Thursday, March 8, 2018

Unfortunately she was only about four feet tall and nearly spherical

From The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson. Page 82.
The bookshop was also the scene of my most outstanding moment of manliness in life. I happened to be browsing there one day when a patient from the sanatorium whom I’ll call Arthur came in. Arthur was middle-aged and unexpectedly distinguished-looking. Like many of the patients at the sanatorium, he came from a privileged background (the hospital had been private until the late 1940s) and he dressed quite well in the tweedy style of a country gentleman. You would never have taken him for a madman. But he had one quirk that kept him permanently institutionalized. He could not abide being spoken to by strangers. If someone merely smiled and said good day, Arthur would explode in froth and fury and pour forth a tumult of startlingly original insult. Everyone in the village knew this, so no one disturbed him on his daily rounds. It happened, however, that on this day the bookshop was in the care of a sweet, newly employed young woman who had no idea of Arthur’s peculiarities, and asked him if she could help him find anything.

Arthur turned on her more in amazement than anger. It had been years since anyone had addressed him in a public place.

“HOW DARE YOU SPEAK TO ME, YOU SLUTTISH BITCH,’ he hissed, swiftly warming to the task. ‘DON’T YOU COME ANYWHERE NEAR ME, YOU PUSTULANT, SPREAD-EAGLED DAUGHTER OF SATAN.’ Arthur was nothing if not expressive when roused. The young woman stared at him with a look I had only ever seen on a female face in horror movies in the moment between a shower curtain being yanked open and a dagger coming down.

I stepped up and in a sharp tone said: ‘Arthur, put the book down and leave at once.’

That was all you had to do with Arthur – just speak to him firmly. Meekly, he returned the book to its shelf and wordlessly left the shop.

The young woman looked at me with simple, heartfelt amazement. ‘Thank you,’ she breathed.

I gave her a winning but bashful smile as I had seen Gary Cooper do in the movies. ‘Glad to be of help,’ I said. If I’d had a cowboy hat I would have touched the brim.

The door opened and Arthur put his head in. ‘Will I be allowed pudding tonight?’ he asked anxiously.

‘I haven’t decided yet,’ I said, my tone curt once more. ‘We’ll have to see how you behave.’

Arthur made to depart again, but I called him back.

‘And, Arthur, you must never trouble this young lady again,’ I added. ‘Do you understand?’

He muttered some pathetic acknowledgement and slunk off. I gave the woman another Gary Cooper smile. She was now regarding me with a look of frankest adoration. It’s funny, but sometimes life throws these moments at you that have the capacity to change everything in an instant. In other “circumstances, who knows where this encounter might have led? Unfortunately she was only about four feet tall and nearly spherical, so I simply shook her hand and wished her a good day.

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