Every harbored memory is a sleeping bird packed away in a box. Once it’s awakened – and the nature of that process is perplexingly unknown to me – it starts tapping, demanding to be let out. There is ultimately no choice in the matter. How long can you put up with a bird tapping on a box?
The following is the tiniest of sparrows. But its “Liberation Day” has apparently arrived.
If it’s 1967, I must be in London, where, in fact, I resided for sixteen months, at the time when England swung like a pendulum did. (See: Roger Miller for the more infectious “present tense” version.)
Right to the point.
There’s a girl in my bedroom, sitting beside me on the bed. This is not as provocative as it sounds. My accommodations, a Hampstead bedsitting room, included no living room or kitchen-chair sitting alternatives. The bedroom was all there was.
The bedroom came furnished with only a bed and a dresser. And so, since nobody sits on top of a dresser – except maybe a ventriloquist’s dummy – my narrow single bed was it, our physiological placement thus selected by default more than ulteriorily-motivated design.
Who was this girl?
A question that is neither rhetorical nor a dramatic introduction to the other person in the story. The fact is, I have no recollection who the girl was, or how we had arrived at this bedsitting room rendezvous. The mystery of memory is that it is delivered in various exposures of clarity, not just between memories, but within memories as well, as we shall see in this example, some aspects envisioned perfectly, others remaining cataractically out of focus.
She had brought me a gift, which she enthusiastically presented. It was a magazine. But not just any magazine. She explained with unbridled excitement that it was a copy of the first issue of Punch, a longstanding weekly British humour and satire periodical, established in 1841.
I felt appropriately surprised (because I do not recall this girl and I having any kind of relationship), honored and impressed. I immediately, though carefully, started leafing through the pages.
I recall vividly a cartoon I discovered that made me laugh as hard as I had ever laughed at any magazine-published cartoon before or since. A single panel, depicting a morose-looking circus clown, in full costume and makeup, peering somberly through the open flap in the Big Top tent, staring at the torrential rainfall that is clattering down outside. Standing beside him is the chubby ringmaster, who says to the clown – this being the caption of the cartoon –
“Fancy your chances of making them roll in the aisles today, eh, Rollo?”
That’s what I remember. Not the girl. Not the circumstances that brought us together. Only the cartoon. Which made me laugh hysterically. Partly because it was funny to me, but also, to a substantial extent, because the cartoon demonstrated that somebody from 1841 could still elicit a laugh a hundred and twenty-something years later, pointing to intimations of scriptorial immortality closer to home.
I, again carefully, set down the magazine, and thanked her for giving it to me. The conversation proceeded. And then circled back.
“I don’t believe,” she announced, a suggestion of irritation in her voice, “that you fully comprehend the value and import of what I have presented to you.” Those were not her exact words, but the tone, reflecting unmet expectations, is indisputably on the money.
I assured her that I was wholehearted grateful for the gift. But, apparently, my original reaction had ignited a fuse.
“This is a First Edition of a classic and beloved magazine, a literary icon, if you will. You do not seem to sufficiently appreciate what that means.”
We went back and forth on this matter, me, proclaiming my enthusiasm, she, even more passionately convinced of my deficiency thereof. Finally – as only I can, alone with a girl on my bed in my bedsitting room, a girl interested enough to present me with a treasured memento that I had appreciated but not as much as she’d wanted me to – I do what I invariably do, opt for truth over sweet talk, which is an easy choice, because I don't have any sweet talk.
“If you really think I don’t appreciate this as much as it deserves to be appreciated,” I suggested, “then maybe you should take it back.”
I do not know what I expected would happen that day – though I was certain the preceding proposal would put the kibosh on many of the more fortuitous possibilities – and I don’t even recall who wound up with the magazine, though I have a sense that it remained, albeit less happily than was intended, in my hands.
My recollection is, I expected nothing from the situation.
Which, it turns out, is exactly was occurred.