Years ago, when Lisa left her flat in the late afternoons to pace, she would ponder the trickiest questions of her business. What should she write to Frustrated in Cardiff? Would the advice she had drafted for Second String in Woolwich really resolve the boy’s problem with bullies, or would it earn him a beating? In her reply to Is It My Fault in York, did Lisa dare make a joke about girls who fell for married men? It might amuse readers, but would humour keep the letter writer from taking Lisa’s advice?
These days, Lisa still walked in the afternoons, but now she tried her best not to think of the people who wrote to her agony aunt column. She walked to escape them.
One afternoon, just before the canal bridge on Ladbroke Grove, Lisa came upon a woman who showed every sign of being lost. She was turning in place, consulting a map, peering at the high wall along the pavement, then looking around as if for landmarks or signs. When Lisa asked if she needed help, the woman said, “I’m going to a funeral at the Dissenters’ Chapel. Isn’t it just the other side of this wall? Maybe I should ring the bell?”
Lisa said, “You could try that. But I think the bell’s really just for deliveries to the art gallery. There’s another way in.” She pointed. “Go back to Harrow Road, turn left, and in about a hundred meters you’ll come to a big gate. From there, the Dissenters’ Chapel will be on the left.”
“That’s what I’ll do, then,” the woman said. “Thank you!” And she set off to do exactly as Lisa had said. Lisa watched her go and felt surprisingly happy, as if her day had turned around. Why did it please her so much, she wondered, to offer directions to a stranger? Was she pleased because she knew her neighbourhood so well, right down to the workings of the cemetery?
Lisa kept walking. As she strolled along the canal, watching ducks in the water and pigeons on the grass, she continued to feel deeply satisfied. Why?
Then it came to her. The woman had said, That’s what I’ll do then, and had done it. Lisa had watched her go. The woman had taken Lisa’s advice.
After twenty years as an agony aunt, Lisa had a network of consultants on retainer. Her column was the best-known in Britain. She was practically the second coming of Marjorie Proops. But what was the most common kind of follow-up letter she received? Not “Thank you for the great advice.” Not, “I did as you suggested,” whether with the hoped-for outcome or otherwise. No, the sort of follow-up letter that most often arrived began with something like, “Your advice told me to do A or B, but I decided to do C instead.”
Countless readers wrote to ask for her advice, but how many took it?
Everyone loves to give advice. Who likes to take it? Apparently, no one! And giving advice that is never taken saps the spirit.
The next day, Lisa altered her routine. Instead of walking near her flat, she rode the bus to Piccadilly Circus and then looked for tourists who showed signs of bewilderment: open maps, dazed expressions. However, within a few minutes of trawling for the lost, she recognized her own absurdity. She went home.
The next day found her walking in her own neighbourhood again. I hate my job, she thought. But what should she do with that information?
As she walked along a narrow stretch of the canal path next to an office building, she caught sight of her reflection in one of the windows.
“Okay, Miss Smarty Pants Expert,” she said to her reflection. “What should I do?”
The answer came to her almost as if the words had been uttered aloud.
What, she thought, give up my advice column? But I know this business! I make good money. It comes easy to me, now, knowing what to say and how to say it. What else would I do? It’s not practical to just quit!
Shut up, urged her reflection. Shut up. Shut up.
Lisa stared back. Hesitated. Really considered. But then she told her reflection, “Easy for you to say!”
Bruce Holland Rogers has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado, the University of Illinois, Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest (on a Fulbright) and is on the permanent faculty in fiction with the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA, a program of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines and has been reprinted in the Pushcart Prize anthology and three of the W W Norton sudden fiction/flash fiction anthologies.