The telephone people (who worked for the government) didn’t like to venture very far into your house when fitting the junction box, so the phone was usually located near the front door, in the hall. In posh houses it sat on a telephone table, next to a device that stored telephone numbers. When you pressed ‘B’ on this device, the top would ping up and show you the numbers of all your friends whose names began with that letter. Also the butcher. The telephone table sometimes incorporated an upholstered stool on which you sat while speaking to the butcher about chops.
If you wanted to talk to someone, you dialled their number by sticking your forefinger in a hole and rotating a dial until your finger was stopped by a shiny metal bar. If someone else wanted to speak to you, they did the same and this caused your phone’s bell to ring insistently until you lifted the receiver. At this point, caller and called were connected and could talk happily to each other until one of their fathers happened to pass through the hall, looked at his watch and remarked on how long your conversation had lasted and how expensive phone calls were. You would then rush up to your bedroom screaming that your father didn’t understand.
There were some disadvantages of telephoning in the old days, though they didn’t seem bad at the time. From the privileged 21st Century it’s easy to see that not being able to take your telephone with you on the bus was a minus point. Some might say that not being able to take a photo with it, or play movies on it makes the olden-day telephone a useless fossil, but really we never felt the need to watch The Parent Trap on a telephone, being quite satisfied with the cinema. Had anyone suggested that this was even an outside possibility, they would have been committed to an institution where strong medicines were injected at regular intervals.
But there were advantages too, principal among which was that in the old days you could actually speak to someone on the phone.
These days, it is extremely difficult to use a phone to speak to the person you want to speak to.
Here’s a hardware check for Khao Talo Towers, the Pobaan’s modest residence on the hill teetering above Pattaya: two cordless phones attached to a landline, Mr Pobaan’s six-year old mobile and Mrs Pobaan’s state-of-the art Galaxy SIII. (That’s a phone, not a Star Trek vehicle.)
I try to call a friend on our land-line. The first cordless phone isn’t working because the contacts are rusty and so the handset hasn’t charged. When I try the other, I get through, but my friend complains that I’m breaking up. I move closer to the ‘base station’ as the bit of plastic on which the handset rests is grandly known; still no good. I bend down. I’m now so close to the base station that my neck is sore and the thing might as well not be cordless.
‘I still can’t hear you.’
‘I can hear you.’
‘How are the kids?’
‘I’ll call you back.’
I try again later with the same result. I scratch the rust off the contacts on the other one and wait six hours as instructed for a full charge but by this time my friend is in bed. The next day I try again but the call quickly degenerates into an exchange of ‘what?’, ‘sorry I didn’t catch that’ and ‘it must be something on the line’.
While pondering the cause of this consistent malfunction, I am reminded of when the maintenance chap in our village came to look at a fault in the structure of our gracious home.
‘You have to remember,’ he said darkly, ‘that we live in a tropical country.
‘In tropical countries,’ he continued as he ran his finger along a worrying crack in a newly-plastered wall, ‘things fall apart.’
I also remembered something someone had told me about cars: ‘You can’t expect a car battery to last more than a couple of years,’ he told me cheerfully. ‘This is a hot country after all.’
With this advice jangling in my ears, I put two and two together and conclude that the batteries in cordless phones take one look at the tropical paradise into which they have been fitted and promptly go on the blink.
You’d think that resorting to the mobile kind of phone would solve all these problems, but no, such recourse merely introduces new difficulties. If I wish to converse with my beloved when she is away from home, in the salon perhaps, having her crowning glory primped into perfection, you’d think that all I’d have to do (as the Beatles once sang) was call. Oh, naive reader! How could you think such a thing? Let’s say I’m sitting in a bar, missing Mrs Pobaan. An urge to hear her tinkling tones overcomes me to such an extent that I decide to call her. For a connection to be made, the following conditions must be met: I have my phone with me, it’s charged, it has enough credit to make the call, I have reception, Mrs Pobaan has her phone with her, it’s charged, she has credit, she has reception, the music in the salon isn’t loud and her phone isn’t buried under a scarf in her bag that prevents her from hearing the ring and, if it rings, she bothers to pick it up.
These conditions are less likely to coincide than an alignment of all the planets; that’s why we almost never get to speak on the phone.
I’m getting a bakelite device installed in the hall and will sit on my telephone seat night and day, confident that you will call.