I like eavesdropping, When I am on the train or out in a cafe I find it fascinating to catch a brief insight into someone else’s life. Once, on the tube in Berlin, I overheard a man holding some wilting flowers on his lap, begging his girlfriend on the phone to let him back in. Apparantly she had turned him away at the door, and he kept going on about how much he cared about her, pointing out over and over again that he even bought her flowers and that he had done nothing wrong, had he, except not turning up on time for her birthday, and after all, she should know that he loves her anyway.
Looking at him, I hoped she had sense enough to kick him out for good. Even while being on the phone he was checking out every female in sight.
I found this small drama entertaining and even if I had wanted to it was impossible not to listen to his loud booming and half drunken voice.
But I remember other voices, the hushed voices of my relatives long gone. Back when I was maybe five, six years old and had just mastered reading.
My grandmother had two brothers, who still lived in the big farmhouse she grew up in. Her brother Heinrich and his wife Alma had remained childless, but her brother Willi and his wife Berta had a son, who with his young wife Emmi also live in the house. Those two were still childless and my brother and I were the only children on my father’s side.
Every second Sunday my mother and us children were expected to accompany my grandmother to visit them for coffee and cake.
At that time the rooms in farm houses were small by today’s standards and the living room was dominated by a massive, dark oak cupboard. On top of it a big clock ticked away the seconds, chiming loudly every fifteen minutes. The sofa was standing at the wall and in front of it was a square oak table that could be pulled out to give place for ten people. It was set with a white table cloth and the “good” china, a big creamy cake on its center. The windows were always closed.
While the grown-ups talked my brother and I were supposed to be quiet, only speaking when we were asked. My mom, usually the youngest at the table, was not supposed to say much either, she was there to look after my grandmother, who was in ill health.
Talk around the coffee table revolved around the weather, the neighbors and the gardens. I can’t remember ever hearing any laughter. Even my Mom had a serious face on those Sundays.
After the cakes were devoured, us children were allowed to get up from the table, but we were supposed to stay in the room and sit still. My aunt did not like us to play in the garden, since we might have destroyed some of her flowers.
So, while the grown-ups talked and my brother played with his toys I would usually sit in one of the plush chairs, browsing through magazines. They were of the kind that had sad stories like “Mother of five suffering from cancer is left by her husband” or “Young woman lost both legs in an accident and is now suffering from MS” or “I gave all my money to my husband and now he has left with a young girl, leaving me in poverty”. At the same time I picked up some of the grown-ups conversation. When my younger aunt Emmi wasn’t around they were often talking about her. I heard snippets like “she is trying again and can’t get up” or “she almost died with the last one”. It was much later that I understood why pretty Emmi had always been so sad. She had lost six babies in later stages of her pregnancies. They blamed her for it.
My relatives spoke in hushed voices and I knew I wasn’t supposed to listen. Maybe it would have been better if I hadn’t. I overheard stories about the sicknesses of people I didn’t know, heard that the woman down the road was acting strange, found out that someone had been to hospital and was now dying. The voices were serious, sentences accompanied by sighs and now and then there was heavy silence in which the clock ticked even louder.
The air in the room seemed to get heavier and after a while I began to feel apprehensive and uneasy. Often, at this point my mother would make an excuse and take us out for a walk. Breathing fresh, clean air and running through the woods the feeling of being suffocated would slowly fade.
Still, fear of sickness, a feeling of impending doom accompanied me through childhood and adolescent. Even now, almost 50 years later, I have a strong dislike of clocks ticking away, heavy curtains and dark furniture. Even today there is a lump in my throat when I think of these afternoons in the old farmhouse and its unhappy occupants.
Written as a response to the weekly writing challenge: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/overheard/