“So, the time is coming up to midnight, but here it is, folks: Lazarus, by David Bowie. One from his last album and always a perennial favourite of mine, and let’s not forget that you heard it here first, all the way back when it came out, because we lead the way here at 88 to 91 FM, Radio TARDIS.”
John Smith slid up a switch on his screen, then leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes in an attempt at shutting out the glaring studio lights.
“What’s the matter with you?” his producer asked, arching an eyebrow at him distastefully from behind the glass window that separated them. “Still not over Bowie?”
“Nope,” John concurred, rolling his shoulders to ease some of the tension that had settled across them. “Also, there’s the small issue that I’m festering away in this bloody awful late-night slot.”
“You are not festering.”
“Missy, this is where radio DJs go to die. We both know that.”
“Funny, I was thinking that’s what prison is for. They all seem to cock up spectacularly in the end.”
“You’re boring as hell. We know,” she tipped him a wink that seemed at odds with her acerbic tone. “Maybe that’s why we gave you this slot.”
“I am not boring,” John protested, gesturing vaguely towards the wall of the studio, upon which hung row upon row of framed photographs of him with celebrity guests, back in his heyday. He grimaced as he realised how long ago his heyday had been, and inwardly groaned. “My guests would almost certainly dispute that fact.”
“The last properly interesting thing you did was take acid in Glasgow, and that was in the 1970s. You’re boring, John, but we don’t mind. You’re eking out a reasonable living with a reasonable listenership in the graveyard slot, so stop whinging.”
“I founded this radio station! I’ll whinge all I damn well like about having a crap programme at a crap time.”
“You did indeed found it,” Missy acquiesced, with an easy shrug. “But you did also give it a ridiculous name, so maybe that was your undoing.”
“Shut up, it’s a great name.”
“You are a deeply, deeply tragic man. Have I mentioned that?”
“Oh, shut up, you love me really.”
“Do I, though? You’re back on air in ten.”
John sat up a little straighter, adjusting his headphones and trying to muster some enthusiasm for the next segment of his show. As he watched the timer on his screen count down, he took a deep breath and then launched into his well-rehearsed introduction with practised ease.
“So, the clock is striking twelve, and that can mean only one thing: it’s time for Witching Hour Wisdom with your very own host, John Smith. You’ve got twelve minutes to call in and ask me the questions that are playing on your mind, in exchange for my advice, which is free, fun, and as friendly as this old Glaswegian gets. As ever, keep it clean, keep it PG, but, all that being said, I wouldn’t say no to dinner and a drink if you play your cards right. Now, our lucky first caller tonight is…” he squinted at his screen, then shot Missy a look of bemusement. “The Impossible Girl. Hi, Impossible Girl, what’s your question for me this evening?”
Missy hit a button and transferred the call through to the desk, but there was only silence on the other end of the line. John rolled his eyes, praying she wasn’t going to be a difficult caller.
“Hello?” he asked, furrowing his brow in consternation. “Impossible, are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” came the eventual response, and John noticed the woman’s voice was thick with emotion. He felt his heart lurch empathically, and resolved to do his best to help her with her issue. “Hi, John.”
“Hello,” he enthused, as warmly as he was able given the late hour. “So, how can I help you this evening? What’s your burning question for me?”
The caller sniffed hard, evidently attempting to regain a modicum of self-control. “What does TARDIS stand for?” she asked, in a tone that suggested she was aiming for jovial, but fell somewhat short. “Go on, tell us. We’re all dying to know.”
“Now,” he chastised, chuckling. “You know I can’t give away my secrets. I’m a man of mystery, which means I can’t go telling you all about my No. 1 suspenseful decision, so I’ll let you use your imagination to fill the acronym. But something tells me that isn’t the reason you called, is it? Go on; what’s your real question?”
“I… urm…” she stammered, and John realised to his horror that she was crying. “You know, I’ve always loved your shows. Used to listen to the Breakfast Show with my mum when I was a kid… then at uni, I used to sneak away from parties and listen to you in the evenings. You know, like the totally sad individual that I am.”
“That’s not sad! That’s great to hear,” he assured her, half-touched by the story and half-curious about its relevance to her question. For an awful second, he wondered if she was one of his diehard fans who called up every night to declare their love for him, and hoped to god the station’s screening procedure hadn’t let one slip through the net. He dismissed the thought almost at once – she sounded younger than the usual hardcore fan demographic, and she wasn’t fawning enough to be an obsessive. “Thanks for sticking with my miserable old voice for so long, it’s cheering to know I’ve got at least one listener out there.”
“Anyway, the thing is,” she continued, as though he hadn’t spoken, and he realised that she had probably rehearsed what she was going to say. “You always seem to give out good advice to people who call in to your show. Well, good-ish. It’s practical and it’s usually pretty handy. So, my question is: my boyfriend just died, and I have no bloody idea what to do. How am I supposed to carry on like everything is OK?”
John felt his heart stop in that instant. He’d been working the late-night slot for two years, and, in that time, his callers had been carefully vetted by Missy and his team to ensure that the topics discussed on Witching Hour Wisdom steered away from such intense things as death, loss, or bereavement, and unbidden, his mind flashed back to ten years before, standing at a graveside in the rain in subdued silence. He shuddered, pushing the image away with some effort, forcing himself to instead wonder how this caller had slipped through the net, and then realising that he’d lapsed into silence as the young woman was waiting on the other end of the line, desperate for advice.
“Well,” he said, uncertainly, gathering his thoughts. He decided to take a pragmatic approach to the matter. “I’m sorry to hear that. How long had you two been dating?”
“Eighteen months. We met at work; we were friends for a long time, then he asked me out for coffee one day and we went from there, really. It was a bit of a surprise, but a lovely one.”
“That sounds pretty romantic, where do you work?”
“I teach,” she said, evasively. “I’m not saying where, though. Don’t want any of your listeners turning up to get a glimpse of a mourning, widowed girlfriend.”
“No, no, that’s fine. Besides, I don’t think I’ve got that many listeners… other than yourself, that is. Eighteen months is a long time to be with someone, so I understand it’s difficult to know what to do with yourself after they’ve passed on. Everything seems to be… I don’t know, detached from you. Far away. And the worst part is that you think that you can just pick up the phone and call the person you lost to discuss it, or go around and see them, and then you keep remembering you can’t, and it’s like losing them all over again. You want to discuss their loss… but you only want to discuss it with them. Life’s a bi- … life is cruel.”
“Yeah,” the caller breathed, sounding awed of his understanding. “Exactly.”
“I know it hurts. And I know you probably don’t want to do anything, just let the pain consume you. You want to lie on the sofa, and weep, and – wait, how old are you?”
“Well, do whatever thirty-year-olds do now.”
“Yeah… that. So right now, I know you just want to let it burn, and let it take over, but you can’t do that. You have to keep busy, even though you might not have anyone to share your activities with, or tell about your day. Stick close to the people you care about, and keep talking to them – don’t isolate yourself. It’s alright to mourn, and alright to hurt, but you have to manage your grief, OK? Can you do that?”
“I think so,” the caller confirmed, and John was pleased to note that she sounded marginally more cheerful than she had before. “Thank you.”
“It’s my pleasure. Be safe, be awesome, and be happy, Impossible.”
“I’ll do my best. Thanks, John.”
There was a click as the line went dead, and he put his head in his hands, fighting back tears.
“John?” Missy’s voice crackled through his headphones, interrupting his thoughts. “John, you’ve got another caller, you useless Scottish lump, so no having a mental breakdown until you get home. Ta.”
He swallowed, raising his head and clenching his fists as he fought to keep things together. He couldn’t fall apart in the studio, and certainly not in front of Missy, so he resolved to finish the show and make it back to the safe haven of his house before he let his emotions overtake him. “OK,” he said, in a faux-chirpy voice, determined not to let the cracks in his composure show. “Caller No. 2, what’s your question?”
John got through the rest of the show in a stupor, barely aware of what he was saying. When he finally hung up his headphones in the small hours of the morning, he stumbled out of the studio and into the production office, barely aware of his surroundings. “If she calls again,” he told Missy in a throaty voice, his eyes burning with unshed tears. “Put her through.”
“Goddamn it, just do it, would you? For once, can you please just do as I say?”
“Fine,” she snapped back, holding up her hands in a submissive gesture. “Fine, but if we start getting complaints about caller privilege, it’s your shit to deal with.”
“Fine,” he shot back, then made for the door, calling over his shoulder in a tokenistic gesture of politeness: “See you tomorrow.”
“Later today, you mean.”
As he drove home, he weighed over the mystery caller’s question in his mind. Her words and raw emotion brought flashes of memory, sharp and uncomfortable, to the forefront of his mind, each demanding his attention: the office phone ringing as he had been jotting down ideas for new segments; the dash to the hospital across London in the rush hour; and then a doctor’s sombre expression as he had been led into a private room. With each recollection, he changed radio stations and turned the volume up to distract himself, until, by the time he pulled into his driveway, he was listening to maximum-volume thrash metal on a local indie station he usually turned his nose up at. As he killed the engine and stepped inside the house, the lights came on automatically, and he looked across the hallway at the framed photograph that hung at the bottom of the stairs.
Himself, younger and darker-haired, alongside a blonde woman on their wedding day. Masses of frothy, curly hair framed her face, and she was laughing, her face upturned to him as her arms encircled his waist and confetti rained down around him. He closed his eyes for a moment, squeezing them shut against the artificial glare of the hall light, and fought back tears. Opening them again, he began the familiar, weary trek upstairs, pausing by the photo and mumbling shyly: “Miss you, you know.”
He sighed again, beginning to ascend the stairs to bed.
“She’ll call back,” he mumbled under his breath, determined to distract himself. “Of course she will.”