My Uncle John, a natural story teller, told a story that I still remember all these many years later.
A young Canadian, on his first trip overseas, checks into his Bed and Breakfast in downtown London, takes a stroll around the neighborhood, makes an impulse buy of a straw hat, and stops at a Pakistani restaurant for a meal. He then enters Hyde Park.
Whatever the reason—the confusion of an eight-hour time-change, the long overseas flight in a cramped seat, or the unaccustomed spicy foot—the tourist suddenly feels nature calling. No . . . nature is screaming at the top of her lungs! Casting about in panic, he sees a dense line of hedges, races over to them, and crawls underneath.
He accomplishes the task and is about to head back to his lodgings, whistling casually all the way, when he notices a pair of black polished boots facing him a few feet away. As the pant legs begin to rise off the boot tops, the Canadian whips off his recently-purchased English boater hat and plops it down over the evidence.
It’s at this point in the story that a master storyteller, like my uncle, really shines. He doesn’t have to slow down the story with phrases like “then the Canadian said,” or “then the British policeman said”. You know from the accents and facial expressions, exactly who is talking and what is going through their minds.
The constable surveys the situation for a long moment, and then says “What’s going on here, Sir? What you have under that hat?”
Perhaps we’ve all experienced such moments. Faced with a situation out of which we can see no tolerable exit, we make up some ‘innocent’ lie. Then, as if hypnotized by our own story, we helplessly watch as we dig ourselves in deeper and deeper.
“Good afternoon, Officer. Actually, I just moved into a flat across the way over there, and I guess I’m not quite used to it yet. I always let Waltie—that’s my Budgie—had him half my life, I have—I always let him out of his cage in the afternoon. He loves to fly around a bit, Waltie does . . .”
The Canadian now feels his knees trembling (either from nerves, from squatting so long, or because the Pakistani dinner is stirring again).
Unable to stop himself, he has slipped into a parody of a British sit-com that airs on the CBC back in Canada.
Then, amazingly, the Bobbie’s face softens as he actually takes up the story, “Me mom had a Budgie. Went by “Gertrude”, she did. The bird, not me Mom. Passed on, both of them have.”
A rough, broad hand passes over the policeman’s eyes. Then he has a most unfortunate inspiration. “I’ll help you catch him! You lift up the hat, and I’ll sweep me hands in.”
“Ah, actually . . .”
“No, I won’t hear of it. Those little guys are quick. We need to do this together, Lad!”
“I should get Waltie’s cage first”, the Canadian protests, of course intending to never again set foot inside Hyde Park for the remainder of his time on Earth. But a stern look from the officer silences him.
A devastating inertia now takes hold. In proportion to the absurdity of the story he has begun, the tourist feels imprisoned within its narrative walls. Surely, here was his chance to say, “Actually Officer, I’m afraid I told a little fib a moment ago. I had some food that didn’t agree with me.”
However, falling in line with the compassionate crusader that his fiction has created, the Canadian remains silent as the constable continues.
“Let’s not dally any longer, Lad. Waltie needs to get safely home, to his water bowl and his favorite food.” And, with a firmness that brooks no further delay, “I’m ready, Lad. Lift the hat!”
Absurdly, the Canadian lifts the hat, and the officer’s hands swoop in beneath the rim. Even more absurdly, the tourist inquires, “Did you get him?”
A tear glistens on the officer’s eyelid. “Aye, Lad. I got him, alright”.
And with tears now streaming down his cheeks, he says, “But I broke every bone in his body.”
(a longer version, with the awkwardness much expanded, can be found in my memoir, “The Flying Caterpillar”).