Saturday, 21 January 2012

Little Old Lady

The reason I was at the telephone shop is one of those complicated modern stories of the science-fiction world in which we live, which would have been incomprehensible to all of us twenty years ago – and in the end, rather boring for anyone else to read, or even for me to tell. It involved a change of internet and telephone provider, a defective router, the impossibility of sorting anything out over the telephone with a call-centre, the (already mentioned) defective router being sent back by mail and then disappearing somewhere in the bowels of the provider, another router … I won’t go into any more details; those of you who’ve been unfortunate enough to be in that awful situation when your (in our weird, wonderful and complex global village) absolutely essential telecommunications configuration suddenly gets majorly fucked up will know how I was feeling. The fact that this all happened last summer when I was also dealing with personal problems like burn-out and depression just added the icing to the cake.

In fact, I was lucky. I’d managed to stick to my guns, not lose my temper too badly, have all the relevant bits of paper together, note the names of the various people with whom I’d spoken at the call-centre, etc., and finally managed to get it all sorted out. Today was the last chapter; I was bringing an unopened package with a new router I’d received via DHL to the telephone shop to hand in there and get the € 129 in cash back which I had at one stage in the sorry story shelled out there so that I wouldn’t have to spend weeks cut off from the internet – one weird phase in this awful story involved a miraculous multiplication of routers.

Going into the shop, in which I had spent many frustrating hours over the previous month, I was glad to see that Gerry, the assistant manager with whom I’d done most of my negotiating during that time, was on duty behind the counter (so that I wouldn’t have to start telling my complicated story from the beginning to yet another person) and that there was only one customer ahead of me. Great, I thought, five minutes, maximum ten, and I’m out of here … with my money. End of story. Game over.

Just one customer ahead of me. A little old lady, wearing a hat and a shabby, unprepossessing coat, one of those hundreds of people you hustle past on the street every day without even registering them. But there was something about her, a combination of subliminal signals which set alarm bells ringing with me. This, I realised, could take a little longer than five minutes.

“… and Frau Müller was supposed to ring me back about a new appointment with the doctor and then she didn’t and then I tried to phone her and that’s when I realised that the phone wasn’t working …”

“But you mentioned that you’d had a letter from the telephone company before that, explaining that you’d been cut off …”

“Yes, but Frau Müller had fixed that. A man was supposed to come yesterday morning and reconnect me.”

“And even after he was there, the telephone still didn’t work?”

“Oh, but he wasn’t there. Or maybe he was. You see, I wasn’t there. I had an appointment …”

“But, Frau Schmitz, if you’re not at home, the man can’t get in to reconnect you!”

I sighed inwardly. This was probably going to take quite a while. My initial suspicions had been confirmed by the mention of Frau Müller. It had been the pale, oddly emotionless face and the slight tremor in the hands that had first set my alarm bells ringing – typical symptoms of extra-pyramidal side-effects of neuroleptics (antipsychotic medication). I happened to know that a Frau Müller worked as a social worker in the local psychiatric hospital, her speciality is the support of patients who are being released, helping them to re-establish themselves in “normal” life. This disconnection probably had a background of unpaid bills – Frau Müller had already achieved a lot if she’d managed to get things sorted out to the extent where the phone company were prepared to reconnect. And then Frau Schmitz hadn’t realised how important it was for her to be at home when the technician arrived to reset her telephone. Shit!

“I had a letter from the phone company,” Frau Schmitz went on. “Maybe I’ve got it here somewhere …”

She started to rummage through her handbag.

“I thought I’d brought it with me, but I can’t seem to find it …”

“It doesn’t really matter, Frau Schmitz, it’s Saturday afternoon now and I won’t be able to reach the technical staff until Monday. And then a new appointment will have to be made. There may be extra costs involved …”

“Things will be very difficult without the phone. There are a lot of things I have to do …”

I felt awkward. Should I intervene? This was really none of my business. Moreover, what I felt about the whole situation here was a rapidly reached personal judgement, based on nothing more than shrewd observation and unfounded surmise. It would mean me having to tickle the role of Frau Müller out of Frau Schmitz, possibly outing her as someone with mental health issues in the process. It would all be dreadfully complicated and would probably result in nothing more than me getting Frau Schmitz’s back up, embarrassing her and pissing off the assistant manager in the process, if he got the feeling that I was just playing the interfering busybody. I decided to keep my mouth shut.

Gerry was now following another track and had recommended that Frau Schmitz might buy a mobile phone. She didn’t seem completely opposed to the idea and admitted that she had had some experience with the devices in the past.

“It was so much easier when my poor husband was alive. He used to take care of matters like these. I find it all so difficult …”

Statue of Eleanor Rigby in Liverpool
I could see that Gerry was somewhat uncomfortable. My experience over the previous week had shown me that the basic function of the telephone shop was not to deal with customers’ complaints but rather to sell telephones and, above all, contracts, so that the company could earn certain money, month after month. Such direct customer-company interfaces are becoming rarer; the telephone service providers would like their customers to do everything possible on-line – paying people to do things that software can do is not good business. If problems arise, that’s what hotlines and call-centres are for. The jobs of the people in the telephone shop are dependent on the turnover they manage to achieve and dealing with complaints, trying to give decent advice, etc., all these things take away from the time available to actually sell what they’re suppose to be selling. As it is, only the two largest telecommunications firms in Germany still have direct retail outlets – all the others work through franchisers operating on commission, and most of these haven’t a clue about the real pros and cons of what they’re selling. They’re certainly not interested in the likes of Frau Schmitz who knows nothing about the internet and isn’t interested in a smart-phone, flat-rate downloads or how many “free” text-messages per month a particular package will give her.

But Gerry is basically a decent bloke. He had actually spent around an hour around ten days earlier trying to find out just what had gone wrong with my contract before admitting that he – a professional – wasn’t really able to get any farther than I could on the phone to the call-centre. But he’d stuck at it and after a further thirty minutes had managed to cast some light on my particular situation and even work out a somewhat unorthodox but acceptable solution with me. The last phase of which I was now still waiting to complete.

So he selected the cheapest, simplest mobile phone the company had on offer and started to explain its workings to Frau Schmitz.

“Do I have to put in some sort of number when I want to use it? I don’t like that, I have trouble remembering it and the last time, after I got it wrong three times, I couldn’t use the phone at all – it was broken, or something …”

Gerry assured her that he could take the requirement to enter a PIN out. He asked her for her bank details. In Germany everyone has a bank account and he told her that the easiest way to keep the phone topped-up was to allow the phone company to debit directly from her account. It was cheaper than having to top up with cash as well. Frau Schmitz dived once more into the depths of her handbag.

“I hope I have my bank card with me. I know I’m supposed to take it with me but I often forget …”

Prolonged searching failed to produce her bank card or even some sort of letter which had her account number on it.

“It doesn’t really matter,” said Gerry. “We can arrange it to work with cash as well. But I’ll still need your identity card; we have to note the identity of everyone we sell a mobile phone to …”

At this stage, Frau Schmitz had found three purses and a somewhat larger wallet in her handbag. All of them were on the counter in front of her and closer scrutiny of the contents of each managed to produce her identity card and enough cash to pay for the whole thing. Gerry entered the details from her ID card into his terminal and spent another ten minutes or so patiently explaining the basic details of the phone to her, writing down her number for her so that she could give it to others, having ascertained that text messaging was (and would most probably remain) a mysterious world which she did not want to enter.

Finally, she packed all her bits and pieces, including her new mobile, back into her handbag, thanked Gerry profusely for his help and left the shop …

I’ve found myself thinking of her – and the many others like her – occasionally since. People who find surviving and coping in our modern, high-tech, rapidly changing society a difficult challenge. Forty-six years after the Beatles released the song, Eleanor Rigby is alive and (still not very) well.

Pictures retrieved from


  1. I clicked on 'Funny', 'Interesting' and 'Cool'.

    I love you with all my heart, Francis. You describe me so well, with such a kind humour. I was able to laugh at myself. Your patience and your understanding are really cool.

    And that clerk is my son. Dear Martin has put me on the Internet, in the last 5 years, and still re-explains to me, every week, slowly, without a hint of irritation, what a browser is.

    I feel infinitely sorry for my friends who do not have a Martin and Francis in their lives. They are totally lost and mentally relegated to a universe which has become extinct. May God bless all of you, youngsters of the world, who bring my generation up-to-date with this baffling, exciting technology.

    I cannot describe the pleasure I have looking at Glenn Gould, on a big screen, and hearing him mumbling, in my own room, while he's playing my beloved Bach.

    And how else, but through a still mysterious box, could I reach an unmet but dear friend, on a Toronto Saturday afternoon, and give him a huge evening hug in Germany? You are no stranger to me, dear Francis. May you, and yours, be well. De tout coeur!

  2. There are few modern inconveniences more hellish than having to sort out this type of nonsense.

    My 81 year-old mother will have nothing to do with mobile phones. Even from a land-line, it took repeated persuasion from my brother and me to get her to record a message when she calls us and we don't pick up.

    Judging from your essay, I'm thinking she is perhaps better off. As much as I wish she would, I can only imagine how stressful it would be for her to try to use a computer. And she's a sharp-minded, feisty lady!

    Nice piece of writing, Francis.

  3. Oh, Claude, ma cherie, I think you do very well indeed in the virtual world, especially with the wonderful photos and stories you post on Facebook about your work with the Inuit all those years ago. There's nothing wrong with getting help for things - the main thing is that you do them, and so many of your generation don't.

    Gina, my mother is 77 and has been consistently ahead of the rest of her family in the digital world. In the past few months, the iphone has become her favourite toy, because it allows her to keep up with her e-mails, etc. without getting out of her armchair! As she will also probably read this too at some point in the next few days ... Love you, Mam! :-)


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