Wake-up call

By Carl Schonbeck

Three friends sat drinking and laughing on the stony Ligurian beach. From a distance they seemed like hobos by the sea but in fact they were English teachers in Milan. The bottle of Bonarda wine was nearly empty and a Sunday evening melancholy began to fill the air.
“Thanks for letting us stay with you Graves”, said Colin to the older man sitting on his left. “After a weekend in Albissola being a vagabond doesn’t seem so bad”, he laughed.

“It was a pleasure to have some company for a change”, replied Graves. He’d moved to Milan from Los Angeles some 10 years earlier to be a writer. He was a good friend.
“Vagabond? Speak for yourself Colin!” exclaimed George, the even younger man to Graves’ left.
“I’m a bohemian”.
“When do you and George sign the contract for your flat?” asked Graves.
“Next Friday afternoon, right after our lessons”, replied Colin. “Home sweet home”.
“Home sweet home”, repeated George.

“Are you sure you really want to head back to Milan tonight?” asked Graves. “George and I are taking the 5.30 train. Why don’t you go back with us?”
“If it got delayed or cancelled, I’d miss my morning lessons. I can’t risk getting fired”, answered Colin. “Well, if your mind’s made up, we should start walking to the station. The last train leaves in 20 minutes”, answered Graves.

10 minutes later they were standing on the train platform.
“Feel free to visit any time”, said Graves as they exchanged goodbyes.
“And don’t be late for your lessons”, added George as a pre-recorded voice announced the final boarding. As the intercity started to move Colin relaxed in his seat and smiled. Graves and George were good friends.

Three hours later Colin’s carriage slowly entered Milan’s Central Station. It seemed even darker than usual. To Colin it looked like a mausoleum.
“Why didn’t I just stay in Albissola?” he thought with regret. He suddenly felt depressed and very alone.
Walking down the station’s marble steps towards the main exit he had an idea.
“I’ll give the guys a call just to let them know I got back alright”.

Colin found a payphone outside and dialled Graves’ number. As he waited for the ring he looked up at the digital clock in front of him. It was quarter to 12.
“Hmmm … it might be a little late to call”, he thought.
The phone rang once. Colin wondered if it was a good idea.
“What will I say? That I felt lonely and wanted to talk? Knowing Graves he’ll ask me if I want a bedtime story and some cookies”, thought Colin with increasing uncertainty.
The phone rang a second time.
“They have to wake up early and I still have to get across town”, reflected Colin.
He hung up the phone and took the tube to the pension.

The following day at noontime Colin stopped to speak with Sofia, the school’s receptionist and secretary. things seemed strangely quiet.
“Are George and Graves still teaching?” he asked.
“They didn’t arrive this morning. Mrs. Sanzon is trying to find out waht happened”, replied Sofia.
Colin had to laugh. The train had been cancelled after all.

Just then the school’s director, Kristen Sanzon, emerged from her office. She looked as though she’d been thrown from a plane without a parachute.
“It’s terrible … just terrible … and Colin … you … I know he was your friend …”
“Who was my friend?” answered Colin in a very shaky voice.
There was a long pause.
“I don’t know how to tell you all this … but George is dead. He was hit by a car in Liguria last night … I don’t know all the details. I’ve just got off the phone with Graves”, said Kristen blankly.
Sofia began to cry. Colin stood frozen and without any emotions. A question went through his mind. Why were they out? Albissola was very quiet at that hour. Everything was closed.
The following day Colin got the answer to his question and much more.

If the story hadn’t ended so tragically, it would have been funny. Graves had called an operator and requested a wake-up call for 4.30 a.m. He and George had gone to bed at 10:30. The phone had rung shortly before midnight and Graves had mistaken it for the wake-up call. Still half-asleep, he and George had walked the short distance to the station only to discover it was midnight. walking back a car had come around a corner at 150 kilometres per hour and struck George. He’d died instantly.

“I just hope the idiot who made that call knows what he caused”, said Graves some days later.
“I’m sure he … or she knows”, replied Colin. “I’m sure they know”.
Colin never told Graves the truth. He knew what he had caused, and something else as well. He knew a person could die of loneliness, whether it be their own or somebody else’s.

[SpeakUp, settembre 2014]

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