Alfred and the Flies

by Chris Buchanan
Short story, 2012
A young volunteer at a suicide hotline listens to an old hand.

There are always two Samaritans working, on four hour shifts. Depending on the time of day and circumstance, the two might spend this time hunched over in the two booths, occasionally looking through glass to nod and smile at each other but otherwise listening intently, or they might be on two comfortable armchairs, eating free biscuits and trying to make conversation.

Today is Wednesday afternoon. There aren’t many calls and neither of us feels like taking them. Stewart took the last one, but it only lasted a few minutes. Every time the phones ring, I wonder if this is a real call. A call where a person is about to violently commit suicide and needs somebody caring and brave to talk it out with them and save their life. But most of the calls are short and not very important.

I hear Stewart replace the old, white plastic receiver now, and waddle back to the armchairs. I finish chewing. “That,” he says, “was a gentleman asking me to tell him my height, as a masturbatory aid.” This is normal. Even I am no longer surprised or even amused by these calls. I just nod.

Stewart has been a Samaritan for a long time, long enough that there is little excitement or drama in it for him any more. His face is always slack, at peace, either satisfied with or indifferent to everything he witnesses, like a man at the end of a good meal. He has a permanent smile on one side of his mouth and slightly harsh blue eyes, as though he has no difficulty with anything he does, leaving at least half of his mental capacity free to reminisce. I hope I’m that way when I’m his age.

The sound of my swallowing the biscuit is loud in this deliberately silent, cozy room. Stewart doesn’t look at me or anything but I feel a little self-conscious, so I get a glass of water.

“Are you making tea?” he says.

“Just water.”

Stewart has gotten into his chair now, and he lets his back fall into it. “Very good,” he says, smiling to himself as if something very amusing has happened but he doesn’t want to share it. “Very good.” After a short silence he picks up one of the celebrity gossip magazines, opens it and gives a slight, almost cartoonish sneer. He gets bored of this and puts it back down.

After a moment he starts laughing and murmuring. He wants me to ask him why.

“What are you thinking about?” I’m friendly. Everyone here is.

He cleans his glasses against his cardigan, straightens the tie beneath and tilts himself towards me.

“Well,” he says, and I sense he’s preparing something. Choosing his words.

“Well. I knew a great man, once. A compassionate and thoughtful man. One who did his best, when it came to people. Alfred, his name.”

I’m drinking my water, but I put it down for a minute. “Oh?” I murmur. It’s always a bit awkward getting to know someone, especially in this room for some reason. We call it The Office. I fold my hands.

Stewart continues. “Alfred’s life brought him to a state where he was capable of viewing every living organism just the same as any other: as an individual. And one worth knowing. If he saw a dog turn its neck, he shared its wonder. When he saw a bird suddenly flapping into the air, he turned to see what was wrong, as if he were afraid. He was kind. I called it a higher plane of thought, but he didn’t like that. Great people always lie about their greatness, don’t they? I just sort-of trusted that he had a good reason for that. Because he didn’t like liars.”

This story sounds rehearsed, I think, but I narrow my eyes, showing that I’m paying attention. He nods once more and carries on.

“One day he was at home and he saw a fly on his window. Its tiny legs, each one as thin as a human hair (you know how small they are) flicking back and forth as its body just stood there on the glass. Like an anchor with… snakes tied to it. It’s perfectly alert, this fly, but it has nowhere to go. The fly has come into Alfred’s house, seen the window and thought ‘Ah! This is the way out!’ Because he can’t see the glass, you see.”

I laugh a little. “Yeah,” I say. “I get it.” And Stewart laughs back, approvingly.

“Alfred saw the fly there. And in his wisdom and intelligence he understood why it couldn’t escape. And of course he could not allow the creature to suffer this way. So he scooped it up with a little tumbler and a paperback and he let it out of the door. Problem solved. The only trouble is that later (this was summer, by the way) there was another fly on the window. Again, he moved it away with his tumbler, which he had to sterilise again, and released it to his garden. But later on, when he got back from his dinner he saw three more flies.

“He chastised himself, of course. How could he have relaxed and eaten when three souls were struggling for their lives, confused out of their tiny minds, in his home? You see, to him, the flies were no less valuable than people. The only difference between them and us, as he saw it, was intelligence. And you don’t let somebody suffer for an hour, trapped and confused in what they perceive as an impossible maze, just because they’re too stupid not to know what glass is. Do you?”

I don’t know if Stewart wants me to agree with him or question him, so I just tilt my head and let him finish his story.

“So Alfred stood around the window for a bit, helping the flies get back to their lives. When he was finished he locked the door, obviously, and he went to my house next door, to see if there were any flies there. And there were, so he asked if he could come in to get rid of them. And this went on, every day, until he disappeared. And he probably spent the rest of his life staring at glass, concentrating with his eyes all screwed up like yours are now, quickly tapping his little cup against the windows, over and over again, and walking over to the door.”

I don’t know what to say. I can’t help feeling like I’m being patronised, but I have no idea how. I begin to hope the phone will ring again. It doesn’t. Stewart keeps looking at me, waiting for my reaction.

“What happened to him?” I ask.

“I don’t know. He disappeared. He’s probably died by now.”

“Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t know him very well. I just thought he was fascinating.”

There is so little to do in this little room, I think. I could nod, which wouldn’t satisfy him. I could look at the phone booths, which would be rude. I could get another glass of water, perhaps? Something occurs to me and he seems to see the recognition on my face. He smiles widely this time.

“Is there a hidden meaning in that story for me?” I ask. “Did Alfred volunteer at the Samaritans?”

Stewart raises his eyebrows for a second and looks for the magazine. After a second he answers. “No. Not at all.”

“Oh. I thought you meant… because of what we do here. Helping people.”

“Did you?” He sounds a little bit annoyed now. “If you go around thinking the people we talk to on the phone are comparable to flies, then you’re in the wrong job, believe you me.”

“I’ll make you a cup of tea.”

Very good. One sugar, no milk.”

I get up and make it. As I return to The Office, I see that Stewart has answered another phone call. From the sound of his replies and his tone, I guess that the conversation might go on for a while. He’s asking serious questions, you know. I leave his tea by his side, to which he mouths a ‘thank you’, and take my seat again.

And immediately there is a familiar sound, one that makes my head dart upwards. A fly’s buzz.

It zig-zags through the open door to our empty little hallway, makes a couple of circles around the room, and then hits the window hard. There is that sudden THOCK sound that I always think is somehow too loud. An animal so small and delicate as a fly can’t make a noise like that. The whole animal is the size of a crumb, made in miniature out of thin, barely-glued-together black wire that crunches if you touch it, like sugar-glass, and those wings look like a good wind could rip them in half. But when this tiny crisp of a creature collides with a window, you get this dull, heavy note.

Something that size, I think, can’t make a THOCK. It sounds like a cricket ball hitting clay.

Our window is thick, wavy and heavy, so that it lets in natural light but keeps our little office secretive. The fly just sits there for a moment, dead still, then crawls about, looking for a way through. I look around for a glass or a dry tea cup, but I don’t get up. The room strikes me again, and I notice how artificial it is, in an odd way. The chairs are very nice, very soft. The place is spotless, not that I’ve ever seen anyone cleaning, and that biscuit tin is always full somehow. But the top half of the room is just old white walls, almost completely covered by notices and letters and lists of rules and important information, and warnings and requests and timetables. They’re messy.

Stewart must have heard the fly’s buzzing and he must have noticed the coincidence. He probably smiled, but he doesn’t turn away from his phone call to smile at you or anything like that. He seems to be engrossed, which is odd for him. Maybe this is a serious call. A real call.

I haven’t had any of those yet.

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