Distorte is a collection of stories written by Pierce Gleeson

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A New Phone

The one thing that needed to be saved, I had decided, was the video of my father being killed. The rest I would happily lose. Dozens of photos of our dead dog, disappeared cats, two apartments I lived in for three years each and would never see again. My cousin, angelically blond, presenting a chain of daisies as long as himself. He is a teenager now, no longer angelic, no longer meeting my eye at family gatherings. I would happily forget it all if I could just keep the grainy, two-minute footage of my father’s last minutes.

The boy at the phone shop counter was less help even than I’d braced myself for. He held the squat lump of my mobile on his open palm, looking down at it with something approaching interest, though not authoritative interest. He neither spoke nor made to examine the object beyond staring at its inert presence in his hand. A tall, pale teenager with an indifferent aura. His uniform was a shiny, black button shirt and a tie in the corporate red of the shop’s service provider.

It’s dead, I told him again. It’s dying. It gives ten minutes of life, fully charged, before abruptly switching itself off. It does the same thing when plugged in. He shrugged, turning the phone over as though the answer might be engraved on its rear casing. It’s old, he said. How old is this? Amusement in his voice. Eight years, I answered. The device, once black, has rubbed to grey over almost all of its clamshell surface. Slivers of chromed plastic have long since fallen away, revealing them to be entirely aesthetic additions. The battery case is held in place with sellotape. One half of the hinge has snapped, leaving the screen hanging at an angle when the phone is open. It’s old. He nodded, displaying satisfaction at having diagnosed the issue. You won’t repair this, he said. These guys don’t even make phones anymore. I explained: I don’t want to repair it. I just want to get the content off it. There was a cable, once, for that. I lost it. I never used it. The boy sniffed and shrugged. He offered to call the service provider, but could not elaborate on how that might help me. He offered the use of their computer to search the Internet.

At home I hunted again through strange and suspicious-looking electronics sites, eventually locating a second-hand cable that was described as fitting my mobile. It arrived a week later, and immediately I peeled away the black electric tape that had long covered the phone’s socket and tried to attach the cable. I had to use a fork tine to pry a clump of pocket dust from the oblong hole, but after doing so the cable jack slipped in smoothly. The other end went into my laptop, but I could not get the computer to react to the phone or vice versa. I downloaded dozens of pieces of software and firmware, each hinting that they would negotiate some understanding between the devices, but nothing had any effect.

The phone was a relatively expensive and relatively modern one when I bought it almost a decade ago. Even then I held a half-notion that it would last—that it was worth spending money on something that would last. It featured a pea-sized camera lens recessed behind thick plastic, and was capable of taking small, oddly-exposed photos and even a few minutes of stuttering video footage.

I snapped the majority of photos the phone ever took in its first three months. After that the novelty of having an extremely poor camera in my pocket wore off, and the various ancillary functions of the mobile were slowly forgotten. From time to time I used it as a visual memory aid, but never to record anything of consequence. Never intentionally.

My father in the garage, standing at the table, facing me, half-silhouetted by the pebbled glass windows behind him. He is demonstrating his new wine degasser, and has asked me to film the moment. His current practice is to video or photograph every tiny step in his home brewing process—a habit made possible by the fancy touchscreen phone he has recently acquired and surprisingly mastered. But this weekend he has left the phone in his office and, seemingly on a whim, asks me to film with mine instead. I snap it open and begin recording in a piece of careless appeasement, thinking as I do so that he will never, ever ask to see the footage again. In the opening seconds of the video he takes the small medical vacuum he acquired from his doctor cousin and attaches its hose to the airlock at the top of the twenty litre glass carboy. The vessel is almost half filled with a yellow elderflower wine. Much later I learn that this was the reason for what happened next; had the carboy been near full it would likely have been perfectly safe to operate on. My father starts the vacuum, and almost instantly the wine fills with minute bubbles as the gas is drawn out. Catch that, he says. Catch that. His voice excited. He leans down to put his ear against the glass, listening, I think, for the sound of the bubbles. As his head approaches the jug it shatters with a single loud noise. My father disappears as I rear backwards and raise my arm that holds the camera. There is a sound of raining glass, and I remember at this point the wet torrent of wine falling onto my shoes. Holy shit, my father says, as the camera finds him again. He’s standing right where he was. Holy shit. Did you get that? I got it, I shout, exhilarated. I was filming. My father is grinning at me, wide-eyed with fright and amusement. He reaches up, without any significant change in expression, and puts probing fingers to the side of his head. Dad, I say, as he turns slightly. It’s almost impossible to make out on the phone’s small screen, but there’s a three-inch shard of glass protruding from just behind his ear. Almost no blood, in that moment. That came later. Still smiling, my father’s knees fold and the lens pitches back again, and I’m shouting. Dad. Dad. Dad.

In the end I simply filmed the video playing on my dying phone’s screen with the camera of its replacement, trying to hold them both perfectly still for the two minutes of footage. The rerecording is watchable, though significantly degraded. The sound is even worse. Of course, the original still works, although barely, and has been hidden with its charger in a desk drawer amongst my paper records and other disused technology. The new phone—a compact, smooth computer that demands connection to my laptop every other day—will never suffer the same isolated end. It sits already half in the ether. Its memory is an abstract concept, existing both on the phone and in a dozen scattered places I do not fully comprehend. The photos and the film displayed on its screen will never belong entirely to the device, and as it weathers and finally expires I need fear nothing for its records. This, while ultimately reassuring, makes the phone itself feel impermanent. Strangely insubstantial. This extends, oddly, to the files I keep on it. Memories captured, then diluted. The old phone—the unity of the plastic lump and the moments it held—was a thing I understood. I still carry the footage of the garage in my front left pocket, but it weighs close to nothing now. This should come as some relief, I know.

Written by Pierce Gleeson
Posted on the 02 Apr, 2013