The phone rang . . after two fruitless days without a connection. After what had seemed like an interminably long silence, the phone at the other end finally began ringing. Lee dared to hope. God, don’t let it go to voicemail. The longest three rings of his life ended with a click and a quiet, surprised female voice: “Hello?”.
“Anne, it’s Lee, listen very carefully, I don’t know how long this connection will last. You still have the key to my flat, right? Well, anyway, I guess Helen would let you in if . . “
Lee found himself politely cut short by the distant voice.
“Lee, I’m sorry, Anne isn’t here, it’s Emma.”
Lee was knocked back a moment. Of all the scenarios that had been running through his head for the last two days, this wasn’t one of them. If his calls ever did get through, he had expected to be speaking to Anne, or maybe Mike. Not Emma. Emma wasn’t always quite with it. She wasn’t great in a crisis. She wasn’t a safe pair of hands.
“Alright Emma, I need you to listen to me very carefully. I don’t trust the connection. Don’t put me down, don’t put me on hold. I need you to tell Anne and Mike everything that I’m about to tell you, got that?”
“Wait a second, I’ll get a pen and paper . . “
(Oh, for fuxake!)
“Emma! The message is simple, just listen OK! I’m still in Bristol. Things have gone crazy here. I don’t know what it’s like back there but, from what I’m hearing, this shit is . . “
“Oh Lee, it’s awful. Mike was at the supermarket and . . “
“Emma! I need you to shut up and listen. Just listen, OK!”
“OK, Lee, I’m sorry.”
Lee could hear Emma’s sniffles on the other end of the line, as she started to cry. He didn’t care. Right now he just didn’t have the time for anything but his path. That path was clear. Emma was his tool now, nothing more. There was no time for emotion.
“Remind Anne that she has a key for the flat; I got it cut for them last year. There’s food there, lots of food, and candles and stuff, not just in the kitchen but in the bathroom and in my bedroom. It’s yours, but tell Mike not to let anybody see you moving it. Just use the key and visit mine to eat if you like; whatever works for you.
Now listen Emma, this is important. Clean all the sinks and the bath, clean them good and fill them with cold water . . “
“Anne already got us to do that . . “
Lee shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was impressed. Anne had listened. She may have thought he was obsessive, more than a little obsessive, but she had listened.
“ . . OK Emma, that’s great. Tell her that there are empty containers at mine, 3 litre plastic bottles and stuff. She needs to take the containers home and fill them too, just in case. Tell her to watch what you use. Use it from the tap whilst it’s still running and boil it just in case. Don’t waste anything, don’t bin anything . . paper, glass, cardboard, empty tins . . keep it all.
Now, Emma, this bit is important. Tell Anne that if it gets bad then you should all bug out. Just pack the car with as much stuff as you can and run. Pack lightly but take lots of water and as much food as possible. Lots of warm clothes. Pack as if you’re going on a camping trip. Head to my Mum’s in Suffolk, or to Claire’s at the coast. Just get away from the city; Hayswood isn’t nearly rural enough. And leave me a message. Get Mike to spray it on the wall or tack it inside the window. No addresses, just say ‘Your Mum’s’ or ‘Claire’s’ or whatever, just let me know where you’ve gone . . “
There were three loud cracks on the line followed by a stinging silence. Finally Emma’s voice broke back in.
“ . . at four but they’re still not back. They went to get petrol. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to frighten the boys but . . “
Lee exhaled, his breath having been unconsciously held. He inhaled deeply.
“Emma, just listen. Stop worrying and just look after the boys. They’ll be back soon, and I’m coming; tell them I’m coming. Everything is going to be fine.”
More loud cracks on the line, but no subsequent silence this time. Lee’s phone beeped a protest; it needed a charge.
“Emma, I’m nearly out of juice. Tell Anne and Mike everything that I’ve told you, OK, every single thing. Just do your best, and tell them . . “
The phone cut out in the middle of beeping a second protest. The mobile was old, too old. Lee had meant to get a new one last year, something he’d put off again and again. Something he’d put off for another day, like so many things. His heavy head hung to his chest as he slowly closed his eyes. He thought of the boys. The tears came inevitably, and freely. He stood there, exhausted, shuddering with deep breaths that shook his whole body, his nose and mouth dribbling tears and mucous.
So much to be done, and he was out of time.