February 16th, 1981 Maeve gave her opinions on Haughey’s Contraceptive Bill to a horrified fellow bus passenger.
TODAY I had an argument with a stranger, a real live argument with a woman I’d never met before as we stood at a bus stop for what seemed a considerable length of time.
“Very depressing kind of day,” she said. “Grey,” I agreed. “But it might cheer up later.”
“Nothing much to be cheerful about, though, is there? Look at the papers,” she said.
Obligingly I looked at the front page of The Irish Times. Compared to some days, I thought the news was fairly neutral.
“Do you mean Mike Gibson not playing rugby for Ireland any more?” I asked, not quite seeing anything that would cause gloom.
“Never heard of him,” she said. It couldn’t be the heady excitement of will-we won’t-we about the EMS; she was hardly brought down by the fact that the RUC may have been kidnapping Father Hugh Murphy, since he was safe and well; the talks were continuing in an RTÉ dispute, but that wasn’t enough to lay anyone low. No, it had to be Haughey and the Contraceptive Bill.
“Do you mean about having to have doctors’ prescriptions?” I asked.
“Indeed I do,” she said.
“Well, I suppose it does make us look very foolish trying to legislate for everyone else’s morality and pass the buck to the doctors,” I said cheerfully.
“But then I’m a fairly optimistic person and I’d prefer to regard it as a step in the right direction.”
There was a stony silence. I wondered, had she heard me? After all, she was the one who started the conversation. “So, even though it’s a bit of a joke, it’s not all that bad,” I said cheerfully, keeping things going as I thought.
“Is that your view?” she said.
“Well, it’s not a very thought-out view,” I backtracked. “But it’s a kind of instant reaction if you know what I mean.”
“You approve of all that sort of thing,” she said in a kind of a hiss.”
“Oh yes, I think people have the right to buy contraceptives,” I said, wishing somebody else would come along and stand at the bus stop and shout “good girl yourself” at me.
“And you’d like to see them in public places,” she said, eyes glinting madly.
“Well, not in parks or concert halls or places like that. But on shelves in chemists, certainly. Then, if people want to buy them, they can, and if they don’t, nobody’s forcing them to.” I though I had summed up the case rather well.
“On shelves so that everyone can see them,” she said, horrified.
“Well, they’re in packets,” I said, “with kind of discreet names on them. They don’t leap up off counters and affront you.”
“And how might you know all this?” she asked.
“Well, I’ve seen them in chemists in London,” I said defensively.
“If they’re so discreet, how did you what they were?” she asked, tellingly.
“Well, you’d sort of know. I mean people have to know where they are, for God’s sake. I mean they shouldn’t have to go playing hide-and-seek around the chemists with the assistant saying warmer and colder.”
The woman wasn’t at all amused. “I’m sure you know where they are because you buy them.”
I began to wonder why it is increasingly less likely that I will ever have a normal conversation with anyone.
“I once bought a huge amount,” I said reminiscently. “As a kind of favour to a lot of people. They knew I was going to be in London, and they kept asking me to bring some home.”
She was fixed to me with horror.
All her life she knew she would meet someone as wicked as this, and now it had happened.
“I didn’t know what kind to get or what the names of them were, so I just went into the Boots chemist beside Marble Arch and asked for four dozen of the best contraceptives and a receipt. They looked at me with great interest.”
“I’m not surprised,” said the woman.
“But really, wasn’t I very stupid in those days?” I confided in her. “I mean imagine smuggling them all in for people, and not making any profit on them and not even . . . you know . . . well, getting any value out of them myself as it were.”
She stared ahead, two red spots on her cheeks, and mercifully the bus came. She waited to see if I went upstairs or downstairs so that she could travel on a different deck.
© 2012 The Irish Times