Morris Baker always wore the same crumpled jacket and had a habit of leaning toward you as if you owed him something.
He would haunt the cafes of Glenferrie Rd, hunched over his coffee in a dark corner, like a mole in a cave.
Tiffany Jacobs considered it very bad luck that she’d bumped into him on the way to Malvern Station.
Once, in their youth, she’d been in love with him. He had a crumpled look then, like a wounded poet. But now, he was a crumpled loser.
So Tiffany Jacobs sped past Morris toward the 9 a.m. city loop, clutching her bag tight against her chest to hide her sorry badge, Spinster.
But Morris accosted her. “Tiffany!”
“O. Morris! What a lovely surprise!“
As he leaned toward her she sensed the prickle of his stubble peeping out from below his shirt collar.
Maybe there was a chance, after all, maybe just the occasional coffee together?
But then she began to choke on his acrid breath and couldn’t look at how yellow his teeth were when he smiled.
“Morris, whatever happened to you?”
Morris answered her sensible, laceup shoes with a shuffle. “O, I gamble a bit.”
Tiffany immediately pulled down the last shutter. Morris Baker’s dice had fallen the wrong way down the gutter of life and she would never walk his way. Whatever made her think, even for a moment, that she could?
He leaned very close. “Coffee?”
“No!” she stepped back. “My train!” and she ran off.
Morris stood, pencil poised over a small notebook, and his hand was shaking. “What’s your number?”
Tiffany froze mid-flight. She shifted from foot to foot. To give him the number and put up with an unwanted call? Or, to shoot straight and never be bothered again?
Like a stunned kangaroo, Tiffany Jacobs watched Morris draw nearer, urgent, with pencil and pad.
And she began to recite her phone number as he wrote.
But, in guilt-ridden cowardice, Tiffany changed the last number.
On the train into town, Tiffany Jacobs pictured her landline that sat by her bed and never rang. It never rang, night after night, it never rang.
And here was an old friend, hard on his luck, and she had ensured that he, too, would never ring.
She pictured him, following the numbers in his little notebook, hearing the recorded message: please check your number and dial again. And he would check his number and dial again and her phone would never ring.
After that, guilt stalked Tiffany like a sly black cat. Each time she walked down Glenferrie Rd, she half looked for him in every café doorway and window, knowing that he knew, that she had rolled him a dud.
One day, she did see him. He was sitting at a table in a café, still in the same crumpled jacket. But he was not alone.
Morris caught sight of her and beckoned.
The blonde by his side, in lipstick too red for morning, drew up her knee and curled her black patent stiletto round Morris’s calf.
Tiffany fiddled with her top cardigan button and Morris beamed. “I must thank you.”
“Thank me? What for?”
“Your phone number.”
“My phone number?”
“Lucky numbers!” And again he leaned forward as if she owed him something.
Sometimes Tiffany Jacobs sits alone in a café and plays with a set of dice.
She thinks of Morris Baker, of the boy she never married, of her mother, arthritic, waiting for her to fetch the next meal. And she thinks of the telephone in the bedroom that never rings, and never will.
And she wonders, whose dice, indeed, had really rolled the wrong way?