The Phone Box at the End of the World

For weeks the sun, like a huge white marble, hung in the sky; any clouds were as fleeting and fluffy as marshmallows. It was a summer as wild and carefree as white bedsheets flapping in the cooling breeze.

I was ten and Brian was six when, without warning or explanation, our parents uprooted us from our noisy, dusty, traffic-clogged south London suburb and moved to a bungalow on the edge of Romney Marsh, where miniature trains ran along the bottom of the garden, and at the end of the road was the beach. Time stood still for us at the start of the long, hot spell of ’76, stranded in the hiatus of leaving old friends behind but yet to make new ones, familiar possessions still sealed in brown cardboard boxes, exchanged for buckets and spades, fishing nets and inflatable armbands. We thought living at the seaside would be heaven and that summer would last for ever.

It was not just our surroundings that changed. Mum seemed less frazzled, happier than she was in London. She would even sit in the garden and read, hoiking her dress up above her knees to catch the sun. And she was speaking directly to Dad again, rather than using me or Brian as a go-between.

Dad was different too. Instead of heading for the pub for a few pints before Sunday dinner and spending the afternoon sleeping them off in the armchair, he stayed home and laid the table. After we’d eaten, he’d do the washing up before walking with me and Brian the half mile to the beach, so that Mum could ‘relax and put her feet up for a bit’.

When we reached the phone box on the corner, he told us to go on ahead and he would come and find us. As we wandered on, we heard the phone ringing, and the squeal of the heavy glass and metal door as dad went in to answer it.

Half an hour later, as we cooled our feet in the small waves or searched for shells and sea glass to take home, he would come and collect us and buy ice creams from the kiosk on the promenade. There was a tacit agreement that if we didn’t mention the phone calls to Mum, he wouldn’t tell her about the ice creams.

Then our idyllic Sunday world imploded. I was engrossed in trying to coax a beached jellyfish into my bucket to return it to the sea, and when I looked up I could no longer see Brian. I ran up and down the sand shouting his name, but he had disappeared. I raced back to the phone box and hammered on the thick glass panes. Dad immediately dropped the receiver, and I could hear a faint, tinny, disembodied female voice: “Dennis? Dennis! Are you there? What’s happening?”

We searched the beach, but Brian was nowhere to be seen. In the end we had to call the coastguard, who found my brother just round the headland in the next bay, cut off by the rising tide.

There was no ice cream that day.

When we got home, Brian and I were sent straight to our room. There was a lot of shouting from downstairs. Mum’s voice was audible through the floorboards, although even with our ears pressed to the lino we couldn’t make out the words; if dad said anything at all, he must have been whispering. A door slammed, and there was silence.

If we thought that would be the end of our Sunday afternoon trips to the beach, we were wrong. The following week, after dinner, mum told us to put our shoes on and marched us down the road to the phone box. The telephone rang, right on cue; grim-faced, she picked up the handset.

“Wrong number,” my mother said tersely and let the receiver fall. As it dangled there, twirling slowly at the end of its metal umbilical cord, I could hear a faint, tinny, disembodied female voice.

“Dennis? Dennis! Are you there? What’s happening?”

Author Bio: Hilary Ayshford is a former science writer and editor who has now turned her hand to short fiction – everything from humour to horror. Her work has been published by Retreat West, Trembling with Fear, MONO.Fiction and Funny Pearls, among others. Find her on Twitter at @hilary553.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

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