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Dilemmas: Must I be a slave to a bleeper?

Valerie, an experienced freelance on contract, has been offered a bleeper by her bosses so that they can contact her when they want to. She has a phobia about using it. Nor does she want a mobile phone ringing all the time. Does anyone else feel the same way?

If a quick check among my friends is anything to go by, bleepers are extremely unpopular. They go off with a piercing ring, and then you have to access a message from your office, which usually demands your reply as soon as possible.

If you're not near a telephone at the time, this can send your blood pressure soaring. I was once on holiday with someone who had a bleeper. Just as we were walking across the moors in Scotland, the blessed thing went off. We had to curtail our walk and hurry to the nearest phone, only to find that it was some piddling message from a secretary asking whether my friend had an address that she wanted.

Apparently, if you're worried about a bleeper going off in a quiet place you can put it on "vibrate", which means that in the middle of the theatre, or wherever you happen to be wearing it, it can suddenly wiggle violently against you. Personally I'd find this as unacceptable as having the man next to me at the movies moving his knee close to mine and rubbing it along my thigh.

Anyway, Valerie says she doesn't want to have to wear this thing all the time. Presumably she has some kind of clothes sense, and, unlike a lot of men, who adore being weighed down by gadgets and heavy key rings, she values the line of her dress or the cut of her skirt and doesn't want it spoilt by a horrible bit of black plastic.

Everyone I asked about bleepers winced, and they all gave the same simile. "It's like being one of those tagged prisoners," they said. "You can't go anywhere without someone being able to get at you." If Valerie isn't a member of staff, I can't see why she should have to wear one, if she fulfils her contract in every way without one.

Life today is highly invasive, with unwanted faxes, unsolicited e-mails, junk mail, pizza offers through the letter-box, cold calls, and unwanted callers at the door. If you work in an office, the telephone is manned first by a switchboard and then, probably, by a department secretary. Working on your own, you have no defence, no castle walls. I have got to the point myself when, at home, I keep my answering machine on permanently. I screen every call and answer them only when I care to. Everyone else I ring back at my leisure.

I think Valerie should buy herself a mobile (not let the office buy it; then she'll be beholden). She could keep it switched off when she's with other people. (I'm appalled at the number of people I meet who, in the middle of a meal, suddenly reach into their ringing handbags and conduct long conversations with invisible people in front of me.)

She could also turn the mobile off when driving, if she were worried that the ringing would distract her.

But it sounds to me as though she never wants to be contacted out of the blue. So I suggest that she buy a mobile, but keep the number to herself and never turn it on except to access messages hourly from her home answering machine. That way, she's entirely in control of the situation.

If she tells her office, in no uncertain terms, that this is how she operates, they may gulp a bit, but it's unlikely that they'll push the issue. And Valerie will feel that she's in charge.

And soon she may realise that a mobile phone need not always be a tyrant. It can also be a slave.


Don't let it rule your life

No, you're not phobic, just sensible. In your place I would feel exactly the same, but then, BT's Friends and Family winds me up so much that I'm thinking of leaving the scheme.

Can you come to an agreement with your company that the bleeper will be on for a few hours a day when you are working at home? Then make a point of turning it off at personally inconvenient times? Or you could break the thing - drop it, leave it in a tunnel, give it a bath. But stand firm - you're being perfectly reasonable; it's the others who are strange.


Barnet, north London

A bleeper can be an asset

Rather than feeling threatened by her bleeper, Valerie should welcome the freedom it gives her - she can go missing without having to tell anyone where she's going and without feeling guilty about possibly missing important work calls. And outside acceptable working hours, she can always activate the "off" switch for bleep-free baths.

She may even find that she becomes attached to it as a useful means of organising her social life - it can be used frivolously by friends as well as demandingly by bosses. And it's so much cooler than a mobile phone - fellow passengers on buses and trains need not be bothered by the intricate details of your life, and it's up to you whether you return your messages (you can deny all knowledge and claim to have been on the Tube at the time).

If all else fails, Valerie, put it on "vibrate" and relax.



I know just how Valerie feels

As a junior doctor I totally sympathise with your correspondent over her bleep. When I started the job nearly four years ago I received my bleep and a rota of one night in four on call. I am a poor sleeper anyway, but although I was in no way superstitious (I even walked under a ladder on the day of my driving test), I believed that as soon as I turned the light off, someone would be sure to call, and so I spent several months sleeping with the light on.

But it does get much easier. And while it is nice, just occasionally, to fantasise about throwing the bleeper against the wall, I know only one person who really has dropped it down the toilet.


Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My brother was a talented artist but he never made a name for himself because he refused to sell any paintings. Before he died a year ago, I promised him that his talent would not go to waste; I would bring his pictures to as wide an audience as possible.

The problem is that there are more than 300 canvases, mainly abstracts, which aren't fashionable. Many are huge, therefore less saleable. And no one has heard of him. Storing them costs pounds 4,000 a year. With difficulty, I have managed to sell about six at auction. I lie in bed tossing and turning with guilt that I'm unable to fulfil my promise. Do you have any ideas about what to do with these pictures? I just cannot throw them away.

Yours sincerely, Angie

Anyone who has advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, "The Independent", 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail dilemmas@independent.co. uk - giving a postal address for the bouquet.