Belfast Telegraph

Mary Dejevsky: Overheard on a bus

I tried my best not to turn around, but in the end had to sneak a look.

The speakers were two black men, possibly in their late twenties or early thirties, one apparently a newcomer, the other an old hand showing him the ropes. But the bit of their conversation that made me desperate to know who was talking went, as I recall, something like this: "The thing is, they're having children younger and younger, and they don't know anything except shouting. They just shout. Shout, shout. That's the only way they know to discipline them. They don't have..." – you could hear him searching for the word – "maturity. That's what they don't have. I don't know what will happen to those kids."

People talk to their companions on buses in the way they don't on any other form of public transport. It's quiet enough; they don't feel they are addressing an open carriage. Is it unethical to listen in? Perhaps. But over the summer, with the buses a bit emptier, it's hard not to. And amid the prattle, the apologies for lateness yelled into mobile phones and the obsessive consumerism (you might be surprised how many under-12s converse, if at all, in Ad-land clichés), I've also heard people passing extraordinarily harsh judgements (often on themselves), genuine voices of disquiet and acute observations on the state of the nation.

Two white women probably in their sixties, well-spoken, probably not related, were discussing the daughter of one of them. "She's so talented, so creative... But she's 40 now; she's not attached." (Long pause.) "She's had two suicide attempts; her personal life is a complete mess." I had so many questions. What does she do? What did she want? Who expected what? How and why did it all go so wrong? Even Bridget Jones, I thought, eventually contrived a happy end.

Another two women (look around you, more women than men travel by bus), perhaps teachers, perhaps social workers, on a training day out, talk despondently about the chaos of some children's lives. "You know what's the single most reliable indicator of success?" (She meant at primary school, I think) "It's whether they have a table at home." "A table?" Came the response. "Yes, it's not just whether they eat together as a family, have regular meals, not just sitting in front of the television, but whether the child has somewhere to write or draw... That's the one thing."

Or how about this for a glimpse of generational incomprehension. A young-elderly couple, a young girl and an adolescent boy perpetually fiddling with a computer game. Referring, I presumed, to his younger sister, the boy said "She's village". Intake of breath from grandmother, followed by a self-consciously restrained query. "What did you say?" "She's village at it." "What do you mean by village?" "She's not much good." "Why do you call that village?" "Village cricket, geddit?" Small sounds of amusement, and "village" becomes the word of the moment as the adults play with their discovery, clearly relieved that their grandson's insult had more than four letters and evinced nothing more dismissive than the age-old scorn of townspeople for their country cousins.

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