The rumours seemed to start in the wind as such things often do. There was no flickering light in the top of the phone box, no broken glass in the door. Neither was there any noticeable smell in the cubicle save for the sour, metallic odour present in every phone box in every town in Britain. No-one could remember anything having happened inside the booth – no gruesome murder or grisly stabbing. Nevertheless, it stood on the corner of the road outside my flat like a solitary red warning finger in the gloom.
They say that hindsight is twenty-twenty, but it seems that even before the first disappearance the phone box was beginning to exert an influence. Schoolchildren would go the long way home just to avoid passing it, and the grass at the base of the red iron grew wild and high. This wasn’t a phone box in which you would stop to light a fag on the way home from the train station and it wasn’t one in which you’d take a piss. In all my years in that flat I never once saw anyone actually making a call from it.
My mind plays tricks on me these days, but I’m sure I heard the phone ringing in my sleep that first cold autumn night. When I left the flat the next morning I was met with the sight of police tape guttering in the wind. The door to the phone box was open and I could see the receiver swinging slowly in the breeze.
From what I could gather it had been a boy doing his paper round. Old Mrs. McGillvary from Flat 3 had seen him lazily gliding past on his bike before turning around when the phone began to ring. Glancing around him, the lad had laid his bike on the ground before entering the booth and picking up the receiver. Mrs. McGillvary had bent down to pick up one of her cats and when she looked again the boy was gone.
The police came and knocked on doors, of course. They reviewed CCTV and if you believe what you read in the local paper they arrested the boy’s father before releasing him due to lack of evidence. After a while the missing posters peeled free of the lampposts. The story of the boy doing his paper round became a tale told to teenagers to encourage them to be home on time. Meanwhile, the stale light in the phone box kept leering from under its red cap, steady and unblinking.
Next to disappear was the girl from the barbers. They said she’d been drunk, wandering the streets after being kicked out by her boyfriend when the phone rang for her. All that had ever been found of her was her handbag hung from the door of the booth, stock-still next to the slowly-swinging phone receiver. I never saw it, but apparently her by-then-deranged father had found her bag after frantically searching the streets through the night for her. The local kids said that when he had picked up the receiver he felt as though there was still someone at the other end of the line. There was no heavy breathing, no hoarse voice, nothing as cliched as that. Just a sense of being listened to. Of someone knowing.
After little Maisy Stewart was last seen running into the phone box whilst playing hide and seek with her mother, I decided enough was enough and moved away from the area. There’s only so many times you can search the streets in vain for someone else’s child and there’s only so many times you can tell yourself that the police aren’t looking at you out of the corners of their eyes. Last I heard there was an online petition to get the damned phone box taken down, but there was health and safety concerns from the council and endless red tape. I wasn’t sorry to leave that street and I didn’t look at the phone box as I left in the taxi. Truth is I was scared that it would ring for me, that I’d find myself easing open the chipped paintwork of the red door handle and reaching for the chrome receiver.
The few people I’ve kept in touch with tell me that the police have now linked four disappearances to that red box. Apparently the teenagers dare each other to spend a minute in the booth. Not after dark though. Never after dark. I’ve fewer and fewer links to the area now. I guess that’s what comes of flinching every time I hear a ringing phone.
Thanks for reading, folks. As I was writing this my four year-old decided that she would like to illustrate the story, so below is her effort!
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order