I barely managed to quietly lock the door behind me when the ringing made me jump out of my skin. Whoever was calling, I begrudged them. That phone was so loud, that you could hear it from any corner of the house… especially in the dead of night.
Great! My grandmother was already standing in front of me – the woman could certainly pull a frightening judgemental look, even in her frilly granny nightgown, measuring me from the tip of my high heel boots to my mascara covered lashes. Our make-believe game was working so well… I would pretend I got home early, she would pretend to care enough to stay awake and see when I returned; as long as nothing happened, so she wouldn’t have to be confronted with the truth, as long as none of her friends could prove my disobedience, the system served us both so well.
What time is it? I answered, defiantly looking her in the eye. Why did we need to pretend, anyway? Who was calling at this hour of the night? How was I to know? Perhaps I could find out, if she moved aside, so I could get to the ringing phone… No. That was unacceptable. The phone would not be answered. Calling that late in the night was simply a sign of bad manners. I scowled, as my grandmother stood in front of me, arms crossed, sleep marks on her face, yet stubbornly blocking my path to the phone. Maybe it was an emergency, I ventured a guess. No emergency justifies bad manners! I wasn’t going to win that one, I knew it.
Perhaps getting a mobile phone wasn’t an entirely bad idea, I thought to myself, entering my room once the ringing stopped.
The desk by the window remained empty that day. I hoped she would eventually show up. But she didn’t, and I couldn’t fight that feeling of dread and helplessness taking over me as the hours went by.
I had to ring several times before the door eventually opened. Her brother looked sad, but relieved to see me. Something in his voice made me believe that he was constantly feeling the dread and helplessness I had experienced that day, but ten times, a hundred times more intensely. She was fine… well, she was upset, but she was fine… she just didn’t feel like going to school, that was all. Was he trying to convince me or himself? Why didn’t he go to work that day, if he believed it?…
Relax… No pills, no trips to the emergency room, she smiled sadly as I entered her room. No more of that, she did promise, after all… Was she trying to convince me or herself? She was just in a bad mood; everybody can be in a bad mood once in a while, right?
When she didn’t come to school for about ten days several months earlier, nobody could get in touch with her. But nobody worried too much either, she often missed school for days at a time. She was a bright girl, so she always managed to keep up with all the school work… and let’s be honest, we all did our best to skip as many classes as possible.
She loved life and she knew she had made a mistake in a moment of weakness. Last night was just bad, that’s all, she told me. She knew that talking about it would make her feel better, would chase away some of her despair, fear and loneliness. Her brother was out. So she tried calling her closest friends… but it was late, very late in the night, so nobody answered.
Of course they didn’t, manners were more important than emergencies, I thought to myself, not at all sure whether what I was feeling was anger or guilt.
Then she dialled some random numbers, she continued to tell me the previous night’s story. Eventually, somebody answer. A stranger. A kind, patient stranger, somebody completely unfamiliar with certain good manners, answered and listened. A stranger can sometimes be more understanding, helpful and objective than any friend. But most importantly, it can be a lot easier to talk to a stranger, especially when they do answer their phone in the middle of the night. She cried, she talked about things she didn’t even know she needed to share and in her turn, she listened to a stranger’s opinions and personal stories. In the end, the experience had been cathartic, but exhausting as well, because it was morning by the time they hung up. That was why she hadn’t come to school, she needed to sleep. I was relieved; at the same time, I felt awful.
I wanted to make my grandmother feel guilty, I wanted to make her understand how wrong she had been. It didn’t work; some people can never see anything outside that small box which represents their close-minded vision on life. But whether she liked it or not, telephone etiquette was no longer respected.
I often ignore phone calls, but to this day I always answer when the phone rings in the middle of the night. You never know when allowing someone to speak out about something completely irrelevant to you might actually be a matter of life of death for them…