Back in my student days, the nearest poppy red telephone box was the only link to family, schoolfriends and, in fact, to anyone one needed to speak to whom one couldn’t see face to face.
You waited outside the box, usually in the rain, your new twopenny piece in hand, until whoever was huddled inside, finally replaced the receiver and came out. Then there was the excitement of dialling, waiting, cramming in the coin, waiting some more and, with luck, the right voice at the other end.
There was the fear of the money running out before your mother had finished telling you about your father having lost the keys to the shed or your sister complaining about how awful it was being stuck at home with the parents and, if the bleeps sounded, and you quickly stuffed in your last “two pee”, the chances are your mother would have rung off just as the coin clinked down into the bowels of the apparatus.
I got my first mobile in the mid 1990s – with many doubts and uncertainties. But, with a son at boarding school and a need to be out and about, I could see the sense in it and I found that, as everyone similarly acquired these things, the landline rang far less frequently. Then emails put paid to the long phone calls one had had in former days. In fact, it seemed that one used emails to make appointments to have conversations. Gone was the confidence that one could just pick up the phone and call a friend, impromptu. And telephone conversations became brief, functional, even pressured.
But how things have changed! Everyone has rediscovered, first, their landlines and secondly, the pleasures of relaxed, telephonic conversation. Many of us now have few constraints on our time, can spend the first half hour on the awfulness of the current situation and then diverge, at will, to whatever we’ve been enjoying – or not enjoying - the privileges and deprivations of lockdown, the difficulties of getting: compost, flour, fresh veg, hand sanitiser, hypoallergenic cat food, bedding plants or whatever it might be. We marvel at the wonders of Skype/FaceTime/WhatsApp/Zoom or however it is we see the family in New Zealand, the grandchildren and, weirdly, the second cousin in Canada who has got in touch after years of silence.
So – all we need is the dear old phone - the humble landline without any capacity to take or send pictures, to tell us how far we’ve walked, to give us directions or to check our bank accounts. You dial a number and, as things are now, you can be pretty sure that your call will be answered and whoever it is will be only too happy to talk – and for as long as you like.
So – how will it be when we can all go out and actually see our friends and families? Will we, again, forget the pleasures of leisurely phone calls and the opportunities they provide for listening, sharing and real conversation? Will we return to sensing that slight hesitation about calling without pre-arrangement? Or even that mild irritation at being called unexpectedly – now, seemingly a distant memory?
I am hugely grateful for the friends who call me for a chat in these weeks of isolation. And I hope I remember that in the, liberated, years to come.