by G. M. Klein

The man lent into the wheelchair as the slope steepened. Mercifully the rain had stopped. The wind was against them but it wasn’t hard work: he had climbed tougher hills, the old woman in the chair weighed scarcely more than a 12 year old and the path underfoot was solid.

At the edge of the cliff, at the end of their path, stood a red telephone box. He hadn’t seen one like it since his childhood. It was the type with small square panes of glass set in a pillar box red lattice with a flattened red pyramid for a roof. The complete front panel of the box was a latticed door built for privacy and protection in an era when all types of personal and business dealings were conducted from public telephones.

They had nearly reached the telephone box at the edge of the world: their destination after weeks of wearing down his resistance, 15 hours of travelling. This is where his aged mother so badly wanted to go.

She had some calls to make and they were urgent.

*          *          *          *          *          *

He hadn’t wanted to make the trip. He was busy, his business was taking off,  it was the worst possible time for him to be away. It seemed ridiculous, an overseas trip, the complications of a long flight for a woman his mother’s age, she had not traveled for years, she had never owned a passport. He tried to talk her out of it, scare her off the idea. She wasn’t well. There was Deep Vein Thrombosis to think of, her heart. It wasn’t wise. She should talk to her doctor.

She was fine. And determined.

They argued for weeks. What was wrong with her landline? Why did it have to be this particular telephone box teetering on the edge of the world.

She was jabbing with her knotted finger at a photo in a magazine. He glanced at the glossy page. An old red phone box on a cliff over the sea. The headline said “Call your loved ones on the other side”. She was crazy. 

He proposed an alternative, an elaborate ruse: a mobile phone from the edge of the world, put together by his creative team, labelled accordingly and wrapped in a cotton wool cloud.

She wasn’t fooled.

He told her he couldn’t get away until next year. She said she couldn’t wait that long, she’d  be dead by then. He cajoled her: she was a tough old bird, she would live to a hundred. He’d take her next autumn or the following spring.

She asked around the women who came daily to help her shower and dress, they were her friends now that her contemporaries were gone. Would anyone like to accompany her?  When her large print books were delivered the librarian stayed for the cuppa she usually politely refused, helping search the internet for airfares and tours. Together they applied online for her passport, and paid for the express service. She was going.

Meddling do gooders. He would have to take her. She couldn’t go alone and absolutely not with a tour group or someone that he didn’t know. He felt manipulated but he would go. They could do it in 4 days, he booked 2 business class fares on loyalty points, and wheelchair assistance for his mother.

He sat beside her on the little golf-cart which ferried them to the distant boarding lounge. His mother giggled and waved as if she was the Queen, he felt embarrassed. He was still annoyed. But never had he negotiated an airport with such ease.The flight attendants were ready to wheel her onto the plane, and the two of them sat peacefully while the other passengers fussed around them. He drank a glass of wine, finished editing a report, checked his emails then slipped into a deep sleep.  She drank and ate very little on the flight, spending the time dozing or sleeping. She was, surprisingly, no trouble.

In the hire car on the way to the coast she began to talk,
“It’s beautiful here.” He glanced down at her, she was a small wizened child, when had she become so small, so wrinkled, her hair so white, when had he last looked at her? He wondered what she could see of the landscape in the scumble of green and grey that slashed past.
“I watched you while you slept on the plane. It’s so long since I’ve seen you asleep, it reminded me of when you were small. You were a beautiful child, so placid.” She turned, peering out over the high window ledge of the foreign car, the rain runnelling diagonally across the pane.“I wish I had had more children,”she murmured.
“You never did manage to get me that baby brother I asked for every Christmas,” he teased, focussing beyond the slapping wipers, through the drizzle.
“I know. I wanted him too.” She was rummaging in her bag now, pulling out a large white handkerchief.  He glanced briefly from the road again, she was drying her cheeks, wiping her nose.
“Mum, that’s years ago. It’s OK now.”

*          *          *          *          *          *

The wind freshened as they neared the little red building.
“Now dear,”  the old woman moved stiffly towards him from her seat.  “I will need some privacy for an hour or so.”
“That long?  Are you sure?”
“Yes dear, stay nearby and I will wave my handkerchief  when I’m finished.”
“It’s so cold here Mum, you’ll freeze.”
“I’ll be alright, I’m a tough old bird, you know,” she chuckled. “But I don’t want you listening in.”  She turned away.

He manoeuvered the wheelchair into the telephone box, tucked the granny square rug around her knees and placed the old bakelite telephone on his mother’s lap. She had her address book in her hand: scraps of paper protruding from the pages. The handpiece was to her ear and she was dialing as he closed the door, she was speaking loudly, he heard her ask to speak to Bebe as he retreated. It wasn’t anyone he knew.

The wind in his face, the effort of the climb, the expanse of sea below him, its roar: he felt alive, more alive than he had for a long time. Fifty metres beyond the phone box was a bench. He sat there under the felted sky looking out across the green surf frilled islands,   discarded into the metallic ocean. There was no horizon. He could almost believe this was the edge of the world. He thought of his mother making her urgent calls, the bookmarked address book, Bebe and who else? He couldn’t think of the last time they had been together for so many hours, traveled, eaten, slept. He was surprised, he was enjoying himself.

The hour of solitude stretching before him seemed an insane indulgence. He would check his messages, make sure everything was running smoothly without him. No, his mobile was on charge in the hire car. He thought about meditating, it was too much effort. Instead his mind ranged freely over recent events, conversations, this strange beautiful country he had never visited before, his mother, and this unique telephone box she was obsessed with. She was a different person now she was here. She seemed so happy.

Now and then he glanced towards the phone box waiting for the wave of her handkerchief. She had been speaking loudly into the old phone and he had been able to hear her voice indistinctly where he sat. But he couldn’t now – had the wind changed direction? Was that her handkerchief he could see, limp through the red latticed panes?

He pulled open the door, the white cloth lay on the threshold. She was slumped in her chair, sleeping peacefully. She had dozed off waiting for him. The travel has exhausted her.
“ Mum, c’mon wake up.” He stroked her hair, as she had stroked his so long ago. She didn’t respond.
“ Mum? Mum?” He nudged her gently. She slumped deeper into the wheelchair. He took her hand, so cold.

 He seized the handpiece laying limp on her lap, listened, rattled the hook switch.  There was no dial tone.

About the Author:

G M  Klein was raised to the rhythm of Australian bush poetry, which sowed deep in her a love of language and literature. Writing has been a creative outlet for most of her life and she is currently working on her first novel. For the last 30 years she has lived on the edge of a eucalypt woodland at the foot of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. She is a close observer of the microcosms of the bush and the garden and of human relationships. Whenever possible she favors foot travel. Her inspiration comes from the cycles of nature and the circle of our days.