The Overheard Conversation

There you are, waiting for a bus. Sitting on a train. Or sittting at the doctor's surgery.Your mind begins to wander. Someone's voice catches your attention. They aren't speaking to you. Actually, you don't know to whom they are talking. Nevertheless something about their tone, the pace of their words, the animation in their manner, or the conspiratorial quietness of their whisper that draws you in. You don't really want to listen in. You know you shouldn't. But then you know you really shouldn't watch The Only Way Is Essex and yet, when you accidentally encounter it while late-night channel-hopping, there's just something compelling that prevents you from turning off. And the same thing stops you from not hearing the conversation that's taking place just behind you. I don't think there's really any need to feel ashamed (although if you are in the doctor's surgery you might want to avert your ears for the sake of both privacy and your own comfort's sake). But it's human nature. After all we all like to people watch. This is just the auditory version. Besides which, if someone insists on having that conversation in a public place, and at a level audible to complete strangers several seats away, there's very little you can do. Much as you might wish for one, there is no 'off-switch' for real life. 

Many such conversations, of course, take place on a telephone.  In which case you will only hear one side of the conversation, allowing your imagination to go into overdrive. Usually, the conversation is banal: "I'm on the train …", pretentious: "No, I can't – I'm going to Persephone's recital" or just plain embarrassing: "All right, Peach Blossom, Love you! Mwah! Mwah!"

But sometimes the conversation is something you really wish you hadn't heard. Because people will discuss, openly and very loudly, the intimate details of their (or someone else's) court cases, sex lives or diseases. Now, personally, when I'm out and about I don't even like discussing the details of my shopping list within earshot of other people, but perhaps that's just me. Because, judging by some of the conversations I've overhead of late, there is just no such thing as privacy any more. Or at least a large proportion of the population doesn't need it.

A few years ago I was using the public toilets in a shopping mall in the U.S. The location might not be relevant, then again, when I tell you the rest of the story it might make more sense. There I was … well, in the interests of my privacy and decency I won't go into details about that … let's just say I was reapplying my lipstick, when I could hear a woman nattering on her mobile phone. She was a bit of a hippy type. All flowing skirts, sandals and no makeup. Not that I'm criticising her for this – I'm just trying to help you conjour up the image. Anyway, she was discussing some type of herb with the person on the other end of the phone. And then, quite out of nowhere she announced loudly: "Hang on honey, I'll just get the handbook out. I'll look under 'wombs'". I wondered whether the person she was speaking to, presumably a woman, knew that she was about to discuss her most intimate issues in the public bathrooms of the largest shopping mall in Las Vegas. I'm sorry to say that I can't share her undoubted wisdom with you today because I didn't hear the end of the conversation. To be honest, I couldn't get out of there quick enough. 

Some things just shouldn't be discussed in public in the first place. A few years ago, while sitting on a train I was party to what I considered a terrible breach of confidentiality. A woman seated across the table from me, who I assumed to have been a social worker, was discussing several cases of child custody with her colleage. She was doing this, rather loudly, on her mobile phone. And she was discussing them in enough detail that had I (or anyone else in that carriage) wanted to track down the families concerned, it would have taken only minimal effort. It was as if I, and the rest of my fellow passengers, were simply not there. It was horrible.

Thankfully most of the overheard conversation we encounter are less awkward.  And, particularly when you can hear both sides of the conversation – when all participants are nearby – the overheard conversation can be one of the most wonderful free entertainments around. The things you hear people discuss can be quite astonishing. I was recently an unwilling party to a deep and meaningful conversation about the merits of the country's 'best' Wetherspoons pubs and a debate about the best way to reach each one. 

One conversation of a couple of weeks back, which I admit I could hear only sporadically, really made me smile. Two men were debating the way of the world, and how to put all its ills to rights. Those chaps covered everything. From the universal worries about the economy and the relative merits (or demerits as it happened) of both the Chancellor and the Shadow Chancellor to their rather predictable solutions for the problems which 'that immigration' had brought. With the not original idea of  'bringing back chain gangs' as a solution to repeated criminality and the extraordinary 'It wouldn't have happened if Winston Churchill had still been in charge' filling in the gaps. 

On the bus a few weeks ago I was listening in to a rather refined couple deciding what to do with the family heirlooms as they planned their downsizing.The debate turned to the topic of the antique fur coat that the wife no longer wanted. The husband was confused. He thought his wife had "sent that to Oxfam weeks ago". She had planned to, apparently. After all, she no longer wore it. She had been unwilling to advertise it for sale for fear of "upsetting people". I didn't think I'd ever heard of animal rights activists attacking people for selling 40-year-old fur coats. Mind you, I once know someone who knew someone who was a vegan. He scoured charity shops to buy up fur coats and give them a proper burial. Whatever her motivation, the woman on the bus felt that she ought to at least offer it to her grown up-daughter before consigning it to the charity shops. The husband was clearly perturbed by this turn of events. He wasn't sure "Fiona" would appreciate it. The wife was convinced. It was her daughter's "right". After all, everything else would be left to her daughter after her own death. Why shouldn't she hand the coat over now? The husband persisted. "I'm just not sure she'll want it anywhere near her, darling."

"Why ever not?" queried his surprised wife.

"She reads The Guardian."

Enough said.

Sometimes, of course, the conversations you over hear can prove rather alarming. An actress friend tells of the time she was working in pantomime in Sunderland. She had digs at a flat in a run-down area of the city. One morning, she heard one neighbour asking another:"Did you manage to get the blood off the car?". I suspect she was glad she didn't have reason to know the full details of that one! And we've probably all had those moments when we wonder just how bad things can be. Many years ago my family and I were holidaying in Florida. Late one steamy night we were just dozing off when we heard a commotion coming from the room next door. Two people. One male, one female began shouting at each other. The row got louder and louder until you could hear every word of it through the bedroom wall.  "You were nothing til you met me!",  "And without me you're nobody!"  And so it went on. Who were these people? Were they famous? Probably not since we were in a budget hotel, but you never know … A door slammed. Twice. We debated whether to call the cops right away, or just wait for the first gunshot. Then we wondered whether a bullet fired towards someone in the next room go through them and then through the wall separating our room and theirs? We peeped out of the door and onto the corridor. Nothing untoward. We did wait a while before deciding it was safe to switch off the light and risk nodding off. We and, with no mass police presence visible come morning, our holidaying neighbours, survived the night intact and we wondered whether our imaginations might have played us for fools.

Because that's the problem when you're ear-wigging. With no actual firm facts to put things into context, it's all too easy to allow your imagination to have you on. Just ask my parents. Standing in the check-in queue at an airport several years ago believed they were over-hearing the unmasking of an adulterer and the ultimate breakdown of a relationship as the couple behind them in the queue argued about the suspicious behaviour of the woman and her whereabouts the night before. After a few minutes of uncomfortably trying not to listen, they sneaked a look behind to discover, much to their amusement, that the warring couple were, in fact, running lines from a play. I've often wondered just how many people find themselves accused of all manner of heinous crimes simply because of something a well-meaning 'witness' though they were listening to. And I've wondered just what impression my overheard conversations give of me.

Just in case you think I'm a terrible person for listening in, I'm really not. And if you're worried I might just have repeated the details of your private conversation, keep the volume down next time, eh?