My mission was to make a phone call to the US

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The Independent Online
REGRETS? I'VE had a few. And not too few to mention.

Interviewing Sharron Davies - that was one. Obviously it wasn't the Sharron Davies bit that was a problem, because she was exactly as her public image had led me to expect. Confident. Articulate. Attractive in a sort of Yes Obviously, But That's Not Really The Point Is It? way.

And also, as I recall, touchingly committed to her Great Dane, Ben. Shortly before we met, she had given this 12st character the run of her hotel room while she swam at a competition in Coventry. "He's a bit of a Mummy's boy," she said. "The hotel didn't mind. I have an arrangement with their group." No, the problem occurred with my choice of venue for our in-depth interview. Or, to be more accurate, her choice of venue for our little chat.

A Pizza Hut in Leeds city centre, where we were surrounded by 10 awestruck young swimmers with whom she had been practising earlier in the morning.

If there is an art to interviewing people over lunch, I have yet to master it. As I attempted to co-ordinate sensible questions with garlic bread with eye contact with sage nodding with pizza margherita, it occurred to me that my sketchy notes were unlikely to be of much use. Davies's rapid-fire verbal delivery compounded my difficulty.

But all was not lost! I had my tape recorder! And how well that super precision, anti-resonance tape picked up the sound of scraping cutlery and chattering Wigan Wasps.

Not so long after that little setback, I travelled to Brussels to cover a grand prix athletics meeting at the Heysel Stadium, where Britain's recently established Commonwealth 1500 metres champion, Peter Elliott, was due to run.

Arriving on the day of the event, I made my way to the organisers' HQ at the Sheraton Hotel and chanced upon a man widely regarded as the doyen of athletics writers. As we travelled up the escalator towards the meeting office, he asked me if I had come to watch anyone in particular. "Peter Elliott." I replied, Boy Scout style. "Oh dear," he replied, doyen style. "He's not coming." All right. I was younger then. Greener. And I like to think I have learned from such experiences. I like to think it - but maybe I haven't.

This week I tried to telephone a man in the United States. Not, on the face of it, an impossible mission. Especially as I had the complete number and a clear grasp of the man's name and position. Which, as it happens, was Mark Asanovic of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team.

"You have reached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers," the voice said. Way to go! "Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm. If you know your party's extension, please dial it now. If you are interested in purchasing club seats - the absolute best seats in the Raymond James stadium - please call back during office hours."

A woman's voice cuts in. "To look up a party's extension by using their last name, please dial 1." OK. One. "Enter the first three letters of the person's last name you are trying to reach. For the letters Q and Z, press one. To enter an extension, press the star key."

OK. No problem. A-S-A.

"Those letters represent more than one person. For Pat Brazil" - hang on, surely that's B-R-A not A-S-A? - press 1. For Mark Asanovic, press 2..." OK. Two.

"Transferring to Mark Asanovic. Box number 294. Please hold." There is a shard of American football commentary - "a 32-yard rush, first down in the" - and then this from Mark: "You have reached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers weight room. Mark and Aaron are unavailable at this time. Please leave your name, number and a short message and we will get back to you as soon as we can."

Now the female voice interjects again. "Please leave your message after the tone. When you have finished, press 8. If the message is acceptable, press 1. To review the message, press 2. To re-record, press 5, to pause for 30 seconds, press 7, if you would like to speak with someone, press 0. To end this call, press 9." I record a message. I think.

"To continue recording, press 3; to back up four seconds, press 4; to re-record, press 5, to move forward four seconds, press 6, to pause for 30 seconds, press 7, to cancel the message, press 8. If you would like to speak with someone, press 0. To end this call and send the message, press 9." Er. Right. So. Um. Press 0.

"This is Paula McCarthy. I'm currently unavailable. But if you'd like to leave a message, please do so after the tone. If you feel that you need further assistance, please dial the operator at 00. Thank you." Er. Right. So. Press 00.

"I'm sorry. There is no operator at this time. Please enter the extension of the person you are trying to reach. To look up the name in the phone book, press the star key."

In the phone book? How could I do that? Who would help me? And what if...

"Thank you. Goodbye." As I say. Regrettable.

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