As I waited on the platform for the next tube train to arrive I heard an incongruous sound. A telephone, ringing echoes around the circular tunnel. A proper old-fashioned ring too, not a bleeping electronic tone, easily confused with a half-hearted fire alarm. The tunnel amplified the sound, making the echoes sound eerily hopeless and desperate. No one along the platform batted an eyelid. Everyone stood, awaiting the train, plugged into iPods, lost in their own thoughts. Did anyone else wonder who was calling? Or who they were trying to contact?
There must be millions of phones in the city; landlines in homes and offices and shops, mobile phones in pockets and handbags, phoneboxes dotted along our streets. The older, large, red Tardis-like phoneboxes are London icons. I cannot count the number of foreign tourists I have seen gingerly posing with a filthy receiver to their ear amongst the colourful postcards of hookers and mini-cabs, while a friend snaps a souvenir photo. Some must ring a hundred times a day, while others may not have rung for years.
I have heard an ancient wall-mounted phone ring deep beneath the city in a disused Underground station, below Mayfair. There were only three of us down there, wandering through bunkrooms and typing pools once used by Churchill's Cabinet during World War II. We looked at one another - no one knew we were there, and we were not exactly expecting any calls underground. Expecting a misfiring call-centre, one of us answered with a surprised and bemused "Hello?". There was someone there, a real person on the end of the phone - and they seemed as surprised to have got hold of a disused Underground station as we were to have had our hushed exploration interrupted by that obtrusive ringing.
A couple of days ago I walked past a new phonebox; its glass door and windows were shattered all over the pavement. Inside the phone was ringing. Is someone trying to get hold of me? Following me around London by public phone? The plots of numerous thriller films fly through my paranoid, and overactive, imagination.
Returning home this evening to my original tube station, where I first heard the ghostly phone, I emerge into the ticket hall. The familiar sound of London rain greets me. As I rummage in my bag for my umbrella I hear a second sound. The phone is still ringing, now echoing out onto Caledonian Road, down to the bus-stop and across to Tesco. On and on the bell rings, over and over. I splosh out into the rain and head home. The caller keeps on ringing into the dark, soggy night...