29 Dec 2017

I left the car in the park and ride and took the slow lurching bus ride into town sitting upstairs by the front window. It was so good to have an afternoon away from Tom and the monsters. He would take them out for carbs and fat and caffeine and they would all love it. Meanwhile I could enjoy a peaceful mooch around Oxford visiting my old haunts without having to entertain anybody except myself. I might even find the 1875 edition of Carberry's Almanac I had become so interested in.

I first heard about it in an online chat room. I knew there was something special about it because all the senior posters viewed the thread and there were fake comments deriding the idea that the book even existed. The world of antiquaries is not always a pleasant place to be.

The poster who seemed most knowledeable was “Hardback” and his delightful irreverent comments and gorgeous profile pic tempted me for the first time to send a message to a stranger on a website. I spent over an hour crafting my casual, complimentary, mock serious, witty but educated message into an off the cuff, spur of the moment invitation to tell me more about Carberry's Almanac. I was a wet pile of jelly by the time I hit send and immediately after I slumped into a pit of self loathing knowing Hardback would despise me and never reply.

I spent the next four hours feeding, cleaning, washing and tucking the monsters into bed then more or less doing the same for my husband. It was only around eleven pm as I settled down to sleep that I heard the compelling ping of email dropping into my in-box on the phone next to my bed.

I could not believe my eyes. Hardback had replied and more than that he sent a long, funny charming missive encouraging my pursuit of the mysterious Carberry's and offering to discuss it over coffee in his Oxford book shop.

In the days, and nights, that followed I read his message a hundred times and my own to him nearly as many. I looked for any hint of sarcasm, any suggestion that really he knew I was a mad housewife with nothing better to do than troll respectable book sellers. I also felt ludicrously guilty. Was I being unfaithful to my husband? It seemed a bit of a stretch. I had enquired about a rare book and a bookseller had offered to discuss it. But I could not deny he was adorably handsome and the possibility of meeting him to discuss the history of concrete would be the most excitement I had had since the twins were born. We started to email and finally when I had a day free we arranged to meet.

So it was I travelled into Oxford on the bus that afternoon still unsure if I would even look for the Oriel Lane bookshop and its owner who I now knew to be called Robert. I went round the market, into a few fashion shops, I bought action toys for the monsters and slippers for Tom. I even visited a few book shops to see if I could exhaust my curiosity or divert myself by buying the latest prizewinner. As it grew dark and I started to hate myself for being such a coward I found myself peeling off the high street into Oriel Lane. I told myself it was Carberry's that had drawn me there. A bell tinkled deep in the recesses of the shop as I stepped over the threshold into the most amazing labyrinth of rooms and corridors with steps up and steps down, book cases and old prints lining every wall, it was a readers tardis.

A young man popped up from a desk by the door. “Robert” he shouted “I'm going now.” A deep strong voice from the bowels of the shop replied “OK Frank, I'll close up, have a good time, behave yourself”. I made to leave the shop grateful that my decision had been made for me.

“Don't worry, you don't have to leave, Robert will look after you” said the boy called Frank as he cheerily waved goodbye and skipped through the closing door. It crashed shut, the closed sign facing the street seemed to seal my fate.

After an eternity I heard footsteps coming up from the basement. I busied myself with titles on the shelf nearest to me and slowly into the yellow light of the shop stepped a man so handsome my chest restricted and it hurt me to breath.

“Are you alright” he asked and when I nodded he followed up with “are you interested in trains of Patagonia, I have a couple more downstairs”. I thought this must be be code of the most delicious kind but then I saw the books in front on my nose that I had been toying with. “No I murmured, trains generally do it for me”. He did not seem to take this in and I was lost for words for several seconds. “You really look like you have had a shock my darling, come and take the weight off”. He made me sit down in a huge leather sofa in the middle of the shop. He fetched a glass of water and I thanked him over and over again and said I was OK. Finally I told him who I was and he became even more solicitous. “I am closing the shop and you will rest before I take you out for something to eat”. He disappeared in to the shop, “but first” he said brandishing a folio sized volume “I have something to show you, something I believe you have been yearning for”. He lowered the heavy tome into my lap pulling off its velvet covering as he did. “And here you have it, not the 1875 edition but a replica, probably made for the Prince of Wales and obviously well thumbed”. He sat beside me as together we opened the book. Its heavy pages were covered with exquisite drawings in pen and ink, some large some small, some in great detail and others the merest outline but all depicting an orgy of sensual mid and late Victorian pornography. Men and women of all ages, sizes and in all positions. Eagerly I flipped over one page after another.

“It is such a delight to share this with you Sally, I knew you would appreciate its beauty and rarity”

“Yes I replied, and just look at the size of that thing, can he have been real?”

“We must allow for the clerics somewhat vivid imagination, but Carberry is usually a most reliable witness and they do say he was powerfully endowed himself”.

“His appetites were notorious” I replied meekly.

“And so he feeds our own,” Robert smiled into my eyes and let his hand drop between my legs under the cover of the book. I felt his fingers pull down the zip of my tight trousers and he began gently passing his fingers over the silk front of my best knickers, ones Tom gave me for our anniversary last year and which I had put on specially that morning.

“If you want to buy this book from me there something you need to do”

“I thought there would be, I mean I was hoping there would be.”

“Then I will begin” he said closing the book and undoing the top button of my trousers. He slid them down off my long legs and looked appreciatively at the smooth white skin and my bright pink knickers.

Just as I felt exposed and ready to scream or run away Robert jumped off the sofa and pulled me off too throwing me over the wide back of the cold burgundy leather. It smelt of cigars, whiskey and men's clubs. I was pleased he was treating me roughly, I felt I deserved it. Standing behind me I heard him pull down his corduroy trousers and elasticated underpants. He pushed me forward over the back of the sofa, kicked my legs apart and slapped my bottom with such force I cried out. It was when he pulled my head back by my hair I noticed the three Chinese girls faces pressed to the shop window looking over the display of Oxford Though the Ages, no doubt wondering if this was why the English loved bookshops so much.

After the shutters were hurriedly closed Robert returned to me and regained his composure.

“I am very sorry about that, Oxford is a nightmare these days, so many tourists.”

But the moment had passed and I pulled up my pants glad perhaps that I could look Tom and the monsters in the eye that night when I gave them their presents. I never did get hold of Carberry's Almanac or even a reprint but many nights when Tom goes through the motions on top of me I remember Robert's enormous phallus or is it the Reverend Carberry's?