It was a loud, insistent telephone ring that woke me up. “Hiii!” said an unnecessarily cheerful voice at the other end. It was 2:00 am and my head was befuddled with a lot more than sleep. “Wake up,” the voice boomed, cutting through my silence.
“Pertie?” I asked hesitantly. “Why are you calling so late at night?” Irritation had started to replace sleepiness and my voice clearly betrayed it.
“Yesterday was my birthday and you forgot.” But Pertie sounded more triumphant than upset. I had the distinct feeling he’d been hoping I wouldn’t remember. A couple of years ago he’d overlooked mine and I had ceaselessly rubbed it in. This, I said to myself, was revenge and Pertie was enjoying it. Except, I was wrong.
“It’s not your birthday,” I said after a bit when my head started to clear. “That’s not till February.”
“Well, at least you remember,” Pertie laughed. “Go on, wake up! I’m ringing for a chat.”
Chances are if your friends live abroad — as Pertie does at the moment — they’ll call late at night. And because they’re embarrassed by the hour they usually make a joke of it. Consequently, the conversation transforms into a test of your good nature or, at least, your instinct for politeness. Alas, I always fail.
I’m not sure what it is about being woken up but I’m inevitably testy and snappy. Worse, I’m devoid of humour. There have even been times when I’ve responded with a curt: “What do you want?”
On one occasion it got me into an awful lot of trouble.
It happened four years ago. Aftab, a dear old friend, had just spent the weekend with me. He was on his way back to London after a holiday with his parents in Colombo. Exhausted, I’d gone to bed early. So when he called from the taxi on his way home from Heathrow I was sound asleep.
“KT,” he began breezily, no doubt expecting a similar response. I must have thought it was a dream because Aftab swears I put the phone down. He rang again. This time, he says, I left it off the hook. Undefeated, he tried the other phone and that’s when the trouble began. “Go away,” is what I said. I didn’t really mean it except I also didn’t want to wake up.
“What?” Aftab sounded bewildered. I guess it’s the last thing he expected. But recovering his wits he responded: “Actually, I have. So go on, cheer up!”
Unfortunately, I did not. “What do you want?” is what I said instead. Just how ungracious that sounded became clear when I heard a sharp click. Aftab had abruptly disconnected.
If this had happened in the morning, afternoon or evening, I would have instantly rung back. In fact I would have profusely apologised. But as it was nearing 3:00 am. I simply turned over and went back to sleep.
It took me several months to atone, and even now I remain the butt of jokes I have to grit my teeth and bear. If he has, Aftab has only forgiven me because he prefers ridicule to anger. It works.
Now picture my predicament when I got a call a couple of years ago from a friend who’s father had died. No doubt father and son had been estranged but death can dissolve such differences. It was well past midnight and on this occasion my silence sounded like sympathy. The only thing is it lasted too long. Suddenly I heard him say, “Will you come?”
“Where?” I asked, somewhat perplexed. I hadn’t been following the conversation diligently.
“To the funeral.”
“But you’re still alive!”
“I know I am. It’s Dad’s. Oh go back to sleep. I’ll ring again in the morning.”
Since then I have come to hate late night phone calls. What worries me is not who it is — nor even what they have to say — but what I might reply. It’s invariably the wrong thing. While Nisha was alive she’d grab the phone. “Forgive him,” she’d quickly interrupt. “He hasn’t the faintest idea what he’s saying.” But now I’m on my own — and defenceless.