By Simon Barget
No one knows. Not my wife, not my son, no one at work.
It’s like I’m making connections. Spreading feelers out into the unknown. With all these billions of people I’ll never meet and I just want to lay down some sort of recondite network. Cities of 20 and 25 million, the Philippines fit to bursting, urban sprawls taking over Mexico and Latin America. Bangladesh. India, a billion, China even more. It’s mind-boggling, defies comprehension. Even neat, orderly Germany has almost 100 million. Who are all these people, because I really want to know them. Or at least get an inkling that they actually exist. These open connections are invitations, requests to make contact. And although it’s only a one-man-effort, I’m closing the gap and doing something unifying. Adding meaning to something. I don’t mean in some arcane, kooky, countercultural way because I know I shouldn’t really be doing it. It’s the butterfly effect. How does a tiny thing like this affect the whole system? Negligibly of course, I know that. But something changes. And I like the idea that it’s needless, superfluous. No relation to commerce, to earning, greasy survival. An unpredictable act which the world is not prepared for. Removed of all imperative. Breezily otiose.
Three months ago. A seller called and asked why I hadn’t got back after her buyer’s third viewing -- this was three days later -- and when she read back her mobile number I realised I’d taken it down wrongly. She had a personalised answerphone message so I probably should have realised. But I kept thinking who this other person was who I’d called by mistake. It played on my mind that I couldn’t picture her, get a sense of who she was. I felt guilty and stupid as I’d given the buyer’s name and their revised offer, and I felt I should call back and set it right for my client’s sake. Even though she’d bargained me down to 1% commission. Although a genuine mistake, it was still highly unprofessional. But in the end I decided no. It would have made it a bigger deal and I didn’t think they’d answer and then I’d have had to have left another message by which time they’d probably have forgotten anyway. So I lied to the client and told her I’d distinctly remembered her voicemail with her name in it. I said that sometimes answerphone messages don’t come through to the phone for days, which can happen. But I couldn’t stop wondering how easy it was just to contact any old mobile number. I mean it’s totally self-evident and easily done, but no one does it. But why a compelling reason; an imperative? Why not just do it? And I was drawn in by the infiniteness of it. It seemed like the whole world lay open and fathomless like a big wide cobalt sea.
A few days later I was out the back on the iron staircase having a cigarette, flicking and swiping from one menu to the next, idly scanning emails I’d read only two minutes before on my computer. Then I wondered again; could I actually bring myself to do it. I got up the number pad and beheld it as if for the first time. Immediately I started pressing. I won’t say that something took over because I allowed it to. I knew if I didn’t do it now I never would. The phone returned the names of the saved contacts whose numbers contained the digits I happened to be dialling. Until by the third number, it had no more suggestions. Eventually I had eleven numbers and I was ready. All kinds of things in my head and body but I blanked them out and pressed the green call strip. I think I wanted to hear a voice, but I can’t pinpoint my exact motivation. Definitely an impulse to break through something, a feeling akin to escaping shackles, to liberation. Pressed the phone right up to my ear and mouth like it was absolutely sacrosanct. Here we go. But what if Jonah or George walked out now to ask me something? The boss making prank calls to complete strangers. Well they wouldn’t know. But what if my face betrayed something? What the fucking hell was I doing here? Normal people just don’t do things like this. Especially responsible business owners who’ve appeared more than once on network television. But nothing was happening, just dead air and those inaudible crackling sounds just before the call’s successfully routed, or not. I wouldn’t have the guts to say anything, so big deal, someone would get a missed call from a number they didn’t recognise. But finally a click, and then: ‘The number you have dialled has not been recognised, please check and try again’. So it was fine. I’d done it. Not even the missed call. But then total and utter deflation. I hadn’t done anything. I had to carry on until I got through.
So I did. Dialled. Waiting. Every one of those pinprick bips crackling at the forefront of my awareness. The vast gaping radio silences between rings. Right in the entrails of some abstruse radio-communications process waiting for resolution. My fourth or fifth try, maybe more, an 077 number. Vodafone, solid. Ringing. Click. then this indistinct Northern voice -- Megs or Mags - not enunciated clearly enough to be able to catch the name properly. Bit of a northern slag to be honest. I don’t think I intended to say anything, but then the beep and I found myself speaking, spontaneous, not really knowing what was coming out, my voice but not my voice, something harking back to the acting training I’d done after university, three-month voice-work module. Hi Mags, it’s …, please could you give me a call when you get this. All in the tone. Upbeat and enthusiastic with a fillip of urgency. Leave no doubt that this person really needs to call you back about that thing previously discussed. I was performing to a fantasy audience applauding my courage, celebrating me as a pioneer. Perhaps I’d convinced myself I’d known her. I didn’t give my own name though and that which was produced unwittingly by my vocal cords and found itself funnelling out of my mouth was: ‘CONAL’. Pronounced CON’LL, like a contraction of CON and WILL. Wherefrom this cheeky-chappy moniker? I’ve got absolutely nothing to do with Ireland, never come across a Conal in my life. Connor perhaps, but not Conal. Had there been something on my desk with ‘Con’ in it? Conservative? Anyway. What now? Was she next to her phone; had she heard the call? Most people are umbilically tied to theirs, especially women. Had she listened? Was she going to tell anyone and if so who? What would she say? Would she ask people if they knew me? Would she get my name right? Who was she exactly? Where did she live? What did she do? What was it like to be her? Was she married? Kids? Was she attractive? What were her breasts like? Yes of course I wondered what her breasts were like. You can’t help creating an image of someone you don’t know. Dirty blonde, with that really bright streak like burning sulphur. Kept also picturing a wrinkled old brown-leather handbag with a poppered side-pocket. Horrible fag-smoking hairdresser.. Blackburn or Bolton or somewhere like that. Alternatively Burnley.
She didn’t call back. But I carried on and called other people. It became a routine. At some point I got my first text asking who this number was. Acknowledgement, validation. A real milestone. I decided that when people responded, I would leave them and move on. No further interaction necessary. All I wanted was an ultimate reason for doing the whole thing in the first place and that reason was that first acknowledgement. No one texted back more than twice when I didn’t respond so it panned out quite nicely. I could cross them off and move on. Sometimes people answered. I tried not to listen to the ginger embarrassed voice, breaking and rasping and uncertain. So rare to get someone with authority or even just a measure of self-possession. Let alone welcoming. Like it’s their mistake that someone’s called them and they should somehow have been able to prevent it. And then they try to compensate, get defiant or demonstrative. They have to know who it is. All in the voice.
I gave people a couple of days out of courtesy but by drawing it out, it gave me something to look forward to. I’m never insistent or frustrated in the message, my genuine enthusiasm comes through. I graduated to calling at my desk and just inter-mingling them with work calls. Get off the phone and as soon as, hector anyone I caught twiddling their thumbs to follow up their leads and chase, call, call, call. Yes thank you, I’d just been doing that exact thing I’d retort. They wouldn’t have to know mine was totally fatuous and futile. See, agents are annoying enough even when we end up selling your house. I started to google the numbers, instead of just dialling any old random. It felt more focussed and correct. Sometimes I hit on something immediately, but most of the time I’d have to spend at least ten minutes until something came up. Obviously lots of people in manual service industries use the internet to get business, gardeners, electricians, but you also get lawyers, management consultants ad-execs and TV, and psychotherapists, and masseuses, personal tutors. Other estate agents. It’s arduous. When you google an unrecognised number, meaning one that doesn’t have any info or person linked to it, these websites like mobilephones-uk.com or ukphonenumber.net come up as top search results. ukphonenumber.net brings up a search box Who is calling you from this mobile phone number? And you can enter the number again which obviously doesn’t bring up anything. I don’t know if it’s a scam – probably is – linking your mobile number to your IP address, anyway my number didn’t bring up anything last time I checked. mobilephones-uk.com displays the number and performs some weird numerological feat whereby it adds up all the digits of the number to give a two digit number and then adds up those two digits to give a final number at which point a nonsensical four line Chinese-folklore disquisition on the symbolism of that number. 15 means flowers and revelation, and is a sign of flexibility and strength etc. Try it yourself if you get bored.
I soon started to get a feel for what worked. Honing it as I went along. It’s all about tone as I said. The homely, flawless unencumbered use of first name like we’ve known each other for ages. Pronounce them just right like the person would, and they’ll think you know them. No names with ambiguous pronunciations. No European names that can either be pronounced in the original language or requisitioned and ruined with the de rigueur English twang. Chloé. Chloe-eeee. For a real French Chloé you need a soft breathy Gallic ‘aaay’ instead. I wanted to phone a ‘Timo’ once but got myself in such a pickle that there was some magical Finnish way to say it. Katherine listed as Katherine but everyone but her granny on her Dad’s side calls her Kath. Then I realised I should stop leaving messages unless I’d heard them saying the name themselves in their own answerphone message. I started to feel like I was honouring people with a call from Conal. I bought a Bluetooth plug-in ear-piece/headset with a special noise-cancelling microphone so you couldn’t pick up any outside noise. I got one of the guys to call me when I was in Starbucks to test whether it worked; he said he couldn’t hear a thing other than my dulcet voice. Became a Bluetooth prick with a conch growing out of his earhole. I got a strange thrill from being Conal amongst my employees. Of course no one paid the slightest bit of notice. Agents more than anyone are always on the phone or talking to each other or distracted or moving somewhere, going to or coming back from endless viewings. My Black n’ Red notebook, with pages and pages of names and numbers now. In three months, I’ve had 36 individual responses.
Of course you predicted correctly that something was going to go completely pear-shaped. Last week someone called back twice in the same day. Naturally I didn’t answer. A guy with a very heavy Italian accent calling himself Sergio. Number visible. Left two very long messages with lots of pauses. Very little discernible outside noise. Thanked me for my message and said he was ready to speak to me. Didn’t ask who I was or why I was calling him. I suppose his tone mirrored mine in a way, upbeat and receptive, no insistence or impatience, not reticent in any like some are when they leave voicemails. Like he’d fully understood the rules of the game. And he really got it. That’s what unnerved me, because he was throwing it right back in my face. Not to mention that I couldn’t understand why someone would do this. And he called back the following day and kept calling. Was he really Italian? Am I really an Irishmen? Sometimes the voice was so melodramatic, theatrical and inane I felt stupid for even entertaining the possibility that he could be. Other times he was more muted. But when he called twelve times on Friday, it was clear he was a total nutjob. I phoned up my service provider and got the number blocked. Not because the calls were bothering me that much, just because the sheer volume was physically interfering with my calls; there must have been people trying to get through to me at the same time. But that wasn’t the end of it because he called back from another number which I took to be his second mobile. And when I got that number blocked, he called back from another one. Lengths I’d never have gone to. This was real badgering, bordering on harassment. The Manager I spoke to told me that it must be someone who has access to the unused numbers database, able to route the calls through any number he wants. How come? Someone fairly high up in a Virgin call centre? Whoever the most unscrupulous mobile provider is. Probably 3 or Lebara. Because none of the numbers were registered to any SIM card. Did I just want to go ahead and change my number? No, I’d had it for ten years, I liked I, had become attached to it. What I didn’t say is that it would have felt like it admitting defeat. Well there wasn’t a whole lot he could do then.
So there was only one option of course. I couldn’t do it the first few times and just stared and watched as it flashed on the screen. He nearly always called at eight o’ clock on the dot (evening) amongst other times. No idea why. His number, unmissable, believe it or not, three consecutive 6s in it. Anyway, I was really going to answer. I could handle it. I’d just say whatever came out like that very first call with Mags/Megs. I was suitably unprepared, loose. And there it was. 8:11, on the A41 going back home, the first call I’d answered in more than three months of being Conal.
So what did I say? Well it’s obvious, isn’t it? At least the first bit. ‘Conal speaking..’’