Someone came up to me the other afternoon at a family-and-others function, where we were all brightly shaking hands and hugging with the abandoned glee of recognition, despite years of absence. This smiling man greeted me like a long-lost friend. I am sure he was. The problem was that, although I immediately liked him, I didn't recognize him at all.
Such a situation - and I must confess this is not the first time this has happened to me - offers morale-challenging alternatives. Neither of them is particularly satisfactory, politeness-wise.
The first alternative is to instantly pretend, with whatever acting ability you can muster, that you do recognize the person, in the good faith that during your conversation something will give you a clue about their identity, and you will never have to let on that you temporarily forgot. This is risky. But I tried it not long ago, when I got a phone call from one of the several people I know who have the same first name and similar voices. I got away with it that time.
But on another occasion, the details of which I have successfully obliterated from my memory as too embarrassing to recall, I didn't get away with it.
I chatted cheerfully with this individual for a number of long minutes, but no clue emerged. Much too late in the discussion, I blurted out: "I'm terribly sorry - but I don't know who you are. Please forgive me...."
Fortunately it wasn't my brother or someone with whom I have carried on an intimate relationship for many close-knit decades. But I was still aware of a vivid faux pas.
One of my half brothers (whose voice I always recognized) used to tell a story about himself along these lines. One day, in a long warehouse belonging to his company, a dark silhouette appeared at the far end in the entrance.
This silhouette was a man who said, with euphoria born of lengthy anticipation, "Derek! How are you?! Here I am at last! How many years is it? How wonderful to see you again, finally" - or some such enthusiastic greeting.
Derek, if I have this right, immediately grasped two salient facts. First, this man was a very close friend or relation who must have been living in a remote corner of the globe for years. The man's New Zealand accent suggested where that might be. And second, he had no idea who the man was.
What would you have done under these circumstances, O generous-hearted reader?
Derek tried the pretending-and-hoping-for-a-clue technique. It failed to a classic degree. Having greeted the man reciprocally with gigantic affability, it was clear that Derek was expected to take him out to lunch.
As the afternoon wore on, it became clear that Derek should now take the man home to his wife and dinner. Wife and dinner had no idea who he was either. Nor had breakfast the next morning....
Now I do not want to exaggerate the awfulness of this dire tale (I do, actually, but I shouldn't), so I must admit that this is as far as I can recall the details of the event. I do not know if Derek and Joyce ever worked out who their visitor was. Nor do I know how long he stayed.
So I am afraid that I will have to leave the narrative in a state of inconclusion.
I do, unfortunately, remember only too clearly the occasion when, as a young man, I attended a dance at my old school.
An old school chum came up to me suddenly while I was dancing with my fiancée. I remembered him and his name, and started to introduce him to the woman whose slender waist was encircled by my right forearm.
"This is my fiancée," I announced proudly ... and then, for the life of me, I couldn't remember her name. She was, name-wise, an utter and total blank. "This is ...."
In the end, she had to tell us both who she was. Not, I think retrospectively, the surest start to a life of marital bliss.
So when, just the other day, the man who knew me so well came up to me at the family-and-friends function, I opted intrepidly for the other alternative, and I did so almost instantly.
"I am so sorry," I said, "but I really don't remember...."
"Oh, you know, my wife and I stayed at your farmhouse, and we made sculptures in the fields and ... you still don't clock me?"
He was forgiving. I kind of remembered making "sculptures" by placing rocks in the meadows. It was fun and not entirely solemn, and I wonder if those rocks are still where we placed them in the 1970s. But I still didn't remember my long-lost friend or his wife.
A woman whose face I immediately knew then joined us. Naturally I assumed this was his wife, and the three of us merrily chatted away.
After a while, she went over to talk to someone else. The man, with great sensitivity, referred to his wife again in a way that suggested that she was not, in fact, at this function at all. So then I started wondering who the other woman was....
This fiasco was all perfectly friendly. But now, safely back home, among dogs and cats and others I really do know consistently by name, I wonder whether I really should be around old friends much. Is it wiser, perhaps, to just stay at home?