The end of the line;Talkback

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
Alan Soutar tries to dial his daughter and finds himself on a fast track to nowhere.

Thank God it's 1999. "I've just lost 20p in this payphone."

"I'm sorry you've lost 20p. I can offer you two alternatives. I can refund the money or I can ask the recipient to pay for the call."

"I'm phoning my daughter, who has no money and can't pay reverse call charges."

"We will not charge for a reverse call. We will charge for the call at cost."

"Thanks. Let's try that. I'm phoning a mobile phone number..."

"We can't offer reverse calls to a mobile phone."

"I thought you said this would not be a reverse call."

"The service is not available for mobile phones."

"I'll take the money. Thanks."

My daughter wants to revise at home, and needs help with the kilos of material she is bringing back with her. We have to sort out times and places, but our phone is out of order. I'm on site all day, but there is a moment between meetings and seminars, between 5.45pm and 6.30pm, when we might talk.

I borrow the contractor's mobile phone, but we are in a radio shadow.

I borrow the contractor's land line, and get an engaged signal.

I try to phone from a kiosk, but the phone will accept only emergency calls.

I join the queue waiting to use another payphone. My daughter's line is engaged, and I let a few more people use the kiosk before trying again. My daughter isn't quite ready to say what her plans are, and asks me to phone at 7.30pm. I can get to the station before calling again.

All trains are delayed because of signal failure. Plenty of time for more calls. Our phone is still out of order and my daughter's line is still engaged.

Spend phone money on pint in station buffet and dash to the bank. The automatic telling machine has been moved from the street to the lobby of the bank, and my card will not open the lock to the lobby. Wait a bit, and then slip into the lobby when someone else opens the doors.

I need some change, and buy a pint in the pub over the road from the bank. It has no payphone. The next train is scheduled to leave in 20 minutes, but services are still delayed. Enough time to phone from the pub next door.

The call is barred, and the barman tells me the phone will not accept calls to mobile phones. There are a couple of kiosks around the corner. I could try one of them.

Are the photographs of models, strict disciplinarians and genuine schoolgirls real, or are they from some library of call-girl photographs? Although the kiosk says it takes cards or money for phone calls, it holds on to my 10p and asks for the card I don't have. The next kiosk has photographs of other girls, but it also holds on to 10p.

"I've just lost 20p..." I was 20 seconds late for my train, which left on time.

I buy a pint at the station buffet. A nostalgic, unexpected and rather serene memory of my grandmother's old telephone cuts in. The phone sat on the windowsill of a narrow window which was always in the sun. The cats slept there, because it was a peaceful sort of place. The phone was there for at least 30 years, from the time I visited my grandparents on Sundays until they moved away and the house was demolished.

The phone line would occasionally go dead in the house where I grew up, most often when the wind twisted one cable over another. My uncle would go out with a long pole, and sort it with a couple of blows to the wires.

In the past year we have had three new phones and four or five aerials. The aerials that don't break aren't made any more.

I didn't get in touch with my daughter, but I did get my 20p back.

Alan Soutar lives in Lewes, East Sussex

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