by Richaed Kenneggy
You know how it is... when you can't think of a number. So I dialled Directory Enquiries.
'Can I help you?' Her voice I seemed to recognise. Used she to answer when we lifted the receiver to call our local exchange? In those times Hullo Girls faced a panel without their being introduced by Michael Aspel. They jabbed at it with corded knitting pins. Their percentage of direct hits was incredible; and the quarterly account allowed fifty free calls to take care of the near misses.
Not that we ever complained. We studied the rota, and agreed that the nuances in their saying, 'Sorry you've been troubled!' set us thinking that each somehow understood how it was with boys on the lonely farms. I said:
'Her name is Pam. She's married to one Robin Miller and they have three children — Alison, Melanie and little Benjamin. I believe he is a quantity surveyor. I mean Robin is, not Benjie.' 'I don't find that at all relevant,' she said. 'Suppose you give me her exchange.'
"If I could do that, I'd be half-way to her address, now wouldn't I? I can see Eastbourne in my mind. If I had your Directory I would recognise it — like West Chitterlings, or something.' With the false clarity of inspiration, I added: 'She is a concert soprano.'
'Well... there are forty-three Millers in the Directory against Eastbourne alone, who are all R's...'
I checked a stupid snigger.
'... may I suggest you call each one and ask if his wife will give you the line, 'Lo hear the gentle lark'? For identification purposes. Sorry I am not more helpful.'
It hurt, because obviously she had made no great effort. Today, without the crash of plate glass, or the slow drip from an overturned bar, those girls don't recognise when a man is in trouble.
Meanwhile, my letter had been Returned to Sender. Mr Ryland himself had clearly rubber stamped it NOT EASTBOURNE SUSSEX, to show a personal interest for the ½p extra it carried.
I waited until my friendly sub-postmaster had passed across Mr Barber's Bounty (and until the village cynic had advised against spending all in the one shop). Then I asked if I might borrow the Eastbourne area telephone directory.
'Sorry. We only carry Portsmouth and Isle of Wight. Sections two to four stroke five.'
I risked a remark: that I had no idea we remained so insular. I meant, after the highnoon of hovertravel, with Islanders and Trilanders, were we still Keep-yours-off-my-landers?
'Don't, please, toss words like that across the Post Office counter.' Then he saw me take off glasses to show I was short-sighted; and shift weight as the reinforced plastic in my leg bit deeper. I was by this time chronically sick. For what were Lonely Hearts in the Post Office Telecommunications doing to earn that £4.50 a quarter they took to let a neighbour and myself share their miserable bit of line?
Originally, it had been run up for me alone, that I might chat for hours to some girl — and that, for ld in real money, so long as we kept the night-duty man on Sandown exchange amused.
Fifteen shillings was the standard connection charge. It had included several new posties. 'You are wanted on the phone', was the in-phrase. Something of a missionary spirit had flickered in the Departmental heart. You felt they would have come over into Macedonia and helped us.
'May I ring Enquiries for you?'
I had to admit to exhausting their telephonist at an earlier attempt. I explained:
'You understand, I need the full works. As a kind of visual aid. Am I asking too much? After all, if we're to have international subscriber dialling available in the Isle of Wight in 1977, is it too soon to be given a peep at the neighbouring area's directory?' Ryde or Ventnor were my best bets, he said.
Either would make a sixteen miles round trip. Was there no demand for contact within the Hoteliers' Associations? Eastbourne was more than just the Crumbles. 'What about Sandown?' 'You could try'. From anyone other than the Post Office it would have sounded like, Get off my back!
A senior counter clerk at Sandown General was quietly confident.
'Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, yes.' One sensed progress. Horizons had receded, perhaps, over the centuries. London had all of the shelf in the vestibule. 'But Eastbourne, no.' Apparently there were very few calls on Eastbourne.
'...and what there were, would go by sea?' I understood. 'Would there be an Eastbourne area directory at Sandown exchange?'
'There is no exchange at Sandown.'
If Sandown General had not noticed that page 4 of their own Subscriber Trunk Dialling instructions on calling Sandown exchange, it was not for a mere subscriber to mention it:
'Is there nowhere in Sandown I can find an Eastbourne directory?'
'No.' He was in the cupboard, fetching the Form P21 1 H for my wording of an official complaint.
Knowledge, said Johnson, is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. In the vestibule, I dialled Sandown 2748, the public library. Before the counter could have said Post Office Telecommunications, the library desk was telling me that Eastbourne was in the Brighton area and the directory 281 was in their reference room. The Public Relations Officer summarised my grievances after his own fashion:
'You have, it seems, been our customer for thirty-five years and you write 'it is not clear what extra value we are having in exchange for the increased charges."
So he explained in detail. But for my life I could not see one item of service, maintenance or replacement that could not have been enjoyed all those years ago ... except STD.
The inference must be that Post Office Telephones, in the times of their dove-voiced girls, were making no provision for growth, improvements, replacements or maintenance. They had no business acumen, to insure, by overcharge, against eventualities; no knowledge — and did not know where to go for it. They had landed in the red — from where today's subscribers had got them out and put them £78 millions in the black, it seems.
'We give a free repair service,' he reminded me. 'No fault has been on your line for over two years. Perhaps this results from good maintenance for which there is no extra charge to you, but the Post Office has to pay.'
He had done his homework. It seemed churlish to remind him that the last fault reported had been a crop of wrong numbers. Thrice in as many minutes a child had screamed:
'Mummy, it's that man again!'
Neighbour and myself sorted that one out. If we dialled ourselves, we could talk to one another.
I had dialled 151, to tell them that in maintaining the shared line they had got their knickers twisted.
Two days later, when the fracas had subsided, I hinted that the computer would have been confusing our accounts.
It had been treated as an improper suggestion:
'Did you rumble that ... or was the engineer talking?'
'No PO engineer would talk. Now, would he?' I won an assurance that adjustments would be made.
Unwise, perhaps, to press that tender point. The PRO would certainly have been able to tell me how my call to Tokyo — when I complained that our lane was blocked by Post Office Telephones vans — had been charged to my neighbour.
'We have on the network,' he was saying, 'over ten million other telephone numbers available to you ...' He was implying, why destroy a happy relationship?
Yes, YES, YES! But I wanted one alone out of them all. One number, and none other.
Pam's... to thank her for her Christmas card.