I love eavesdropping. It’s why I enjoy going out by myself so much. I like to sit somewhere comfortable, busying myself with a cup of coffee while listening to others talking. Perhaps it’s a consequence of growing up as the youngest where nobody much spoke to me and I was mostly left to my own devices. Adult voices were always swirling around in the background. There’s something soothing, child-like, about having people speaking in one’s vicinity without them making any demands on one.
However, it’s even more enjoyable to eavesdrop if the conversation is interesting. I don’t make this a requirement of my eavesdropping on others but do feel compelled, when somebody is listening in on my conversation, to make what I say more scintillating. It’s only fair. I have been known to shout out a word like ‘masturbatory’ (in context, of course) or ‘it went where?’ merely to amuse somebody sitting less than half a metre away. I regard it as my civic responsibility, a kind of fellow-eavesdropper’s secret society.
But eavesdropping is not without its perils. The other day I was making tea in the kitchen and Jacob was hanging with a friend in the dining room. I use the word ‘hanging’ in its most literal sense. This eight-year-old friend of his, a sweet sandy-haired boy, is driven by a need to climb objects. If a tree is in his path, he will ascend it. Ditto a curtain. Or a table. He was hanging upside down from something or other while Jacob was rummaging around in the drawers of an old cupboard.
‘Hey, guess who this is?’ he said, turning to the feet of the friend to show him a photograph.
‘Eh.’ Eight-year old boys are not particularly interested in the family relics of their friends.
‘It doesn’t look like her at all,’ said Jacob. ‘But she says it is her.’
I charged through to the dining room. (Don’t let it be said that I don’t move fast in an emergency.) ‘What you showing him?’ The photograph was of me on holiday, slim, hands on hips, sun bronzing my hair, aged 23. ‘That is me. I was just much younger then.’ I glared at my son before pushing the photograph back into the drawer. I went back to the kitchen to finish my tea, closing the door between us.
Sometimes, it has to be said, silence is golden, and other people’s conversations are far more trouble than they’re worth.