Living Between the Lines

The things people say

Half heard conversations, whispered asides – all are ‘grist t’ the mill’ to a writer.

I shudder to think what other folks have overheard from my own conversations. How many things have I said that could be misconstrued? Still, this thought does not stop me from storing up the snippets of chit-chat I hear as I walk down the road or stand in the queue at the supermarket checkout.

It is a fair-game kind of eaves-dropping in my eyes, way superior to phone hacking I might add. The News of The World might have done better to stand in a queue at Sainsburys or hang around a bus stop or two. Their stories might have not only been richer but a lot more interesting too!

There is of course, a knack to recognizing the gems when you hear them and in committing them to memory when notebook and pen are nowhere to be seen. These moments do not normally present an opportunity to request a repeat performance.

I cannot imagine myself saying,

“Oh excuse me, would you mind saying that again? I didn’t quite catch it,” to my boss in the 70s declaring herself to be ‘incessed’ by the demands of the faculty finances.

One of the most amusing conversations I have ever ‘overheard’ occurred while I was lying on a local beach, reading a book. Lying close to the promenade, I was within earshot of anyone passing by just above my head.

Not consciously listening out for such conversations, I overheard the following on this, a particularly windy day,

“Daddy, it’s b—ing,” said a small voice, the last word being carried away on the wind.

Daddy was evidently not in the mood for any whingeing,

“Boring? It’s not boring, there is the sea, there is the sand, there are ice cream stalls and look over there, there are lots of things for children to do!” he protested, “You can’t be bored!”

The child gathered all her strength to bellow the words that her father might hear her,

“No daddy, I didn’t say it was boring. I said it’s BLOWING!” she corrected him.

I looked up and just made out two pairs of feet passing by, one wearing large white trainers, the other, two steps behind, clad in tiny pink plastic shoes. Somehow, that cameo has stuck in my mind more than most. I didn’t hear his answer, I don’t know what they looked like. By that time they had moved on.

At the supermarket checkout back in the summer, I was queueing behind a group of ladies who were very excitable.

“That’ll be enough for the BBQ,” one declared, indicating a conveyer belt piled high with all things Barbequeable including several packs of burgers and sausages, chicken wings and about 4 dozen burger baps, not to mention dips and shakes and fizzy drinks and half the salad bar.

“Do you think so? What about breakfast tomorrow, are we doing breakfast?” asked her companion.

“Breakfast? No, no, I’m not giving them breakfast as well – they can fend for themselves in the morning,” responded the first.

A third woman threw a bag of porridge oats onto the conveyer belt.

“Breakfast,” she said.

I half wanted to intervene but the other women said it for me,

“Not doing breakfast – so we wont want that sliced loaf either,” she handed the other woman the loaf, which had also found its way onto the belt.

‘This’ll come to quite a bit,” observed the first woman.

“Have you got enough?”

“Oh yes, I have my card on me – don’t worry, but I’m not doing breakfast as well,”

A fourth lady joined them.

“Breakfast?” she asked innocently, waving a bag of croissants in the air in triumph.

“No!” the other three cried in unison. (I thought croissants would be very nice in the morning)

The four women laughed uproariously and the checkout assistant smiled at them as they approached.

“Shopping for a crowd?” she asked.

The spokeswoman, who also appeared to be the oldest of whom I surmised to be four sisters, was evidently excited,

“Thirteen of us eating tonight,” she offered.

“Yes, we’ve only just got here,” said another

“Travelled down from Lincoln this morning,” said her sister.

“All staying with her!” said a fourth, indicating the eldest one with a nod of her head. The checkout woman smiled.

I smiled because they were including the entire queue with their banter now. I wondered what the occasion was. My writer’s brain leapt into action and a short story was woven there and then. Alas, without a notebook and pen I could only hope I would remember it later.

The question I really wanted an answer to was,

“What is everyone meant to do at breakfast – eat out?”

Observing couples in shops is always good sport. One particular experience springs to mind.

We were in Fowey as it happens, in Boots The Chemist. Heading for the checkout, we were beaten to it by a young woman with a pushchair in tow. It was evident that she was not in the best of moods. One could just tell by the way she slammed her basket down on the counter and sent the pushchair skidding back across the floor, towards her husband. Her husband, evidently not too impressed with being there at all, dutifully grabbed the handle of the pushchair, which was now his to mind, and hung back.

“I forgot the deodorant!” wife yelped, her basket already half unloaded, ”get me one can you?”

Husband wandered to the back of the shop and made a show of looking for deodorants. Wife became agitated. The cashier had almost finished running the contents of her basket through the till.

“Quick!” she called, “any one will do!”

Husband picked up the nearest deodorant stick and deftly bowled it across to his wife who failed to catch it and berated him for his stupidity. The deodorant rolled across the floor, landing by another customer’s feet. Husband apologized and retrieved it, depositing it into the basket himself and saying nothing.

They left the shop without speaking though you could tell, by the way the woman’s lips were firmly clamped together, that there would be fireworks at any minute.

Irate shoppers can be found in most supermarkets I find. I hope I am not often counted among their number!

Our local supermarket was recently refitted and it took some time for people to get used to its new layout which, for a time changed daily. On one occasion, as I wandered down the skin-care aisle, I heard a fellow shopper stop a sales lady who was kneeling on the floor, re-arranging the face creams.

“Can you tell me where the sweets are?” she asked.

Sales lady sat back and looked around.

“Sorry, I am new here and I am not sure which number aisle it is but I can take you there…” she smiled.

How kind, I thought.

“Don’t bother!” the customer replied and stalked off. Sales lady and I exchanged bemused glances.

As I turned the corner, the same lady was speaking to her companion,

“How rude!” she was saying, “I only asked her where the sweets were!”

I was perplexed. What could she have thought the sales lady had said? I was tempted to ask but experience has taught me not to interfere. I doubt I shall ever know now but if you recognize yourself as that woman, do let me know!

Finally, one from me:

I dread to think what anyone who happened to be passing our half open hotel room door would have thought at the weekend as we prepared to check out. I had re-packed my overnight bag and it seemed to have far more in it than when I arrived, as is the way with bags. Where it had zipped up so easily before, it now bulged and required brute force to close.

“I’m sure it was smaller when I started, I don’t know what it is I’ve done to make it grow so big,” I complained to my husband. He looked at me, eyebrows raised.

I knew what I’d meant but I am pretty sure there is someone out there who only caught that one line and came to quite a different conclusion. Well, one would wouldn’t one?

I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow


  • Hilary

    Hi Deborah .. conversations are really great and those we come in on – where we add a totally non-relevant thought .. and then understandably get our heads bitten off .. for picking up fag ends .. fags have changed too ….?!

    I wonder if the deodorant lasted another throw ….?

    Love these stories .. and they certainly would make brilliant short stories or additon to conversations within your novels .. cheers Hilary

  • Andrea Carlisle

    Like minds, Deborah. I’m always writing down overheard conversations and then looking for ways to insert them into something I’m writing (rarely happens, though). Thanks for sharing some of your stash with us. I’m still trying to figure out what that woman thought the clerk said when she asked for help finding the sweets. What was rude about it? Mysterious. Not straightforward like your comment to your husband. Anybody could have understood that for the innocent remark it was, right?

  • Deb

    It’s one of the best things about being a writer – all those bits of conversation have great meaning. I love the deodorant story – imagine the hubby grabbed something decidedly un-deorant-like. Your bit of conversation was the by far the best though. 🙂

  • Katie Gates

    Great post, Debbie. An NYC friend of mine once uttered a fabulous malapropism that applies to this social situation. Rather than reference her having overheard some people talking, she said, “I heard some people overtalking.”

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