FICTION: The Receptionist by Anna Rivers

“Good afternoon, this is Clare at Sherman Grey. How can I help you?”

“I’m sorry, what did you say your name was? Is Louise there…?”

“Louise doesn’t work here anymore, I’m afraid. My name is Clare, I’m the new receptionist. Could I ask who’s calling?”

“Ah, I see. This is John Thompson from the garage. Can I talk to Liz, please?”

“I’m afraid she’s in a meeting right now. Can I take a message?”

“Ah, I see. That’s okay, just tell her I called and ask her to get back to me ASAP. Thanks. Bye now. Oh – what did you say your name was again?”

“Clare,” Clare replied quietly. “I’ll let Liz know you called. Thanks so much.” She set the phone down and looked back at her computer screen. The words she had been in the midst of typing out when the phone rang seemed to swell and twist before her eyes, morphing into an eerie alien code she could not read, did not have the correct synaptic pathways to process. For a moment the world became very far away, sounds, the incessant drumming of typing, brash, tense professional voices, the roar of traffic in the street outside dropping deep, deep into a strange ocean of obscurity, a rushing sway of alternative, unreachable reality far beyond her ken, the lights brightening until they were clearer, harsher, more real than she was and she floated alone, a disjointed shadow, on a different vaguer plane, her vision tunnelling to encapsulate only the bizarre, unintelligible squiggles on her computer screen. Then the moment had passed and she snapped back to reality, and the phone was whining again.

“Good afternoon, this is Clare at Sherman Grey. How can I help you?”

The day darkened into an early October twilight; her colleagues went home, but Clare worked till six, the last living presence in the office every night. It was her job to turn out the lights and lock the doors, and walk out alone into the loneliness of the city evening. She didn’t really mind: she had no particular reason to rush back to her dim, cramped rented room in the Putney house she shared with strangers. A microwaved dinner, stilted conversation, some bad-quality streamed TV drama to distract herself. Maybe, she thought, she would do some sketching tonight. She had been afraid to try and draw since moving in two weeks ago: it was as if she feared that here in London, so far away from her family and the gentle winding hedgerows and owl-calls of her Northern countryside home, she would somehow be unable to do it, and she was terrified of having to accept such a fundamental loss. Maybe I will sketch tonight, she tested herself hesitantly. Maybe, if I want to. I don’t have to, though. She already knew that she would probably not make the attempt.

A little red dot popped up on the edge of her screen; her mailbox. It was Liz, her manager, who had already left to catch the train home to Maidenhead, with a final request. Clare read it, glanced at the time – she had twenty minutes left. She picked up the phone again and dialled.

“Good evening, this is Clare at Sherman Grey. Is this the Bournemouth office?”

“Yes, it is. How can I help?” The woman’s voice on the other end of the line sounded like her own: tired, solitary, young. She felt a strange rush of kinship to this unknown woman down the phone line, she wondered what her name was, what she looked like, if she lived on her own, too. Then she remembered to be startled by the strength of such a bizarre and unwarranted warmth for this disembodied voice hundreds of miles away.

“I’m calling to enquire about our last shipment of parts, it should have been dispatched from Bournemouth on the twenty-second but we’ve not heard anything of it since. Do you think you could confirm what might have happened? The reference number was, ah, SH23, er, 0944B.”

“Sure, I’ll just check that for you…” There was a rustling, a tapping down the phone line. Clare imagined the other woman rifling through piles of paperwork, flicking through desktop files. She realised with a feeling somewhere between amusement and annoyance that when she visualised her other woman she was visualising herself, in another time and place. How strangely self-obsessed we humans are, she thought, and found herself smiling.

“Hi, are you still there?”

“Yes,” Clare replied. “Yes, I’m here.”

“Brilliant. So, the shipment actually hasn’t been dispatched yet. For some reason I don’t have any record of it leaving the factory, which is weird, and I’ll chase this up, but it’s a problem at our end, not yours. I’m ever so sorry about that.”

“No worries, just glad to know we haven’t lost anything,” Clare said. “Thanks so much for checking!”

“My pleasure,” the other woman’s voice assured her. “Christ, but it’s blustery down here. What’s the weather like in London?”

Clare felt an eldritch, electric tingle down her spine. A line had been crossed, a code had been written out, somewhere. “Cold,” she replied. “But there’s no wind.”

“Are you doing anything for Halloween?”

“Oh, it’s tonight, isn’t it. Not really, I’ll probably just watch something creepy. How about you?” It was so bizarrely easy, so deceptively normal, to speak to this woman as she might speak to an old friend, as if they knew each other, as if they had any right to break this pact between strangers, this professional distance that must be kept, surely, or the fortress walls of their reserved, insular society might just come crumbling down… surely there was a duty here, that in chatting amiably to this unknown woman across the country, she was failing to fulfil?

“Same here, really,” the other voice replied cheerfully. “Might go for a walk on the pier, it’s so beautiful in the dark. Anyway, thanks for your call, best be off. Have a lovely evening!”

“You, too,” Clare fumbled, disoriented, confused as to which role she was playing, which world she was living in. “Oh – wait – what’s your name, by the way?”

“Rachel,” the other woman replied. “Take care, now. Bye!”

The line went dead. Clare hung up the phone; her hands felt numb. She felt lighter, warmer than she had felt ever since moving to London. How strange, she thought. How strange.

It was a bitter November. Clare stood in the restive, sweaty crowd watching the Oxford Street Christmas lights flick on, and felt absolutely nothing as the silver gems illuminated a yellowish sky. Where did it go, my wonder? she thought desolately. I used to feel so much magic in everything. Where has it all gone? At the weekends she wandered the streets, drawn to the parks and gardens, in an agony of nostalgia for forests and moors and clambering craggy hills, like back home where her family lived in Longridge, Lancashire, or Exeter where she had taken her fascinating but ultimately, she considered now, useless, degree in Art History. She threw crusts of stale bread to the ducks in Kensington Gardens, hoping she wouldn’t end by choking them; she climbed Primrose Hill on a day so cold her breath puffed like a tiny, excitable ghost in the air before her and tried to remember, standing there gazing out over the city before her, what it had felt like to be excited, and wanted, and glad.

“Oh, Clare. Will you give the Bournemouth office a call for me and check we’ve still got the go-ahead for the inspection next week?” The manager, Liz, tended to aim requests and instructions at her when already halfway out the door: by the time Clare had nodded her assent the older woman was already gone. Obediently Clare picked up the phone and dialled the number:

“Good morning, this is Rachel at Sherman Grey. How can I help you?”

“Oh, good morning, Rachel,” Clare said, trying to conceal how strangely, happily flustered she felt at hearing the familiar voice. “This is Clare, from London. Liz’s just asked me to confirm everything’s in place for the inspection next week?”

“Oh, yes, thanks for calling. Yes, I think we’re all set, we’re expecting them around eleven on Tuesday but we’ll keep you posted.”

“Okay, perfect. Thanks!”

“No problem. Hey – d’you ever go to the theatre up in London? If I lived there I feel like it’s all I’d do…”

“Not really,” Clare replied, surprised, slightly ashamed, by her own admission, as if she had let down some obscure ideal of herself. “I always thought I would but somehow I never get round to it. It’s so expensive.”

“I guess so. I went to see The Phantom of the Opera when I was younger, it kinda blew my mind…”

“I’ve never seen it…”

“You should go, sometime,” Rachel said. “Honestly, it’s amazing.”

“Thanks for the recommendation,” Clare said, and she was smiling, real-time, real-space smiling. “I’ll do my best!”

“Oh, got to go. Thanks for your call, Clare. Bye!”

“Bye,” Clare said, but Rachel’s line was already dead.

The Phantom of the Opera was marvellous indeed. Clare bought a cheap standing ticket but ended up being offered one of the unused seats in the gallery anyway. It was years since she had been to the theatre: she felt like a child again, at Christmastime, her whole body taut with the bright anticipation of another world, a new enchantment. Rachel was strangely with her in the dark hall, surrounded by the entranced breathing of strangers, and the story swept them both away – the red and violet lights, candle-lit underground chasms, immense billowing skirts and heightened poetic passion. When Christine and Raoul pledged their vibrant duet of eternal devotion to their fantastical Paris, she was startled to feel a hot tear threading its way down her nose. She wiped it away with a fascinated kind of horror, hoping vaguely that it had not smudged her mascara, shocked by the part of herself that still seemed to have the capacity to weep when overwhelmed by some beautiful piece of art, despite everything.

Two days later when Liz asked her to pass another message on to to the firm’s Bournemouth office, Clare smiled without hesitation, suddenly excited to speak to her bizarrely-found friend-in-a-vacuum there. When Rachel answered the phone Clare felt a kind of dizzying relief surge over her – as if she had been physically afraid that somebody else might have taken her place. She delivered her message swiftly, then paused, and impulsively said: “I went to see The Phantom of the Opera, on Saturday.”

“Oh really? I’m so glad! What did you think?” The vivid enthusiasm in Rachel’s voice warmed Clare’s heart.

“Oh I loved it! It might just be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen…” What had happened to the reserved office receptionist, where had she been sublimated to within this new woman who spoke in hyperbole, with emotion, who used company time to chat about wildly romantic West-End musicals to her faceless counterpart across the country? “They did this amazing thing with candles in the underground cave scenes…”

“Oh I know, isn’t it brilliant? I wonder how it’s changed since I saw it, I’d love to see it again…”

“Maybe you can,” Clare said. “I mean there’d be a new cast and everything. You could come to London and see it again.” And I could go with you, she added silently, but she was too shy, still, to speak the words out loud. She was frightened just by the intensity of her desire to speak them.

“Oh,” Rachel said softly. “I don’t think I could probably get away from work…Anyway, I’d better go, Clare. I hope you have a lovely evening.” And she hung up again leaving Clare breathless, uneasy, slightly bewildered, slightly rebellious, though she did not know why.

Rain clattered against the steely black of the office windows. Clare sat alone with her head in her hands. The others had all gone home, but she had an hour left of her own working day, an hour before she could Skype home to wish her mother a happy birthday. Birthdays had always been special, back home and always, always family occasions. It had been hard to be away from home on her own birthday, the birthdays of her family members, at university and since then, when she had taught in Italy for a while after graduating, but at least there she had been living a life she had felt she cared about, that she wanted to fight for. Now… now she was dark within and without, and the whole world felt infinitely far away.

“Why did I leave?” she said out loud, and her voice boomed transgressively in the dim rainy prison of the office. She knew the answer: she had been working at the tiny newspaper office in the village for nearly two years, and it had been time to move on. She was twenty-three, she could not live at home and wander the hills and fields of her Northern wilderness, and sketch silly scribblings of leaves and animals and clouded skies, forever, she was not a child…

“But why this?” she whispered. “Is this it, forever?”

The softly humming monitors, the storm-battered windows, had no answer for her. She looked down at her hands and they did not seem to be her own, strange white cages of bone and flesh, deformed and unbearably alien. She wanted to cry, scream, run and and run and run through the rain, through the drenched miles of countryside and tarmac to her own front door and just give her mother her birthday card in person, and a hug…

She picked up the phone and slowly, slowly dialled.

“Good evening, this is Rachel at Sherman Grey. How can I help you?”

“Hello, Rachel,” Clare said in a small, shy voice. “How are you doing?”

“Hey, Clare!” Rachel replied, and she sounded genuinely glad to hear her voice. “I’m very well thanks, how are you?”

“I’m okay, too. I’m so sorry to bother you, I… did you watch the new Planet Earth series yet? It’s so, so good, I really recommend it, if you haven’t.” She was rambling, desperate, she did not know what she was saying or doing. Maybe Rachel would report her, and she would lose her job for wasting company time, for being unprofessional…

“I haven’t actually, but I loved the original series!” Rachel exclaimed. “I do want to watch it, though, I loved all the animals, I just wanted so desperately to be there myself with them. I actually wanted to be a vet when I graduated from university…”

“You wanted to be a vet?”

“Yeah… It’s just so difficult to find work and I kind of got scared and went for a safe option, just applied for every job I could find and took the first one I was offered. I guess I’m still hoping I’ll go back to working with animals someday but I never seem to get round to thinking about it.”

“I studied Art History,” Clare said wryly. “I’m almost embarrassed to say so. I did it because I loved it more than anything, and still do. But what can you do with a degree like that? I don’t even draw anymore.”

“Oh, Clare,” Rachel said softly. “You should try drawing again. Maybe it would help?”

“I’m scared,” Clare admitted. “What if I just can’t? I think I’d rather not know…”

“No,” Rachel said. “No, I promise you, you won’t rather not know in the future. If you don’t conquer that fear now you might never be able to. Seriously, Clare.” There was an electric urgency in her voice and Clare frowned in puzzlement. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

“Maybe not in terms of saving the world, or being the next Picasso,” Rachel said. “But for you and your life, and all the places it could take you that you can’t even imagine yet, it might just be the most important thing of all.” There was a sharp beeping noise and Clare realised that it was her own phone. “Oh – no – I’ve got another call coming through…”

“It’s okay, I’ll let you go. Take care, Clare. Speak soon.”

Strangely, secretly, it became a kind of habit, and the habit strangely, secretly became the lodestone of Clare’s life. In quiet moments, when there was nobody else in the office, when she felt lonely or defeated, she picked up the phone and called Rachel, and Rachel always answered. Sometimes they just exchanged a few words about the weather, a piece of music, their working days, sometimes Rachel talked with a childlike joy about the ponies she encountered in the New Forest, the dog she’d had at home when she was little, how much she missed her own family, her friends from school and university, her dreams for the future. In a stolen part of herself that, she confessed, she dared not expose to anyone she knew, she wanted to go to Peru and work on a conservation site in the Amazon rainforest, she wanted to see a jaguar. “There’s this one organisation I could go with,” she confided, “they run a six-month conservation internship programme which looks so, so amazing. It’s horribly expensive is all. But I can dream, I guess.”

Clare told her how she was drawing again, how it had been difficult at first, and frightening, but that she had felt like herself for the first time in months, even when she was just sketching birds from her memory, or the jagged shadowy contours of the London rooftops through her bedroom window. She told her how she missed her family, how wonderful the seventeenth-century violins in the V&A Museum were, how much she hated the winter months and craved the sunshine like an addict. Gradually, she came to be unable to imagine her life without Rachel in it: they were somehow bound together, sustaining each other, allowed but not allowed, a voice in the void that always listened, that understood. She started staying late at work so as to have more time to talk to her when nobody was around and Rachel was always there, never sounded annoyed to hear from her, never did not have time for her, although she never reached out to Clare herself. At first this bothered Clare, but then she decided she did not care. If Rachel did not want to continue this strange distant friendship it would be easy enough for her to end it.

The office closed for Christmas on December the twenty-fourth. Clare had already booked her train home and her heart for once was singing: London was bright with festivity and fairy lights, she could scent just the dream of snow in the air and she would be home tonight, home at long last, home for Christmas. She felt brave and triumphant and real, and her hand was confident when she picked up the phone to call Rachel one last time.

“I don’t have long,” she said. “I have to catch a train. But I just wanted to wish you a merry Christmas.”

“Oh,” Rachel’s voice came back, ragged and soft and mournful. “Thank you. And you, too. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas, Clare.”

“What’s wrong?” Clare said in concern. “Are you all right?”

“Oh, yes. I just have a lot on my mind, I guess. I need a holiday too, I think. I’d best go, Clare. I want to take a walk on the pier before I head home, to see the stars. But thank you, so very much, for calling. And merry Christmas, and I wish you a truly happy New Year.”

“Rachel?” But the line had already gone dead. Clare blinked, startled, then shrugged and set down the phone. She had to hurry if she was to catch her train, and she could not afford to miss it.

January was damp and grey and searingly cold. The return to London was a struggle, but Clare was newly armed, now, with the determination to draw, to explore, to speak and live and love, fuelled by her family’s love and thickly insulated against the cold by the crimson woollen coat and fluffy white hat that her mother had given her for Christmas. The first day back at work was less of a trudge than she had expected, but when five-thirty edged around and she found herself in the office alone, she picked up the phone just to see how Rachel might be doing, just to hear the voice of that enigmatic woman who had so touched and inspired her lonely heart.

“Hello?”

“Good evening, this is Peter at Sherman Grey. How can I help you?”

“Oh! I thought… is Rachel there? The receptionist at the Bournemouth office?”

The man’s voice was uneasy. “I’m the Bournemouth receptionist, I’ve been the receptionist for nearly a year now…”

“But… before Christmas, somebody called Rachel was answering the phones, I thought she… has she left?” Maybe she’s gone to Peru, like she dreamed of, Clare thought a little wildly. Maybe she just took off and did it… Peter hesitated: she heard the fear in his silence and suddenly the world shook beneath her. Something was wrong.

“Somebody called Rachel did use to work here,” Peter said slowly, clearly choosing his words with care. “She was the receptionist before me. But she died, a year ago now. Last Christmas Eve, it was a horrible accident. She was walking on the pier in the dark but the boards had swollen and cracked in the cold, they gave way and she fell into the sea. It was freezing, there were rocks… she’s been dead for thirteen months now.”

Clare sat frozen. Her whole body was cold.

“But, that’s not possible…”

“It must have been somebody else, playing some kind of horrible prank,” Peter said. “I’m so sorry. Is there… is there anything I can help you with?”

“No, thank you,” Clare answered mechanically. “Thanks all the same.” She put the phone down and breathed alone in the silence.

“Rachel?” she said aloud to the darkening emptiness of the office, but there was, of course, no reply.

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Anna Rivers

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Anna Rivers grew up in Brussels, studied English Literature at the Universities of Warwick and Oxford and now works in London. She spends her free time reading, writing and wandering the city streets and is currently working on a novel inspired by her travels in Iceland.

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