WRITTEN BY GINNY SWART
You can’t tell a book by its cover – but what does a man’s voice say about him?
“Good morning, Knightly Finance. How may I help you?”
As Phoebe answered the phone, her handbag fell to the floor with a crash and everything in it shot out onto the floor in a mess.
A deep voice in her ear said, “Sunny down in Bristol, then? It’s dark and gloomy here in Birmingham.”
“Oh, sorry.” Phoebe adjusted the headset. “I just had a little accident. No, it’s not sunny, it’s cold and grey here, too. So, how may I help you, sir?”
”I’d like to speak to Kenneth Knightly, please.”
“Who should I say is calling?”
“Ben Bailey from Birmingham?”
“Ben. That’s right.”
He sounded fun, unlike most of their clients who usually phoned to discuss serious financing for major development projects around the country.
As the receptionist, Phoebe formed an instant picture of most of the people who called Knightly Finance.
Mr Johnston from Campden she saw as middle-aged and balding, his raspy voice a result of smoking too much. Mr Henry from Stokey was thin and anxious, slightly desperate. Hester Cummings she imagined as a tight-lipped blonde who ran her property business in Oxford like a very tight ship.
Putting faces to voices lightened her day
Phoebe grinned. She was probably totally wrong about them all, but putting faces to voices lightened her day.
So, Ben Bailey… ? He’s got to be good looking, a bit like Tom Cruise only taller. A dog lover and a non-smoker.
“I’m sorry, sir-”
“Ben, please,” he interrupted.
“I’m sorry Ben, but Mr Knightly doesn’t seem to be answering. Can I take a message?”
“I’ll just call him later. And who is offering to give this message?” That laugh in his voice again.
“I’m Phoebe Moon.”
“Ah – Phoebe was the Greek Goddess of the Moon.”
“Yes, I’m afraid my parents have a lot to answer for.”
“Well, farewell, Moon Goddess, we’ll speak again. I hope your weather improves down there.”
He’d actually been flirting with her
She grinned. He’d actually been flirting with her – a first for any of their boring clients.
He phoned again just as Phoebe was leaving the switchboard for her tea break and Janice was getting ready to take over.
“Hi. Am I speaking to Phoebe Moon?” She felt a little lurch of pleasure at the sound of his voice and waved Janice away.
“You are. And you’re Ben from Birmingham who wants to speak to Mr Knightly, am I right?”
“You are indeed. But I don’t mind speaking to you instead if he’s tied up.”
“I’m afraid he’s out of the office for the rest of the day.”
“Darn. Well, I’ll try tomorrow. How’s the weather there?”
“My mum always said conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative mind,” she said rather tartly.
Ben laughed. “She was right, of course. So tell this unimaginative man what you are wearing today, Phoebe Moon?”
“You wicked man! Nothing to get excited about, Ben – just a perfectly plain navy blouse and a white linen suit. And I have a gold chain around my neck with a heart on it.”
“Aha. And does your heart already belong to someone?”
Cheeky! But Phoebe was flattered nevertheless
“This gold heart belongs to me,” she said carefully. “And I don’t give my other heart to just anyone.”
“What, no significant other? No-um, partner? Husband?”
“That really is none of your business,” she said, a treacherous lump forming in her throat. “Goodbye, Mr Bailey, I will be sure to tell Mr Knightly that you called.”
The question about her heart was a touchy subject.
After he’d given her the gold locket, she’d thought her heart belonged to Peter Murray forever. But at the Halloween party it turned out that he didn’t actually want it. He’d tossed it aside in his rush to chat up Avril, the new secretary from the legal department.
Phoebe’s red fright wig and bottle lens glasses couldn’t compete with Avril’s fairy costume of see-through white muslin and sparkles in her hair. She’d played dirty: fairies weren’t traditional. Everyone else had turned up as witches or ghosts. Every time Phoebe thought about the callous way Peter had dumped her, she felt a hollow fury.
The next day she recognised the voice immediately
The next day she recognised the cheerful, “Hi there, Phoebe Moon,” immediately.
“Good morning, Mr Bailey,” she said. “I’ll put you through to Mr Knightly.”
“But it’s you I wanted to speak to. l’m afraid I was far too personal yesterday and I owe you an apology.”
“You don’t really,” she said. “You caught me at a bad moment, that’s all.”
At the sound of his voice, the flutter of excitement was back. Calm down, Phoebe, he’s probably bald and fat with a wooden leg. And married with four children.
“I felt I’d touched a raw spot when I mentioned your significant other?”
“There isn’t one any more, actually, we broke up. And it’s taking longer than I thought to get over him.”
“I’ve just been there myself, so I know how you feel. I was dumped last month and I’m still in shock.”
“Oh, I’m not in shock, rather I’m in rage, I think.”
“Well, that’s great. They say that’s the first step to full recovery, you know.”
“And what’s the next step?”
“Full recovery would be getting to know someone else who is charming, kind to dogs and wants to wine and dine you at all the best places.”
He was crazy!
“I don’t know anyone like that.”
“Well you might not know me yet, but we can fix that.”
“But you’re in Birmingham! And I prefer modest men.”
“I could learn modesty. But seriously, Phoebe, it would be fun to meet up.”
“It might be better to stay anonymous. So you can imagine I look like a moon goddess.”
“And you can imagine I’m Brad Pitt. Luckily, I’m not one of those shallow men who think looks are important.”
“Looks don’t count for me either. I go for personality and a sense of humour every time.”
“Good – ‘cos my sense of humour is great but my glass eye keeps falling into my soup,” he said.
She liked his style
Over the following fortnight Ben called Mr Knightly often, and the time he spent chatting to Phoebe before she put him through grew longer and longer.
Then one Friday he said, “I’m coming to Bristol next week, so how about dinner together on Monday?”
Phoebe was silent. What if Ben had yellow teeth and bad breath?
“OK,” she said guardedly.
“Good.” His voice was full of delighted laughter. “See you Monday then, Phoebe Moon.”
She would meet him at last
Phoebe checked Mr Knightly’s diary. Ben Bailey had an eleven o’clock appointment. So she could check him out before their dinner date. Excellent.
Just before 11am on Monday a portly middle-aged man walked into the office.
“Good morning, young lady,” he beamed. “Ben Bailey, from Birmingham. To see Mr Knightly.”
He winked and placed his business card in front of her.
She froze, feeling sick. This was Ben? OK, she’d been totally wrong, and now she was going to be stuck with a man old enough to be her father for the whole evening. She’d need to develop a migraine – or break her leg before five o’clock.
“Hello Ben,” she croaked. “Good to meet you at last.”
His eyes twinkled. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, Phoebe.”
Then he spluttered with laughter, his chins wobbling in delight. “Actually, I haven’t had the pleasure of speaking to you before, young lady.”
“No.” But his laugh sounded familiar.
“You’ve been talking to my nephew. He mentioned his – ah – assignation with you after work this evening.”
“He wanted to pull your leg so he sent me on ahead. He’s just parking the car. Caught you nicely, didn’t I?”
Two could play at that game
The crazy sense of humour must run in the family, she thought. Well, two can play at that game.
“I knew you couldn’t be Ben!” she denied, weak with relief, and picked up his business card. “Bailey and Bailey, property developers. So it’s a family business, then?”
“That’s right. Young Ben is learning the ropes and he’ll be taking over when I retire in a couple of years. Well, I know my way, so I’ll go through to see Kenneth, shall I? Just send Ben on through when he gets here.”
Ben Bailey senior walked down the corridor to Mr Knightly’s office, leaving Phoebe preparing for the genuine article to arrive.
When he burst through the door five minutes later, Ben Bailey was gorgeous, exactly as she’d imagined. Tall and rangy, his tanned face creased with laughter – but it changed to horrified consternation as he faltered and struggled to look unsurprised.
“Phoebe Moon?” he croaked.
“That’s me!” She adjusted the trick glasses and gave him a wide grin, the plastic buck teeth making speech difficult. “You didn’t expect a redhead, did you, Ben?” She twirled the synthetic curls of her fright wig seductively.
“Come closer, I can’t see you very well, my eyesight’s not too good.”
For a long time afterwards, she was going to remember the horror and dismay that flickered across his face.
And in the years to come, she would remind him that he’d said looks didn’t count at all.