Benjamin Clark was thirty-two. He worked in a call centre, selling medical insurance, and lived in his childhood home with his mother. The course of his life was changed forever at the age of eighteen due to a single reckless decision made while holidaying in Spain. But so many years later, he now realizes that every new day may yield up its own sparkling jewels, whatever your circumstances, and on this Monday morning, he appeared to be in unusually high spirits as he took his fourteenth call of the morning.
“Certainly madam, may I begin by taking some details?”
“Oh, please don’t call me ‘madam’; it makes me feel so old.”
“But you sound so young; I can hear the sparkle of youth in your voice; you shouldn’t be concerned about age.”
“I’m blushing now; it’s a good job you can’t see me.”
But Benjamin could see her. Every time he heard a voice on the phone, he pictured its owner, which was perhaps his way of countering the stress of his job, since the images were usually comical. But while this was helpful to him, it constantly irritated Jennifer, who sat beside him.
“What are you giggling at now?” she would ask.
“Nothing,” he would say, barely able to talk through his snigger.
After another ten minutes of provocation she might add: “Tell me! Tell me! you’re driving me mad!”
“It’s nothing,” he would say; “just a funny thought.”
With offensive callers, Benjamin usually pictured them as animals. With the caller before the present one, he pictured him as a cat whose coat was completely shaved off, and wore the drooping belly of a fat, middle-aged heavy drinker and also a tattoo upon each shoulder—the left one a mouse and the right one a kipper. And after a further abrasive comment from the caller, in Benjamin’s mind the cat became toothless and walked with a severe limp. As the caller spoke, Benjamin watched the pitiful cat prancing before the local feline beauties, proudly displaying its tattoos while attempting to seduce them with its toothless smile. And each time the caller’s speech paused, Benjamin saw the cat stumble to the ground, only to pick itself up again and resume its proud prance as the caller continued.
“Yes, sir,” said Benjamin, smirking.
After he finished the call, Jennifer said, “I don’t know how you do it,” shaking her head in disbelief.
But then came the present caller, Melanie Phenix, who was different. From the moment he heard her voice, its tone seemed to touch some part of him he was previously unaware of. She simply said her name and he felt a tremor at his core, as of a mild earthquake in a land that was usually unshakable. And from that moment, she had his attention.
“I’m calling about my insurance,” she told him, and somehow these words conjured up a soft face with a peach-like glow and golden wavy hair hanging about her as the sweet blossoms of delicate flowers might hang at the height of a sunny Spring day (though he had never in his life witnessed such a thing).
“Yes, that’s right, ‘Phenix’,” she told him.
Benjamin could feel the warmth of that Spring sun within him. “And what is your occupation?” he asked.
“I’m a dance teacher,” she said. And it was then that he recalled his dream.
The previous night he dreamt he was a ballet dancer. He was stood in the wings awaiting his cue. He could see the stage extending before him, the colour of its wooden boards reminding him of The Yellow Brick Road. He had just finishing stretching and could feel the blood pulsing through his powerful leg muscles and then his cue sounded and his body took flight, or so it seemed to him. He was a passenger aboard some awe-inspiring plane that lifted him and propelled him into the air across those boards. And there he seemed to hang for an eternity, as though time itself had stopped specially to allow him to look around from that great height, to take in the auditorium, the amazed, frozen faces of his audience, the sight of those boards, way down there below him, as if gravity no longer applied to him, and as he looked down, he could see his own muscular legs, frozen in time, the vehicle that had propelled him to that height; he seemed to have the time to examine every powerful bulge, to follow the lines of the muscles along his legs and down to the tips of his toes. He felt as though the purpose of his life was achieved—all his lifelong goals, his crazy dreams, his tormented longings, had, in that one moment, been miraculously delivered—and there he hung, suspended in space and time, his heart glowing with a joy he never imagined possible. And then the passage of time resumed and he was in contact with those boards, his whole body being spun effortlessly and transported as a feather is blown on the wind, this way and that, being carried by the whim of the wind with no thought for the weight of a human body. And throughout his dance, his whole being seemed to reside within the powerful muscles of his legs as they transported him.
“Funny you should say that,” he told Melanie, “Last night, I dreamt I was a ballet dancer.”
“Yes,” he told her. He had seldom, in his whole life, been so open and straightforward; but he could not keep this memory to himself; he did not even notice he was sharing it; it was as though the words themselves possessed a power that could not be resisted, and no sooner had he recalled the dream than he had to share it. “It was amazing. I felt like I was flying. I can still recall every detail.”
“That’s amazing,” agreed Melanie. “Do tell me more.”
“It was as though time had stopped. And I could clearly see my legs, and then feel them carrying me around.”
“Do you know what steps you were dancing”
“Or what the ballet was?”
“What the music was?”
“No. I couldn’t hear any music.”
“Oh, that’s strange.”
“Or perhaps I could. I didn’t notice it, anyway.”
“I’ve heard of many people dreaming of being a ballet dancer—believe me—but not anyone who’s actually dreamt of it.”
They talked for a few minutes, sharing thoughts on every aspect of dancing, and by the time they finished their call they had exchanged Yahoo ID’s, so they could continue their chat later, and Benjamin removed his headset and wondered what he had done.
Jennifer said, “You’re not smiling; what on earth’s the matter with you?”
That evening, Benjamin logged on to his Yahoo profile and Melanie was, of course, already online. He slipped into his online personality as though into a superhero outfit which, during the day, he kept hidden at the back of his closet.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” typed Melanie.
“And me about you,” typed Benjamin, for he was now in the virtual world where anything was possible, where your words did not necessarily relate to your “daytime” persona, nor indeed to any “real” person, and where you could, if you chose, live out all the frustrated desires of the person who was locked deep within yourself by, perhaps, some freak twist of fate. But here, that person could express his torment, his resentment, his anger, his losses; here, that suppressed person could live. Here, that person could have some fun.
“I see you like sports,” typed Melanie. “You’ve achieved so much. I admire that.”
“Yes, I’m out most evenings, rugby, football, swimming, the gym.”
“I only stayed in tonight to chat with you.”
“Yes, I was supposed to be at football practice.”
“Won’t they miss you?”
“Prob. They say I’m their star player but I don’t know…”
“I bet you are. Just being modest…”
“Don’t like to boast. My mother wouldn’t like it...” Benjamin looked away from the screen in disbelief at what he just typed and wondered how that snippet of the truth managed to find its way into his words.
“You’re so funny! And I bet you have a great physique too!” typed Melanie.
“I take care of myself. And I like to have a full body massage once a week. Are you any good?”
“Yes, sure. I’d love to massage you.”
“I bet you would,” thought Benjamin, who practised these lines well on many women—and on some men too, but with greater relish. He knew what they all wanted and was sure that they were not going to get it, but some deep part of him needed to lure them, needed them to feel that their pleasure was within grasp, that they were about to gain that ultimate prize that he himself could never now have. He wanted them to somehow pay for what had happened to him.
A little later, Melanie typed: “Why haven’t you got any recent pictures on your profile?”
“Don’t get my picture taken much. That one of me on holiday was the last one.”
“In your swimming gear? How old are you there?”
End of extract
The full text of this story is included in Fletcher's collected edition of short stories, which can be purchased in paperback or Kindle format. Click here for details.
3 August 2010
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