‘Hello, is that me?’ What happened when I rang a number from my past
Sometimes old phone numbers float up from the primordial ooze of my unconscious – this time I decided to call one
I had a very interesting conversation the other day.
“Hello?” said the voice on the other end of the line.
“Hello!” I said, because that’s how conversations work. I listened carefully to hear if I could recognise the voice. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but may I ask – who is speaking, please?”
“What do you mean, who’s speaking?” said the other person. “You called me.”
I could understand their wariness. Nowadays when someone calls you on the landline it’s either Standard Bank trying to sell you a wonderful new investment opportunity or it’s Mmusi Maimane. It’s not like the old days when you were 12 and could phone random numbers from the directory and politely ask whoever answered if their fridge was running, and then when they said yes, advise them to run after it. These days it’s remarkable that someone has a working landline at all, let alone be prepared to answer it.
“Actually,” I said, “you don’t need to tell me who you are – can you just tell me where you are?”
“I’m at home,” said the person on the other end of the line, which is the kind of good banter I enjoy.
“And where is home?” I asked after we’d both finished chuckling. “Your precise street address?”
Many people might have hung up at this point, but I think we were both enjoying the nostalgic pleasures of gabbing on the landline, so he cautiously told me the street name and I cried aloud with delight. “You’re number 171!” I said. “Is there still an avocado tree in the front garden?”
At this point the chap on the phone was getting a little squirrelly so I explained that I had woken that morning with a telephone number in my head and I didn’t know whose it was. Obviously, if there’s a telephone number in my head, it means it’s a number from some time prior to 1997, because that’s when I first had a cellphone, and after that I lost the capacity to remember numbers seven digits long. But sometimes old numbers or even shorter sequences will float up from the primordial ooze of my unconscious and torture me with their demands to be remembered. Was that an old ATM number? The combination to my bicycle lock in primary school? A post office box number?
The worst part of it is how alone I am with them – these numbers aren’t cross-indexed anywhere. They’re not searchable. They’re the broken-off bits of the genome of my history and there’s no one I can helpfully ask about them. If I don’t retrieve what they are, they’ll be half-lost forever but recurring like a bad conscience, torturing me from some ghostly personal underworld.
All day I’d been mooching around, turning the number over in my head, feeling the frustrating echoes and cadences of the numbers and the half-familiar rhythm as you recite it in your head. Finally I decided to call it. The chances were vanishingly slight that the number would still exist, and slighter still that it would exist at the same location, but I called it, giving it the 031 dialing code of Durban, where I was a child, and all of a sudden it was ringing, and a man was answering and there it was: 171 Grey Park Road! My unrequited crush from primary school lived in that house! I used to idle past in the afternoons, pretending to be coming from school over and over again, hoping that she’d be playing in the garden and I could give her the casual nod and wave I’d been practising in the mirror. In an activity unrelated to my crush, I used to go steal avocados from their tree on Sunday afternoons when I could hear they were all swimming out the back. When we were a little older I used to call and have weird conversations with her even though I was too shy to speak to her in person.
I explained all this to the chap on the phone, and he told me that he had been living in that house for 15 years, and lived somewhere else for 30 years before that, but he could still remember his phone number from when he was a boy in Pretoria. I told him I could only remember my home number from one of my houses.
When I was young we moved around a lot from one house to another, all in the same general area but in game pursuit of lower and lower rent. We were never in the same house for longer than a year or two, and never kept the same number, so every time we moved I had to learn the new one. My mom made me memorise it and then recite it to her before I left the house to go play, in case I became lost and had to ask some passing adult to call my home to find out where I lived. Oh, splendid days of childhood adventure when parents let small children roam free with only seven shakily remembered digits to bring them back home.
Each time we moved I’d study each new telephone number and recite them in my head, deciding whether they sounded lucky or not, whether this house would be a good one. Some numbers felt right, others would have too many 9s or 5s or 8s, or would have inelegant combinations that didn’t please the inner ear, and then I’d know this wouldn’t be the year when everything came right.
I don’t remember any of us writing down our friends’ phone numbers in school, but we knew them all, off by heart. There’s something lovely about having someone’s number by heart. It was a sign of closeness – their number was a part of you. I only remember one home number, and that was from the house I remember best, that I was living in when I was 10 and 11. It was the lower half of a duplex on a green ridge overlooking the blue sea, and it was painted inexplicably and embarrassingly pink.
I am pleased I remember that number, and I never want to let it go. I like to think of it as a kind of silver thread that passes through some black hole of time and space and that if I call it my mom might answer and shout for me to come to the phone. Or maybe my dad would answer and growl that it’s dinnertime and why am I calling now? Or maybe it will be a few months later and I’ll answer, the way I was taught to answer, in that slightly nervous voice, trying to sound grown up and confident, trying to sound like the man of the house: “467 4169, Darrel speaking, hello?” and I’ll be able to say, “hey, kid, I’m just calling to say don’t worry. We’ll get there. Don’t be so afraid. It’s going to be fine.”