Maevesdropping: overheard conversations
To mark the release of ‘Maeve’s Times’, a book of Maeve Binchy’s journalism in The Irish Times, several of our writers spent the past few days doing what Maeve used to do: earwigging on other people’s conversations and writing about it
Like many authors and newspaper columnists, the late Maeve Binchy was a compulsive and expert earwigger. “As someone who fell off a chair not long ago trying to hear what they were saying at the next table in a restaurant, I suppose I am obsessively interested in what some might consider the trivia of other people’s lives,” she once wrote.
To mark the release this week of Maeve’s Times, a collection of her journalism in The Irish Times spanning five decades, we sent our writers off to eavesdrop on the general public in the spirit of Maeve. Here’s what they overheard.
A city-centre cafe . . .
As all nosey people will be aware, optimum conditions for eavesdropping occur within a narrow range of decibel levels. Ideally, the persons overheard should be quiet enough that you know they’re not deliberately sharing their news with you. By the same token, they should be sufficiently loud that you don’t have to use specialised bugging equipment to listen in.
If the speaker has a megaphone voice, as many people still do – especially on mobile phones – it’s not really eavesdropping. It’s more like eavesnapping, to coin a phrase. Your attention is taken hostage. And it doesn’t matter how interesting the person’s news is: it’s just annoying that you’re forced to listen to it.
Of course, sometimes you can be both annoyed and interested. This happened me a while ago in a quiet Dublin cafe. Or at least it was a quiet cafe until this woman came in, roaring into a phone.
She had just made the call, but was in the process of telling the friend at the other end that she meant to ring someone else. Despite which, she carried on the conversation anyway, with the classic gambit: “You’ll never guess what happened”.
Clearly she had big news, news she was only too happy to share with the other customers. And in spite of ourselves, we were curious. Was it an engagement? A promotion? Had she won the midweek lottery? We all wanted to know, although of course we were still pretending not to have noticed her.
Then she announced triumphantly: “I’m just out of hospital. I lost the top of me finger. Got it caught in the car door.”
Having previously been merely interested, we were now all riveted. I could hear every other neck in the cafe turning to look at her finger. And it required almost military discipline on my part to keep staring at the newspaper, as if I was still reading it.
Yet I did, somehow. Not only that, but when she wrapped up the first call and made another (“You’ll never guess what happened”), I was still refusing to look at her damn finger.
In fact, I kept not looking until either she left the cafe or I did – I can’t remember which. It was rather heroic, if I say so myself. But an eavesdropper has to have principles.
A bench outside Ikea . . .
Maria struggles to answer the people who ask why her daughter’s skin is a different colour from her own. She is sitting on a bench beside the Ikea playground, watching her six-year-old daughter Jana on the swings.
She and her husband are Polish-born. Their skin is pale and slightly sallow. Their daughter’s skin is a deep coffee brown. She says she can’t stand all the questions. “Why is your daughter’s skin not white?” “What happened with your child?”
It’s not easy. They tried for 15 years to have a baby. There was the sorrow of failed assisted fertility cycles and an adoption process that went nowhere. As a last resort she and her husband paid for donated sperm. And in the end it was they who chose the colour of Jana’s skin. Their research suggested there might be more chance of success with an African donor. It worked first time.
Maria thinks of her daughter as a kind of miracle child. Of course she will tell Jana everything when she is old enough to understand. But when people ask questions she struggles to answer them. What she really wants to tell them is “I have a healthy, intelligent, beautiful daughter. Her name is Jana. What has the colour of her skin got to do with anything?”
O’Connell Bridge, Dublin . . .
The soporific silence of the morning commute is suddenly shattered by a furious cyclist wearing a brightly coloured lycra suit. “You stupid f**king pr**k. You nearly f**king killed me. What are you? Blind? Or just f**king stupid?”