Surround sound

Keep your eyes peeled - there's always someone listening in

VIOLETA NIEBLA

There is always someone doing the listening and someone being listened to. Now, eavesdropping is a form of auditory voyeurism that I have been practising since the nineties, when my house had two landline telephones and I would pick up the second one, holding my breath carefully, to listen to my grandmother chatting away with her sisters on the other end.

From the telephone I moved on to the very poor quality walls that have followed me in all the homes I have lived in and through which I have been able to listen to the neighbours fighting and making up in bed afterwards. These days it still happens to me on the bus, in the shops, on the beach: who hasn't lain down on their towel to listen to what is coming their way (it's not always the lapping waves that we can hear).

I like to be on the side of the listener and, for the moment, I do it alone. But I know there are people who are years ahead of me. Take those married couples who never say a word to each other when they go out to eat. They ask for the menu or swipe the QR code on their phone, order the food, taste it in a total trance, pay and leave. Total silence, where the waiter is the one who leads the monologue while they nod and end up drawing their signature in the air with their hand to ask for the bill.

I have studied all types. The first thing I thought was they were maybe people who had gone out for dinner just after a row or that they were a married couple who no longer spoke to each other, but liked to eat out too much.

I soon discovered though that it is not necessarily a lack of communication but quite the opposite; they have reached such a heavenly peace that they choose to eat in silence and listen to what is going on around them.

There are married couples who have been together so long and have eaten out so much that the listening range of their ears can reach as far as the furthest table in the largest restaurant, cutting through the bustle.

Not talking to each other is not related to the use of mobiles either - they aren't on their phones. We might think that they don't talk because they are gazing at each other, but they don't look at each other either.

Sometimes he looks at a point in infinity somewhere off to the left, then he switches to the right and she fixes her gaze on a fixed point on the floor or on the tablecloth. There is no doubt about it; they are listening to the rest of us. They follow every word of our conversations, holding their breath.