Yesterday morning, I went out at 7.30am to buy some milk and take Gizmo for a quick walk. Crossed over the road outside our house, walked 50m down the hill, and saw a mobile phone lying on the pavement. At first I thought it was a joke, it looked so blatantly visible, I wondered where the candid camera was hidden. I could see a text message displayed on the screen, perhaps this explained the joke?
So, I picked it up and read the message: from one of the candidates taking part in the Sheffield University Student Union Elections, urging the owner of the phone to drop into the Union and register their vote. Nobody leapt out and yelled “gotcha”, so I put the phone in my pocket (only slightly surreptitiously) and carried on my way.
When I got home, I checked the phone out: a fairly battered Nokia, picture of a pretty girl set as wallpaper – perhaps the owner of the phone, or the owner’s girlfriend? Scrolled through the phonebook to find someone I could notify: a huge list of names, from the personal to the mundane (British Gas, Landlord), it made me realise how much a person’s phone is now their phone-book. I keep most of my numbers on the computer, and only store on my mobile those I’m likely to want to ring when out-and-about, but obviously some people keep every number they ring stored in their mobile’s memory.
I wrote down numbers for “home” (a Nottingham number), “home number” (Sheffield) and “mum” (mobile). Tried the Sheffield number a couple of times around 8am but got no reply, so I left it until later. Perhaps they’re already off at lectures. I rung again once during the day, and once in the evening. Still nobody about. Unusual for a student house to have nobody in all day. So I tried “mum”.
The first time I dialled wrong – embarrasing half-conversation with some young girl, bemused at my claim to have “found your son or daughter’s mobile phone”. It almost put me off trying again. But I did. Dialled the right number this time, explained myself again, and found the woman on the other end strangely distant, not all there: “Oh. Erm. Are you sure. Where are you. Sheffield? Oh. OK. That would be… my son’s phone then. We live in Nottingham”.
“Yes, I thought so, I saw there was a Nottingham number listed as ‘home’.”
“Oh. That’s definitely his then.” (Why does she sound sad when she says this?)
“So, anyway, if you’ve any way of getting hold of your son, could you let him know that I’ve got his phone. Pass on my number to him, he can come around to collect it.”
“I’m sitting next to him now. He’s in hospital. He was assaulted last night”.
Suddenly I’m as confused and distant as she was a moment ago. I had already invented my own story to explain the loss: drunken student coming home late at night. Perhaps fumbling to get his keys out of his pocket, his mobile drops on the pavement; he doesn’t notice, and it’s still there in the morning. This model reality I’d constructed is suddenly stomped into pieces. Assaulted? So… what… how… suddenly I am left with a thousand-and-one questions, all of them too crass to ask now. I leave her my phone number, and leave it at that.
Later a young woman phones and arranges to collect the mobile in the morning. I can hear tears in her voice, or is that just my imagination? This morning I open the door to her, the same woman as was pictured on the phone. I hand it over, and ask haltingly… “so… is he all right? I heard he was… assaulted?”
“No, he’s not OK. He has blood on his brain. He was punched just down the road from here. Fell down and hit his head on a metal grate, like that one”. Recalling the details seemed to take all of her effort. She has finished talking but all I’m left with are more questions and a desire to help. Is this morbid curiosity, or the desire to tie myself closer to people I’ve just found myself attatched to by the most random of threads, or the need to know more of the danger that lurks outside my doorstep late at night? Whatever it is, I can’t question her further, don’t want to put her through any more of this painful recall.
She holds up the phone, says “thank you, most people wouldn’t have done this”, and leaves. I want to say “I’m sure most people would” or “but this is nothing, surely I can do more to help”. But she is gone, and I close the door,
conscious that our paths will almost certainly never cross again. I am left with questions that gnaw away at me all day, and what seems to be compassion, compassion with no outlet.
I remember once on a visit to Bridget’s home town, Killorglin in County Kerry, South-West Ireland, I commented “the people here are very friendly”. Bridget replied “no they’re not, they’re very nosey. But the only way they can find out more about you is by talking to you”. Today a part of me feels like a nosey person who wants to talk just to find out more. But another part feels that in some way, talking makes friendship inveitable: the merest brush-past of adjacent lives creates shared bonds which bring people closer together; shared pain.