As soon as the phone rings, Dad the extrovert, the optimist, the entertainer, starts to whistle — is whistling still as he lifts the receiver. Never did call-waiting music sound like this: lark’s lilts; crooner’s curlicues; a piccolo obbligato produced by a guileful purse of his puckered lips; the choice of tune seldom twice the same. A few breezy bars before the invariable ‘Hullaw’, the Scots intonation marked, the labials lingered over in his light, bright tenor, that one word response both a salutation and a warning: Greetings. You had better have a good reason for calling.
If Mum gets to the dual purpose lampstand first – unlikely, given her girth, varicosely ulcered legs and lifelong predilection for a slow tempo – the person at the other end of the line will be in for a rather less euphonious reception: a protracted pause. Introspective and prone to melancholy, her once-sustaining inner life perturbed by maternal sacrifice and financial anxiety, Mum regards the ‘instrument in the hall’, with near phobic suspicion and disdain. Her strategy is to announce, eventually, our number.
The sequence, alas, was rarely rightly remembered. A symptom of Freudian phone aversion perhaps? Mostly, callers realised that they had not misdialled (say) 4513. Nonetheless, my brother, sister and I would fantasise about conversations forestalled by numeric malapropism. Jock Stein eager to sign me for Celtic! Alvin Stardust asking my sister out! An invitation to spend a summer, expenses paid, in America! (Later, this actually happened. They rang back.)
Cream coloured, shaped like a military moustache, with a circular dial and that unhurriable, creaky whirr that lent connections anticipation and poise, our telephone was installed in 1970. We had at last moved from the fungus-infested, weeping-walled, cramped and condemned prefab Dad had been allocated the year I was born, 1959. At high cost to his dignity, a decade’s ceaseless supplication had finally secured the keys to another Ministry of Defence house twenty yards away.
That September I would go to a brand new progressive and prestigious high school. There would be new friends to be indexed in my birthday present of a little black book. Our neighbours and relatives all had telephones. So did the ‘professional people’ whose offspring demographic luck was letting me get to know. Mum washed our clothes by hand, cranking a mangle. She had no fridge; no gramophone. Neither parent was personally keen but now, suddenly, it was decided: Donny will be needing a telephone.
I remember the excitement but cannot recall – cannot recall – who rang us first. I don’t know whether this debut elicited dawn-chorus descants or a sigh and the wrong number. But soon I was being called. And the changes were being rung. Scholarships; the world Scout jamboree; acceptance for law school; offers of employment; opportunities in youth politics; amities maintained across continents; a love life struggling to be born. ‘Bishopton 1354’ (or ‘5143’…) and Dad whistling in the background. In 1977, student accommodation confirmed, I was leaving for university.
Nearly forty years on, vicissitudes and voyages notwithstanding, I am still there. New term; new students. Would-be poets. Up go the hands. Everyone’s hands — except mine. The class finds it hard to believe that I don’t possess or use such a ubiquitous device. ‘How do you survive?’ is a query that gets harder to shrug or laugh off day by ring-tone disrupted day.
Booking a seat on a plane or in a theatre often ‘requires’ me to fill in the ‘field’ provided for a mobile number. A wily travel agent advised me to type in 0777, followed by any numbers that caprice can conjure up. Leaving a department store, after ordering bed linen and having confessed to the lack of a mobile, I heard the shop assistant mutter, not unsympathetically, ‘He probably has mental health issues’. Which maybe I do, close to (or unwittingly past) the point at which ‘maverick’ thrawnness calcifies into a vainglorious obduracy that demoralises and isolates, leaving the curmudgeon cut off like an obsolete party line.
At home, despite a full diary, the ’phone (as I used pedantically to apostrophise the abbreviation) rarely rings, and when it does and I make my stately way to the hand-set, it will likely be a nuisance call. Back when the nuisances were human beings, I’d occasionally pre-empt the sales pitch by explaining how grateful I was for their being in touch, since it gave me a chance to plug my latest slim volume or film.
It’s not just at home that things have gone quiet. Last week on a crowded corner in Glasgow’s ‘leafy’ yet bohemian West End, a plangent gap was created overnight where the phone box used to be — the phone box into whose oft-jammed slot I dropped coins in increasing denominations for thirty-five years. Even someone as nostalgic as me doesn’t miss the smell of piss, the call-girl calling-cards, the fumbling for change, the increasingly impatient rap on the pane. Local Hero ends with an ambiguous wake up/goodbye call. In my head, the phone in that red call-box will always be ringing.
From kiosks like that I used to file stories and reviews as a young journalist. One copy taker (and dram partaker) would frequently insert in the body of the article my dictated typographical instructions: Caps Here Please. Next Sentence In Italics. New Par. Who pines for those lines?
Last week, opposite me on the train, a young woman was loudly and in soap-opera detail dismissing her beau. As we entered a tunnel, without irony or diminuendo, she brusquely terminated the conversation and the relationship: ‘I’m breaking up’. From a pay phone in Albuquerque, one winter’s night in my fickle thirties, with only the stars for eavesdroppers and the desert as voyeur, in the course of a ‘routine’ call I found myself being tenderly and forgivingly broken up with. We were on the end of the line and at the end of the line.
Occasionally, while dreaming, I spin the old perspex wheel, putting my finger on it, my lucky number always coming up. Some event or experience rings a bell. Mum and Dad have been dead for a quarter century. Sylvan Bishopton, recently designated a ‘New Town’, is a deserted village to me. Nobody picks up.
‘It’s for you’. It truly was. That telephone, bought to help me keep in touch received regular bulletins during the twenty-one years it remained in service. Wherever assignments or impulse took me, I’d diligently call home. Whistle or sigh, the instrument passed from one parent to the other, tidings shared, love unexpressed, but ever present in the cadences, the timbre and the tone.
Using her cell phone (a perfectly precise designation), a friend from Washington DC left a message the other afternoon: a close friend, though long out of touch. We’ve known each other since we were eighteen, in the days when I could be reached on that familiar number. I’m as fond of her now as I was then. She was hoping to pay a visit.
Emotional interference – an impulse towards isolation – made it impossible to return her call. The fault’s not with the line. I make and take fewer and fewer calls, succumbing, gradually, to my mother’s antipathy and reserve. I can’t get to the phone right now…
How I’d love to place the ultimate long-distance call. Happy or sad, the news good or bad; just to say I’m still alive, calling Bishopton 3415.
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Donny O’Rourke speaks with Geoff Hattersley about losing and rediscovering self-belief as an artist, the pleasures of improvisation, handling midlife melancholy and the joy of that moment 'between apprehension and comprehension'.