Hello, I'm Listening
If I tell you how it started, you’ll think I’m an idiot.
But you have no idea where I was at in my life back then, and it’s not like I picked a message out of my spam telling me to send money to an account in Abuja. It felt like it was my decision. Something I had found for myself.
It was closer to February than December, and I was sitting in a freezing cold house, keeping myself warm with a bottle of Morgan Spice. The boiler had been on the blink ever since Kendra left, and that sort of felt righteous. You know, I’d driven her away, and all the warmth in the house left with her.
I fucking hated myself.
So, I booted up my laptop and started browsing. No direction or anything, just a half-hour of cartoons here, an hour of mukbang there, the ones where they put the microphone real close to the eater’s mouth so you hear all those juicy, squelching sounds. I don’t know, it’s relaxing.
The screen just kept rolling, whatever the next video was, and I didn’t have to think about it. I didn’t have to think at all. Just sit there, in the dark and the Baltic cold, drinking, and drinking, and drinking. Eventually, I passed out. Came to somewhere around 3 a.m. My throat was raw and my eyes half glued together with crusted salt.
I pushed the mouse and looked up my girlfriend’s Facebook account. She’d blocked me. At the time, I thought it was torture, but I reckon she did it because she knew how much I’d suffer in the long run. Scrolling through every picture of her with another woman, driving myself crazy wondering whether she was sleeping with them or just posing. I guess it was a kindness, but it didn’t feel like it back then. I threw the empty bottle at the wall, the glass too thick to shatter, then spat at the screen.
Just about where my dribble stopped, I saw an advert. A mint-green logo on a white background. One of those Greek or Roman things, with a head facing in both directions. No title, just a caption: Resolutions aren’t just for New Year.
It sounded corny as all hell, but I wiped the gob away with my sleeve and clicked on it. I’ve never cared that much for New Year, and I’d never made a resolution, so I’m not sure why it drew me in. Maybe because of that – because I’d never done it. Kendra leaving got me thinking about a whole world of things I’d never done. Never done and never said.
A swanky graphic rotated into view. The same logo, this time with the name Resolutions across the middle, followed by a few paragraphs of text:
It’s never too late to make a change, to turn from your past and see a brighter future…
It sounded like a bunch of wank, so I scrolled past.
At the very bottom, it repeated the line about being able to make resolutions at any time of year, and underneath that was a button: Make your resolution now.
When I clicked it, a little box appeared with the words: Stop drinking for twelve days.
I glanced at the empty bottle by the skirting board. It’s not like I was an alcoholic or anything, I was just going through a rough patch. But maybe it wouldn’t hurt to rein it in a little. Besides, twelve days wasn’t exactly a life sentence. I could manage that, right?
And I could. It was pretty tough. Much tougher than I thought. I physically moved all the remaining bottles into the garage so that I couldn’t see them, but I did it. Not only that, sobriety brought with it a little kick of motivation, and I finally called up the boilerman to come fix the fucking thing. After twelve days, I was back sitting in front of the computer, but this time warm and dry.
I’d forgotten all about the site, but a week later, the logo popped up on ads again and I thought, hell, why not? My first ever new-me resolution and I’d nailed it. This time, when I clicked the button, it said: Do someone a favour.
And what, top myself?
There wasn’t anyone around to do a favour for. I ordered all my shopping online, I cooked at home, ate at home, watched movies at home. When was I ever going to bump into someone who needed my help? I chalked my earlier success up to beginner’s luck and cracked open a can of Kaliber. My twelve days were up, but I wanted to see how long I could actually go without alcohol. Prolong my modest sense of achievement.
Two days later, the phone rang.
It was Allie. She’d just broken up with Sandra. There’d been fireworks to rival my own Devil’s Night a couple of months earlier. She had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Her parents stopped talking to her the day she moved in with her girlfriend, and her brother lived in Australia.
“Sure, come on over,” I said.
I’d always fancied Allie. Who didn’t? She had the whole emo thing going on. A sleek, black bouffant with purple extensions down either side, and this little pointed chin that made her seem more anime than human. Any other week, I might have tried to get her into bed, but my sense of alcohol-free saintdom told me, no. I was on the rebound and she was freshly wounded. We were both grieving, and that was not the type of comfort required.
“You know,” she said, as she packed her bag on the fifth day. “I always really liked you, Tams. You know that, right? You’re a really good friend.”
She kissed me on the cheek as she walked out the door. Her brother had wired her the money to visit, and she’d leapt at the chance to fly as far away as possible.
I felt kind of good about myself. Glowy. You know, it made me think perhaps I wasn’t the streak of shit I’d started to believe I was. I’d actually done something kind and altruistic for a friend. Hadn’t asked anything in return.
So, it was that evening I went back to the site. Two good things had come of it, one after the other, and good things always come in threes.
I hit the button again every couple of weeks. Within two months, I’d cleared out my closet and given everything I didn’t need to charity, quit eating meat to become a pescatarian, started walking my elderly neighbour’s dog once a day and began volunteering at the Red Cross. Twice a week, I’d stand in the basement of the building, steaming donated clothes and sorting children’s toys into those we could sell and those we needed to burn. Seriously, there were some creepy home-knitted, button-eyed abominations in there.
And then, things went sideways.
I sat down at the beginning of May and clicked the button for my next self-improvement task. Instead, I got: Take a vacation to a foreign land.
Yeah, great. I was living off benefits, and the occasional book cover design I hawked online. Kendra had been the breadwinner in our relationship, and I had just enough money to pay rent each month. There was no way I was jetting off to the Bahamas any time soon.
I felt an irrational flush of anger. Perhaps disappointment. I’d really come to rely on that site. Whenever I was at my lowest, starting to get self-critical and down, it threw me a lifeline. Gave me something manageable to focus on, and a warm sense of achievement once I’d finished. But I was just another social-media junkie, and this was my drug of choice. Of course that website didn’t know me. Well, not beyond what Facebook had sold of me. It wasn’t an actual friend, we didn’t have conversations about my inner personal life, and it never WhatsApped to check on me. It was just a stupid random task generator. All algorithms and anagnorisis. The sudden reveal that, beneath my sorry ass, there might just be the beating heart of a half-decent human being.
What a shocker.
And now it was throwing me this shit. Go on holiday, it said. Might as well have read, win the bloody lottery. Instead of lifting me up and giving me confidence, it just reminded me of all the things I couldn’t do.
I closed the screen and cleared my browsing history. The URL was a long one and I knew I’d forget it in a few days. I went downstairs to the garage and returned with a bottle of merlot. I’d probably keep walking Mrs Dougherty’s dog, but in the morning I was going to call up the Red Cross and quit, then cook myself a full English with sausages, bacon and black pudding.
A week went by, then two. Pretty soon, I’d forgotten all about the website and returned to my usual routine of cyberstalking and heavy drinking. That little spark of soul had gone out, and the future once again looked bleak. Each morning the post came: a dole check, several bills, and another reminder for a smear test. I built a little bonfire in the garden and waited for them to cut off the phone line.
Then, one day, I clawed out from between my covers to find a bright-red envelope on the mat. It felt as thick as a birthday card, but it wasn’t my birthday. When I opened it, I just stared for an age. It was a ticket to Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. With the ticket came a set of instructions, including a boat ride to a private island called Kisiwa cha Uchawi.
I thought about it for three days. Right up until the point my boiler cut out again. It was the craziest thing I’d ever done in my life. I hadn’t been on a plane since I was twenty, when we went on a hen do for Emma’s wedding and hired one of those beer bars you cycle around the streets of Prague. Sitting there, freezing cold and out of wine, I realised that my passport was still in date. I saw my future a month down the line. Still sitting there, still shivering my tits off, and glaring at a phone that never rang.
Or I could be lying on a beach somewhere, sipping margaritas.
When I stepped off the plane in Africa, I almost melted to the tarmac. The trip had been chronically unpleasant. Taking off my shoes and belt to go through security, my sticky feet padding over tiles no doubt crawling with verrucas. Cramped seats, headphones that crackled like cellophane, and food you had to hold your nose to swallow. But the boat ride to the island was utterly incredible. I didn’t know the sea could lie so still, like an azure blanket threaded with silver. We even saw dolphins. Three of them, racing ahead of the boat, leaping and laughing.
Of course, I wondered about it. I knew people didn’t give away holidays like this for nothing. I knew someone had been watching me and waiting. Someone connected to that website. And yes, underneath that calm ocean was a cold current of uncertainty. But I was living the moment. It was the first time in months that my day had not been completely predictable. I didn’t know what I’d have to eat that night or where I would sleep. If it was all some elaborate con, I’d figure it out when I got there.
But, oh! The island. It was straight out of a holiday brochure. A lush, green emerald embedded in the Indian Ocean. A seamless band of gold beach. If you had asked me to close my eyes and imagine paradise – this was it.
I checked into the little guesthouse as instructed, though I did change rooms. If some creep had set this whole thing up, they’d have to work to find me in the night. Unless, I suppose, they knew the receptionist… which was likely. I pushed such thoughts to the very back of my mind and focussed on the crystal-clear swimming pool and the ocean view. There was even a bowl of fruit: pineapples, mangos, passion fruit, and a shiny red thing that looked like a misshapen tomato.
Within a week, I was perfectly at home.
Within three weeks, I had already decided I wasn’t going back.
Why should I? Go back to what? In the time I’d been there, I’d designed ten book covers and sold eight. The room was paid up for another week, and the landlady could give me a monthly price for less than I was paying in the UK. I could sublet my old rental and live off the income from that. If I ever changed my mind, it was just a half-day flight back to the grey misery of Maidenhead.
I once tried to ask the receptionist who had originally paid, but she gave me a funny look and said, ‘You did.’ I didn’t press further in case she got suspicious and realised there’d been some mistake.
I’d spent the entire day reading on the beach with rum punch, served in an actual coconut. The inside of the guesthouse felt like a soothing balm after the heat of the sun. I removed my shades as I headed for the stairs.
“—without her. I mean, what am I supposed to do? There won’t be another ferry until next week at the earliest.”
I turned back to look at a large Tanzanian guy dressed like the Man from Del Monte. His jacket visibly strained at the gut and a thin sheen of sweat coated his brow. He dabbed it away with his handkerchief.
“If I could help, then I would,” the receptionist was telling him. “But you see me here, I have a business to run.”
She was about to say more, when they both became aware of my presence.
“Sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have been listening.”
I turned to scuttle up the steps.
“No, wait!” the receptionist called out.
Reluctantly, I approached the counter.
“Miss Tamara, this is my good friend Mr Shabani.”
The man held out his hand, which completely enveloped my own. He shook effusively and smiled.
“He has a problem,” the receptionist explained. “Perhaps you can help him with it, since you’re practically a local?”
“It’s the telephones,” he said, as though that was all the explanation needed.
“The telephones?” I repeated, slowly.
“Reginald here runs an outsourcing business on the island. One of his interns has amoebas and needed to see a doctor on the mainland. There aren’t enough people to answer his phones.”
“They need good English,” Mr Shabani said, looking at me with hope in his eyes. “It would only be for a couple of weeks.”
I wanted to say no. I was perfectly happy lazing my days away by the pool and drinking coconut juice, but instead, I found myself shrugging and smiling. Why not? Besides, I liked the way the receptionist had said I was local. Though I felt a twinge of shame that she knew my name and I didn’t know hers.
It was settled.
The next day, I walked in the early morning mist, down the sand-covered path to Mr Shabani’s office. It was a large, white building with a spacious room that opened at the back onto a really pretty garden, all banana fronds and pineapple trees. Twelve desks were arranged, back-to-back, so they formed two rows of six with a half-hearted attempt to partition them with plywood. This had slid down between the desks so that you could clearly see the person in front of you. Not that anyone else was there.
“Ah, you came,” Mr Shabani said, appearing in the garden doorway. “Karibu, karibu, come, take a seat.”
He gestured to the chair I was standing in front of, and I sat down.
The job was simple. I was to sit at the desk and answer calls until relief arrived at 8 p.m. The difficult part was that this wasn’t a sales job. It was a little more like the Samaritans. Outsourcing psychological help to whoever cried out for it.
“Don’t I need some sort of training for this?” I asked, after he’d explained for the second time how the switchboard worked.
“Not really,” he replied. “Most people who break down, do so in the late hours. Something about the absence of light draws the sadness from them. The calls you will receive should be manageable. Simply build a rapport and refer them to one of the numbers on this list, see – drug addiction, suicide, self-harm, and so forth.”
“But, if people are calling in from everywhere in the world, it must be night somewhere?”
He simply grunted and drew a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his brow. The day was becoming humid, and I wished that I’d gone to the beach instead.
“You’ll do fine. I’ll be in my office if you need me.”
He walked out of the room and left me alone with the telephone.
It didn’t ring for over an hour.
When it did, I dropped my game of Candy Crush and sat to attention.
“Hello, Soul to Soul, I’m listening.”
“Hi.” A faint voice came on the line.
“Hi,” I replied.
The story was terribly sad. A girl who was gay, like me. Her parents had thrown her out, her girlfriend had broken up with her. Her brother let her visit, but she didn’t fit in with his family. His wife hated her, and she couldn’t sleep because their baby kept crying at night. She didn’t know where to go or what to do. She’d tried to call a friend, but the friend wasn’t picking up. Her voice sounded familiar, as though she was someone I might once have known, but I couldn’t remember her name.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Let me know which area you’re in and I’ll give you all the details for housing support and a local LGBT group. You’re going to be just fine.”
“Thank you,” she said.
I felt much better when we hung up. She’d sounded brighter, more hopeful.
The next call was from a woman with a thick Estuary accent. She ran a charity shop, but all her volunteers kept leaving and she was depressed because she was starting to feel that she would never be able to form a meaningful relationship with any of them. She wasn’t married, didn’t have children, and spent all her time at the shop. The constant change of faces was making her feel like everyone else had somewhere to be except her. As though life was something that happened to other people and she was just standing there, behind the counter, waiting for it to end. I asked about her hobbies and put her in contact with some social groups in her area.
I was starting to feel good about this job, when the third call came.
I knew the voice on the other end instantly.
My throat tightened and I stared ahead at the garden.
It was growing darker out there, the evening shadows reaching like fingers towards the door. My voice came out husky, which is probably why she didn’t recognise me. But, as I listened to Kendra whispering softly down the line, I felt as though I was right there with her, our foreheads touched together on the pillow.
“I loved her so much,” she said. “We had known each other for so long, and I thought we would know each other always. I still can’t figure out how it all went so wrong.”
“Have you tried calling her?” I managed. “Have you tried telling her that?”
“Yes, but she never picks up. I know she’ll never pick up again.”
I let out a stinted laugh. That was so ridiculous. What was she talking about?
“Kendra,” I said, tears rolling down my cheeks. “Kendra, don’t you recognise my voice? It’s me. It’s Tams.”
Only the dial tone replied.
When I glanced up, there was Mr Shabani leaning against the wall, his big, dark eyes holding mine on a leash.
“What’s going on?” I asked, slowly replacing the receiver. “What kind of place is this, really?”
“Welcome to Resolutions,” he replied.
“You’re the website I’ve been using? You sent me the tickets?”
“You never left your room.”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous. I got on a plane to come here. There was a boat.”
“Still, it’s a little cool for the tropics, don’t you think?”
I glanced at the garden, where the evening sun folded across verdigris lawns and thick vegetation. Yet, I knew what he meant. The heat didn’t reach inside, and the hairs on my skin prickled. It felt chilly, as though the boiler had gone out.
The phone rang, causing me to jump.
“Hello,” I answered. “Soul to Soul, I’m listening.”
It was my own voice.
I looked up at Reginald, and he nodded for me to go on, but before I could find my voice, the one on the other end spoke first.
“I think I need help,” it said.
My entire body ached, a dam holding back the impending flood.
“I know,” I said softly.
“I think it might already be too late.”
“It’s Kendra, you see – she’s gone. And the heating won’t stay on. I can’t get warm since she left. I think I’m drinking too much. Like, a lot too much. I just can’t seem to get my head on straight.”
I couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t reply.
Slowly, I hung up on myself. Part of my mind couldn’t comprehend what was happening, and the other part understood all too well.
“Kendra didn’t leave, did she?”
“No,” Reginald replied.
“But I did?”
He simply nodded.
“So, what is this place supposed to be, heaven?”
“More of a halfway house.”
“Between life and death?”
“Between who you were and who you want to be.”
I fucking hated riddles, why didn’t everybody just speak plainly?
“Wait,” I said. “I can’t be dead. What about Allie? She came to visit me after Kendra left – after I left. Whatever. She was there, in my house. She was real. She stayed for five days.”
“And what did you do in those five days?”
“All sorts of stuff. We—” I paused for a moment, thinking. What had we done in those five days? I remembered her being there, we must have done something. “I don’t know, I guess we watched telly? But she couldn’t have been there unless we were both alive. Or unless we were both…”
“Unless we were both dead?”
I didn’t like the smile on Reginald’s face.
“That phoneline is for the living,” he said. “They call in their dreams to express their pain. They want to be heard, to make sense of all the confusion.”
“So, it really was Allie who called the earlier? And she’s alive?”
“Yes. She made a full recovery.”
“She tried to kill herself after she split up with Sandra, and that’s when she was with me? Then she tried to call me, and I didn’t pick up because I was – I am dead?”
“Whether to be dead or not.”
“What do you mean?”
“Usually, suicides are pretty certain. They spend a day or two moping around their homes. We knock on the door, they realise what’s happened, accept what they’ve done, and follow us into the light. You were a little different. You moped about for a couple of months, you ignored every knock at the door, then you found our website. You only find Resolutions if you’re looking to make a change in yourself. You got your boiler fixed, quit drinking, became a pescatarian, helped a friend out, and started volunteering at a charity shop. People who have completely given up on this world, don’t tend to do that.”
I fully admit, that wasn’t the most elegant response I could have given, but it was all I was capable of.
“So,” I said, staring at the phone. “What happens now?”
“One of three choices. You can switch off the light altogether. Become nothing, lose your consciousness forever. Hardly anyone chooses that.”
“No,” I agreed. “That does sound rather final.”
“Then you have two options. Either return to being who you were or become someone else.”
“That’s the standard. Pick one of the jungle paths and start walking. With each step, you’ll forget a little more of who you once were, and eventually you’ll wake screaming in a hospital bed somewhere in the world. Maybe a boy, maybe a girl—”
“Can I still be gay?”
“You don’t get to choose.”
I looked disappointed.
“How far in the future will I be born?”
“That depends how long the path is. It’s different for everyone.”
“And the other option?”
“Return to your body.”
“Well, what kind of state is it in? I mean, what did I do to myself?”
Reginald looked over his shoulder, down the corridor, then back.
“It’s not too bad. Pills, so no visible scars.”
“Is Kendra there?” I asked.
This left me very quiet. The thought of her sitting by my bedside, waiting for me to wake up. It really floored me. I didn’t care about myself anymore, but what had I done to her?
“Is she asleep?” I asked.
When he nodded, I picked up the phone and dialled her number.
“Hello?” a sleepy voice on the other end.
“Hi, Kendra. It’s me, Tams.”
“Tams?” her voice sounded strained, but happy.
“Yeah. I just wanted to check in. Let you know I’m doing fine. I’m in a good place.”
“God, I’ve missed you. What the hell were you thinking?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was it that stupid row? Were you angry at me? Did you do this just to spite me?”
“You don’t remember?”
“I don’t remember any of it. Only how much I love you. How happy I am that we met. How happy I am that you were mine.”
She began to cry, but I tried hard not to.
“I never meant to hurt you,” she says. “It was a silly thing, just one drunken night.”
“I know,” I reply. “And it wasn’t you, I promise. Don’t have that thought anymore when you wake. It was just me. Something about me. I just wasn’t meant to stay. It’s like those bricks that kids play with, y’know? I just always felt like a square peg in a round hole. I didn’t fit. Maybe next time, though.”
“Please don’t go.”
“I won’t go yet.”
I began to sing to her. A silly song about high heels and tiaras that we used to listen to down the club when we first met. It always made her laugh, and I’d break into it to try and stop an argument, which sometimes worked. She didn’t sing along, she just listened, and I repeated the last verse twice, so that we’d have a little more time.
When I hung up, I cried like a child.
“You’ve made up your mind, then?” Reginald said, when I finally quieted.
“Yeah, I have.”
“Is there anyone else you’d like to call?”
He came over and took me by the hand, leading me out to the garden. At the end of the perfectly manicured lawn, the jungle rose up, deep and dark, and dancing with brightly coloured birds and the maraca call of cicadas.
“Just start walking,” he said. “After a while, the path will fork. Take whichever direction you fancy.”
“Thanks,” I replied, still sore with loss.
The jungle looked utterly impenetrable; sweating and breathing like a living body.
“Hey,” he said, as I took my first step. “Why didn’t you want to go back?”
I found it hard to answer, but I tried.
“All those good things I did after I found your site, they were just patching up mistakes I’d been making all my life. If I went back, I’d constantly feel like I was trying to pay off a debt, reparation for all the bad things I’d done. Running to catch that bus you can never get on. And everyone around me, treading on eggshells, worried what I might do next, eating away at their own peace of mind until they wound up famished. Some things, you just can’t make right. But I’ve learnt from it, and I want to try again. Not a resolution once a year, but once a lifetime. There’s so much I want to do better next time. So many things I want to change.”
“Well,” said Reginald. “Let me know how that goes next time I see you.”
“I will,” I said, with a smile.
One step, and I forgot the colour of my parents’ front door. Two steps, and I forgot that I ever had a childhood pet. Three steps, and I forgot the name of my best friend at school. Four steps, and I forgot where I met Kendra.
Five steps, and I forgot my name.