Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Space, for kids

It's the kind of space you don't know you need, until someone grabs it from you.

The 'phone was ringing. I'd woken up in the middle of the night and the phone was ringing. I turned the face of my alarm-clock towards the window to see the time: someone was calling our house at five to one in the morning. And presumably Dad was still at Valerie's, because he hadn't picked up the extension in the main bedroom. Funny, he always made it back by midnight.

I never did like that house: it tried to be modern, but it was so dark. The sitting room had three windows but it never seemed to get any sun at all. The house, in fact the entire village, "nestled", which basically meant you didn't see anything or get any light. Which was probably a perfect end to the day if you'd been up on the fells since dawn looking after cows or sheep, but for an urban type like me it was a bit of a drag. It may have been something like the same feeling that had caused Mum to go and live with Douglas: obviously, because there was nothing bad about any of us. It had only been last month and it had come as a bit of a shock. I remembered wondering whether Chairman Mao's parents had separated when he was a teenager. That would account for a lot.

Come to think of it, the brightest "room" in the house was, in fact, the upstairs corridor, the length of which I was now walking to go and answer that 'phone. It seemed rather a lot longer than usual for some reason. I tiptoed past my brother's room _tiptoed, for heaven's sake why bother? and how could he sleep through that racket?_ pushed open the door, and picked up the handset
RRant RRant RRant RRant hoose RRant RRant!!!
RRant RRant RRant Yew RRant!
Someone was obviously very upset and, to add a surreal twist, she had a huge Scottish accent. I didn't know anybody Scottish, except Douglas, and my Grandfather who lived in Scotland, and they were both very polite and softly-spoken. And of course, they were both men.
I'm, er, very sorry but I couldn't hear what you said_
RRant disnae RRant RRant RRant RRant RRant RRant wukkud RRant RRant RRant RRant RRant!
Well, let's apply some logic here. Though that seems rather difficult (why's that? Does logic need daylight in order to work? Why should it? And is that why school happens during daylight hours?..): this is obviously grown-up stuff, and therefore luckily none of my business, so whoever this is needs to talk to Dad, and she's already got his number, so all I need to do is_
I'm sorry, Dad's not here. He won't be back 'til_
midnight. Oops! And anyway if this happens again tonight I won't get my 8 hours sleep, then I shall be dozy at school and look like an idiot.
_er, 'til the morning.
RRant RRant wutch RRant wrang RRant RRant RRant RRant wurrus RRant RRant RRant Yew RRant RRant!
I decided the next best thing, asking if she'd like to leave a message, was probably a bit pointless, said goodbye as politely as it was possible to do when interrupting someone mid-sentence (which I then felt guilty about) and put the phone down.

Now that I was no longer being ranted at, I could think a bit. Supposing I'd made a terrible mistake, and it was distress I'd been hearing, not anger? What if someone somewhere really needed help? Well I could at least find out who it was: in the days long before 1471 was even thought of, but when there was still operators, you could dial 100 and ask for the last call to be traced, as long as the lines had been quiet in the meantime. I picked up the 'phone again_
RRant chuldrren RRant RRant RRant RRant RRant wrang RRant RRant RRant Yew RRant
but of course the connection only finished once both people had hung up. I remember wishing we had one of those machines that took calls automatically and taped the answers, like the detective in San Francisco:
This is Jim Roquefort*, at the tone leave your name and message, I'll get back to you

by the time I got back into bed I noticed that I'd misread the time: it had been five past eleven, Dad would be home by midnight, and I would get my eight hours. Just.


"You wouldn't believe what happened last night", I began over breakfast. "This mad Scottish voice_"

"Oh, so she finally managed to wake you up without waking me, then" interrupted my brother.
"It's Douglas' wife" said Dad "Just ignore it". Like you can ignore a 'phone?? This was the 1970s, when phones were mighty chunks of engineering hardware that made a right royal racket, not the slim little items you get today that discretely slip out of your pocket and get lost in the park, or on the bus. And they were hard-wired in, too, you couldn't even unplug them. Or switch them off. And if you took them off the hook they turned into air-raid sirens. We thought of wrapping the 'phone in a quilt and stuffing it in the Evil Wardrobe, but somehow never got round to doing this every night.


"Right, pay attention" said Mr Square "Who can tell me how to use one word to remember what Inductors and Capacitors do in an electric circuit?.. Lunchista?"

I always sat in the front row in Physics. My enthusiasm, terrible eyesight and the fact that, in the driech summer we were having this year, it was the warmest part of the lab, made it the perfect place as far as I was concerned.

"It's CIVIL, sir. C for Current" Hang on, "I" is current. So what was the "C"?.."Sorry sir, I can't remember". This was so unusual that the rest of the class went quiet behind me. It sounded odd. Mr Square asked sympathetically if I was alright. "I...
(suddenly realised that saying in front of the entire class that I'd got woken up in the middle of the night by a mad Scotswoman on the 'phone, would probably not be a good idea) "...didn't get much sleep last night, Sir"

Some wag in the back row helpfully added "She was on the job, Sir", which sent a giggle round the whole class. Including me, because the idea was so utterly incongruous: I must have been the least likely prospect in the room for that kind of thing. Even if you included all the lads. "Get Lunchista on the job" added the class reprobate, in a flat tone that implied that he had tried, but found it completely impossible, to imagine.


Douglas turned out to be an interesting and humourous friend ("A collective noun for people who run Universities? Oooh, how about "A Lack of Principles"?"), and Valerie turned out to be the sort of person you could really confide in. The dreadful dark summer of 1977 seagued into a delightful autumn, and the nightmare calls faded away. My old school reports, which turned up in a recent house-move, show a dip followed by a bounce. And I now have two extra parents.

But to this day I consider "I don't have to answer that bloody phone!!" as the statement of an inalienable human right. And of course, we have an answerphone.


*we apologise for the unwarrented intrusion of cheese into this post. The gentleman's name was in fact Rockford.

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