Sunday, February 01, 2015

Politics and a short history of telephones.

Rooster one day, feather duster the next, or so my husband reckons in relation to the fate of a certain politician and his conservative party following their defeat in yesterdays election in Queensland. 

Triumph to abjection.  I know the slide well.  The ways in which I might see-saw between omnipotence and impotence.  One day on top of the world, the next day in the gutter. 

My boyfriend rang from Edithvale.  It wasn’t often I spoke on the telephone.  I had an aversion to the disembodied voice at the other end.  The fact that I could not see the other person’s face rendered me voiceless, as if I could not find words enough in my mind to fill the silence that grew between us. 

And so I had trained myself to use the telephone only for calls of an intentional nature.  The calls you make to arrange an appointment, or to meet someone.  Nothing that required any other effort than to relay a brief message. 

The call on the telephone to my boyfriend to make arrangements for when we would meet on the weekend was even shorter than I had expected when my father came along with his scissors and snipped the cord. 

The idea that I should engage with someone in the outside world, or perhaps the fact that this someone was a boyfriend, had enraged my father. 

There was no reasoning with him, and I fled.

Forty years later when my then fifteen-year-old daughter was on the phone for about the fourth time that night clogging up the line, my husband took my father’s place. 

In those days we had only one line and my husband sometimes needed it for work.  He, too, destroyed the connection that night, but not in the same way.  Not quite.

He snatched the telephone from our daughter’s hand after she had refused to finish up the call and cracked the receiver open on his knee.  It must have hurt him, but his rage shielded him from too much pain. 

Not so our daughter.  She was devastated and she too fled, but not after remonstrating with her father for doing this, and with me for not stopping him.

Years later my daughter showed me she had kept the broken telephone in her possession as a souvenir of that dreadful time. 

It’s not something my husband is proud of, nor am I.

It puzzles me this antipathy we can have to others who connect elsewhere with someone else in our presence.  The jealousy that stirs. 

It was not the first time my father had disconnected the telephone.  He did it years before when I was still very small, but this time he simply refused to pay the bill and the telephone company instead cut us off. 

For years we were without a telephone and it seemed to me even as a seven year old that there was something shameful about not having a telephone number to offer people in case they might want to make contact with us, other than face to face, on foot or by letter. 

I never once talked to my father about his decision to sever my phone connection with my boyfriend but to give him credit, my husband talked to my daughter and in a calmer moment he apologised.  He was good at apologising. 

As was my daughter, both apologised for their part in the fracas, but in my mind now I hang the responsibility on my husband’s shoulders and on mine.

We should have found a better way to deal with an adolescent daughter who spent too many hours on the telephone, even though at the time it seemed as though words were not enough.

In the end we ordered an extra phone line and there was no longer any need to police the time spent on calls except when mobiles came in and for a time our daughter could run up huge bills from talking too long to her friends on this then more expensive form. 

Today the mobile phone is such a lifeline for most of us.  And I, too, am in the habit of checking mine several times a day just to be sure no one is trying to reach me. 

Another daughter in Scotland communicates by Skype and we, too, talk on the phone but now face to face on the screen. 

It helps to see her face.  It helps to hear her voice.  The distance between us washes away for a moment and she could be in the next room.

When my mother and father travelled from Holland to Australia in the early 1950s, before my father had the telephone cut off, my grandparents sometimes made a call.  We children were never allowed to speak, but I heard the tension in my mother’s voice as she tried to connect across the distance with her own father and how every word which cost so much money seemed precious and therefore too hard to find.  The conversations were stilted and short.

Words are like that, unless they flow freely, they fall flat.  From rooster to feather duster in one fell swoop. 
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