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Planes, Trains & Mobiles

Computer Contractor / April 1993
By Paola Kathuria

While I was working at a London polytechnic last year, I had to join other commuters on the train. One morning there is an electricity failure and we are told that there will be a delay. The train is full and most of us haven't brought a book to read for such occasions. We spend an uncomfortable few minutes trying not to make eye-contact so we won't have to make small-talk with anyone. Everyone is doing a good job of pretending they are alone in the carriage.

Then there's a 'boop boop boop' sound and we realise a man is using his mobile phone. We pretend not to listen nor to acknowledge the others also pretending not to listen. We all listen to the man calling his office to say he's going to be late and wonder what job he has (he isn't wearing a suit). You can tell we're all listening because people's breathing changes in unison when he hangs up. We lapse into gazing out the window with glazed expressions again.

We hear a female voice and turn to listen better, pretending to look out the other window. She is asking if she can borrow the man's phone if she pays him 25 pence. He gives her the phone and she dials 'boop boop bzzz'. He tells her she has to dial the complete number, even the STD code. "Oh", she says. We try to suppress a smile to ourselves; "we knew that", we think.

She hands the phone back after the call. Another woman asks to use it for the same fee. People settle into their seats; this is turning out to be quite entertaining. We grab a sneak at the person opposite to see what they're thinking and see a faint smile on their lips too. We relax some more and allow ourselves to recognise the presence of others. Four more women have now asked to use the phone. We hear steps behind us and turn around to see a woman stride up and demand "So, where's the guy with the phone?". This is too much; we cannot contain ourselves and openly giggle. A man leans forward and speaks, "I have to call a meeting off too, an important client would have to walk a quarter of a mile down a corridor to see me and I don't want him to have to turn back". We nod understandingly. People have started to talk to each other. I wonder if there's hope for the world after all.

I sit there, looking like a student, sinking into my seat, wishing I had a such a job that people would miss me if I was late or that meetings would have to be postponed. I start to think about whether I should ask for the phone anyway to play on the fact that no one is listening to me. I think about what I could say.

How about,
"Hello? George? Rachel here. I forgot to turn off reactor four last night; will you check it for me please? Thanks, bye!"
"Gladys? Tell Mr Major that I shall be late and that he should tell the French to come back on Wednesday."
Or, whispering
"Mr Chan? Ah, good. The pink umbrella is under the yellow shelf. A big elephant will arrive with a case full of sun in the afternoon. Okay? ... No, the pink umbrella [sigh] ... "
Very politely,
"Could I use your phone please?" I take the phone delicately, "thank you." 'boop boop boop' ... I hide my face in my collar. "What are you wearing?" I say as I start to dribble. Perspiration appears on my top lip as I start breathing heavily into the phone. I hang up, wipe the phone on my sleeve and return it with a cheery smile, "thanks!"
Taking phone and peering out of the window,
"Fred, sorry, I can't get in, patch me through, will you? ... [pause] Northwest Airlines oh-three-niner, descend to flight level one-five-zero ... [crane neck to see past the woman with the poodle] ... Speedbird one, you are clear for final approach to Heathrow, runway two-eight right."
"I'd like to order a vegetarian deep pan pizza to be delivered as soon as possible to seat 17B in the first carriage of the train two miles from Waterloo station ... no, I don't want any drinks. Thanks."
"Reginald Arthur Trellis? I arrest you on suspicion of grievous bodily harm. Anything you say may be used in evidence against you ... [pause] Now, put that down! That won't do any of us any good. Look, the judge will not look favourably if ... [I duck quickly] Reg! We have the place surrounded. Don't be a fool, man! Quick boys, grab him!"
Take phone, dial and close my eyes.
After a few minutes of listening, I slowly wet my lips and let my hand drop to my thigh which I start to slowly rub ... I moan, "yes, yes, do it to me big boy".
I hand the phone back and light a cigarette only to be reminded by some red-faced people that it's a non-smoking carriage.

Epilogue: my next job was a contract and I bought myself a mobile phone and joined the other suits on the train to the City.