Whomst, in this extremely online age, would dare to live without a smartphone? Who are the souls immune to the lure of the Social Media Scroll? Who are the ones navigating, Google Map-free, all of life’s twists and turns?
I know only one such person, and she can be found in the back streets of London’s Finsbury Park. Sixty-one-year-old Kim – also known as ‘my mum’ – has had the same phone for nearly a decade now. A battered, pay-as-you-go Blackberry with no data or wifi compatibility. Picked up on a whim from a clearance shelf in Tesco, it exists only to receive calls and text messages, which it announces intrusively with loud, blood-curdling chimes.
My mum’s typical interaction with the device goes as follows: pick it up, bring it up close to her face (necessary, as the screen is the size of a small grape) and squint at it suspiciously for several minutes. After struggling to read whatever the notification was, she gets bored, puts it down, and carries on with her day.
This obstinacy makes text conversations between us almost impossible. My mum isn’t part of any WhatsApp family chats, has absolutely zero social media presence, and refuses to waste credit on non-urgent messaging. She has no idea what an emoji is, or why anyone would choose to communicate with one. The only way we speak is via a phone call or through emails, which are sent when she’s at home and on her laptop.
By now, we have a firmly established routine. I call her to check in every day or two, and if I don’t, I generally receive the same email at around 10PM. With very few exceptions, they always follow this template:
“Are You OK”
“Are you okay?”
“Are you OK XX”
“are you okay”
There is rarely an email subject, greeting, or follow-up question. Simply the same three words – ‘are you okay’ – in various guises.
For context, my mum and I are an extremely – and probably unusually – close unit. She is both my favourite woman in the world, and my entire family. She brought me up on her own in London, with a mind-boggling amount of skill, savvy and care. We’ve spent decades laughing, crying, screaming and mourning together (as well as bitching, consoling and lobbing furniture at each other). Partners, step-siblings and extended family members may have come and gone over the years, but we have always been each other’s closest and most constant.
Which is why, if she doesn’t hear from me for a day, she’ll always send me that same email. Her justifications for this overbearing behaviour are always quite similar, and usually centred around death. ‘A terrorist attack happened in London last month, there could be another at any point!’ ‘You cycle in London, and young professional women die doing that all the time!’ ‘People are getting stabbed. Have you been stabbed??’ ‘Watch out for teens on mopeds, they have acid in their coats!’
The emails come with such reliability that I now get worried when I don’t receive one. They’re almost comforting. The notifications appear on my screen like a gentle slap in the face, telling me that I’m getting too self-involved, and should probably give her a ring (I remain incredibly self-involved, but at least end up doing the latter). They also come with an additional smack of guilt, as they remind me that I’m not giving her the time she deserves – which hits harder as I get older, busier and more distracted.
Recently, I watched my boyfriend patiently try and explain the benefits of having an iPhone to my mum, using WhatsApp – “like email, but faster” – as an example. Her expression was blank. “Why would I need that?” He didn’t really have an answer, so started talking about Google Maps instead. Her expression remained the same.
To my mum’s credit, though, she’s at least getting more original with her emails. Last week, she sent me a photo of a fox she feeds in her garden, which she had edited on Microsoft Paint to look like a Vogue cover (the fox, she says, has a beautiful face and should be a model). Again, this surreal picture was sent to me with no accompanying greeting or note.
But by now, and after everything we’ve been through, they’re not really needed.