Five Girls on the Switchboard

Kurt Schwitters, ‘Five Girls on the Switchboard’
in `Englische Prosa’, Kurt Schwitters Das Literarische Werke, Vol 3
(Cologne, Du Mont Verlag, 1975)
First published: 1942

Five girls were sitting at their respective switchboards speaking about things in general including things which irritate.
After a short interval, in which the fourth girl didn’t know whether she should tell her story or not, she said: ‘Often I fall in love with a voice, a voice which I hear on the line without knowing what the man looks like. Sometimes in such a case I made an appointment and was often very disappointed with the appearance of my new friend.’
At this moment there came a call, and when the fifth girl answered, the caller heard the laughter coming from the exchange. ‘That must be a good one’, he said, ‘would you like to tell me the joke?’—‘Not now’, the fifth girl answered, ‘let’s make an appointment for tomorrow.’ The caller fixed a house, and then he asked to be put through to a high officer.
‘Will you really meet this gentleman?’, asked the third girl.
‘Of course not’.

This short story, written when Schwitters was resident in Bayswater, London, is one of his few prose pieces in English. Schwitters’ partner, Edith Thomas, known as Wantee because she was always asking him if he wanted tea, worked on the Marks & Spencer switchboard in London. The five women in this short piece gossip, swap stories of past and present lovers, and fantasise about those at the end of the line.

by Natalie Ferris