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A Telephone Tie-break

I have had the same phone number all my life. It reflects the fact that I still have the same dialling code, and the same postcode, that I had when I was growing up. We rarely use this number (our landline as it is now called) and we get very few calls on it.  

One evening last month the phone (the landline) rang. I picked up, expecting to hear that something like that recorded message purporting to be from BT, telling me that there has been “suspicious activity” on my “internet line” and that my service will be disconnected unless I press 1 to speak to an advisor. For once, there was a live voice on the line, one I recognized. It was an old friend of my mother’s. When my mother died, at home, in 1997, she this was the first friend of hers that I called and she came straight round to pay her respects and wait for the priest to arrive. I last spoke to her two or three years ago, a five-minute chat on a Sunday morning. My daughter and I had just been to mass, she (my mother’s old friend) had just arrived for the next service.  

She called up out of the blue, not sure if we were still living nearby. One of her friends had seen me boarding an E3 bus and speculated that we might have moved out of the immediate area, a logical leap that I wouldn’t make based on seeing someone board a bus. The E3 passes by the end of my road, and both of the local swimming pools that I have used in the last five years. If I see someone on a 267 I don’t assume that they’ve moved to Hammersmith, or Isleworth.  

After establishing, vaguely, where I now live (it’s a road she has never heard of) we moved on to local and family news. She didn’t know that my father had died, in April last year. We told plenty of people, and the news was in the parish newsletter, but it happened right in the middle of the first lockdown. There was no funeral or memorial service, as I wrote here last year 

I told her about my father-in-law’s death, in April of this year.  

She told me about her daughter’s husband, a man in his 60s who I never met. He died suddenly. He’d been for a drive, returned home, went to the fridge to get some cheese and dropped dead. An aneurysm I think she said, though as I realized some years ago I’m not much good at medical chat 

I updated her on other family deaths – my mother’s sister in July 2019, an aunt by marriage late in 2018, another aunt by marriage in October 2019.  

At this stage I realized that our conversation was beginning to feel like a tie-break in tennis. Viewed that way, I was leading 5-1. She hit back with a mention of someone my age who I knew of but never spoke to (different schools, different part of the parish). I know his mother to speak to, and have chatted briefly to two of his sisters, but never met him. He died at the start of the year, as I already knew. If this conversation really was turning into a tie-break, this piece of information could be regarded as a let.  

We continued on in this way for a few more minutes, but the conversation did cover the living as well as the dead: my children, her children and grandchildren, my brother and sister and their families, the local priests and their comings and goings.  

She asked about Bridie, a friend of my mother’s who she remembered from way back. Bridie died a few years ago, having returned to Ireland. Another point added to the tie-break score, if you want to see it that way.   

Then she told me of her son’s ex-wife, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer: a year, maybe two, left to live. This was a whole different turn in the conversation. So far we had been exchanging news of people who had died (most of them in their 80s and 90s), or people who are in good health. Here was someone not expected to live to her 50th birthday, someone else I have never had a conversation with.  

There was another element to this phone call. Like most people I know who are over 80, this friend of my mother’s doesn’t have good hearing. She has a hearing aid but doesn’t like to use it, a concept I am familiar with from my own father. This means that most of what I said had to be repeated at least twice. It was easier to keep my responses brief, and deal with straightforward facts: who died, how old they were, what they died of. No, I didn’t go to the funeral. Yes, everybody’s fine.  

After about 25 minutes she wrapped things up. We had caught up on the most significant stories in our lives: not many births or marriages, plenty of deaths. And while this friend of my mother’s is still around, I know that there’s at least one person who will contact me on my landline rather using the many other technologies available.  

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