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Before You Say 'Hello'

I hope you're still by the phone, that if someone else calls you'll ask him to hang up at once so as to keep the line free: you know my call could get through any moment. I've already dialled your number three times, but my signal got lost in bottlenecks of circuitry, whether here, in the city I'm calling from, or there in your city's network, I don't know. The lines are busy everywhere. All Europe is calling all Europe.

Only a few hours have passed since I said goodbye to you, in a mad rush; the trip is always the same, I do it mechanically every time, as though in trance: a taxi waiting for me in the street, a plane waiting for me at the airport, a company car waiting for me at another airport, then here I am, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from you. This is the moment that matters most for me: I have just put down my luggage, I still haven't taken off my coat, and already I'm lifting the receiver, dialling your city's area code, then your number.

My finger pushes each number slowly towards the end of the dial, I concentrate on the pressure of my fingertip as if it were that that determined the exactness of the journey each number must accomplish following a series of required steps far far away from each other and from us, until they set the bell ringing by your bed. It's rare for the operation to succeed first go: I don't know how long the labours of index finger thrust in dial will last, nor the uncertainties of ear glued to dark shell. To contain my impatience I remember a time not long ago when it was the invisible vestal virgins of the exchange who had the job of guaranteeing the continuity of this fragile flow of sparks, of fighting invisible battles against invisible fortresses: every internal impulse urging me to communicate was mediated procrastinated filtered through an anonymous and daunting procedure. Now that a network of automatic connections extends across entire continents and every subscriber can call every other subscriber at will without asking anybody's help, I must resign myself to paying for this extraordinary freedom with an expense of nervous energy, repetition of movements, time-wasting, growing frustration. (And to paying for it again in the form of extremely expensive bills, but the relationship between the act of telephoning and the experience of the cruel prices is not a direct one: the bills arrive every three months, a single direct-dial long distance call is drowned in an overall figure that generates the same stupor as those natural disasters in the face of which our resolve immediately finds the alibi of inevitability.) So great is the temptation the facility to telephone constitutes, that telephoning is becoming ever more difficult, even impossible. Everybody telephones everybody at every possible moment, and nobody can speak to anybody, signals go wandering up and down automatic search circuits, beating their wings like crazed butterflies, without managing to slip into a free line, each subscriber goes on firing off numbers into the exchanges convinced that it's no more than a temporary local hitch. The truth is that the vast majority of calls are made without people having anything to say to each other, hence it hardly matters whether they get through or not, all they do is harm those few who really would have something to say.

Certainly I can't claim as much. If I am in such a hurry to phone you after a few hours apart, it's not because there's something vital I forgot to tell you, nor am I impatient to re-establish that intimacy broken off at the moment of my leaving. If I tried to tell you something of the kind, I would immediately sense your sarcastic smile, or hear your voice icily calling me a liar. You'd be right: the last hours before I leave are full of silences and uneasiness between us; so long as I'm at your side the distance is insuperable. But that's precisely why I can't wait to call you: because it's only in a long-distance call, or better still an international call, that we can hope to achieve that state usually defined as 'togetherness'. That is the real reason for my journey, for my constant hopping about the map, the secret justification I should say, the one I give myself, without which I could only think of my professional activities as inspector of the European operations of a multinational company as a meaningless routine: I leave so as to be able to phone every day, because for you I have always been, as for me you have always been, at the other end of a wire, or rather a coaxial copper conductor cable, at the other pole of a tenuous modulated-frequency current that flows through the subsoil of the continents and across the ocean bed. And when we don't have this wire between us to make contact, when it is our lustreless physical presence that occupies the sensory field, immediately everything between us becomes commonplace superfluous automatic, gestures words facial expressions reciprocal reactions of pleasure or intolerance, all that direct contact can transmit between two people and which as such can also be said to be transmitted and received to perfection, always bearing in mind the rudimentary equipment human beings have at their disposal for communicating with each other; in short physical presence may be a wonderful thing for both of us, but hardly to be compared with the vibrational frequencies you get through the electronic switching system of a great telephone network, nor with the emotional intensity such frequencies can arouse in us.

The more the exchange is precarious, risky, insecure, the stronger the emotions are. If we are not satisfied with our exchanges when we are together, it is not because they are going badly, but because they are going how they have to go. Whereas now I find myself holding my breath as yet again I grind out the series of numbers on the rotating dial, draw in through my ear the ghostly sounds that surface in the receiver: a drumming engaged signal in the background, so vague as to have me hoping it's a chance interference that has nothing to do with us; or a muffled sputtering of charges that could be heralding the success of a complicated operation or at least an intermediate phase of that operation, or once again the ruthless silence of darkness and the void. In some unidentifiable point of the circuitry my call has lost its way.

I pick up the receiver and get the dial tone again, then with redoubled slowness repeat the first numbers of the code, numbers that do no more than find a way out of the city network, then the national network. In some countries there's a special tone at this point to let you know that the first part of the operation has succeeded; if you don't hear the trill of a little musical jingle there's no point in going on with the other numbers: you have to wait for a line to come free. At home they sometimes give you a very short whistle that comes at the end of the code, or halfway through: but not for all codes and not on every occasion. In short, whether you've heard that little whistle or not you can't be sure of anything: when they give the all-clear signal the line may be deaf or dead, or it may turn out to be unexpectedly live without having given any signs of life earlier on. So it's best not to be put off whatever happens, to dial the number down to the last digit and wait. Assuming that the engaged signal doesn't explode halfway through, to tell you you're wasting your time. But all the better if it does: I can hang up immediately, saving myself another pointless wait, and try again. Generally, though, having embarked on the exasperating business of tracing a dozen figures in the dial's rotations, I'm left with no indication as to the results of my efforts. What straits is my signal negotiating right now? Is it still stuck in the recorder of the exchange here in town, waiting its turn in a line of calls? Has it already been translated into commands for the selector switches, divided in groups of digits that are heading off to look for the way to successive intermediate exchanges? Or did it fly straight to the network of your city, your local area, without encountering so much as an obstacle, only to be caught there like a fly in a spider's web, reaching out towards your unreachable telephone?

The earpiece tells me nothing, and I don't know whether I'll have to accept defeat and hang up, or whether all of a sudden a light rustling crackle will tell me my call has found a free line, has set off like an arrow and in a few seconds will be waking your bell like an echo.

It's in this silence of circuitry that I speak to you. I'm well aware that when our voices finally get to meet along the wire we will have only banal and awkward comments to make; I'm not calling to say anything to you, nor because I imagine you have anything to say to me. We phone each other because it's only in these long-distance calls, this groping for each other along cables of buried copper, cluttered relays, the whirling contact points of clogged selector switches, only in this probing the silence and waiting for an echo that one prolongs that first call from afar, that cry that went up when the first great crack of the continental drift yawned beneath the feet of a human couple, when the depths of the ocean opened up to separate them, while, torn precipitously apart, one on one bank and one on the other, the couple strove with their cries to stretch out a bridge of sound that might keep them together yet, cries that grew ever fainter until the roar of the waves overwhelmed all hope.

Ever since then distance has been the warp that supports the weft of every love story, of every relationship between living beings, the distance the birds seek to bridge when they launch their subtly trilled archways into the morning air, as we launch bursts of electrical impulses into the earth's nerve systems, each translatable into commands for relays: the only way human beings still have of knowing that they are calling each other for no other reason than the need to call each other. Doubtless the birds have little more to say than I have to say to you, as I flounder on, finger turning in this number-crunching dial, hoping that one click will prove luckier than the rest and set your bell a-ringing.

Like a wood deafened by the twittering of birds, our telephonic planet rings with conversations achieved or attempted, with the trilling of sound equipment, with the whining of a line cut off, the whirr of a signal, tones, ticking; and the upshot of all this is a universal chirping, arising from each individual's need to demonstrate his existence to someone else, and from the fear of our finally understanding that only the telephone network exists, while we who call and answer perhaps don't exist at all.

I've got the code wrong yet again, from the depths of the network I pick up a sort of birdsong, then snatches of other people's conversations, a recorded message in a foreign language repeating: 'The number you have dialled is not presently assigned to a subscriber.' Then the insistent engaged sign swells up to black out every glimmer. I wonder whether you are trying to call me at the same time and running into the same obstacles, floundering in the dark, getting lost in the same thorny labyrinth. I am speaking as I never would if you were listening; every time I push down the cradle wiping out the fragile succession of numbers I'm also wiping out everything I've said or thought as though in a delirium: this anxious insecure frenetic search for each other holds the beginning and the end of everything; we will never know more about each other than this rustling that fades and is lost along the wire. A vain tension in the ear concentrates the electricity of the passions, the rages of love and hate, which I -- with my executive career in a big financial company, my days regulated by the careful employment of time -- have never had the chance to experience except in a superficial, inattentive fashion.

Obviously it's impossible to get through at this time of day. I'd better give up, but if I stop trying to speak to you I'll immediately have to go back and deal with the phone as a completely different instrument, another part of myself with other functions: I've got a series of business meetings in town here that need urgent confirmation, I'll have to unplug the mental circuit that connects me to you and plug in the one that corresponds to my periodic inspections of companies controlled by my group or with joint shareholdings; I'll have to perform a switching operation not in the phone but in myself, in my approach to the phone.

First I want to have one last try, once more I'll dial that sequence of numbers that has taken the place of your name, your face, you. If I get through, good, if not, I'll stop. Meanwhile I can go on thinking things I'll never say to you, thoughts addressed more to the phone than to you, that have to do with the relationship I have with you through the phone, or rather the relationship I have with the phone with you as pretext.

Distant mechanisms revolve, my thoughts revolving with them, and I start to see the faces of other recipients of longdistance calls, variously pitched voices vibrate, the disc assembles and dismantles accents, attitudes and moods, but I can't settle on the image of an ideal woman to satisfy my yearning for a longdistance connection. Everything starts getting mixed up in my mind: faces, names, voices, numbers in Antwerp or Zurich or Hamburg. Not that I expect anything more from one number than from another: either with regard to the likelihood of getting through, or to what, once through, I might say or hear. But that doesn't stop me going on to try to make contact with Antwerp or Zurich or Hamburg or whatever other city yours may be -- already forgotten in the whirligig of numbers I've been calling one after another for an hour now without ever getting through.

There are things that, even if my voice doesn't reach you, I feel the need to tell you: and it doesn't matter if I'm talking to you in Antwerp, or you in Zurich, or you in Hamburg. I want you to know that the moment I am really together with you isn't when I see you at night, in Antwerp, or Zurich, or Hamburg, after my business meetings; that is only the banal and inevitable aspect of our relationship: the tiffs, the making up, the rancour, the flarings of old passion; in every city and with every woman I phone the ritual I've established with you is repeated. Just as, as soon as I'm back in your town, even before you know I'm there, I'll be spasmodically calling (trying to call) a number in Goteborg, or Bilbao, or Marseilles: a number I could easily get through to now with a local call here in the network of Goteborg, or Bilbao, or Marseilles (I can't remember where I am). But I don't want to talk to that number now; I want to talk to you.

That's what -- given that you can't hear me -- I want to tell you. For an hour I've been trying a series of numbers turn and turn about, all as impossible to get through to as yours, in Casablanca, Salonica, Vaduz: I'm sorry you're all stuck by the phone waiting for me; the service is getting worse and worse. As soon as I hear a voice say, 'Hello!' I shall have to be careful not to make a mistake, to remember which of you the last number I called corresponds to. Will I still recognize your voices? I've been waiting so long listening to silence.

I might as well tell you at this point, tell you, tell all of you, given that none of your phones is answering: my great ambition is to transform the entire global network into an extension of myself, propagating and attracting amorous vibrations, to use this instrument as an organ of my own body through which to consummate an embrace with the whole planet. I've almost made it. Hang on by your phones. And that means you too, in Kyoto, in Sao Paolo, in Riyadh!

Unfortunately my phone keeps giving me the engaged signal, even when I put it down and pick it up again, even when I bang down on the cradle. There, now I can't hear anything at all, you'd think I was cut off from every possible line. Keep calm all of you. It must be a temporary hitch. Hang on.