It always makes him jump when his black melamine dial-phone rings. It usually sits silently in the corner by the front door on its low, round wooden table under his coat that hangs patiently on the wall at the foot of the stairs. The phone has been there for generations; before his grandchildren and before his own children were born. He even recently took it apart to replace the bell inside when it started hacking like an old dog instead of ringing. It’s a beautiful old device. Timeless sweeping lines. Weighty in your hands like it means something. Mechanical, so you know you’re using it.
And loud as sin!
This time the ring makes him spill a whole silver tea-spoonful of sugar right beside his favourite cup onto the tiled kitchen worktop, filling some of the gaps in the dried and cracked grouting and covering most of two brown tiles. He used to have a whole set of six of the same cups. Big, chunky, rustic hand-made clay mugs. Each had been slightly wonkier than the others. And all were glazed a bright, fiery reddish-orange, which shifted hue and intensity as you moved them through the light. But the other five have all long since been dropped or knocked; or smashed some other way. Even the handle of this last one has fallen off and been glued back on twice, so it’s just for show now.
He turns slowly, leaves the small kitchen and crosses the only slightly bigger living room – walking round two matching, pastel floral-print armchairs as he goes. One is threadbare with a deeply sunken seat that is bolstered and stuffed with old cushions and blankets, with an equally threadbare footstool tucked up in front of it. The other armchair is almost as neat as the day it was bought, covered in a thick plastic fitted sheet, and hasn’t been sat in for seven years.
The walk is only about 12 steps all in all, but with his knees it takes him at least thirty seconds. The whole time he worries the caller will ring off. He hasn’t spoken to his son in two months.
By the time he picks up the phone, he is quite out of breath and his mind is pre-occupied with his desperation to answer promptly so as not to offend. But he doesn’t get a chance to speak first.
“Hello, is that Mr. Ronson?”
Disappointing. A Stranger.
“Um, hello. Yes, that’s me.”
Bound to be sales or something.
“Hello Mr. Ronson, this is just a courtesy call to remind you it’s ten minutes before you need to press the button.”
“Oh, is it?” They’ve never called him before his time. He looks at his watch. The faded white face set in brass, on a recently renewed brown leather strap, stares back at him blankly while he gathers his thoughts. “Oh yeah. I was just making a drink. I usually press it when I sit down with my morning cuppa.” They’d delivered it three months ago. And since then he’d been pressing it at eight o’clock every morning – a time he’d not had much choice in choosing when the remote operative set it all up.
“Ok. Good. This is just a reminder.” The squelch of an intentional telephone smile accompanies their words. “You’ve been a bit late recently so we wanted to…well…” a sharp and insincere laugh fills their pause with tension “…remind you to press it to let us know you are ok. Ok?”
A couple of days last week, and once the week before, he’d been finishing up on the toilet when he was supposed to press it and each time they’d called him less than a minute later. To check he was ok before they alerted his family and/or the emergency services. Which was good. He never wants anyone to worry unnecessarily, so it’s useful they check first.
“Ok.” As he shapes those sounds in his mouth, he realises it isn’t ok. He twigs.
“Ok, goodbye Mr. Ronson.”
“Um, hang on a sec.” It is obvious to him.
“Yes.” The caller is clearly exasperated to be kept on the phone; probably has much more important things to be getting on with.
“Well. Can’t I just let you know I’m ok on the phone now?” See. Obvious.
“Well, we are talking now–”
“We are.” They butt in, along with another smile-squelch.
“Yes – um –” it puts him off, “so you know I’m ok.”
“Yes. I do know you’re ok.”
The emphasis on the ‘I’ feels odd to Mr. Ronson.
“So, do I still have to press the button in ten minutes?”
“Seven minutes now, Mr Ronson. And no, you don’t have to press it if you don’t want to.”
“Oh. Ok. Good. Fine then, I won’t bother.” He says matter of factly, letting a small, hopeful smile of relief come to his eyes.
“This call is just a reminder that, if you don’t press the button, in nearly six minutes now, Mr. Ronson, you’ll receive a friendly call within a minute of your chosen time. Just to check that you’re ok.”
This sounds more threatening to him than comforting.
“But I am ok. You just said you know I’m ok.”
“I do know.” Again, the emphasis is really off-putting.
“So I don’t have to press the button?”
“No Mr. Ronson. You don’t have to. You never have to. It’s always totally your choice. We’ll just call you if you don’t.”
“To check you’re ok. I’ve explained this Mr. Ronson. This is how it always works, please don’t waste either of our time.”
“But this doesn’t make any sense at all. You’re not listening to me.”
“Please don’t get angry with me Mr. Ronson. We just check in with you for your peace of mind. That’s all. Nothing untoward here.”
He’s not angry, he knows he’s not, he knows he is just standing up for himself. He is bored of the conversation, and frustrated and confused with not being listened to. And, much more importantly, he doesn’t want his tea getting cold.
He rolls his eyes and hangs up.
He stares at the big red button beside the telephone, which has “Ok?” written on it in very friendly lettering. It takes no effort to press it. So why has he started to hate it so much?
It is good that his son can get on with his own life now without worrying about his old man, without having to call every day to check in. It shouldn’t matter that the big red button is always cold to the touch.
He looks at his watch. He hasn’t got time to get back to his cuppa and back to the button before he needs to press it. He doesn’t want them to call him again. So he stands there, perfectly still, leaning against the wall, panting a little, watching the second hand tick through the next two minutes.
When the moment comes, he smashes his hand hard into the Ok Button. He doesn’t give a shit if the button or table break under his force. And he knows he’s too weak now anyway. Then he heads slowly back to the kitchen to tip away the cup of tea he’d been making, wipe up the spilt sugar, make a fresh cuppa, and start the day again.