• Joanna Seldon


    Ring Tone

    She liked the feel of the thing in her hand.  But it was less chunky than the last one, which made her worry that it could meet a similar fate.  She ran her thumb along its curved corner, stroked the screen.  Where were the small raised buttons she had liked to press, and which had yielded so easily to her touch? Of course Greg had been right when he persuaded her she needed this new flat type of screen, like a television for mice.  But had Martha been around, she might well have disagreed with her brother.  “Come on, Greggo – Mum doesn’t need all that.  Why not let her go for something more basic?”  The palette of childish primary colour blocks, each with its bewildering symbol, seemed to sneer at Grace’s ignorance.  And it reminded her how much she missed her daughter’s patient sympathy.  She missed her old phone as well - that sensation of a slight bounce-back as she pressed into the keypad’s little rectangles, to which they responded with a satisfying click.

    She clasped it again, quite tightly now, wondering if she ought to ring Stephen.

    He’d said he might be late.  If he wasn’t in the foyer by 7.25, he’d said, she should leave his ticket at the box office.  But it was worth checking, surely, that he wasn’t just one minute away?

    She unlocked the phone.  The lion she’d just snapped in Trafalgar Square seemed poised to growl at her from the screen.  No, of course not.  It wasn’t actually worth checking.  There’d be the irritated intake of breath on the other end of the phone.  He was in a taxi.  The traffic was terrible, as usual.  He’d be there in three and a half minutes.  He’d told her, hadn’t he? to leave his ticket at the box office, and he really had to go now; he was due to call Frank at 7.25.  No, for goodness’ sake, Grace, no need to apologise; just do the necessary.

    That’s what Stephen would say if she used her beautiful new phone on him.  She slipped it into her coat pocket and started to hunt around for the tickets.

    The production, with its star cast, had been enthusiastically reviewed.  In the foyer, the people greeting one another quacked with excitement.  Perhaps it was simply pleasure in seeing friends and lovers, rather than anticipation of the play.  Grace suddenly felt very lonely.  And, from the young man behind the grille at the box office, she caught a whiff of pity.

    “Mr. Hird.”  He wrote the name carefully on the back of the ticket.  Then, evidently surprised to see her face still peering through, he assembled a quick smile and assured her not to worry.  “I’ll make sure he gets it.”

    She almost tripped on the step by the programme seller.  It was an instinct to reach out and steady herself on his arm, but she just managed to stop herself in time.  So now she had to fumble in her bag once more for her wallet, feeling slightly winded by the box office encounter, and the near tumble on the step, and the cost of the programme.  Three pounds struck her as a great deal for something that contained probably less fact than advertisement.  Once upon a time she wouldn’t have thought twice about the cost.  But that was nearly twenty years ago now, before Martha was born, when she worked for Crichton’s Seeds and enjoyed financial independence and a sense of self-worth.

    No, she needed to buy a programme, however extortionately priced.  She might not be earning any longer – and if she got the part-time work for which she’d been interviewed today, she’d be doing it for nothing.  But she could at least be well informed, and reading it would be a dignified alibi while she waited for Stephen.

    It was one of those old-fashioned theatres with red and gold décor and a queue outside the ladies.  Their seats were in the stalls, half-way along Row H.  Murmuring her apologies, Grace edged past the people already smug in their places, shrinking at that slight aura of disapproval as they shuffled to a half-standing position to let her squeeze through.  Dropping bag and coat at her feet, and trying hard to ignore the sweaty aroma from the man on her right, she took in the stage set (for the curtain was up, and though still unlit, it could be seen quite clearly).  Her heart always lifted when she saw one of those stage sitting rooms.  The carefully placed suite of settee and armchairs, the side tables, lamps and potted plants, the pictures on the walls and the suggestions of windows and doors which led you to wonder where the first character would make his entrance – all these seemed, to Grace, to present a world just fractionally elevated to an immaculate version of the one she knew - and understood.  Of course it was part of the ritual that, by the time they reached the interval, this world would have started to crack and crumble.  But now, looking on the virgin stage, in the moments before that first footprint was made, Grace found herself ushered into a brief moment of security. 

    The vista was broken for a few seconds as someone settled in the seat in front of Grace’s.  It was a young girl and, catching her from the back, Grace experienced a flutter at her heart.  For an instant, she thought she’d seen her daughter.  This had been happening quite a bit in the two months since Martha set off on her travels.  Nearly five months to go.  It was like a sighting of someone who has died.

    She was surprised by how much she yearned for her.  This child she’d watched over with such awe had become her friend.  That was partly why the extinction of the old mobile had been something of a disaster: the wallpaper (she knew the lingo – slightly), which showed Martha smiling into the future, was gone forever. 

    Grace’s days were now ringed by fear: she awaited that phone call in the middle of the night.  If she expected it, if she was ready, it was less likely to happen.  That’s what she’d told herself as she retrieved her silver-faced, slippery mobile from the huge puddle by the bus stop (thank goodness the SIM card, at least, was undamaged).  So she’d rushed out immediately and bought a replacement, taut before the catastrophe that was bound to befall Martha out there in India just simply because she, the mother, was out and about in London with no operational phone.

    If only Martha had been with her, she’d have helped her to choose; she’d have set up a tasteful ring tone; she’d have shown her how to put it on ‘silent’.  The only advice she could garner when she called Greg from a call box was “Time for a smartphone, Mother.”

    She should have been able to expect more from her son, of course.  But ever since that row two days ago, Greg had barely spoken to her.  It had been an accretion of tiny niggles, thought Grace, diving into the programme photographs to try and push aside the pain.  The battle over his AS coursework had been noisy and undignified; his teachers were clearly not optimistic about his exams next term; he made out that he didn’t care.  And then there was Tat.  Tatiana Alicia Thorougood.  That she was a year older than her son shouldn’t really have bothered Grace – but it did.  For there was a certain discomfiting worldliness about the girl, with her expensive Ugg boots (Martha was hoping to buy some cheaply when she got to Australia), her big belts, strappy tops and collection of expensive-looking handbags.  She sneered and pouted and smelt of cigarettes.

    “Are you unshockable?” today’s interviewer had asked her.  “Oh yes.  I’m the mother of two teenagers.”  That had been her glib reply.  “Of course I’m unshockable.”  And she’d tried to push aside the image of Tat in their sitting room last night, leaning over the back of the sofa where Greg lay sprawled, her little black shorts riding up to reveal buttocks and thong.

    Abandoning the programme, Grace looked up in time to see a man walk quietly onto the stage, seat himself in an armchair stage right and pick up a newspaper.  He sat there reading in the semi-darkness.

    The most recent argument had been about driving practice.  Greg was having proper lessons, of course – the same instructor as Martha.  But he needed to practise, and with his sister away they had the perfect opportunity to use her Polo.  Stephen, however, had made it clear that he was much too busy to take him out.  Weekends?  No, what with getting through the Sunday papers and playing his regular round of golf, not to mention the lawn needing its first cut…  No, let his mother take him out for a bit of practice.  Like with Martha.

    But it wasn’t like with Martha.  Not at all.  Seeing his mother grip the side of the car in terror, Greg had pressed down harder on the accelerator as they approached the traffic lights at the Hill Lane junction.  That was the point at which, seeing the lights change, she’d reached over and pulled on the hand brake.  So now Greg refused to let her take him out any more.  Tat could take him.  She passed her test a year ago, after all.  She hadn’t had a single accident.  She was competent.  Yes, Mother.  And calm.

    Grace’s refusal to insure Tat to drive the Polo had gone unsupported by Stephen, who failed to see the danger of the girl.  She’d only had to wiggle a little to knock away his judgment.  So Grace had caved in five or six hours ago, unable to sustain her position as her son harangued her down the phone, for she hated people who shouted into their mobiles on public transport, and she couldn’t hang up on him just in case this made him jump into the Polo and drive it into a lamp-post.  She’d arranged the insurance from the top of the 29 bus, repeating every response, a banal litany of yes and no: she was trying to speak quietly and “I’m sorry – I didn’t quite catch that!” became the refrain of the poor woman at the other end of the line.  Her interview – she was due there in twenty minutes - would require every particle of concentration, so she really needed to get this whole car business out of the way beforehand.  

    And then, a minute after she’d finished with the lady from Insurance Solutions Ltd., as they approached her stop, she made her last phone call before dropping her mobile into the puddle – to tell Greg that he’d got his way.

    The lights were dimming.  It would be nearly dark outside, too.  Greg and Tat were probably out there right now, approaching the Hill Lane junction, music blaring, her hand on his thigh.  No, she couldn’t possibly switch her mobile off.  If only Stephen were here, he’d have put it on silent for her.

    The stage lights had come up.  The man in the armchair rustled his newspaper.  Stephen hadn’t made it.  He’d be shown to a spare seat in the upper circle, right at the back.  By the interval, his mood would be even fouler.  The empty seat next to Grace spoke of her loneliness, and her failure.


    She was finding it hard to follow the play.  Her mind kept spinning between Stephen’s lateness (perhaps, goaded by demands to hurry up, can’t you?, his driver had crashed the taxi); Martha all alone with the orphans of Kerala; Greg and Tat zooming between dangerous road junctions and dangerous conjunctions on sofa and bed; the outcome of today’s interview.

    The man with the newspaper had stopped pretending to read some time ago.  A woman had entered through the French windows and they were engaged in some kind of argument.  Now they’d been joined by another man, and the three of them stood there drinking fake wine and raging.  Grace had tuned out of the words that ricocheted round the stage, but their gesticulations amply dramatised the mood.  Yes, thought Grace, almost beginning to enjoy what she couldn’t precisely follow.  This is familiar.  I’m picking up the gist.

    But was that good enough?  Her interviewer had laid great emphasis on the importance of listening.  Here, in essence, was the key requirement of such voluntary work.  “Are you a good listener?”  Well, she’d better get practising right now.  She leaned forward slightly and tried hard not to wish that Stephen was filling the space next to her.

    What she heard was dance music.  The woman had put a record on the gramophone (a stock feature of this type of set, Grace had observed, was the gramophone).  Now she was twirling on her own to the music, working her lonely way between the pieces of furniture, half-empty glass still in her hand.  As she moved downstage, gentleman number two refilled his glass and perched on the arm of the sofa.  This left newspaper man standing centre stage, legs slightly apart, face partly turned to the audience.

    The music stops.  The dancing woman freezes.  Then, unexpectedly, the music starts again.  It’s a different tune this time, and the drifting nostalgia has gone: there’s an electronic edge to it.  You couldn’t call it dance music, exactly, but it has that cheerful jauntiness which makes you want to tap your foot.  A four-beat bar is joined by a string-plucked harmony sliding into keyboard.  Here comes the melody again chirping out on the top line.  Grace has always enjoyed trying to analyse how music works – an outcome of ten years of piano lessons, and poring over grade five theory with Martha.  Yes, she is a good listener.

    The girl sitting in front of her has turned round.  This seems odd, for her eyes surely ought to be on the stage right now.  They’ve arrived at a moment of high drama.  Newspaper man is speaking to his companion on the arm of the settee.  He speaks very loudly and, to Grace’s surprise, with a deliberateness that sounds strangely exaggerated.

    The jaunty little tune stops suddenly.  The stilled dancer turns and comes back downstage.  She is approaching the gramophone.  And there goes the tune again.

    This time, it is the sweaty gentleman next to her who shifts round.  He seems to be looking at the floor.  Grace too looks at the floor.  She looks at the coat she flung down.

    Again, the music stops.  The woman starts up the gramophone.  But now it is the turn of newspaper man to stride across the stage, lift the lid of the gramophone, seize the record.

    The programme slides from Grace’s lap and falls on top of her coat.  Wildly, she lifts the coat to retrieve her handbag, which has drifted under the seat of the girl in front.  She feels her own seat tipping up from under her.  She is on the floor, on her knees.  That tune again.

    Until just now, no-one has called her new phone.  She didn’t recognise the ring tone as hers.

    A good listener.  She takes it all in: the cruelly cheerful tune, the audience muttering and shuffling, the man on stage raising his voice still more.  Crack.  For an instant, she glances up.  The record, shattered into two pieces, lies across his thigh.

    There is that handy little pocket in the lining of her bag, perfectly designed for a snug mobile phone fit.  She unzips, thrusts in her hand, pokes with her index finger.  She can hardly see a thing.  Jabbing in the half-dark, as though wakened from sleep and searching for something to hide her nakedness, she feels herself start to paralyse with terror.  The panic in her stomach is tightening the strings: another minute of this, and she’ll be unable to move.

    A wave of sweat brushes past her, as the phone goes silent once more.  But he’s got a reading.  Her neighbour gathers up her coat.

    “It’s in there.”

    Yes.  Of course.  Forget the intricacies of handbag design.  She slipped it in her coat pocket when she decided not to ring Stephen.

    The audience waits.  They’ve worked out by now how long the interval lasts before the next battery of rings.

    She registers a clatter, as the man drops the broken halves of the record onto the floor.

    No, not that pocket.  It’s in the other one.

    As the phone sneaks out of the pocket and shoots between sweaty man’s shoes, it starts to ring once more.  And of course it’s lit up – lurid in the darkness of the stalls.  With a sigh, he bends down, picks it up.

    There is silence from the stage.

    There is silence in the auditorium.

    He’s hit the spot.

    A titter runs through the audience.

    Has the man unlocked it and switched it off?  She can’t ask him; doesn’t dare risk a thing.

    All she can manage is a whispered “thank you” as she makes to break through.  The people along Row H begin to rise; they’re ushering her off like some failed challenger leaving the ring.  The hissing and booing – are those sounds from her imagination?

    And then she has to backtrack for a moment, for – so desperate was she to clutch at the phone – she’s forgotten her coat and handbag.  Well, she’s hardly going to come back in again after such a humiliation, is she?  Forget the wretched programme: that can be left on the ground.

    More stuttered apologies to Row H, and she’s out.  As she turns to run up the aisle, her eyes catch the trio on stage.  The woman stands stock still by the gramophone, her eyes on the broken record.  In the split second Grace takes her in, she senses that the woman doesn’t dare to look up.  The man on the sofa arm balances, inscrutable.  But it is newspaper man who is still in charge, newspaper man, one brace hanging off his shoulder, who stands centre stage, facing forward.  In the moment before flight, when she registers what’s happening on stage, Grace knows that he’s looking straight at her.  He’s seeing her off.  Half-way up the aisle, gathering pace, Grace drops her coat.  She decides to leave it there.  Without uttering a word, he’s told her to go, and she has always been obedient.

    As she reaches the neon-lit exit, her phone starts to ring again.  She feels it vibrate in her hand.  But it really can’t be heard this time.  The noise of the applause completely drowns it out.

    The usherette must know what happened.  She looks away in embarrassment, leaving Grace to run alone past the black and white framed photos of long-ago stars, up those treacherous steps, out into the cool foyer.  

    There’s a seat next to the sweetie stall.  Dropping down, Grace closes her eyes, lowers her head to her chest.  If she faints, will it be from exhaustion or from stress?  Can sheer mortification make you pass out?

    Through a distant intercom, she can hear the play pushing on to its denouement.  She’s had hers.  Enough drama for a lifetime.  She ruined tonight – for everyone.  She supplanted the performance with her own.  But, for them, it’s just one night.  For herself – she wonders if she’ll ever completely recover.

    Stephen, she supposes, will have recognised her as she fled.  That’s assuming, of course, that he’s actually arrived.  She doesn’t want to enquire at the box office.  She doesn’t want to wait here for Stephen.

    It’s time to go.

    She opens her eyes and, for the first time since the catastrophe, unlocks the phone and looks at the screen.  The lion gazes balefully back at her.  Five missed calls.

    All the same number, of course.  She doesn’t recognise it, but she sees instantly that it’s long, and it’s foreign.

    She can’t take any more.

    Grace cradles the phone in her hand, running her thumb along its curved edge.