Me, Kafka and the last telephone conversation on Earth

I used to be phonophobic. I know that technically means fear of sounds, but that’s not the way I mean it. I used to be afraid of phones. Back in the days when everyone would yak on the blower at the drop of a hat, I’d freeze up at the first sound of my phone ringing, like a scene from an atmospheric Japanese horror film in which a drowned Japanese girl will walk out of a mirror or under a door and inscrutably murder whoever picks up the call. Good news, bad news, strangers, employers or best friends, it didn’t matter – I couldn’t bring myself to answer a phone, no, nor dial one neither. And good for me – look, I’m still here.

But I must be made up of 75% perversity, because as the rest of the world caught up, I swung the other way. No one talks on the telephone nowadays, except your mother. Now people become wary and indignant if you call them up for a natter. Some while back I was discussing with a friend some item of gossip I’d heard from someone. I wouldn’t reveal my source but I let slip that I’d heard it over the telephone. “Oh,” said my friend shrewdly, “it must have been X. You two are the only ones who still speak on the phone.”

How did this happen? I spent ten or so years in constant terror that my phone would ring, and now I sit and stare at it like it’s a picture of Danny Zuko and I’m Olivia Newton-John in a pretty cardigan. Maybe, like Grease references, it’s a function of growing older, but I love the thought of a voice on the other end of a line, even if it’s a metaphorical line, rather than some words and a stupid drawing of a stupid face on a screen. It used to be that a phone call to a sick friend or the recently bereaved was the very least you could do, now suddenly it’s just about the most. It’s a marvelous, miraculous, sheerly magical invention, this ability to speak in one room and have someone hear us somewhere else. It’s comforting and exhilarating yet we as a civilisation are just throwing it away and saying, “No, thank you.”

Which is why, as much as I’m annoyed by MBD, I’m also kind of fond of them. MBD is a strange Kafkaesque organization that decided some while ago that I owed Truworths money for a Truworths account, so a very nice lady called me up to ask for it. I was delighted to hear a friendly voice, so we exchanged pleasantries and I asked after the weather in Johannesburg and then I explained that I do not now nor have I ever had a Truworths account, so I can’t possibly owe them R114-72. It must, we agreed, be evidence of some sort of fraudulent activity somewhere in the value chain.

We tutted at the perfidy of the world and those in it who give the rest of us a bad name and she asked me to swear out an affidavit and fax it to her. Fax! This was delightful. It was as though the 90s had rung round for a chat. Would they receive an emailed scan, I wondered? A fax, she assured me, would be more reliable.

I did so, and spent some time pleasurably pondering the psychology of a crook who would fraudulently open a Truworths account and then leave it hanging with only R114-72 charged to it. What did he even buy for R114-72? A five-pack of cotton briefs and a couple of granola bars?

But then the next call came, and the one after, then the next. Every time some new employee of MBD, a different voice, a different name, all regretfully executing the painful task of informing me that I owe R114-72. SMSes started arriving, offering discounts if I paid my fee now, warning of dire consequences if I didn’t pay by the weekend. I swore out another affidavit. I faxed it. Next week, someone new called and sorrowfully fulfilled their duty to ask me for R114-72.

I’m starting to think it’s a practical joke, that a cabal of friends who know that I pride myself on my geniality with waiters and cashiers are putting on a variety of voices and are trying to push me to impatience and strong language. Well, the joke’s on them. As long as MBD (I’m suspicious of those initials – they belong to the surnames of three of my prime suspects) want to keep calling me, I’m ready to answer and politely reply. Let the great houses fall and the world stop turning – it’ll just be MBD and me, chatting away twice or three times a month, the last telephonic voices on Earth.

Times, 14 July 2016