Dinner, with a side order of story

Cape Town – “So,” said the rather vexed voice,” they’ve moved in, with two cats.”

“Of course,” she continued,”my father-in-law can’t organise anything at all.”

The cashier wanted my card, so I missed the answer.

The same cross voice continued: “And he’s started drinking again.”

I missed the next bit as my shopping was handed to me.

“We must do lunch,” said another voice.

I had to stop myself from going over and asking if I too could come to the lunch. Why, I wanted to know, were the cats such a problem? What had the father-in -law failed to organise? And who, for the love of all that is holy, had started drinking again?

Sadly, these are things I will never know. Such is the fate of the perennial eavesdropper.

it’s no coincidence that I became a journalist, a profession in which a lively curiosity about other people (okay – it’s really just nosiness) is a basic requirement. I am unable to stop myself from people-watching and from listening in to conversations that have nothing to do with me. As I watch and listen, I speculate about what is going on, and invent interesting lives for the objects of my scrutiny.

One such was the solitary woman in the restaurant this last week. Late middle-aged, ordinary looking. She had a leisurely cup of coffee, and then a glass of water, writing feverishly all along in a little notebook. Then she gathered her things and set off into the damp and windy night. I watched her go, convinced that she was a famous novelist, British (for so she looked), writing a book – probably a thriller – with a South African twist. She was possibly listening in on our conversations and taking notes, I thought.

No group of people is exempt. In restaurants and shops and queues, I will be watching and making up stories. The ultimate place for people-watching is airports. Here people are saying tearful farewells. Having joyous reunions. Hurrying along on business errands. Possibly smuggling drugs in that golf bag.

Sitting in planes is good too. The couple in the row ahead are having an affair. The man three seats down is a dictator in disguise (he is very imperious with the cabin staff, you see, giving his game away completely). The family three rows back are in trouble: the wife is looking out the window while the husband tries to quiet the children.

This inveterate interest in other people’s lives is, I suspect, the basis for my addiction to soap operas. I once switched on the television halfway through a soapie in which it appeared that a woman had somehow mislaid her baby (as in she put it down and couldn’t remember where). Fascinated by the question of how anyone could actually lose a baby, I sat down to watch. Months later, I sternly told myself to stop as the lost baby question was not yet resolved and I had to move on (a colleague, years later, knew the very soap I mentioned and was able to put me out of misery: the devil took the baby).

These days, I do not go anywhere near channels on which there might be soap operas. I don’t have months to waste.

My husband is somewhat bemused by all this. People are a mystery to him he says, as he selects the chair facing the wall so that I can have the one with a good view of all the people in the room or even – if the gods of story are good to me – one with a view and a closeness to other tables so that I can hear what is going on in addition to seeing.

This could all be dismissed as mere nosiness. But I think there is more to it than that Stories are a very powerful force in all our lives. Journalists, for instance, refer to newspaper articles as stories, which I have always found interesting. The word story implies something fictional, and a newspaper report is anything but. Yet, “stories” continue to be edited and published and read and shared.

Perhaps this is one of humanity’s great shared loves? The late great author Terry Pratchett puts it well: “The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens (‘wise man’). In any case it’s an arrogant and bigheaded thing to say, wisdom being one of our least evident features. In reality, we are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.” (The Science of Discworld II: The Globe).

So, as I go around my usual haunts, listening and watching and speculating, I am actually just being a Pan narrans. I like that thought. Not as much as I like the end of a story though.

  • This column was first published on IOL.

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