As I slipped from childhood into adolescence I took to prowling the evening streets of my hometown, usually alone. I liked the autumn and winter best, the cloak of existential gloom, the distant stars, the newfound liberty of nocturnal permission. On the deserted streets the phone-boxes glowed like beacons in the darkness, each one a red glassed TARDIS that shone with potential. I’d never needed to use one, never had anything important enough to say; those who did struck me as terribly glamorous. I longed to need to call someone badly enough that it couldn’t wait until I got home.
Sometimes I’d open one of the heavy squealing doors and step inside, my breath white in the enclosed space, inhaling the smell of stale cigarette smoke, the faint whiff of urine. Above the shelf with the tatty directory was the list of international codes. I was most interested in the one for the Soviet Union, amazed that I might call there from here, might speak to someone in that far off land. That we wouldn’t understand one another didn’t matter, just to hear the voice would be enough, like two fingertips almost touching.
One evening I stole some money from my mother’s purse, inserted the coins into the scratched slot and dialled the code. The dial span back slowly each time as I made up the numbers, hearing the clicking in the earpiece, the beating of my heart, waiting for the sound of a phone ringing in a distant room thousands of miles away behind the iron curtain. My breath quickened as I waited for the receiver to be lifted, for the voice to speak in a tongue I couldn’t comprehend, but never once did my numbers connect, not one combination led me to a voice. Every time just the clicking then the sound of the flatline, high and wobbling, as into the change tray my coins rattled, rejected.