Merrie times in England, then and now
Forty years ago, a chance encounter on Fifth Avenue led to a wonderful opportunity for me.
A friend of mine had an English publisher in tow. Having just spent six weeks in England and Scotland with college friends, traveling from Dover to Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, and from Edinburgh to Land's End, I rhapsodized about Britain to the publisher.
He asked, "Would you like a summer job in one of our bookshops?" "Indeed, I would!" I responded. A few weeks later I received this brief, but welcome communication: "Report May 30 to Gloucester."
At that stage in my life, as may already be apparent, I was very much an Anglophile. One of my proudest moments had been when a woman, with whom I shared a railway carriage, leaned over to ask, as the train pulled into London's Paddington Station, "Are you in the Guards?" I smiled without responding and fled the scene, lest my accent betray me.
Gloucester is a cathedral town in the west of England. I worked six days a week at the shop for a month. On Sundays, I took my bicycle, which I'd bought from a Gloucester police officer, on a train to Chepstow, Wales. I'd bicycle through the Wye Valley, stopping at Tintern Abbey to read Wordsworth and continuing through the Forest of Dean. Miles from Gloucester I would see the magnificent cathedral tower loom above the low-lying countryside.
This spring, I decided to return to Gloucester. I did so with much hesitation. Efforts to revisit the past are not always successful. Four decades is a long time. Gloucester had changed. I had changed.
Back then, I had stayed with a kind elderly couple who ran a bed-and-breakfast. Now, as I walked along their street, the houses seemed very small and old. I could not identify theirs. The street had been extended and many new houses built.
But Gloucester Cathedral remained unchanged, and the bookshop still existed, though at a different location. I walked in, but did not recognize the person working there. I told her my story. Sensing my disappointment, she volunteered that the assistant manager had been at the store for much longer. "Let me get her."
Elizabeth appeared. The last time I had seen her, four decades ago, she had been a shy girl of 16. She is now a mature woman, still shy, though this did not prevent her from laughing at dinner over our shared recollections of adventures and misadventures.
I reminded her of my chasing her around the bookshop, before the shop opened, with a feather duster. My pranks got us in trouble.
For reasons unclear to both of us, then and now, the store manager assigned me to work the cash register. Math is not my strong suit, and this was long before the English simplified their money system. Daily I tussled with half-pence, pence, shillings, florins, half-crowns, pounds, and guineas. Each night the cash register was off, but in those informal times, no one seemed concerned. On some nights the till contained too much money, on other nights too little.
My colleagues at the shop used to tease me when I appeared in the morning wearing a tartan tie of a different clan. "On Monday you're a Campbell, on Tuesday a Stewart. You can't be both." I attributed their taunts to British provincialism.
Elizabeth and I spent hours together. We enjoyed our reunion. Reaching out and overcoming hesitation, in this case, yielded a bountiful reward.