We had a red bakelite ‘phone. It sat proudly on a round plastic unit in the hallway of my real mother’s home. The unit was also made of plastic and was cylindrical. Brown and beige. It had two sections with a sliding door in each section and was big enough to house the Yellow Pages and various assortment of address books, bits of paper and biros.
The hallway was about 3ft square with three doorways leading from it and the staircase going down to the bedrooms. The doorways lead to the kitchen, the living room and the outside hallway. The carpet was red and there was an ornate mirror hanging on the only complete wall, above the telephone, that captured reflections of real life horror.
Our telephone number was 01-388-4853.
The thought of picking up a telephone, any telephone, already filled me with trepidation. We hadn’t had one until I was about seven and then we, at my foster home, shared the line with the people who lived at the end of the block. Sometimes when you picked up the receiver you would hear the conversations of the people who had got there first.
When I was seven, I was asked to use that ‘phone to make a call that still hurts my soul. I was so filled with guilt and frustration, that at that age I was unable to say no, or work out a way of fixing the situation without needing to make that call.
It was a Saturday. The day when my mother would usually head towards Edmonton from Central London to collect me. On this day there were two reasons why she was not going to appear. The first one was because I was performing in a ballet recital in nearby Southgate. The second reason was because my mother was coming out of hospital after having had abdominal surgery.
Filled with the opposing emotions, excitement at the evening’s performance for which I had practised (and was still practising) so hard and disappointment that I would not be seeing my mother because she was too fragile to come and see me dance.
Around three o’clock that afternoon, after having been dancing about the living room since morning, making sure that I knew all of my steps, my foster mother out of the blue announced that she wouldn’t be taking me to the recital. She didn’t give a reason, so at first I thought that she was teasing me. The car was parked outside and it probably wouldn’t take her more than about 15 or 20 minutes to get me there. But, no. She was adamant that she wasn’t going to take me. I am still baffled to this day as to why. Instead, she insisted that if I wanted to go (which of course, I did. How could I not, I would be letting everyone down at such short notice?), I would have to call my mother to come and get me and to take me there.
What? My mother who lives over ninety minutes away, who has to take two buses to just get here, who only a few hours ago got out of hospital after surgery? You want me to call her and ask her to take me?
Apparently the answer was yes.
I didn’t want to make that call. I refused and begged my foster mother to take me using everything I could think of that might change her mind. Bear in mind, I had no idea why she had decided at the very last minute that she wouldn’t take me in the first place.
I remember sobbing and sobbing with the frustration and guilt that was building within me. I couldn’t let everyone down and I really couldn’t make that call to my mother.
But I was forced to.
I was made to sit on the stairs and to pick up that ‘phone and dial my mother’s number. The torture I was being put through wasn’t as short-lived as I had hoped. The people at the end of the block were on the ‘phone. As usual.
The clock was ticking and now it was after 4 o’clock and I needed to be there by six at the latest.
Finally, the line was free and with my heart pounding in my tiny seven year old chest, I dialled the number and blurted out the reason for the call to my mother, through a torrent of tears, as she answered the ‘phone.
I have never felt so bad in my entire life. Whatever her response I would always feel guilty. For either forcing her to travel across London whilst she was in severe discomfort to save me, or for letting my dance teacher and classmates down when I without warning didn’t show up.
Of course, my mother didn’t hesitate. She must have left immediately and arrived about 45 minutes later in a cab. The cab then took us on to Southgate and I rushed backstage to get ready, not saying a word to anyone about what had happened.
My mother, in obvious pain, sat uncomfortably in the audience and watched the show. Obviously, as ever, I did my best but felt awful.
My red-rimmed eyes stung from all of the tears shed earlier but more than that I hurt inside from seeing my beautiful mother sitting there ignoring her pain so that I could do what I had to do. That pain for me has never gone away.
However, I started this by describing the ‘phone in my ‘real’ Mother’s hallway, not the one in my foster home. It was an instrument of torture and to this day, the thought of a ‘phone, of making or receiving calls makes my blood run cold. My heart pounds out of my chest (it’s doing it now as I type) and my breath gets rapid and shallow. I panic.
You see, apart from already associating the ‘phone with guilt, from the moment I went to live with my Mother and the ‘stepmonster,’the telephone would now be associated with being totally and utterly trapped.
Picture this. The ‘phone rings and it’s for me. I make my way up the red carpeted staircase to the hallway and pick up the receiver. It’s a friend. Who else would it be, I am only ten years old? There they are on the other end, chatting away inanely about something I only pretend to listen to or care about because instead, my eyes are looking into the mirror in front of me on the wall, to see when the attack from behind is imminent.
And there he is.
Clearly, the ‘phone ringing serves as a dinner bell for the ‘stepmonster,’ as I am literally served up for him to come and help himself to.
How do you scream at him or for help when his hands and rancid breath are all over you, when you are on the ‘phone to another ten year old girl? Or your grandmother? You don’t. You can’t fight him off as one hand is holding the receiver to your ear. What you do instead, is continuously move around trying to avoid his lecherous hands whilst pretending to be part of a school girl conversation about the latest pop band. There is no way I can avoid being molested when the call is for me.
When I say to you I have a ‘phone phobia, I am not being dramatic, or trying to avoid you. I am telling you truthfully that I have a ‘phone phobia. When you still call me numerous times a day or a week and ignore what I have said to you, I will begin to avoid you until I no longer have any desire to speak with you ever again. If you don’t care about me enough to hear me, then I don’t care about you.
As I have said before; if my emotional scars were like burn marks all over my body, you wouldn’t dream of lighting up a flame in front of me.
Don’t call me. I’ll call you. Or more than likely, I will text or email.