Bob Shaw
The Two-Timers

“Knocked me cold: painfully good”

Harlan Ellison

Pan SF

1971

I

To Breton — trapped in his nexus of boredom, like a seahorse still alive inside a plastic key tab — the sound of the telephone was almost beautiful. He got to his feet and walked across the living room towards the hall.

“Who would that be, darling?” Kate Breton frowned slightly as she spoke, annoyed at the interruption.

Breton ran a mental eye over the quiver full of sarcasms which immediately offered itself, and finally — in deference to their guests — selected one of the least lethal.

“I don’t quite recognize the ring,” he said evenly, noting the sudden faint compression of Kate’s chalk-pink lips. She would remember that one, for discussion, probably at 3:00 a.m. when he was trying to sleep.

“Good old John — still sharp as a razor.” Gordon Palfrey spoke quickly, in his stand-back-and-let-me-be-tactful voice, and Miriam Palfrey smiled her bland Aztec smile beneath eyes like nail heads. The Palfreys were two of his wife’s latest acquisitions and their presence in Breton’s home usually caused a fretful, burning pain in his stomach. Smiling numbly, he closed the living room door behind him and picked up the phone.

“Hello,” he said. “John Breton speaking.”

“We’re calling ourselves John now, are we? It used to be Jack.” The male voice on the wire had a tense, controlled quality about it, as though the speaker was suppressing a strong emotion — fear, perhaps, or triumph.

“Who is this?” Breton tried unsuccessfully to identify the voice, uneasily aware that the phone line was a portal through which anybody anywhere could project himself right into his house. When he opened the channel to alien ideas he was placing himself at a disadvantage unless the caller announced his name, and the idea seemed completely unfair. “Who is this speaking?”

“So you really don’t know. That’s interesting.”

Something about the words gave Breton a vague thrill of alarm. “Look,” he said tersely. “Either state your business or hang up.”

“Don’t get angry, John — I’ll be happy to do both those things. I called simply to make sure you and Kate were at home before I came over there. And now I’ll hang up.”

“Hold on for just one moment,” Breton snapped, aware that he was letting the unknown caller get too far under his skin. “You haven’t said what you think you’re going to get.”

“My wife, of course,” the voice replied pleasantly. “You’ve been living with my wife for almost exactly nine years — and I’m coming to take her back.”

The phone clicked and began to purr blandly in Breton’s ear. He tapped the rest button several times before realizing he was acting out a visual cliché implanted in his mind by old movies — once a caller has broken the connection, jiggling the rest never brings him back. Swearing under his breath, Breton put the phone down and stood beside it undecidedly for several seconds.

The whole thing must be a devious hoax, but who was behind it?

He knew only one confirmed practical joker — Carl Tougher, the geologist in Breton’s engineering consultancy. But when he had last seen Tougher, in the office that afternoon, the geologist had been grimly trying to sort out a snarl-up in a survey the company had undertaken for the siting of a cement works over by Silverstream. Breton had never seen him look more worried, and less like playing games, especially one so full of uneasy subtleties. This conversation had been meaningless — which was not too surprising considering the mentality of phone cranks — but there had been uncomfortable undertones in it as well. For instance, the strangely amused reference to the fact that he no longer called himself Jack. Breton had begun using the formal version of his name for image reasons at the time his business began to develop, but that had been years ago and — he felt a surge of indignation — it was nobody’s concern but his own. All the same, some stubborn corner of his mind had never approved of the name change, and it was almost as if the unknown caller had been able to see right through him and pinpoint the tiny shadow that was his tumor of guilt.

Breton paused at the living room door, realizing he was reacting just the way the phone crank would have wanted — turning the thing over and over in his mind instead of dismissing it. He glanced around the orange-lit paneling of the hall, suddenly wishing he had moved to a bigger and newer place last year as Kate had wanted. He had outgrown this old house, and should have discarded it without sentiment long ago. You have been living with my wife for almost exactly nine years. Breton frowned as he remembered the words — the caller had not been implying he had an earlier marriage to Kate, or anything like that, because she and Breton were married eleven years. But that figure of nine years seemed to mean something, to have multi-layered connections of anxiety, as though some part of his subconscious had drunk in its significance and was waiting apprehensively for the next move.

“For God’s sake!” Breton spoke aloud and smacked his forehead in self-disgust. “I’m nearly as crazy as he is.”

He opened the door and went into the living room. In his absence Kate had dimmed the lights and moved a coffee table over beside Miriam Palfrey. A block of plain white paper and a pen were ready on the table, and Miriam’s stubby, grub-like fingers were already making vague little floating movements over them. Breton groaned silently — so they were going to have a session after all. The Palfreys were newly back from a three-month tour of Europe and all evening bad been so full of the trip that he had begun to think there would be no demonstration. The hope had given him the strength to listen politely to their tourist talk.

“Who was on the phone, darling?”

“I don’t know.” Breton did not want to talk about the call.

“Wrong number?”

“Yes.”

Kate’s eyes searched his face. “But you were there so long. And I thought I heard you shouting.”

“Well,” Breton said impatiently, “let’s say it was the right number, but the wrong people.”

Gordon Palfrey snorted delightedly and the light of interest in Kate’s eyes dwindled away into disappointed coldness, as if Breton had switched off two minute television sets. That was another one for the nightly post mortem in the small hours, when all normal people were asleep and even the curtains of their rooms were breathing steadily in the night breezes. Why, he wondered guiltily, do I hurt Kate in the presence of her friends? But then, why does she hurt me all the time — showing her damned determined disinterest in the business, year in and year out, but giving me a public third degree about a stupid telephone call? He sat down heavily, let his right hand instinctively guide itself to his whiskey glass, and glanced around the room, practicing his benign smile on the Palfreys.

Gordon Palfrey was toying with the square of black velvet, figured with silver stars, which was always draped over his wife’s face during the sessions — but he still wanted to go on talking about Europe. He launched into a long account, undeterred by the theatrical flinches Breton gave each time he heard a statement like “The French have an excellent color sense.” His theme was that the decor of European cottages was invariably in better taste than the work of the best American decorators. Sinking back into the amber prison of boredom, Breton writhed in his armchair, wondering how he would survive the evening, knowing he should have been in the office helping Carl Tougher to straighten out the cement plant survey. With the effortless and imperceptible change of gear that is the mark of the born bore, Palfrey slid onto the subject of an old crofter they had met in Scotland who hand-wove tartans in spite of being totally blind, but Miriam had begun to get into her pre-trance restlessness.

“What are you talking about, Gordon?” Miriam Palfrey leaned far back in her chair and her right hand, poised over the block of paper, began to dip and sway like a kite in high wind.

“I was telling Kate and John about old Hamish.”

“Oh, yes — we enjoyed old Hamish.” Miriam’s voice had become a faint monotone which sounded to Breton like an incredibly banal imitation of something from a Bela Lugosi film. Seeing the rapt attention on Kate’s face he decided to launch a full-scale attack in defense of common sense.

“So you enjoyed old Hamish,” he said in an unnaturally loud and cheerful voice. “What a picture that conjures up! I can see old Harnish slumped in a corner of his croft — an empty, dried-up husk, his purpose in life fulfilled — he has been enjoyed by the Palfreys.”

But Kate waved him to silence and Gordon Palfrey, who had been unfolding the velvet square, draped it over Miriam’s upturned face. Immediately, her plumply white hand took up the pen and began to fly across the paper, producing line after line of neat script. Gordon knelt beside the coffee table to steady the writing pad and Kate removed each top sheet as it was filled, handling them with a reverence that Breton found more annoying than any other aspect of the whole business. If his wife wanted to take an interest in so-called automatic writing, why could she not have been more rational about it? He would almost have been prepared to help her investigate the phenomenon himself had she not insisted on putting every sample in the general category of a Message From the Other Side.

“Anybody ready for another drinkie?” Breton stood up and walked to the mirror-backed cocktail cabinet. Drinkie, he thought. Christ! What are they doing to me? He poured himself a generous shot of Scotch, tempered it with soda, and leaned against the cabinet, watching the tableau at the other side of the room. Miriam Palfrey’s body was limp in the chair but her hand was moving as quickly as it was possible to write without the aid of shorthand, producing thirty or more words a minute. The material she turned out was usually flowery, outdated prose on unrelated subjects, with a high proportion of words like Beauty and Love, always written with the initial capital. The Palfreys claimed it was dictated by the spirits of dead authors, whom they tentatively identified on a stylistic basis. Breton had his own ideas, and he had been more shocked than he cared to admit by Kate’s uncritical acceptance of what he regarded as a party trick straight out of a Victorian drawing room.

Sipping steadily at his drink, Breton watched Kate as she gathered up the sheets, numbered the corners and set them in a neat pile. Eleven years of marriage had not made any real physical changes in her — tall and still slim, she wore richly colored silks as though they were natural plumage, reminding Breton of a gorgeous and exotic bird; but her eyes had grown much older. Suburban neurosis, he thought, that must be it. Fragmentation of the family reflected in the individual. Give it a label and forget it. A woman is never completely a wife until all her own family are dead. Amalgamate orphanages and marriage bureaus. I’m drinking too much…

A low gasp of excitement from Kate brought his attention back to the group at the table. Miriam Palfrey’s hand had begun to trace what, at that distance, looked like an intricate circular pattern, like a drawing of a freshly opened carnation. He went closer and saw that she was writing in a tight, slowly spreading spiral, moaning faintly and shuddering as the pattern grew. An edge of the black cloth across her upturned face alternately clung and fluttered, like the breathing apparatus of a marine animal.

“What is it?” Breton asked the question reluctantly, not wishing to show too much interest, but aware that this was something new to the writing sessions. Miriam sat up uncertainly as he spoke, and Gordon Palfrey put an arm around her shoulders.

“I don’t know,” Kate said, rotating the sheet in her long-fingered hands. “This is… it’s a poem.

“Well, let’s hear it.” Breton spoke with a tolerant joviality, annoyed at letting himself be sucked in, yet impressed by the sheer manual dexterity Miriam had shown.

Kate cleared her throat and read:

“I have wished for you a thousand nights, While the green-glow hour-hand slowly veers. I could weep for the very need of you, But you wouldn’t taste my tears.”

Breton found the lines vaguely disturbing, for no reason he could name. He went back to the cocktail cabinet and, while the others examined the fragment of poetry, stood frowning down into the mirrored array of bottles and glasses. Sipping the tingling ice-warmth of his drink, he stared back at his own eyes in the crystal microcosm; then — quite suddenly — his mind plumbed the possible significance of the phase “almost exactly nine years.” That was the real kicker in the call he had received, if he guessed right; it was a psychological depth charge, perfectly aimed, fused to sink deep.

It had been nine years earlier, to the month, that a police cruiser had found Kate wandering in the darkness of 50th Avenue, with flecks of human brain tissue spattered across her face…

Breton stiffened with shock as the phone shrilled in the hall. He set his glass down with a sharp double click, left the room and picked up the phone.

“Breton here,” he snapped. “Who’s that?”

“Hello, John. What’s the matter?” This time the voice was immediately identifiable as that of Carl Tougher.

“Carl!” Breton sank onto a chair, and groped for his cigarettes. “Did you call me earlier? Within the last half hour?”

“No — I’ve been too busy.”

“You’re sure?”

“What is this, John? I told you I’ve been too busy — we’re in serious trouble over the Silverstream survey.”

“It doesn’t check out?”

“That’s right. I made a series of eight random readings in our designated area this morning, and checked with a different gravimeter after lunch. As far as I can tell at this point the initial survey we made last month is completely haywire. The new readings are roughly twenty milligals down on what they should be.”

“Twenty! But that would suggest a much lighter rock formation than we thought. It could mean something like — “

“Salt,” Tougher cut in. “Could you interest the client in a salt mine in place of a cement works?”

Breton put a cigarette into his mouth and lit it, wondering why the world had chosen this particular evening to begin drifting out of focus. “Listen, Carl. We can make two interpretations of these discrepancies. The first is the one you’ve already mentioned — that the limestone we know to lie under that site has changed overnight into salt — and, with your support, I’m ruling that one out right now. The other is that somehow both our gravimeters are out of adjustment — right?”

“I guess so,” Tougher said wearily.