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12 June 2024

Virgin Mobile by Andrea Gissdal

Wasafiri is proud to publish the 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize shortlisted pieces. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by promising new writers from all over the globe. In this fiction piece by Andrea Gissdal, the narrator's obsession with the harmful and toxic effects of mobile phones is depicted through her husband's infidelity. 

The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 1 July 2024.  Read the full guidelines and submit your work.

It was the phone. It is always the phone.  

I am not saying my husband is innocent in all of this. Far from it. But would he have had access to temptation if we had been living our comfortable, middle-aged lives in the 1980s? No.  

It was a Tuesday morning and Steven was in the shower. The Spotify playlist of rock ballads was not to my liking, so I picked up his phone to change it or maybe turn it off. Why did I open his messages? It doesn’t matter now. The picture burned itself into my retina. There was so much flesh. Soft and round and hard and firm, all at once, with small pieces of black lace stretched like ribbons across the body, like some kind of X-rated visual guide to fractions.  

I looked at the phone, and it was in my right hand, and my hand held the phone and I was aware of my heart beating and my lungs processing air like they always do, flooding my organs with oxygen in exchange for carbon dioxide and it was all ordinary, just the same, but if you had asked me to name what I was feeling I would have had to pass.  

It was more an absence of feeling. A total stillness that was so complete that it startled me when the sound of the shower stopped. With the phone still in my hand, I quickly walked down the stairs, through the kitchen and out into the garden.  

I have never been green-fingered, but in the past few years I had enjoyed creating an edible garden. The cucumbers were blossoming, and the potato leaves had punched through the ground. Wearing my garden clogs, I picked up a small trowel and walked over to the far corner by the compost and the sprouts. I made sure the phone was switched off before I buried it in the moist morning soil. It was clear to me that anything growing nearby would go to waste as the poison would seep from the device and turn everything near it into a cancer factory. But the thing is I have never liked Brussels sprouts anyway.  

My family has been riddled with cancer. The common denominator? They all use their mobile phones far too much, exposing themselves to harmful radio frequencies without a second thought. When my uncle Sirus died, he’d done nothing but play candy crush on his phone in hospice for months. I told auntie Lakshmi, but she didn’t want to hear about it. She became quite angry even when I told her she should take his phone away. The nurse walked me out that day, offering platitudes about grief changing people. It is extremely frustrating to know something that nobody wants to hear about.  

I left the house before Steven came downstairs because I knew he’d ask me if I had seen his phone and it would become a thing. I had no desire to help with the search.  

Without his phone, he couldn’t call me during the day as he normally does. I doubt he even knows my number. With mobile phones, there is no need to remember anything. But I remember the lacy flesh fraction, the visual maths. The calculation required. If you have an eight-year marriage and add one near-naked woman on a mobile phone, then subtract the phone, what is the speed of your descent into the abyss. I pull the metal shutter down in my mind to stop my thoughts from entering the space where the naked woman on my husband’s phone exists.    

That night, we had dinner in front of the TV. There was an ongoing monologue about the missing phone coming from Steven, but I did my best to ignore it. I tried to watch the detective on the screen as he searched for clues to the missing person’s case he was working. When it turned out the missing person was having an affair, I felt a short sharp cold pain like I had been stabbed with an icicle in my abdomen. My indignation would not be soothed. I felt angry that the movie had made me care about this man who cares about nothing but his own pleasure. Steven looked amused as I muttered about how he should stay missing.  

'Don’t you agree,' I demanded to know, but Steven’s agreement was unsatisfying. I didn’t feel like he meant it, and he didn’t care to persuade me that he did. 'Just watch it,' he said. 'It is just TV.'

'It isn’t just TV, it is the principle.' I was livid.  

It was several days later when I first noticed it. My right index finger felt clumsy and numb. I inspected it closely but could detect no reason for the strange lack of feeling. There were no splinters or wounds. No bruises.  

The very next day the sensation had spread to the rest of my fingers, only the thumb seemed unaffected. I studied my hand carefully and squeezed each finger systematically from the tip of the finger down to the palm. Then I did the same to my left hand and concluded there was a definite lack of feeling, or perhaps a frozen sensation, in the right hand. I couldn’t hold a pencil to do my shopping list, and driving was difficult. Somewhere in my body, an alarm bell was ringing. 

By the weekend my whole right arm was limp. I’d had to tell Steven because I couldn’t open jars or lift pots off the cooker. He was worried. 'Make an appointment with the doctor,' he’d implored. He even offered to make it for me. He had a new mobile phone by now. Virgin Mobile had been able to create a new sim card for him with his old number on the spot.  

At night, as Steven slept, I scoured the internet for articles proving the damaging effects of mobile phones. A subreddit dedicated to sharing facts about the connection between radio frequency and blood cancer proved fertile ground, and I selected the most trustworthy pieces to share with Steven in the morning.  

'Look,' I said. 'Maybe it is time we go analogue for a while. Just until the technology improves.'  

I smiled to show I knew what I was saying was a little woo-woo, but not enough to suggest it was all out crazy.   

'There are always wacky conspiracies out there,' he replied. 'I am sure if there was any truth in this, we’d hear it from the BBC. From the NHS. From Cancer Research. Not from bloody Alternative Cancer Science Centre dot net.'  

It was getting me nowhere.  

I wrote a letter to our local newspaper about the damage mobiles make to the very fabric of our society. I put an assumed name on it because I knew that in a man’s name, it would be taken more seriously. Mobile phone masts emit radiation and harmful frequencies that cause untold damage to our bodies and our environment, while our social fabric is ripped to shreds by a constant pinging, ringing and vibrating demand for attention. Human relationships fail and civilisations slide into squalor. I let it all out. I told the truth in the most urgent words I could find, but the letter was never published.  

Two weeks had passed since that morning. My arm was now numb up to the armpit and I knew a visit to the doctor would be unlikely to help. It was the toxins from Steven’s phone that had seeped into my hand that morning. Toxic in every sense; the device itself was riddled with mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lead, and bromide. Toxic radiation. And worst of all, the trigger for my current situation; toxic energies from the content on the phone; the atmospheric contamination from the deceit was manifesting as an invisible gangrene spreading through my body. Extramarital activity is known to be one of the worst, most prolific sources of harmful interpersonal pollution and here was the proof.  

Steven’s phone had fractured my reality.  

There was now a world in which my husband had strayed. My discovery of it had somehow transferred to me the responsibility of correcting it. It seemed tremendously unfair. My gradual paralysis was the tick tock of the countdown clock. If my life was a movie, I would have to cut a green wire before my entire body went into lockdown.   

Simultaneously, our ordinary life continued. We woke up, went to work, watched TV, slept together in our bed. Steven complained about the traffic, and strummed his guitar in the evenings. This layering of reality was isolating. I have never felt so alone, but I did my best to hide it.  

One day as I was getting my lunch in the M&S food hall, I had an impulse to take the escalator up to the first floor. I picked out some lacy black lingerie, as slinky as I could find. When I tried it on in the dressing room, separated from other lunchtime shoppers by nothing more than a curtain, it looked nothing like I had imagined. I felt a little nauseated as I looked at my own pallid skin being cut into chunks by the lace. In the end, I only bought the sandwich.   

Naturally, it troubled me. The intense pangs of emotion that had started to break through my numbness were frightening. They shook me like the wild hurricanes you see on the news, so frequently battering the coast of the Carolinas where they lift whole houses, cars, human lives, and scatter them like confetti. Not confetti; something less celebratory. These storms are always named after women. I thought maybe that is what I needed to do. To avoid being collateral damage, I had to become the hurricane.  

But my own personal hurricanes always vanished as suddenly as they had arrived, and with the tears wiped and makeup retouched, I had to recognise that I am not built for such grand destruction. In my later years, I had become a person who creates. With my small garden, I was a producer, a nurturer. I didn’t want to become a destroyer of worlds.  

I had felt bad about poisoning the earth with his phone, but I had acted on impulse and now the damage was done. The contaminated vegetables growing in that corner would have to go straight into the compost or maybe even in the bin to give my garden a chance to heal.  

It was Mother Nature who told me what to do. Steven and I were sitting outside in the chill of the early morning when I saw the birds. There were so many of them, all twittering away, urgently. They looked at me, and I felt sure it wasn’t just a plea for seeds; no, this was a deeper communication. There must have been ten of them, coming closer, only to retreat towards the corner of the garden where the Brussel Sprouts grow. Dragging my attention to the mobile phone burial ground, to the sprouts. Over and over until I finally understood.  

I looked over at Steven, as he smiled at something on his new phone. I knew then.  

I didn’t need to see what he was smiling at. I smiled too. Finally, I knew how to restore the balance and close the gap between the two worlds. I simply needed to send all the wickedness back to its source. Steven. Steven and his phone.    

I didn’t use a recipe. The start to any great soup is sautéed onions and garlic, followed by some homemade stock from the freezer. The sprouts were lumpy and unevenly chopped with my left hand, but the blender would make it better. I had a distant memory of reading about exploding phone batteries, so I removed it before sliding the phone I had retrieved from the garden soil into the soup. The soup was a thick, swampy green. The colour was not at all as I had imagined, and I briefly considered adding food colouring to perk it up. But I am committed to natural food, even under these circumstances. The garlic, some fresh herbs, and a pinch of cumin made the kitchen smell divine. I had to remind myself that this soup was all for Steven.  

I thought I could feel something in the tips of the fingers in my right hand. Something like pins and needles. The universe telling me I was on the right track. Tonight Steven would eat his mistakes, and my world would begin to heal.  

We sat at the table, which I had laid with extra care. There were flowers from the garden. I wore a rose print dress. 'It smells incredible,' he said. 'Did I miss our anniversary,' he joked. I smiled, but we ate in silence. I mostly nibbled the bread.  

By the time the vomiting started, feeling had returned to my right hand. When the paramedics arrived, I found I could open the door with the hand that had, until a couple of hours ago, been as flaccid as Steven’s penis.  

As the ambulance took Steven away, I dropped his new mobile phone in the bin. I have always said we need to be mindful of the dangers of mobile phones.     

The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 1 July 2024. Submit here.

Featured image by Rodion Kutsaiev on Unsplash

Andrea is a writer of many things; articles, op-eds, speeches, corporate brochures, and short author bios in third person. The person she identifies with most is Sisyphus, but instead of rolling an immense stone boulder up a hill, her eternity project is writing the novel that keeps slipping away from under her fingers. (She’ll get it one day.) Andrea lives, works and writes in the Middle East.
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