Scenes from My Receiver


I ask about the peculiar qualities of our telephone conversations, the scenes that appear to me while I am speaking to you, the closeness and distance I feel at the end of each breath, what Jacques Derrida has called ‘the feeling of hallucinated closeness (but separated and even the separation was good)’ and the toy phone I had as a child, which will reappear sometime soon, a ghost. A ghost of a toy dog-phone. Special things happen when I talk to you on a telephone.
        But before I even speak to you something happens, until now without me realising it. You call me on my mobile phone and a tune plays: David Bowie’s Sound and Vision, the wiry, wrecked guitar sound before the synth sets in, over-saturated, and the purposeful bass, or the singing. It never gets as far as the synth let alone the singing, so I don’t hear the question Bowie asks in a voice I see as much as hear anyway:

Don’t you wonder sometimes
’bout sound and vision?

I see him in a recording studio on his own, wasted and paranoid, listening to the tracks laid down by his musicians. Tony Visconti, the fixer, the producer, where’s he? Behind a glass window. I see they’re in France, in a Chateau and it’s dark. Bowie has his eyes closed while he sings.
        Every time I hear my phone there’s a little of this, anywhere I am. Anybody I speak to, you talk to me after the beginning of this. My telephone is never straight. Not in that way. But I forget, I do forget. I think about the sound and I know it’s for me, but I don’t wonder enough about the vision.


I catch everything by the ear, the murmurs, the most enigmatic phrases and the angers also that convulse all my being when a drop of poison is served to me on the tympanum. Be careful because I hear all [tout et tout]. All that is said. All that is not being said is said otherwise.


 One of our clients is taking a holiday and wants to continue sessions with her therapist while she is away. She wants to use Skype. I stare at a laptop which is turned off and consider my reflection, sip some coffee and think.
Skype? When I use Skype I feel so out of touch with whoever’s on the other end. Are you receiving me? I feel like asking, but haven’t because what I believe they are not receiving is so hard to describe. Can I describe you as if I were Skyping you? My computer screen is small, so you appear to me rather more in miniature than might often be the case. The sound seems to de-synchronise. I want to be able to reach out and touch you if I can see you, even if I decide not to, or know that I must not, or that I don’t want to, I think it’s important that I might. Sometimes I have tried and found my fingertips touching glass.
        I wonder how closely the image of you I am looking at resembles you. I think about how different my experience of you has been in the times we have sat in the same room together. My mind can adjust to this but I’d rather it didn’t when there is already enough between us, separating us, especially in the silence. Silence on Skype feels particularly deafening. The image, what I see, is an iron trampoline. Where are the signs of being together I am used to? I have placed my hand on my head after you have done so; and crossed my legs. And as I look at you on Skype I see my own silhouette reflected darkly in my computer screen. The glare, however I try to adjust my screen, is of lights from the room I am sitting in. You are lit so differently.
        I want to speak to you on the telephone.


The voice on the telephone seemed to be sharp and peremptory, but I didn’t hear too well what it said-partly because I was only half awake and partly because I was holding the receiver upside down. I fumbled it around and grunted.


Of course telephones are not perfect. Mine is malfunctioning. M, my friend and manager, tells me when I call her: Tom, I can’t hear what you’re saying. I am conscious as she says this, in spite of my love of phones, of the ways in which I do not like this one in my hand. It is flat and glassy and cold against my cheek. At least with Skype there is a distance from the window, some air which allows me to regain my equilibrium from the odd things occurring on the other side, from the Visconti, the unseen whispering controller who is like a kind of oil. My telephone is not a window, I remind myself. It doesn’t invite me to take a look: but to listen, so I can see. This glass, however, it gets in the way. It reminds me, coldly addressing my cheek, my neck, that I am speaking into space. I feel paranoid.
        It was never the case with proper telephones. Old ones, with cables. I used to enjoy twisting the cable around my fingers like a toy. As a child I used to have a toy phone with a face like a –

Tom, I still can’t hear you.

I rotate the phone. Maybe it is upside down. I believe the microphone is near the bottom.

        Can you hear me now?
         No, not really.

         There is a problem with the latest iPhone. Some examples of it. People can’t hear you unless you hold the phone in exactly the right position. My toy phone, with a face like a dog, didn’t have this problem. You spoke into it and somebody else always heard you. I remember this clearly. And I could even hold it the wrong way round and be heard: there are photographs, one of it underwater in a bath, with perfect reception. This haunts me, now. I told you it would come back.
        So, wishing my iPhone was more dogged I look my problem up on the web. This problem … not only M but many others cannot hear what I am saying unless I hold the phone in a particular position, my lips as close as if to kiss the white button; and I see others are experiencing the same thing. No answers here, though. Exchange your phone. I look at my phone. It isn’t so bad, but the microphone does not aim at my mouth, even if I pick it up the right way round. I don’t want to exchange it, my little pet thing. Already it is a little like a dog.
        I plug on, being careful of how I hold my telephone. I have some affection for it now, after all, after remembering my toy phone. It is still the thing I hold in my hand when visions come to me.


Last night I called you as I waited for a train in Essex. You answer my call and suddenly I am not in Essex. My eyes close a little, I am in touch with you while imagining the Tilbury estuary behind me, in the dark, where I wish there were sailboats and frigates, and modern cruise liners and rowing boats but know as I turn my back that there are only long, ghostly container ships, almost crewless, enormous not even hulks; because a hulk would be more the kind of ship you find in a painting by Turner. Gone. Container ships, floating emptinesses of the cafes of Hopper. Isn’t that a kind of a crane, a hopper? I stand there on the phone with my back to the river, with all its boats that would never be, and a scene of the cranes saluting Churchill’s funeral barge. Those that are left will end their days dipping, unloved, into banana holds.
Without my phone call all of this would remain invisible. I would not write it. Perhaps I would be aware of a coldness, a deep metal coldness, a great emptiness and a certain desolation haunting me while I stand on that platform – but the intimacy of our phone call, S, your sleepy warm voice, close up, allows me to see what I am in the middle of. I am in Essex, which holds so many terrible memories for me. And I realise how I see it as well because of where I have been, to meet F, my son, and the chasm of that empty heart he and I have shared, that big empty heart which I have felt I could never fill with enough love. I wish that I can hold him every moment and say to him how much I love him but what happens between us feels like the passage of container ships, their cargo locked in their holds and steered for weeks, unloaded for days, to stand empty at the docks. Do they always return empty?


At times I want to say essential, complex things to someone I love. I note them down. I will say them later on the telephone. Our telephone is our donkey stopped and placed on the table near my hand. It is the shell of our common saintliness, the supersonic car, it is our personal animal, the being called-telephone, it is very corporal and very spiritual, in short it has a mind to be our exterior hut while being our miracle mount and our most internal cavity of good fortune.


I’m thinking: do you remember those anxious calls I would sometimes make without properly thinking of you? A feeling in me and I would want to call you, to summon you up from wherever you were, and I loved to talk to you only then to say goodbye as a silence set in when you detected I was not really thinking of you. A silence – and wouldn’t it? I still feel such shame about that. On the telephone I can tell the moment something creeps into your voice, as your mood shifts; the sound of the air if you are walking.
        You often call me when you are walking down the hill, along the pathway, past the trees the university insist on cutting down slowly and the smell of the logs. I remember you describing that smell, the cut wood which was beautiful but so sad. Before the trees there’s the meadow where we sometimes see foxes if we walk there together. I remember the way that fox walked, creeping. As you walk, you never creep. There’s the sound of your breath and the wind, and the air against the microphone.


We speak for a short while on the platform of Benfleet station, in Essex, at about a quarter past eight on a March evening. It’s cold, my scarf is wrapped tight around my throat protecting my voice which I feel rising up out of me; and my hat is down a little over my ears. My scarf up a little over them. You ask how it went, meeting F. I tell you how much love the teachers seemed to have for him, how the psychology teacher seemed to be talking about the way to approach the syllabus as a psychoanalytic name-calling of him. Theories, they’re such unusual names but sometimes they help: the more memorable ones. Or perhaps that was just in my hearing. I realise this now with the thought of the shell of my phone to my ear, shell-like, talking to you. You tell me how you are, particularly, and I listen, opening myself to you. I try to feel the soles of my feet on the ground when I speak to you, and the clear air above my head, even if I am wearing a hat, and I often close my eyes.


The chance of the telephone – never lose an opportunity – it gives us back our voice certain evenings, at night especially, even more so when she is alone and the device binds us to everything (I don’t know if I ever told you that, additionally, I often close my eyes while talking to you), when the line is clear and the timbre refinds a kind of “filtered” purity …


I am standing in a small garden park outside the Tower of London talking to you again, about meeting the college principal with F and how the crisis broke like a fever – or maybe shattered like a window. I stand talking to you in the sun, hot enough to take off my hat and my scarf and stand on the grass listening to you against the blue sky. Because I’m looking up, over the Thames and talking about that meeting from the morning, the morning in Benfleet with the graveyard I walked past where I saw a lonely grave in the corner of the cemetery and was full of terror – this I don’t say but I see, and I feel how my fear had dug its way down to disinter that man, John MacGregor, who I promised, I whispered to him that I wouldn’t forget him; and then there was the cafe I eventually found and had some breakfast, peacefully apart from the women talking at the table behind me.
        I felt F shaking beside me after the meeting and I hugged him. I tell you about that, about what happened in that noxious little windowless room with the tie-less young man who tried to act hard-man, whose voice broke with emotion when he spoke to F, and the woman who asked me about him and listened, and I told her what I could, desperate to find a way to talk about F. Because I believed in myself and in F, that it was right for me to be there. She seemed detached enough to be loving. I am so suspicious of people who get inside you to love you, like a hook.
        So, you see, it went well. Would it have gone so well if I had not sensed the coldness and emptiness in me, in the evening two days before? And I saw on the telephone where I had buried my fear, with John MacGregor. And now F Talks to me on the telephone.


To put it in a formula: he [the analyst] must turn his own unconscious like a receptive organ towards the transmitting unconscious of the patient. He must adjust himself to the patient as a telephone receiver is adjusted to the transmitting microphone. Just as the receiver converts back into sound waves the electric oscillations into the telephone line which were set up by sound waves, so the doctor is able, from the derivatives of the unconscious which are transmitted to him, to reconstruct that unconscious, which has determined the patient’s free associations (Freud, 1912. pp 115-116).


I look at my phone in its pocketbook case. Some people have remarked on the feminine qualities of the cases which contain my mobile phone and this one, resembling a pocket notebook, has some of that feminine energy. It seems at one with the Bowie ring-tone: a bunch of boys, pub-rock almost by the best, most delinquent pub-rockers, and Bowie surmising, I imagine, he needs some help.
        Who did he call? Something about Bowie calls out with vision; he as a transmitting microphone like Derrida, Cixous, Chandler and Freud. His vision allows even the most primitive receiver to receive him, like a particular lock to a magic key. Bowie sending: an unmistakeable signature.
        I look at my phone in its case and wish you would call: squirrel, elevate, the blue sky, as blue as the original blue to the facing wall of our house. The blue we have half-chosen for the front room. Blue: electric blue (Sound and Vision). Back to telephones: trim-phones, we ended up talking about the last time we spoke about phones. What is it that we both want a phone with a cord? I think: a chord. More than a note, the polyphony of several voices. We are several. And I apologise for the increasing me-ness on you, reading this, as I begin to talk like this
        – but how are you receiving me?


Chandler, R (2011, first published 1958). Playback. Penguin.
Cixous, H (1998). Stigmata: Escaping Texts. Routledge, London and New York.
Derrida, J (1987). The Post Card. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. First published as: Derrida, J (1980) La Carte Postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà. Flammarion, Paris
Freud, S (1912). Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psycho-analysis. S.E. 12: 111-120.