When one’s life is lived in the fast lane, conversations in passing usually happens with complete strangers.
Because I am clinically unable to stop talking, I talk during compulsory pauses; waiting for the doctor; walking the dog; standing in a supermarket queue.
I sat next to a lady artist at the hospital the other day. She has been to see Michael Morpurgo’s The Warhorse in London, and recommends it unreservedly. She depends on her sight utterly, but has begun to see flashes behind her eyes.
My favourite supermarket cashier has to work until Monday. Her husband gets the weekend off, and they miss each other terribly. He is filling the void with his new jet washer. It is a minor miracle: her garden furniture has never looked so good.
The world is full of people, and many of them have something to say. If one has the eyes, each story is fascinating.
Conversations in passing form a part of many books. My favourites will be no surprise to those who read regular Shrewsday.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is just strolling round the graveyard, mind reeling from recent events when he comes across two gravediggers creating an earthy void for poor little Ophelia.
According to their creator they are clowns: and as Hamlet walks past he sees one of the two, diggers or clowns or what you will, singing a ditty at the graveside.
They are soon talking about Hamlet. It is said the young prince is mad, they gossip, as if he were a character in a soap opera. Why did they send Hamlet to England, one of them asks? They won’t notice if he is mad there: because everyone there is as mad as he already.
And they chat on.
Soon they address the subject of the skull one of them has found. They know who it was: it was Yorick, the King’s jester. Hamlet knew him: he tells his friend how he used to ride on Yorick’s back; and how witty and accomplished this man was. Do you think, asks the Prince; do you think Alexander looked like this in the ground?
Such thoughts: would they surface without this chance encounter?
Charlotte Bronte has her Jane Eyre consult an inkeeper, who tells her the most important news of the book.
Thornfield Hall has been burnt to the ground through a mad wife’s arson; but the widower lives still, ready to plight a life to the unassuming young woman.
Bronte is almost wicked in her use of this stranger. He was the late Mr Rochester’s butler, he declares early on in the conversation, and how the pit of one’s stomach plummets along with Jane’s. No, no, the present Mr Rochester’s father, he corrects Jane: and one’s heart may start beating once again.
He is garrulous, and will go on interminably about the young governess, unaware that this is the part of the story with which this young woman is over-familiar.
He adds lovely vignette-touches to the characters, like the propensity of Grace Poole, the mad wife’s gaoler, for a spot too much gin. And Mr Rochester- well, Mr Rochester grew savage on his disappointment.
To be a stranger: to hear, as both a prince and a governess did, the details of their stories told by someone else: it adds something. We see the whole business as Joe Public might perceive it.
Today the forest behind my house still lies closed, ravaged by subterranean flames licking through peat-caverns.
We have had a storm and torrential rain, but they won’t take down the cordons which keep us out.
So what must we rely on, but conversations in passing: gossip which travels like wildfire?
I took my nephew, three-year-old Big Al, for a picnic next to two pumping fire engines. I had egg sandwiches, he had cheese. There were grapes and yoghurt, and a packet of crisps for afters.
We struck up a conversation with the fireman. Al told him he has a fire engine just like theirs.
They were working round the clock to quell the flames, the affable fireman said: but the fire goes so deep! Firemen from three counties were working round the clock. On Monday there had been one gust of easterly wind when the firemen simply had to run for their lives.
My husband, standing at the polling station, met a liberal democrat who lived in the road nearest the forest. They were told to pack their things ready to move out that day, he said. They were going to move out to the mansion down the road which doubles as an arts centre. Three hours later, they were told they could stand down.
As a final snippet, it appears YouTube may be instrumental in bringing the perpetrators of the fire to justice. Word is that youngsters may have been filming exploits up there in the forest and – unbelievably – posting them on the social media network. Time will tell.
Word of mouth never loses its power to fascinate: to change the plot and wrong-foot us entirely. Our beloved stories use them: but real life, they say, is stranger than fiction.
It’s good to talk.
Photo courtesy of ThisisLondon.co.uk