The uninvited CALLER
WOMAN - UK|November 02, 2021
Sam loved to meet up with her mates online – until a stranger joined them
Helen Cooper

Until that strange night, Sam cherished her weekly video calls with her oldest friends. She would rush her children into bed, grab a glass of wine and retreat to her study, leaving her husband Tom channel-hopping below.

With the three women she’d known since school, there was no time wasted on small talk. They vented, shared, sympathised, laughed...

Jaz was usually in her pajamas, Clara frazzled from work, Anna covered in baby food or a felt-tip pen. Meanwhile, Sam would mostly listen and grin, as had always been her way.

One rainy Friday, she was particularly looking forward to their online get-together. Her friends appeared on her laptop screen in their separate boxes, waving from their different corners of the country.

‘Excuse the hair,’ Anna said. ‘Just got out of the bath, you know my curls go crazy.’

‘Sam, immaculate as ever!’ Jaz said. ‘And I didn’t think this was possible, but has your study got tidier?’

Sam chuckled. Her neatness was a long-standing in-joke. Then her smile faltered as the screen reconfigured and a fifth square appeared, knocking out the group’s usual symmetry.

‘Is someone else dialing in?’ she asked.

‘As if!’ Anna said. ‘It’s always just us.’

‘Another icon’s appeared.’

Whoever it was had no video or audio switched on. The black square showed only a screen name – Birdie’s iPhone.

They each became still, registering this.

‘Hello?’ Sam ventured. Though she was the quietest, she often took the lead when composure was needed. Not that this situation was a big deal, she thought. Maybe somebody had joined the wrong meeting.

Their conversation stalled as the newcomer hovered, unresponsive.

‘Shall we log out and back in again?’ Sam suggested to her friends.

When they restarted, the fifth icon had gone. Relief trickled in and their usual chatter resumed. But halfway through Jaz’s anecdote about her daughter’s swimming lessons, Birdie’s iPhone reappeared. Sam’s stomach lurched. She’d definitely applied a password this time. How had the uninvited caller got in?

Her phone lit up beside her. It was Clara, posting in their WhatsApp group... ‘Am I the only one who’s slightly freaked out?’

‘No, it’s strange,’ Jaz replied.

‘It’s the name,’ Anna said. ‘The fact that it’s, you know…’

They did know. They hadn’t talked about her in years.

Because there had been five of them once, long ago.

When Bethan Bird – ‘Birdie’ – had joined their school, aged 14, she’d seemed spiky and aloof, in scuffed black boots and dark lipstick. But she’d made a beeline for their little clique, and they’d all fallen for her wicked humour and the air of danger that followed her around.

She’d latched on in a way nobody had expected, never missing a sleepover, always keen to hang out with them. Transforming from a lone wolf into a die-hard member of their gang.

Until she wasn’t anymore.

‘Shall we stop?’ Sam texted to her friends. ‘Try again tomorrow?’

Everyone agreed, and she terminated the meeting, but the faceless icon lingered in her mind.

The next day, Tom kept asking if she was all right, and the kids trailed her around the house, sensing her distraction.

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