful operator that the number belongs to a basement flat on a street not far from her. She recognises the name of the street, St. Luke's Avenue, as it is just a few streets away from her own, and she passes it twice daily on her way to and from the tube station, even though she'd only been making the journey for just over 2 weeks. After making a note of the address and putting the piece of paper in her bag she takes a quick shower and dresses.
After putting on his old and rather tattered and worn pyjamas Arthur, satisfied at the flat's coldness, closes the windows and throws an old overcoat down by the front door before lifting the latch. He then stuffs away his deluxe duvet into the bottom of his wardrobe and replaces it on the bed with a few blankets and then jumps into bed.
Lottie stands at the top of St. Luke's Avenue and counts down the houses until she comes across a tall house, and like most houses in the area, it has been converted into separate flats, displayed by the various bells. She walks down the side of the house and walks toward a front door with a cracked windowpane. As she approaches the front door she hesitates as she looks for a bell, but finds none. She goes to knock on the door but seeing it ever so slightly ajar she pushes, fearing the worst. As the door pushes back, she sees the old overcoat from behind it, there to keep the warmth in she thinks as the draught hits her as she enters the hallway. "Hello?" she shouts through to the living room.
Arthur lies in bed and hearing the overcoat being pushed back on the floor by the front door he calls in a low voice, "Hello?" He hears a young female voice, the same voice from the answering machine, shout through.
"Hello?" he replies, feigning an effort to get up from his bed as the young woman makes her way into his living room.
"Don't get up," Lottie says, rushing over to him, "Oh my God, are you ok?"
"Oh yes, perfectly ok my dear," Arthur replies.
"But your door was open."
"Yes, I'm afraid it's a habit I've gotten into, Hazel used to run errands for me before she went to work in the mornings but it seems she has left the area as I haven't seen her for a while."
"You left a message on my answering machine and I worried, and traced your number through directory enquiries," Lottie explained.
"Directory what?" Arthur asks, looking at her in mock confusion.
"Oh, never mind, erm, you said something about medicine, you not having your medicine?"
"Aah yes, now, let me think, I have a prescription that I need picking up from the chemists but am unable to get it myself…"
"Well, I'd be happy to collect it for you," Lottie offers.
"Why, you must be wanting to get to work, a young girl like you must have a very busy life?"
"Well, yes, I do, but I only live around the corner and I'd be glad to help. Do you have family nearby?" Lottie asks.
"Family dear? Good grief no, they're all far too busy."
"Oh dear, do you really think you should be living alone?" Lottie asks, not sure how it would go down with him.
"My dear, all I have is my independence and the kindness of strangers – well that fades from time to time of course, people come and go but I shall never leave here, I shall never go into one of those homes you know."
"No, of course not," Lottie replies, having just that weekend watched a BBC documentary on the state of council run old people's homes.
"The chemist is just at the bottom of the road my dear, oh, and if you wouldn't mind picking up a few bits and bobs from the supermarket?" Arthur asks, physical weakness showing in his voice.
"Yes, of course," Lottie replies, her conscience recovering from her hesitation of the evening before.
Lottie picks up Arthur's little betting shop pen and an unused betting slip and makes a note of his grocery needs before, upon his instruction, she picks up his key and locks the door after her as she makes her way on what would now be a regular errand run.
Hearing the front door lock Arthur props himself up and picks up yesterday's paper and sees he is only halfway through the crossword. He laughs as he reaches the clue for 7 down, helpful neighbour? 4, 9. He then fills in 9 down - The application of science to commercial objectives? 10. "Mmmm, let's see, ah yes, technology," he mutters to himself, "a most wonderful thing."
He then turns to the back of the paper, and reaching the travel section plots his next holiday with the money he saved with the help of Hazel. After all he knows that Felix and the flat will be well taken care of while he gets a much-needed change of scenery for a while.
"Community Spirit" was first posted at "Second-hand Dagger-proof Coat," Toasted Cheese's mystery forum. E-mail: belwebb [at] hotmail.com