The main window in my flat overlooks Jowett Walk, a road in central Oxford that divides the college housing for Balliol and Merton. It’s only a couple hundred yards long, and closed to vehicles, but the pedestrian traffic is heavy; in the mornings I sit at my desk and watch tired and hung over students stagger past my window carrying coffees from the Alternative Tuck Shop, and in the evenings hordes of Oxonians in correct evening costume pass on their way to various dinners and parties and whatnot.
My flat is on the ground floor, but high enough so that I’m out of people’s sightline as they walk past (although I can see the tops of their heads a few feet away). So it’s a good window for people watching. And because there aren’t any loud vehicles, it’s good for people listening as well. As they pass you get 7-second snippets of conversations, which is ideal because 7 seconds is usually the longest you can listen to a British conversation without getting bored.
Anyways, the other day I was at my desk, enjoying the novelty of not looking at insect eggs under a microscope, when I overheard a woman accost someone on the street outside:
“Excuse me, do you speak English? Oh thank god… listen, I was just on the phone with my sister, and she was supposed to pick me up, but we got cut off and…” [here she started to sound slightly hysterical] “the thing is, I’m pregnant and I really need to get to the hospital and I don’t know what to do. I mean I could try to find a bus or try to catch a minicab, but the problem is, I don’t have any money…”
I could hear whoever she was talking to hemming and hawing. See, whereas in Canada beggars usually just ask for money straight out, in England they still occasionally trot out elaborate hard-luck stories culminating in them being just a few pence short of bus fare or needing to make a pay phone call to a dying relative. The pregnancy thing was a great new angle, because helping women when they’re with child is a moral imperative in Western culture. It all goes back to Biblical times, when the blessed virgin Mary was pregnant and got turned away by a cruel innkeeper, and had to borrow cab fare to get to the manger in time to have Jesus.
And so the altercation outside the window was pretty compelling, especially since the person was obviously reluctant to give the woman any money, and she was getting louder and more hysterical all the time. It was difficult to remain emotionally detached. How dare this lying profligate beggarwoman exploit the sanctity of pregnancy for monetary gain? And on the other hand, what kind of douchebag would endanger a woman and her possibly non-fictional child to save a few pounds? It was the human drama in full force.
I peered out the window. She didn’t look pregnant. That settled it in the douchebag’s favour. And for some reason she was reading from a sheaf of paper. So was he. And there were a few people standing around, watching. The whole thing was part of some scene for a play or something. It was hard not to feel cheated and betrayed. It wasn’t the human drama after all: just regular drama.
They’ve been rehearsing this scene outside my window off and on for a couple days now, and it gets significantly less compelling every time.