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Today's Caller

I’ve always been good at recognising voices; faces less so; names hopeless, but voices, they’re my thing.

I close my eyes and relax, just letting the voice fill my head, then a face appears, sometimes instantly, sometimes taking a few minutes, like I have to drag the picture forward from some rusty old drawer in the filing cabinet of my mind. But if I’ve heard the voice before, if I know the person, it will come. It’s getting from the face to the name that’s the tricky part for me.

“Okay, Sue, are you ready?” The voice on the radio is calm, deep, hoping to convey relaxation to the caller.
“Yep, I’m ready, Steve.” A girl, I’d say about 18 – 20 years old, probably a student. I imagine grunge clothes, a nose ring and short hair dyed black.
The tape begins to play and the voice begins talking, I close my eyes and a face begins to form; male, about 55 – 60 years old I think. The sound bite has an American accent but I don’t think it’s his true voice, I think it’s an extract from a role he’s playing. The tape ends.
“I can play it one more time if you think that might help, Sue?”
“Yes please”
It’s Russell Crowe.
The tape comes to an end for the second time and the theatrical clicking of a clock intones from the radio. We can hear the caller thinking.

The ticking ends in a chime, the DJ asks: “Can I have a name, Sue?”
“Err, oh I know it, I know it, I can see his face.” She’s playing for time.
“I need an answer, Sue.”
“Aargh, it’s Tom Hanks.”
Then the pre-recorded tape of audience moans is played and we all know she’s wrong.
“Nice to talk to you, Sue, you have a good day down there in Croydon. Bye!”
“Bye!” The voice is light and airy; after all, it’s the thrill of being on the radio that’s the real buzz.

I turn the vacuum cleaner back on and resume the monotony of housework. I make a mental note to tune back in tomorrow; the prize is up to £3,500 now. I think about how I’d spend the money as I hoover between chair legs in the dining room.

The next day, Wednesday, I’m driving back from Exeter and I switch radio channels in time to hear the jingle that introduces the quiz.
“Today’s caller to Voiceover is Tony from Stourbridge,” says the DJ in his habitually jaunty manner. “Hi Tony, how’s the weather in Stourbridge?”
“Hi Steve, It’s pissing it down!” Tony’s laugh reverberates across the radio waves and there are muffled laughs from the studio ‘team’ that run the show with Steve. Either someone forgot to brief our caller about language or he’s just so nervous he forgot.
“Thank you, Tony, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a mechanic at Dave’s Autos.” In the background there are cheers, three maybe four men. In my mind’s eye I see them all wearing blue overalls smeared with oil, their fingernails black, greasy collars, greasy necks. One is the gaffer; Dave presumably, he’s laughing louder than the rest, giving them licence, one of the lads.
“Did you hear the tape yesterday, Tony?”
“And do you think you know who it is?”
“Well I’ve an idea, I don’t know if it’s right or not.”

Tony’s about 30 years old I reckon; he’s tall, well built, with dark hair and big hands,
“Okay, Tony, let’s see if you’re right.”
The now familiar tape begins and I can immediately see Russell Crowe’s face speaking the words. “It’s obvious” I say out loud, looking round at the empty seats in the car. The tape finishes.
“Would you like to hear it again, Tony?”
“Certainly would.”
“Oh for god’s sake! Why on earth do you need to hear it again? You said you knew who it was!”
My silent audience smile and shake their heads, every bit as incredulous as me at the hesitation of today’s caller. I’m smug now, looking out of the windscreen at the lesser mortals who share the motorway lanes with me. I imagine they’re all listening to Voiceover and I can tell by the blank expressions on their faces they haven’t a clue who it is. God I’m good at this.

The studio clock is ticking. I wonder what Tony’s doing; is he frantically looking to his colleagues, scribbling names on a piece of paper and looking to them for confirmation? Are they looking back at him with blank expressions and shoulders shrugged?
The clock chimes, “Tony, your answer please.”
“Elton John.”
“Elton John!” I scream, “Elton John! For chrissake, it’s nothing like Elton John!” I’m gesticulating to the radio and shouting. I suddenly catch sight of the eyes of the driver ahead of me in his rear view mirror; he’s watching me. I realise I’ve taken the ‘talking to the radio’ thing a bit too far. I breathe out slowly and adopt an air of bored motorway driving while the pre-taped moans of the pretend studio audience play out.

Tony and his colleagues are shouting out a list of names of people they want to say hello to and the DJ is laughing and telling them to get off the line. Tony’s obviously not disappointed; he’s had his seven minutes of fame, that’s as important to him as winning. The DJ tells us the prize is now up to £4000 and invites us to play tomorrow at the same time. I switch off and think about the money. By the time I get home I’ve spent it all.

It’s Friday and a glorious day, I’ve finished work for the week and spent the last hour in the beer garden of the Dog and Duck with Martin and Rory. Now we’re in Martin’s garden with cold beers and a bottle of dark rum. The radio is playing in the house and the sound is drifting out over the patio.

“I don’t know why you don’t just ring, you already know the answer, how hard can it be?”
Rory’s been on about it for the past twenty minutes, ever since I happened to mention that I knew the answer and that the prize had now accumulated to £5000. As far as he’s concerned, it’s the only sane course of action to follow; phone, enter, win; what’s the problem. Plus of course, he’s pissed.

“You’re quite sure it is Russell Crowe?” Martin never seems as drunk as everyone else, he’s the cool head, we call him The Ice Man.
“Absolutely, one hundred percent.” Martin’s witnessed my talent before. Whenever we listen to the radio, I can tell within seconds who’s speaking, long before we find out a name, as long as I know them of course. And when we play pool in the back room of the Dog and Duck, I can tell when a regular comes into the bar and orders, never been wrong.
“That’s good enough for me.” Martin lies back on the grass, his hands under his head and closes his eyes.

“So what’s the problem, Fi? Why not just do it?” Rory’s like a kid with a scab on his knee, he can’t leave it alone.
“I don’t know that I want to be on the radio on a quiz phone in, it’s so naff.”
“Who gives a shit? It’s like, ten minutes out of your life for £5000; why are we still in the garden?”
“Shit! He’s right, this is crazy.” Martin’s on his feet in one deft move and heading into the house, Rory and I follow. Martin picks up the radio and starts tuning it into the station that runs the quiz. “Sod it, I’ll ring if you don’t.”
“You’ve no chance of getting through anyway; there must be hundreds of people calling in for that every day.”

In truth, I was warming to the idea of calling. Rory was right, it was easy money, plus I was buoyed by the alcohol and the presence of allies.
“We’ve as good a chance as any of the others. The trick is to phone the second they say the lines are open. What’s the number?”
I tell him the number; I’ve heard it every day this week and know it by heart.
The track ends and the DJs voice tells us we are just ten minutes away from the last Voiceover of the week and that the prize pot stands at £5000.
Martin’s already dialled the number before the DJ starts to give it out; he thrusts the mobile at me. There’s a series of clicks and then a voice, I nearly throw the phone back at him: “You’re calling the Steve Forbes Show Voiceover quiz. Can I have your name and telephone number please? Where are you calling from?”

I’m having to think really hard about every answer, like I’ve never been asked these questions before in my life and I’m not sure if I’m answering correctly. As for the number, well it’s Martin’s phone, I don’t know the soddin’ number, I have to ask Martin and then repeat it into the phone. She’s gonna think I’m a right idiot. Martin and Rory are staring at me, Martin’s chewing the skin on the side of his fingers.
“You are in a short list with four other callers, if you are chosen to participate, you will receive a call back in five minutes. Please do not engage speaker phone and ensure you do not have any radio equipment operating nearby. Keep the line free.”

The line goes dead. I hand the phone back to Martin and repeat the message. Rory runs into the garden and comes back with the shot glasses and the rum. We clink glasses and down the dark liquid in one.
“I need a beer! I need a beer!” I shout, spotting my empty bottle and suddenly feeling very parched. We’re sitting on the floor and we’re all on the verge of hysteria, drumming our fingers, shaking our knees, hyper.
The DJ’s giving out the number again and building up the tension.

I start to cough, I need to blow my nose, I need a pee, I half get to my feet, do I have time for a pee? The phone rings. I grab it, my hand tingling and run out into the garden, away from the radio. Martin and Rory stay inside, listening, their eyes locked onto me like I’m about to diffuse a bomb and if I fail, we’re all history.

It’s the same voice I spoke to before.
“Congratulations, you’ve been chosen to take part in the Steve Forbes Voiceover quiz. When I’ve finished speaking to you, the line will go quiet for forty seconds, do not hang up, do not engage speaker mode and switch off any radio equipment within range.”
I gesture to Martin to switch the radio off.
“You will be live on the radio, please do not swear. Do you understand? When you have finished talking to Steve, please stay on the line. Good Luck. The next voice you hear will be that of Steve Forbes and you will be live on Radio West.” There’s a click and then silence.
I wait.

Suddenly, the earpiece snaps and I hear his voice: “Our caller today is Fiona from Ilfracombe; hi Fiona!”
“Hi” There’s a croak, barely audible.
“Speak up Fiona; can you hear me all right?”
I wince. “Yeh, fine,” I say, recovering my voice.
“How are you enjoying the sunshine, Fiona?”
“Oh it’s fab.”
Fab? Fab? Why on earth did I say that? I don’t use that word, like, ever! Rory and Martin are pissing themselves laughing and snorting through hands over mouths. I feel hysteria start to climb my throat and have to turn my back on them and dig my nails into my thigh.
“What is it you do down there in Ilfracombe, Fiona?”
“I’m a graphic artist for a software company.” My voice sounds all echoey and is coming back at me as quickly as it’s leaving, it doesn’t sound like me at all.
“Okay, Fiona, have you been listening to the tape this week?”
“And do you think you know who it is?”
“You sound confident.”
The DJ laughs, “Okay, well let’s see if you’re right.

The tape begins to play. For a second, it sounds different and I nearly panic, but then I close my eyes and reassure myself it’s the same tape I’ve been listening to all week. The tape ends.
“Well, Fiona, are you ready to give me your answer or would you like to hear it again?”
“I think I’ll listen to it again, Steve, just to be certain.”
I want to draw the time out, I want my full seven minutes, I want to see the faces of Martin and Rory as they think I’m beginning to have doubts, to lose my bottle. I can mentally hear the voices of all those people listening in their cars or gardens or workplaces, screaming at the radio: “For god’s sake, girl, why do you need to hear it again? It’s obvious!”

The tape starts to play again. As I watch, Martin’s face begins to register doubt, then concern. At exactly the same instant that he knocks the rum over while reaching for the newspaper and a pen, my brain clicks; it’s not Russell Crowe, that’s not his name, that’s someone else. Oh shit. Martin scrawls NOT CROWE!!! on the paper and thrusts it at me, his eyes wide, his hand over his mouth.

The tape stops and the clock starts, it sounds louder on the phone than it does over the radio, it drowns out all other thought;
‘Tick’ – oh God, concentrate!
‘Tock’ – is it Mel Gibson?
‘Tick,’ no, it’s too deep.
‘Tock,’ oh sweet Jesus!
‘Tick’…the clock chimes.
“Fiona, do you have an answer for me?”
I swallow hard.

“It’s Russell Crowe.”
Time stands still. Particles cease to move. The air stops. My heart stops. The phone’s dead.
A cosmic cog turns.
Cheers fill my ears from the studio audience tape. My face remains static. Rory runs inside and grabs the radio. Martin follows, looking back over his shoulder for a sign.

“Congratulations, Fiona! You’ve just won yourself £5000!” The cheers tape is still playing in the background and I can see Martin and Rory jumping up and down in the living room, their fists in the air.
They’re my thing, voices.


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