In Ireland in the 70s and early 80s you could “tap” public phones if you knew how. I became an expert because I never seemed to have the 2p I needed to call home. (Tuppence. Was that all it was? Maybe by then it was 10p. Whatever it was, I never had it.)
The phones at my school in Dublin were in the lobby, two heavy rotary dial monstrosities on the wall. I’d tap out the eight, the six, the three, and the five of our phone number on the off-hook button, and then dial the 9 and the 1. If you kept the rhythm steady, with just the right time in between each tap of the off-hook button, you could dial any number free. Nines and ones rang through without having to be tapped, for some reason. I seem to remember 0s did too. I guess they’d have to, because it would be hard to tap a number that couldn’t be signified physically on the off-hook button. Since my phone number had a nine and a one at the end, I only had to tap four numbers, and getting through was fairly easy.
I remember tapping the phone the day I called my (step) dad by his given name for the first time. I called him just so that I could say, “Hello, Nathan. This is Adah.” I wanted to imagine his face, the hesitation in his response as he recognized the significance of my refusal to call him Dad. As I lifted the receiver and began tapping, my heart pounded so hard that I messed up the first tap and had to redo it. When he finally answered the phone and I said my piece, he didn’t hesitate. “Yes?” he said expectantly, waiting for me to explain to him why I had rung. I hadn’t thought through what I was going to say next, so I muttered something about a field trip and hung up.
I was 16 that day. I called him Nathan, his given name, for four or so years, until the night I got pallatic drunk the evening before I was supposed to fly back to the U.S. I’d been staying there for six months, having met my biological father, an American who was charming and cruel in equal measure. When I came back to Ireland for Christmas six months later, I didn’t want to go back to the U.S. I had to, though. Three months earlier, with the impetuousness of youth, and still enamored of the biological father who hadn’t at that time unleashed his venom, I had insisted that my mother ship my Jack Russell terrier dog, Betsy, to the U.S. I couldn’t bring her back to Ireland without a six-month quarantine, and I couldn’t force such a fate on her.
On my last night in Ireland, I got drunk unwittingly, desperate not to return to the States, helpless with the knowledge that I had to go because I couldn’t abandon my dog. That night, my dad came into my room, sat on my bed, told me about the first time he got drunk, and then said, with his usual reserve, “You always have a home here. If you don’t want to be there, you can always come back here.”
Somehow he knew the real reason why I’d drunk so much too much. I hadn’t said a word, but he knew.
I did go back to the States. I did stay, desperately homesick for years, but sustained by my little Jack Russel. And from that day on, I called my dad “Daddy” again. If I’d known how to tap American phones, I would have called home just to tell him that I loved him. Since I didn’t, I never did tell him. Maybe he knew anyway, just because I called him Dad.