Welcome Voices by Jennifer Chew

Zara raced her walker, anxious to get to the phone, stepping between the spring sunshine crisscrossing the wooden floors, rugs no longer impeding the wheels.

“Hello.”  She’d made it.  No answer. “Hello,” she repeated, with pursed lips, annoyance creeping into her being. It was happening again, as usual. Expecting the rude sound of the dial tone, she was surprised with an apology.    It took Zara aback.

“Sorry, I’ve got the wrong number.  Sorry to disturb you,” she heard mumbled over the line. People didn’t apologize these days, mostly.

“Oh that’s okay,” she absolved the caller, her good humour restored.  “I get quite a few ‘wrong number’ calls. Usually the person at the other end hangs up. No apology, nothing, just a hang up.  So thank you.”

Zara listened as the voice continued.  “Oh no,no. You’re not interrupting anything, really.   It’s actually nice to be speaking to someone.  I haven’t exchanged a word with anyone today.  I didn’t have to call the pharmacy.  They delivered my order yesterday. Let me see.  Olga came the day before to do the cleaning and tidying up, so today I’ve been on my own. Except for the TV, of course.  But how much can you listen to all the disasters.  It’s so nice to have someone to talk to even though I really don’t know you but you sound nice over the phone.”

Zara took a breath, stopping her flow to listen. “Yes, that happens, one incorrect digit and it’s a whole other person.”  The caller did sound a little flustered. The next comment, though, was quite complimentary.

“Oh, thank you.  You too! You have a good telephone voice.  But, you know, these days, everyone’s busy texting..  Oh, those fingers are busy, I know from my grandchildren.  You don’t need a voice or for that matter you don’t even need to know your spelling, you make it up as you tap, tap, tap.  Or, you know, those automated voice mails,” Zara sighed.  “The phone rings and I rush to get the call, God knows, I’m almost tripping over my walker..”  Zara sensed the agitation in the caller’s interruption and grimaced at her thoughtlessness.

“What? You? Oh no, I was right next to the phone, my dear,” she lied, not wanting to cause any embarrassment.  She seemed so nice, the kind to be upset at having inconvenienced her.  “I did not have to…,” She listened to the voice at the other end.

“Oh, no, no, no, don’t distress yourself.  I’m fine, just fine.  Oh, is that a little one I hear in the background?” Zara asked, not stopping to take a breath, gratefully skipping further denials.  “What a wonderful word … Mama.  Mine are all gone now,” commented Zara, wistfulness shading her voice, “and so busy.  Yes, yes, give her a little cuddle, she’ll be happier.”  She waited as the child’s cries subsided.

“Oh yes, I had three of them,” she replied to the caller’s query.    “Lively! Kept me and my husband on the go, two boys and a girl.  She’s the eldest.”  By now Zara was enjoying the conversation with the unknown caller. She could hear her children, “Mum, you shouldn’t engage in conversations with strangers.  Just hang up.”  But the voice on the other end sounded so warm and what harm could come from having a little chat to break the monotony of her day and so Zara turned her thoughts away from the nagging. She wasn’t giving any personal information away. She could tell right away if they were those scammers claiming to be the revenue agency, CRA.  The nerve, scaring older folk like herself, and new immigrants she had heard. Zara tossed her head thinking of THOSE calls.  But she knew.  She knew what to tell anyone who called asking for her bank account!  And there was the child’s chatter in the background.  Unless, these jokers were using children, but no, she didn’t see that happening.

Zara continued to hear some whimpering.  “There, there, little one” she joined the mother in soothing hushes, “when Mummy’s with you, there’s nothing to fear,” she said into the phone, then listened to what the Mum was saying.  “Oh, yes, when they’re teething, it must be the worst kind of pain they come to know, that sharp bone cutting the gum. Ugh, I would too, cry and fuss with that soreness.” Her hand went up to her jawline, thankfully free of pain since the root canal.  That memory brought on an involuntary shiver.  The baby seemed to have settled down for the moment.  No whimpers or sharp cries. The magic that mothers conjure!

“Falling asleep?” Zara asked. She had to smile at the hope in the reply, remembering those occasions, a little fuzzy now, but still there.  She sat down in the chair that was by the side of the phone. It seemed as though she would be on the line for a while, not that she minded.  Gone were the days when she had no time for such indulgences.   “Aren’t they angelic when they sleep?” A thought came to her.  “Does the baby have a curly mop or finely spun silk?” She smiled at the reply.  “Oh, well, the hair grows soon enough.  I love a mystery.  When I was having my children, we did not know whether it was going to be a girl or a boy, not that it mattered.”  Zara changed hands, now holding the phone to her left ear with her left hand, her elbow supported by the arm of the chair.  This was a lot of fun.  “Oh, yes? You waited till the birth?”  Her mouth formed an O of comprehension. “You found that wonderful, the surprise?”  In Zara’s day they did not have the choice.  You took what you got as in so many things, not only in a child.

“Yes, I remember those days.  No matter how much you love the ‘ga gas’ and ‘goo goos’, you do long for some adult conversation.”  She laughed with the caller who definitely appreciated her observation.  It could be a lonely day, for mothers of babies and young children, not only for retirees such as herself. Constant attention, exhausting.  Conversation or non-conversation, life had its lonely moments.  That’s why Zara always tried to get to the phone before it stopped ringing.  But those days, seemingly unending, are only a temporary phase, and without any hesitation she would do it all over again.

And now, all the excitement of a real conversation.  The rush to get the phone.  It was having an effect on her.  She was breathing with some difficulty.  She looked down and it seemed as if her heart was about to burst out of her chest. She mopped her forehead.  The doctors had warned her to take it easy. Not again, not again. She fanned herself with a brochure that she had received in the mailbox.  Pizza, not allowed, too much salt, too much cheese.    “You’ll have to hold for a sec, it’s..I’m  having a ..little difficulty..catching my breath.”  Gradually, Zara’s short breaths eased into longer ones.  “What? 911!” Her breathing became labored again. “Oh,no.  Don’t call anyone.  I’m okay, really, give it a sec.  No need for emergency.  The last time . . I tried to tell my daughter, she was on the phone with me, but she would not have it.  They came, the paramedics, the ambulance, oh what a hullabaloo, the disturbance on the street, and then my son came to the hospital and my daughter flew in, from her vacation, imagine, and there I was, as right as rain, although I don’t think rain is so right for me, you know, all the little aches and pains, in the hip, in the knees, in the fingers, the joints.  But the farmers need the rain and I can take a pill for pain.  Anyway, it all started with cheating a bit.  I’m not supposed to drink coffee.  I really miss it and sometimes I sneak a cup, half mostly, and sometimes I get the palpitations.  There I’m fine, they’re gone. You were saying..”  It never occurred to Zara that the person might have another call to make. “Oh, I see, you were looking into some daycares…”  She listened attentively to the young mother’s concerns, nodding in empathy.  She would have liked to lend a hand.  She must ask her where she lived.

Zara remembered how heartbroken she was at having to leave her children at three months.  It was heartrending, their incomprehension as she kissed them goodbye.  She felt again her tears as she boarded the bus to work, her anticipation as she rushed home in the evenings and grabbed them up, that unforgettable moment when they expressed their happiness at seeing her by spreading their arms for her.  “I know exactly how you feel.  Thank goodness for the women’s movement, and of course the falling population, coming together and arranging maternity and paternity leave.  That’s tax money well spent, don’t you think?” The phone hung silent in Zara’s hand, both the speakers in contemplation of past and present.  “Even the year is not enough,” Zara continued breaking the silence, ”but in some countries, it’s worse, nothing, or still only the few months. You would think..” and her voice went up a little, in emphasis, “children are the future, what we put into them is what they will put out.. but governments.. vision only till the next election.”

The voice at the other end was going into withdrawal sounds from the conversation. Alas, all good things come to an end.  Zara realized that she did not know the mother’s name or the child’s name, where the call was coming from. Just a voice, or voices if one counted the little one, floating to her in quite friendly fashion.  She did not want to call a halt to them.

The doorbell clanged furiously.  This was followed by loud banging and then again the doorbell filled the apartment.  Zara jumped at all the noise.  Excusing herself, and then carefully placing the phone on the little side table near the chair, she wheeled the walker over to the peephole.  Eye to eye.  Of course, Delphine.  Delphine who believed that everything was too much for her mother at her age.    Delphine who would have wrapped her mother in the softest muslin to keep her safe.  Delphine who was consumed with sobs as Zara opened the door.  Delphine who fell into her mother’s arms, rubbing the tears away with the back of her hand.

“I couldn’t find my key and I was scared to death, I thought something had happened to you when I couldn’t get through on the phone. I’ve been ringing and ringing, hoping that I could get through but busy, busy, busy. All I could imagine was you on the floor, helpless, the phone knocked off its cradle, so I just had to come over and then when you didn’t answer the door just now..”

“Oh, Delphine, you and the drama.  You know I move quite slowly and as you see, I’m fine. I’ve been on the phone. You poor darling.”

“Who is it, Mum?”

Zara was about to say she didn’t know, but bit her lip instead.  She must have pressed the speaker phone button in her haste to get back on line because they became aware of a voice at the other end calling to them.  “Hello, hello, are you alright?”  Before Zara could reply, Delphine got a hold of the phone.  “Who is it?” she asked brusquely.  “Yes, yes, my mother is fine, but who are you?”

“Delphine, please, may I?” intervened Zara, taking the phone from her daughter.

“I’m so sorry, dear,” she said, “to worry you.  Yes, everything is okay.  My daughter just dropped in.”  She listened to the question.  “Oh, you were no bother at all, in fact the opposite.  I hope you find your daycare.  I..I don’t even know your..” but by this time the very pleasant caller had hung up with a “Goodbye”.  Zara remained clueless of her name, of her baby’s name.  Oh, well!

She turned and put her arms around Delphine.