Hello

Tendai Huchu

 

“Hello, hello, can you spare a minute or two? I need to talk to somebody.

“No, this is not a sales call.

“I am not trying to sell you anything. Honest. I just need someone to talk to. Perhaps you are having your coffee, or at your desk — hard at work, maybe you are watching your favourite program, or even listening to the radio, but can you spare a few minutes of your precious time to talk to me?

“My name? My name is not important.

“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be evasive. I dialled your number at random because I have to speak with someone. Isn’t that amazing? I have this device against my ear and you have a device on your ear too, and by some miracle of electromagnetic transmission you and I are communicating. Can you spare a moment to listen?

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for people like you. Hello. I don’t understand how you do it. What am I talking about? Existence. The very fact that you wake up in the morning, turn over onto your side, perhaps switch the alarm off, fight the sleep from your eyes, the weariness magnified by the knowledge that it is cold outside, and somehow, through some superhuman strength, you rouse yourself, pull yourself up, put your feet on the floor, rise and begin your day. And you do this every single day of the year. That’s nothing short of heroic.

“I’m talking about existence. What does it have to do with anything? Well, everything. Please, please don’t hang up. For God’s sake, please do not cut me off. I absolutely must speak with you. I implore you.

“Thank you, thank you so much.

“In the morning, I fail to do what comes so naturally to you. I am not a hero. Dawn pierces through a slit in my curtains. Perhaps it’s 10 or 11 o’clock before I notice. Sometimes it’s even midday. Can you imagine it? Waking up at midday? I would have slept for 12, 14, sometimes even 16 hours at a stretch, and that’s not including the little naps I snatch during the day, too. My eyes are bloodshot, my head is throbbing, at this point, I can smell the mustiness, a rancid dank from my own sweat in the bedclothes, yet, still, I cannot rise.

“I’m telling you, I sometimes fail to leave the bed the whole day.

“You might think I’m lazy, judge me, why should I care, it’s too late for that, but I am not. I once held down a job, in fact it was an important job. I was an associate in a transnational conglomeration with interests on six continents. My job consisted of receiving boxes of various sizes from an associate in section A of the warehouse and transporting them to another associate in section B. This function which I performed five days a week for nearly 10 years was essential to the operational well-being of the business. I was part of a worldwide chain of associates providing a crucial service for the end user who could have been someone just like you at the other end of this telephone. Associates in Africa and South America extracted raw materials from the earth, under the most extreme conditions, and from there they — that is, the raw materials — were transported by sea and air to associates in Asia. By Asia I am specifically referring to Shenzhen in the Guangdong province of China, and this is where associates drawn from all across that populous country came together 24 hours a day to manufacture the product. From there it — that is, the product — was shipped to Europe, braving high seas and piracy, until it arrived at my warehouse. I must add that the entire process was underwritten by our associates in America who provided not only the capital but the technical and scientific expertise without which the entire operation would not have been possible. Surely you must see the astounding complexity of the logistics required to keep our operation going. My role, i.e. taking boxes from section A to section B, was fundamental to the workings of the global capitalist economy.

“What was in the boxes?

“Products, essential products, to meet the wants of the end user who could also be termed the western consumer. Can you understand the vital role I played in this entire operation? The warehouse was a brightly lit steel portal building on the outskirts of the city. It was square and functional with metal struts criss-crossing the roof. There was a set method by which I was required to handle the boxes. I was instructed to bend my knees in order to pick them up off the floor. This is what’s called manual handling, a method devised by health and safety experts to protect the back. From there, keeping my back straight, I would carry the box, walking on the concrete floor in my steel toecap shoes, until I got to the designated point in section B where I would lay the box down on a pallet, turn around and, without wasting time, retrace my steps and return to section A where I would repeat the process.

“I did this for 12 hours a day, five days a week. Now, when I say 12 hours a day, please subtract two 15 minute breaks and a 45 minute lunch break. So I was only paid for 10 hours and 45 minutes, which is fair because that represents the actual time in which I was actually doing work for the conglomeration.

“You can imagine my horror when, as part of a cost-cutting and restructuring exercise, I was made redundant. Can you comprehend the crushing, soul destroying blow I felt when I was informed that, in actual fact, the process of taking boxes from section A to section B, via the now proscribed route, was in fact superfluous to the entire operation? I was informed that the associates in section A need only load the boxes onto pallets directly, thus removing the need for associates like myself and those in section B. I was told that for 10 years I had existed as an ‘inefficiency’ and my dismissal represented streamlining of the conglomerate, ensuring a more competitive outlook and higher returns for the shareholders. For 10 years, in that cold warehouse, I had done the corporate equivalent of digging holes only to fill them up again. Do you have any understanding of what that can do to the human soul?

“You say I sound depressed but there is no word that expresses how I feel.

“It’s the fear that keeps me in my bed, an overwhelming terror of the bleakness that lies ahead. I wish I was an animal, a cow grazing on a meadow in Scunthorpe, but I have consciousness, just like you I am self-aware, and this induces a terror that sends quivers and shock waves through my bones. I struggle to breathe. It feels like I have an iron band tied around my chest and can’t move. When I try it gets tighter and tighter. I draw little breaths of air, like a fish out of water, gasping.

“No, I don’t smoke, I’m asthmatic.

“So I reach for my inhaler and blast the Salbutamol into my lungs. On a good day, if I pause for a minute or two, lie absolutely still, then the iron band slowly falls away. It is then that I push myself out of bed, go to the toilet and take a leak. The mirrors in my bathroom are covered up. You may think it’s crazy but sometimes the face looking out of the mirror is not mine, rather it’s a clone looking out at me through my own eyes. Does any of this make any sense?

“No?

“What I’m saying is, I know the absurdity of the situation. I, more than anyone else am fully aware of how utterly ridiculous my thought processes on the matter are. It is a mirror, I am standing in front of it, therefore it can only be my reflection coming from it. Simple logic. I get it, but that’s not how it feels, there is a disconnect between the act of knowing and feeling. It doesn’t feel like me, it feels like someone else who looks like me, a disembodied other.

“I don’t have a twin, I don’t have any siblings. I can’t explain it. I can’t rationalise it.

“Hello, are you still there? Am I not disturbing you? Have I taken up too much of your time already? I am so sorry. Please forgive me. I just need a few more minutes.

“Where am I calling from?

“The Forth Road Bridge.

“That’s right, the one in Edinburgh … Oh, nothing really, I’m just, you know, hanging about. That’s right, the sound you hear in the background is the cars passing by, sedans, SUVs, lorries, it’s really busy here. Brilliant view, you can see Crammond Island and then Fife in the distance. Little houses. Hold on, hold on for two seconds.

“I had to switch the phone into my other hand. It’s cold up here, the winter wind just bites into your fingers. Don’t worry, I have a jacket. What about you, where are you? Aww, that’s nice, really nice. I’ve always wanted to come there, but I’ve never had the opportunity. I don’t think I will. Too much going on.

“Pardon?

“You’re breaking up. I can’t. OK, that’s better, I can hear you now. Where were we? I think I was talking about, yes, I was getting to the part about how my day goes. I brush my teeth for two minutes and 30 seconds exactly. I don’t floss in the morning, but I do at night.

“I used to tune into the news, the BBC, but it just made me feel more anxious. Financial Armageddon, Israel/Palestine, Burma, Tsunamis, School Shootings in America, Starving Kids in Darfur, Terrorists at the Local Post Office, it’s all too much. I’m amazed people still go out after hearing all that. Barricade the door and lock myself in, that’s what I do.

“I try to do all my shopping online. But when the deliveryman comes, I’m overwhelmed with fear, I panic, I stand with my palm against the door and ask him to confirm his identity several times. It’s all ridiculous because I can see him through the peephole, standing there with my groceries, but I still can’t get myself to open the door. Then, finally, I muster myself, turn the key — by which point he is most annoyed — and begin to apologise. I know my behaviour is absurd. I tell him I am so sorry. One day I even knelt before the delivery man and tried to kiss his feet.

“A therapist? You want me to seek help?

“Are you a doctor? Tell me, are you a qualified state registered medical practitioner? What are you on about? I am perfectly alright. I am sane. I am normal, I tell you. There are different kinds of normal. I’m sorry; I don’t mean to shout, sometimes I just find myself raising my voice. I can’t control it, it’s all too much. I’m sorry. Please don’t hang up on me. Please, I won’t shout again. I promise.

“My manifest fuckedupness is not the result of a bad childhood. I’m sorry for swearing. I beg your forgiveness. Be patient with me. I lack a certain eloquence, the ability to pick the right word or phrase which stems from my limited vocabulary which greatly strains my powers of oratory. I clutch at straws, desperately seeking a way to express myself, to say everything at once. It’s all so difficult. Allow me to pause a moment and collect myself.

“There. Thank you. I’m incontinent, it all flows out in a torrent. My father. I suppose, in a Freudian, sense it all boils down to my relationship with him. When I try to remember him, all I can see is a barking dog, a huge pit bull, rabid and foaming at the mouth. That’s the image that comes to me. Look at me, a man my age having daddy issues. You must be contemptuous and how can I blame you? What happened to the stiff upper lip? I’m a snivelling wreck, a burrowing earthworm.

“While walking on pavements, I sometimes see another man coming in my direction. I’m five-five so he is, almost inevitably, taller than me. I see him coming my way, and resolve not to step aside, that is, to stand my ground. After all, I am a man just like any other, I tell myself. And so I straighten myself, jut my chin out just as my father did, and walk with a casual air. The man draws closer to me, perhaps he is so tall he doesn’t even notice me, and, at the very last moment, I leap out of the way. He’s not even aware that we were engaged in a game of chicken. So disdainful are they towards short men like me. Sometimes as I scurry away I catch the man on the shoulder, turn around, and, instead of yelling the abuse built up inside me, I find myself apologising against my will. It’s as though my tongue rebels against me and I am not even master of myself. Can you imagine the humiliation as I bow and scrape, profusely offering my mea culpa to a turned back? Sometimes they don’t even acknowledge me and pass by disdainfully as though they had encountered a gnat. I doubt they even remember me, the little man they barged off the pavement! Does any of this make any sense?

“OK, I’m listening.

“You think that will help? I doubt it. I’ve plunged into the depths. I don’t see a way out. There was a girl once. We could have been happy. I was 23.

“How old am I now? 37.

“This girl was like the moon, a pearl of gentle light beaming from the heavens. My phone is beeping, my battery is low. I met her at a party, we were students then, she was small, gentle, fragile, but her aura drew me to her. I’ve never been good with women, I get tongue tied, trip up as I speak, stammer and generally make a fool of myself, but with her, with her it was….

“Her name was Claudette. I love the way my tongue slips round my mouth when I say it. Claudette. Bellissimo. Hello, hello. Sorry I can’t hear you, the sirens are so loud. Can you speak up please? Darn it, hang on, I just have to cover my right ear with my hand. They are so loud, can you hear them too?

“The Forth is like a grey mirror, I’m looking into it now.

“Oh, Claudette, you want me to tell you about her? It was love at first … Hold on, I just have to talk to this policeman.

“I AM ON THE PHONE. NO, I WILL NOT COME DOWN, THIS IS A FREE COUNTRY.

“Hello, are you still there? Keep holding.

“I’M ON THE PHONE HERE. CAN YOU PLEASE SWITCH THOSE DAMN SIRENS OFF.

“Hello, they’re blocking the traffic. Yeah, everything’s stopped in both directions. It’s all clogged up. People are getting out of their cars and gawking. It’s backed up all the way to Queensferry, I think. Hold on.

“DON’T COME ANY CLOSER.

“It’s the policeman, he keeps saying he just wants to talk.

“STAY AWAY FROM ME. NO, I DON’T WANT TO TALK TO YOU. I’M ON THE TELEPHONE. CAN’T YOU SEE THAT?

“Hello, sorry about that. People are so rude these days. It’s the whole culture, everything’s gone down the drain. My mum always said —

“You think I should talk to the policeman? But I’m talking to you. I don’t want to talk to him, I want to talk to you. I feel like we have a connection.

“What, you can see me? It’s on the news. Oh my God. Hang on, what am I doing now? That’s right, I’m waving. I’m waving at you, and you can see it from so far away, it’s amazing. Absolutely amazing. There’s a helicopter hovering about. It’s making so much noise, can you hear it?

“Claudette and I were very much in love. I could see the future, a little home with a mortgage, white wedding, two children — a boy and a girl, happiness like water. A simple life. It was all so possible. I had it in my grasp. I had it all. Then the other me. Can you still hear me? OK. The other part of me, the beast inside came out and I broke that fragile rose.

“There was always a part of me that didn’t, couldn’t, believe that I was entitled to so much happiness. I would wake up in the morning and not believe that it was her lying next to me.

“I feel sick just talking about this.

“When was it? 10 years ago, maybe more. I lose track of time. Everything’s all jumbled up.

“I CAN’T TALK RIGHT NOW; I’M ON THE BLOOMING PHONE.

“Are you still there? Thank God. I don’t know where I’d be right now without you. Sometimes just talking to someone helps sooth the stupendous pain I feel day to day. I don’t have a lot of people to talk to. Not these days anyway. Not since Claudette.

“Oh God, my battery is beeping again.

“I don’t think I have much time left. I just wanted to say thank you for listening. I can go now; you can get back to your day. Please switch the TV off now, friend. This is goodbye, farewell, au revoir.

“Oh, you still want to talk? You still want to talk to me? I’ve taken up enough of your time. You sure we can still talk? You’re so nice. Yes, I do want to talk to you too.

“Oh, there goes my battery again.

“Hello, can you hear me? I was … Hello? Are you s–”

 

 

Tendai Huchu is a Zimbabwean author. best known for his first novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, was released in 2010 to critical acclaim, and has been translated into German, French, Italian and Spanish. His short fiction in multiple genres and nonfiction have appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Gutter, Interzone, AfroSF, Wasafiri, Warscapes, The Africa Report and elsewhere. In 2013 he received a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Sacatar Fellowship. He was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize. His new novel is The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician.

This article was first published in aerodromeIt has been republished with permission from the author.

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