︎ Prev          Current Issue          Next ︎

Kai Carpenter
– PARTY LINE


“Mrs. Coates. I must inform you, once again, that there is nothing more I can do about your concerns. As the sole operator in Groughshire, I cannot determine—”

“No—no, child, I will not hear it. I have had enough, and something must be done. Operator—that is, Mr. Helt (we needn’t pretend I don’t know who you are; the whole town knows who you are) I have had enough, and I am quite put out! Need I describe to you again the nature of these ghastly visitations I have experienced? I want to know! I deserve answers!”

“Mrs. Coates, I must again insist that you call the police with such matters—”

“Don’t you be fresh with me, child—if the King sees fit to put these contraptions in our homes, he should train the souls who run them to have some knowledge in these matters. Five times I have been interrupted—and frightened, I’ll add—by that ghastly breathing on the wire, and I have a right to know, in the name of English decency and—”

“Mrs. Coates, as I said before, there is no way for me to deduce from whom the interruption is coming. I suggest speaking to your neighbors and asking them if their children have been toying with the wire. Now, I’m terribly sorry, I have a wire from Millston, and I must hold.”

“You do not have another wire! Don’t pretend there isn’t only one line in all of Grough—”

Hugh heard the perfunctory click of the line as he yanked the wire from the switchboard and let it clatter to the table. Silence filled the room. Then, the patter of rain on the high old windows of the barn in which Hugh’s makeshift office had been installed.

He looked out over the brown English swampland.

He’d won an exemption from combat for his research role in a communications factory. The crown, accounting for his good stock and schooling, had granted him a comfortable non-combat role, complete with lodgings, in a remote inland post: the sole operator of the town’s new telephone line.

Wartime needs required that the town have a telephone line, but also required that calls be limited to five minutes—a feat rarely achieved by the gossips and counter-gossips of Groughshire. A war of petty rumor and retribution had coalesced around the new technology like an oily vapor, and within three weeks of the line’s introduction, its original purposes of commerce and efficiency were utterly forgotten in favor of its convenience as a new way to vex one’s neighbor.

Hugh’s head ached from—what? He had the vague recollection of a strange dream from the night before. Influenced by his real work, no doubt—the job he was really here for.

The light and buzzer again.

“Number, please.”

Grainy silence on the line.

Hugh counted three seconds, one…two…three, before raising his hand to rip the wire from the board and insert it in another illuminated socket.

“Number, please.”

“Hello, chum, Morse, 3487 dash 10…er, one two...uh, you know, the Morses down the way...?”

“(sigh) Hold, please.”

Even by English standards, Groughshire was an exceptionally obscure and grey town. It had been built—or rather, it seemed, had congealed—alongside a great expanse of swamp in Northumberland. The swamp was the town’s constant neighbor and enemy, perpetually encroaching, then being beaten back, only to rush into the town again, like some unaccountable old animal. It supplied the town with a tenacious stream of lore, as well, and swamp witches, bogles, fairies, and weird beasties populated the pub talk of most cold nights.

But despite the dismal surroundings, Hugh found himself well suited to the long, spare hours of the day at the Groughshire line board. Solitary by nature, he was easily enough absorbed in old books, or his never-ending work on the line’s many electrical boards, to while away the hours between unimportant calls. During these hours his thoughts and eyes would often wander to the Black Line, the heavy black switchboard they had installed in the corner of the old barn, a little distance away from the primary Groughshire board. His real work took place there—at night, of course—and Hugh anticipated it every day. The grim black board seemed to absorb his thoughts and attention as readily as it did the dim light from the rain-streaked windows; it was to him a cabinet of mystery and potential, a dark canvas on which anything could appear between the hours of midnight and three a.m.

The buzzer from the Groughshire board etched a crack in his reverie.

“Number, please.”

“I’m afraid,” came a thin voice on the other end of the line. “What if one of the planes crashes on Main Street? Or what if there’s a Jerry plane hiding among them, and suppose it drops a bomb, or lands a raiding party here, or—”

“Mr. Felder, it’s to be a perfectly routine air drill, and poses no threat to the residents of Groughshire,” said Hugh. “It is scheduled for Friday, November 6th, at three a.m., and should take no more than an hour. Thank you, Mr. Felder.”

“I…well, all right. But I wish the RAF would have chosen another town for their war games. Groughshire is too fragile for such rough play.”

“Indeed—thank you! Mr. Felder.”

Silence again. The rain; his breathing. The grating of a crow outside.

Hugh repaired to his desk and lit a pipe. The rest of the afternoon was slow, and he spent it organizing his notes and reading over past transmissions, writing to friends in Oxford, and generally appreciating the rain on the old barn’s roof.

Somewhere in the accomplishment of these quiet chores, another sharp pain sliced at Hugh’s temple, recollecting him to his dream of the night before. A dark passageway, or series of galleries…he was accompanying someone—no, he was following someone. Who was it? The dream had ruined his sleep. That terrible sound, like a great engine…

The late nights of transcribing were clearly taking their toll on him. But the work mattered; it was critical work, he reminded himself. But how his head ached. He took another draught of cold coffee and the pain subsided. He would have to stay sharp for the night ahead.

He connected one last call, around six p.m. It was, as often happened, interrupted by the constable: drunk again, breathing on the line. When Hugh had hung up, he ambled out into the rain to track down a meal at the pub in town before night fell.

After dark, he returned to the barn and rekindled the fire in the stove. He drew the blackout curtains, as was the nightly custom all across England. It reassured him, knowing that his little barn was invisible to all the world after dark.

He checked his watch: ten of eleven. Glancing across the room at the heavy black switchboard, he admired its brutal simplicity in the stove light; it was like some darksome carved idol or stony altarpiece, to be adorned with candles and animal sacrifices. He looked forward to the soft crackle of its line, the little thrill he felt every time it lit up. It was the real reason he’d been brought here, he liked to remind himself: to take part in something historic—something vast and important. Like all weighty responsibilities, just looking at it produced in his mind images and reminders of the little things he relied on and kept account of each day in his barn—the telephone boards, the ticking of his pocket watch, the bottle of American whiskey he kept above the switches, the coffee carafe, the pipe, the heavy revolver in the bedside table.

In anticipation of the hour he took a seat in front of the Black Line, opening his notepad to a fresh page. As was his ritual, he poured off a cup of hot coffee from the carafe and took up his pipe. Automatically, his fingers massaged a pad of moist tobacco into the bowl. Lighting the leaves, he drew in the warm smoke from under the glowing ember.

As if in response, the ember of the switchboard light glowed on as well, and he raised the wire to the jack.

“Midnight, 3rd November, 1941, Groughshire, England. Speak, please,” he intoned.

He heard a struggling breath on the line—a vocal dilation—a pause—a sharp inhalation.

“Black…the walls go on…a hand opens a door and the space is filled with bright birds; they flee from something within…I try, but the door is now somehow too heavy to close…”

Hugh Helt’s pen scrawled in quick shorthand across the notepad.

“I try to see the tops of the walls; must I go in? But only the dark pink clouds are visible above them—one cannot leave, but only go in. That man is inside, and the more I look at him the more unsure I am of his features in the dark—there may be many inside. A sound like the sea, but…so sharp…”

Hugh heard the breath rasp and quicken, then abruptly ease to a calm ebb. As he finished transcribing the last of his notes, he heard the perfunctory second voice of the facilitator come over the line:

“End transmission.”

The line went dead.

As usual, Hugh felt his heart pounding as he wrote out the shorthand. He didn’t know all the particulars of the operation, but he knew this: every night, between the hours of 24:00 and three in the morning, the Black Line would receive three calls per hour, one every 20 minutes, connecting Hugh with certain subjects stationed across Europe. These subjects were in fact sleeping operatives, dreamers aided by some combination of experience and a chemical regimen, who, in controlled surroundings, would deliver brief, scheduled vignettes of information. Whatever they dreamed to the Black Line would then be recorded, relayed to similar offices elsewhere in Europe, and sifted for intelligence.

Hugh had read some of the studies that suggested that soldiers in the field, sometimes even civilians, could anticipate certain strategic changes, weather patterns, and other twists of fate that would otherwise be impossible to foresee. Such reports had become so prevalent in wartime that they’d attracted the attention of the Experimental Communications Division, who, eager for any new edge over Germany, had dedicated a portion of its resources to studying them.  

The idea of a code developed in this occult way, through the private myths of men and women working across the globe, had filled Hugh with an electric excitement from the beginning. Such a code would be unbreakable—readable only by those for whom it was intended and, potentially, at the precise moment and place of intent. And though it was never clear to Hugh how many pairs of lips he may have heard drawing breath over the Line during these strange transmissions, the words themselves were abundantly clear—even difficult for him to forget. Often he wondered who it was who’d been tasked with interpreting the Black Line’s words. Of course he had sometimes fancied vague patterns in the messages, himself—but who was he to assert such speculations to his superiors?

No sooner had he finished his transcription, but the board’s ember lit again.

“12:20 a.m., 3rd November, 1941, Groughshire, England,” Hugh said. “Speak, please.”

There came a very long silence, during which Hugh heard only a rasping breath over the soft crackle of the wire. This was unusual. Sometimes the operatives took a moment to gain their voice, but Hugh had never heard the silence continue this long. He wasn’t sure what to do.

“Speak, please,” he repeated, his voice uncertain.

The breathing continued: uneven, hollow. Hugh waited, listening to the ghastly sound for two full minutes before disconnecting. The operative must have not have been properly prepared for the call.

After 15 minutes, Hugh was relieved to return to the usual pattern.

“12:40 a.m., 3rd November,1941, Groughshire, England. Speak, please.”

And so the night progressed, punctuated by cups of coffee and the alternating embers of Hugh’s pipe and the single eye of the Black Line. When at last he put up his pad and pen at three a.m., he felt full and weary, and shuffled off to his bed through a thick haze of tobacco smoke.

*****

I’m walking through a series of dim stone galleries and passages. There are so many. I vaguely recall some advice a blind man gave me to always turn left. I am confronted by a man—I can’t discern his face. I look behind him at a great black passageway leading out. But as I look, it becomes clear that it is an enormous standing figure, face pressed against the wall. A horrible, deafening sound approaches.

*****

Hugh rose from the dream and gasped awake, as though through reedy water. It was nearly time to begin his shift on the town line, and he had to hurry through his breakfast. Yet though he had slept late, he felt strangely exhausted.

“Ah. Mrs. Coates. How are you—”

“Please, won’t you please help me? No one believes me, but it’s there! I hear it all the time now, and I even…don’t you know…sometimes in my room at night I hear it out the window, coming from the wire! That devilish contraption will ruin Groughshire!”

“Mrs. Coates, that is not how wires work,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “I suggest you take some air.”

“Air! But the wire—”

“I really can’t stay on the line, I’m afraid. Goodbye.”

The day’s connections passed dully, and the sun sank in a smear toward the foggy moors.

“Number, please,” he intoned.

Silence.

One, two…

That breathing. Hugh shook his head, half-expecting to see the Groughshire board replaced by the Black Line in front of him. But no, it was the party line—the East Sector plug—and that was unmistakably the same raking breath from last night.

Another light flickered on. Relieved, Hugh abruptly yanked the cord to take the call. It was Agnes Mosser and Genevieve Pardot, eager to gossip again about what Hugh perceived, from the beginnings and ends of their conversations, to be matching affairs. He was beginning to suspect they were being carried on with the same man.

As he was about to exit the line, he again heard conspicuous breathing from a third party—a child this time, as Genevieve soon confirmed.

“Berrett, is that you?” the woman croaked. “Get off the line, child! How long have you been listening?”

The breathing gave way to a boy’s voice.

“But mummy, there’s someone round the house—a man, has a bundle for you.”

“What man? Oh, goodness sake, child, leave me be with your silly games! Anyway—Agnes—”

Hugh unplugged from the board.

He dined at the pub again that evening, but he didn’t stay long. Much conversation was circulating in the town about the great upcoming event—the RAF test scheduled for later in the week—and Hugh was eager to escape the chatter. It had started to make him anxious, though he could not say why. The Black Line, perhaps…would there be some horrible accident? But that was better left to the experts in London—indeed, all over Europe. The work was encroaching upon his sleep as it was.

He took a walk in the gloaming to clear his mind before the night’s work. Passing along the main street away from the pub, he passed through the town square where the old Groughshire chapel stood, continuing out of town on the winding dirt path which led along the edge of the swamp. The brown light was disappearing quickly over the dreary little foothills that dotted the swampland, and by the time Hugh was halfway back to the barn, it had all but vanished. It would be a cold night. Eager for the comfort of the fire, Hugh quickened his step.

He started at a sudden flutter of movement, away through the low branches. In the grimy light of the evening, his eye caught the dim silhouette of a figure, slowly flailing, far off in the marsh—that of the drunken constable, it seemed. He stepped high and slow, a cloak drawn over his head, like a child hiding in a trench coat. No doubt the old lawman had wandered off the path on his way from his favorite diversion to his second favorite—the phone line—for an evening of eavesdropping.

Back at the barn, and with a good fire going, Hugh lit his pipe and poured his coffee. Right on schedule, the Black Line crackled forth—and found its transcriber waiting.

“Midnight, 4th November, 1941, Groughshire, England. Speak, please.”

“12:20 a.m., 4th November, 1941, Groughshire, England. Speak, please.”

“1:40 a.m., 4th November, 1941, Groughshire, England. Speak, please.”

“A labyrinth…I’m in a labyrinth, and…the man I’m following appears more and more a stranger, or nothing at all, as I follow him…”

“End transmission.”

“Brown waves wash on a shore. My foot traces angles in the sand. They open, and I fall in.”

“End transmission.”

That horrible raking breath again. Who was it, making that noise? Hugh couldn’t bear it, and disconnected the wire immediately.

“2:20 a.m., 4th November, 1941, Groughshire, England. Speak, please.”

More breathing. A second person—and a third?

“That rushing sound, I…I can’t bear it…like a great engine, and hair—I’m tangled, so tangled in hair…”

“End transmission.”

Another cup of coffee.

“A great shadow seems to follow the figure I’m pursuing—but I can’t tell if it is my shadow…something separate altogether…a door has been opened that cannot be closed…”

“End transmission.”

The wind was whistling outside when Hugh pushed back from the Black Line. Exhausted, he melted into his bed.

*****

I’m running through halls, avoiding something dreadful—it’s so horribly tall, it takes one step for every three of mine—I am turning perpetually left—I know it’s going to be waiting for me around the next corner, I can’t bear to see…a deafening engine roars from above and floods the empty spaces with harsh light.

*****

He snapped awake to the sound, drawing in a breath. It was deafeningly quiet in the room around him; the darkness was complete. He calmed his breath and rolled over, reaching for the jug of water he kept at his bedside. He stopped short. The breath—he could hear it outside his window.

Was he going mad?

After a moment, he became aware of a rhythmic thud, too, distinct from the sound made by the low branches that would occasionally graze the walls of the old barn. Now he was certain—it was a muffled footfall, tentatively circling the back side of the house. Hugh reached into his bedside drawer and produced the revolver, then listened.

The walker shuffled on. Hugh heard a sudden and rather incongruous sound, like a rap on hollow wood or bone. The steps bent back down the path—away from the house, it seemed. The breathing was audible no more. Gone with his dream.

Hugh glanced down at the revolver, gripped under his white knuckles. It looked ridiculous in his gaunt hand, and he chided himself. Mere nerves, after all. He needed sleep.

The following morning found him staring numbly at the newspaper. CHILD MISSING—young Berrett had disappeared sometime the previous evening. A formal search had begun already, but it needed to be concluded by nightfall, due to the impending blackout and RAF test.

Everyone must have been involved in the search, for the Groughshire line was dead all day. In the evening, Hugh grabbed his coat and hat to seek his meal; his hand was on the knob when the telephone rang. It was highly unusual for him to receive a call on the line for which he was operator, and he delayed a moment before he picked up.

“Yes?”

“‘Hello, Mr. Helt,” replied the heavy voice on the line.

“Ah—is that you, constable?” said Hugh. “How are you?”

“Fine, fine. I missed you at the pub this evening, and, well, given the present alert I wanted to inform you of the caller you had last night. Your visitor? At the barn? I’m sure you’ve connected by now, but I wanted to inform you just the same.”

Hugh’s throat dried instantly. “What? Er—uh, indeed?” he managed.

“Why, yes, I, ah, saw him for just a moment on the walk home by the off-road—that is, I was on my rounds very late—or, rather, early—spotted him off to the side of your cottage. He looked a lanky tall fellow, all bundled up, cloak clear up over his head—peering into your office window. Looked like he had a large package for you. Your offices being so far off the main path, I couldn’t keep my eye on him before he disappeared round the swamp side, but I thought you should know. I followed as far as your front path, but all seemed well, so I departed.”

“I see. Yes, thank you.”

Hugh’s mind buzzed with words, images and sounds. He knew he couldn’t bear to hear the incessant gossip and chatter in the pub; instead, he dined at home and waited for the light of the Black Line. It seemed urgent to him, tonight—somehow ripe with answers. It was speaking to him, he was certain of it. His mind groped for meaning. Exhausted, he dozed off at the board, just after 11 a.m.

*****

I’ve cornered the Stranger in one gallery. Great locks of grey hair fall about us, and the scene floods with awful light—those chattering teeth! Now I’m held to the spot—I look up to see a fleet of planes—thousands of them, descending all at once.

*****

Hugh woke abruptly and checked his watch: quarter to three. The Black Line’s ember blinked. But—the air test. He knew something would happen. Who was interpreting these messages? Who would come to stop the catastrophe if not he, the collator of these dire warnings? Who knew them better than he? Something terrible would happen if he didn’t—but what could he do? He had to see the air test. Someone needed to witness it. Something terrible was about to happen.

He abandoned the Black Line and hurriedly dressed himself by candlelight, fumbling his boots onto his feet. He padded to the desk for his overcoat and shrugged it on. His hands rifled the pockets: a pen, paper, his glasses and the revolver clinked lightly against his knuckles. Hadn’t that been in the nightstand? He took out the thing and weighed it in his hand, checking the barrel by feel (and counting six bullets)—more out of nervousness than reason. He’d never fired a shot, of course, but to go on such an errand without a revolver in one’s pocket seemed insupportable. Only—his mind strained to remember—when had he put it here? Dismissing the question, he shoved it back into his coat, snuffed the candle and moved to the window to peer out through the curtain.

A thick cover of cloud muffled the world. The night was utterly still, the sky inky black and moonless. How little difference there was between dreaming and waking on a night such as this. Hugh’s eyes shifted to the door. It now seemed sure to him that, once open, that door would reveal a familiarly shifting maze…and an ever-unfamiliar colleague.

He was quietly relieved to meet the darkness and dank swamp air his waking self had expected. Pulling his collar tight about his neck, he allowed his feet to shuffle along the path.

Every journey one made during the blackout, especially on a very dark night, was a great undertaking—although one was aware of certain landmarks, many of them were of no use whatever, unless one was possessed of a good torch. You never knew what lay in front of you, beyond a distance of about three feet. Yet Hugh knew his way tolerably well in his mind’s eye, and before long his footfall was answered by the familiar resonance of the town cobblestone.

He selected the old chapel as the most open vantage from which to view the passing aircraft. He still didn’t know why, but he had to see the air test for himself; he had to know what was really happening that night. The Black Line had spoken to him so clearly.

He had advanced perhaps 30 feet over the cobblestone when he heard, or fancied he heard, a sound. It wasn’t clear from where, from what or even if it had come. The constable, perhaps, at this hour—yet buffoon though the man was, Hugh would rather not encounter him during the blackout. But perhaps he was only hearing things. The constable was probably snoring in his bed by now—or, as on the other night, meandering over the swamp, too drunk to perform his duty even if a marauder should stride up to him and shake his hand. Hugh proceeded quietly through the darkened streets.

After another minute he heard the sound again, this time definitely. It was a kind of soft chatter, like dice on a table. Perhaps it was in fact dice on a table, inside one of the many grimly shuttered houses he had passed between. As he moved cautiously on, the distant drone of approaching aircraft slowly became louder and more clear. He held his watch a few inches from his face: just past three. He quickened his steps to reach the chapel.

As the lights of the planes began to wind into view in the distant sky, Hugh felt with his hands along the familiar rough stone walls and corners of the old chapel. He positioned himself just inside the doorway, and waited breathlessly for the planes to arrive. The drone grew to a roar, and the floodlights of the planes began to strafe the clouded streets around the homes of Groughshire.

In their harsh and fleeting light, the buildings and alleys of the small town resembled the blocks and channels of a maze. Down one narrow street, Hugh’s eye caught a swaying of laundry linen illuminated by the strafing light, moving and swaying like a man on stilts. No, not linen—it was a man. Or was it a woman? Hugh felt the blood drain from his face as the light faded from the form.

Darkness flooded the square as swiftly as it had entered, leaving Hugh glaring into inky blackness. The roar of the next plane approached as the previous faded into the distance.

He drew the revolver from his pocket, at once chiding himself at his terror, and squinted at the swaying figure ahead of him. The drunken constable, waving his arms and high-stepping dramatically through the square—really, and at a time like this?

The next plane’s light rushed into the square like a deluge, chasing shadows across the figure that advanced at a lurch through the courtyard.

It was not the constable.

Vertiginous horror gripped Hugh. Suddenly he felt naked and pinned to the spot, a moth in a glass case.

The form was tall, well over seven feet. The passing light revealed two long, naked and narrow appendages for legs that swung beneath its massive form as it teetered past doorways and shuttered windows. Over its broad frame and stooped head was draped a long, knotted mane of hair that swayed as it moved, like a great wool cloak. The whole apparition seemed both heavy and weightless as it marched languidly across the pavement.

It stopped at a door, concealed for a moment within a thick band of shadow. When another light abruptly caught it, Hugh caught sight of a large bundle of linen, dragging behind it on the stones. Then shadow passed over the square again, and remained there for an intolerable period.

Hugh’s icy limbs cried out to him to flee; but at the moment of flight, another plane roared over the square and illuminated all. In the interval, the figure had advanced another few doors along the square, and the surge of light revealed its bundle to be not linen at all, but a clutch of twisted limbs and faces, bound by skeins of hair.  The voice of the Barrett boy flashed unbidden in Hugh’s mind.  The figure rounded the corner of the courtyard, now barely twelve yards away.

Hugh remained paralyzed as it approached. As it moved, its long fingers traced the wall and window panes delicately, searchingly, like a beggar’s. Its hand ran across a window cracked an inch—and suddenly it shifted its focus entirely to that opening, dropping its horrible bundle with a thud and groping through the window with eager fingers and muffled sighs. At this sight a cry of horror escaped Hugh, and on the instant the hairy mass lifted toward him, revealing a long neck and horselike face, in the midst of which were embedded two searching, human eyes. Great flat teeth snapped into a rapid chatter with a hollow clakaclak.

The sound broke his paralysis, and Hugh ran wildly. The din of the planes overhead grew to a cacophonous wail, and he plummeted through the labyrinth before him, the streets of Groughshire merging into the dim dream-haunts of previous nights.   

The two still blurred, one into another, as Hugh stumbled through the barn door and leveled the revolver at the Black Line. As if in welcome, the amber light winked on.