Nothing Left but the Dial Tone by Martha Lane

I do my best to smooth the duvet, its creases swirling like milk hitting coffee. The body in the bed isn’t helping. The dead woman’s beads – borrowed, amber, still warm – crowd my chest as I meander through the jobs that no longer need doing in her room.

Time had worked hard on this one, scrubbed her out day by day, leaving her nothing more than remnants. The ghost of a word etched deep into paper.


You’re procrastinating. Why are you wearing that? A voice I’ve carried for years. Long faded but never gone. Ghosts of words.

I wasn’t going to keep it. I only wanted to feel close to her. I was lonely.

I’m here.

I wish.

You used to have a necklace like that.


Of course. The memory stings like a wasp. Sharp and hot. A string of beads, yellow as sunflower petals, clacking while a couple ran to catch a train. Their fingers entwined, not even letting go to fit through the barrier comfortably. Laughing in the way only those who haven’t lost anyone, can.

Eventually, I sit. A vigil. My fidgety fingers polish the orange stones, translucent like jelly. I wonder where the lady had worn them. Who might once have slipped them over her head? Skimming the hairs on the nape of her neck. Electricity pulsing, goosebumps waltzing.

I ask her, my voice loud in the breathless room, but she’s too peaceful to talk.

I stroke her tissue-paper hand, her cloud of silver hair, place her necklace back and tell her about the man who once bought jewellery for me. The man who squeezed me through ticket barriers. Who pulled me along on so many adventures. The reason I smelled daisies during storms, felt warm on the darkest November nights, heard music when there was none playing.


I always promised you’d never forget me.

How could I?


I return to my feet, pace to the door, to the bed, to the window, to the dresser. The air is soft as feathers. The sliver of light piercing through the curtains is a splinter. I promise myself I will make the call soon. As soon as I have completed one more lap of the room.


Come on. It’s only a phone call. How hard can it be?

I ignore him.


‘Who loved you?’ I question aloud as I draw a line in the dust on the woman’s dressing table.

Her voice, buried treasure, shares no answers. I hope there is no answer. If no one loved her, then I don’t need to break someone’s heart today. But I look at her wall, and it is a collage of smiling eyes and open mouths imprisoned in gilded frames. Toddlers with ice cream dribble and paint in their fringes. A younger woman staring out from behind the glass – blue eyes, curly hair, so like the body in the bed – caught half-way between candid and posed, wipes the children clean, stares directly at me. I mouth a soundless sorry. Sigh, ‘forgive me.’ I have to steal her mother.


Do you remember the voice that robbed you?

Only when I’m awake.

That kind nurse’s voice stuttering over the car speaker phone, telling me I was too late. That singing, ringing Scottish burr kicking down my door and stealing my most valuable thing, my everything. And leaving nothing but the dial tone, a siren of the lost.


‘I don’t want to do it,’ I whisper in the woman’s cold unhearing ear.

I wait for her to say it’ll be fine. I wait until the room is dressed in shadows. To see if the clock ticks itself quiet.

Biography: Martha Lane is a writer by the sea. Her stories have been published by Ellipsis Zine, Northern Gravy, and Reflex Fiction, among others. If she isn’t writing, she’s reading! Tweets @poor_and_clean