- Scott, Scott, wake up.
I must have been about 9 or 10 years old. This would have been my bedroom at 21 Nevada Road, Canvey Island.
- Wake up, I have something for you.
My parents had recently redecorated my room. The walls were covered in chipboard and the carpet was leftover from Our Lady of Canvey church. At night I would imagine I could make out faces in the flecks of wood but, try as I might, I never found God in the shagpile.
- Wake up.
It was my dad. He had a box with him.
- I've got a box of books. Come and see.
And indeed he did. He'd been to drop off some clothes at the charity shop, clearly in flagrant disregard of the handwritten 'PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE DONATIONS WHEN WE ARE CLOSED' sign, and had discovered the aforementioned box. Full of books.
- I popped a fiver through the letterbox and brought it home.
At this point, 30 or so years on, I am not altogether sure he did actually part with any cash. May I apologise on his behalf to any children who failed to be saved as a result.
Also at this point, 30 or so years on, I cannot remember any of the books the box contained.
Except for one.
The Satanic Mill by Otfried Preussler is the single greatest book I read as a child. Better than The Hobbit, better than the Narnia series, better even than The Silver Sword. It was wonderful.
Krabat, a young beggar boy in medieval Germany, finds himself haunted by dreams of a mysterious mill. Compelled to visit this place in real life he abandons his friends and ends up working for the master miller alongside eleven other journeymen.
But strange things happen at the mill. The master is a lord of the Dark Arts and teaches his men how to perform black magic. Krabat quickly becomes an excellent student learning how to fly, change himself into any animal he wishes and is able to conjure up superhuman strength.
All of which he will need to call upon when he discovers the dark secret of the mill. On every New Year’s Eve something unspeakable happens to one of the miller’s men.
I remember being petrified when that 'something unspeakable' revealed itself. And deeply upset. No book before or since has had such an emotional impact on me. I have never forgotten it.
Although I did lose it. For several years.
When I left home at the age of 16 it somehow didn't come with me. On several occasions in the years that followed I tried to find it amongst the boxes and piles of my stuff that my parents had kept 'just in case' but to no avail.
I searched for a copy everywhere. These were the days before the internet, of course, so my efforts were limited to bookshops (both first and secondhand), libraries and book search services. No luck. Seemed the obscure children's paperback I so wanted to read again was destined to remain elusive.
Of course, the fact that I was unable to track it down meant that it took on almost mythical proportions for me. Here was a genuine lost classic. Here was my favourite ever book, but one I was never going to be able to read again. It had become my literary Holy Grail.
And then, some time in the mid-90s, my parents announced that they had found more of my things when having a clearout and asked if I wanted to look through them before they either chucked them away or stuck then in the garage loft. I figured it was my last chance and duly trecked on down to that little island in the Thames.
I went through the boxes that had been put aside for me - full of old schoolbooks, notepads and scraps of my past that even I had forgotten about - but no sign of The Satanic Mill. I even went up in to the garage loft and sorted through all manner of crap, just in case. But no, nothing.
As I was climbing down, negotiating my way across beams and over boxes, I slipped, knocking a whole load of stuff tumbling to the floor beneath me. I just about managed to stop myself from falling ten feet or so and paused for a few moments to catch my breath when I noticed a box had landed below me and burst its sides.
One book had fallen out and was looking up at me from the floor.
It was this one.
I took it home and started reading it that night. I was a 9-year-old boy again, as gripped and disturbed by its contents as I was the first time I read it. It was every bit as good as I remembered. Quite possibly more so.
Of course, if I had waited a few years until the internet entered my life I could have easily tracked down a copy. But that would not have been as much fun, or as rewarding.
In the early part of this decade a small Scottish publisher released a new edition under the title The Curse of the Darkling Mill. I was delighted to see it back in print but, to be honest, I didn't like the cover (it showed a windmill when it should have been a watermill) and could not understand the title (the name Darkling never appears in the book). Still, it was nice to be able to recommend it to people and for them to find it relatively easy to get hold of. For a while, at least. It soon went out of print again.
I even found myself sitting next to Anthea Bell, the book's translator, in the green room at a BBC4 show called Before the Booker but like a prize idiot I didn't make the connection and therefore lost possibly my only chance to quiz someone so closely involved in the book. Muppet.
But that moment of stupidity was balanced nicely by my favourite memory of the book. Earlier this year I read it to my children, Ethan and Martha. Every night for almost a month I sat in the reading chair while they lay curled up with their mum on our bed and I recited this story that meant so much to me in the hope that they would be as excited and thrilled by it as I was.
They were, and it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Their groans of disappointment as I closed the book at the end of each chapter were wonderful to hear. They couldn't wait till I opened the book the next day. They were captivated and have both since borrowed my copy to read themselves.
But the story doesn't quite end there. More observant readers will already have realised what is to come but all I will say for now is that if my nostagic post has made you want to read The Satanic Mill please hold fire on ordering it until tomorrow. Thank you.
Anon, my friends, anon.