From the author: The owner of an antique bookshop discovers love and adventure when it turns out the carpet in his shop is the magic, flying kind, infused with the personality of a 16th century Persian nobleman.
On Tuesday mornings, Mr Spink rearranged the books and dusted the antique sculptures in the window. He liked to call them the antique sculptures even though he was not entirely sure they were genuine antiques or what they were supposed to be sculptures of. Mr Porteous who came in every other Wednesday on the off chance had offered to have them valued but Mr Spink said he'd rather not. They were just part of the atmosphere.
The first shelf on the left was poetry, the second classics (genuine classics in Greek and Latin, the sort Mr Spink had studied at school), and the third travel literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (He tended not to get much custom for the travel literature but he arranged it every Tuesday anyhow. It was a sad fact of life that customers would keep confusing the displays with no regard for order). The fourth shelf was novels, but they were a very select brood, mainly early Richardson and Defoe. There was a terrible tendency nowadays for young people to come in looking for first editions of The Hobbit and he had to keep informing them that that was not the sort of thing Pages of Antiquity dealt with.
Had he known it would all be gone by Thursday, perhaps he wouldn't have been so particular, but such is the nature of the world. One day you are lining up the spines of a triple-decker edition of Tom Jones, the next you are serenading your lady love from the back of your magic carpet. It was a discovery Mr Spink was yet to make.
Given the amount of travel literature Mr Spink had read (and he did read the books between customers; it was one of the perks of the job and he was sorry to see them go) his knowledge of magic carpets was sadly negligible. His knowledge of the particular magic carpet that covered the floor space between Donne's Songs and Sonnets and Ars Amatoria was absolute zero. It was only that this particular Tuesday morning the day had arrived for its annual clean, and Mr Spink duly took it outside and went to fetch the carpet shampoo.
Here the gaps in Mr Spink's otherwise excellent education began to surface. A magic carpet, he ought to have known, is similar in many respects to the Japanese virtual pet known as the tamagochi. (This is not in fact a coincidence, but the transfer of magical ideas and technologies along the Spice Routes has been well documented since the times of Marco Polo, and it is only unfortunate that Mr Spink had not consulted the relevant pages prior to his adventure). Mr Spink's carpet was of course dormant, and had been for several centuries, but had he known that the activating calligraphy was in the bottom right-hand corner, he would perhaps have avoided kneeling there to administer the foam spray. And, had he been aware of the activating sound, he would almost certainly not prefaced his remark of, "What are people treading in, I ask?" with a loud whistle. As it was, the question was never asked, and whatever it was that the customers had trodden in remained firmly ingrained in the carpet and firmly embedded under Mr Spink's clinging fingernails as the carpet shot vertically into the air, spun three times, and set off hastily at a level with the rooftops.
A basic training in the handling of magic carpets would have come in useful at this point. Mr Spink, to his credit, did know a few phrases in Arabic but, hurtling along past various Victorian parapets and gable windows at a speed, which would have attracted the police at ground level, he did not think to try them. Interestingly, his progress through the air attracted no one at all, which proves how little people look up in cities and how much less they expect to see a bookseller navigating an antique carpet at eight-thirty in the morning.
Mrs Muranka, raising the roller blind in her twentieth-storey kitchen, however, was open to possibilities. Nothing could be more natural it seemed, in that delightful early morning moment, than a carpet approaching her window with such a handsome gentleman atop it.
"Good morning!" she cried, opening the window. "Can I fetch you a cup of tea?"
She smiled and twinkled as best she could. It was the first time a man had visited her in four years, and she was determined to make the most of it.
The carpet paused. Like all magic carpets, it had something of the personality of its original owner, a sixteenth-century Persian nobleman with flashing black eyes and a seductive tongue. Mr Spink gathered his thoughts (which were regrettably scattered), straightened his tie and cleared his throat.
It was unfortunate that the carpet chose this moment to plummet 160 feet to the ground.
As Mr Spink walked back to Pages of Antiquity with the carpet on his shoulder (and again people were very reticent to point out the anomaly) he felt strangely exhilarated. Doubtless the high-speed journey and the novelty of the situation were factors in the equation, but the vision of Mrs Muranka resplendent in her pale pink dressing gown added a certain something. What an unexpectedly romantic place the city was, he reflected. Suddenly, his taste for the antique sculptures made perfect sense. He had been a magician all along and not known it. He had flown his own magic carpet. He should read up on this and learn a little more, how to make it work again for example.
In actual fact, there was no question of making it "work again". The carpet was now irrevocably into its third incarnation and rendering it inactive would take a level of training beyond Mr Spink's capability to master. But it was temperamental. The Persian nobleman had preferred a fiery carpet much as a man might prefer a blood stallion. It was also endowed with a number of special features, which the nobleman had found most useful in his political and military dealings, and for which he had paid a sum of money that even in the twenty-first century would have bought Mr Spink's shop and given him a more comfortable retirement than the one he was presently planning. Mr Spink knew nothing of this.
All he knew was that his books had started disappearing.
It began later that day when a student came in looking for a copy of Women Beware Women. To be frank, Mr Spink had been a little distracted. He had spent most of the morning surreptitiously thumbing through Journal of a Voyage Round the World and Ennemozer's History of Magic, and had found at least one account of a Prussian ambassador reputedly acquiring a carpet, the aeronautic antics of which had entertained embassy guests on a number of occasions. The intrusion of customers was somewhat trying, but Mr Spink could have sworn there were several Middleton titles on the shelf that had not yet been sold. And again, just before closing time, Mr Spink could have assured the Canadian gentleman that he had seen a very good translation of Catullus, but perhaps the increasing pain in his back and the fact that he had just learned the Arabic for "slowly" were distracting him.
The growing worry that someone might have come into the shop and stolen some books while his was out test-flying the upholstery would have troubled him a great deal more had not a sudden memory of Mrs Muranka's shapely figure made him very keen to try out the carpet again.
In truth, Mr Spink still had not a clue of how to control the wayward floor covering, but fortunately the carpet itself was eager to go. It rose from the floor of its own accord and began excitedly circling above the fifth shelf, dislodging The Making of the Middle Ages and several like texts. Mr Spink fretted, but considered that the carpet might not wait for him and nor might Mrs Muranka. Wishing for his back's sake that he were twenty years younger, he climbed a stepladder and threw himself on.
"Yala (shwai shwai)!" he declared, and the carpet flew out of the door.
Mrs Muranka was just warming up a Sainsbury's quiche for her tea, and reflecting on the enchanting pinkness of the clouds, when Mr Spink floated into view. He had not had too bad a journey (with only seven detours and three crash landings) and was in truth beginning to feel like the mythical knight coming to rescue his imprisoned princess from the tower. (A foolish fancy, he told himself, but still this was a rather foolish day). And the sight of Mrs Muranka flinging open the window and holding out a plate of low-fat oven chips certainly gave him confidence.
"Good evening, good evening once again," she called. "You must stay a little longer this time. Do you prefer tea or coffee?"
Mr Spink would have preferred brandy at this precise moment in time, but politeness prevailed.
"Allow me to introduce myself: Montgomery Spink," he said, taking the cup and saucer and hoping to goodness that the carpet remained put.
In fact, having lured Mr Spink towards Yate's Wine Lodge twice, the carpet was quite content to hover for some time, allowing the couple a reasonable conversation before suddenly swooping into a loop-the-loop, causing Mrs Muranka to give a little involuntary scream and Mr Spink to instantly regret the second plate of chips.
Several tugs and shouts later, Mr Spink was flying home feeling quite a new man. (In actual fact, the personality of the carpet was starting to rub off on him). He really ought to re-read his classics, he thought to himself. Previously, they had seemed rather solid, steady texts, but suddenly the vibrant, heroic nature of men such as Aeneas and Hector presented itself to his mind. He should immerse himself in their world; draw succour from their exploits. And then he should ask Mrs Muranka on a date. It did concern him that the last time he had asked a woman on a date it had been acceptable for men's suits to have flared trousers, but Odysseus would guide him. He would call in at the shop and pick up a few copies. The carpet landed elegantly and Mr Spink unlocked the door.
The second shelf had gone.
There was no mistaking it this time. A person may break into a shop and remove a few books or some money from the till, but very few would remove an entire walnut shelf and then lock the door behind them. Prior to his encounter with the carpet, Mr Spink would probably have dismissed the idea of magic, but to do so now was impossible. Had Mr Spink had access to the memoirs of the Persian nobleman (which had unfortunately long since perished in an accidental fire) he would have known that his books had not actually vanished as such and that, given a mere three years of training, he would have the skills to materialise them at any location he chose to name. But, as it was, he simply concluded (quite correctly) that the carpet was to blame and considered (sadly) that it would probably have to go.
It was a wrench. But Mr Spink, like everyone else, had to eat. He simply could not go through the week having less and less stock to sell. Heaving the carpet into the skip, Mr Spink felt a terrible pang of withdrawal. (This was partly due to the personality infusion). He may have to give up on his date, he thought. Mrs Muranka was expecting a fairytale knight, not a lost pedestrian, and he really wasn't sure how to find the flat from the ground. Thinking of this, he almost heaved the carpet back out again, but instead he set off briskly down the street, humming a tune he did not remember.
The pains in Mr Spink's back were quite phenomenal the next morning and, had he chosen to regard them, he would have found pains of a rather more tender nature too. Still, it was Mr Porteous' off chance day and the shop had been in a dreadful state last night. He parked his Morris Minor and went to the back door.
The carpet was waiting.
Somewhere deep inside, the spirit of Hector longed to leap astride it and follow H M Stanley into Central Africa with Mrs Muranka in tow, but the proprietor of Pages of Antiquity dutifully (and painfully) hauled it back to the skip and went to rearrange Classic Literary Criticism. He changed the light bulbs. He dissected the bank statements. He came worrying close to heart surgery when the shop bell rang and the door opened.
"Now then, now then, Monty," said Mr Porteous. "What have you got lurking away this time?"
Mr Spink didn't mean to, but he couldn't help glancing past his friend into the street.
The carpet was waiting.
Mr Spink hastily closed the door with his foot and showed Mr Porteous a delightful little trio of Victorian chapbooks he'd kept behind the counter. Mr Porteous was thrilled and engaged Mr Spink in a discussion of the test match, which the latter sustained enthusiastically for an hour with absolutely no interest whatsoever. By lunchtime, his desire to pop out for a steak pie was fighting a pitched battle with a quite irrational fear of the behaviour of soft furnishings. Cautiously, he peered out of the window.
The carpet was still waiting.
There was nothing for it. With a feeling of impending doom (which actually felt much more exciting than it should have done) Mr Spink put up a "closed" sign and locked the door. It would have been undeniably foolish to bid a fond farewell to his stock, so he reluctantly refrained. He simply stepped onto the carpet and hung on like grim death.
He needed to.
Mrs Muranka was just getting off the bus outside Woolworth's when she happened to glance into the sky. She had had the most curious dream about Mr Spink the previous night and it made her feel quite adolescent just thinking about it. So it did not seem at all odd to see the gentleman himself in full sail above the Bradford and Bingley, his tie flapping behind him like a banner.
"Mr Spink!" she called. "Mr Spink! I'll meet you at your shop. Mrs Downey knows the way"
Mrs Downey's daughter-in-law began to remark in a loud undertone that she'd said it was time Mrs Muranka went into sheltered accommodation.
"Tahat, tahat. Moush kedah," Mr Spink urged somewhat breathlessly.
The carpet did not feel at all inclined to respond, being naturally rather perturbed with Mr Spink, so it was a full forty-five minutes later when Mr Spink and the carpet eventually landed at the front door of Pages of Antiquity. Mrs Muranka was sitting on the step, looking slightly uncomfortable as Mr Spink helped her to her feet, but with the same twinkling smile.
"Aren't you going to invite me in?" she asked, seeing Mr Spink looking a little at a loss.
Mr Spink didn't dare look. Having ridden the carpet for an hour and a half, he feared the shop could now be totally bare, and he had absolutely no idea how to proceed in such an eventuality. But, had Helen appeared clad in a lilac raincoat and salmon pleated skirt, she could surely not have looked lovelier then Mrs Muranka did at that moment. He indicated towards the carpet.
"Shall we fly?" he asked.
Mrs Muranka blushed. "Where are we going?"
"Do you know," said Mr Spink, "I've absolutely no idea."
This story originally appeared in Byzarium.