Earwigging we call it and I am always doing it. It is nothing to do with creepy crawlies, instead it is our word for harmless overhearing of other people’s conversations. On buses and trains and walking in the countryside and urban areas I sometimes listen in, a harmless vice that gives me pleasure. I enjoy the snippets of people’s lives that I hear and the insight into other worlds this can gift me.
Passing groups on a footpath when we are taking a countryside walk I will pick up only a sentence or two of a whole conversation. Two people approach deep in conversation and I overhear one exclaim to their friend, ‘ … And then to cap it all I found out he had forgotten to buy the toothpaste …’ From those few words I continue on my way making up a whole story in my head about what else had been forgotten, why he forgot to buy the toothpaste and why it mattered quite so much.
On public transport earwigging is different. Here some people speak loudly and clearly even though they are sitting together, they share longer conversations and I find myself getting sucked into their story. I often take a book to read on a train but if a real-life story is being unfolded on a nearby seat I discard my novel for something more interesting! People also speak loudly on their mobile phones on public transport and I get caught up in their half of the conversation and imagine the person they are talking to, where they are and what they are saying.
We have just returned from a splendid three weeks exploring Suffolk [a new to us county] and Norfolk in our campervan. We used public transport to reach places beyond the campsites, we walked miles and sat in lots of cafes and I have returned with a few earwigged conversations from that trip.
It was a wet and windy day and we decided to take the train into Norwich to see the sights of this lovely city. The train was surprisingly quiet but a few seats behind us a young woman was chatting on her phone to someone. At first I was watching the Norfolk countryside and not really listening to her conversation until I heard her say, ‘OMG, you’ll never guess what’s happened.’ Immediately, I was all ears! She elaborated further to her friend, explaining that while she had been on the phone she had received a message from the bass player of her band and he had resigned. This was clearly unexpected news and inconvenient as they had a gig coming up in the next few days. I was disappointed when she got up to leave the train stopping me hearing more about how the band would cope without a crucial bassist.
On the same train there were two guards, which seemed a bit over-the-top for so few passengers but appeared to have something to do with re-training. After they had checked tickets, the two guards had plenty of time to sit and chat between stations and chose seats near us. They talked solely about trains! After one had put forward his personal plans for the Felixstowe line they began riffing and bouncing across the aisle all the problems that can delay a train and whose responsibility it was to sort it and pay compensation to passengers. Their list became darker as they delved deeper. ‘Leaves on the line, that’s Network Rail,’ one said, ‘And cows is them too,’ replied the other, until their list ended somberly with suicides and they sat in silence remembering.
In a Norwich cafe we sat at a table next to two women who were having a much needed catch up. One was describing in detail the stomach aches she had been experiencing for some months. ‘I thought it was a milk allergy,’ she explained but apparently substituting soya, oat and coconut milk made no difference. After excluding other things from her diet and trying various medications her doctor suggested she change her teabags, ‘As you know I drink gallons of tea,’ she confided to her friend. I was amazed to hear that the teabag change did the trick and she was cured.
In another cafe in Ipswich I gained an insight into the working life of a hazardous waste collector. While he waited for his takeaway coffee he described the irresponsible behaviour of some businesses to the cafe worker. He shared stories and photographs of unsecurely wrapped, unlabelled and unidentified materials that businesses leave, expecting him to remove them out of their way. I could only hope he was handsomely paid for his diligent work.
Other fleeting conversations are equally surprising but less about earwigging. We were sitting at the outside tables at a cafe attached to a garden in north Norfolk when the waitress appeared and began removing all the sachets of mayonnaise from the box on our table and all the other tables. ‘The rooks take these and eat the contents,’ she told us. It seems Norfolk has clever gourmet rooks with a preference for mayonnaise as she was confident that they would leave the salad cream alone.
I get words muddled up all the time and sometimes these muddled words are more fun than the real word. While washing up at a Suffolk campsite I was telling a fellow camper that we had walked the Angles Way [named after the post-Roman Germanic settlers in East Anglia] from Beccles to Lowestoft along the Waveney River. She told me how much she liked Beccles and that there were some good walks there. ‘I don’t know the Angles Way,’ she told me, ‘but we have followed the Angels Path.’ Now that sounds like a much more heavenly route!
Judge me if you wish for my earwigging but I suggest if you see me on a bus or when you are out for a walk just be careful about what you say!