Photograph by Celine Marchbank, Story by Nick Burbidge
I admit that as a kid I was afraid of telephones.
‘Come again?’ people say.
‘They terrified me.’
‘You’re on your phone all the time.’
That’s true. But like most people I’m usually looking at the screen, and rarely holding it to my ear. Actual phone calls still bother me a bit because I can’t see what the caller is up to. Are they holding it in their neck while preparing a meal? Is there a friend there with them? Are they turning their free hand into a puppet, signalling to the friend that I’m going on and on? Are they smiling? Is that a smile in their voice?
I often can’t work out just from their voice whether they’re sincere.
‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
See what I mean?
When I was very young, an avocado rotary-dial telephone perched on a table in the hallway. This telephone wasn’t for idle chatter. It was for adults and their business. When someone called, the phone wouldn’t ring so much as sound the alarm. The bell was so harsh that, whoever was calling, it had to be important, at least to my mind. This was before answering machines and call centres.
‘The phone’s ringing! The phone’s ringing!’
‘The house is on fire!’
I may as well have said.
Hands over my ears, I would run through the house and into the garden. My mother stood out there in the weak sun, turning over soil. Her blue eyes were abstracted by concentration and fatigue. She would set aside the spade, wipe her hands on her old coat, and walk coolly into the house. I was amazed that she didn’t seem to agree this was an emergency situation. To be fair, there was nothing but that bell to suggest to anyone but me that it was a life or death call.
Because telephones were kept in the hall, another perhaps sitting on your parents’ bedside cabinet, they were this artifact of an inscrutable, grown-up world of order, necessary complication and quiet laughter. I witnessed such complications watching old rom-coms where the TV screen split into pastel-stained windows. Doris Day and Rock Hudson lay back on huge, forgiving pillows, and deceived each other on the telephone before finally falling in love.
Some years’ later, in an attempt to push aside the sadness of Sunday afternoons, a friend and I would try some pillow talk on the BT operator from the village phone box, which was scarlet in colour, Silk Cut in odour.
‘What number, please?’
‘How about yours?’
‘How old are you?’
‘You sound like a child.’
‘... I’m sensitive.’
‘You’re sensitive? Get off the line.’
At home, the hall phone turned ugly orange, and sported black buttons instead of a dial. It became cream and cordless, with a pull-out aerial, around the time I started seeing girls.
My first girlfriend liked to talk on the phone every evening. This provoked further anxiety, on top of using the telephone. We’d spent half the school day talking and now I had to come up with new material.
‘Did you ever see Jaws, about the shark?’
‘Apparently, the shark wouldn’t work--’
‘So that’s why you don’t see it most of the time. I know.’
‘I mean Jaws 2.’
I didn’t realise that the idea was to shut up and listen for a while. I thought you had to fill the silence.
One time, I put down the receiver with a hurried goodbye because my dad had come in with a bath towel around his waist. I was in his bedroom, after all.
‘Do you realise how much I pay in phone bills?’ he cried. The towel was unpleasantly unravelling as he threw his arms about in irritation.
It cost a lot even to make local calls in the UK back then. But I had been brought up on ’80s movies where American teenagers talked on the phone for days, and their phones had enviably long leads that could wrap around an entire suburban street.
I replied that it wasn’t me who wanted to talk. It was her, the girlfriend. She couldn’t get enough, but I was spent. All I wanted to do was to catch up on my homework and watch Cheers before bed. But what can you do? Women.
I’d left the receiver slightly off the hook. The girlfriend had heard everything.
The next day, her best friend handed me a letter sealed in a black envelope.
In the 1980s, people who owned a mobile were yuppie scum. In the ’90s, they were trendy and probably had to DJ somewhere hip and edgy. In the new century, everyone had to have one. What had been a little sci-fi, faintly ridiculous, was now normal. Somebody who doesn’t carry one now, they’re the ones who are ridiculous.
With mobiles, my friends and I immediately began texting instead of speaking to each other. I wonder if they too had problems with the telephone. Texting’s all we do to communicate these days. It feels less confrontational. You can pretend that you haven’t seen a text, at least for a while. You can choose to whom you respond, and when. You can turn off the alarm, turn it to silent.
We never talk, telephonically speaking, my friends and I.
The old anxiety of contact has never left me. It’s just dispersed, sort of diffused, free-floating.
Written words, yellow smiley emojis, they let you off the hook. Sometimes there are flower emojis, sent with sympathies. I don’t know what to make of that.
Recently I bought an old-fashioned phone, burnt-ochre colour with push-buttons - you can forget that old rotary dial. The bell isn’t mechanical, but pretends to be. It’s a feature: unnecessary but comforting, the way digital cameras play a shutter-click. Exciting and reassuring, both.
The sunlight from my bedroom window moves across my new-old phone until it leaves the receiver in shadow.
And then the phone rings.
No idea who’s calling, or what they’re doing, but it’s ringing.
Nick Burbidge's short stories have appeared in Shooter Literary Magazine and the Bridport Prize Anthology. In February 2018 one of his pieces was long-listed for the 2018 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.
Celine Marchbank is a photographic artist based in London. Her work explores deeply personal
stories, examining the quiet details of everyday life with a particular interest in home, family and
community. In 2016 she published her first book "Tulip" the story of the last year of her mother's life,
told through a tender and poetic narrative focusing on the small details in her home. Published by
Dewi Lewis it received widespread acclaim including being named The Observer Photo Book of the
Month and featured in BBC News, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, The Independent,
The Telegraph and Vanity Fair. Follow her on instagram @celinemarchbank