Skip to Main Content

Ringing for You

A Love Story with Interruptions

Our intrepid narrator is twentysomething, lives in London, and is armed with a master's in the history of punishment. Knowing the finer points of thumb screws and the rack doesn't quite put somebody on the fast track to success, however. So she takes work as a receptionist at the Academy of Material Science. Reading Remembrance of Things Past could fill some of the dull hours behind the desk, but she wants to write a book of her own.
This sharp young woman doesn't need to search for topics -- her own life is intriguing enough. For starters, there's that elusive new man who doesn't want to appear as a character in her book. He becomes The Man Who Mustn't Be Mentioned -- MWMM, or just MMM. And then there's the office. With piercing insight and sharp-edged wit, she exposes the workplace as only an outsider could, deconstructing its hidden hierarchy, the politics of seating in the cafeteria, and the secret lives that employees lead outside of work.
Anouchka Grose Forrester's vibrant novel is a hilariously subversive challenge to office life, romance, and the form of the novel itself. For anyone who has ever been an overworked, underpaid, or overeducated employee, Ringing for Youis dazzling revenge.

Chapter 1

All About Me

I'll tell you the main thing you need to know about me, after which everything else will be subsidiary. This is the lens through which you'll need to look to understand all my actions. I've always been someone who would probably describe themself as happy. But equally I've always gone around with a strong sense of something being badly missing. I think I'm pretty normal in this respect. For me the missing bit has always seemed rather overpowering and ruined a lot of stuff that wasn't necessarily deserving of ruination (especially romantic stuff). However, as a feeling, I can say with a huge amount of certainty that I'd rather not be without it. It's sort of like the glitter on a Christmas card -- the picture would be pretty average without it, but the glitter comes along and makes it look special.

Just for the sake of giving it some sort of historical dignity, I'll tell you how I think this feeling got there in the first place. It had always been around, but nothing had really forced me to recognize it until one day, at the age of seventeen, I found myself reading a slightly tedious book about child development. It had a chapter on parental disappearance and its effects on the infant (based on the theories of a man called John Bowlby which, so it said, anyone in their right mind agrees are largely crap). The effects were divided into three stages: initially the child would be sad, angry and sorry for itself and wonder what it had done wrong (the first five days or so), then it would be miserable for a bit but cry a lot less and not so convincingly, and finally (in the space of a fortnight) it would become really cheerful, although obviously detached, and start forming easy relationships with whoever was around. The child's character would be formed according to which stage of desolation the baby was in on the parents' return. The theory applies to children up to the age of five, after which they can supposedly sort out their problems without too much trouble. The whole process took two weeks, meaning that a child abandoned for a fortnight would be capable of fantastic feats of overcoming pain and upset -- while not actually overcoming them at all. In other words, it would learn how to behave as if nothing was wrong in situations where it quite clearly was. It would detach itself from the agony while remaining agonized by the detachment. And, as if that weren't enough, on the parents' return, after a period of clinging, dependent behaviour, it would become 'attention seeking, uninhibited, indiscriminately friendly' and quickly develop (in the words of a Mr M. Rutter) 'a personality characterized by lack of guilt, an inability to keep to rules and an inability to form lasting relationships'. Something in the description struck a chord with me (a whole Beatles songbook actually) but as far as I knew I had no history of abandonment, so I decided to put the experience down to the rampant identifications one is bound to undergo when reading psychology books.

Still, this particular account seemed to have more potency than all the other empathies I suffered at the time, and I began to wonder whether the same effects could be rendered by a different set of circumstances (like Capricorns who, on reading all the other -- more appropriate -- horoscopes, start to ask whether they have Scorpio rising or the moon in Leo).

Ages later, when searching through an old photo album and grappling with the unbelievable notion that I was once a baby -- that baby, even, in that picture, with the Pekinese hairstyle and smock -- I stumbled across a postcard. The front was quite repellent and I felt no particular urge to read it. It just didn't look very interesting. It didn't seem up to the task of diverting my gaze away from the infinitely more captivating photographs of me. It was white with a blue cod-Victorian swirly border framing the words 'Defense d'Uriner' in large black curling letters. Don't ask how, but something about it nonetheless must have caught my attention. It sort of by-passed my normal decision-making faculties and got permission from a higher authority. It caught me unawares and I found myself switched imperceptibly from uninterested to irrevocably mesmerized. The more I looked at it the more its cringing miserableness took on an ineffable power. Steadily, inscrutably, it became more and more repulsive until I realized I was going to have to read it. The back was covered with my mother's scrawly writing. I scanned it quickly to see what it was and where it was from and was appalled to see that it was addressed to 'Darling...' -- my name! and shamelessly proclaimed 'Happy First Birthday!'.

The other day on the news there was a feature about a postcard that took eighty years to reach its destination. Apparently it fell behind a filing cabinet at the post office in 1916 and had to wait until the building was refurbished in 1996 to complete the final leg of its journey. The intended recipients had long since died and the new homeowners were somewhat surprised. Naturally they saw the funny side and didn't feel too spooked. When my postcard finally arrived, however, I was outraged. It was a first birthday card from my mother in Barbados, sent to me in London, where I was busy being shunted back and forth between my two grannies.

She'd abandoned me and never mentioned it and all the stuff in the psychology book was exactly right. I was arrested for shoplifting shortly before receiving the card, and, in accordance with the prediction, found it very hard to act guilty at the police station. Why would I feel bad? I was simply a half-grown-up abandoned baby acting out the effects of my early trauma in the designated manner. I had also been booted out of school for my attention-seeking hairstyle and had developed a serious compulsion to befriend tramps, public schoolboys, prostitutes, ageing architects, lost tourists, blind people and anyone else who crossed my path. They would fail to understand that my friendliness was merely the product of a bad day I'd had a number of years back and didn't actually mean I liked them. They would ring me or buzz the entryphone at my family home only to be told, by me or my well-practised parents, that I no longer lived there. However, far from being an out-of-control teenager, I was behaving in absolute obedience to the rules laid out before me at the tender age of one. And at last, already having become the thing I was destined to turn into, I found myself confronted by the object that announced my fate. My parents had gone on holiday for a month, missed my first birthday, and sent me a card forbidding me to pee.

I just have to interrupt this heartrending account of childhood trauma to say that by a miracle of space/time transformation, in the time it took you to pass from the last sentence to this one (a hundredth of a second?) a whole day has elapsed for me.

All this might not sound like much of a big deal to you, but you have to understand that for me, having lived with the effects of my parents' month-long disappearance for twenty or so years, it was quite a discovery. My 'character' no longer seemed to me an indistinct mass of uneasy combinations, but a perfectly functioning mechanism doing quite flawlessly what it had been programmed to do. I asked my mother about it and she was quite surprised that I attached so much significance to the event. She said she'd never told me because she didn't think it mattered. When I pushed the point she got all shirty and said she'd never planned that my first birthday would be on the fourth of February. What a dodgy argument. My mum is nice, but we're very alike. I sort of suspect that her mum and dad might have done a similar thing to her, which would explain why she refuses to feel guilty about it. At least my dad got quite remorseful when I asked him and said he had often worried that some of the less fun parts of my personality might have come about as a direct result of their vacation. He said it in this gawky way though that made me suspect he was going along with me just to be kind. Whenever you start a conversation like this with him, he'll play along with you for a bit and then switch to talking to the dog. I really love my parents (not quite as crazily as when I was little and I used to lie at the bottom of the front door like a draught excluder, waiting for them to get back from their dinner parties) but I find it really hard to talk about feelings with them.

My mum looks a bit like Helen Mirren and my dad is a kind of Steve Martin type, only more English. They're definitely a handsome couple. She used to work in TV but she stopped when she turned fifty and became a marriage guidance counsellor. My dad is an inventor, working mostly with petro-chemicals. He generally has a lot of financial problems because inventing can be an unreliable business. His trouble seems to be that he does it more for love than for money, which means that he carries on working on things, even if he can't get any funding. My mum is very understanding, but I think it's no accident that she's become a bit of an expert in the field of saving shaky relationships. They live in the middle of a field in Norfolk, but I was born and brought up in London.

So now you know; I'm a bit fucked, but at least there's a reason for it -- and actually I'm quite pleased. It's so neat. And now that we're a bit better acquainted I don't mind telling you that I have waist-length blonde ringlets.

Copyright © 1999 by Anouchka Grose Forrester

Anouchka Grose Forrester was born in Sydney, Australia, but has lived in London since the age of two. Her various vocations have included pop musician, jewelry designer, muralist, and lamp-shade maker. She is the author of seven books.

Vogue Brilliant...wildly funny...an absolute gem.

Christina Bartolomeo author of Cupid and Diana Read it in the bathtub, with a box of chocolates and a glass of champagne -- and turn your ringer off, because you'll be having too much fun to answer the phone.

Library Journal Laugh-out-loud moments abound in this comic first novel...You'll watch your step around receptionists after reading this.