Spectator: The necessity of a phone signal

The mood in a house full of people trying to revise is definitely low and I decide that now is not the moment to tell them that there’s no mobile-phone signal at their new house. A signal is top of their list of priorities, coming ahead of bedrooms, which is lucky as we also seem to be short of one of those.

We don’t have a landline at the house we’re still renting. Actually, we do, but none of us know the number and the only person who has rung was from BT, who told me that we’re about to be cut off. Obviously, this wouldn’t matter, but I think I ought to pay. To do this, you have to know your tele-phone number, so I find myself dialling directory enquiries from my mobile in order to get it. We shall simply have to reverse our current telephone behaviour, I decide, and, anyway, life without mobiles can seem rather attractive.

At the beginning of half-term, we spent a few days on Orkney, where there’s patchy mobile signal. This leads to the unusual situation of making plans you have to stick to, which is not the only way in which the islands are lovely. The skies are gentle, the landscape intriguing and fertile. The Orcadians are charming and you never see anyone walking down the street talking into a handset. Then, Zam took Alfie and Anna to stay with some friends on the north-western tip of the mainland.

You can only reach the house by boat, so he left the car at Kin-lochbervie, removed the phone, the iPad, the bags and boots and climbed aboard. Three blissful days were spent with no electricity and only peaty-water baths, living at the mercy of the tides. Anna caught her first trout on a fly and they returned home with the glow of adventure, bursting to tell me of the new card games they’d learnt and the delights of gas lamps.

‘And another brilliant thing about that house,’ Alfie wandered into the kitchen to continue the conversation he’d been having the night before as if there had been no interval of sleep, ‘when you ask if you can help, they say yes.’ They were both delighted at being given proper jobs to do. Peat, for instance, needed to be cut.

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When they returned to Kin-lochbervie, Zam was astonished to see his iPad sitting on the roof of his car-which is where he’d left it. That it wasn’t stolen is amazing. That Alfie didn’t immediately ask to use it merits the most surprise.

At the same time, following a cultural sprint round Paris during which all screens had been banned, a friend of mine was less lucky. Her bag was stolen in the hotel lobby complete with her passport, wallet, return tickets and so on. It was taken from under the arm of one of her 10-year-old companions. The screen ban had been lifted for 10 minutes while she talked to the receptionist and he was so absorbed by her phone that he hadn’t noticed his arm being raised and the bag removed.

I swore when Zam’s mobile woke us at 5.30am. Olive had forgotten the time difference and was ringing to say that her passport and bank card had been stolen. Or, more accurately, she could remember exactly where she’d left them (under the mattress), but when she rang the hostel, nobody could find them. We told her to make the five-hour journey back to the hostel and look for herself. And could she please ring a bit later.

I visit the new house, where the painters have all their phones lined up on the highest windowsill straining for a scrap of signal. Halfway home, when back with a network, I’m delighted to hear from Olive, who found the passport exactly where she’d left it. I tell her about Zam’s iPad. Then, I get a message from the carpet fitter, which means I need to turn round. And another from someone who, failing to reach me, couldn’t deliver lights.

Facts need to be faced. We don’t live on Orkney. I’m researching boosters.

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