'Your number is ringing,' said the voice. Mike heard the Bip, Bip, Bip and then silence for a moment before the signal repeated itself.
'Park, no I mean 727 9209,' suddenly said a very familiar voice. Sudden tears welled up in his eyes and his throat felt tight and dry.
'Pete, are you thoroughly awake?' Mike said, clearing his throat with some difficulty.
'Yes, of course I am, who is it?' came a rather testy reply.
'Pete, this is Mike Jerome,' Mike said, trying to hold back the tears.
'Mike?' Then there was silence. 'Pete, are you all right?' asked Mike urgently. 'Man, if it's really you, then I'm O.K.,' came a very unsteady voice down the phone. 'Where are you?'
'I'm at Warren Street Station, or thereabouts. Where are you?'
'Same old place. Look, it isn't worth me getting out the limousine, as the traffic is really f . . . awful. Can you make your way over, I think it would be easier.'
'Of course. Look, if the traffic is that bad, then I might have to walk, so expect me in say an hour or so,' said Mike beginning to feel contact with the world at last.
'About an hour, great, Mike, that's just great. Till then,' said Pete.
'Till then,' Mike said excitedly, and replaced the phone.
Mike was just about to leave the Post Office when he remembered that he would have to pay for the call. He went back to the counter, and waited his turn.
'That's ten pence.'
Mike felt in his pocket and took out all his loose change. He counted out ten pence and pushed the money over the counter. He didn't wait to hear what the woman called after him.
The streets were still crowded and Mike's patience was beginning to wear thin. He looked round until he saw an empty cab but the driver was nowhere to be seen. He would have been happy to pay well over the top, not to have to walk to Pete's. He went to the tube station just in case, but it looked hopeless. The vast numbers of people walking were not shoppers, as he'd originally thought, but workers. He wondered whether there was a special reason or if the chaos was normal.
As Mike walked on into Marylebone Road, all the old buildings he remembered were gone. In their place towered huge sky scrapers. He stopped from time to time to see what they were used for. To him they looked like office blocks, but from studying the long lists of names inside the buildings it became apparent that there was a large residential population. This struck him as very logical. If one couldn't commute to work, then one would have to live near one's work. How pleasant, thought Mike, he could find himself a superb new flat. A penthouse, perhaps. Resilience returned.
‘Love ... Love is money, Cheri.’
Mike turned buoyantly into Craven Hill and walked across the road to Pete's flat. There, standing on the front steps of the house, was a dark form.
'Man, I couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it,' said Pete, leaping down the steps to greet Mike. The two hugged each other in a long embrace.
'How are you?' said Mike, seeing the tears in Pete's eyes.
'Great. A little over-weight,' said Pete, patting his trim looking stomach. 'Come on, come in, you bloody bastard.'
Mike followed Pete up the stairs and into his flat. Inside, Mike took hold of Pete and gave him another bear hug.
'You know, you really had me worried,' said Pete, going over to a low table and pouring out two of the usual drinks.
'You're not the only one,' said Mike, helping himself to a splash of soda. 'Did you have a bad time?'
'Man, did I have a time. I was accused of hiding you, killing you, encouraging you to run away, and after all this I had the damned police on my back for months,'
Pete said with a big grin. 'You know, the worst person was that damned bitch, Sue.'
'What the devil was she doing?'
'She was the one who put the police onto me. She never really liked me, and since I'm black everybody had it in for me,' said Pete, taking a seat. At this moment a rather embarrassed looking girl came out of the kitchen wearing nothing but her pants.
'Honey, why haven't you got dressed?' said Pete.
'You two didn't give me very much time, did you,' came the reply.
'This is my oldest and best friend, Mike,' said Pete with pride.
'Hello,' said Mike.
'I've heard an awful lot about you, Mr Jerome,' said the girl with a twinkle.
'I'm sure you have,' said Mike, looking at Pete.
'Honey, the man's name is Mike,' said Pete. 'Mike, that's Guy,' he said, as the girl left the room to get dressed. 'Another drink?'
'Tell you one thing I'd like to do, and that is to eat early,' Mike said, getting up and starting to prowl around the room.
'Sure, we can nip round the corner to the Indian place,' said Pete, handing Mike his glass.
'Tell me, Pete, what's the date today?'
'Sixth of June, I think.'
'So that makes it ten years to the day that I vanished.'
'Right,' said Pete, not pushing the matter, for which Mike was grateful. Pete probably knew more about his moods, and the way Mike felt, than anyone alive. There were many times in the past when he'd had to come, cap in hand, to Pete for help. He suddenly stopped pacing when he saw his old desk. 'It's mine, isn't it?'
'Sure, it's yours. Haven't opened it since I got it. By the way, I've also got your old filing cabinet, but that's in store at the moment,' said Pete shyly.
'How did you get hold of it?' asked Mike.
'Well, Sue sold off all your stuff at an auction. Since she wouldn't let me buy it before, I went along and bought your desk, filing cabinet and all your papers,' Pete said, turning the desk key in the lock.
Mike pulled open one of the drawers and revealed a mass of untidy papers. He put his arm over Pete's shoulder as he turned over a page or two of a manuscript. 'God, look at this. It was an idea for that TV series I was meant to do.'
'Yes, I had a few problems persuading the TV company not to sue you for breach of contract,' said Pete.
'Thanks,' Mike said, pushing the papers back into the drawer and closing it. The old upright piano caught his eye, and he went over to it and started to rattle off a twelve-bar boogie blues.
'You play very well,' said Guy, coming into the room. 'Where did you learn?'
'From him,' said Mike jerking a thumb at Pete.
'Careful, Mike. Guy's looking for a good accompanist,' Pete said.
'Singer?' said Mike, playing a jazzed-up version of 'God Save the Queen*.
'Right, you could earn some good money . . .' Guy started to say.
'I might hold you to that,' said Mike interrupting.
'Come on, you two. We've got some eating to catch up on,' Pete said, picking up his coat.
It was almost four in the morning when Mike got into bed on the converted couch in the living-room. He had been pleased to find that food hadn't really changed, or at least not Indian delicacies. After their meal Guy had gone off to do her singing spot, at some new jazz club in the West End. Only then did Pete settle back to hear Mike's story. He listened to the whole saga without comment, merely asking Mike if he'd gone back to find Smitt. When he learned that he hadn't, he was relieved and advised Mike not to search him out. A heated argument ensued. Mike wanted to find out what had happened to him and was reluctant to remain in ignorance. Pete, on the other hand, counselled him to leave well alone.
Then it was Pete's turn to fill in the missing ten years of news as far as he could. Pete cared for very little of what went on in the world, except the world of music, but even Pete was now aware that the politicians hadn't been able to effectively control the population growth and were blaming the explosion on the scientists, who, in their turn, were having to find ways of producing food stuffs in even greater quantities.
Mike slept well, and was feeling very cheerful when Guy brought him a cup of tea.
'What do you want for breakfast?' said Guy, still in her cabaret outfit.
'Have you only just got in?' asked Mike, raising himself on one arm to get at his tea.
'Yes, I do two spots, one at eleven, and the other about two in the morning. Unfortunately the club doesn't close until the last drunk has crawled out,' she said with a smile.
'Well, if you're going to cook Pete his usual hearty breakfast, I'll have the same.'
'Pete doesn't eat too much now, it's his heart.'
'His what?' Mike said, not believing what he'd heard.
'His heart, it gives him trouble from time to time, so he has to watch his weight,' she said, almost in a whisper.
'Oh, well, anything will do then,' said Mike, very disturbed about Pete.
'Eggs, bacon and coffee, O.K.?' said Guy, moving towards the kitchen.
'Sounds like a feast. I'll have a few tomatoes if you've got them.' Mike grinned to cover his worries about Pete. He waited until she'd gone, then he extricated his naked body from the pile of blankets, and went into the bathroom. God, he thought, as he found Pete's shaving equipment; the old cut throat looked really lethal. He studied his chin, there was no getting away from it, he'd have to shave. After finishing his death defying act, he washed his face. Drying it, he looked in the mirror. There were no contact lenses in his eyes.
Yet he could see. Mike shivered violently, and searched his eyes with the tip of his finger. The lack of his contact lenses brought back the whole insecurity of the previous day. What had happened in the last ten years? Did he, Mike Jerome really exist, or was he dead? He pinched himself and the flesh seemed real enough. Slowly he finished dressing and returned to the living-room, where his breakfast sat steaming on the table.
'What's the matter?' asked Guy, sitting down. 'Nothing really. I'm just a little upset about Pete's health,' Mike lied.
'You mustn't worry, the modern drugs are simply wonderful, and if the worst came to the worst, he could always have a transplant,' said Guy, very calmly.
Mike looked up from an egg as Pete appeared in a gloriously multicoloured dressing-gown. Mike blinked at this apparition. He obviously mustn't keep Pete up late in future. It was frightening. Pete really looked his age. Mike realized suddenly Pete must be ten years older than he was.
'What do you plan to do this morning?' he said, lowering himself into an easy chair.
'Well, I suppose I ought to go to the bank, and see how much money I have. Then look for somewhere to live,' Mike said thoughtfully.
'Don't rush into finding somewhere to live. That reminds me, when you vanished I took most of your unpublished material to an agent, fellow named Gilbert. We should go to see him before we go to the bank. You might have earned yourself a lot of dough.'
'What would this fellow Gilbert do with any money my work makes?'
'I told him to pay it into your bank in Piccadilly. I couldn't think of anything else to do, and I knew that all your royalties were paid in there.'
'You might be right. What shall we do if I've made a bomb?' said Mike.
'Buy a place in the country, away from the mess in this city. You can go on writing while I do some composing,' said Pete, with a glint in his eye.
'Good idea.' It seemed strange to Mike that Pete had just let any money accruing from his work go into the bank. It sounded as though Pete always thought he would come back. He was roused from his reverie.
'Ready when you are,' said Pete, finishing his coffee. Mike rose with alacrity and put his jacket on. He knew from experience that once Pete was ready, so were you. They went down to the rear entrance of the house, where Pete kept a murderous looking motor bike. Mike immediately thought of the terminal ward in the hospital. The bike roared into life, Pete banged out the clutch, and Mike quickly grabbed the waist in front of him, otherwise he'd have been sitting on the floor. They sped down the street, again blocked by traffic. Pete stopped at the junction of Bayswater Road.
'Why don't these people stay at home if they're going to be stuck in traffic all day?' Mike said to the back of Pete's neck.
'They eventually get there, but it's a slow process,' Pete said, letting out the clutch again. Mike hung on, wondering how much work these people did, or whether they got paid for the time spent in their cars. Pete's interpretation of the Highway Code would have interested a very capable lawyer. Where the road was completely blocked, they would weave across the pavement. If the pavements were full they'd somehow manage to avoid disaster by going in and out of the front doorways of houses and sky scrapers. The snarl of the bike's exhaust seemed to have very little effect on the pedestrians, and Mike had his eyes partially closed so that he couldn't be a witness to an accident.
When the bike stopped Mike opened his eyes. They were almost up against a large plate glass window.
'Are we here?' asked Mike, getting off. Pete nodded, dismounted and leant the bike up on its stand.
'Over there,' said Pete, pointing at a building across the road. The two men made their way through the traffic and in through the main doors of the building.
'Good morning,' said the receptionist as they approached.
'Hi, we'd like to see Mr Gilbert of Gilbert Associates,' said Pete firmly.
The girl smiled at Pete while she pressed the buttons on her intercom. 'What name?'
'Mr Gilbert, there's a Mr Jones and friend to see you.'
'I'm sorry, if they haven't an appointment, I can't see them,' came a voice from the intercom.
'Mr Gilbert,' said Pete, 'all we want to know is whether you've made any money for Mr Jerome.'
'Mr Jerome, Jerome,' said the voice, thoughtfully. 'You mean the man who vanished?'
'Mr Jones, I'm afraid I haven't the information on hand, so could you come back later today?'