Many years ago, when answer phones first became commonplace, a friend's slightly ditzy mother was supposed to make a duty visit to a distant uncle.
She dialled his number, and when she heard his recorded greeting she grinned with relief before rearranging her features so that they would convey suitable disappointment for the message she was about to leave: "I'm so sorry you're not there," she lied, "we were hoping to pop in for a cup of tea. Never mind, we'll have to make it another time." Then, with the active handset still in her hand, she said, "He's not there, thank God. We've got the afternoon to ourselves." These charming words were, of course, preserved on the machine.
The mixed blessing of the answer phone has been on my mind since I recently changed mobiles. It hasn't been an unbridled success. The new phone has terrific coverage everywhere except within a five-mile radius of my home. Ring me there, and I have to go outside, stand in the road and swirl the handset around like a Barry Manilow fan waving a candle, in the hope of catching a signal.
So uncertain have I been of the future of our working relationship that I have only given the new number to people on a need-to-know basis. But I didn't really think about what would happen when people dialled the old one. I suppose, much as a toddler thinks they're invisible if they cover their eyes, I imagined that by putting it in a drawer, everyone would know not to ring it.
So I shouldn't have been surprised when a colleague last week complained that she couldn't get hold of me. My old phone, it transpired, was still diligently taking messages for me, in the vain hope that I might remember the good times and give the old faithful another go. When I switched it on for the first time in months, it spewed forth a narrative of frustration from taxi companies, delivery men and producers, all unable to fathom why I wouldn't return their calls. All that was lacking was the missed call of one's dreams.
In an ideal world, everyone should have a defunct phone, to help them explain life's niggling disappointments: I'm not in Hollywood, because I missed the call from Spielberg. It's not due to lack of talent or ambition, it's because I never worked out how to transfer voice messages. That's why I've never had dinner with George Clooney, too, and why no one's yet asked me to write a screenplay for a hit romantic comedy.
A missed call as an excuse for one's shortcomings may be a comfort, but it doesn't take much imagination to see how dangerous it could also be. It's the modern equivalent of the letter under Angel Clare's carpet in Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
We used to have a phone number that was, for some reason, frequently the subject of wrong numbers. Often it was someone trying to contact the cricket club, but on several occasions we came home late to find disturbing messages.
The saddest was a long, tearful message that sounded as though it came from a teenage girl in a phone box. She had decided to admit to her best friend she was gay, and hoped for more than just friendship. It had clearly taken a huge amount of courage – and probably alcohol – to steel herself to call. And she'd left it on the wrong phone. Did she ever confront the friend for not responding? Are they together now, or doomed to a lifetime apart, simply because we were out, and couldn't tell her her mistake?
The other memorable misdial was so far-fetched that it sounds like the kind of device you'd put in a comedy script. But my husband, who is less given to exaggeration than I, will attest to its veracity. It may have been a hoax – I hope it was – but we came back one night to find a message from a teaching hospital on our machine. The voice said: "I hope this is the number for the blood bank. It doesn't sound right... anyway, I'm calling from theatre, and we're going to need a lot more than we'd thought..."