ZDNet Australia is proud to bring you a serialised version of Phil Dobbie's novel The Incumbent. A new chapter will be published here as part of his blog each week on Tuesday. You can also buy the entire book by clicking here.
Not many decades ago human beings were so bored talking to the people they lived with that they invented the telephone. Now they could talk to anyone, whenever they wanted — often at great length and at great expense. Families drifted apart as husbands and wives spent more and more time talking to other people — friends, siblings, mothers, lovers — just about the only time they spoke to each other was when they argued over why the phone bill was so large.
Soon vast telecommunications networks sprung up, run by highly paid technologists who were fascinated at how phone calls were delivered but who, generally, lacked the charisma or confidence to have friends of their own to talk to. Making a call for social purposes was something they facilitated, but rarely participated in. Telephone companies grew and grew until, before long, every country had at least one, each employing many thousands of people. These were the original geeks of the world, who enjoyed wearing polo shirts with the corporate logo on the sleeve (and on the back pocket of their standard-issue trousers: trousers that were always pulled up unfashionably high, often not far short of the nipple). As a rule they were pale, overweight and had body odour problems.
As demand for telephones grew, lines were haplessly slung above city streets. They were tied around lamp posts, wrapped around tree branches, knotted together over road intersections — whatever it took to get more wires connected to more homes as quickly and as cheaply as possible. No one cared what it did to the aesthetics of their neighbourhood because, with the phone to talk on, they didn't need to get out that often. They grew oblivious to the visual pollution, perhaps looking up occasionally should a bird dropping land on their shoulder. Birds loved the telephony age. Telephone lines gave them more opportunities to spend their days shitting on humans.
And so it was, underneath one spider's web of unsightly telephone cables that, early one April morning, a pale, spindly man rode his bike through the near-deserted streets of inner-city Sydney. Very few people were up so early, save a few late-night clubbers coming off their Ecstasy high and the occasional high-powered executive who was leaving for work early, fuelled by even more Ecstasy and a drive to earn more than anyone else before keeling over from a heart attack in his mid-40s.
There was a prostitute or two, loitering on the street corner looking for clients. Every so often a ute driver from the western suburbs would pull up by the kerb and, after a brief conversation, drive off with a weathered 60-year-old whose make-up and attire barely concealed the prostitute's true age and gender. Sometimes a government car appeared alongside one of the slightly more attractive girls and the driver would explain that he could offer a substantial sum for one night of passion with a well-known conservative politician. The offer would usually be refused because, even though a girl was a prostitute, she still had standards.
Regularly, the relative quiet of the city streets would be broken by a herd of cyclists, sometimes as many as 30, mostly middle-aged men, pedalling their expensive equipment in skin-tight compression suits. These outfits were so tight that the cyclists needed to spend half an hour in a decompression chamber when they disrobed. For the cyclists, the lycra tights did the dual-job of maximising aerodynamics whilst reducing the likelihood of conceiving children, an outcome that would have a devastating impact on their training schedules. After an hour or so of training they would be sitting outside cafes, sipping cappuccinos and showcasing their equipment, so to speak. Some of the heavier men would don the gear, but avoid the training, and head straight to the cafe for a bacon and egg sandwich.
And moving slowly through the streets, early on this warm April morning, was an even older man, dressed in oil-stained corduroy trousers, on a very old bike, with a squeaky wheel — or perhaps he had a squeaky knee joint, it was difficult to tell which. On his back was a bag filled with the day's mail. His tiny legs, as thin as his bicycle tyres, were shaking under the strain. His skin was weathered and baggy, as though the flesh around his gonads had taken over the entire body. As to his age, that was anyone's guess, but most would agree, whatever it was, it was a miracle he was still alive.
The old man was kept alive by a sense of commitment to his job. He had the old-fashioned duty of ensuring the mail always got through, whatever the weather. Over his shoulder he carried the same bag he had used for decades, delivering post at first light to a largely unappreciative audience. Most people never gave a thought to him and his dedication to the Australian postal service. He could slip away from this life largely unnoticed, perhaps discovered in his bed, suffocated by his own excess skin. People wouldn't miss him because there was so little mail these days. Instead, people relied on the internet, the great new high-tech invention that made it easier for people to exchange jokes and to masturbate more regularly.
Fortunately for this aged postman, for now at least, letters were still needed to deliver phone and internet bills, interspersed with those 24-page supermarket catalogues filled with the lowest prices for bananas, German sausages and plasma televisions. Then there were the letters threatening blackmail and extortion — mainly from banks. Before the morning was over, the postman would have notified four people that they had defaulted on their home loan, caused the breakdown of two marriages from unexplained hotel bookings on credit card statements, and encouraged 14 pensioners to forgo food in favour of a complete video box set of Upstairs, Downstairs, spread across 24 easy payments.
The postman was feeling the strain this morning. In his bag he carried the largest phone bill ever to arrive at the home of Mr Sydney Musson. It was a significant event that would quickly lead to the recipient's mental breakdown and soon after, a murder. It was to be a surprising response from a man who, after a 22-year career in door-to-door insurance sales, had grown used to being treated with the respect you'd offer, say, a tadpole.
Musson lived on his own in a bedsit above a Chinese takeaway, the Happy Fu King, whose menu he systematically worked through on a two-week rotation. On this particular morning he was up early, clearing away the foil dish from last night's Sweet and Sour Pork (number 36), when the post arrived.
Musson steered his clinically obese body to the front door, clad in striped flannelette pyjamas, stained with a personal history of takeaway food. It had been some time since they'd been cleaned and it was a constant mystery to the owner of the Happy Fu King why the area smelt of Chinese takeaway even before they started cooking.
Normally, Musson would leave the mail unopened until the end of the day. It gave him something to do after work. With 22 years in door-to-door insurance sales behind him — a career, quite rightly, shunned by polite society — he had abandoned any hope of a social life, a family or sex involving another person. In fact, on the sex front, his obesity had reached the point where his arm no longer reached far enough for self-satisfaction and his life had become one long continuous period of sexual tension. The frustration made him a time bomb waiting to explode, although it was eased every few years, usually during a televised ladies tennis final, when Musson would achieve a hands-free instantaneous orgasm, nearly choking to death on his Chow Mein (number 28) in the process.
Devoid of any social interaction, Musson's evenings were free for him to do what he wanted, and opening the mail was a highlight. And tonight, being the second Wednesday in the month, which would be followed by Cantonese Chicken and Prawn Crackers (number 37).
But on this particular morning the mail couldn't wait. The phone bill landed through his door with unusual gravity. It hit the carpet with such a large thud that Musson instantly knew something was amiss. At first he suspected a bomb. The government had been repeatedly advertising the threat of terrorism, encouraging people to be on the lookout for anyone behaving suspiciously, such as, not being of Anglo-Saxon heritage. If it was a bomb, Musson had thought, opening it would kill him and he'd rather die now and not have to put in another day at work.
"Best to open it quickly," he thought, as though he might take the bomb by surprise, and with that he vigorously ripped the envelope apart. He flinched for a second, waiting for the blast that would end his life and provide a personal answer to that eternal question about what happens next. "Is it heaven or hell? Or is the whole universe so vindictive that it places us back on earth to live this same life all over again?" He thought for a moment about the horridness of eternity before the realisation that there had been no blast. There was no bomb. Life went on as normal. "Shit!" said Musson, who now had to front up for another day in the door-to-door insurance sales industry.
His disappointment quickly turned to anger when he discovered the real contents of the package. His phone bill was normally an inconsequential item, comprising a slightly more than acceptable charge for having a phone, then a meagre amount for calls to the Chinese takeaway downstairs. Its only variance was by the number of days in the billing period, although once, four years ago, he did call for a mechanic when his car wouldn't start.
Other than that, with no social circle whatsoever, Musson never called anyone. In fact, the main reason he had a phone at all was to accept phone calls from telemarketers. They provided a rare opportunity to talk to human beings who weren't going to be rude to him. He would chat to them for hours, before electing not to buy anything. If market researchers called he could turn a 20-minute survey into a two-hour discussion that, to him, would happily pass as an evening's entertainment.
Common tricks to elongate the call were to ask the caller to repeat himself, to engage in detailed discussion around the semantics and then, just before reaching the end, asking the researcher to go back to the start because he thought he might have changed his mind on some of the early questions. In his mind, Musson saw this as payback to organisations that intruded on his home life but, in reality, he was a desperate, lonely man who welcomed any form of human interaction. It's the same reason lonely old people listen to talkback radio. No one would normally listen to them, but just a phone call away is a highly paid, egotistical bigot who will give them the time of day, squeezed in between a traffic update and the sports report.
Unfortunately, for Musson, calls from telemarketers had become less regular lately thanks to the Do Not Call register. Lots of people signed themselves up so they wouldn't receive unsolicited phone calls, usually from vast call centres in third-world countries, like India or the Philippines, or Wales. Musson was unique in that his name had been added to the list by the telemarketers themselves, who were keen to ensure that they never had to talk to him again. Yet he still received calls offering anything from do-it-yourself penis enlargement to timeshare properties in Fiji. In the case of the former, he had once accepted the free trial in an attempt to reduce the distance to his right hand, but he was still a good 10 centimetres short.
There was no time for self flagellation this morning though. Musson was a man on a mission. He was angry at being inadvertently billed three times his annual salary, but there was an upside. This was a perfect opportunity to complain and complaining was one of his favourite pastimes. He'd once signed up to an internet service provider, not because he wanted to access the internet, but because he'd heard they had unacceptably long call queues and he wanted to complain about it.
The phone bill was from VastTel, the nation's largest telecommunications provider. It listed 48 pages of calls he clearly hadn't made. That meant someone at VastTel would now be faced with several hours of the irate ramblings of a sad, lonely and bitter man who would insist on going through each call, line by line, in immense detail.
In readiness, Musson made himself comfortable. He piled cushions behind his ample frame, placed a coffee on the side table, and picked up the phone. His first call was to the office, saying he was feeling a bit off colour and wouldn't be in. The person at work who answered the call had tried to sound interested, but had such poor attention to detail that he forgot to mention the call to anyone. Musson's boss would be so furious about his absence, the first day in 22 years, that he would decide to sack him instantly. It's a decision that would have little impact on Musson's life given he would shortly be charged with murder. Murderers rarely return to work straight after being charged with such a serious crime. It's just not acceptable behaviour, even in the finance industry.
So Musson was ready to complain. He stretched his arms above his head, felt his back click slightly out of place, or back in place, he could never be sure, then took a deep breath and readied himself for the call. Today wasn't going to be such a bad day after all.
The Incumbent is Phil Dobbie's first novel and these excerpts have been used with his permission. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. To purchase the entire novel in digital format, click here. It is also available in printed format ... for more details click here.