When I was young I lived with William Shakespeare and it turned out to be an unforgettable experience. Will was just great to have around. Then, disaster struck one night and we were separated when a river overflowed and I was caught up in the ensuing deluge. I nearly came a cropper. Fortunately, I was saved and then Will and I got back together for a little while. You may have noticed that I’m on first name terms with the nation’s foremost figure in drama and poetry. All that was during my tender years or, as I like to call it, my misbegotten youth. Oh sorry, let me explain. You see, I’m a book and was published around the period the beloved bard’s love sonnets and his plays were appearing on the scene. By chance, we were placed beside one another as freshly-rescued volumes on the same shelf in Reed’s Literary Emporium, a bookshop with a difference near Bankside in London. The rescued bit of the story will become clearer in a moment but I’m happy to say that over the next few months, Will and I got to know each other well and built up a wide circle of friends among the many members of the realm of books in our midst.
What fun we had of an evening when the last customer had departed and the shop had closed, we could then let our hair down and exchange anecdotes often in stitches at Will’s astute observations about the comedy of goings-on during the day. God, how he kept us entertained which helped I must say to alleviate the tedium of being on the shelf as it were and, in my case, being occasionally handled by complete strangers and the pain of rejection in remaining unsold. However, there was another, shall we say, earthy aspect to where we were located in this vast metropolis and this definitely added a frisson of excitement to our lives. This rhythm in our routine continued with some of our members moving on and then being replaced by new companions until a wretched flood played havoc with all of us back in 1589; I remember it well as it was a year after the Spanish Armada.
How did all this come about? A bit odd really as a collection of Will’s plays and I were brought into this world as separate entities by a printers in Marshalsea on the southern reaches of old father Thames. This gentle young lad called James was our maker, a 15½-year old apprentice who put us together with care and great application though Will and I were saddened to be cast aside at such an early point in life when the client who had ordered us went bankrupt so I heard and didn’t take delivery. The master printer was a heartless man and we were consigned to a limbo existence as a forgotten heap of cast-off publications on the floor of this busy premises. Often people walked over us and I felt the painful step of countless shoes press into my covers or my spine but James had made me robust so I was able to bounce back; Will was also of equal strength. So we lay there close together, Will and I in this undignified manner for ages until a white-haired and distinguished-looking gentleman appeared one day. For the first time someone took an interest in this library of downtrodden souls and our saviour was a Mr Reed who kindly took us out of this god-forsaken hole by purchasing us as a job lot for his Emporium on Gropec*nt Lane.
I have to say that the next chapter of my adolescence turned out to be pretty heady for a variety of reasons. For starters, the bookshop as our new abode was prone to flooding from the nearby Thames which often disgorged its foul contents into the surrounding area and once I was fished out from the inundated basement a sodden, grubby wreck in danger of disintegrating. The bookseller must have relished his profession because the pragmatic Mr Reed, who supplemented his meagre income from the business of literature by running a bawdy house on the uppermost two floors of his establishment, cleaned me up and dried me out several times and executed his deed of love so well that the term ‘water damaged’ no longer applied. But I have an impression you might be interested in what else occurred at this place. Permit me then to satisfy your prurient curiosity.
As a resident in the bookshop on the same site beneath that bawdy house or more commonly called a brothel in today’s anaemic way of speaking, I became familiar with so much thanks to Mr Reed’s Little Bit of Paradise which was a popular establishment albeit with a certain notoriety where gentlemen from many classes of society found comfort in the women my new guv’nor employed. Frequently I spied an eager punter satisfying his lust with a young whore – and every so often more than one young strumpet partook – between the bookshelves when the upstairs rooms must have been fully occupied and I have to say that my education about this period was of a raucous but electrifying nature. My early years after coming into print were often exhilarating as I learnt plenty of stuff from events and people that were not recorded in books. A lot of knowledge, some of it of the forbidden variety, I picked up by simple observation. After a while, I taught myself how to see and keep my ears open with a modicum of intelligence, if I can say such a daft thing as a collection of words on bits of paper bound up together between two stiff covers. I am, after all, only a book.
With resignation, I accepted the lesser status in our relationship and admired Will’s ability in his writing to rise above us mere mortals as we eked out our base lives. It seemed as if Will was like a star soaring through the heavens unchecked by the petty needs of subsistence tracing out a dazzling pathway for himself but there was I like a minor character from one of his tragedies who falls prey to some dire setback: I was 'fortune’s fool' and knew it. Will had also escaped this terrible flood that almost destroyed Mr Reed’s bookshop and taken me with it. But destiny took a hand yet again and by coincidence we ended up back on the same shelf together side-by-side a short time later after much repair work had been carried out and the Emporium re-opened to much fanfare. Meanwhile, the brothel business had continued to flourish with clients a plenty crossing the threshold in search of instant gratification at Mr Reed’s sordid version of Paradise on earth but there was a lingering odour about the place: was it the residual dampness from the recent unwanted attentions of the filthy river or was it something else? But I feel my outlook as a book on these events may sound disapproving even judgemental so I should desist and let the reader make up their own mind.
My dear friend, Will was entirely unscathed, however, by all these mucky goings-on, the lucky devil. I envied him his favourable aura, his way with words and how his book was so often handled with such fondness and read through by those eager to savour his writing genius. They even tried to nick Will on several occasions but fortunately for Mr Reed the ne’er do wells were always apprehended. How many times I heard people laugh, gasp and even weep at what my dear friend had written down. But as for me, I was seldom picked off the shelf and invariably out of error but more commonly as a sense of duty or as a means of assuaging guilt from the pleasure of high living as I felt the serious content between my covers could be a bit of a killjoy and I can remember some readers sighing when they read me. How I yearned for the same feelings of affection that Will was always in receipt of. In truth, I was envious, nay jealous of his popularity and the only reason that Will lay on the same shelf for so long was that he was a special edition costing an exorbitant five shillings and seven pence farthing, the equivalent of the annual earnings of the apprentice printer who had given birth to him and I on the Surrey bank of the river a while back. I noted with stinging disappointment that no thief had ever tried to steal me.
But as I’ve come to understand, wealth will have its way and Will was purchased by a well-dressed woman in flowing skirts, long black hair and bewitching brown eyes who visited the bookshop in the company of her chaperone one bright summer morn. A young heiress I figured on account of the quality and bright colouration of her attire, who could not have been more than twenty-one ignorant I think of the other nefarious purpose above the Emporium with a dainty, perfumed handkerchief poking out from her left sleeve, announced to our proprietor that she was buying on behalf of her father, Sir John Radford, she said for the regeneration of an old library in Oxford University which had an unusual-sounding name, the Bodleian, I think. Mr Reed fell under the spell of this doe-eyed temptress and a purchase of books was agreed after much haggling and I ended up on my travels again. But I experienced the nearest thing to ecstasy when the young lady Radford – I regret to this day that I never did catch her good Christian name – carelessly picked me up, along with Will and some other neighbouring volumes from the rarely-dusted shelf and held them in a small pile against her sweet-formed bosom exposed somewhat as a button on her bodice had come askew. For a few brief seconds, I was pressed against her left breast and a delicious flowery scent mixed with the fragrance from her soft glowing skin before she handed us over to be wrapped up in crinkly brown paper and bound up with old twine. I savoured this brief but intimate contact with such a handsome maiden and it made up for all the disappointment in playing second fiddle to my beloved friend, Will. Though I must say I didn’t fancy the very small insect that leapt from my mistress Radford’s clothing and lodged itself in my spine. I think it must have been a mother flea pregnant with many offspring as she gave birth within me after an interval and I became alarmed at so many tiny creatures let loose within my delicate folds but thankfully – and may the good Lord strike me down for such an unholy thought – all these mites perished quickly as no human host could be found. So for a period the minute carcasses lay enmeshed inside me and in time their bodies became part of me.
In my short existence on this earth so far, I felt that I had been witness to so much but now a famous university town beckoned – a place of scholarship and intellectual adventurism where books would be treasured in their own right or so I was learning about. That is something to behold and fills my young heart with such excitement, if such a thing is possible in me as a mere whippersnapper of a mass of words placed carefully in sequence on many pages. Oxford - there was something in the sound of that word that was a clarion call to a place, a future filled with promise. Goodness knows where all this adolescent optimism sprang from but I could sense it surge through my spine. I tingled all over on this deliciously sunny and warm morning as we trotted along the Great Worcester Road wending its way out of London in some sort of horse-drawn contraption guided by a ruddy-faced, rotund man of middle years who must have been fond of the hard stuff judging by his intemperate language and unsteady handling of the two unfortunate nags pulling us all on our way. From what I had overheard in the yard behind Reed's Literary Emporium and Little Bit of Paradise before we set off on this journey where much drink was taken by way of a convivial breakfast, our course was decided and Oxford was to be our destination later this day. It was also agreed that the venerable Sir John and his delightful daughter would be travelling separately in a few days' time but no doubt under more comfortable circumstances than us mere books piled into a rickety old cart open to the elements.
As we continue on our journey westwards through this frenetic mass of people and built-up space, I can hear the hustle and bustle of city living about me and the air carriers an array of fragrant aromas of baking and cooking from nearby hostelries and then to my delight from some seasonal flowers that somehow have managed to conquer this urban sprawl to spring forth with such dazzling colour. Unfortunately at the same time, I am unable to avoid the unwelcome stench from the open sewers, some tanning factories and slaughter houses and even the odd privy we pass on the road. I hope we make it safely despite the wayward attention of our so-called coach driver under the influence and the pot-holed King’s thoroughfare not to mention the vagabonds and masked highwaymen we may encounter enroute. I glance about me and take in my fellow travellers in print, all of us gathered together as a motley collection of stout-backed companions rocking to and fro as we journey onwards but sadly, I am without my good and witty friend, Will and his excellent writing by my side as we’d become separated again somehow but on this occasion I fear for good. How thankful I am though that I had an opportunity to share such a warm friendship with William Shakespeare, a unique personage if ever there was one albeit for a brief time.
Our driver cracks the whip and we gather pace along what seems to be a smooth stretch of road that skirts some woodland. I notice a number of trees with their green-laden branches swaying in response to a gentle breeze which plays out a serene symphony: the rustling and re-rustling of leaves one against the other and I can see that the sky is so desperately blue and cloudless. It looks as if we are leaving the metropolitan melée behind and open countryside begins to embrace us. I catch sight of a sign indicating the village of Hammersmith as a bird comes into view and flies low over us. I wish now I had paid more attention to that illustrated book on the creatures of the earth which shared the shelf with me in that literary Emporium I have moved on from but I reckon it’s a swallow on account of its forked tail and a distinctive red patch under its chin. I marvel at its ability to set a winged course through the ether as it soars high into the heavens and on ahead of us.
I find that I am buoyed up by the wondrous weather, the cherished memory of an unorthodox start in life in our grand capital in close proximity to a glittering interpreter of the written word, the thrill of exploration and I ponder on how fate had moved the hand of a young, rich lady to select me along with others to be part of this great Bodleian Library. "Will I see this attractive woman again and what on earth is her name?" I wondered.
"What happens next", I thought "in my life as a book in Oxford?"
©Nicholas Mackey 2014
Note: This is a short story and is entirely a work of fiction bearing no resemblance to any person(s), place(s), thing(s) or event(s), living or dead, past or present.