The mobile way to keep my son on message

I've finally succumbed and betrayed all my principles - I bought my 15-year-old son a pager
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The Independent Culture
HERE'S A sad story. A friend's eight-year-old son was asked by his granny in the Shetland Isles what he wanted for his birthday. "A mobile," he squeaked excitedly on a crackling line to Harolds Wick on the Isle of Unst.

My friend lives in trendy Clapham where all her son's school friends apparently got mobiles for Christmas. Yes, I did say eight years old. According to the latest information from the Federation of Communication Services, the mobile communications industry body, kids are becoming as addicted to Vodaphones as their parents.

A week later the parcel arrived. It contained two coat-hangers from which six brightly coloured cardboard fishes were attached by lengths of string. "Dear Jasper, Happy birthday. I hope you enjoy your fish mobile. Lots of love, Granny," said the message.

Call it a cop-out, but I've finally succumbed and betrayed all my long held and widely advertised principles - I bought my 15-year-old son a pager for Christmas.

"It isn't really for him," I told the man in the mobile shop. For some reason I felt I should justify the purchase. "It's for my peace of mind. Half the time I've no idea where he is. At least this way I shall be able to track him down." "If he calls back," the man in the mobile phone shop said laconically.

"Mum, you're a star," I was informed on Christmas morning. "It's well dry [ie really nice]. Much better than Jack's." Why, what's wrong with Jack's, I asked. Aren't they all the same? No apparently they're not. Jack's is dry (ie not very nice) because it doesn't automatically beam over the latest football results and lottery numbers. If I'd known that the one I bought included those facilities, I should not have parted so readily with my 40 quid.

So far, at least, the novelty hasn't worn off. When I beam my message (up to 80 characters including spaces) the charming girl at the Zap - it's not called a pager message-answering service by the way, it's called a Zap; don't ask me why; it's just another of its well dark facilities - my son returns the call immediately.

We're slowly getting the hang of it. Instead of making him call me back, which, he complained, costs him 10p, I can give the instructions direct to the Zap girl. Thus: "James: it's me, Mum. Don't forget you've got an appointment with the doctor tomorrow at 10.15 about your verrucas."

It's surprising how much you can get into 80 characters including spaces. When I relayed that message about the verrucas to the Zap girl I found myself apologising for its unpleasant content. "Don't worry, you'd be surprised at some of the things we have to pass on," she said. "Sometimes we have to water them down a bit." I'm glad to hear it.

My son had a message the other day from his friend Buddy. What Buddy said to the Zap girl was: "Listen dickhead call Buddy soonest or he'll kick your arse." What the Zap girl relayed to James came out as "James, call Mr Buddy as soon as possible or he'll kick your bottom."

My daughter tells me that the latest wheeze in her office is to think up truly preposterous pager messages to test the reaction of the Zap girl. So far none of them has come up with anything too shocking to pass on.

"The small Vietnamese child you ordered from South East Asia Leisure Services Inc has now arrived and is ready for collection at the cargo office in terminal three Heathrow," aroused only the mild comment that it probably wouldn't fit into 80 characters including spaces. Would it be possible to abbreviate the name of the company?

We'd better make the most of the pager before, peer-group pressure and all that, we have to upgrade to a proper mobile. Now that really is going to be a headache, not just because of the huge choice - two-tone, leopard- skin, with or without e-mail, Internet, personal computer, word processing and fax facilities - but because of the reputed danger from radiation. I read an article recently about the gruesome effect that low-level microwaves can have on mobile phone users.

To my technically untutored ear, a low-level microwave is a small oven for heating up shepherd's pie or cooking meringues, but the article went on to describe the research into low-level microwave mobile phone radiation carried out by Professor Henry Lei at the University of Washington in Seattle on small rodents.

Headaches, disorientation, not being able to remember the Prime Minister's name. It was chilling. Give me a Zap girl any day.