Tim Dowling: I’m in the back of the car, eavesdropping against my will

Tim Dowling: I’m in the back of the car, eavesdropping against my will

My wife and I are driving to Cornwall, leaving at seven in the morning as a general hedge against the times we are living in. The weather, the traffic and the public mood have become unpredictable; when you travel it’s hard to know whether you are driving towards chaos or away from it, but in the circumstances it seems best to set off early.

Also we’re taking a friend, because she happens to be heading to the same destination. For this reason I have been banished to the back seat, while my wife drives.

“Are you sure?” the friend says. “I’d be perfectly happy in the back.”

“He’s no use to me in the front,” my wife says. “He’d be silent for the whole journey.”

“The list of things I’m not allowed to talk about is long,” I say. “Therefore I choose silence.” The car turns right at the end of our road.

“Anyway,” the friend says, “we can always swap if you get bored.”

“I’m fine,” I say. “I have thoughts of impending death, and today’s word wheel.”

The roads are dry. Traffic is light. I look out the window as the car rises on to the M4. In the front, my wife and the friend talk about everything, and everyone.

“Stick a pin in that,” my wife says. “We can discuss her later.”

“You’re such a good driver!” the friend says. “I feel very safe with you.” I think: if that’s the sort of stuff you have to say to claim the front seat, you can keep it.

They go on to discuss someone who is a very bad driver indeed, and some of that person’s unrelated marital difficulties. I turn my attentions to the word wheel. After a while, I fall into a gentle sleep, head bouncing gently against that handle you’re supposed to hang your dry cleaning on. When I wake, the discussion in the front has risen to new levels of frankness, suggesting they have now discounted the possibility that I am listening. I find myself eavesdropping against my will.

“Do tell me to shut up,” the friend says. “I’m going on and on.”

“Please continue,” my wife says.

Because I’ve missed a few key points of the conversation, I have lost track of the cast of characters, but I am able to grasp the general theme: people our age have, by and large, gone mad. The nature of the madness varies across the demographic, but the effects on relationships, finances and vaccine rates have been adverse.

“Anyway, you know what he’s like,” the friend says. “He told me that modern pigs are a cross between wild boars and humans.”

“Hang on, what?” I say, before I can stop myself.

“Somebody’s ears have pricked up,” my wife says.

“I may have misheard,” I say.

“Sorry, we thought you were asleep!” the friend says.

“But what I thought I heard,” I say, “is that the domestic pig is some form of hybrid.”

“Yes, between wild boars and people,” the friend says.

“I have some questions,” I say.

“I don’t know, that’s just what he told me,” the friend says.

“I’m going to look this up,” I say, pulling my phone from my pocket.

“It’s part of the whole thing,” the friend says. “The vaccine is spying on you, all that.”

“This is why you’re sitting in front,” my wife says.

“I want to know about the courtship process,” I say. “How does that work?”

I try a variety of search terms, but the wild-boar-human-hybrid theory appears to have little currency online: no one is discussing it. How many people believe this? What does it have to do with vaccines?

“I can’t actually find anything,” I say.

“We’re moving on,” my wife says. “Next topic.”

“There is some talk of humans being a chimp-boar hybrid,” I say, “which looks like it might be an actual thing.”

“No, this was definitely boar-human to pig,” the friend says.

“Do you remember when I said, ‘Stick a pin in that’?” my wife says. “Who were we talking about?”

“And there’s an article about radioactive hybrid terror pigs, which I might read out loud,” I say.

“Back to your word wheel,” my wife says.