JULY/AUGUST 2008
LAVINIA GREENLAW

WAITING AND LISTENING

TECHNOLOGY CAN MAKE YOU DISAPPOINTED IN YOURSELF.

DISCUSSED: Grass, Villages, Phone Boxes, Boys, Top of the Pops, The Land of Four Official Radio Stations, Pub Rock, Present-Tense Money, Hi-Fi Systems, Stereos Bequeathed by Uncles, The Dusty Corners of a Record Shop, Half Man Half Biscuit, Middle-Age Distraction, The End of Clutter

At sixteen, if I wanted to make a private call, that is, if I wanted to speak to a boy, I left the house. I walked through the village, past three pubs, and out beyond the first farm to where a phone box stood on a grass verge.

There was plenty that could go wrong. Someone might be there already, in which case I had to wait—at first politely, invisibly in the dark, and then, if they took more than a minute or two, encroaching on the phone box’s puddle of light. A grown-up would have rapped on the glass, whereas I could not bring myself to act. Waiting was agony, but all I could do was will them to finish. Did they not know that this was a matter of life and death? That I had to speak to him now?

Maybe no one was in (and nobody had an answering machine). I might get a wrong number or a crossed line and use up my money interrupting strangers. Or I’d get through and feed in the first of my stack of two-pence pieces for it to be ignored or spat out, either way leaving me cut off. I had to ring the operator and persuade her to allow me two-pence worth of time, about three minutes.

Sometimes it worked. I made the call, the boy was there and wanted to speak to me and, all of a sudden, I could hear him. He was intensely present—imagined and actual in the same moment. Our conversations were inept and brief, not least because phone calls were expensive. You used up your money and you did not ask people to ring you back. Phone calls were something in which you invested.

For those minutes I could hear the voice of the boy I was in love with, or the silence between us, I listened hard. Then I walked home through the dark, turning over every syllable, stress, pause, and intonation until the conversation became fixed as a kind of song.

Hearing a song that had captivated me was like getting that boy on the phone. There were so many things that made it unlikely. Even now, I get a rush of exhilaration when I hear David Bowie’s “Starman” or Marc Bolan’s “Metal Guru.” When they were released, I was nine years old and got to hear them maybe three times a week—if they were on Top of the Pops or Radio One, which I could listen to before school or bed. I was not quite ready to go out and buy my own records and these songs, even now that I can carry them in my pocket, remain tantalizing.

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Lavinia Greenlaw is a poet and novelist who lives in London. Her most recent collection was Minsk (2003) and her first book of nonfiction, The Importance of Music to Girls, was recently published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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