In love with the telephonic darling who monitors and screens my messages

John Walsh's sensitive verbal disposition has taken several hits this week, from BT operators to new American slang
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The Independent Online
MY BRITISH Telecom lady has lost the plot. The super-calm voice on my phone, the one that monitors my messages and screens me from the outside world, has completely mislaid the storyline.

You know the person I mean? Maybe she turns up on your telephone too, the faithless hussy. I've considered her a close personal friend since I agreed to have the system installed, some months ago. I was entranced the first time I rang home and heard those primary-schoolmistress tones say, prissily: "Good evening. This is a Bee Tee answering service. There's no one here to take your call - but I can take a message for you ..." Her voice was so emphatic, her enunciation so clear, she sounded like Shula in The Archers addressing a shed of Albanian peasants.

It used to work like this. If callers had left messages, the phone would ring, or the dialling tone would bleep, to let you know. Then you rang 1571 to get your calls, and heard this tightly-buttoned BT minx (I imagined a Chanel suit, a Kirsty Young hairstyle, a whiff of Tresor) offering you a range of exciting transcommunicatory possibilities. "Four messages. Hear them?," she'd ask in imperious tones. "Message timed at 6.45pm today. Hear that message? Repeat that message? Save that message?"

You were expected to answer all her enquiries by saying "Yes" or "No" down the line, and woe betide you if you mumbled. She would come on the line, say, "Sorry, I didn't understand that" and make you repeat what you'd said, cooing sweetly the while, rephrasing her instructions with increasing simplicity ("Would you like to save or remove that message?") in case you might be drunk or foreign. She taught you to mind your dictional Ps and Qs, to be decisive and forthright, to sit up straight and stop fidgeting.

Then she went off me, grew cold and irritable, had attacks of PMT. Instead of the phone ringing to say there were messages waiting, a moody silence prevailed. The dialling tone snored away unconcerned. If you rang 1571, you'd get half of one message, aborted at random. Things went downhill fast. The voice I'd come to love hardened in tone, from Shula Archer to Ann Widdecombe. If she asked, "Remove that message?" it now sounded like an order. If you replied "No", she'd remove it anyway. Whatever you wanted, she'd do the opposite. You'd think we'd had a flaming row about housework or something.

Then she affected to be deaf. Whatever you said, there'd be an eerie silence and she'd reply, sulkily, "I didn't understand that". Even if you enunciated your words like John Gielgud, she'd say, snottily, "I didn't understand that. Would you like to hear this message?". Yes, you'd snarl, yes, yes, yes, Goddammit. "Sorry. I didn't UNDERSTAND that," she snarled back, suddenly standing revealed as Alex Forrest, the madwoman in Fatal Attraction. "DO YOU WISH TO HEAR THIS MESSAGE OR NOT?" Ten minutes later, her voice was breaking up and I was shouting abuse at a recording.

It couldn't go on. I had to get a BT man to take her away to the Answering Machine Funny Farm and have her attitude problem seen to. Uncomfortable thoughts of The Stepford Wives assail me day and night, especially the scene when the robotised Paula Prentiss gets knifed in the circuit boards and goes bananas. My telephonic darling is now back on the phone line, working perfectly, cooing helpfully and recording my messages as if nothing had happened. But what flash of humanity was revealed when her circuits crashed? And how can I stop this feeling of guilt that I've had her turned into a robot again?

AFTER inarticulate grunts, professional slang is perhaps the biggest irritant to the soul. After years spent wincing every time I heard voices on the radio discussing "Peps" and "Tessas", I learn we now have to discuss the pros and cons of things called "ISAs", which have replaced them. (""Doctor, l'm a bit worried about me icers ..."). Being asked about "cashback" at the Safeway checkout, as if it were a form of words that fell naturally to your lips, is enough to turn you into Paul Johnson. Carpet fitters who decide they can't nail down the Axminster round the edge of the room, say "I think we'll 'ave to PV5 it". Give me strength. But some bits of newly minted slang are oddly appealing. Like the moment in a West End Seattle Coffee emporium during the week, when the woman beside me ordered a large espresso to take away. Without looking up, the (American) girl behind the counter yelled over her shoulder, "Double E to flee ..."

CONVERSATION of the Week was surely that between Kathleen Willey, the former White House worker, and Ed Bradley, the interrogator on CBS television's 60 Minutes, about yet another of President Clinton's alleged peccadillos. It wasn't just for what Ms Willey said, though God knows that was interesting enough, but for what she didn't say. Let me remind you: "He had his arms tight round me. He kissed me on my mouth and pulled me closer to him ... He touched my breasts with his hands and I was just startled." Indeed you were, madam. So far, so good. Then Bradley asks, Where, er, exactly, did he, ah ...? and Ms Willey replies that the wandering Presidential hand had seized her hand and clamped it on his (by now surely rather battered after all these interns and researchers) groin. "Was he aroused?" inquired Bradley. "Uh-ha," replied Ms Willey.

And that was the end of the conversation. No really, that's actually how it finished, with Ms Willey's pitiless interviewer presumably quite satisfied with her reply. We in Britain, however, are not. Did she, for Chrissake, mean Yes or No? (She wouldn't have lasted five minutes with the lady from the BT answering service.) Are we to be denied the truth of whether the priapic Prez clutched another Willey to his own, all because of that curious American fondness for non-verbal interchanges?

You know the kind of thing. If you say "thanks" to a New York waitress, she'll murmur "Mm-hm?" abstractedly on a rising lilt. Ask a garagehand in Denver if he can check your oil and he'll say, "Uh-hunh" (meaning "I would love to be of assistance, but sadly I have an appointment with my advanced cello teacher"). Say anything disobliging to a small American child and it'll protest with that awful whinging noise, "Ne-hahr".

It's not a pretty record of inarticulacy, with the language of explanation, gratitude and protest all reduced to primeval grunts. But it's all recognisably of a piece with President Clinton, and his apparently Tourette-like manhandling of anyone in possession of a uterus - I mean anyone, White House job applicant, beauty queen, night-club singer, friend's wife, stenographer, colour co- ordinator, office cleaner, tea lady - who has ever strayed into his Fondle Zone.