The Operator

by Ry Lewis 3 months ago in literature

A short story about listening to one another

The Operator

Despite the sun radiating through his bedroom window and the sound of his sister’s laughter next door, Jackson was heartbroken. Even the aroma of cinnamon that wafted up from downstairs couldn’t raise his spirits. The comfort of French toast could not replace what he’d lost—or rather, what he’d found—that morning.

Even at 7:30 in the morning, January 28, 1933 was a baking hot summer’s day, but from now on, it would always be the day that Astro died. Jackon’s best friend, in truth his only friend, was beak down in his water dish. His death must have caused him to fall from his perch and plop straight into it. His right wing hung limply, half in and half out of the dish. It was a pathetic sight, unbecoming of a cockatoo who in his prime had been magnificent. Jackson opened the cage hatch, lifted out his pet’s languid corpse and clutched it to his heaving chest while he shivered with sobs.

“Look! Astro’s dead.” His sister momentarily looked up from her dolls’ tea party. She glared at her brother who stood so forlorn in her doorway. How dare he interrupt her tea party? She stood up, walked to the door and slammed it in his face.

“Idiot!” Jackson muttered as he trudged downstairs. What did a seven-year-old know about death? You didn’t understand death’s finality until you were at least ten, like him.

The French toast was piled in the centre of the kitchen table. It was covered with a mesh to keep the flies away. Next to it was a handwritten note from his mother, which merely read: We’ve gone to town.

The town was Cairns. The note meant they’d be gone all day. Dust from their tyre tracks still hung in the air, so they hadn’t been gone long. Had they heard his scream and still left? Queensland scrub was lonely at the best of times, but today Jackson felt like he was stranded on the moon. Astro looked so small laid on the table. The funk of avian mortality momentarily distracted the flies from the toast. Jackson swatted them away. He picked his forlorn friend up and wandered to the telephone in the hall. He needed to talk to someone, so he lifted the receiver.

“Number, please?” A female voice—in those days all operators were.

“Number, please?” Jackson remained silent.

“Would you like to give me a number?” Jackson decided he could trust this patient voice.

“Astro’s dead,” he sobbed. There was a pause; just the right amount of time for the operator to understand the situation.

“And who was Astro?” said the old lady’s voice, with compassion.

“My best friend.”

“And who’s Astro’s friend?”

“Me. Jackson Jones.”

“Hello, Jackson. My name’s Sarah. Would you like to tell me about Astro?”

“He was my cockatoo. I found him dead. His feathers are all soggy.” Jackson stroked the star-shaped feathers on the bird’s head. They were the reason for his name.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Are you alone?” Sarah asked.

“My sister’s here, but she doesn’t care. She hated his singing.”

“Astro could sing?”

“Yes. Not great, but he tried.”

“I’m sure he had a great voice. Did his singing make you happy?”

“Always.”

“Well, that’s it, isn’t it?” Sarah said, with a smile.

“That’s what?”

“He’s been called to sing elsewhere.”

“Where?” Jackson asked indignantly.

“Well, I think he’s singing in a big choir in the sky.”

“Thank you, Sarah.”

“My pleasure, Jackson. If you ever need to talk, I’m here.”

And that’s how it was. That was the first time Jackson called Sarah, but it wasn’t the last. When Wayne Brown beat him up at school, Sarah was there. She told him how sometimes it was the bully who needed the help more. When he tripped over his Moses tunic in the Sunday school play, she told him how it’s only through falling down that we learn to get back up again. And when Bronwyn Matthews later broke his heart, she told him how he’d now know never to hurt anyone else in that way.

But now Jackson was twenty-two, and it had been a while since he had last been in touch with Sarah. He’d been away from home for a few years, but he, unlike many, had finally made it home. Standing in the hallway, Jackson picked up the telephone receiver.

“Number, please?” It wasn’t Sarah. He paused.

“Sorry. I don’t have a number. I’m looking for… is Sarah there?”

The silence in the response said everything. “I’m afraid Sarah’s passed on,” said the voice. Jackson said nothing.

“Is that… is that Jackson? Jackson Jones?”

“Yes,” said Jackson tentatively, somewhat surprised.

“Wait a moment, please.” There was a rummaging noise at the other end of the line. “Sarah left you a letter, in case you ever phoned back. Do you want me to read it?”

“Yes,” Jackson said as he sat down, tears rolling down his cheeks. After all this time, she had remembered him.

“Ok.” The voice began, and for those moments Jackson didn’t hear the young girl speaking. Instead, he heard Sarah’s wise, caring voice: “Jackson, if you’re hearing this, then you kept in touch. You came home. I’m so proud of you and the man I know you’ve become. I know where you had to go and what you had to do. Thank you for everything you sacrificed. But most of all, thank you for keeping in touch all these years. I’m sure you now know where I am. I too have gone to sing in the big choir in the sky. So tonight, look out at the stars and see if you can see mine. I’ll be there. I always was.”

That night Jackson did look out. And he saw Sarah’s star, shining bright, in touching distance of Astro’s. Astro—my pet cockatoo.

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Ry Lewis

UK-based creative, filmmaker, artist and writer. 80s' Geek, Star Wars fan and cinephile.

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