A Stranger Calls (pt 3)

Wednesday morning had started out like any other; coffee machine down in the kitchen obediently producing coffee at the required time of 7.30; Tom rising and immediately heading to the bathroom for his usual shower and shave; getting dressed, then downstairs to drink his wake-up juice (coffee) and for breakfast – a round of toast with a boiled egg.

He checked his mobile for messages, there was none. He gathered up some current paperwork neatly placing them in his briefcase, strapped his watch on, grabbed the house and car keys then went out the front door. Nothing for Tom could be more ordinary.

He pressed the key fob and his car responded by beeping hello and flashing its lights. Tom opened the car door, threw the briefcase in the passenger seat then climbed in. He started the car and slowly pulled out of his driveway onto the road.

Privet Drive, being in a very quiet and residential area, saw very little traffic during the day or night other than delivery vans, postmen coming and going, or the local residents going about the daily business: other than that there was very little activity to be seen or heard. This, however, would change once Tom reached the main road and joined the rush-hour traffic. At this time of the morning the journey to work would normally take twenty-five minutes – give or take, but on this particular day there was a traffic jam on the main road.

Tom joined the crawling traffic flow and wondered what the possible cause of the hold-up could be. As he inched his way forward it became apparent, after seeing the flashing blue lights of an ambulance, that there had been a road accident somewhere up ahead. Several minutes later he reached the scene of the accident, and like most people who see a terrible event, couldn’t take his eyes off the two crunched up cars and all the scattered debris from an obvious impact. Tom stared in awed silence as the ambulance crew knelt beside one of the victims and hastily began to administer first-aid with their specialised equipment. His macabre fascination was suddenly interrupted when a policeman tapped the driver window and signalled him to keep moving. Tom quickly nodded back then slowly drove past the accident scene and on until the road became clear enough for the traffic stream to move at its usual pace.

As he drove on, the first thought to enter his mind was whether or not the two drivers had life insurance, then after that, what would become of their family’s welfare if they didn’t. This strange train of thought made Tom think about Mortall again and their peculiar conversation from the day before. With Mortall afresh in his mind, Tom began to lose concentration whilst driving. It was only because of an annoying sounding toot from a car coming in the opposite direction that prevented him from being involved in an accident of his own. Without even realising it he had gradually drifted to the wrong side of the road. Tom sat bolt upright in the car seat and violently shook his head to bring his thoughts back to the present. This had shaken him somewhat and during the rest of his journey to work he made damn sure he didn’t lose concentration again.

At work he went through his day as normal but, mentally he found himself to be preoccupied with the morning’s unexpected events. His work being what it was, mainly mundane routine, meant his day passed without him making any mistakes or critical errors in his clerical job. On his way home in the early evening he drove extra slowly and much more carefully than was his custom. Once home, after changing, eating dinner and, with the help of a glass of wine or two, the events of the day began to fade to memory until he wasn’t troubled by them anymore. He watched TV for a couple of hours then turned in for the night.

Thursday morning began with Tom slipping on the landing and almost falling down the stairs – it was only because he had been quick enough to grab hold of the banister that prevented it. Tom had lived at his present address for almost five years and never once had anything quite like that ever happened before. Accidents will happen, and Tom brooded on this fact while he ate breakfast but couldn’t find an adequate reason as to why it should happen here and now. He shrugged it off and grabbed the car keys.

The main road was clear, accident free, and his journey to work took the expected twenty-five minutes. He parked in his usual spot just behind the offices, got out, then walked the short distance to his works’ entrance. As he turned the corner into the main street there was a sudden screeching of brakes behind him, the sound made Tom reel and he instantly spun round on his heels to see what it was. A lorry hauling a huge trailer had jack-knifed and had lost control. The sidling trailer headed straight toward where Tom was. Rooted as he was to the pavement and unable to decide where to move, he stared on in frozen horror. The trailer slammed into a sturdy looking lamp post, bent it over at a right angle, and then came to a grinding stop directly in front of him. Mayhem ensued as all the people who witnessed the event scrambled this way and that – not really knowing what to do other than to make sure that they, themselves, were safe. A middle-aged woman ran up to Tom and asked if he was all right, Tom tried to speak to her but couldn’t; he just nodded, still in a state of shock. By this time a few more passersby had arrived and made the same enquiry, but all Tom did was to stare incredulously at the huge trailer right in front of his face – not really believing his luck. When the panic was over and the police had arrived, it was learnt that no one had been injured, however, there were a couple of crunched cars that couldn’t avoid impacts with each other, but apart from the lamp post, miraculously, nothing else had been damaged.

Tom’s interview with the visiting policeman in his office went as standard, but his mind wasn’t in the office – it was somewhere unknown trying to regain a grip on an escaped reality which had turned darkly surreal.

Tom’s boss, a humanitarian at heart, seeing that Tom was adversely affected by his close call with death or serious injury, told him to go home to relax and recover, and should he feel up to it, to come back the next day. Tom didn’t argue and did what his boss suggested. On his way home he felt certain that some mishap would befall him; he was terrified. But nothing happened, the rush-hour was done and all the roads were clear. There were some things, however, that made him sit up and take notice. He couldn’t help but see all the advertising boards lining parts of the road home, most of them were advertising insurance of some kind, and they all seemed to be mocking him for not having their product. The worst part of the homeward journey came when a black hearse heralded the arrival of a funeral convoy passing on the other side of the road. And that vision, in his current state of mind, he considered to be a portent and would haunt him for the remainder of that day.

The first thing he did on arriving home was to raid the drinks cabinet and pour himself a stiff one. He collapsed into his favourite armchair with bottle still in hand and stayed there in dark contemplation for a good two hours. He eventually got up and turned the TV on but was dismayed to see yet another advert about insurance covering funeral costs. He flipped the channel only to tune in to another insurance advert. He changed the channel to the BBC – a non advertising channel, but immediately turned the TV off once he realised that the program was a documentary all about the survivors of a plane crash and how they dealt with the death of their loved ones.

Tom got up from his armchair and chose a favourite ‘chill out’ cd to play; it might help him take his mind off things he no longer wished to think about. For the most part it worked, that is until he got a text message on his mobile. He reached over to the coffee table and grabbed the phone: punched the ‘read message’ key and was instantly appalled when he saw that it was from Mortall.

“Greetings Mr Pritchard. This is a reminder of our agreed appointment on Tuesday at 2.30 pm. Regards, Mortall & Sons.”

He tried to send a reply, “fuck off!” But got the standard ‘Unable to reply at this address. Message not sent’ message, and then gave up. A sudden, sobering thought then occurred to him. Why he never thought of it before he couldn’t say – but now he did. Tom got up and went across to his dining table, sat down in front of his laptop and turned it on. Once fired up he searched the name Mortall on Google and was more than surprised to find pages and pages containing references to the name. He spent ages trawling through the pages but found nothing relevant. He then tried a search for Mortall life insurance but all it returned was a question asking him if he meant mortal instead of mortall. He tried other search engines but had no better luck with those, either, so he gave it all up as a bad idea and turned the laptop off.

He then phoned the operator and asked for the number of Companies House in London, a place where all bonafide businesses must register by law. He got the number and phoned them. No luck. Mortall & Sons were definitely not a UK based registered company, but that wasn’t to say that they didn’t exist somewhere else. It was a stab in the dark but worth a try. He considered calling the police and claim that he was being scammed for insurance by parties unknown, but in reality he had nothing to prove such a claim other than a small white business card that wasn’t worth the card it was printed on, and a phone call – which in all likelihood, was probably untraceable.

With his adrenalin charged rush now spent, Tom returned to his armchair where the dark thoughts began to resurface again. What is going on here? Is this all pure coincidence? Who is Mortall, really? He had no answer for any of these questions, only nasty, stabbing doubts. All that Tom could actually be certain of right now was: ever since first contact with Mortall, his life had been dominated by a common theme, and that theme was his own mortality. Later that night while in bed Tom dreamt of a lorry and an out of control trailer.

Friday morning arrived and Tom felt calm enough in himself to venture to work, but there was also a strange feeling under the surface which competed for his undivided attention. He did his best to suppress it. He had his usual shower, paid close mind to his footing when going down stairs, ate his breakfast and drank coffee, then with a dubiously false, light heart, set off to work. The roads were the same as always and Tom soon found himself in a light traffic jam stuck behind a mobile crane which blocked his forward view. Minute by minute the traffic inched forward, slowly crawling toward the junction. He was about to switch his radio on when he heard an unfamiliar sound, he tried to think what the noise reminded him of and then it hit him. It reminded him of the sound metal made when under stress – according to the movies that is. Tom instinctively looked up just in time to see the crane in front starting to lean over, but unfortunately it was leaning toward his car. Suddenly there came a wrenching noise which meant that whatever was holding the crane in place held it no more.

Tom couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He groped for the buckle of his seat belt while staring fixedly at the approaching, toppling crane. He released the seat belt just in time as the crane came crashing down on the roof of his car. In a total panic he had managed to open his door and scramble out and became sprawled on the road next to his crushed car. He was showered with broken glass and sustained several cuts to his face and wrists; there were parts of his work suit torn as well. He was then surrounded by concerned looking faces all looking down at him. Time stopped as Tom went into a state of shock and was unable to respond to anything the faces were asking him. He must have passed out because the next time he opened his eyes he stared up at a white ceiling, but this time there was only one concerned looking face looking down at him, it was the face of a nurse who was holding his wrist as if taking a pulse reading.

An angelic-like voice spoke to him as he gradually regained consciousness and became more aware of his current surroundings.

“You’re ok Mr Pritchard. There was an accident, but you’re ok.”

Tom spent the rest of Friday morning in hospital. He had phoned his boss and explained why it was that he wasn’t there; his boss sounded dumb-struck when he heard the news and thought his absence was due to the fact that Tom still didn’t feel right from the previous day’s events involving the jack-knifed lorry. The doctor in A&E had thoroughly checked him over and other than a few cuts and bruises, declared him fit to be discharged. Tom called for a cab, and at around 1.30 that afternoon he found himself twice in as many days, home from work early again.

The weekend hid no incident from Tom and he spent the entire time indoors as if frightened to go and venture outside. The only time he did go outside was to bin his rubbish bag and when that was done he quickly went back inside.

On Monday morning Tom wasn’t at all sure what to do; his confidence had taken a severe hammering. If he was a superstitious person then he would say that unforeseen events tended to come in threes, but Tom, not being like that, shrugged that thought off then resolved to go into work regardless; he couldn’t remain behind closed doors for the rest of his days. He had several travel options to choose from. His car insurance policy included a courtesy car which came on Saturday and now stood waiting on the driveway, or he could call a cab; take the bus, or even take a train. After much deliberation he decided to take the most convenient option, he would brave the roads and get back on the horse again.

Timidly he set off from Privet Drive and gingerly joined the main drag. Much to his relief the journey into work went without a hitch. In the afternoon his boss popped in to see him: mainly to find out how he was doing and to remind him that, because of the audit happening the next day, he need not come in on Tuesday. What with all the events over the past two days Tom had totally forgotten about the audit, and it was just then, at that very moment when his boss reminded him that the penny dropped. How did Mr Mortall know that Tom would be off from work on Tuesday and be able to pay him a house call at 2.30?

In truth, Tom hadn’t the foggiest idea but couldn’t stop thinking about it all the way home and beyond.

* * *

Now here he was, standing on the threshold between his hallway and kitchen staring at the glass-distorted figure standing the other side of his front door. The past week had flashed fast forward in his mind as he relived it, and it seemed to Tom like it had only just happened. The time was 2.30 precisely. So with great trepidation, and a desperate need to know what the heck was going on, he resolved to answer the ring at the front door and confront Mortall.

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