I dislike the phone. No, worse than that: I hate it. Well, not quite that. What is it then? I think perhaps it is dread. I associate a phone with news, rather than with conversation, and I’m more accustomed to the telephone bearing bad news than good: a child is sick and needs collecting or there has been an incident or emergency that I must respond to.
I’m not sure at what point the telephone acquired such meaning for me. Perhaps it goes back to childhood. I’m old enough to remember residential telephones becoming available for the first time. My parents were one of the first in our neighbourhood to take delivery; a two-tone green bakelite, it stood on a half-moon glass table in the downstairs hallway. Even if my parents had permitted it (which they didn’t) there was no pleasure to be had in standing by the front door to linger on the phone. It was used to make arrangements (briskly bordering on brusquely) or for emergencies only.
Is this how I learned the art of not having a telephone conversation? Today I watch people in the street walking and chatting on their mobiles and I feel like Craig Raine’s Martian. I use mine so infrequently that a £10 top-up once lasted me a year. At home I keep a landline phone only so that I can be reached for or by the children. And yet if it rings I don’t always answer. Actually, not true: if it rings I rarely answer. If it is an emergency, I tell myself, my mobile will ring too. My daughter, knowing my habit, dials repeatedly to let me know it is her.
Dylan doesn’t like the phone either. He copes better these days but for a long time he would run at high speed, moaning and clutching his ears, when the telephone rang. ‘Te-fon, Te-fon!’ he would shout anxiously, ‘Te-fon, Te-fon!’ Nowadays if Dylan catches me on the phone (to my daughter or the couple of friends I break the rule for) he hovers next to me, arms crossed, before trying to yank the phone from my hand. This is similar to (but more forceful than) the way he points to the small white cross in a red box at the top right of my screen when he finds me at the computer.
So for a long time I attributed my phone phobia to living with Dylan. ‘I’m sorry’ I would say, ‘but I won’t call you as Dylan doesn’t like me to use the phone’ or ‘I probably won’t be able to answer as it will upset Dylan but you can always leave a message’. I have used these lines so often I almost believe them. But if I am honest my dread of phones predates Dylan. Only recently have I let myself off the hook; it’s OK not to like the telephone, I tell myself. I sometimes rationalise my dislike of phones as communication style. I can’t cope with the telephone, I argue, because of the lack of visual information. But this puzzles me as I’m an avid radio listener; how is it that I can make sense of spoken word on the radio but not the telephone? Perhaps it’s not the listening that is the problem for me but the speaking?
So while a telephone call may seem a small thing, for me it represents a significant challenge. Since Dylan moved into residential care, ironically, it’s a challenge I must face every day. Although I receive regular updates about Dylan by email, a telephone call is the best way of staying informed on a daily basis. When Dylan first moved into care I dreaded making the call. Some evenings I would sit staring at the phone for ages before I could bring myself to dial. I desperately wanted to know how Dylan was, and to chat with the care staff about his day, but the phone filled me with dread.
Because I could not imagine a day going by without word of Dylan I had to find a way to make the call. For me, this involved building it into my evening routine, something which made the call easier to make. In a relatively short space of time, then, I have become more comfortable with the phone. Now, I no longer assume it will bring bad news; last night in fact (thanks to the care worker who made some lovely observations about my boy) it brought joy. I have done so many things over the years that I would not have thought myself capable of, for love of Dylan. Now I can add ‘the phone call’.