IT‘S ALL IN THE BOOK
Clearly, it wasn‘t going to be a good day for browsing. In all the ranks of dusty shelves there wasn‘t a single book that turned me on.
Might as well go, I thought. A wasted hour.
Then, as I turned to leave, I noticed a slim volume on one of the higher shelves, pushed between two larger books so that it was all but hidden. I craned my head to one side and stood on tiptoe, but it was no use. If there was a title on the spine I couldn‘t make it out.
I turned to go once more, and then curiosity got the better of me. You never know, I said to myself. Suppose you pass it up and it happens to be a treasure ?
I reached up, stretched out a finger and pulled the top of the book forward. But, in the half-light at this end of the shop, any lettering on the spine was too faint to read. I pushed the book home again.
And, again, curiosity got the better of me. I pulled the book from its place.
I remember telling myself that other people, too, might have been put off by the faded cover and by the apparent lack of a legible title, and might have passed over a rare find. Especially in a shop like this, with no semblance of order in its shelves, and containing books which the proprietor himself probably hadn‘t looked at for twenty years.
I turned the book over in my hands. The first glance told me that it was almost certainly a long way from being a treasure. The cover appeared to have been left out in the rain, the spine was broken, the yellowed pages were heavily disfigured with water-stains. Everything about it spoke of age, ill-treatment, and neglect.
Pencilled on the fly-leaf was the price. Well, at least the shop had no illusions about its value. Barely worth the cost of the wrapping.
I began to read, idly at first, and then with growing attentiveness . . .
I‘ve no idea how long I stood there in the waning afternoon light, with my eyes almost glued to the page, and a cold knot of fear inside me. At last, by some deliberate exercise of will, I managed to close the book and to become once more aware of my surroundings. Dry-mouthed, and all but rigid with shock, I tried, but in vain, to pull my thoughts into some sort of order.
Later still, I found myself outside the bookshop with my brain still reeling, and with only a hazy recollection of having paid for the book and having heard the shopkeeper say something about it. The book still lay in my hand.
I recall nothing of the drive home, nor do I remember putting the car away. Meg looked up as I entered the kitchen.
‘Hello there ! Enjoyed yourself ? Found anything interesting ?‘
At that point she must have caught sight of my face for, when she spoke again, the tone was quite different.
‘Darling ! What in earth is it ?‘
She had to follow me into the breakfast-room to put the question a second time. I came to myself with a start.
‘Eh ? What‘s that ? Oh, er, no – nothing ! It‘s – it‘s nothing !‘
There have been times when I‘ve been glad of her streak of stubbornness, but this wasn‘t one of them. I ought to have known that she wouldn‘t be put off so easily.
‘Come on, now ! You‘re as white as chalk ! What is it ! Is it the car ? Has something happened to it ?‘
I couldn‘t tell her. I wasn‘t seeing things too clearly just then, and I wasn‘t even partly sure of anything. Except this one thing. I was sure about this. This she must never know. But I had to think of something. Quickly.
‘No, it‘s – er, nothing ! Really ! Bit of a head, that‘s all !‘
She appeared, with some reluctance, to accept it, gave me a cup of tea I badly needed, and a couple of aspirins I didn‘t. I said I thought I‘d go into the sitting-room for a while, and sit down quietly. Perhaps it would go off.
It was true that I felt the need to get away on my own and do some quiet thinking, but it wasn‘t long before that conviction gave way to another and more urgent feeling. I couldn‘t handle this alone. I had to share the knowledge with someone, and I‘d no idea who I could confide in. I knew only that it couldn‘t be Meg. Not Meg. Under normal circumstances she‘d have been the first, and perhaps the only one. But not this. Not this time. This time it was out of the question.
On an impulse I scrambled out of the chair and went through to the hall, patting my jacket pocket to make sure I wasn‘t leaving the evidence behind me. On second thoughts, I took it out and stuffed it out of sight on top of the bookshelves. Then I went through and poked my head round the kitchen-door.
‘I‘m going out for a while, love !‘
Then, noticing the raised eyebrows, I added,
‘Just going for a walk, that‘s all ! See if I can shift this headache.‘
I closed the door quickly before she could think of another question or – worse still – offer to come with me.
Mike. Now why hadn‘t I thought of him before ? Mike‘s the one. A bit of a nonsense in some ways, but when you‘re in a hole he throws a neat life-line. Not all that common in a brother-in-law, I suppose.
Thank the Lord, he was in. He listened to my story with every sign of growing amusement.
‘Bill, you‘re putting me on ! Typical writer ! Active imagination, of course. I suppose you‘re trying out a new story-line on me for size ?‘
Then he, too, seemed to see something in my face.
‘You‘re not, are you ? You‘re serious !‘
I nodded, He began to fill his pipe as though his hands needed occupation while his mind wrestled with an appalling idea. It was some time before he spoke again.
‘But, Bill, it‘s – it‘s ridiculous !‘
‘Yes, it is, isn‘t it ! The trouble is, it‘s true ! Every word of it !‘
He lit the pipe, taking his time, and eventually looked at me through a cloud of smoke.
‘But what makes you think it‘s your life ?‘
I recited the facts. Place of birth, and date – even the hour, which I hadn‘t known myself till now. School. Boyhood experiences. Thoughts that no one else could possibly have had, almost up to the present. I hadn’t read any further than that. I couldn‘t. But all of it dead to rights. It couldn‘t possibly be coincidence.
He sat down heavily, as though he needed to.
‘Right ! Chuck it over ! Let‘s have a look at the damn thing !‘
I couldn‘t do that, I said. The last thing I wanted was to carry it around with me. He looked puzzled.
‘Why ever not ?‘
I spelt it out for him.
‘Think ! Put yourself in my place ! You see a book. You open it. And you begin to read your own life story. Written like the biography of someone – well, someone else. How would you like it ?‘
He didn‘t seem to be getting the point. I suppose when you‘re not personally involved it doesn‘t strike you at once. I repeated the question.
‘Look ! How would you like to read yours ?‘
He tried the jocular approach.
"What ? Not half ? You‘d know what to do next, wouldn‘t you ?‘
Then his face changed utterly. It was almost comical.
‘Or – half a minute – would you ? If it‘s – well, all decided ? I mean. that would have to happen, I suppose. Or – well, perhaps . . .‘
He tailed off. Yes, I thought, you‘re getting the message, aren‘t you ?
He scrambled out of the chair.
‘Come on ! You‘re going to have to convince me ! There‘s something screwy about this !‘
Meg‘s eyebrows rose again at the sight of her brother, but we both went past her without speaking. I reached for the book, and handed it to him. He began to read, not sitting down. Then, after a while, without taking his eyes from the book, he felt for the chair with his leg and sat in it as though he rather needed its support. I waited impatiently.
He read two, three pages. Then he leafed through the book and read a page further on. Then he glanced up at me, gave me a guarded look, closed the book, and put it down on the table as though it had suddenly become too hot to hold. When at last he spoke, it wasn‘t his usual voice.
‘Yes. Yes – I take the point !‘
Then he looked down at the book again, and seemed almost to edge away from it. He tried a laugh, but mirth was the last thing it contained. Then he asked for a drink.
I went over to the bookshelves and put the book back before I poured out his Scotch. I said,
‘I suppose the best thing would be to burn it ?‘
He looked up quickly and almost missed the glass I was handing to him.
‘Are you sure ? Look, Bill, I think I know what‘s bugging you. I mean, a biography usually ends with – well . . .‘
I‘d dodged that word, too . . .
‘Well, would you want to know ?‘ I asked. ‘The day and the hour ?‘
He was silent for a while but when he eventually spoke, his thoughts chimed exactly with mine. Had I considered Meg ? Suppose I learned from the book that I was going to hand in my checks ahead of time, sort of ? Say a year from now ? Wouldn‘t I want to make use of my knowledge to spend as much money as I could raise on a thumping big increase in my insurance cover ? For her benefit ?
But I was ahead of him now. Every man faces the prospect that he‘ll probably go first. And it would help, of course – being realistic – to know when it was to be. The trouble was that at this moment I wasn‘t finding it all that easy to be realistic.
Mike‘s next words broke in on these thoughts.
‘Bill ! What about Meg ?‘
I must have looked puzzled.
‘I mean,‘ he went on, ‘aren‘t you going to tell her ?‘
I‘d thought of that, too. Instinct said no. But experience told ne that keeping things from Meg usually landed me in a mess. We jawed over it through a couple of drinks, but when Mike went at last I was no nearer to a decision. In the end, I did what I tend to do all too often. I put it off.
But I hadn‘t reckoned with Meg.
‘Look here, darling, you nearly kicked me black and blue in the night ! Now come on ! Let‘s have it ! What is wrong ?‘
I discovered long ago that when she puts on that voice, it‘s a waste of time trying to flannel my way out. She just keeps on till I throw in the towel.
Like her brother, she read a few pages, turned the pages to read a little further on, and then put down the book like a hot coal. It was some time before, it seemed, she could collect her thoughts sufficiently to discuss things. Her first reaction was to burn it. She had no time for Mike‘s argument at all.
But now I knew what I had to do. Telling her had cleared my mind. It usually does. It took a long time, and all my powers of persuasion to get even a part agreement, but in the end she said,
‘All right, if that‘s what you want ! But you‘re not going off on your own somewhere. I know, I know ! I heard what you said ! You want to get away from other people. I‘m not other people ! I‘m your wife, and – and . . .‘
Then she raised her head and stuck out her chin in her own inimitable way.
‘We‘ll read it together ! Then we‘ll both know what to do !‘
So next day we went down to the coast. I can‘t say I was looking forward to the trip, but I had to admit that I felt better now that we were in it together. When we got to our usual spot, we first had a drink at the Surf Club. Then we went out and sat down on the sea wall. She was silent and withdrawn and, as I took the book from her, she turned away. As I opened it, she said, in a small and shaky voice,
‘Darling, don‘t shut me out ! Please ! Read it aloud !‘
I began at Page One. She sat beside me, tense and very still. My life unfolded, page by page, until it reached the moment when I‘d reached up to pull out a small book from a shelf in a dusty bookshop. Then came Mike, then Meg, and at last we came to today, and to our seat on the sea-wall.
I turned to look at her. She was ashen-faced and somehow smaller, and looking out to sea with eyes filled with sadness. I turned back to the book and to what was to come. My lips were stiff and cold but. at least, I told myself, she hadn‘t yet noticed how few were the pages left.
‘He sat on the sea wall with his wife, wondering what he would say, how she would act, when at last they knew. He pressed down the page and cleared his throat, suddenly dry, in preparation to read on. Suddenly – ‘
I read no more, for the book had been torn from my hand. She was running wildly down the beach, as though to avoid pursuit. I ran to follow, fearful of what she might do.
As she neared the water‘s edge she stopped, drew back her arm and then, with that awkward, girlish action I knew so well, flung the book as far as she could towards the oncoming sea. It struck the water, floated for a moment, and then the distorted, quivering shape was lost to sight.
I ran down the beach until I reached her. She turned, her eyes filled with tears and with a strange confusion of pain and triumph. Then she said, almost to herself, in a low harsh voice,
‘Now we‘ll never know ! Till it happens !‘
And then she began to cry, her body shaking with sobs, and I felt a great weight lifted from me. Her tears gave me no real cause for anxiety. for I knew that at last here was something I knew I could handle.
So I did . . .