A trudge across the dirt yard in the lit night,
our warm breath billowing like wood smoke.
I know there was no snow that first time,
but I can’t not think about stepping inside
and stamping out my boots on the concrete.
I can’t not imagine the bare corridor in darkness
because the inner door’s shut to stop the heat from escaping.
Maybe that particular handle wasn’t loose,
but I can’t not hear the rattle as I push it down.
Maybe no-one inside was smoking,
but I can’t not think of warmth in the exchange
and its sweat and cigarette smell.
Inside, they sit
on a bench made from three pieces of wood,
waiting for distant connections to get made,
for their call to find their respondent
and make its way back to this room.
I imagine it always to be Lily at the desk,
knitting my blue and black sweater
and waiting for the loose switch to drop.
They hand her numbers on folded scraps of paper.
She flattens them out on the desk
and reads them into the bright blue handset.
And we wait.
The back of the TV in the corner is missing,
its patched guts exposed, just like the main desk.
It flickers costumed folk or episodes of Dallas.
I study sometimes the mustard linoleum,
cut unevenly at the edges and curling upwards.
A one bar heater with a frayed cord warms us.
Someone is usually eating sunflower seeds,
splitting the humbug shells between their teeth
and spitting the empty husks to the floor.
Then someone outside knocks on the loose glass.
Lily tugs the window open and the cold air tumbles in;
the passer-by leans against the frame,
a portrait against black, painted by our dangling bulb
I don’t know why I always imagine it to be night-time,
though perhaps it’s the brightness of the room I remember
more than the darkness outside.
When the buzzer drops she flips the red switch.
She listens, then she holds out the handset.
They all have telephone voices.
They shout out scripted pleasantries,
before embarking upon their request.
These are rarely social calls.
These waited-on, two minute exchanges,
to which The Company turns a blind eye,
will be paid for in fish and meat, or perhaps a tree
at Christmas, or perhaps American cigarettes.
No-one pretends not to listen.
You never know what troubles might one day be.
It can hardly hurt to know who people call.
She doesn’t watch when it’s my turn to holler,
but I can tell just the same that she’s listening;
her eyebrows rise
at the sound of a word or name she understands.
She has a chuckle, low and hoarse.
She makes comments and the others laugh.
The head-scarfed old woman crosses herself
and asks for God’s protection.
The large woman in the cardigan over a sweater over a green blouse
makes a jolly comment about foreigners and shakes her head.
And pushes up her breasts.
The stubble-faced man in oily sweats slaps his thigh
and re-lights a half-smoked, filterless cigarette,
and adds to the commentary, the little white stub
jiggling between his lips to his words..
Lily winks at me.
She means no harm.
She has no agenda.
She just likes to laugh.
The tiny, tiny words in my ear
seek distant reassurance.
In this new world of random and noise
it is hard to be certain of anything at all.
But Lily is no threat.
I cannot remember the first time we met,
but I do recall that she was a steady smile
and one I could actually believe in.
Across a thousand miles, I shout,