Yesterday afternoon in the stillness of Jason’s house, with just the hum of cicadas and a distant bird here and there, the telephone rang.
For a moment, as it rang I had forgotten that there were still such things as landlines. I pulled open the pantry door where the hollow ring was emanating and pressed the button with a telephone icon on the top left hand side of the keypad, assuming that this was the way to answer the phone.
The telephones that I remember from my childhood are as follows.
First, there was the old phone in the shed, our first “house” at Logan Village. It was an ugly, beige / brown colour in heavy, moulded plastic. It was smooth, shiny, and rounded, with the receiver curving symmetrically, spreading itself over the top of the heavy weight of the base. The receiver contained two identically-shaped ends with opposing functions. One, intended for the ear, the “receiving” part of the receiver, and the other end, the instrument for talking; a microphone I suppose. I can still sense the tiny, stippled holes at either end of the receiver, at one end letting the speaker reach the ear, at the other, letting the voice reach the microphone.
There was great joy in using that telephone. To dial required an often long circumnavigation of the dialler. Long if you were dialling a 9 or an 8 and awkwardly short if it was a 0 or a 1. It felt meaningful to dial though, each number, winding back a spring, that felt like it was accumulating in a great amount of latent energy. Perhaps all the wind-up dialling, when it was done was like releasing a boomerang to reach the voice at the other end.
There was great joy in receiving a call on that old phone. Firstly, when it rang it really rang! The whole body of the phone rattled and shook, uncontrollably triggering the bells inside. I can’t help but imagine the parallels now with a woman in her full moment of pleasure; wild, uncontrolled, delightfully awake and present. And then the moment of answering; picking up the receiver. The spectacle ends, but there is a mental, almost audible decay to that experience and it lasts a second, maybe two in the space between the delay from picking up and being connected to the person on the other end of the line. A telephone call is a special occasion! And just to remind you that it is and was, hanging up triggers a little residue of that first ringing spectacle; even more so if you fumble while trying to secure the receiver to it’s base.
Later, we may have upgraded the shed phone with one of the new, modern Telecom decks, however my main memories of the new Telecom deck is mostly in the kitchen area of the new house.
Those two phones couldn’t have been more different. But the new phone was still beautiful in its own way. Shallow and rectilinear, the receiver on this phone was deliberately positioned on the left hand side of the lightweight base. This phone, although also made of plastic, was a different kind of plastic. Not shiny, not heavy and strong looking. It looked and felt really, well, plastic. It was modern, but it also felt temporary and that was fine. When that phone rang it was a more synthetic ring, probably from a little computer chip that was spewing out a recorded tone through a tiny speaker. It was less of a celebration or occasion when that phone rang. It was practical. The phone rang a lot more by this point too, which, whether a result of our lifestyle or the gradual rise of technology in our lives, regardless, it was the right phone for the right time.
One delightful aspect of that phone were the buttons. A soft, silicon rubber that had a very natural touch. You could fondle them slightly and gently push them to a point without actually activating the button. This subtlety of touch was part of the delight. Although less of an event to the old wind up boomerang of the shed phone, there was a similar depth of intention, albeit at a smaller scale, with these buttons. To dial a number, number by number, you still had to mean it.
That Telecom phone, although it excited us at first, being such a radical departure from our shed phone, it quickly became the ubiquitous telephone of that Australian generation. We went from one on the kitchen bench top to another one in the study and one in Mum and Dad’s bedroom. When the phone rang, they all rang too, and for a while, the old shed phone, still connected out there would ring in delayed unison; awkwardly and out of sync, like a discarded lover, faking arousal for the hope of attention and affection.
One of those Telecom phones, (whichever of the three I couldn’t tell as they were all identical), one of those phones was the phone that I would sit with for hours after school, hidden away in the study, whispering and mumbling to my occasional high school girlfriends.
One of those phones also ended up in my bedroom several years later, when I started studying architecture and organised to get dial-up internet connected to my room. Having my own phone number (0755468652), separate from my parent’s number was a big deal, not to mention the freedom and world that accessing the internet back then, even at a snail’s pace, brought me.
As I answer this telephone at Jason’s place, I can’t help but feel how primitive it seems now in the context of our mobile devices. It’s a clunky, wireless, plastic object that docks to what must be a charging station.
A voice crackles at the other end, asking for someone or something, but I can’t make it out. I ask her if she can speak up a bit. She repeats herself but again I can’t grasp what she’s saying. I take the initiative and tell her that Jason and Cath aren’t here, that I’m a friend (“close friend” I add, not sure why), who is visiting to enjoy the place for a few days.
She says that she is looking for the “man of the house”.
I tell her that I am a man in the house, but not the man of the house.
She’s elderly, with a familiar, worrisome, nervous way about her and she decides that it’s OK and she’ll call back at another time.
I press one of the clumsy rubber buttons to hang up and I fumble to inject the receiver back into it’s chassis.
I wait for something.