Julian Quince - The Phone Call
Julian has previously worked at the United Nations, as a bookseller and as a proofreader, but his true passion lies in writing. He now lives in the British countryside and devotes his time to writing and growing tasty vegetables.
The Phone Call
The phone rang. Larry sighed. He ignored it and offered the bowl of pickled olives to Jim.
It rang again. It was one of those old ringtones that sound like the first telephone ever invented. The new, fancy ringtones irritated Larry.
‘Don’t you want to answer that?’ Jim said. ‘You never know, someone could be dying.’
Larry smiled. ‘Fine.’
He put the bowl down and got up.
‘Will you bring some more wine on your way back?’ his wife asked, winking at Jim’s wife.
Larry nodded and hurried to the kitchen. The cell phone had rung five times; one more and it would go to his voicemail. He entertained the thought of failing to get to the phone on time, but now that he was up… He answered.
‘Mr. Goodrich?’ a woman’s voice said.
Larry confirmed. He wasn’t in a mood to entertain nuisance calls. They never usually called at eight o’clock at night. He had his rebuke ready-made in his mind.
‘My name is Lisa Chang. I am the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of the United States in Phnom Penh.’
Why did this ring a bell? Larry thought. Then he remembered. His son was on vacation in Cambodia. He was there with his girlfriend, backpacking across French Indochina for two months.
Larry kept quiet.
‘I am calling about your son, David.’
A gush of heat rushed through his veins. His tinnitus grew louder. He held the phone tightly to his ear.
‘I’m afraid I have unfortunate news. Your son has been arrested by the Cambodian authorities, and is currently being held in custody.’
Jim made a joke and Larry’s wife laughed out loud in the sitting room. The woman, Lisa, said something else but all he could hear was his tinnitus. The light in the kitchen grew brighter. He saw his reflection in the window, turned into a mirror by the darkness outside. He was perfectly aware that right now, at this very moment in time, his life had changed. Nothing would ever be the same again.
‘Sorry, what was that?’ Larry said, pulling himself together.
‘Rest assured that we are doing our best to get David out of this situation.’
‘You didn’t mention what the charges were.’
‘Your son was caught smuggling heroin out of the country. We are convinced David is the victim, but the Cambodian authorities don’t see it that way. We will keep you updated on the progress.’
‘Alexandra. My son’s girlfriend. Red hair, long–’
‘She’s here with us. She’s the one who contacted us. She’s in safe hands.’
‘I’ll call her parents to tell them.’
‘Actually, she’s already called them herself.’
‘Right. Well, thanks for calling.’
‘We will get your son out of there, Mr. Good–’
Larry put the phone down. He lay still, as if life had left him. He allowed himself a few moments of emptiness before reacting. But slowly questions emerged in his mind and the flow increased until he couldn’t remain motionless any longer.
What was he to do now? He knew he couldn’t merely wait at home for the phone to ring. His son was in danger, and if the TV had taught him anything, he was in lethal danger. Southeast Asian justice was pitiless.
He saw an unopened bottle of wine on the kitchen countertop and seized it mechanically. He returned to the sitting room, put the bottle on the coffee table, and asked his wife Erin to follow him into the hallway.
‘Larry, we have company,’ she replied, looking at the guests with an embarrassed smile.
‘Erin. The hallway, now.’
‘What’s the tone for? No, I will not follow you out when we have guests. It’s quite rude.’
Jim and his wife Mary said it was alright, they didn’t mind being left alone, but Larry wasn’t listening. He glared at Erin and pursed his lips.
‘David has been arrested in Cambodia for smuggling drugs.’
Mary gasped. Erin’s eyes grew wide and flickered to the guests. Jim put his fingers to his lips.
‘I’m going to Phnom Penh now. I’ll call you when I have more news.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Erin said. ‘There’s nothing you can do.’
‘I can do even less by sitting here. Jim, Mary, I’m sorry to leave you like this.’
‘Of course,’ Jim said. ‘Don’t worry about it. We should probably–’
‘I’m not going to Cambodia,’ Erin said.
‘I know you’re not.’ Larry put his shoes and coat on.
Erin asked Jim and Mary to stay for support. Larry checked he had his wallet and cell with him, and he left the house without another word.
He jumped into the car. They had only one car. He wondered how Erin would manage without it, but he realised he didn’t care. He drove down the highway as if his pregnant wife’s water had just broken.
He wondered if you could still just turn up at the airport counter and purchase a flight ticket, like they did in movies. He found out you could. He was lucky, too, to live close to Newark airport; they had flights to Cambodia.
Boarding was only in forty-five minutes, but he didn’t have any bags to check and the officials got him through the security line faster so he managed to board the flight on time. He paid more than any tourist would have been willing to pay, but he wasn’t a tourist. Money had no value to him anymore.
He didn’t watch a movie during the flight. He didn’t read. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t talk to anyone. He only ate the piece of bread he was given with the hot meal. He simply thought of his son and how helpless he must feel. Tears came to his eyes several times; he didn’t bother wiping them.
Larry had always considered his tinnitus to be the worst problem in his life; a never ending torture. But it now seemed a childish matter. He longed for his tinnitus to be his only problem.
David had been tricked. The Lisa woman hadn’t mentioned why she thought David was the victim, but he knew that was the truth. Most parents didn’t think their children capable of committing crimes, and when they did they fell to pieces, flabbergasted or remaining in denial. But with David it was different. He wasn’t the type of kid to use drugs, let alone smuggle them. He was too sensible to engage in such activities in such dangerous territory as Southeast Asia. Plus, Alex was the most innocent girl he’d ever met. If it came to that, she would’ve kept him from doing such a mistake.
He arrived in Hong Kong after a long, tiring flight and transferred. He didn’t need coffee to stay awake. The plane landed in Phnom Penh at eleven in the morning the next day.
He halted the first tuk-tuk driver he saw. The vehicle was a motorcycle pulling an articulated passenger trailer. He asked the driver if he knew where the American embassy was. The driver stared at him blankly, then added, ‘Come, come!’
Larry asked again, but the driver kept repeating “Come!”. Larry had naïvely thought any driver would know where the embassy was. He returned inside and connected to the airport’s free wifi. It took longer than he would’ve liked to find the address because he rarely used his cell’s wifi function.
He kept the page with the address open and returned outside. He showed the screen to the first tuk-tuk driver that stopped; he didn’t want to risk mispronouncing the names.
He hopped in. He stared around him as the tuk-tuk wiggled its way through a swarm of cars and motorcycles. Every Cambodian he saw reminded him of the blatant injustice reigning in the country. He had always been indifferent towards them, but now he despised them. Not everyone was corrupt – he was perfectly aware of that – but he couldn’t help feeling resentful. It was personal. His son was in danger.
He was relieved when he saw the American flag fly high above the building. Something familiar in a sea of unknown. The symbol of the rule of law. He paid the driver ten dollars and told him to keep the change.
Security guards checked him at the entrance, and when he mentioned why he was there, a phone call was made and Lisa appeared almost instantly.
‘I didn’t realize you had decided to make the trip, Mr. Goodrich,’ she said, shaking his hand.
‘Not yet. We’ve been working at it since seven o’clock this morning with our lawyer.’
They entered her office. Alex jumped out of her seat and hugged Larry. He hugged her back. They didn’t say a word – they didn’t need to. She sat back down and Larry took the seat next to her.
‘So what happened? I thought Cambodia was rather lax when it came to drugs. I heard they rarely enforce the laws.’
‘That’s correct,’ Lisa said, ‘except when it comes to smuggling drugs out of the country. Smuggling laws are harsh because it’s a poor country and drugs are cheap and available. As it’s close to the golden triangle and a lot of heavy marijuana and opium producers, some foreigners have tried to stop the eventual chuck-out by smuggling drugs to other richer countries, which would mean all sorts of international pressure and trouble for Cambodia if it caught on.’
She paused for a moment. Then she said, ‘David was caught with ten pounds of heroin in his bag.’
Larry stared blankly at her, then turned to Alex. ‘What happened?’
‘We were about to enter security check to board our flight to Hanoi, but before going in we went to the bathroom. He looked after my bag and I after his. I went to the snack dispenser to buy a chocolate bar as I was looking after his bag. Someone must’ve sneaked the packs of drugs in his bag then, because at security they saw the drugs on the screen.’
‘Didn’t he feel the difference in weight?’
‘He did, but he didn’t think much of it. He thought it was just him. He had no reason to think someone had sneaked loads of heroin in his bag.’
‘I read a bit about Cambodia on the internet at the airport. Bribing seems to work well, didn’t David try that?’
‘He thought of it,’ Alex said. ‘But he didn’t have any cash with him. Me either. We offered to go to the ATM but they didn’t want to hear any of it anyway.’
‘Excellent, it had to be the only honest Cambodians in the Goddamn country. I have cash with me now. Isn’t there anyone I can pay?’
‘Too late,’ Lisa said. ‘It went too far. A judge has been contacted and now has to be involved.’
‘Have you made an appeal for clemency?’
‘We have. Unfortunately, Southeast Asia isn’t afraid to ignore appeals for clemency from Western governments, so we’re not basing our hopes on that.’
‘What about extradition? He’s an American citizen. He should be tried by an American court.’
‘That’s what we’re pushing for at the moment. The success rate in this country is quite low, though.’
‘What’s the other alternative?’
‘Proving in a court of law that he didn’t have the drugs on him when he entered the airport. Proving that he is innocent; that he was set up. Our lawyer is with David right now, building the case.’
‘Can I see my son?’
‘You can, but later.’
‘How is he?’ Larry asked Alex.
‘He’s hanging in there. He was furious at the airport. I’d never seen him like that. It probably didn’t help. I haven’t seen him since he was brought into custody.’
Larry yearned to see his son. He wanted him to know that he was there for him. He wanted to tell him that everything would be alright. He wanted to comfort him. That’s what parents are for, he thought.
‘What’s at stake?’ he asked Lisa. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
‘Thankfully, the death penalty here has been abolished.’ She paused to look at Larry, thinking he would be relieved, but he wasn’t. ‘On paper, Cambodia’s laws prescribe punishment ranging from five years to…life in prison. But that is just on paper; law enforcement is lax.’
‘But not in David’s case, you said.’
Lisa looked at her desk.
Larry rubbed his eyes. The tinnitus came back. It was a welcome distraction, and he let it take him away from the civil servant’s office for a few moments.
They spent the next few hours going over their options, the probability of each sentence and which arguments the lawyer had in store. Then the three of them left the embassy to go to the police station. They used the ambassador’s car and chauffeur, as if it would make things better.
The lawyer was waiting for them. He was the first well dressed Cambodian Larry had seen so far. He wore a dull grey suit without a tie. His jacket was on his arm because of the heat. His forehead was glistening with sweat, and his black hair oily.
He talked in Khmer to the officers, pointed to the three Americans, and after a few minutes they led them through a hallway. The lawyer told them to sit down until they were called in.
Larry didn’t remember ever having so little patience. He wanted to slam the door open and look for his son. He knew David was somewhere in there; they were only separated by a few concrete walls. It didn’t seem fair to have to wait. He felt like he hadn’t seen him for years. A shiver chilled his skin as he thought of the moment he would see his son.
The door finally opened and his name was pronounced with a very Cambodian accent. They all entered the room. He had expected to walk through another hallway but there was David, sitting at a table in front of two officers in uniform.
Stars shone in David’s eyes as he recognized his father. He got up and Larry hugged him as if he would never let go. His son’s arms didn’t wrap around him because his hands were in handcuffs behind his back. Larry let his tears flow. His cheeks and lips were dripping wet when he kissed his son’s neck. He felt hot, damp breath on his shoulder and knew David was crying too. Larry had never cried in front of his son before. It was a type of weakness a father shouldn’t show, he thought. But he didn’t care anymore. Not that he had any control over it, anyway.
The door opened and the lawyer was called outside. Larry let go of his son and they looked at each other for a few seconds, father and son smashed to pieces. Larry wanted to tell him that everything would be okay, like he had been longing to do all day, but no words came out. There was too much emotion for words.
Alex took over and hugged him as well. Larry sat down at the table opposite from where David’s seat was.
‘They treating you well?’ Larry asked with a choked voice.
He nodded, his lips trembling.
They looked at each other in silence. There was so much to be said that they didn’t know what to say.
‘It’s filthy in there, dad. It smells. There are animals. Rats. Mice. Cockroaches crawling over me. Bent needles. Don’t even know how they got there.’ His voice was trembling.
Larry wanted to hold him tight, but the officers’ glares fixed him on his seat.
‘It will be okay, son. We’re working to get you out. It shouldn’t be long now.’
He hated lying to his son, but it just came out.
The lawyer came back in the room and whispered behind Larry’s back. Larry was too focused on his son to notice anything. He didn’t feel Lisa’s hand on his shoulder, or hear her words when she talked. He had let his tinnitus take over and block everything else out. He only saw his son gape at Lisa and then Alex, then try to smile but only winced as more tears flowed down his cheeks.
Larry turned to Lisa and looked at her in confusion. She repeated: ‘He’s free! They caught the smuggler who put the drugs in David’s bag in Hanoi; he admitted to doing it. The judge has acquitted David without a trial!’
Larry cried for the second time in his life in front of his son, but he never felt so good.