by Paul McDonald
An old friend of mine, Geoff, spent the last thirty years of his adult life collecting joke books, and when he died he left me over five thousand in his will. They lined practically every wall of his semi-detached house, while the rest were stored in crates in the attic, shed, and garage. Some weeks after the funeral I visited the house to discuss my inheritance with his widow, Floss.
‘I assume you didn’t realise it was quite such an obsession,’ said Floss, noting the look on my face as she handed me the weighty catalogue listing all the books in the collection.
‘I knew he enjoyed a good laugh,’ I said, smiling, ‘but this is ridiculous!’ She didn’t return my smile, and I was reminded that, on the few occasions I’d met her previously, she appeared rather humourless. It unsettles me when people don’t return smiles: I feel like an idiot who smiles too much.
As I turned the pages of the catalogue it became very apparent that Geoff had been a maniacal collector – the catalogue wasn’t merely a list, it was a complete annotated bibliography. The entries included comprehensive publication details, and accounts of each volume’s historical context. It was over five hundred pages long, the size and weight of a Victorian family bible, and it had the words “Geoff’s Chuckle Books” gold blocked on the front and spine.
‘He had it hard bound when he discovered the tumour was terminal,’ said Floss. ‘I don’t know why he couldn’t have called it “Geoff’s Joke Books” rather than “Geoff’s Chuckle Books!” There’s something about the phrase ‘Chuckle Books’ that is really childish and annoying, don’t you think?’
I personally didn’t think it was annoying at all, but I kept that to myself: the phrase was typical of Geoff.
Geoff bequeathed the books to me because I teach a course on the philosophy of humour at the local university. He’d taken the course himself a decade ago as a mature student, which is how we met. Despite being twice my age we’d hit it off and were regular drinking buddies, meeting for a weekly pint right up to when his illness confined him to the house, and finally the hospice.
‘Some of these books are worth a lot of money,’ I said, still perusing the catalogue. I’d noticed references to early copies of important Renaissance jest books, and a rare mid-Victorian edition of Joe Miller’s Jests. ‘I would be perfectly happy to auction them and let you have the money,’ I continued, ‘I have no real claim to them.’
‘Money is no use to me,’ she said. ‘I’ve no family to leave it to, and I’m approaching eighty. Besides he wanted you to have them.’
I couldn’t help but feel relieved when she turned me down.
Geoff told me many times that his relationship with his wife was unsatisfactory, and often used old Henny Youngman jokes to describe her. She wanted a family and he didn’t, apparently; I remember him saying that he liked kids, but he liked his hair more. I also remember him telling me that they’d stopped having sex in their late forties, and by the time they invented Viagra he’d forgotten what to do.
‘I hope your wife has a sense of humour,’ said Floss flatly, ‘sharing a house with this many books is no joke.
‘I’m not sure she has this much of a sense of humour,’ I said, gesturing to the burgeoning bookshelves, and offering her another, even broader smile.
‘I just want rid,’ she said, once more ignoring my attempt to engage her. I was finding it impossible to imagine a less compatible couple than Geoff and Floss, and began to see why his pet name for her was ‘my little pterodactyl.’
I couldn’t deny that the joke volumes were going to be a problem. My wife and I already had lots of arguments about books. I had too many, she thought, and was always accusing me of letting them take over the house. She’d say that marriage is about compromise, which meant doing what she thought was best. And when she said it she definitely wasn’t joking.
‘Perhaps I’ll auction them and give the money to cancer research,’ I said, ‘or maybe donate them to the University library.
‘Geoff told me a lot about you,’ said Floss, ‘he liked and respected you a lot.’
Though it was spoken with her usual vinegar expression, I initially took this as a compliment. I told her I would be in touch about collecting the books, and left. I was on my way home before it occurred to me that it may not have been a compliment at all. Certainly her reference to Geoff liking and respecting me didn’t mean that she did too; more likely the opposite. I could see why she and Geoff had so many rows, and as I prepared myself for the one I was about to have with my own wife, I wracked my brains for ways of making light of it.
Paul McDonald runs the creative writing programme at the University of Wolverhampton, and is a poet, novelist, and critic. He is a four-time winner of the Ottakars/Faber and Faber Poetry Competition, The John Clare Poetry Prize, and the Sentinel Prize. See Paul’s Amazon author page. Email him at email@example.com