If it takes 2 men 2 hours to paint a gutter, how many phone calls will be missed in the process? Neil Taylor tries to find out.
I’m down on my hands and knees, scrubbing hard at the brilliant white paint on the York stones outside the kitchen. The phone rings. I’m suddenly desperate to catch the call. I scramble to my feet, belt to the door, wrench it open, lunge at the phone. Too late. They’ve rung off.
Normally I’m upstairs in the office when it rings. I fling myself down the stairs, three steps at a time, shoot across the toy-strewn floor, and occasionally get to the phone before it clicks to the automated message. There is heavy breathing. (Mine.) Then ‘Er, is that you?’ asks the caller, tentative, and a bit alarmed. ‘Sorry. It’s just that it didn’t sound like your voice. Are you ok? Are you ill?’ By this time I’ve usually recovered my voice and composure. Yes, I’m fine. How are you?
You may ask why my phone goes to the automated message so quickly. I answer, it’s because BT will charge me an arm and a leg to change the number of rings. Next question, please.
Q. Why not answer upstairs? A. That phone rings out ok, but doesn’t work for incoming calls.
Q. Why is the living room floor covered in toys? A. Don’t get me started.
Q. Why is it so important to answer the phone? (After all, it’s almost always a cold caller from a hot country, eager to defraud me of my bank account. And if it’s not, it’s someone ringing the Public Library to renew their novel. My number is only one digit away. Yes, I’ve been tempted to be generous and say of course they can renew. So far I haven’t. )
A. Good question.
Last summer I went to a Prom in the Albert Hall. At the official bidding I turned off my mobile. The first half was wonderful, some of my favourite pieces beautifully turned out. It was being recorded. Great! I thought, I’ll be able to hear it again at home. In the interval I turned the phone on to check for text messages. There weren’t any. I tried to turn it off. It had gone dead. I fought with it to no avail. I wrapped it in my pullover to muffle the sound in case someone rang, shoved it on the floor under my seat and settled back for part two. I now found myself hating the concert – not just because it was Elgar at his worst but because I couldn’t help thinking someone was going to ring. It was purgatory. Each time the conductor made to turn the next page of his score I prayed (yes, I, the atheist’s atheist) that it be the last, and I would be able to escape unrung.
In the pianissimo slow movement, suddenly there, in the background, was my ring-tone! People in front of me wheeled round, hunting for the culprit. For the first time ever, I didn’t pick up. Instead I stared fixedly into the far distance, lost in profound appreciation of Elgar’s genius. Eventually, the caller gave up. But I sat sweating with relief and fear for the next half hour. When it was over I was out of the Albert Hall like a rat out of a trap. And when Radio 3 kindly repeated the concert a week later, I gave it a miss.
Most people I know — including certain members of my family, and all energy suppliers — don’t believe in answering the phone. But I do know one fellow sufferer from the compulsion to pick up at all costs. A year or so ago, our builder put up some black guttering. Everything else was white. Eventually I got round to deciding to do something about it. I remembered that my neighbour had a long ladder, so I went round and asked if I could borrow it. He not only agreed but generously offered to hold the ladder for me. We carried it round and I clambered gingerly up. Even while fighting the vertigo, my brain began to appreciate the difficulty in simultaneously holding a pot of paint, wielding a brush, and clinging onto a ladder. Luckily, my neighbour thought of the solution. He went to get a second ladder (a freestanding foldable one). It was shorter, but as he explained he could erect it close to mine, climb to the top and, by stretching, hold out the paint pot close enough for me to dip my brush into.
All was going well, and I was almost half-way along the gutter when his mobile rang. He instinctively thrust his hand into his trouser pocket to retrieve and answer it, lost his balance, wobbled, swayed and fell off. From my dizzy height I peered at the spectacle below. He lay still, spread-eagled on the ground, phone in hand, while an expensive pot of brilliant white paint oozed slowly over his shirt, trousers, socks, shoes — and my beautiful York stones.
I climbed carefully down to pick him up.