On Reading the End of the Book

My Dad was a rules man. Making them and following the rules that others had made. A friend once suggested that a fairly chaotic childhood may have helped to set him on this path and I think she was on to something. He came from a family of bookies in the docks of London. He had clear memories of being left in the care of an elderly great-auntie while the rest of his extended family was rounded up and arrested, the great-auntie being deemed too old and he too young to join the rest of them down the police station.

Then came the Blitz and never knowing from one minute to the next what was going to happen.

He joined the RAF as soon as he was of age and fitted quite happily into that ordered life. And during that time, he met and fell in love with my mother. Marriage to her meant joining the Catholic church and following all of their rules, which again, he found comforting and reasonable.

Such a rule-follower was he that, finding himself at a red light in the middle of the night with no other traffic in sight, he would wait, patiently and contentedly for the light to turn green before proceeding. I questioned him on this once, because I was tired and didn’t see the point of waiting.

“But the rule says to stop at the red. It doesn’t say stop only if there’s other traffic or before midnight. It says stop. So we stop.”

The first time Alan and I were out past midnight and he drove through a red light (after checking that there was no other traffic) my heart raced and I broke out in a sweat. “Aren’t you supposed to wait for the green?” I asked.

“Pffffft!” he said. “Not if there’s no one around!” And whole new worlds of possibility started to open up before me.

Not merely content to follow the already-written laws of God and men, Dad made a few of his own.

Bathrobes had to be worn any time we left our bedrooms not fully dressed, even if it was just to run across the hall to pee. I don’t even own a bathrobe these days – a cardigan fulfils the purpose when necessary and handily doubles as, well, as a cardigan, making my minimalist heart sing. So every time I swan about the house in my jammies, I feel like I’m getting away with something.

We were also not allowed make baked bean sandwiches. Baked beans being in heavy rotation as a cheap, quick meal for a big family, we loved making sandwiches with them. The warm beans would melt the butter and soak into the bread, making a gooey, yummy, messy treat. And it was the mess my father objected to. So when he was home, we kept our beans separate from our bread and butter. We were a subdued bunch at those meals, sad that the bread had to stay separate from the beans, a tragic romance, like Romeo and Juliet. When he wasn’t home, we sandwiched away, always sworn to secrecy by Mum.

The rule that I’m thinking about today concerns reading. Now that winter’s fully established where I live, I’ve been hibernating with a stack of novels beside me. And with every novel I read, there comes the point where I break Dad’s cardinal rule: don’t read the back of the book. Honestly, if we were in the living room and he saw us flipping through for a quick glance of the ending he would tell us to stop and occasionally take the book out of our hands to keep from finding out how it all worked out.

And I followed that rule for quite a few years after I moved out until late one night I was reading a murder mystery. M. M. Kaye, best known as the author of The Far Pavilions also wrote a (to my mind much better) series of extremely scary mysteries. The tension would build and build until I could stand it no more and would flip to the back of book and see how it ended. And then, satisfied that all would be well, I was able to enjoy the rest of the book.

I do this all the time now, always with a nod to my Dad, even though I know it would infuriate him. I just like to know that any given novel is going to take me someplace I want to go. And if it’s not, I want to be prepared.

Life is so unpredictable and for so many of us feels even more so lately, so I say, take your security and your comfort where you can find it. Books are not life. We get to choose how they happen to us.

Just please don’t tell my Dad…

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