On the Bed
The phone rang. I picked it up.
"Hello," the woman on the other side said. "It's me."
"Hello," I said.
"I thought, I'll just call him..."
"Mmmm," I said.
"And I'm lying in bed. I'm on my bed, naked."
"That's nice," I said.
"Yes," she said. "I thought: I'm lying in the nude on my bed, and I'll call him."
"Mmmm," I said. "You undress, lie on your bed, alone I assume, and you call me. Yes, there's a certain logic in that line of thought."
All this time I tried to remember if I knew her voice from somewhere. But I did not succeed. The voice was that of a stranger. Definitely a stranger. No idea who she was. Or something was wrong with my memory. Usually there is nothing wrong with my memory, and I immediately recognize voices.
"You can imagine me on the bed?"
"No," I said, "actually I can't."
"I do not know who you are."
I heard her smile. "Really not? Don't you know who I am?"
"Do your very best."
"Can't think of anyone," I said. And that was the truth. The more she said, the more I was convinced she was a stranger. A stranger calling me with the announcement that she was lying naked on her bed.
So far it sounded relatively innocent.
There were two possibilities. Either it was a porn phone call, or I suddenly found myself in one of those bizarre Murakami books. Neither option seemed likely.
"I have small breasts," she said.
As if she expected me to know who she was, on account of those small breasts. I know women with small breasts and women with large breasts, and any size in between. I do not rate women because of their breast size. It does not matter to me what size their breasts have, as long as these women are nice.
"You have dialed the wrong person," I said.
She mentioned my telephone number.
"That's me," I said. "You got my number from a list somewhere."
There were no more telephone books, but it is probably no great trouble to find my mobile number somewhere, I assumed.
Or some friends of mine had decided to pull my leg.
"I'm lying here, but it does not feel erotic at all," she said. "Maybe I should pull the sheet up."
It was summer, but it might have been chilly in her flat.
"Does it sound erotic?" she inquired.
"What? This conversation?"
"No," I said. "I am not an adept of phone sex at all."
"This is not phone sex," she said, and she suddenly sounded a bit worried. "I don't do that kind of thing. I'm not used to calling up strange men to talk dirty to them."
"No," I said. "You are a serious woman. I can hear that right away. But you call me with the message that you are lying naked on your bed. What am I supposed to think?"
"This is something entirely different."
"In what sense?"
"This is different," she said, "because it is you I'm phoning."
"Okay," I said. "It's me. And you know who I am. "
Maybe there was a logic after all in this conversation, but I had not discovered it yet. "So you know who I am. What do you know about me? "
"You are past sixty, although you don't look it."
"I have a Wikipedia page," I said. "And everyone can Google me, and learn things about me. And see photos of me."
"And you are a writer, but not exactly famous. Your books do not sell well, but you keep on publishing, always with large or literary publishers. You really are a prolific writer."
"We have met before at a book fair. Or a reading."
"No. It's not that easy," she said.
"What is not that easy?"
"Would one of your readers just call you, out of the blue, informing you she's lying naked on her bed?"
"No," I said. "No, I cannot imagine that happening. But there is a first time for everything. And maybe this is that first time. Incidentally, I have no idea what sort of people read my books. "
"You are vain."
"That too," I said. I had no problem admitting that. I also tried to lure her out of her anonymity.
"Sometimes women you know end up in your books, as characters."
"That's correct. Or at least certain aspects of them. They are never entirely in my books. I don't want any problems with those women. So I only use certain aspects, or stories. I pay attention to that sort of thing."
There was a short silence. I heard movement. Maybe she went away, or pulled the sheet over her. I tried to imagine that flat. Maybe she did not live in an apartment, but in an old mansion. Her husband was not there, and perhaps she had no children. I could not tell how old she was. Not very old, I assumed. But you can never fully know only by hearing someone's voice.
"You're not going to tell me who you are?" I inquired.
"There's no fun in that."
From her point of view perhaps. She thought it would be nice to just call any unknown man, pretend she knew him, and make him believe she lay naked on her bed. Maybe there are women like that. Women who are bored. Who do not have a job, and nothing sensible to do. No children, and the husband away all the time.
"We do not know each other," I said. "And this is a game."
"Your father died when you were five," she said.
That was unexpected. But even then I was not really impressed. "You will have read that somewhere. It is not exactly a state secret."
"But you do have secrets."
"Everyone has secrets."
"Yours are very well-hidden secrets. You never write about them."
"I never write about myself. And I don't write for therapeutic reasons either. I hate that kind of writing."
There was another sound, one I didn't recognize.
"Maybe you've already written about me," she said.
"I would do that if I know you well enough. But I don't. I have no idea who you are."
"I'm still lying on the bed here," she said. "But under the sheet now. I could tell you what I will do next, but you do not really care about that. Strange, however... "
"You had ample time to end this conversation, earlier on, but you did not. So you are curious."
"Writing is a lonely business," I told her. And I immediately realized that I was telling a bit too much about myself.
"Yes, I heard that."
From whom did she hear that? From another writer? Or did she get that out of some kind of literary diary?
"What do you write?"
"At this moment?"
"Just a moment ago. When I called."
"A short story. And I'm not telling you what it is about."
"About a man who wants to impress women."
"That's what most stories are about," I said. "Not a difficult guess."
"The name of the woman is Britt. And she is not a woman. She is an adolescent girl. And there is no man who wants to impress her."
This was where it all stops. I realized it had to stop there. She could not possibly know the name of my character. I had only used that name for the first time that same morning. Actually, it was not a story I was writing. It was a Young Adult novel. Britt was the name of the main character. I had written a fragment of the first chapter that same morning. And the name only came up a few days earlier, but I had not written it down anywhere.
I heard her smile again. "It's all so transparent," she said.
"What? What is transparent?"
"You. You are. You pick up the phone, and you do not expect anyone to enter your personal sphere, do you? But when that does happen, you are first on your guard, and then outraged. Because that's what you are now, isn't it? Outraged?"
"You can't possibly know that," I said.
"I also know that you do not have a cat."
I didn't say anything more.
"And," she continued relentlessly, "that is disappointing, for a writer. No cat. I assumed all writers needed a cat. This is very disappointing."
"I'll buy a cat when you tell me who you are, and how you know all this, about Britt."
"No way," she said. "I don't care if you take a cat into your home, or not. It just does not bother me at all."
"What do you want from me?"
"I don't want anything from you. I just felt like calling you. Find out how things are going for you."
"Things are great, thank you. Really great. At least before you called."
"Exactly," she said. "This does not happen to you just like that, does it? There's supposed to be a deeper reason."
I didn't know what to say anymore. The conversation was leading nowhere.
"Does this not lead up to a story?" she asked.
"Nobody would believe any of this."
"Don't need to. It's a story. It is a fiction. Crazy things happen in stories. It does not matter whether it is realistic. Rather not, actually. Realistic stories are so boring, don't you think? I find them boring. What I like about you is that you write stuff that's very different from what other people are writing."
"Everybody is a critic these days," I said.
"Maybe you should take your phone to your bedroom, and undress, and then lay down on your own bed, naked, and then we’ll continue talking." She laughed briefly. "And do not tell me that you do not want to be nude at your age, because I cannot see you anyway."
I wasn't so sure about that. I began to suspect that she – whomever she was – had placed cameras in my flat and knew everything about me, and even would have read what I had written on my laptop, that same morning.
"I don't think so," I said.
"You're a killjoy. Go ahead. Nobody will notice. I feel more at ease when you are nude too. It will be almost like you're laying here next to me."
"Why would I believe you are naked? And why would I undress? Perhaps you're watching me through a hidden camera?"
"You're being particularly paranoid," she said.
"I'm not doing it," I said.
"You will never hear from me again, if you don't," she said. She sounded amused. But she also sounded as if she meant it. That I would not hear from her anymore, if I did not just do what she asked of me.
"If I don't undress and lay down on my bed," I said, "I will not hear from you anymore?"
"That's right. There's no fun in it for me, if you don't cooperate."
That was the deal. All I had to do was cut the connection. But I could have done that earlier. Right now, this wasn't an option any more. Or I could just refuse to lie down naked on my bed. Then it would also be over. Easy enough.
I took the phone into my darkened bedroom, deposited it on the bedside table, and started undressing.
Guido Eekhaut has published more than forty books in Belgium and Holland, including half a dozen concerning the imaginary city of Orsenna. He has also written crime novels, which were nominated for major awards and the first of which, Absint, won the Hercule Poirot Award in 2009 (and was published in the US in 2018). His stories have been anthologised many times, and several of them have appeared in Germany, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Argentina and China. He has worked as a freelance journalist for a number of newspapers and magazines. He also publishes essays on literature, geopolitics, history and philosophy, while working as a futurist. His story "Just Words" appeared in Issue #19 of The Cafe Irreal (as well as in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader); "Time Machine" appeared in Issue #21; "The Unicorn in the Park" in Issue #60; "The Conspiracy" in Issue #62; and "The Moose," in Issue #69.