by Steve Toase
Scuffing the sheets, Henry sat against the velour headboard and tore away a slice of pizza. The topping coagulated, chunks of meat trapped like Arctic dead. He ate the first piece without taking breath, then the next, only pausing after the third.
“Are you sitting down?”
His Dad kept staring through the door’s peep hole.
“In a minute. Save me some,” his Dad said, though it was hard to tell whether he meant it. He sounded as if he was holding a conversation with himself.
They had stopped in several run down hotel rooms over the past few days. Some with damp staining the ceiling like night itself pressed through the Artex. Others had walls so thin Henry heard couples in bed next door, headboards rapping against plaster. Duvet covered séances for dead relationships.
“There’s no TV,” Henry said.
“What?” His Dad sounded annoyed.
“That’s what’s different. No TV.”
The constant stream of hotel rooms had few benefits, apart from TV. Ever since his Dad confiscated Henry’s mobile phone, taking out the SIM and dropping the handset in the gutter, the shifting parade of flickering screens were his only entertainment.
“What am I going to do? No TV to watch. No mobile.” Henry looked around the room. “No radio.”
“Read a book.”
His Dad was sweating again. Twitching.
This idea struck Henry as idiotic. Not reading a book. He loved reading. His Mum never let him buy any and since moving from hotel to hotel with his father there had been little opportunity to visit a library.
“People always leave books in hotels. Check through the drawers,” his Dad said, moving away from the peephole long enough to look at his watch.
His eyes looked yellow. Maybe just the light reflecting off the nicotine brushed ceiling.
He walked across to the old cupboard and opened the door. Henry watched him delve into the old holdall, coming up with a handful of banknotes.
“I’m going out. I’ll see you later.”
“Or in the morning,” Henry mouthed to himself as the door shut.
Closing his eyes, Henry tried to let sleep clasp him. He stayed awake.
Rising, he opened the threadbare curtains and nets beyond, ignoring the dessicated flies caught in the weave. Outside, the hotel garden ran up to and across the room window. Knotted branches banged against the glass, wind shaking free the last of the leaves to land in barren borders below. He pulled the curtains shut, shuddering at their smoke ingrained velvet. Wormskin against his hand.
In some rooms he found a folder of leaflets for local attractions. There was nothing within fifty miles of this hotel worth seeing. They hadn’t seen many other guests on their way in. Over the past week Henry had become skilled at judging fellow residents by the car park. This one, half full with battered white vans, suggested people chasing work, lack of money pushed them deeper into the county.
Henry opened the wardrobe, doors swinging back to clatter against their hinges. Inside stank of mothballs and stale perfume used to disguise them. At the bottom was his Dad’s holdall, handles frayed with undone stitching. For a moment he considered looking in, then put the thought to one side. Nothing had been said. He just knew it was forbidden.
Leaving it alone, he sat on the bed and pulled out the bedside table’s drawer. The obligatory red and gold Gideon Bible waited. He tossed it across the room, over the bed to land on the carpet.
Underneath was a second book, older with cheaper paper. Henry moved the lamp to get a better look.
The phone directory was decades out of date, full of disconnected numbers and adverts for appliances that no longer had a place in the world. He flicked through wondering how many of these people were still alive and whether they still took calls on the same phones.
Reaching the end he turned the directory over. The back cover was an advert, all in text, at the top Record Information Services. The rest of the page was two columns listing different services and the numbers to call.
Most seemed boring. Who would pay to ring a number for gardening information? Or recipes? Surely just use the internet? He understood the weather forecast ones, or cricket, but had no idea what Dial-a-Disc could be for. Some kind of pizza delivery maybe. The times seemed very limited. Just 6pm to 8pm during the week and all day Sunday. Except when cricket was on.
At the top of the list was one number that made a lot more sense. “Dial-a-Story.”
The hands of the chipped ceramic clock on the sideboard showed the day buried well into the evening.
He read the line again. Dial-a-Story. A story to listen to. Like a podcast. Something to take his attention. Something to pass the time.
The worst that could happen was the number did nothing. Of course the call would be charged to the room. His Dad was never short of money. They were using end of the line hotels because of obscurity, not poverty.
The number looked odd. No area code at the beginning. Lifting the old phone handset he dialled the numbers, remembering to add 0 to the beginning to get an outside line.
The dial whirred back to its resting position after each digit, waiting for him to decide on the next number. He allowed a pause of his own, mouthpiece resting against his leg.
Last number entered he raised the handset. Embers crackled in the earpiece, then replaced with a man speaking precise and certain.
“and do you know, a very funny thing has happened. Nowadays whenever Freddy opened the old sweet tin there were always sugary treats for him to eat.”
The words finished. An electronic organ started, notes vibrating like unanchored keys in the handset.
The tune ended, a moment of silence. The man’s voice spoke once more.
“Good evening and welcome to Dial-a-Story. Tonight I’ll be reading The Sweet Tin on The Step.”
One more pause.
“One fine summer’s day Freddy Bugsworth was playing in the garden when he heard a voice coming from the front of the house. Well, he wasn’t supposed to go down the path by himself, but he did. Do you know what he found? On the porch step he found an old sweet tin. Freddy knew tins were useful. His Gran used them to keep thread in. His Grandad used them to keep nuts and bolts in. Freddy started to think what he could keep in the tin. He could keep soldiers, or coins. Maybe his stamp collection. Freddy turned over the tin and was surprised to find a large, rusted hole in the bottom. Well, dear listeners. What to do? The tin was no good. You can’t use a tin with a big hole in the bottom. He walked over to the bin and was about to drop it in, when he heard a voice. And do you know where the voice came from? The voice came from the tin.
“Oh, please don’t throw me away. It won’t be much work to fix me. Then I can give you all the sweets you want.” Freddy thought for a moment. He liked sweets. He really liked sweets. Instead of putting the tin in the rubbish he tucked it under his arm and went to the shed to see what he could do.”
The story continued unwrapping, until Henry was returned to the point he came in the first time, then beyond to the off tone music. The story started once more.
Halfway through he replaced the handset, listening to the click as it pressed down the plastic prongs. Silence returned to the room.
Henry had questions. How did the tin make the sweets? Did it perspire sugar for them to settle into humbugs and seaside rock? Or some other kind of bodily fluid? He shuddered, trying to put the thought from his mind.
Tiredness pinned Henry’s eyes with greasy fingers. He crawled into the bed nearest the wall, not bothering to undress, and dragged the thin cotton blanket over himself.
His dreams were labyrinths with mouths full of broken teeth, turned to black by a rusted tin sweating strands of yellowing syrup. He hid behind the shattered peaks of a pre-molar, watching the sweet tin shiver, though the temperature in the mouth was warm and humid.
In the dream, cramp seized Henry’s leg and he shifted into a better position, knee scraping against pitted enamel. The sweet tin turned at the sound, smiling through a rusted split.
“Freddy. Where have you been Freddy? I’m still sweet. I’m still sweet for you. I can sweeten everything,” the tin said.
The crack widened, jagged and razor sharp. Henry tried move. In the way of dreams his legs were cement. The sweet tin leant against him. Syrup coated Henry’s skin. He tried to speak. Tell the tin he was not Freddy. He was Henry. His mouth gummed with old sugar. His own teeth shifted in their sockets.
“I’ve been so lonely,” the tin said. “Not fed anyone for so long.”
Henry was bound in syrup, liquid jaundiced lenses across glued open eyes. The tin grasped his foot , dragging him toward the smoke stained broken teeth.
Henry woke wrapped in a blanket, room still dark. His Dad lay on the other bed, stripped to the waist, face buried in the pillow.
Henry still smelled the syrup stench under his nails and felt melted sugar crystal out in his knotted hair roots. He rose, uncomfortable in slept in clothes, searching the foot of the bed for a towel.
The bathroom was down the hall, shared between all the rooms on the floor. He tried to open the door, found it locked and slumped down against the wall.
An older man in a blue velour dressing gown stepped out, thinning hair wet and plastered to his head.
“Takes a while for the water to warm up,” he said. The corners of his mouth turned up until they hid in the flesh of his cheeks, as if even his face did not want to show the humour of his private joke.
Henry nodded, walked past the unmoving man and shut the door.
The consumptive plumbing cough up limescaled water. He ignored the fisherman’s net of hair tangled in the plughole. The heat of the water a surprise. Outside, shuffling footsteps of dressing gown man moved up and down the corridor, bare feet scuffing against the carpet.
The water turned cold as Henry lay watching mould Rorschach across the walls and shower curtain. Somewhere down the hall a fire door opened. Outside the bathroom the footsteps trip-stepped away.
“Henry? Are you in there?” his Dad said. Another knock.
Henry climbed out. Water slewed onto the floor, soaking the towel before he had chance to start drying himself.
“Give me a minute.”
His Dad did not pace. All his nerves were in stillness.
Henry unlocked the door. The steam smeared his Dad’s glasses to opaque.
“What did I say about sneaking off?” His hand was on Henry’s neck. Not tight, but there.
“I needed a bath.”
“Back to the room.”
Henry walked first, moving fast ignoring the dirt grubbing his feet.
The room mortice clicked shut.
“You can’t just wander off like that.”
Henry’s Dad reached for his coat, sliding it on like camouflage.
“I’ll be back later.”
“Can you pick me up a book, or a magazine? Anything to read.”
“I got you these,” his Dad said, pointing to a stack of magazines and newspapers on the bedside table. “Don’t leave the room again.”
“Thank-you,” Henry said, pulling the pile toward him.
Now alone he looked through the assortment, the words a change from staring at the faux dogs and carts in the paisley patterned walls.
He guessed his Dad had picked them up from a doormat. A pile of adverts, junk mail and free newspapers not addressed to anybody and of interest to nobody.
He sorted them into three piles. First, the sealed envelopes. These were addressed to either “The Householder”, or just the building. In the second he placed newspapers, the last leaflets and flyers.
He picked up the first newspaper and sighed. Nothing to entertain. No kid’s page, or crossword puzzle. Just the latest update on the local darts league and estate agent adverts for overpriced houses. He let them fall to the floor, wiping newsprint from his skin onto the bedding.
The printed campanology of leaflets were soon discarded. A mixture of double-glazing ads, political begging and calls to church.
Using his fingernail Henry slit open the envelopes. Out of curiosity he read the addresses, but they weren’t familiar. Not this hotel or any of the others they had stayed in. Small cheap pens fell out. Free gifts to entice away bank details. He placed them to one side.
Nothing here would keep him entertained. He had no interest in electoral pledges or the price of housing in places he’d never heard of.
Beside him, the bedside drawer was open, phone directory visible in the slight gap. He retrieved it and looked down the list of numbers again. Picking one of the weather lines at random he dialled the number into the heavy, grey telephone and waited. Nothing happened, just the dusted void of a dead line. He tried a couple more; the gardening tips and the tourist advice for somewhere on the over side of the country. Every time the result was the same. A hollow echo of static.
With a shrug he looked at the Dial-a-Story number and laboured the digits into the plastic dial, listening to the whirr as the mechanism returned to its starting position. The line echoed for a moment, as empty as the rest, then cleared and he heard once more the voice of the man telling stories into dead phone lines.
“and with little breath left in their lungs they hung over the cliffs, watching the police constable walk up to the smugglers, demand their attention and handcuff them. Satisfied their duty was done James and Sophie walked back to their bicycles.
“These are too heavy to push back to the village,” James complained.
And do you know Sophie had the perfect solution.
“Well let’s just eat the picnic right here.”
And that’s what they did.
Goodnight children. Call again tomorrow for another story.”
The sick sounding electronic synthesiser played the same tune as before and the line went silent.
Henry thought about putting the phone down. He’d heard the end of the story, the looped recording turning him to the last pages, where the detective reveals the killer. Surely they could just start the recording when the line connected? He didn’t put the handset down. He needed to know what happened to James and Sophie to get them to the beach, leading them to discover the smugglers and call the police.
“Good evening, and tonight’s story is The Brown Twins and the Secret of Seaweed Cove.”
Henry glanced toward the window. It was still daytime, though hard to tell through the clasp of branches against the glass.
“James and Sophie had been sent to stay with their uncle for the holidays. He lived in a large cottage by the sea.”
He was unsure how long the story was. Probably only five minutes. By the time he finished listening the handset weighed heavy in his hand. Maybe he listened only once, maybe several iterations. He blinked and stretched sleep from his eyes.
Everything stank of layer upon layer of rotten seaweed. Salt stung his eyes. Small waves lapped around his ankles, the surface crammed with crabs decaying in their shells.
“Found him yet?” a voice said.
“He’s down here somewhere.” Footsteps slashed through the water.
“Did you deal with his sister?”
“Nasty those cliffs. Slippery. Not good places for children to play.”
The two men laughed. Something metal clattered against the side of the cave.
“What will we do with the boy?”
“Take him out in the boat. The sea around here is as dangerous as the cliffs.”
The footsteps were closer now, crunching crabs to splinters against the stone.
He turned to look into the darkness of the cave. There was nowhere left to run.
The other bed was still empty when he woke. He heard his Dad snoring where he’d slumped against the door.
Deep in Henry’s bones a saline cold rippled through his marrow. He tried to silence his bladder, the pain easier to deal with than the anger of waking his Dad.
Lying on the foot of his bed was a book, security tag still in place inside the back cover. He looked at the age recommendation on the back. A nice present if he had been five years younger. Showing willing he read the first couple of pages. The large font and telegraphed story wore down any enthusiasm. Unable to sleep he curled up on the bed, hands on his stomach and hoped that his Dad woke before his bladder let go.
Once he returned from the bathroom, Henry and his Dad shared a breakfast of pocket warm pasties and own brand crisps.
“Are we moving on soon?” Henry asked.
“Staying here for the moment,” his Dad said between mouthfuls.
“But we’ve moved every couple of days before, and there’s nothing to do here.”
“We’re staying here for the moment.” His Dad paused. “You haven’t been leaving the room have you?”
Henry didn’t really know the man before him. Only recently back in his life. He didn’t know whether the relaxed joking man was the mask, or the flash of brittleness that crossed his face as he spoke.
“No, but there’s not much to do.”
“I bought you back a book. Where did you put it?” There was something else for a moment. A need to be appreciated?
“Thank you. I’ll read it later,” Henry said, trying to remember where he left it.
Picking up his jacket his Dad walked across to the door.
“I know. Don’t leave the room,” Henry finished. He stared out of the window. Not that there was anywhere to go. Peering through the desiccated branches at the dead grass beyond, he tried to work out the last time anyone had ventured into the garden. Across the lawn there was a single gate. Brambles knotted through the hinges prevented it opening.
From beside his bed he picked up one of the free pens and started to fill in the letters of the book’s title, until they became solid.
The knock, the voice and the door opening all happened at the same time.
The chambermaid and Henry both stared, neither expecting the other.
“There’s a Do Not Disturb sign on the door,” Henry said, trying to make his voice sound far more confident than he felt.
“I know love, but it’s been on there for three days now, and we have to change the sheets sometime,” she said, bustling past him. “We have to make sure there aren’t any bodies in the room. Don’t worry. I’ll be gone in a couple of minutes. Fast as lightning I am.”
He watched her strip the bed, new sheets and blankets that looking just as worn and stained as the ones she removed. Halfway through making his bed she crouched and picked up the book and pen. Shaking her head she placed both on the bedside table.
“Should look after books better than that,” she said, tutting and carrying out armfuls of bedding stained with sweat.
Feeling bad he found the Gideon Bible on the floor and slipped it into the drawer.
Left alone, he looked at the book and the phone. He had no idea how much the calls were costing. No idea how his Dad would react when they got the room bill.
Henry picked up the book and gave it another go, but the language felt too childish and before he’d finished one page he closed the covers and tucked it away behind his pillow.
He picked up the phone, settled upon his bed and dialled the now memorised number.
“And thank-you to all the children who have joined us for tonight’s story. Sleep well and come back tomorrow for more Dial-a-Story,” the now familiar voice said.
Henry waited for the weak synthesiser to play once more, to mark the story beginning again. Instead the line emptied. Echoes of static. The story at an end.
He placed the handset back in the cradle, lifted it to his ear and dialled the number again, waiting for it to connect. The only sound was the twitter of no line.
There was nowhere to go. He looked in the drawers in case there was something to read that he’d missed before. A pamphlet about the hotel, or a forgotten menu. Apart from the Bible and phone book there was nothing.
He thought about drawing on the walls, but knew that meant moving again. Maybe that would be better? His Dad hadn’t hit him so far, but he always looked like he was holding back an anger.
His Dad had only recently come back into his life. It had taken time for his mother to convince him to meet this man every two weeks in the contact centre. A joyless supervised visit to one of several fast food chains in town. That first time his father had shown him old photos torn at the corners where they’d been pinned to cork boards. Creased from been shoved in wallets. Henry recognised his mother. Younger. Not as tired.
He looked out of place when he turned up outside the school gates.
“Get in the car,” he said.
“I’m supposed to be in school,” Henry said.
His Dad smiled, glancing behind him.
“It’s OK. You’re Mum spoke to the school. They know you’re coming with me.”
Henry got in, because he had no reason to disbelieve this half known man, with pictured memories of his own past. His Dad moved the holdall to the back seat, waiting for Henry to buckle himself in. Then they drove to the first anonymous hotel, moving through many others over the next few weeks like echoes.
The holdall was the last place unexplored in the room. His Dad hadn’t forbidden him to look. On the first few occasions Henry asked about the contents the older man changed the subject.
Henry opened the cupboard and ran his hand over the holdall’s broken zip, contents straining the nylon fabric. He slipped his fingers through the handle.
When the phone rang he wasn’t surprised. Truth be told he’d been waiting for it. The clattering bell tried to tear free of the housing. He settled himself onto the bed, picked up the handset and listened. The voice was static faint. He placed the handset back in the cradle. The phone rang again. He picked it up a second time and listened, trying to make out words through the crackling, voice too crushed to hear. He slammed the handset down again. The ringing started up straightaway. Pushing the bedside table out of the way he wrenched the connector from the wall, bundled the phone in his arms and shoved it onto the top shelf of the cupboard, leaving him alone in silence.
Asleep, Henry didn’t hear his Dad come back. When hunger woke him, Henry found the older man sat on his bed, smiling.
“Are you OK?” his Dad said, tapping out a tune on his headboard.
“I’m fine,” Henry said. “Are you?”
“I’m great,” his Dad said, grinning. “We’re moving on. Everything is sorted. No more hiding.” He paused “Do you like boats, Henry?”
Henry shrugged. He didn’t have an opinion on boats. Apart from the toy ones in the local park he’d had little contact with them.
“Well, we’re going on a boat trip soon. To France. Have you ever been to France?”
Henry shook his head. His Dad smiled.
“That’s going to change. Get some sleep,” his Dad said, yawning. “We’ve got an early start.”
His Dad fell asleep straight away, as if he hadn’t got a care in the world. For Henry, rest took much longer.
A noise disturbed him. Thinking it was his Dad, Henry turned on the light, but the older man was curled into the wall, duvet pulled tight. The bulb filament flickered as if allergic to the burn of electric. He heard the phone ringing, confused not to see it on the bedside table.
Climbing out of bed he opened the wardrobe, the phone louder in the confines of the shelf. He tried to still the ringing, but any attempt to quieten the phone seemed to intensify the noise. He glanced at his Dad.
Lifting the phone down, he raised the handset and replaced it in the cradle. The phone carried on ringing. With no other options he pressed the earpiece against his face.
“Welcome children to tonight’s Dial-a-Story. Tonight’s tale is one of shocking villains and brave children making the right decisions. A story of smugglers and stolen money. Brian and the Bagful of Money. Brian lived with his mother in the city, until one day she could no longer look after him, so she sent Brian to live with his aunt. Well, Brian’s aunt owned a small hotel near the coast, a little house that she struggled to look after by herself. Do you know, she was so grateful to have an extra set of hands around the place that she spoiled Bryan with cupcakes and jam sandwiches. Now children, the hotel wasn’t the most luxurious place to stay so the guests weren’t very interested in comfort. They were interested in not being noticed.”
The voice carried on, describing each resident in turn, and why Brian thought they had come to his aunt’s out of the way hotel. Henry kept staring across to his Dad, worried the sound would wake him. Sleep encased the older man so tight there was no way a gentle, crackled voice would have any effect. Henry continued listening.
“Bryan said that he would change the bedding that day. Give his aunt a break, because he was a kind boy with his heart in the right place. Well, there was one room on the top floor where the guest had kept the Do Not Disturb sign in place for a whole week. Can you imagine that, children? A whole week with the same sheets? I can’t. Bryan knocked on the door, softly, because maybe the guest was poorly. There was no answer, so he knocked again. Still no-one answered. He did not want his aunt to be bothered. She was making him a lovely lunch of scones and pies. Trying to be resourceful, Bryan opened the door.”
Henry wondered how many times the housekeeper had knocked before he noticed.
“Inside the room he was surprised to find a man still sleeping in the bed, on the floor a big green holdall, and do you know what he saw in the top of that holdall, children? Lots and lots of money, and lying on the money was a gun called a sawn off shotgun.”
Henry carried the phone to the wardrobe. He his Dad’s holdall. Even in the bedside lamp’s half-light he saw the bundles of money, something tubular and metallic just visible underneath.
“Bryan lifted out a bundle of fifty pound notes “This must all be stolen,” Bryan thought. “Wasn’t there a robbery from the bank in Port-Town the other week?” He was so busy thinking this he didn’t notice the man wake up.”
There was a noise behind Henry. His Dad was sitting up on the bed, staring at him.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing,” he said, voice even and cold.
Henry tried to drop the handset, but he couldn’t stop listening to the voice.
“And the man said some things far too unpleasant for your ears, delicate listener. Well, Brian tried to run, but found himself backed further into the room. The man reached into the bag for the shotgun. Not knowing what else to do Brian grabbed the telephone and as the man ran toward him he smashed the telephone into the man’s head.”
His Dad was off the bed, walking toward him.
“Who are you talking to? Are you trying to ring your Mum? The police? Are you talking to the police?”
The first blow caught his Dad across the bridge of his nose, the second in his temple. Blood poured from his face and pooled on the carpet. The next caught his jaw and he slipped, falling between the beds. Henry straddled him bringing the base of the phone down again and again on his skull until it turned to paper, then putty.
When he was finished he wiped the base clear of fragments of bone and lifted the handset to his face once more.
“The policeman looked at the man sat in handcuffs, and turned to Brian. “When I’ve got this miscreant to the police station I’ll come back for some of your aunt’s lovely scones, and there may even be a little reward for you, and there was.” The sickly synthesiser started once again, a pause of static.
“Welcome children to tonight’s Dial-a-Story. Tonight’s tale is one of shocking villains and brave children making the right decisions. A story of smugglers and stolen money. Brian and the Bagful of Money.”