The moment the telephone began to ring, her eyes shot up from the mountain of notes and books scattered on the desk before her. She simply glared at it, letting it chime 6 or 7 more times before reaching for it. Who could that be, she said to herself in a voice a few notches above a whisper.
Pressing the receiver to her left ear, she said, “Hello.”
“Elaine… Hi,” she heard a man’s voice say before her greeting had barely reached the other end. “How are you?”
Once she realised whom the voice belonged to, reflexively, her shoulders slouched and her face bore a dispassionate expression. She let out a very dry I’m fine. The man on the other end of the line remained silent.
“And yourself?” she continued.
“I’ve been surviving,” he said. To Elaine, it sounded like (and in fact, she knew) he wanted to say more, but cut himself short.
“That’s great.” she retorted perfunctorily.
“And the kids? How are they?”
“Fine,” Elaine said, sandwiching the receiver between her left shoulder and ear. “We’re surviving.”
Over the years, the man on the other end of the line learned to succumb to her tendency of giving off acerbic remarks and a dry wit. He would call every now and then, and they would share an involuntary and (from her part especially), lackadaisical discourse.
“Would I be able to come see them tomorrow? I could take Zack out f–”
“We’re busy tomorrow,” Elaine interjected. A dense silence followed abruptly.
“Uhm… For the whole day?” the voice of the man from the other end of the line said.
“Mm-hmm. Sandra’s got respite ’til the evening, and I’m already taking Zack out with me to Molly and Damien’s.”
The same dense silence found itself again in their dialogue as the man processed this. He hesitated, then said,
“I mean, I’m hardly around. Tomorrow’s my last day in the city, and I’d love nothing more than to spend it with my kids, and possibly with you, too.”
From her end of the line, she rolled her eyes and heaved a light but lengthy sigh. “We’ve been planning this for about a week now. I’m sorry. I really am. But Zack’s really looking forward to it and I can’t cancel Sandra’s respite in such short notice. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“I understand,” the man on the other end of the line said with a vastly more downcast cadence.
“Perhaps next time you’re in town, consider spending time with your kids first,” she said, eyeing her unkempt nail-polish.
“Look. I know, it seems like I don’t make an effort,” the man began, “but honestly, Elaine, I’ve tried. I’ve been up and down doing shows so much so that I haven’t really had the time to sit down. Hence why I’m calling you only now, and so late.”
Elaine switched the receiver to the other side and crossed her arms, saying,
“Here you come again with all your excuses.” The man on the other end of the line persisted:
“This is not an excuse, Elaine. I’ve been in town for 2 days, of which I’ve only spent rehearsing or performing. No rest. Of course when Earlwain told me he booked shows for me in this city, I immediately thought of seeing the kids. And yourself… But I’ve just been stuck for time, you see. So please. Tomorrow. Let me come see you and Zack and Sandra before she goes to respite. Let me take Zack out, even just to the park. He hasn’t grown too old to feed ducks now, has he?”
“No, he still enjoys it,” Elaine said loosely.
“Well, that’s great. I’ll pass by tomorrow morning. 11 o’clock sound good? I’ll take Zack to Rockwell Pastures and have him back before you leave for Molly and Damien’s.”
She mulled over the man’s words and eventually agreed.
“11’clock, then. Just for an hour, that’s it.”
“An hour’s great.”
Elaine remained quiet for some moments after he said this, then jestingly she told him to promise that’d be there, for the kids’ sake. The man on the other end of the line promised. Tomorrow. 11 o’clock. It’s a promise.
“You won’t get to see Sandra, by the way. She’ll be gone by then.”
“I’ll give her a call,” he said.
After their farewells, Elaine placed the receiver back on its base. She peered up to the clock on the wall which read 20 minutes til midnight. She then returned to her notes, compiled them neatly and sat them in one corner of the desk. She sunk into the chair and simply sat in silence for a some time.
Noon came the next day. There was no sign of the man who was on the other end of the line. No call, no message. Nothing.