By George Goldstein
The prefix was 07734 but I don’t recall the rest of the number. I wasn’t expecting to be answering an incoming call to a public phone booth.
Curiousity got the better of me though (no cats died) and that’s when it started; a journey.
“How are you?”
“Who is this?”
“Who I am doesn’t matter: it is of minor importance. What is of major fucking importance…” He’s quoting True Romance: one of my favourite films “…is that you do as I say.” He pauses.
“Wait George, I’m writing.”
“A shopping list.”
A fucking shopping list!
“A shopping list?”
“Things you need to get.”
“For what? I only just got back.”
“I know. You need to start walking. Where you need to go isn’t far but there are a few twists and turns on the way. Walk straight ahead from here and after about 500 yards, you’ll see some graffiti on the wall of the Post Office. I call it a franking mark.” He laughs. “Anyway, there’s a phone box there. Shouldn’t take you longer than five minutes.”
And he hung up.
“Franking mark” reminded me of Frank: my old family name; before I was adopted, moved to America and became a Golstein.
Mum and dad split up. Father was an alcoholic (they say I’ve got my daddy’s eyes) and a manic depressive. He had throat cancer and lost his voice (he smoked 60 roll-ups a day), which was a cruel fate because dad liked to talk. And talk. And talk. When he lost his voice, he wrote everything down. And he wrote. And wrote.
Dad’s two main afflictions and the split from mum led to him losing his business as well. He ran some sort of cell phone company that acquired memorable numbers. So if someone wanted a specific cell number, dad would get it for them; contact the cell companies, the incumbent owner of the number, whatever; negotiate a price and deliver the goods. He was a middle man with contacts and he could talk the talk. Before he lost his voice. In a further irony, the company was called Victor’s Voices.
Neither mum nor dad could cope on their own. Dad had lost his business and his voice and simply disappeared. And then there was the gambling. Dad was a good poker player and made a lot of money at the card tables. When the business went though, some people came after him and took his poker money. He valued his legs at £3309 each. Mum didn’t like the gambling. She thought dad always had people after him. She didn’t approve of dad teaching me to play either. No Limit Texas Hold Em was his game. So we’d play in secret, when mum wasn’t around; pretend we were playing something else and pass coded messages through cryptic written notes. I liked the maths: working out the odds. I became a fairly accomplished player in dad’s estimation but I was too young to play anywhere (pubs and casinos mainly). A shame as we made a good team. Anyone who’s played poker will know what that means. When I stayed at dad’s, sometimes he’d arrange a home game and let me stay up late. Poker is not all about luck and once you grasp the maths, you can clear up; certainly with dad’s mates.
Obviously I worried about mum’s concerns for dad but he reassured me. He promised that if ever we were apart and unable to communicate for whatever reason, he’d be able to get to me; to get a message to me, in code if necessary.
I’ve always assumed that he succumbed to the cancer but the Goldsteins always told me that he was okay. I hate to admit it but after a while, I forgot about my dad. I’ve only been back in England for a couple of days (I’m being transferred to the London office) but I will look the old man up, wherever he may lie.
And mum just couldn’t deal with me. I remember visiting specialists; I remember mum crying. I was eventually diagnosed with Autism. Mum had Dyscalculia, which caries an irony all of its own. I loved numbers. I still do. That’s how come I went into stockbroking in Chicago after the Goldsteins put me through college. My transfer to London is to head up a desk.
Dad and me used to play numbers all the time he was home. Even when he was away on business, he’d leave me problems. And when dad lost his voice, he’d write his problems down.
Once he challenged me with the Chinese Checkerboard: if you place a single grain of rice on the first square of a 64-square board, then double the number of grains on each subsequent square, by the time you reach the 64th you’ll have enough rice to feed the population of the developing world. I think that’s how it goes. At the time I was more pre-occupied with working out where a checkerboard large enough might come from. And I prefer Chess anyhow. I also wondered how the available arable land would produce such a quantity of rice: 9’223’372’036’854’780’000 grains. I think that’s right, as I recall: I’d worked it out in my head. It’s two to the power of 63, plus one; just over nine million billion in English and a quintillion in American (ten to the power of eighteen).
Million, billion, trillion, quadrillion, quintillion. Once we worked out what an icosadodecacentillion was: big.
We’d write code messages that mum didn’t understand, using numbers in place of letters:
1: I or L
2: Z. R at a pinch
7: T or Y
(Our vocabulary was limited).
I can recite Pi to 42 decimal places: 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169
“DAD” in Binary is 01100100 01100001 01100100
“Reaching fourth base in our house had a different meaning to the colloquial one: it referred to base four in maths.
I arrive at the phone box by the Post Office with 49 seconds to spare. I open the door and step inside. I smells of wee and I’m reminded of dad; not because he smelled of pee but because he wouldn’t be able to smell what I could: he lost his sense of smell when someone smashed a wine bottle over his nose. His friends used to rib him and tell him that he smelled bad: he didn’t. Dad was fastidiously clean, verging on OCD. He used to insist that he had “CDO”, which is OCD with the letters in the right order. He was smart, in the way he dressed as well as his intelligence (I think his IQ was 152). He didn’t follow fashion; he made his own. And others followed him.
Four seconds too late and the phone rings. A witheld number this time.
Road names were of no use to me, so what followed was a list of road numbers, interspersed with left and right turns. There were more left turns that right, which I liked as I’m left-handed. So was dad. So is dad. Dad is. Somewhere.
I counted to 1403: my footfall. One step per second; just over twenty minutes, so just more than a mile.
Then the last number on the list: house number 42. There’s a police car outside. An elderly lady greets me in the road; or rather, meets me.
“You can’t stay here. He said to give you this.” She hands me an envelope. “I don’t know what’s going on any more but he said that you have to look deeper sometimes. Strange man. Here you go. Now go.”
I walked 462 paces and sat down on a bench. I opened the envelope and there’s a supermarket receipt inside:
Prawns (loose): 0.5kg@ £9.94 / KG – £4.47
Sirloin steak (3): 680g @ £10.79 / KG – £7.34
Lobster tails: 3@ £3.10 – £9.30
Mussels (loose): 1kg @ £2.93 / KG – £2.93
(c) Steve Laker, 2014