Thursday, 16 February 2012

Overheard on the bus


It’s not quite clear what the etiquette is when listening to people’s mobile phone calls. Should we shut our ears since listening is no better than reading someone’s mail? Than listening at someone’s door? Than working for a tabloid newspaper?

Well, I suppose we could. But if someone on the upper deck of a London bus is prepared to paint a picture of her intimate life, why shouldn’t I enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Lucian Freud’s painting at the National Portrait Gallery last Friday?

Well, no, not as much, obviously, but with exactly the same sense of entitlement.

The game is to reconstruct the other side of the conversation.

‘I’m doing something first but I’ll try and pop round later,’ said the young woman.

So she doesn’t want to tell a young man interested in her that she’s seeing another.

‘How long will you be going on till? Will you be playing a set yourself?’

A picture formed of a pub somewhere, a modest little stage in one corner cluttered with amps, speakers, a drum kit, a piano. A group of hopeful young men, disappointed by the poor turnout. They get up on the stage and try to make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in talent. They maintain that enthusiasm despite the lack of interest from all but a small number within the sparse audience.

Still, judging by her questions and her cheerful responses, the young woman was being encouraging. Although she did at one point say ‘well, I hope it goes well. Let me know.’

Bad news, I thought. She won’t be able to make it in time so she isn’t going to go at all. What did he have left to hope for from the desert of the evening stretching before him? His insecurity was mounting and her attempt to hang up failed.

‘Oh, what, you mean this evening? Oh, just popping out to dinner.’

Combining the words ‘just’ and ‘dinner’ was disingenuous, wasn’t it? The word he didn’t want to hear was ‘dinner’. Sticking ‘just’ in front of it wasn’t going to make it hurt any less.

‘Oh, you know,’ she continued, ‘with Ali M. A pause. ‘Do you know him?’ ‘Him?’ she was twisting the knife.

But then she turned merciful. Dropping her voice, but far too little to prevent me hearing from several seats away, she added ‘he’s gay.’ Her tone suggested reluctance. Why should she share this confidence? She could go out with whoever she chose. What right did he have to demand she explain herself? 

Not much encouragement for him and yet not completely discouraging either. She had a strong hand and was playing it skillfully. Keep the pike on the fishing line, the man on the phone line, while you make up your mind whether to reel him in or not. Very wise, very prudent.

Meanwhile, she was making another attempt to cut things short.

‘Sorry? Sorry? It’s cutting off...’

But again he relaunched the conversation for a few minutes before she could wrap it up.

‘Well, see you tomorrow.’ Sounds hopeful, but it isn’t really, is it? If they’re not meeting till tomorrow, there’s a whole evening with the supposedly gay friend. A whole night. ‘Yes, yes,’ she ended, ‘so do I.’

So did she? What? Love him? Think it was a good idea to meet up tomorrow? Wish him all the best for the evening?

I don’t know, but why should I? Good narratives often end in ambiguity. This one brought about a neatly constructed symmetry: the man on the line was left unassuaged but so was her audience on the bus. Some things we shall never know or understand. 

Making the experience much more like a Lucian Freud exhibition than one might expect.

1 comment:

Mark Reynolds said...

I've overheard some delightful conversations on the Los Angeles bus, but my favorite was a single line, heard in passing: "Jesse doesn't even know he's not my cousin!"

There's a world of backstory in that.