If they call to say: where are you?

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I HAVE recently acquired a telephone answering machine and installed it. But I am puzzled by the lack of messages on it. I know people are ringing in my absence, as I can hear the clicks when they call, but none of them leaves a message. Why not?

Almost certainly because you are a first-time user and have recorded a message according to the manufacturer's booklet. Normally they recommend a formula such as 'Hello. This is 0202020202. Unfortunately, there is nobody here to attend to your call at the moment. However, if you give your name and address clearly and accurately after the tone, your communication will be dealt with speedily. Thank you for calling.'

Yes, I'm afraid I have recorded a message more or less like that. But what exactly is wrong with it?

Everything. For a start, nobody in the real world talks like that except someone who has been to talk-like-a-robot classes. So your caller finds it hard to believe that it is really you talking, and puts the phone down in embarrassment. But don't worry, this is the first stage of recording a message that everyone goes through. Simply move on to the second stage.

And what is that?

Casual. You get sick of the pompous message you started with and replace it with: 'Hi - nobody here at the moment, I'm afraid, but we'll be back soon so if you want to leave a message, that's cool. Bye]'

And how long does phase two last for?

Until the very first time you ring home, and the machine is on, and you hear you own message, and realise how naff it is. Then you may go on to phase three, if you have the energy.

What does that involve?

Music, fanfares, recorded inserts, bits of special effects from old Goon Shows, and so on, all adding up to what you think is a hilariously funny message.

And is it?

The first time round. Perhaps even the second time round. Not the third. Definitely not thereafter.

And what do you do?

Oh, I record a message that sounds as if it isn't a message at all.

How do you mean?

Well, for instance, you might record a message that says: 'Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello? Oh, God, it must be Roger up to one of his silly jokes. Sorry, Roger, haven't time to muck around.' Then the sound of the phone being put down. Or you can get your partner to do a double act with you: 'Hello . . . hello . . . Oh, sorry, darling - I didn't know you'd answered it - I'll leave it to you . . .' After which you get the sound of two phones being put down. Or you can simply say: 'Hello, can you hold on a moment - Tom, don't trip over that wire] Mind out] You're going to pull the whole . . . Oh, God]' Followed by the great crashing of a telephone and dead silence . . . The caller seldom realises it's a recorded message.

Whenever I am away from home for an appreciable time and have to leave my telephone answering machine on, I feel I ought to mention in my recorded message that I won't be back for some time. However, my wife points out that this will clearly tell burglars that the house is empty. Can you think of a message that will tell my friends I am off on a trip without alerting potential sackers and pillagers?

It is a bit of a myth that burglars keep ringing round numbers to find a place worth burgling. Have you answered the phone to a burglar recently? After all, if it is true that burglars go through the phone book, then most of the numbers they ring must be answered by people at home. If many of your recent callers have put the phone down immediately or just said, 'Oh, sorry, wrong number', or 'Oops, blimey, sorry, mate, I thought you was away in Mauritius, I'll call back when you're not in', then I might start to get worried, but otherwise not.

Nevertheless, I would like to know how to phrase a message to tell my friends that I am away, and not convey the same message to burglars.

Certainly. All you have to say is: 'The offices of the Acme Mud and Mustard Bath Company are closed for the moment, but we will be open for business as usual quite soon.'

But I am not a mustard bath company.

Of course you're not. But the burglar won't know that. Your friends, however, will recognise your voice and get the message.

And if they don't?

I am sorry. That is the end of the article. There is nobody here now. Please try again tomorrow.