The first time Tootsie rang it was as though a little window opened admitting into the semi-dark sitting room bright beams of sunshine. Tootsie could talk. She'd been born with a silver tongue (as women are wont to describe wordy females) or, alternatively, with a resilient, steel-enforced spring under her tongue. (Men imagine and classify incessant chatterers of the other sex this way, occasionally.)
However you portray her, though, Tootsie could hold forth with verbose fortitude, stringing pearly words endlessly on the long distance line from Perth to Sydney and creating a wordy necklace (men refer to it as a noose) that wrapped itself tightly round the listener and didn't ease up until Tootsie herself decided it was time to ring off.
The first time she got released from the grip of Tootsie's call Margaret came away with her ears ringing, her head spinning and her mind struggling to catalogue the variety of topics Tootsie had touched upon: family (for Tootsie was the sister of Margaret's sister-in-law); friends (going back 70 years, still talked about as if it was yesterday); and recipes (from kormas to koftas and from curries with coconuts to halwas with cashew nuts).
It reawakened in Margaret (in Sydney) long dormant memories of a childhood in India, in the 1930s when her own father owned such a mighty stretch of land two cricket matches could be played on it simultaneously without any of the 22 players getting in each other's way. And the house! Large, yet dwarfed by the size of the land. And the orchard of fruit trees - mango and guava, lime and lemon. And the pickles and preservatives made by her dear father and preserved in huge ceramic jars by her dear mother. Tootsie brought back all these yesterdays as though she was just swishing a curtain across and saying, "Look Margaret, there's you with your embroidery and there's me on my bicycle, Tom Boy that I was, and there's Kenneth with the catapult and there's Desmond under the custard apple tree ..."
So, when did it all change for Margaret? When did Tootsie's enchanting, bewitching hour-long necklace of words metamorphose into something resembling harsh hessian rope? More importantly, what caused the change? Was it, simply, the sheer monotony of listening to an hour-long monologue?
It is hard to say. But latterly, Tootsie had taken to prattling on about people in her Perth neighbourhood that Margaret had little clue about. John Sullivan and his gastric ulcer consumed 60 minutes one time. Then there was Debbie Ferdinand's Pekinese and its painful ingrowing left forepaw claw, accompanied by a detailed account of how the vet painlessly sorted things out to Mustard's (the Pekinese's) relief.
Margaret heard only the first 30 minutes of the exhaustingly mundane account of Gerry Mason's white picket fence and how he set this up on the perimeter of his front yard despite an acute attack of lumbago. Where was Margaret for the latter 30 minutes? A deviousness had come upon her in this her eighty-fourth year. Quiet as a mouse she placed the receiver on a cushion and slipped away to do a little weeding in the garden, taking care to glance quickly at the clock on the wall. She was back 29 minutes later, in time to hear the bland conclusion to Gerry's heroic conquest of lumbago. After that, she began setting, and breaking, her own records of time spent away from the phone, the figure currently standing at 55 out of the standard 60 minutes. Tootsie, meanwhile, rattles on relentlessly.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.