Ellen’s Week | ALL EARS

Eavesdropping ... the late Maeve Binchy used it to her advantage, and now Ellen's at it, mainly in her garden by all accounts!

The late Maeve Binchy loved to do it and mined it to great advantage for the stories she wrote. Snatches of overheard conversation, in restaurants, on buses, pretty much anywhere public, gave her an insight into people that served her well in her prodigious writing career.

I’ve been doing a bit of eavesdropping myself over the past couple of years. Not in any clandestine manner, I hasten to add. It’s been happening in my garden mostly, but I haven’t been skulking in the bushes, listening to what people passing by are saying.

The road past our house is one that’s popular with walkers and cyclists. They come up through our village onto the road through two large pillars. It has all the appearances of a small private road but is, in fact, a well used thoroughfare and the link to the next town over.

The house is screened by large trees and an enthusiastic hedge that no amount of pruning will control so people seem to be somewhat unaware of our presence. So when I’m out in the garden, which is as often as possible, I am often privy to the conversations of others passing by outside. They can’t see me and so have no need to be guarded. It’s fascinating. I’ve overheard all sorts of things.

The problem is that I don’t usually get all of the story as they pass beyond the garden, out of earshot. That can be really frustrating, like the time I was down on my hands and knees behind the hedge dead-heading flowers and two women went by, talking about their friend. She who apparently was going for a tummy tuck without her husband’s knowledge or approval. I was all ears.

The woman, one told the other, was in the process of getting a new kitchen fitted in their house and she had inflated the price to her husband by the six thousand euro she needed for the surgery. This was just too interesting! I had to know more! I remained crouched down as I scuttled along the length of the garden, trying to keep up with them without them seeing me.

When I got to the end, I had to fight the urge to race out the gate, and walk alongside them to hear the rest. When was the op being done I wanted to know? Would her husband discover her sneaky plan to finance it? And how did she think he wouldn’t notice she’d had it done?

Actually, never mind that last bit. She’d probably get away with it alright. It’d be different if it was a boob job.

Another day, three cyclists were being disparaging, to say the least, about a colleague of theirs, who had left them behind as he raced on ahead. They stopped for a water break just beyond the front of our house and I could hear them clearly. Yer man was a) A ponce; b) A Lycra-clad ponce at that; c) A braggart; d) A cheat; e) Probably on steroids. I learned a valuable lesson that day on the danger of injudicious remarks. You never know who’s listening!

A man and a woman were talking about their wayward daughter as they passed by one day last summer, walking their dog. Our dog was out with me in the garden that day and, detecting the presence of another animal, stuck her head out through the hedge to investigate.

Afraid that she’d see the other canine as an interloper in her domain and get into a fight, (she’s very territorial) I went to grab her but at that moment she plunged through the hedge, dragging me, head and shoulders, through it too. The couple were startled, their conversation stopped abruptly.

I greeted them with as casual a ‘hello’ as I could muster before disappearing back through the hedge. I would never know whether the teen that was a handful was to be dispatched to her auntie’s for the summer to get her away from her friends of bad influence. Damn.

Two women out walking one evening were discussing one of their work colleagues, whom I gathered, had a body odour problem. They were discussing how best this delicate matter could be broached. I was walking parallel to them back up along the driveway that evening with an armful of washing from the line. Having also had to contend with such a problem earlier on in my working life, I had advice I could have usefully shared, but I didn’t think it appropriate to pop my head out and put my tuppenceworth in.

Those who do catch a glimpse of our house as they go by, often pass remarks about it which I’ve heard while out in the garden or upstairs in a bedroom that has a window overlooking the road. Usually they are complimentary which is just as well because I’m not sure I’d be able to stop myself from answering if they were in any way disparaging.

Restaurants, as Maeve Binchy knew, are good places to eavesdrop. I found that out for myself last Saturday night when himself and myself were out for dinner. The restaurant was busy and so tables were squeezed close. I couldn’t keep from listening in to conversation from the next table.

I was seated with my back to the couple which somehow made it all the more interesting. I got nosier as their conversation went along. They were on a first date! I’d seen them come into the room and both seemed around the same age as myself. No spring chickens in other words. So I was fascinated to hear what passed for first date conversation these days.

I soon formed the view that he was trying too hard. He was talking too much and trying to impress. She on the other hand, seemed to be the more well read, well travelled and wiser all round. She’d didn’t name drop like he did. He acted officiously around the waiting staff. I don’t know about her, but that annoyed the hell out of me.

My partner, finally realising that he had an awful lot less than my undivided attention, wanted to know why I was listening to their conversation so intently. I whispered to him what was going on and ventured my view that it wasn’t going well  and it wasn’t likely there’d be a second date. He told me to stop listening and mind my own business. I tried but decided I was right when I saw them get up and head out while we were still on dessert. I’d have given him more hope if they’d lingered longer.

The best place of all for eavesdropping, I have found, is the women’s toilets in pubs and hotels. Conversations get more honest, more open and quite frankly far more interesting as the evening wears on and the alcohol takes effect. Priests hearing confession aren’t privy to a quarter of the stuff that women confess to one another after a few drinks. It can’t even be called eavesdropping because normally the decibel level rises exponentially with the level of alcohol intake.

I’m all ears, as they say.