Ian McMillan: A real turn-up for the book

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I’m a chap who likes to be early. Really early. Stupidly early. If I’ve got to be somewhere by half-past one, I’ll get the train that gets me there at half-past 12 and I’ll sit in a café for an hour twiddling my thumbs.

I do this because I reason to myself that it’s always better to be early rather than late, and because I’ve travelled on trains for decades I know that the timetable is often a work of fiction and sometimes a work of fantasy, so I may as well get there early.

My mate, Dave, was once a year early, which beats my hour in the café, I have to admit. Dave was a writer and he got booked to talk to an authors’ circle in a library in a Yorkshire town. The thing was, they booked their guest speakers a couple of years in advance; I can’t remember the exact year they booked Dave but let’s they say they booked him for 2008. He turned up in 2007.

He walked into the room and they turned and looked at him, writerishly. “You’re early!” somebody said.

“What, don’t you start till half-past?” Dave said, with the innocent confidence of the uber-early.

“You’re a year early,” a man with a lot of pens in his top pocket replied.

Dave didn’t believe them until he opened his letter and read it. I like to believe that he read it aloud, to compound his embarrassment.

He asked if he could do his talk now that he was here, but they said that this year’s speaker was there so he’d have to go and come back in a year. So he did.

The perfect ending to the story would have been Dave forgetting to go the year after but turning up the year after that, thus being both a year early and a year late for the same event – but that didn’t happen.

I was thinking about Dave the other day because I’ve noticed that recently I’ve started to become micro-early. Let me explain: the other day I was about to mix some Yorkshire puddings and I found that I was making the whisking action with my wrist seconds before the fork hit the bowl. I was early for whisking.

Later, I was reading a book and I found myself turning the page before I’d got to the end of it, as though I was wanting to be early with the page turning even though I was enjoying the book.

That afternoon, I was taking steps before I’d fastened my shoes, and that night I shut my mouth half-way through brushing my teeth.

A vivid childhood memory hit me across the chops; Low Valley Junior School in about 1965. I’d drunk my milk too fast and I was bursting for the toilet. I put my hand up, got permission from Mr Moody and scuttled off. I was so keen or so desperate that I’d unzipped my trousers before I got to the door.

Mr Moody raised his voice: “It’s never good to strike the fire extinguisher before the flames have started, Ian,” he said, a piece of wisdom that was unfathomable at the time but which has made a lot of sense since.

I still see Mr Moody: he lives down the next street. I’ll remind him of those helpful words next time I see him as I rush past for the early bus. The one that’s due in three-quarters of an hour.