Every Christmas for years and years I was given a Rupert Book, and this was the one present I would look for among all the things I didn’t particularly want – the plastic doll with the pink skin and the wiry orange hair; the tin telephone exchange, the sugar mice with tails of string and the inevitable 5 shilling postal orders from Great Aunts I was never sure I had met.
I always knew which present the Rupert Book was because it was heavy and flat, and you could feel the ridge of the spine down one edge, the hollowness of the opposing edge, where the pages would open. I always thought I might save it all year just to think about unwrapping it, a preserved pleasure like bottled cherries. But Christmas night, alone in my room, escaping at last from the gross overeating and generalised squabbling of the day, I would always open it. Reading the Rupert Books showed me that there were in fact two worlds, not one.
To start with I would be absorbed into the story, fallen among black-clad, pointy-hatted imps in their subterranean laboratories or being punted along a dark river by a Chinaman in embroidered silk and a pigtail. Those strange barges, clad in hoops and canvas like the wagons in Wild West films. I imagined that when you were tired you would retire to sleep amongst the cargo in the tea- and rope-smelling darkness. In Rupert-land all good things were possible. One minute you would be safe at home with Mummy Bear in her flowery apron, and Daddy Bear with his pipe and slippers; the next minute you’d fallen through a trap-door in a hillside, discovered a secret stairway in the middle of a thicket or been kidnapped by pirates.
Then I would look up. There would be rain on the window, stars in a navy-blue sky and my father coughing after his once-a-year cigar. For a moment, suspended between the two realities, I would know that I could fly. This was how I felt, and still occasionally feel, about the world. Reality is a precarious affair. At any moment things might cease to make sense. I still come home from work sometimes and expect the plants in the front garden to have rearranged themselves, or a brass fox’s-head door-knocker to have materialised on the door, and it is both a relief and a disappointment to discover that everything is exactly as I left it.