The Cable Men

2961 words

1974 The rain that swept across the moors in the last mile of Darya’s journey threatened to ruin the phone phreaking device before she got a chance to use it. Raindrops trickled from her plastic glasses on to her cheeks, and the sole of her boot flapped half-detached from the heel. It clung to the upper with the help of the laces she had repurposed to wrap around the sodden footwear.

Soon it would not matter. Her destination on the North York Moors was in sight. As Sophie had promised, the cottage sat ahead in what appeared as a blank space on the maps, a remote outpost amid the expanse of land and sky. Darya’s footfalls passed above the cables buried in the earth that were the true target of the trip.

The dwelling itself was solitary and an oval sandstone shell protected its interior, where the absence of lights reassured her it was empty.

Darya hesitated outside the warped door and checked the surroundings, as if they might offer an alternative to the cottage facing her. The rain renewed its efforts, urging her to enter. Her insides stirred at the plan so close to completion in the following hours, and she pushed the door open. It was unlocked, as they had expected, and gave the minimal resistance of driftwood on a wave.

Inside, the air parted for the unexpected entrant. Darya sat on the threshold, extracted her feet from the boots, and left them to drip on to the tiles with their laces in a tangle. She would have to fix them before the return journey. Her rucksack had failed to resist the rain during those extra miles on the moor, and she scrambled through the contents to check the phone phreaking device. Some of the food was soaked and unsalvageable. Yet below that, the phreaker remained safe and dry in its bakelite case.

Darya swallowed at another twinge of nervous surprise that she had made the trip out here alone. She already missed Sophie’s presence and their latest squat, which Sophie had found a week before. Darya reminded herself that she would return before dawn, and that this was her chance to prove that she herself also had unique talents to offer.

The kitchen tap turned out to be functional. It shuddered into life and poured with a faint blue tinge. Darya expected fresh water, but the tap brought up the taste of deep pipes and a trace of saltiness from whatever hole in the ground it must have come from. The interior space of the cottage was cramped like a cabin, and a bookshelf hugged the wall at a weak angle. The spines of the books were dusty but legible: an animal menagerie for children, a King James Bible, out-of-place nautical charts. At the end, a clock sat defunct on little brass legs, the hands inanimate, long since having given their last hint about the time. Darya left all of it alone.


In the attic, a window framed an early moon as night began its descent on the land. Lights glimmered in Goathland village miles to the east. Pigeons nesting somewhere in the roof revealed themselves with rustling and cooing.

High out of harm’s reach, a grey plastic phone sat on a wooden shelf, its grimy cable running into a hole in the old wall below, next to a yellow telephone directory with crinkled pages. Darya’s heart quickened a little as she took the phreaking device from her rucksack. She flexed her fingers, getting some blood into them. All the better for phreaking.

The rotary dial on the phone was crusty with disuse and resisted an initial attempt at dislodging from its position. It then broke free with a crunch, letting Darya rotate it through the familiar sequence to prepare it for phreaking. With the tool held up to the receiver, she played the tones to charm the system into connecting an untraceable call to Sophie.

The notes of the phreaker played out, a folk melody for an inhuman system. The signals picked up the dance, surged into the earth, branched out across the network and coursed through undersea cables. They leapt up into the atmosphere, bounced off young satellites which streaked through a star scattered background, and re-entered receivers crouched on the ground. Every element followed Darya’s whim with the phreaker in the attic of the isolated cottage out on the moors. In her orchestration, she was meticulous and methodical, wary of attracting unwanted attention from some unknown corner of the grid.

After myriad chirps and trills, the line crackled as it connected. It broke through to a washed-out static in which no-one spoke. The hiss rose and fell in a desolate surf.

“Sophie?” Darya said into the void.

She recoiled when a low, drawling voice filtered through the line.

“So good of you to call. I can’t wait to catch up with you.”

Before the stranger could utter another leering word, Darya dropped the receiver back down. A chill ran up her legs. How was the interference able to work its way into her connection? Every time she used the phreaker, she was careful to leave no flaws where disturbance might creep through the gaps. Darya picked up the receiver again and retraced her steps with the phone phreaker.

The tones played out once more, and the call connected. “So you made it to the place,” said Sophie.

Relief spread across Darya’s shoulders. She could hear Sophie’s smile, though her voice was lukewarm.

“Just about,” said Darya. “Listen, were you on the line just now? Something strange happened.”

“That’s a first from you. I thought you never made mistakes while phreaking.”

“I can’t think what it was,” said Darya.

“Anyway, why are you only calling now? This is later than we planned.” Sophie’s tone grew harsh. “It’s of the utmost importance that you get the plan correct — the first call at midnight, the second at six A.M.”

“I know.” Darya glanced at her surroundings in the empty attic. “I want to speak to Her again just as much as you do. You’re sure this is going to work?”

“That cottage is one of the last places left with such old lines, and they go through some ancient phone exchange on the way out. They’re still on Strowger switches and other relics like that.” Sophie took on the intonation of a caretaker speaking to a child. “So yes, it will work. I think this is our last chance to get a connection to Her while she’s still around.”

Darya shivered.

“I miss you,” she said, a partial truth.

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “Call me straight away once you get through.” The call clicked off, and just as Darya moved to hang up, a new rush of static emerged, followed by a garbled voice. The new caller was surrounded by the sounds of gale force winds, but the audio was flimsy through the cheap phone.

“I’m awfully sorry about that,” said the unfamiliar voice. “Someone will be there to fix you up soon.”

The call cut off to silence. Darya replaced the receiver with a shaking hand. During the phreaking, another phone call must have got mixed up with hers. She could call Sophie again for reassurance, but was wary of her criticism. Instead, she headed downstairs to get something to eat and weigh down her floating stomach.


After Darya had been next to it for long enough, the cellar door crept into her vision sideways, leaving her long seconds to acknowledge its presence. She had not noticed it earlier. Darya approached it and tried the latch. The door was heavier than its purpose required, and it resisted as Darya heaved it upright, revealing an opening that sucked in the light.

Below the last step of the cellar stairs, Darya’s foot made a dull splash in a shallow pool of liquid. Her eyes adjusted, and the flooded cellar glimmered before her as ripples drifted out in echoes from where her foot had disturbed the water. Through gaps in the floorboards above, seams of light captured airy filaments and illuminated the surface of the water in shifting patterns. Strange reeds grew in the gloom, their source of sustenance obscure, and among their submerged roots, a slimy black cable circled in serpentine coils, wrapping around itself. A faint metallic clanking surfaced at intervals, as if carried up by a subterranean wind.


Later, as Darya waited for midnight upstairs in the attic, stars punctured the darkening sky. She checked her watch with increasing frequency.

When she stood up to prepare for the first stage of the plan, the phreaking tool began singing to itself in a shrill solo. Startled, Darya pressed its keys to shut it off, but the device’s song rose into piercing shrieks. Unable to bear the volume, Darya flung it to the floorboards. The phreaker died with a final screech, before the phone in the middle of the attic continued the chorus. There was a clattering clunk as the receiver fell from its slot amid the noise, and then a persistent whispering sound greeted the room.

Darya’s breath hit the air in bursts of frost as the temperature dropped. The intrusion would obstruct the planned call at midnight. She retrieved the handset from the floor and held it at a distance from her ear to listen, as the voice continued its tinny muttering.

“We must get it fixed. It can’t be tolerated,” the voice faded out of clarity.

This had to be another error caused by the use of the phreaking tool. It could have arrived from anywhere, brought to this place as random noise.

“I haven’t been to that little cottage for quite a while.” The voice rose in volume, echoing around the wooden attic space.

Darya shuddered at the dwindling possibility of this being a coincidence. The entire plan with this place was a foolish mistake. They could find somewhere else to do it, and Sophie would have to accept she was wrong about this location. Darya grabbed the cord and yanked it out of the wall. The voice continued in its mocking inflection as Darya held the frayed copper end of the wire.

In the kitchen, Darya located a paring knife and headed into the cellar to sever the intrusion at the source. The water soaked through her socks and lapped up to her ankles as she pulled up a length of cable and bent an angle to cut. With the knife pressed into the line, Darya closed her eyes and tilted her head back. The plan lingered, harder to discard than expected. A vision of Sophie expressed its contempt for her giving up at the first disturbance.

Upstairs, a low noise broke the silence. At first Darya was uncertain, as the sound grew quieter, then louder. Perhaps it was the wind skimming over the land. The sound solidified into that of boots treading at a steady pace.

Darya ran up from the cellar, her chest rising and falling in a fast cycle. She saw nothing between the cottage window and the low horizon until she looked straight down. Broken into the foliage were unmistakable boot prints, in which crushed stems were returning to their previous positions with shaky movements. Moments before, someone was facing into the window.

As Darya went to the front door, leaving wet footprints, a cold flurry of air passed around her. The door hung open a few inches, permitting an evening breeze to enter off the moors.

Darya pressed her back against the door. She wasn’t sure if she would prefer to remember leaving it open herself, or to be sure she had shut it earlier.

The scrape of a chair in the kitchen startled her, and she jolted with alarm as a strange man appeared in the kitchen doorway. He stooped under the low ceiling of the cottage and assessed her with watery eyes set in a clammy face. His feet were bare and pallid, he wore a waxy coat that was encrusted with salt and sand, and a bulky cable with a jagged, frayed end trailed from his hand.

Too frozen to speak, Darya stared back at him.

“I’m the cable man.” His speech had the unsteady rhythm of someone unsure of being able to finish each utterance, and the timbre of words mouthed below water. “You called earlier.”

A pairing of stale plastic and kelp drifted off him.

They stayed in their positions.

“You’re next to last on our rounds,” said the cable man.

On each wrist and around his neck, he wore several watches in mismatched styles, and his hair was stuck to his shining forehead. His grey eyes meandered as he spoke.

Sweat prickled on Darya’s skin as she tried to find a grip on the wall behind her.

“How did you get here?” she asked. She considered whether she could make it across the moor without her boots.

The cable man eyed her but gave no sign he had heard her question. Before Darya could say anything else, he turned and trudged up the staircase, smearing water and sand from his boots. He dragged the heavy line up with him, letting it scrape on the stairs while the rest of it lagged around into the kitchen.

Darya tried to open the door, but it had shut itself fast into its frame, indifferent to the opened latch. From the attic, the sound of a sharp tool scraping clashed with white noise, and the rest of the dirty line slithered up the staircase.

Goathland village was over twenty miles away. Darya tried the windows to find them long ago sealed shut with paint. The phone offered the only possible lifeline to the outside world. The floor above her had gone quiet.

“Hello?” she called up.

No sound emerged besides the faltering wind. She edged up the stairs, craning to see ahead. Scraps of casing and spiny wires littered the floorboards, and crushed fragments of the phone phreaking tool lay scattered across the wooden floor.

The cable man was gone. The cottage had one door and one staircase, which Darya had stood between while he carried out his activities in the attic. She held her breath as she confirmed he was now absent from the confined space.

The phone sat on its shelf in front of her, waiting to be used. She snatched the receiver and dialled every number that occurred, but all were met by the indifferent click of disconnection. Seeing the tattered yellow phone book to the side, Darya picked it up to search for a number that might connect.

The pages of the phone book flipped and blurred, and she slumped further at the sight of every page. Each sheet, each column, each line were all identical. An endless roll-call for the same number and the same name: Cable Men.

Downstairs, floorboards creaked, then groaned, before the sound of flowing water drowned out both. A torrent rushed up through the ground floor of the cottage, foamy white on the surface and grey-blue where it gained depth. The surge lapped at the staircase and Darya was transfixed as she took a step down towards it. A menagerie flowed past below her: seaweed, driftwood, ragged netting. The swell met the soles of her feet on the staircase as a pungent salty odour reached for her mouth and nose.

Darya stepped down into the tumult. Deep water flowed past outside the windows and sprayed in at the edges of the door. There was nowhere to go. Before she could react, something grimy circled around her exposed ankle before constricting in a tight grip. The cable dragged her towards the flooded cellar and she clawed around herself for a handhold. Darya’s legs slipped over the threshold of the cellar door, and the force took her down into the brine.

A chasm of water opened up before her. Darya reached out one hand after another, clutching at the swirling waters. Each movement gained depth. The line tugging at her ankle pulled her further from the moor and the cottage on the surface. The saltwater gained force and pressed on her. Shadow enclosed her and her sense of up and down wavered.

As she descended, a face loomed upwards towards her, its eyes piercing the murky liquid. Darya doubled up, her fingers found the knotted cord and she unwound it from her leg, freeing herself. She kicked away and air escaped her lungs in bright bubbles.

Further below, more faces appeared, and a work gang emerged amid clouds of dirt and sand on the seabed, each resembling the cable man who had disappeared from the cottage. The workers were chained together in a haphazard web, and they toiled on links, lines and cables that writhed and vibrated. The individual nearest to Darya made a lunge for her before the chain on its neck pulled it back towards its peers.

Now delirious, Darya clutched at the empty ocean around her as her hair unravelled in twisting tentacles, before a flash of light caught her face. She let the water carry her upwards again. Her face broke the surface, she gasped for air, morning sunlight flooded her eyes and her hands struck the hard sides of a ruined phone box she had surfaced inside.

Grasping out at a patch of heather which she half uprooted as she crawled out, Darya looked back to see the moor empty apart from the phone box standing alone. The box framed a square of grey seawater from which a cable wound up to connect to a dilapidated phone. There was no sign of the cottage. Darya stood soaking and barefoot. She walked away without looking back. She had until nightfall to make it.