Friend or phone?
I got a voicemail message from Alex the other day. She didn’t say anything. I heard scratchy noises and a few cars going by. Xavi did some cute gurgles. I got cosy in her bag with the crushed breadsticks and the tampons that had made a break from their wrappers, and then she was gone. And it was quite nice really, a little audio snapshot (a Polaraud?) of her life. Kind of comforting in its total lack of meaningful content.
As I hit three to delete, it occurred to me that I had no intention of calling her back, or even texting her to let her know she’d called me. A few years ago I might have phoned her straight away to laugh at how she’d just accidentally called me and wasn’t that like, rully weird, and we’d chuckle and say things like “I don’t know what happened there” (as if on a different day we might be able to explain phone technology) and then we’d talk for ages about whichever ill-advised crush either of us had at the time and we’d be just like normal functioning people having a chat about things, and stuff. It struck me that in the last few years, we’d completely lost the art of using the phone.
A crap message from inside a bag, or if I’m lucky a real-life crap call from a person who is walking uphill into the wind while pushing a buggy and trying to catch a child three miles down the road on a Microscooter, is my standard user-experience with the phone these days. Recently my friend Claire called me and when I answered she sounded genuinely freaked out that I was there. She was overcome with shock and delight, as if she had just seen the ghost of a much loved pet: “Oh was I calling you?! I’m on the beach! Esme come back! ” was her greeting.
Yes, definitely, now is a good time to talk.
If an actual conversation is achieved, it’s common for it to end mid-sentence with sinister, heavy breathing and intense grappling, before an abrupt thud – sounds that might make someone who’d had more sleep think about dialling 999, but to the well-trained ear of a mother is obviously just a child who’s come to the end of Milkshake and for some reason isn’t engaging with the Jeremy Kyle Show. When conversations make it through to an extended dialogue, it’s never exactly pithy – any hint of flow is stemmed by the need to practice health and safety (“don’t point that bow and arrow at her”) or else swamped by the white noise of the crowd that gathers as soon as you put a phone to your ear. Standing hunched in the larder (you know, the imaginary larder you have in your imaginary big house) to escape them, you get all misty-eyed for the phone-in-the-hall days of your youth, where you unravelled the curly wire and doodled hearts with arrows through them in the Phone Book.
But the barriers to a decent natter on the blower aren’t only physical. Even without a plate full of hardening hummus or a handwriting exercise book to distract us, we do seem to have developed some strange behaviours around the telephone. Technology has made it easy for us to talk in other ways, it’s true. But I’m still certain there’s been a tangible shift in our ability to use basic telecommunications. Did this incapacity come as an add-on bundle with the kids? Is Using the Phone sitting in landfill somewhere, trapped inside a scented nappy bag with its old friends (also missing in action): Finishing Sentences and Writing Legibly?
Because I’m really hoping it’s not just me that sometimes avoids answering the phone, even if it’s someone I actually like who is calling – probably just to ask me to do something fun that I will enjoy. And please tell me I’m not the only one who pretends there’s someone at the door and so really must go, even though clearly there’s not, because the conversation is going on a bit and I can’t possibly do just talking for this long. The phone has become my mentor and tormentor. I look at it longingly all day and yet when it rings I run shrieking from it because frankly, I’m scared to answer it in case it leads to making an arrangement, or a commitment I can’t cope with committing to.
Which is probably why I enjoyed that message from Alex’s handbag. It didn’t ask anything of me, but let me know she was there. And when it comes down to it, that’s really all you want from a friend.
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