“A calippo? A CALIPPO,” I fume, first quietly and then loudly as a disaster starts to unfold by the side of a Portuguese swimming pool.
For some, the word disaster might be too strong but not for me. I’ve had a mobile since way back when the Spice Girls were wannabes and never once have any of the dozens of increasingly smart devices that passed through my hands suffered even the slightest hint of water damage.
I never dropped a phone in the bath — “bath” being the commonly accepted euphemism for toilet bowl. I never went swimming with one in my pocket and I took great care when talking on my phone in the driving rain of a west of Ireland winter.
So, not unlike the soft-faced cop who enters a crime drama by announcing he has just days to go before his retirement, when I went on my holidays in July I was sure I’d made it. After all phones are now pretty waterproof so even if I dropped mine in the sea or in the “bath” I’d probably be grand, in so far as anyone wiping pee — or worse — off their phone can ever be grand.
But like that cop, I was on the very edge of doom.
I calm down after the initial shock of fishing my phone out of the lake of luridly coloured melted ice-pop that it had shared a space with in a beach bag wears off. “It’ll be grand,” I tell myself, downplaying the small but persistent shadow forming on the screen.
I’m in the first of the five stages of grief — denial.
Hours pass and the shadow on the screen is joined by a flicker. I turn it off and on again. The shadow is still there and the flickering is worse.
“This is a nightmare,” I say. “My phone is banjaxed and it’s only day one of my holidays.”
“It’ll be grand,” I tell myself again. “A good night’s rest and my phone will be grand.”
Day two dawns and I wake up and — as always — reach for my device to check the time, my emails, The Irish Times website, Twitter, Teams, Instagram and the preseason fantasy football market. The flickering is worse and the screen now has a ghostly Apple on it. Then the apple disappears and is replaced by a message telling me my phone can’t find my sim card.
“It’s right there,” I say, taking out the sim and polishing it with a T-shirt before sliding it back in. “Look phone there it is, everything is fine.”
The phone — once so smart but now so stupid — isn’t buying it and keeps telling me there’s no sign of a sim card. Getting angry at a wilfully inanimate object is pointless and petty but I do it anyway.
I start considering alternatives. Maybe I’ll buy a burner, I think, before remembering I’m not — in fact — in Love/Hate and am in a different country
I leave the device at home to rest and we head to a supermarket, a massive one spread over two levels. With our shopping journey nearly done, I go in search of a cheap coffee pot which I find but in doing so I lose my family.
Normally after a time being all lost in a supermarket, I’d phone or text my wife and we’d be reunited in seconds but without a phone I’ve no choice but to pace the aisles instead, travelling between floors searching for Popes like a big eejit. More than 10 minutes of searching pass before I start wondering if they’ve been taken. Lacking any particular set of skills to retrieve them, I work on a story I can tell the supermarket staff about a lost child to see if they will use the store intercom to page my family.
But as I walk to the desk, I walk into the Popes who had been busying themselves in the Calippo aisle almost as if they had forgotten the ice pops were dead to us.
On the drive home, my youngest child watches Doc MacStuffins on my wife’s phone. It means we have to rely on my sense of direction rather than a mapping app, as is the way of things now, to get us home. We take a few long detours much to everyone’s delight.
On my third phoneless day, for fun, I start counting how many times I reach for it. I’m on about 54 before I get bored.
It is not news to me that I am a slave to my phone. I’ve been enslaved for donkey’s years. Sometimes I blame my job for my screen issues, knowing it’s a lie. The job I do requires some out-of-hours phone usage for sure but it’s not like I’m so important that I need to be always on.
Sometimes I blame the devices themselves for being so smart. But that’s a lie too. Ever since I got my hands on my first mobile in late 1996, I’ve been a prisoner of its seductive charms, even when those charms were limited to on-the-hoof phone calls, text messages of 140 characters or less IN CAPITAL LETTERS mainly and that snake game.
As holiday hours pass, I wonder what is happening in the world and what I am missing and try to remember the last time I went more than eight straight hours without checking my phone and what I used to do with my hands when they weren’t always holding a device. I’m pretty sure John Bruton was taoiseach and OJ Simpson was still best known as an American football player, and I have NO idea what I did with my hands.
By day four of my enforced digital detox, I’m losing patience with my liberty and have the digital equivalent of Stockholm syndrome. I don’t want to be free.
Without my phone I must carry a wallet or cash and pay attention to where I am going and how I might get home. I can’t access my finances or my fantasy football team or take pictures of my dinner or my children.
I start considering alternatives. Maybe I’ll buy a burner, I think, before remembering I’m not — in fact — in Love/Hate and am in a different country and have no idea where I would buy a burner or what I would do with it.
I move on.
No, no I don’t.
Using a computer brought on holidays for work purposes, I log on to my online banking to see how much I might have to spend on a phone. I have my password and pin number but immediately hit a roadblock. The computer screen tells me my bank has sent a code to my phone for verification. I don’t have my phone. Maybe I can call my bank, I think. But I don’t have a phone. Eventually I borrow my wife’s phone but the bank’s help desk closes at 5pm and it is now after six.
“Bloody stupid office hours,” I say and realise I am stuck on the anger stage of my grieving process.
On the fifth day I spend more time googling second hand phones in the Algarve and find a shop not a million miles from me and drive there as darkness falls. It’s in a dimly lit strip mall in a deserted industrial estate in the middle of nowhere, the kind of place murders might happen. I ask the sweating man behind the counter, a man surrounded by phones and standing under a sign that says “Phones Phones Phones” if he sells phones.
He nods. I ask if he has an iPhone and he rummages in a box while beads of sweat pour down my head. There is no air conditioning in Phones Phones Phones. Then he looks in another box. Finally he emerges from a third box. “No, no iPhones. All sold out.” He suggests an alternative. It looks like a toy my daughter would play with. Worse than that I know I’d never get my head around it so I leave, emptied handed and bereft.
The next day, I’m still phoneless and acutely aware of how often the people around me use theirs. I become increasingly curious as to the goings on on other people’s devices and super judgey. “Hmm, on your phone again,” I say the moment anyone picks up their phone, to everyone’s great joy.
Eventually everyone has enough.
“We are getting you a new phone,” my wife tells me.
I see, with creeping dread, something I’ve never seen before. The screen is intact but it is completely white. Then lines appear on it. Then it goes dark
She’s looked up the most legit looking second hand phone shop on the Algarve and drives us there. It’s more like a Harvey Norman than the hot box money laundry I’d found.
We buy an unlocked iPhone — a couple of tiers down from my own but just about grand and pay just over €200 for it. As I nervously switch the sim from my dead phone into my new living phone and watch all the apps, text messages, emails and photos magically appear on the new device, I sigh with relief and something worryingly close to joy.
I sigh so loudly I don’t hear Eircellus, the ancient god of mobile communication laughing.
Once my life is magically transferred from the heavens to my new phone I spend several hours trying to remember the various passwords I have for social media accounts and bank accounts and fantasy football accounts wishing I’d just gone with “password” for them all.
Just over 36 hours after I get my new phone, I don’t have it any more. I’d bought a cover in the shop but — wisely, I thought — decided against spending 30 quid on one and went instead for one that cost a tenner.
It is beyond useless and my new second hand phone knows it as it falls one-and-a-half feet from a sink ledge to a cold tiled floor. Frantically, I pick it up and am flooded with relief when I see the screen is intact.
Then, I see, with creeping dread, something I’ve never seen before. The screen is intact but it is completely white. Then lines appear on it. Then it goes dark.
I can’t believe it. In over two decades, I have never smashed or drowned a single phone and have now managed to destroy two in less than two days.
Phone crisis 2.0 is different. For starters, while the phone screen is dead, behind it, the phone is very much alive. I know this because it still communicates with my watch which buzzes to tell me when I have a WhatsApp or email. My watch even tells me who the message is from but won’t tell me what it says. I can’t decide whether this is better or worse than having a dead phone.
Worse, I eventually conclude as the buzzing serves as a constant reminder of what I might be missing and keeps my idiocy and my dependence on the device front and centre.
We go back to the shop from whence the phone came. The people behind the counter are lovely but explain that the phone isn’t faulty and has — in fact — been dropped from a height.
Much as I would like to, I can’t dispute this point.
We are catapulted into the bargaining phase of my grieving process but then a chink of light appears. It turns out that I took out insurance on the phone — by accident.
It also turns out after several difficult phone calls to help desks in Lisbon, that it will take 28 days for the policy to be activated and I will have to be in Portugal for that to happen.
I leave the shop phoneless and depressed. How will I survive the days ahead with no phone? Think of all the pictures I won’t take, all the WhatsApp messages from my Man United fan group looking forward to the arrival of Frenkie de Jong I will miss, the emails I won’t be able to respond to, the tweets I won’t read or send.
Time passes and then something strange happens. I find myself thinking less and less about what I don’t have. I stop instinctively reaching for a phone that isn’t there. I can check emails using the laptop and voicemails using a borrowed phone if I need to but I find myself doing that less and less.
I can’t get WhatsApp messages — although I know they are being sent but who cares. I’m on holiday and I have arrived — finally and not before time — at acceptance. I’m free from my phone and happy about it. It has been a hard lesson but one well learned.
Then, as soon as I get home, I set up another device and normal service is resumed.