I am interested in a short story in which the telephone at the home of an elderly couple rings three times after midnight. On the first two occasions a young woman asks to speak to someone called Charlie. She must have dialled the wrong number, so the second time the wife, who answers, says that she is probably dialling an O instead of a zero. But then the phone rings a third time ... The reader is never told whether it’s the young woman who is repeating her mistake – the story ends with the phone ringing – though this is certainly likely. Who else would call, at this time of night, to a distressed Jewish-Ukrainian couple in American exile? With the exception of a relative, and the staff caring for their son in the mental institution they visited earlier the same day, they appear not to know anyone in the new country.
A researcher who devoted a certain amount of effort to the short story has pointed out that the letter O used to share the space above the six on the rotary dials of old telephones. Only an E is missing, then, in order for the letters to spell a fateful anagram. What he doesn’t consider, however, is that the repeated »mistake«, if indeed it is the same person calling the third time, would add up to the ominous 6-6-6.
For my part, I find that the uncertainty about who is calling the third time saves the short story. If the Devil – whose trick it is to turn everything into its opposite and make wrong that which was right – has a hand in this, it would be in character if he imposes on the story’s woman, and its readers, an act of interpretation in which it is impossible to determine if one is reading too little or too much into the signals. Thusly signs – disquietingly enough – operate beyond the obvious.
I recognise similar bad omens from my own work. On the final pages of the novel I just submitted to my publisher, the protagonist is travelling through northern Greece, towards the border of what at this point in time is still known as FYROM. He is in a bad state. His body is shaking with exhaustion, his head spins. A few hours earlier he spontaneously picked up three underage refugees, most likely Afghans, who want to get to Germany. While I have travelled in these parts in the past, that was so long ago when I was writing the final pages I couldn’t trust memory. Instead, cruising over the final kilometres before the border with the help of Google Earth, I kept an eye out for a suitable place where the accident that had to happen could occur – and found it in an underpass about a minute’s drive from the border crossing. Roadworks prevent the travellers from taking the motorway all the way to the passport checkpoint, so when they enter the twenty or thirty-metre long tunnel to which the traffic has been redirected they are actually travelling in the wrong direction along a one-way road. That is where the protagonist loses control of the rented car, with fatal consequences.
What I had not been counting on when I found the underpass on the web, however, was the graffiti sprayed on one of its cement walls. It had not just the name of a Greek football team with roots in the former Asia Minor enclaves. Or the abbreviation of the country’s liberal-conservative party, whose two initials fight for space with the social democrats’ three letters longer acronym pretty much all over the country. Sprayed in black script above the red and blue letters was my name, too, followed by Super-3. Only higher powers will know if the sign constituted a menetekel. But considering that the novel is told from a first-person perspective, and that there are three occupants in the car aside from the protagonist, it was hard not to interpret the writing on the wall as a sign ever as ominous as any three sixes.