competition winner: TANGLED

A Short Story by Chris Underwood

tangled in briars, as unforgiving as razor wire, lies a mobile phone; there at the top of One Tree Hill. Black, glass, incongruous, right where it landed, twenty feet or so from the stone pedestal with its etched guide to the London skyline. A skyline, which, through gaps in the ancient trees, shimmers in the distance.

It first rang cheerfully at midday, mocking the local birds with its piezoelectric Mozart symphony. It rang again half an hour later, and then again fifteen minutes after that. For a short while it fell silent, and then it rang again at irregular intervals before falling silent again. Now, as the colour of the sky starts changing to a more luxuriant hue, and the gaps between the trees turn inky black, it is ringing again. Aside from the crack of twigs, and the ghost voices in the leaves, it is the only sound. It makes too brash a noise for an October dusk on a deserted hillside.

Darren Brooks hates his damned job, and frankly he doesn’t care who knows it, well, apart from Lynne, his line manager, he puts on his ‘work face’ for her only. Given that his entire day is spent fielding verbal abuse from total strangers, this attitude is not unreasonable; he badly needs the money though, and his idiot friend, Steve, told him that it would probably be ‘pretty cushy’.

James Edwards hates his job too, but for entirely different reasons. He’d always been able to channel his default state of high anxiety into a force for good, at least when at work, but now, as Head of Strategy, he’d been handed what whisperers in the office had been calling a ‘poisoned chalice’, which he thought was a rather theatrical way of saying ‘a crappy job that no one else wanted to do’ – how could he turn it down though, especially on that kind of money. It didn’t help that his relationship with Maria was on the rocks, to put it mildly, although he’d agreed that a reconciliation weekend away was a good idea.

As James Edward’s new role had progressed, with new responsibilities foisted upon him almost daily, it had become increasingly apparent that what was being asked of him was an almost impossible task. This realisation made him stressed, gave him eczema, and of late, caused him to miss key meetings and appointments with some regularity.

Sometimes, when he had a meeting he particularly feared, he would make his excuses and instead take the train to Honor Oak, walking up the flagstone steps to the top of One Tree Hill, puffing and panting as he went, always with a nagging fear that he may suddenly be gripped by heart failure and drop down dead, his body laid there to rest, cushioned in the wet bracken. ‘Would that really be so bad?’ he would think to himself, ‘I like it up here, it’s so near to all the madness and yet so peaceful and removed from it, I’d rather end my days here than lassoed to some drip in a bed,’ it was this thought that usually helped calm his palpitations.

“he’d been handed what whisperers in the office had been calling a ‘poisoned chalice’

Maria Edwards, his wife, was to meet him at Paddington at two o’clock, for the two fifteen train to Swansea. There they would change for a train to Pembroke. She had loved James very much for very many years, but his increasingly erratic behaviour had made it hard for her to rely on him as she used to do; she was getting tired of being let down, she never seemed to know where he was, or what he was up to these days: late at the office, trips out of London, those endless walks of his; he just couldn’t be relied upon anymore and she found that emotionally draining.

On the advice of a friend, she had confronted him about her concerns, and suggested that they go away together for the weekend. Fearing her affections were waning, he had wanted to please her and had booked the afternoon off work to demonstrate his commitment to the idea. They would go to Pembrokeshire, where they first spent time alone together, all those years ago; they would walk along the coast, laugh, hold hands, and he would point out the different types of seabird, as they sat with her head on his shoulder, gazing out towards the container ships, floating out on the horizon.

Darren Brooks, meanwhile, was having a particularly bad day. Darren was entirely used to getting shouted at down the line, but there was something particularly aggressive about some of the expletives with which he’d been greeted that morning. He badly needed to find another job. So far, he had seen just the one, advertised in the local paper – an office assistant to take and make calls for someone fairly senior in a company he’d never heard of – he had a lot of experience dealing with people over the telephone and he reasoned with himself that he’d almost certainly get the job.

So, on that one October morning, as Darren Brooks sat at his desk thinking about how he was going to change his life for the better, James Edwards sat at the top of One Tree Hill, surveying the city below him. He couldn’t actually see it, but he could work out exactly where his office must be. Looking down on it like this, he thought, with the gentle tones of nature and the clear autumn sunshine, was the perfect antidote to the stresses of work. Or at least it should be; except that he’d taken three calls that morning that had particularly riled him and that he couldn’t seem to put aside so as to enjoy the view – unreasonable people making unreasonable demands on his time – he wanted to leave all that anger back at the office but inadvertently he had brought it with him to the top of his hill, and that angered him more than anything. Just at that moment his phone rang, shattering the calm – he stared at it angrily, but didn’t recognise the number and so curiosity led him to answer:
“Good morning Mr Edwards,” said a plaintive voice, “we understand from our records that you may be due up to five thousand pounds in unclaimed payment protection insurance…”
‘Leave me alone!’ screamed James Edwards, the words boiling up inside him and then shooting up and out of his mouth, a scream so profound he scared himself a little, and then in his rage he’d taken his telephone and thrown it as far as he could.

“I like it up here, it’s so near to all the madness and yet so peaceful and removed from it

Almost immediately a calm fell upon him, he felt peaceful, at one with the nature around him. He took several deep breaths, sat down slowly with his hands on his knees, and then just stayed there, watching the madness broil away in the streets of the city below. He sat like this for a long time and then, noting the hour, he slowly made his way back down the steps. He had a date to keep, a promise, a weekend away, which now held more allure for him, in this happier state of being, than it had before. Maria called him to make sure everything was on schedule: a phone rang in the undergrowth, there was no reply.

James Edwards was cutting things fine, he had been sitting there for longer than he realised. He looked at his watch again, ‘forty minutes, should be okay’, he thought.
I am sorry to announce that the 13:25 London Bridge service has been cancelled due to signalling problems in the New Cross area – said a dispassionate, disembodied voice, which didn’t sound very sorry at all: I am very sorry for the cancellation of this service and for any inconvenience this will cause to your journey. Please listen for further announcements.

Maria called again, but again, no reply. Darren Brooks made his way methodically and unhappily down his list of names. James Edwards wished on his life that he’d remembered Maria’s mobile number or at least written it down. Orange dots swept busily across the departure board to reassemble into letters one rung up, another train was due in fifteen minutes, and it appeared to be on time. James Edwards would have to run between stops, but he’d always been a fast mover through the city’s public transport network, he reckoned he could still make it.

Maria rang again, three times, increasingly agitated, still getting no reply. She stood and watched two young lovers embrace on the platform, carefree, over by the franchise with the over-priced baguettes, all torn denim and carelessly packed rucksacks; she looked at her own neatly arranged bag and she felt a pang of sadness. She tried James again. Even if he hadn’t thrown away his phone he wouldn’t have answered her, he was tearing up the escalators at Baker Street, bobbing his way around the tourists, throwing snappy ‘excuse me’s’ at the people hovering on the left-hand-side.

Platform seven for the 14:15 First Great Western service to Swansea, this train is now ready for boarding. Maria looked fearfully at her watch, it was ten past. Her phone rang. She answered it immediately: “James?”
“Good afternoon Mrs Edwards,” said a plaintive voice: “we understand from our records that you may be due up to five thousand pounds in unclaimed payment protection insurance…”
“Piss off!” Maria barked, the lovers turned to look at her, surprised, she smiled back, and then a tear began to make its way down her cheek. She didn’t know that James Edwards was at the bottom of the escalators on the Bakerloo line at Paddington railway station and that in front of him was a man with a holdall and a surfboard and an issue with his Oyster card.

Maria knew what she had to do. She would board that train to Swansea and she would go to the boutique hotel in Pembroke that they had chosen together, and when she got there she would phone James at home and leave him a message telling him that their relationship was over.

James Edwards surfaced just as the 14:15 Great Western Service to Swansea was pulling away from the platform. A string of expletives poured from his mouth, but he now also knew what he must do; he would go home, find Maria’s number, apologise profusely and then take a later train.

As Maria’s train picked its way through unnamed suburbs, her mind darted between concern for her husband’s well-being and furious annoyance that he had been ignoring her calls all day and had now missed their train and ruined their weekend. A short, bald man pushed a trolley stacked with confectionary along a narrow and crowded aisle, rattling as he went. Maria bought a Twix, which slipped from her grasp, the man seated opposite her picked it up and handed it to her, smiling warmly as he did so, she smiled warmly in return. Things had already moved on.

As for Darren Brooks, well he also knew what he had to do. He left work early that evening and light of step, and as soon as he got home he sat down and phoned the number from the advertisement, and at that very moment, at the top of One Tree Hill, a mobile phone, tangled in briars as unforgiving as razor wire, rang cheerfully to itself in the half-light.

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