1970-something, bookstore, downtown Oxford, England. Cloudy, moody late afternoon (there were so many, which makes the memories of sunny days–sky a blue to gasp over, cottonball clouds, Radcliffe Camera’s dome sunsparked, even musty old Carfax Tower rinsed and bright—stand out all the more). The bookstore, my favorite haunt in all of Oxford, smelled like tea (PG Tips) and paper. My mother was somewhere nearby, but I always felt deliciously alone when turned loose in the middle grade fiction section of this store, browsing for books I could really, hopelessly get lost in. That day: a booksigning, possibly the first I’d ever attended. The authors: a woman, whose name I can’t remember, probably because I do remember her novel wasn’t one of my favorites, although I was still excited to have her sign my copy, which I’d brought with me. Signing next to her, a man whose works I knew well and loved. Somehow, I didn’t realize he was also signing that day. Perhaps because there was such a crowd around him, perhaps my mother had told me, but my mind was in a book at the time, perhaps she didn’t know, either. I queued up eagerly. When it was my turn, I handed him the freshly signed woman author’s book and asked for his signature. I think I almost killed him. Oh, no, he said, passionately. This isn’t my book. I can’t. That he couldn’t had not occured to me. I was on the younger side of the middle grade market. Just a voraciously-book-reading-baby, really. Horrified, my eyes flooded with tears. I must have looked as devastated as I felt because he hastily flipped to the back page and, with conciliatory mutters, scribbled his name. When he handed the book to me, I clutched it to my chest in a protective manner and thanked him, all smiles. And stayed where I was, gazing, until the bookstore owner ushered me out of the way so the next child could have their book signed. I remember he was gaunt, a tower even when sitting down, wearing a blazer and although his demeanor was possibly terrifying, his voice was kind (even when panicked) and he looked children right in their eyes. Not so many years later, when I realized what had happened, what I’d asked of him, whenever I thought about it, I blushed.
Ican’trememberIcan’trememberIcan’tremember forgive me (as I try to forgive myself—and my mother, who has no recollection of the event—why didn’t she document it? We had cameras back then!), but I’m 99% memoretically* positive the author who looked me right in my eyes was Roald Dahl.
I can’t remember, but I will never forget.
*What do you mean you don’t know this word? Get back on the planet!