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Dial M for madness: My ‘local’ telephone is now a Delhi-phone


I STILL have my stick-shaped telephone landline. It seems easier to have it sitting there rather than carrying a mobile around, which was designed for a man’s hand and has to be constantly charged.

Just before Christmas the phone suddenly stopped working. It rang out and took messages, but no one could phone me. I bought another and set it up. No result there either, leading to a fearful conclusion; the line, not the phone, was faulty. 

This, as any middle-aged woman will tell you, was very bad news, not on the same scale as the death of a parent or a cancer scare, but you know that it will mean at least one very difficult day when tears will probably be shed if not screams screamed, because you will have to contact your ‘provider’.

In the old days, God was the provider, contacted without too much commotion every Sunday. Now I need to approach Virgin with fear and trepidation, totally in their hands and fearing dire punishment; my first call involved all those telephone options, followed by an automatic voice needing my password. I change it each time I have to go through this, and the following time it is never recognised. I seem to have many of these. In fact, they have proliferated over the years, like sins.

After ten futile minutes of not keying the correct numbers into my phone, I reached a real human. To ascertain my validity, she needed answers to some security questions. Those seemed to have changed too. She finally accepted proof of my identity from my bank sort code and put me through to India, the second stage on this descent into Hell. 

The man seemed to be a forgiving type, he believed I was who I said I was, but I was too easily deceived. ‘Just checking your phone line now,’ came the fluting voice, and we were unplugged. He was gone. After half an hour, I had to begin the whole thing again. 

Desperate swear words began forming in my mind as another recorded woman’s voice said they would check the line and, if I called back in ten minutes, put me back to where I was in the inquiry.

I didn’t believe it for one minute, perspiring now and giving up any idea that I might go out or do some other activity that day. Sure enough, when I called back I had to begin the whole thing again. Some time later, a voice gave me a special phone number, but so quickly that I couldn’t catch it and it was not repeated.  

Sobbing now, an hour gone by, I began once more, and after more time slipped by, I reached India for a second time. The young woman was extremely kind, an angel voice to me as I shook and sobbed to myself. As we tried the passwords and my mother’s maiden name, it was obvious that she believed she was dealing with someone very old and mentally incapacitated, which by then I was. 

‘I will give you a new password now,’ she said, firmly but kindly. ‘Write it down. It’s only temporary as I will have to ask you to put your phone down and will call you back on your mobile.’

With nausea and moans, I put my old phone down and scrambled off to find my mobile. It was almost certain that I would never hear her celestial voice again.

We have a poor mobile signal, so I stood outside in the cold like someone on the verge of dementia, and by some miracle from the old provider on high, after many tortuous moments, she rang back. She also forgot to ask for the new password. 

An engineer was booked. Such was my joy that this ordeal was nearly over that I was tempted to ask for her address in Delhi so that I could send her a thank-you letter. It was hard to sleep with the thought that he wouldn’t turn up, meaning the possibility of another call to the great provider, but three days later a cheerful-looking lad arrived at my door. 

‘We fixed it for you last night. Your card was warped,’ he said inexplicably, but with the assurance of a doctor who’d just performed a miracle cure. ‘The local exchange around the corner did it. I’ve just come from there.  I just have to check it’s working.’

He did so and went away after refusing my grateful offer of tea, as he’d just had one around the corner. Again, I was struck with insomnia. His words haunted me. ‘Local exchange’. I grew up in a village where our phone, the size of an Ionic temple capstone, lived out in the dark hall, a shared party line, operated from a telephone exchange just up the road. That was run by one woman and people talked of how she would sometimes tell them if the people they were calling were at home or gone out, based on simply looking out of her window. 

I tweeted Virgin the omniscient provider, the modern way of sending poison-pen letters, asking why is it that I can’t just contact my local exchange around the corner if I have a problem. Why do I have to talk to Asia?  

‘When you call you are automatically transferred to the next available agent,’ they replied.  

He or she didn’t even understand my question. It belonged to an age when most of us were locals to somewhere, and that world has vanished. 

This article first appeared in

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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