I had been looking after Bandito for several weeks when the scammer started calling. Always the same time each day – right after A Place in the Sun, that is, and whenever I answered the phone there would be a brief pause and a click, and then the same guy talking at me: ‘Good day to you! My name is Clive, and I am calling from your bank. I am very sorry to report there has been some fraudulent activity on your card. With your permission, I’d like to undertake a brief security check…’
Of course, I never listened to the rest of this ridiculous monologue. I’d slam the phone down and turn right back to the television. But equally, I never blocked the number, and wouldn’t have known how to on a landline in any case; the workings of Willem’s flat were still alien to me. This was in 2020, and I was on furlough, and Christmas was closing in and everyone was on lockdown. I’d been living with a guy whose main source of income was doing medical trials, and sometimes I’d catch him in the hallway, feverish and shivering, or covered in hives, and sometimes he’d lock himself in the bathroom for hours and I could hear him through the wall, groaning, the wet, soft explosions of his bowel movements. It was intolerable. Then my boss told me that a friend of hers was leaving London for a while, and wanted someone to stay in his flat while he was gone.
‘It’s fairly simple,’ Willem said, when I met him. He was short and bald with diamond ear studs and a tribal tattoo on his left arm. ‘You just need to keep the place in order, water the plants, feed the cat.’
‘Cat?’ I said, as Willem, showing me into the kitchen, pointed at a stainless-steel bowl on the floor containing a small heap of Purina.
‘Bandito,’ Willem replied, folding his arms. ‘Three times a day. And then clean the litter tray, play with him, et cetera. Do you like cats?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Where is he now?’
Willem led me into the bedroom, which was white and square, a view overlooking the Regent’s Canal. ‘Bandito?’ he said. On the bedside table there was a large black dildo, and Willem hurriedly put it in a drawer. ‘Woops,’ he said, a mock-mortified glance in my direction. ‘Life as a single gay man, eh?’
I nodded ruefully, in an attempt to express solidarity with Willem’s circumstances without implying that I also kept a ten-inch sex toy within reaching distance of my sleeping place. Willem laughed, and seemed on the verge of saying something suggestive, and then, mercifully, the surface of the duvet stirred, and Willem drew it back. ‘There you are!’ he said. Into his arms jumped a small, scrabbling animal, hairless, blue eyed: Bandito.
‘He gets cold easily,’ said Willem. ‘Pedigree sphynx – so expensive – so no fur. But he’s cuddly – aren’t you?’ he said, looking down at Bandito, who was purring away, his thin pink tail swishing around like a whip. ‘Come and have a little pet.’
‘Where are you going?’ I said, as I brought my hand to Bandito’s wrinkled forehead.
‘South Africa,’ said Willem, ‘I’m from there, my mother died. I have to sell her house.’
‘Oh,’ I said, as Bandito nuzzled into my palm. ‘I’m very sorry.’
Willem shook his head. ‘Don’t be,’ he said. ‘She was really abusive, and a massive alcoholic. It’s giving generational trauma.’
‘Oh!’ I said, and fell silent for a moment. ‘Well, I’m still sorry either way.’
‘Thanks,’ said Willem. He looked down at Bandito. ‘But it’s fine. I have him. And he’s a lovely boy.’
As it happened, I would come to find that Bandito was not a lovely boy at all. If I got the wrong kind of cat food, he would sniff at it tentatively, gag, and refuse to eat it. Sometimes, I’d find little puddles of sick afterwards, on the bathroom floor – Bandito liked to vomit on tiles – or, worse, in my shoes. I tried playing with him, waving a little feathery wand in his face, a feathery wand that he would bat away with his useless paws, discombobulated, an expression of mild panic or frustration on his wrinkled little cat face, but the minute he grew tired of the game he’d hiss and snarl, scratch at me with his claws. Sometimes, I’d collapse on the floor, faking death, if only to see how Bandito would react to my untimely demise, whether he’d come over to investigate, or try to help. He never did.
The autumn rolled on, things were getting worse. We could mix two households, and then we couldn’t, and then the only human contact I seemed to be getting came from the telephone scammer, on his daily call: ‘Good day to you! My name is Clive, and I am calling from your bank…’. Of course, there were texts from Willem, checking in, the odd message from my friends and family members. But the sound of that little voice – as soon as the phone rang, and I heard that click and pause, my heart would soar, just for the few seconds before I slammed the phone down and continued on with my dull and empty day. ‘Bandito!’ I cried once. ‘Oh my Bandicelli, my little Banditovich! It’s just the two of us, Bandipants, we’ve got to stick together’. But Bandito offered me no solace, no warmth, and two days later he caught a mouse and dumped it on my chest while I was napping in front of the television. As soon as I saw it, I flung it across the room, and the mouse – which, apparently, had been playing dead for real – got up and started scuttling about, searching for a place to hide.
I crashed about the room, trying to block it in, and finally I grabbed it, went into the bedroom, opened the window, and threw it out into the canal. When I went back into the living room, Bandito, unperturbed, was sitting on the windowsill, licking his paw. The closing credits of A Place in the Sun were playing, and then, right on cue, the phone began to ring.
‘Good day to you! My name is Clive,’ said the scammer, as usual, but I cut him off.
‘Whoever you are,’ I said, ‘You’re the biggest fucking idiot I’ve spoken to in my life. And your scam, by the way, is shit. A fucking pigeon could do better, I mean, seriously Clive, come the fuck on.’
‘No, no,’ protested Clive. ‘It’s not a scam, it’s real. I’m calling from your bank. There’s been some fraudulent activity on your card.’
‘Clive,’ I said, holding up my hand to shut him up, even though he wasn’t in the room. ‘I will give you my long card number and security code right now if you can tell me what my name is.’
There was a fumbling sound, a crackle of static, and the line went dead.
I felt very bad after this. My fear was that I had chased off Clive forever, and that lockdown would stretch on indefinitely, a prison of loneliness and boredom. I was therefore delighted the next day when, apparently having forgotten the whole thing, he called again.
‘Good day to you! My name is Clive, and I am calling from your bank…’
‘Hello Clive,’ I interrupted. ‘Glad it’s you. If you recall, we spoke yesterday. I said I would give you my card details if you could tell me what my name is.’
‘Oh yeah…,’ said Clive. There was a brief pause. ‘Yeah, I remember you.’
‘Fantastic,’ I replied. ‘So go on, what is it?’
‘Erm,’ said Clive. I heard a tapping sound, like he was drumming on the receiver with his fingers. ‘George?’
‘Wrong!’ I said. ‘You can try again tomorrow, Clive. This conversation is terminated.’
I hung up then, and fed Bandito. The exchange had invigorated me, and I felt I had managed, for a moment, to break out of the walled fortress of my life, and had seen a great wildness beyond. The next day, I waited by the phone, ready for him. When it rang, I allowed several seconds to pass before picking up. He didn’t give me the fraudulent activity spiel this time. He didn’t need to. He simply said, ‘Hi, it’s me.’
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘So, what’s my name then?’
‘I don’t know. Jamie?’ he said.
‘Wrong again, Clive,’ I said. ‘Do call back.’
I don’t know how Clive felt about this whole thing. I presume he found it funny, an amusing little bagatelle in his busy life of being a scammer. Whatever it was, he obviously did a bit of thinking overnight, because the next day, he seemed very excited.
‘I’ve had a brainwave,’ he said. ‘And I’ve got it this time. Your name, your name… is Clive.’
I rolled my eyes at Bandito, who was on the carpet, washing himself. Bandito blinked back at me. ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous Clive, that’s your name,’ I said with a sigh. ‘Call me!’
And so we went on like this. Every day he would ring me, try to guess my name, and when he failed – as he always did – I’d hang up on him. It was late December by then, and the Christmas lights were up, and everything on the news was sad and apocalyptic. ‘What’s my name, Clive?’
‘Angel,’ he said, on Christmas Eve. ‘Angel Gabriel.’
I twisted the telephone cord around my fingers. ‘Clive,’ I said, leaning back into the sofa cushions. ‘Cliverella, Cliveovsky – when are you going to admit that you’re in love with me?’
Clive laughed his head off at this. Ha ha ha. Then he coughed and said, ‘Are you interested in meeting?’
I considered this for a short while. ‘I am,’ I said. ‘Do you live in London?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. And I gave him Willem’s address. ‘Do you want to come over?’
He repeated the address back to me. ‘That’s kind of far,’ he said.
‘Somewhere else then?’
‘Do you know Primrose Hill?’
‘Of course,’ I said.
‘Then I’ll meet you at the top of Primrose Hill at midday tomorrow,’ said Clive.
‘But tomorrow’s Christmas!’ I said, childishly.
Clive laughed at this too, for a long old time. ‘What’s the matter? Don’t tell me you have plans…’ he said.
I looked at Bandito in the corner, and Bandito stared placidly back. The thought of spending the holiday alone with that gargoyle depressed me, but I still felt bad about abandoning him on Christmas. ‘Midday then?’ I conceded.
‘It’s a date,’ said Clive, and he rang off.
I was extremely nervous about this meeting. I spent the evening trying on different outfits, deciding on something I looked cute in, and later, when I got into bed, I struggled to fall asleep. I felt like a child again, trying to stay awake for Santa Claus, although this Santa Claus was a mysterious telephone scammer who had apparently developed a crush on me. In the morning, I kissed Bandito goodbye, and left far earlier than I needed to, just so I could be sure to be on time. It was half eleven when I made it to the top of Primrose Hill.
I sat on one of the little wooden benches, looking at the city, looking at the park and all the local Primrose Hillians walking their cockapoos and labradoodles, bundled up in their coats. The whole thing was actually quite lovely, global pandemic notwithstanding. Whenever a lone male figure came marching up the path towards me, my heart would flutter a little, like maybe this could be the beginning of a Nora Ephron-style romance about two unlikely strangers meeting under unusual circumstances and hitting it off. But each time, the men walked past, and eventually I began to get annoyed with all those people sauntering around on Christmas Day like they had nothing better to do. ‘It’s the Lord’s day, good grief,’ I muttered to myself at one point. I looked at my phone; it was quarter past one.
The realisation came to me with embarrassing slowness: the doubt creeping in, and then the certainty muffled by denial, and then the certainty without denial, that Clive – or whatever his name really was – was not coming. By the time it reached three o’clock, it was starting to get dark, so I got up from the bench and headed home. Idiot, idiot, idiot, I thought, as I walked back along the Regent’s Canal towards Willem’s. Alongside my obvious hatred of Clive, I was pissed off with myself for having been such a credulous fool, and even more pissed off with myself because I knew that a very, very small part of me believed that Clive would have a legitimate excuse for not showing, like maybe he got hit by a car or something, and this, too, felt kind of Nora Ephron-esque to me. Perhaps, when I got back, there would be a message from the hospital on the answerphone, a moved nurse telling me that Clive had died but, with his last breath, had professed his undying love for me. It could happen.
But it did not. What actually happened, when I got back to the flat, was that I saw the door had been kicked in. The lock was broken off, and the light in the hallway was on. ‘Hello?’ I called, entering. Nobody answered. I went into the living room – the place had been torn apart, and the television was gone. In a sudden grim realisation, I remembered giving Clive the address on the phone, and the way he had repeated it back to me. ‘Oh my god,’ I said to my reflection in the darkened window. ‘You stupid bitch.’
I went into the bedroom; the wardrobe door was open, and all the clothes had been pulled off the hangers, and I felt that a couple of the more high-end items were missing, like a leather jacket perhaps, and some designer jeans. ‘Bandito?’ I said, pulling back the covers on the bed, but he was gone too. I remembered what Willem had told me when I first met him: pedigree sphynx – so expensive. I thought I might weep. I went into the kitchen – nothing had been taken there, but all the plates and cups were smashed – and then, lastly, into the bathroom. Willem’s dildo was suckered to the mirror, and a piece of his mail had been stuck under the bottom of the sucker with his name and address circled in black sharpie. Beside it, on the glass itself, the words YOUR NAME = WILLEM had been written. Wrong again, Clive, I thought, although of course it was me who had been wrong, the whole time, about everything. I went back into the living room and stared at the place where the television had once been. It was about the time when, on a normal day, A Place in the Sun would have been ending. I imagined the closing music and looked over at the telephone. The receiver was off the hook; I reached out and put it back. I wondered where my little Bandito was now. Strange, I felt, how he had come to mean so much to me. I looked at the phone some more. I waited for it to ring.
Michael Peters is a writer from London. His fiction has appeared in Lunate, Neuro Magazine, Misery Tourism and Overheard, with further writing appearing in Garageland Reviews and at The Bomb Factory Art Foundation. He tweets @lonelypoof.
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