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?”
The man’s high-end racing bike has been left, wheels spinning, on the chock-a-bloc quays, and his face has turned an alarming shade of purple. Were he to have a stroke now it would hardly come as a surprise to the crowd of delighted onlookers who have missed the pedestrian lights on O’Connell Bridge for a second time so they can watch the spectacle.
The gridlocked taxi driver he’s shouting at mimes what looks suspiciously like a mock apology. It doesn’t appease the cyclist. Not remotely.
“You just f**king swerved right in f**king front of me... Did you not bother to even look? What is wrong with you? Well buddy I’m going to get the guards on to you. I have your f**king number. Do you know that? I have your number.”
He points at the taxi plate triumphantly and pauses before putting the word “pr**k” where the full stop normally goes.
The taxi driver rolls down his window. Slowly.
“You have my number? That’s great. Give me a call sometime, we’ll go on a date.”
He smiles, rolls his window back up, rounds the bike and drives off down the quays leaving the angriest man in the city to gawp like a goldfish before solemnly picking up his bike and continuing on his journey.
Health Centre, waiting room . . .
Woman 1: “None of me close friends did. Cos like, when you’re young as well you think: Oh God. Scarlet, kind of. Do you know what I mean?”
Woman 2: “No, I’ll stick to the bottles. My sister was the first one to do it and stopped because of the soreness of the chest. It was just too much hassle. Definitely not.”
Woman 1: “Did your mother do it?”
Woman 2: “In them days it wasn’t out, I don’t think.”
Woman 1: “I wouldn’t do it now to be honest with you. There’s certain places for certain things, do you know what I mean like? Like, I’ve seen people do it in Penneys and stuff like. I think that’s a bit out of order like.”
Woman 2: “Having to breastfeed the baby in public like. Things like that I just wouldn’t be into it, so I’d rather just like, have the bottle and go. People wear the ponchos and stick the baby underneath it, which you see coloured people doin’, which, I’d still feel embarassed. Just stick to the bottles and go.”
Southside cafe, Dublin . . .
Woman 1: “Friday afternoon, I was late meeting someone in town. I said sorry, I couldn’t get past all the Clare fans. Temple Bar is mobbed.”
Woman 2: “Oh hang on this happened to me too.”
Woman 1: “And he goes ‘Clare fans?’ And I said yeah, ‘Clare fans, they’re everywhere. They’ve taken over the Oliver St John Gogarty.’”
Woman 2: “The same thing happened me on Harcourt Street. I thought fair play to them, they’re really making a weekend out of it, starting the party early even though the match isn’t till Sunday.”
Woman 1: “And he goes ‘You’re joking right?’ Then he looks at me and says ‘No you’re serious.’ And I said ‘Blue and yellow is Clare isn’t it?’”
Woman 2: “I was looking at about 20 of them passing my office and thinking, God they’re awful good-looking ...”
Woman 1: “... and tall ...”
Woman 2: “... yeah, for fellas from Clare. Just what I was thinking.”
Woman 1: “And I think, what’s with all the long blond hair.”
Woman 2: “Blow-dried! Clare men don’t look after themselves to that extent. In my experience.”
Woman 1: “And the guy I was meeting goes ‘You feckin’ eejit. They’re the Swedes.’”
Woman 2: “I had that experience exactly. Mortifying.”
Macy’s Department Store, Manhattan . . .
“That girl has 99 problems and one of them is ugly,”said one pneumatic woman behind the counter to the other and of course I wanted to hear more but, for once, there was no queue at the till. That’s highly unusual at Macy’s because, even when a department has tumbleweed rolling through it, the minute you go to pay, a crowd gathers just ahead of you and chances are the person directly in front is returning everything they bought last week and buying it back at the sale prices, with additional coupons. It’s the American way.
No-one is going to hurry anyone in search of a discount but this time I was first in line and in no hurry to leave, it being 38 degrees outside.
“Well, I told her, I actually told her to her face ...” the other said, as they faced each other, just inches away from where I stood, now, stroking the jeans on the counter, then holding them up, as if still deciding, all the while wondering who could deserve such a withering.
Then, sensing rather than seeing me, one of them reached sideways and, with her bendy day-glo orange fingernails, clipped the jeans off the hanger, and scanned the ticket.
“They’re a great colour, aren’t they?” I said, elbow on the counter, trying to make friends. “Lady,” she said, still locking eyes with her friend, “They’re $14.95 down from $79.95 and that’s all you need to know.”
Open-air cafe, Mullingar . . .
Red-faced fat man, eating fish and chips. Slim grey woman arrives.
“How are you Christy? What are you eating?”
“Fish,” he says. “Will you have some?”
“No. I’m a vegetarian,” Slim Woman says: “I don’t eat fish.”
“Ok,” he says.
“And what are you doing in town, Christy?” she asks.
“I was looking for another instrument,” he says.
“Are you still at the music?”
“Anyway,” says he, “the thing about instruments is they’re all Chinese now.”
“No. It’s great,” he insists. “You see I was Googling a medieval instrument on the net. Lovely piece of equipment but very rare. Early 1700s. Last one was made in Europe in 1780. And what am I going to tell you? The Chinese are making them now, and shipping them from Shanghai. Isn’t that mad?”
“I’ll have a cup of tea with you,” she says.
“You look tired,” says Christy.
“I’m exhausted,” she says. “It’s the windmills. The fracking was depressing enough. But the windmills is a nightmare.”
“Have a few chips,” he says again.
“I’m a vegetarian,” says she.
And then there’s a pause.
“D’ye know what you should do?” he says.
What? She wonders.
“Buy a banjo.”
The Liffey boardwalk
Three young men are sitting on the bench, a woman has just handed them something and is then joined by a fourth man who appears to be overseeing the transaction.
Woman: “Nice one boys, yeah?”
Man 1: “See ya love.”
Woman: (To fourth man, both walking away) “They’re Irish boys.”
Passing man they are acquainted with: “Here, give us your lighter.”
Man 1: “How much did you pay for that [jacket]?”
Passing man: “Off a foreign fella in one of the camping shops.”
Man 1: “Cos there’s this yoke, this place down there. 50 per cent off everything. All top of the range stuff, ya know? A T-shirt €110, now it’s €55.”
The man walks on and the three seated men start talking about a charity shop.
Man 1: “You know where the old labour is? Where the playground is? We got, eh, a Ralph Lauren, those jeans everyone loves – G-Star. All top of the range. They all look brand new yeah, but three of them were brand new. My Da went in there and bought a tray, €2. You know how much he got for it? One hundred and sixty something. My Da would spot an antique a mile off, growing up in a dump. I broke into Croke Park years ago and took a Dublin jersey off the wall, all the names on it, 1960something. I gave it to my Da for Father’s Day. I told him where I got it. Sure my Da’s a robbing bastard.”
Man 2 to Man 3: “Are you on the low dose?”
Man 3: “I was on the low dose.”
Man 2: “Yer man gives you lots of time.”
Man 1: “Ah yeah. I’d have a good yap with him. He doesn’t talk to you like an addict. He talks to you like he talks to his boss, know what I mean?”
Man 3 to Man 2: “What’s your name again, bud?”
Man 1: “See if you told me a thing, I’d forget it a minute later.”
Man 2: “That’s ADHD that is. Attention deficit disorder.”
Passing tourist: “Excuse me, can I borrow your lighter?”
Maeve’s Times is published by Hachette Ireland and edited by Roísín Ingle of The Irish Times