Friday 5 November 2010

A Dab of AAM

I haven't been feeling very well today, so have postponed more thoughtful posts in lieu of continuing the short story theme for the week. Whenever I write about short stories, the number of comments go down - they're not as popular as novels with you folks, are they? - but I thought you might enjoy this, from A.A. Milne's collection of stories and essays called Happy Days.


"Know thyself," said the old Greek motto. (In Greek—but this is an English book.) So I bought a little red volume called, tersely enough, Were you born in January? I was; and, reassured on this point, the author told me all about myself.

For the most part he told me nothing new. "You are," he said in effect, "good-tempered, courageous, ambitious, loyal, quick to resent wrong, an excellent raconteur, and a leader of men." True. "Generous to a fault"—(Yes, I was overdoing that rather)—"you have a ready sympathy with the distressed. People born in this month will always keep their promises." And so on. There was no doubt that the author had the idea all right. Even when he went on to warn me of my weaknesses he maintained the correct note. "People born in January," he said, "must be on their guard against working too strenuously. Their extraordinarily active brains——" Well, you see what he means. It is a fault perhaps, and I shall be more careful in future. Mind, I do not take offence with him for calling my attention to it. In fact, my only objection to the book is its surface application to all the people who were born in January. There should have been more distinction made between me and the rabble.

I have said that he told me little that was new. In one matter, however, he did open my eyes. He introduced me to an aspect of myself entirely unsuspected.

"They," he said—meaning me, "have unusual business capacity, and are destined to be leaders in great commercial enterprises."

One gets at times these flashes of self-revelation. In an instant I realised how wasted my life had been; in an instant I resolved that here and now I would put my great gifts to their proper uses. I would be a leader in an immense commercial enterprise.

One cannot start commercial enterprises without capital. The first thing was to determine the exact nature of my balance at the bank. This was a matter for the bank to arrange, and I drove there rapidly.

"Good morning," I said to the cashier, "I am in rather a hurry. May I have my pass-book?"

He assented and retired. After an interminable wait, during which many psychological moments for commercial enterprise must have lapsed, he returned.

"I think you have it," he said shortly.

"Thank you," I replied, and drove rapidly home again.

A lengthy search followed; but after an hour of it one of those white-hot flashes of thought, such as only occur to the natural business genius, seared my mind and sent me post-haste to the bank again.

"After all," I said to the cashier, "I only want to know my balance. What is it?"

He withdrew and gave himself up to calculation. I paced the floor impatiently. Opportunities were slipping by. At last he pushed a slip of paper across at me. My balance!

It was in four figures. Unfortunately two of them were shillings and pence. Still, there was a matter of fifty pounds odd as well, and fortunes have been built up on less.

Out in the street I had a moment's pause. Hitherto I had regarded my commercial enterprise in the bulk, as a finished monument of industry; the little niggling preliminary details had not come up for consideration. Just for a second I wondered how to begin.

Only for a second. An unsuspected talent which has long lain dormant needs, when waked, a second or so to turn round in. At the end of that time I had made up my mind. I knew exactly what I would do. I would ring up my solicitor.

"Hallo, is that you? Yes, this is me. What? Yes, awfully, thanks. How are you? Good. Look here, come and lunch with me. What? No, at once. Good-bye."

Business, particularly that sort of commercial enterprise to which I had now decided to lend my genius, can only be discussed properly over a cigar. During the meal itself my solicitor and I indulged in the ordinary small-talk of the pleasure-loving world.

"You're looking very fit," said my solicitor. "No, not fat, fit."

"You don't think I'm looking thin?" I asked anxiously. "People are warning me that I may be overdoing it rather. They tell me that I must be seriously on my guard against brain strain."

"I suppose they think you oughtn't to strain it too suddenly," said my solicitor. Though he is now a solicitor he was once just an ordinary boy like the rest of us, and it was in those days that he acquired the habit of being rude to me, a habit he has never quite forgotten.

"What is an onyx?" I said, changing the conversation.

"Why?" asked my solicitor, with his usual business acumen.

"Well, I was practically certain that I had seen one in the Zoo, in the reptile house, but I have just learnt that it is my lucky month stone. Naturally I want to get one."

The coffee came and we settled down to commerce.

"I was just going to ask you," said my solicitor—"have you any money lying idle at the bank? Because if so——"

"Whatever else it is doing, it isn't lying idle," I protested. "I was at the bank to-day, and there were men chivying it about with shovels all the time."

"Well, how much have you got?"

"About fifty pounds."

"It ought to be more than that."

"That's what I say, but you know what those banks are. Actual merit counts for nothing with them."

"Well, what did you want to do with it?"

"Exactly. That was why I rang you up. I—er——" This was really my moment, but somehow I was not quite ready to seize it. My vast commercial enterprise still lacked a few trifling details. "Er—I—well, it's like that."

"I might get you a few ground rents."

"Don't. I shouldn't know where to put them."

"But if you really have fifty pounds simply lying idle I wish you'd lend it to me for a bit. I'm confoundedly hard up."

("Generous to a fault, you have a ready sympathy with the distressed." Dash it, what could I do?)

"Is it quite etiquette for clients to lend solicitors money?" I asked. "I thought it was always solicitors who had to lend it to clients. If I must, I'd rather lend it to you—I mean I'd dislike it less—as to the old friend of my childhood."

"Yes, that's how I wanted to pay it back."

"Bother. Then I'll send you a cheque to-night," I sighed.

And that's where we are at the moment. "People born in this month always keep their promises." The money has got to go to-night. If I hadn't been born in January, I shouldn't be sending it; I certainly shouldn't have promised it; I shouldn't even have known that I had it. Sometimes I almost wish that I had been born in one of the decent months. March, say.


  1. "My balance!"
    "It was in four figures. Unfortunately two of them were shillings and pence."

    !This had me laughing out loud!
    I enjoyed the whole bit. Thanks.

  2. Very nice! I was chuckling about being born in a decent month. :) Hope you are feeling better soon!

  3. I adore short stories (love Shirley Jackson!), and the one you shared yesterday was amazing.

    Thanks for that one and this one as well. :)

    Hope you feel better soon.

  4. I like short stories, but I think our tastes in short stories probably differ greatly which is perhaps why I have not commented much.

  5. Get better!
    Here is a fine little short story for Bonfire Night, for those who appreciate them.
    Enjoy xx

  6. PS
    This is brilliant. Thanks for a comedy lunch time read :)

  7. I hope that you feel better soon...Read "The Sun Also Rises". That will perk you up ...:-)

  8. Thanks for making me smile. Feel better and Pssst! the NYRB giveaway I mentioned is up.

  9. I often have trouble with short stories, though I must say that I liked this one. Those I have hitherto come across have a tendency to be incredibly sad, weird or both sad and weird. By contrast, this was small but perfectly formed.

    I hope you are feeling better. Have a good weekend.

  10. I love short stories, please don't stop writing about them

  11. I had fun reading this post. Perfectly hilarious!

  12. I can remember checking out O.Henry volume way back when I was a teenager. I thought they were so clever!


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