Phone calls in the latter part of the night, when the moon is brightest and the monsters are lurking, are the worst, the most sinister – almost the harbingers of bad news. It is almost certainly the angel of death, the grim reaper, the ferryman of the dead, who has come knocking on your door to deliver some unwarranted – yet unfortunately inevitable – news. Nowadays, death is lazy. It lets you know by having someone dear to you call you up; it no longer comes to you personally to inform you. It used to be that, thousands of years ago, death himself looked forward to his job. Has the Internet changed death’s modus operandi now? Death only traverses through radio cables and fibre cables, and his work is done in an instant. No. It’s not that his job is now infinitely easier; rather, it is the monotony of his work that has made him complacent now. Who knew Marxist philosophy extended to the supernatural?
One thing is for certain: the sound of the ringing phone produces a different feeling at night. If the news is ominous, the sound is even more pronounced. It sounds shallow; it echoes in the four walled room you live in, the sound waves bouncing off the walls and returning to the source with the same intensity, almost to imply that the message behind this ringing defies the laws of physics, that the sound waves will resonate with the same frequency for the listener indefinitely.
Another thing is for certain: you can tell the difference between the intent behind someone calling you just by listening to the phone ring. A friend calling in the middle of the night sounds different than your loved one calling in distress. When your friend calls in the middle of the night, you can immediately tell through the sound of the ringtone: it doesn’t sound intrusive. It sounds as if it is politely asking you to pick up because your friend is bored, but rest assured if you don’t pick up, then it will stop ringing after five or six rings and that’ll be the end of it.
Your brother calling you from across the globe to tell you of your father’s demise in the tender hours of the night sounds different. You can feel the weight of the sound pausing in midair, the ringtone communicating to you that we both know what this call is about. And if you don’t pick up, you know I’m going to ring again. And again. And again…
He knew it from the unfortuitous hour at night and the sound of the ringtone, which was at once similar, yet so different. He knew this wasn’t an ordinary phone call. It was too late into the night and his intuition was catering to all the negative, yet highly probable thoughts coming into his head. It’s weird, he thought, how something as intangible as intuition could be so accurate at times. How was science to prove this? Did that mean that there was a possibility that God could exist as well? Science wasn’t able to prove it, but he felt some sort of transcendental presence at certain times in life, sometimes unsolicited. Some people called it fortune or luck, some people called it a miracle.
His eyes opened suddenly from the ringing of the phone, but he couldn’t quite put his hand on the receiver; he could already anticipate what was coming. For a moment, he convinced himself that he’d rather let the phone ring and let the whole debacle simmer down. In due time, he would call his brother and act surprised regarding the news. This would give him enough time to think about everything, of how he felt.
However, the mind and the body are two opposing forces encapsulated in one entity. Sometimes you know something isn’t good for you, but you still do it. That is the mind and body at play. As he was planning to postpone this phone call, his body effortlessly picked the receiver up, as if his body remembered through muscle memory that you don’t leave the phone ringing for too long.
“Is it dad?”
“He passed away in his sleep last night.”
“I’ll try to come as soon as possible.”
He lied. He wouldn’t come as soon as possible. He couldn’t come as soon as possible. He needed time to process what had happened. Did that mean he lied to his brother? Technically, yes. In essence, no.
His relationship with his father had been tumultuous to say the least. One thing was clear to both his father, and the rest of his family: there was something amiss in their relationship. He did not hate his father; on the contrary, he loved him, as far as loving one’s parents was concerned, and even mandated in some societies. However, he deliberately distanced himself from his father. His father’s mercurial temper was the primary contributor to the estrangement.
Everything would be moving on in accordance to the God of peace and tranquility, and all of a sudden, be it a remark or facial expression, his father would change the atmosphere of the room completely, mostly inculcating in the air of the room a certain feeling of unbelonging and inferiority.
“Was he bipolar? Or was I just too sensitive? No. No one else made me feel like he did.” he thought to himself as he absentmindedly started packing his luggage for the fourteen-hour flight.
Maybe the shock hadn’t sunk in yet about his father’s demise because he was packing as if going for a weekend in the Bahamas. He got out his shorts, shirts from Hawaii that had the hackneyed trees flaying in the wind printed on them, flip flops, sun screen, a change of towels, sunglasses, and a fisherman’s cap. It was only when he was done packing did he realize that he was unprepared for the task at hand: his father’s funeral. He removed the items from his suitcase one by one, solemnly, and packed according to what was expected to be adorned at a funeral by the youngest son – a black suit, plain and simple. That was all he packed. He packed only enough for a one-way trip.
The Uber he had requested was two minutes away. He left the light on in his apartment, closed the door, didn’t lock it, and didn’t look back. The street beneath his apartment smelled different. It wasn’t the usual guttural fumes piercing his nostrils that he was accustomed to. In the distance he saw his Uber ride approaching, an old 2004 Toyota.
The Uber drive to the airport was silent. The cab driver, someone from a country whose English accent he could not locate precisely, saw the impassiveness of his eyes and let him be. The drizzle on the car’s windshield only complemented the poignancy of his surroundings. It felt like he was living in a gothic town, with gothic buildings and gothic plants – Bruges came to mind.
The effects of capitalism around him in the form of skyscrapers and cramped dollar stores were temporarily overshadowed by the damp weather. He thought maybe he’d rather visit Edinburgh than go home. He wanted to get lost in one of the thousand towns in Edinburgh and live the rustic life of a farmer. Or he’d rather live in a lighthouse at the edge of a cliff somewhere in the British Isles. He wanted to live on the very top of the lighthouse, where the winds were strongest. Right now, however, he had to go home. Maybe on his way back he would go to Edinburgh.
The road to the airport was abandoned. He could barely hear the Uber driver’s music in the background.
He exited the Uber and entered the airport. He had booked his ticket prior to leaving his apartment, and now was printing it out at the self-boarding kiosk. While his body moved in accordance with what was required of him, his mind was fragmented, moving back and forth between the past and the present. In all of this commotion, he was unable to locate himself. Memories flooded in and out and played out before his eyes, his past was projected in the present and he remembered his father. After a while though, the memories of his father intermixed with other memories. Joyful memories were mixed with sorrows and vice versa: he remembered celebrating his tenth birthday, but remember being shouted at while cutting the cake; he remembered being scolded, but then being gifted a toy car because he was such a disciplined child.
In his time living with his father, his only fear was that he would become like him. Although his father had the necessary traits of being a father and friend, the feelings inculcated in him by just being around his father definitely outweighed any feelings of him wanting to be just like his father. It was more beneficial to stay out of his way for both of them. And that’s what he did. He tried his best to stay out of his father’s way, so much so that it was quite obvious to the rest of his family. His unnatural relationship with his progenitor was often the talk he had to partake in with other members of the family.
During his bouts with depression, he found therapy in writing down what he felt. His father was always mentioned in his letters one way or the other. It was his way of making sense, and putting into words what this troubled relationship meant. His last letter, that he had written not too long ago, read:
“Father, why would you spend so much on this unnecessary education. I could have done something as simple as XYZ and got it over with. A degree that only costs a semester worth of what this University costs, now that would have been much easier to deal with. However, having said so, I can’t believe you spent all that money on me. For what? Because you wanted the best for me? If so, I thank you with all my heart and all my life that you had faith in me. I am also eternally sorry that you had to find out about my depression this way. I wasn’t much of a pay-off, was I? I didn’t return the money that you gave for this education. Why am I so afraid of you? Sometimes I feel like it’s because you pay for this education and if I quarrelled with you, I might have no other means to support myself. Is that selfish? I feel it is. It makes me feel confused… Do I really know what fatherly love is if I am constantly fearful of you? Do not get me wrong, dear father, you have showed unparalleled care and affection for me for as long as I can remember when you used to take us swimming and on those long family trips. But when do I start fearing you then? Or rather why do I fear you? You know what’s sad Father, I aspire to be like you in how you cared for us, but not in how your temperament was. I think that is where it all started, this fear. One minute I wanted to get close to you; you were happy, jovial and understanding, but then suddenly it would change. It was the change that pushed me away from you. I couldn’t trust you because I couldn’t understand you. Even now, a little grunt you utter or a sigh frightens me so. You wonder why I don’t come home much don’t you? There’s your answer. Home didn’t feel like home in the instability of the foundations of our house. Do you know how much peace it gave me emotionally to be away from the house? How peaceful it felt to sit here in my dorm room, not afraid of your sudden mood swing.”
This was what he thought as he sat at the terminal waiting for his flight. He stared into the floor of the terminal. He had been depressed, maybe suicidal, but he was certain that he would never take his own life. He wasn’t sure why. Partly because of his feeble religious beliefs, partly because of what his family would have to go through, but most importantly because of the financial burden his family would have to endure because of his cowardice. Yes, he thought of suicide as the greatest act of cowardice that a human being could perform. But he also thought of himself as the biggest coward he had had the (dis)pleasure of meeting.
The food he had eaten before reaching the terminal – a sorry excuse for an overpriced fish & chips – had tasted subpar and obviously frozen. Everything about this day, right after the unfortunate news, had been mundane – the food, the packing, and the car ride. He had switched off his phone ever since he exited the cab because if there was one thing he absolutely detested, it was messages of sympathy from friends and family. While their intentions were in the right place, all of them felt unoriginal and it sometimes felt like everyone had a template ready for both tragedies and felicitations.
“Happy birthday to you! May you have many more.”
“Wishing you and your family a happy New Year!”
“I’m so sorry for your loss. They’re in a better place now.”
In his time without his phone, he stared at the countless people walking by, minding their own business. It was amazing what kinds of things one could notice if their phone wasn’t in their face the whole time. He noticed the unruly hair of a woman in a green dress who was hurrying by; she was probably late. He also noticed a little boy’s ruffled hair and wondered whether his hair had maternal or paternal traits. There was an old man who was limping across the terminal; he probably had a hip surgery that caused a hindrance in his gait.
His observations were interrupted by the announcement that boarding for his flight had begun. At the check-in counter, the employee asked if he had any hand-carry with him, and he said no. It was then that he realized that he had only packed for two days for a trip that he was planning to stay for at least a week. It didn’t matter anyway; he didn’t plan on returning.
The plane was like any other he had been on before, except it was unusually empty, especially during the holiday season when people were rushing back home to meet their families. He didn’t find the empty plane out of place. Anything right now felt exactly how it was supposed to: immaterial, feeble, and pedestrian.
As soon as he took his seat, he heard the plane’s engines whir to life. Any other day, the little time it took the plane to take off would have alarmed him. Not today. Today, everything was a dull shade of mundanity. As the plane approached the runway, he noticed how empty the rest of the terminals were; there were no other planes in sight. The plane now started to catch speed until its wheels finally left the ground, and the first few seconds of g-force brought about a lightness in his stomach. He was off the ground in less than ten minutes since he had sat down.
He had also drifted to sleep as soon as he felt the g-force on his innards. Just before he dozed off, he read the time on the overhead watch: it was 6:34 PM. He was out-cold for the next 17 hours – the result of the sleeping pills he had taken mixed with grief, he presumed as he woke up.
The lights in the cabin were dim. He could hear a couple of snores down the aisle, nothing that would keep you up though. He called the air-hostess and inquired if there had been a delay; they should have landed a couple of hours ago according to his calculations. She smiled at him, without saying anything, and walked away. The eerie encounter with the woman left him uncomfortable. He glanced to his right, towards the window seat, and looked out the opening:
What he saw was the last thing he would remember forever. It was as if this plane had flown out of earth into the solar system. As if somehow, he had boarded a NASA spaceship and was on a mission to locate otherworldly life forms. He could see glimpses of distant stars, so far away, yet more tangible than viewing them through a telescope on Earth. The stars lit up his view with such abundance that he now understood how air pollution had prevented human beings from observing outer space from their homes. He could also see different planets, so close to each other that if you had a strip of road one kilometer long, you could drive your old motorcycle back and forth. He could tell the composition of the planets just by looking at their surfaces: some were completely inundated, whereas others were barren. However, the ones caught his attention were the planets completely covered in fog, or maybe even poisonous gas he thought. Some of the planets were conjoined in such a way that you could make a miniature replica of the shape by making two circles with your hands and bringing them close enough to touch – like you used to imagine you were peering through binoculars when you were kids – with your hands. His plane flew past a purple planet so closely that he could’ve sworn that he could see buildings of sort, different from those on Earth but definitely habitable, with conscious efforts of aesthetics that were for that particular life form.
The colours of the planets were also something he had never seen: a mix of turquoise and purple, black and golden, brown and blue. These were things he couldn’t comprehend. He was being taken someplace else. Someplace from which he knew that no one had ever returned to speak of.