I wasted most of last Saturday on my phone; slightly hungover, slightly ill and very lazy, I gorged myself on information, bringing myself up to speed with the doom enveloping the world, as well as the more Instagrammable aspects of my acquaintances’ lives. By 5pm, I felt dissatisfied; like a woman who has spent the day eating handfuls and handfuls of popcorn, I was full, but falsely, queasily so. That evening, I was going to dinner at a friend’s and I was relieved to have a reason to leave the house. On the bus there, I forced myself to read a book, an actual book with sentences that had been written many years previously, long before journalists realised that the parsing of Donald Trump’s tweets could fill thousands of words’ worth of space on the internet. Long before there even was the internet or tweets to be parsed or Donald Trump.
When I recognised the bus stop, I rang the bell and, when I stepped on to the footpath, I pulled my phone out of my pocket. But it was dead. Turns out that pissing away your day on your smartphone means that it runs out of battery faster than usual.
So, I was lost. Not lost in the way I usually am with an address and a map in the palm of my hand. But really lost-lost. Worse than lost, actually, because I didn’t even know where I was supposed to be going. The address was in my phone and so was my friend’s number. I thought of other friends I knew who would be at the dinner, but I didn’t know their numbers off by heart either. I thought about how the only numbers I do know off by heart are a few from childhood and I reckoned that if I called my dad’s mobile, he could call my sister and she could call my friend. But then I looked around and I realised that there were no pay phones anywhere. I couldn’t even see any people.
It reminded me that I should take more of those hours, where I walk down unfamiliar streets and talk to people I’ve never met before
It was cold and that little stretch of London was empty. And, suddenly, I felt almost scared. I wasn’t far from home but, without my phone, I felt a little unmoored, a little useless. Concentrating really hard, I thought I could remember seeing a figure “8” in the address when my friend had texted it to me earlier, so I began ringing all the eights in the neighbourhood, in each block of flats. When some teenagers walked by, I considered approaching them, but I didn’t know what I’d say. “Help, I’m lost. I know where I am, but I don’t know where I’m supposed to be going. Please help”? It seemed too dramatic. Basically, everything was fine, I was fine – all that had happened was my phone had switched itself off.
I couldn’t order an Uber and I couldn’t phone a minicab and I wasn’t in a part of town that taxis drive through, so I just kept walking, occasionally ringing the bells of number eights, which continued to be unanswered. I headed towards a corner shop I remembered passing by once but, when I got there, it was all boarded up, closed down. Now, though, I was entering a patch of London that was familiar. And, slowly, I began to enjoy the unmooring, the silly insensible freedom. I walked by a road I knew my boyfriend had lived on, but in a time before I knew him. I saw a lane I used to race along every morning, late for the train, and I wondered if I had ever clattered by him. Without the distraction my phone offers, my mind wandered and, with my time no longer counted and my footsteps no longer logged, I allowed myself to take pleasure in that.
I felt the exhilaration of suddenly knowing exactly where you are after a period of uncertainty and eventually I ended up at a pub I used to always end up at. A pub that had witnessed me in every state – sober and sensible, eating a Sunday lunch, and drunk and screeching at 2am. Now, I was just cold and, when I saw a table where two men and a woman sat around a charging phone, I approached them. I tried out my voice for the first time that day and it worked and those strangers were just as nice as most strangers are. After a couple of minutes, the phone glowed, back to life, and I looked at the address in the text properly, committing it to memory, the way we used to do.
It had been around an hour I reckoned since I had got off the bus and it had been a nice hour – certainly the most pleasant of the day. And it reminded me that I should take more of those hours, where I walk down unfamiliar streets and talk to people I’ve never met before. An hour to forget about Instagram and Twitter; an hour to remind myself that addresses and directions exist independently of mobile devices; an hour to remember where I’ve been and where I really want to go.