I saw him on the first day, in the middle one of the three phone-boxes half way up the High Street. I’d seen other street-performers use this phone-box in previous years.
A man in top-hat-and-tails blew up coloured balloons until he was jammed up inside. Another year, a contortionist posted flyers through the broken window-pane as they tied themselves up in knots inside the box.
This year, for once the phone-box was completely intact.
This man went into the phone-box and sealed the door with brown tape from top to bottom, including the floor – presumably so he wouldn’t be disturbed.
His act (if you can call it that) wasn’t much of a show. All he did for an hour was stick postcards to the window panes. Dressed in dull black, he didn’t draw a crowd. Some took photographs, but on the whole they read the cards, and went away.
I noticed, passing by every day, he posted the same cards each time, so I was able to glance at one or two a day. Each card had lines of poetry, sometimes prose – never anything more than a few lines. There were poets from anonymous to the present day.
I recognised the War Poets (always popular with our teachers), 60s pop-poets, and Sylvia Plath, whose tragic suicide was seen as romantic among my girlfriends at college. It surprises me that nobody else thought this sinister: all the cards were about dying or death.
I noticed, as I peered through the panes, there was also some script covering the opposite side of each card; too small to read. While I was trying to look, I caught his eye. He looked straight back at me, with deep longing, like a child, dying to know the answer to a question that hasn’t yet been asked.
I put my hand against the cold frame and kept his stare for some time. How long, I can’t say. At times like this, time stops still. I want to say I could feel warmth emanating from him, but that’s just crass.
A couple of days later he left a card in the lower front pane. I’m sure it was an accident, a coincidence. I’m amazed no-one else saw it. I quickly snapped it up as I walked home from work.
The writing was small; it didn’t have a beginning or end, and was clearly part of a longer piece. I’m glad I took a copy of it first. This is what it said:
… that horrible sinking feeling when someone close has died, to wake every day with an empty ache that doesn’t go away? Death is a metaphor. And life is an illusion; a fantasy of our own or others’ warped imagination. So we dive down into the rabbit hole in an attempt to get back to where we came from.
Instead we find the cesspit of humanity that sits in judgement over our soul, our being, our self. There is water, of course, but this is foetid, contaminated with the detritus of human existence that only serves to justify its own presence, but drowns in its own…
On the last day, I saw him arrive. He had two boxes, one with the cards, tape and so on, the other was a mystery. I caught his eye as he entered the phone box, but this time there was no connection; his eyes were steely, like the cold chrome on the door handle.
I watched him seal the doors.
This day, he used industrial-strength gaffer tape, applied with rigorous perfectionism. I checked the time. As I was about to leave, he got out two more items that I’d not seen before, and put them on the shelf, with another card.
For the rest of the day, I wished I’d looked more closely. If I’d observed what he had written, I might have worked it out. Even if I hadn’t, it was obvious. Why didn’t I do something? Wisdom after an event is fools’ gold; retrospect only works one way.
I finished late that evening, and walked down the cobbled street in the dying light. As soon as I saw the police tape, my heart lurched. All three phone boxes were cordoned off, and the door of the central one was broken. It had been wrenched open. I asked the policeman what had happened.
‘An incident,’ he said, ‘We don’t know anything more – yet.’
It didn’t take long to hit the news, nor for journalists to dredge up what had led this man to commit such a terrible act. They showed no mercy. Here was a man whose life had gone wrong, and all they could do was jab at his withered corpse.
Hoping there might be a way of seeing beneath or beyond the sad fact of this man’s broken life, I handed in the postcard I’d kept. I was mistaken in thinking anybody cared. On the front of this card was a quote from one of the war poets:
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I felt as if I’d killed him.
He had, as we all have, two parents, whose grief could not be imagined (if it could, perhaps he wouldn’t be where he is now.) He had an ex-wife who, all the same, was devastated by the news. He may have had children, I don’t know.
Witnesses told how he’d struggled, but they thought it was part of the show until someone noticed he’d been slumped for an uncomfortable amount of time.
I still find it strange that nobody else spotted he took two boxes into the booth that fateful day. Why should they? No-one could have imagined the sealed box could hold such lethal contents.
That box haunts my dreams on a nightly basis.
Did anyone think that placing a glass of milk and plate of bread-and-butter on the shelf was not a little curious; or curiouser-still, the card he placed beside it had the sentence, for the children written on it?
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, J. A. SutherlandWrite a Review