Chapter 35: Telephone Line
from the 1976 album “A New World Record” by Electric Light Orchestra
slipped under Emily’s door at 01:24, 3 July 2019
I look into the sky
The love you need ain’t gonna see you through
And I wonder why
The little things you planned ain’t coming true
Exterior: a clearing deep within the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, against a backdrop of the Eiffel Tower and a few birds, which seem to move when viewed from different areas of the theatre. A major thoroughfare crosses the distance, with some people milling around upstage. Trees line stage left, under the shade of which stand a few benches. At this time of day, there are people sitting in some of the benches, eating an ice-cream or just talking to each other.
[A girl and a boy enter upstage right, deep in conversation with each other. The boy is looking at his phone intently, while the girl simply looks troubled. They move around the clearing as they talk.]
GIRL: … that’s the thing about relationships, nobody sends their ex so many things after they’ve broken up with them…
BOY: [cutting in] Come on, Mo, I’ve sent her like so many stuff over the past. She always said she wanted to go to Paris! I’m just sending her stuff that she likes…
GIRL: You’ve called her three times in two hours! That’s not being friendly, Thomas, that’s called throwing a tantrum…
[Boy looks up from his phone for the first time and stares at Girl incredulously. The tiniest of pauses.]
BOY: I’m not throwing a… okay, listen, one last call, and if she doesn’t pick up, I’ll leave it for a bit, okay? Just give me one sec…
[He dials a number. Girl crosses her arms and walks a little distance away from him. We hear the dial tones echo through the theatre, but nobody seems to pick up. After a few beeps, it redirects to voicemail.]
LOVER (ON VOICEOVER): Hi, you’re speaking to Layla, I’m not — shut up, you bastard — available at the moment, so please —
BOY (ON VOICEOVER): [cutting in] Leave a message, but make it quick, you’re getting in the way. Now fu—
[Down on the stage, Boy smiles a little and wanders a little towards the trees. Girl is sitting down on the bench, taking out a book, glancing from time to time at Boy.]
LOVER (ON VOICEOVER): GIVE ME BACK MY PHONE, THOMAS YOU IDIO—
[The dialogue cuts off. There is a beep. Boy hesitates a bit.]
BOY: Hey, Layla… um, how you doing? It’s me again… just trying to check on whether you’ve got those pictures I sent you… I know it’s a bit much but I hope you’ve… got them. [He pauses slightly.] Are you doing okay? Hope the breakup’s not… [He sighs.] look, if you’ve received this call me back okay? Just… yeah. Thanks. Bye.
[He waits a long time before ending the call. Even after he presses the stop button, he keeps staring at the screen. Girl walks over.]
GIRL: You done yet?
[Boy looks briefly at her. It’s only now that he realizes he’s been staring at it for a long time. He does a double-take.]
BOY: Yeah, sure… she’s still not picking up.
GIRL: Thought as much. Right, where’d you wanna go next?
BOY: Let’s have a look shall we?
[He looks at his phone again as they move to one of the benches, the one closest to the front of the stage. There is only one other person on that bench, sitting on the upstage end. The two of them sit down, with Girl closer to the audience. Boy studies the map for a bit, while Girl draws up her barefoot legs to rest on the bench. She is not looking at him. There is a slight silence.]
GIRL: How long are you going to be like this?
[Boy is still looking at the phone.]
BOY: What do you mean?
GIRL: Pining after somebody who’s dumped you for such a long time.
BOY: [glares at Girl for a brief moment] I’m not… pining after her. I’m over her, really.
GIRL: You’ve been going on about her since yesterday. Doesn’t look like it.
BOY: [without looking up] You don’t have to stay with me if you find it boring, you know.
GIRL: [yawn] Bring on Monday, then. Make a nice change.
[Slight pause. Boy raises his head to look at Girl, looking at him with raised eyebrows.]
BOY: [motioning with his hands] Look, I’m getting over her by doing this, okay? It’s a part of our history, this trip to Paris. [He stares at the phone for a bit.] I’m not gonna move on if I don’t get… [He looks out, towards the audience.] Closure. Of some sort.
GIRL: Don’t you think you’re just obsessing over her by doing this?
BOY: I don’t want to talk about it, okay? You… you wouldn’t know. [He prods her on the shoulder and hands her his phone.] Here, have a look at these…
[She peers down at the screen.]
GIRL: Catacombs, Petit Palais, Saint-Sulpice… [Boy leans over to look at it and gauge her reaction. Noticing, she passes the phone in to the middle and sits just a bit closer to him.] Why do you always pick monuments and not like places we can sit down in?
BOY: I just like them, I guess… you’ve been everywhere already, you don’t have to come along. [He gives her a wan smile.] I can do very well on my own.
GIRL: [without looking at him] Oh, if you only knew…
[She leans in closer, her hair brushing against Boy’s shoulder.]
BOY: I — what?
[Girl shoots a glance at her hair and then pulls away slightly.]
GIRL: Nothing, just thinking out loud… [she points to one of the things on the screen] Do you know, I’ve never been to the Orsay before.
[Boy looks up in surprise.]
BOY: You’re joking.
GIRL: I never joke about Paris.
BOY: You’ve lived here for two summers and you still haven’t been to one of the best museums in the world?
GIRL: I know, right? It’s almost as if I don’t like crowds.
BOY: Oh, right…
[A slight awkward silence. Boy looks tentatively at the ground, while Girl just keeps tapping away.]
GIRL: So… when do you want to go?
[Boy turns to look at Girl, a little astonished. Their eyes meet for about two seconds. Then the phone starts ringing in Girl’s hands, and Boy immediately snatches it from her. His face falls — he is clearly surprised by the caller. It only rings twice before disconnecting. He turns to look at Girl.]
[Girl’s eyes widen, both in recognition and in concern. She leans forward, ready to walk.]
GIRL: Do you need a moment? I can…
BOY: No, it’s fine. Please stay…
[He is already redialling the number. Girl looks a little surprised, but leans back and draws her feet up. Ringtone sounds from the stalls. The audience swivels to see another woman stumbling down the centre aisle, struggling to finish a sentence as she’s laughing. Spotlight illuminates her as she starts talking.]
LOVER: It’s not me! It’s the people down at the bar that did that, seriously, why would I want to smack you on the arse… anyway, give me a sec… [She looks at the screen and sighs. She turns to talk towards the back of the theatre.] I’m sorry, do you mind if I take this? Should’ve looked before pressing call earlier… [A short pause while she watches the person at the back nod. She presses down on her phone and puts it to her ear immediately.] Hello?
[They do not look at each other.]
BOY: OH THANK GOD, Layla, where have you been all this time? Did you get the photos?
LOVER: I think I may have gotten them sometime in the night. They were a lot, I left them for later…
BOY: Oh thank God, and I thought my phone was dead or something.
[The Lover glances at the stage hurriedly, then looks back towards the back end.]
LOVER: Yeah, sorry. I know it’s been a while, but can we…
BOY: [cutting in] Yeah, of course. I hope you’re doing fine?
LOVER: Yeah, I’m great. Listen, what I was going to say was now’s not a great time, though, I’m in the middle of something right now —
BOY: No, I’m just asking after you, okay? I get it, friends and everything, but…
VOICE FROM BACK OF THEATRE: LAYLA! I’M LEAVING WITHOUT YOU IF YOU DON’T COME IN SOON!
[Stony silence. Boy freezes. Down in the stalls, the Lover bites her lip. He slowly turns to look at her. She doesn’t look back at him, only at the floor.]
BOY: [almost deathly quiet] Wait, are you… do you have a new partner? [Awkward silence.] Why didn’t you tell me?
[On the stage, Girl looks at Boy. She slowly puts her feet back in her shoes.]
LOVER: Look, I’m sorry, Thomas, I was going to tell you a couple of days…
BOY: No, that’s not… that’s not it. [He swallows, hard.] How long has it been?
LOVER: For some time. [Onstage, Boy sniffles. The tears are coming sooner or later, he knows.] Look, I’m happy that you made it to Paris on your own, okay? Just not with me, and I’m sorry about that…
BOY: No, why should you? [He coughs. In a whisper] Keep it in, man, keep it in… [normal voice] It’s me who should be happy too. [The other person on the bench glances at him, and walks off, discomfited. Boy is leaning forward, rooted to the spot, unable to think, unable to process.] And I’m happy for you, Layla. Really. You’ve been a wonderful friend all these years, but you… you deserve better than me.
[He shakes his head. Girl is now looking at him with a lot of concern on her face. Lover still looks at the floor. She turns, so that her back is to him.]
LOVER: I… I shouldn’t… are you…
BOY: I’m fine, I’m fine… just… taking time to process it, you know? [He pinches his nose.] These things… these things are hard. Good for you, Layla. It’s just… nothing.
LOVER: Right, um, thank you. [She looks towards the stage, urgently. Their eyes do not meet.] I’ll see you around?
[Boy cannot even muster up the courage to say anything. He just nods. Then he remembers she can’t see him.]
BOY: Yeah, sure.
LOVER: Alright, you… you take care, okay?
[It is the Lover who hangs up first. Spotlight goes out on her. Boy takes a long time to lower the phone from his ear. He turns around, his eyes already brimming. He hands his phone to Girl, who has a pained expression on her face.]
BOY: Hold on to that for me. Please.
GIRL: I’m sorry, Thomas…
BOY: No, it’s fine… [He stands up. He needs to walk away — somewhere, anywhere away from people.] Excuse me a bit… I just need to…
[He covers his hand with his mouth and tries to walk, but finds that he has nowhere to go but off the front of the stage. He finds a corner, and sits down, his legs dangling off the stage, nowhere out of view of the audience. The dam breaks; he begins to sob. He covers his face with one arm, the other thumps on the floor in despair. Girl hesitates, and then slowly walks towards him. Slow fade to spotlight on the two of them. She squats next to him as his shoulders shake. She reaches out one arm. After a while, she takes him in her arms. He does not resist.]
BOY: I’m sorry, I’m sorry…
GIRL: It’s okay.
[They hug in silence — except for Boy’s heaving sobs — as the spotlight fades away, and we are left in total darkness.]
This song says a lot, Em. Thanks for the recommendation.