Jennifer O’Connell: My email is full of snippets of other people’s conversations

I collect snippets of strangers’ conversations like other people collect beer mats or vintage Pyrex dishes. It's not without its hazards

I’ve always been a terrible eavesdropper. Photograph: iStock

I’ve always been a terrible eavesdropper. Photograph: iStock

 

“It’s way too early to tell,” the man is saying, leaning up against a display stand as though he hasn’t a hurry in the world.

He is holding a jewelled pendant lampshade which promises, according to the description, to give your sittingroom an aura of Moroccan mystique.

I have intimate experience with obstetricians – it might be more correct to say that obstetricians have intimate experience with me – and I’m fairly sure he is not one

We are in one of those homeware stores to which Irish people are drawn on rainy Sundays, mainly because they don’t have an Ikea nearby. I am here to buy some paint, so my trolley is full of velvet scatter cushions, battery-operated tealights and good value Thermos flasks. There is no paint.

“If she is,” he goes on, propping the phone between his shoulder and his ear, as he turns his attention to the lampshade, inspecting it with surprisingly delicate fingers, “there’s no way she’s any more than four weeks”.

He puts the lampshade back down, visibly disappointed by the workmanship. “But,” he says, “there’s no belly on her yet anyway. None at all.”

I stop a few discreet feet down the aisle, now thoroughly invested in wherever this is going. I study a lampshade that I’ve no intention of buying. He is explaining to the person on the other end that the woman who might or might not be pregnant has a sister who is six weeks, “and she have a grand belly”. 

I have intimate experience with obstetricians – it might be more correct to say that obstetricians have intimate experience with me – and I’m fairly sure he is not one. Could he be the woman’s employer, speculating in this public, undignified and entirely unethical manner about her personal circumstances? I discount this on the basis that he seems at least a little enthused about the prospect of a pregnancy.

Could he be the father or – I try to sneak a closer look – the grandfather-in-waiting? He doesn’t seem quite enthused enough. Then it hits me. He’s one of those people who claims to be able to divine the baby’s sex from the shape of the bump. He is talking about a client.

My granny used to be able to do this. She also claimed she knew the instant a woman became pregnant from the shape of her mouth. I have a talent for predicting the gender of soon-to-arrive babies, based on the texture and flavour of mother’s pregnancy cravings. (Lemony, crunchy and fresh indicates a boy; sweet, doughy, creamy or moreish for a girl.) Neither of us ever charged for the service, though.

The conversation seems to have moved on to what I assume is the expected date of the new arrival.

He names a date in the spring, which seems surprisingly soon. “Then again, she could,” he says philosophically, “be wan of them b*****s that goes early”.

I am appalled. How can he talk about someone like that, on a Sunday afternoon, in full hearing of everybody? I hurry off with my trolleyload of unnecessary purchases, and the sordid shame that comes with overhearing something you really wish you hadn’t.

I’ve always been a terrible eavesdropper. I collect snippets of strangers’ conversations like other people collect beer mats or vintage Pyrex dishes. I’m hardly alone in this. There are anthropological and psychological studies which suggest we’re hardwired to eavesdrop. It’s a survival mechanism, and one not entirely devoid of nobility.

'I bought a whiteboard in Tesco and had a conversation with myself in two different colours to figure out what I was thinking. It was very helpful'

Maeve Binchy – whom I once had the privilege of meeting in a ladies’ room, and who had no idea who I was, but said exactly the right thing to me at exactly the moment I needed to hear it – was an incorrigible, expert eavesdropper. Also: without eavesdropping, Donald Trump would never have been impeached.

As a child, I perfected the art of pretending to leave a room, and then lingering around the corner. I still like to torment my father with something I heard him say on one of my covert lingering operations. “She,” he said, thinking I was safely out of earshot, and not without fondness, “has as much chance of becoming a journalist as a major in the parachute regiment”. He later claimed he knew I was listening and meant it as motivational. Either way, it did the job.

I still do it compulsively, like an auditory kleptomaniac. My email is full of snippets of other people’s conversations that I’ve sent to myself.

Ireland is the most dyslexic country in the world. I’m not even making that up.”

“It’s only a circus with clowns trying to run it.”

“I bought a whiteboard in Tesco and had a conversation with myself in two different colours to figure out what I was thinking. It was very helpful.”

“How are things going between the two of you?” “Arra sure, not good. Marriage is a tough institution.” (They were two men in their late 70s and it was all I could do not to interrupt with a few questions of my own.)

Eavesdropping is not without its hazards, though. It is only when I’m pulling out of the carpark – a Moroccan inspired lampshade that I genuinely had no intention of buying in the boot – that I realise he was talking about a greyhound.

joconnell@irishtimes.com

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