Three sto­ries, but no hip­popota­mus

Chil­dren’s writer Al­lan Ahlberg il­lus­trates the chal­lenges of writ­ing for grown-ups

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

IIn the old days we had a lit­tle cat named Min­nie, much ad­mired by us all, but the love of Janet’s life. She wor­ried con­stantly about it. Our pre­vi­ous cat had been run over. There were sub­ur­ban foxes in the gar­den. So Janet feared for the cat, was al­ways keen to get her in at night. Min­nie, how­ever, had taken to ap­proach­ing the house along a high wall. She would sit there miaow­ing piti­fully and not jump down. Janet prowled help­less be­low. Un­til she had an idea. From then on, the pat­tern of our evenings was set. There am I, lis­ten­ing to Schu­bert or Leonard Co­hen, read­ing Updike or The Guardian, sip­ping Café Hag or Daven­port’s Home Ale. In comes Janet. She leads me out­side, po­si­tions me be­low the wall, pushes my shoul­ders down and, not in­fre­quently, places a cush­ion on my back to pro­tect the cat’s paws from my bony spine. And down jumps Min­nie.

Killed in a Smok­ing Ac­ci­dent

’m a chil­dren’s writer. In my youth and mid­dle age – when I still went to par­ties – I’d get asked the usual chil­dren’s-writer ques­tion: had I ever thought of writ­ing for adults? The im­pli­ca­tion be­ing that with a lit­tle ef­fort I might grad­u­ate to this higher form. Well, here I am now with eight hun­dred words (my al­lo­ca­tion for this piece) and a more or less adult au­di­ence. It’s a chance too good to miss. Three short sto­ries then, of an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal sort, for my grown-up Tele­graph read­ers.

Cat on a Wall

I am not a brave man, but in the past, one way I found to keep the flame of my courage flick­er­ing was to ask smok­ers not to smoke, in those places where non-smok­ing signs were dis­played. A place where I reg­u­larly did bat­tle was the lo­cal swim­ming baths, while wait­ing for Jes­sica to fin­ish her les­son. There was a smok­ing area and a non-smok­ing area. In the main, the smok­ers pre­ferred the non-smok­ing area. On one oc­ca­sion I ar­rived, sat down with my book and pretty soon spot­ted a fe­male smoker. I ap­proached her. I pointed out that per­haps she had not no­ticed the non­smok­ing sign di­rectly above her head. Usu­ally smok­ers re­sponded badly to the sug­ges­tion that they should smoke some­where other than where they were smok­ing. Hos­til­ity was to be ex­pected. In­jury or worse could not be ruled out. On this oc­ca­sion, how­ever, the wo­man merely smiled, though in a rather odd way. I left her and re­sumed my seat. She, mean­while, showed no sign of mov­ing. I looked at her again and no­ticed that it was a white pen­cil she had in her hand. Her pe­cu­liar smile now made sense. She clearly sup­posed she was deal­ing with a mad­man and was hu­mour­ing him. Where­upon, in for a penny, in for a pound, I shouted across to her, “And you’re not al­lowed to smoke pen­cils ei­ther!”

Poor Old Soul

My mother was dy­ing. I vis­ited her in hospi­tal. There she lay, a tube in her arm, a tube up her nose. Bruises on her still-pow­er­ful fore­arms from where blood sam­ples had been taken. Her eyes were shut. She lay quite still. I held her hand. She had a plas­tic la­bel round her wrist, just like Jes­sica’s when she was born. Later that day, I vis­ited the hospi­tal again. My mother’s eyes were open, she was com­ing round. She made the small­est wry ges­ture, in­di­cat­ing her aware­ness of the predica­ment she was in: tubes ev­ery­where and so on. The next day when I went back, she was more alert still, able to talk a lit­tle. My mother was a bit of a stoic, and familiar with hos­pi­tals. They didn’t bother her much. Any­way, there she lay in the bed with me hold­ing her hand. The tube in her arm was still there, but the tube in her nose had been re­moved. Just then, down the ward came an­other el­derly pa­tient. She was mov­ing slowly, snail-like, with a walk­ing frame. My mother watched her steady progress, then turned to me – an­other wry smile. “Look at her,” she said. “Poor old soul.”

So there we are, a col­umn or two of adult writ­ing, done and dusted. It wasn’t so dif­fi­cult. There are even a hun­dred and six­teen words left over. Well, eighty-nine now . . . eighty-five . . . eighty-three. Of course, it partly de­pends on what words. I mean, “a” is a word and so is “hip­popota­mus”. Eight hun­dred hip­popota­muses would fill a col­umn or two, though that’s an­other story. One more suit­able, I think we’d all agree, for younger read­ers.

Al­lan Ahlberg’s latest book is ‘The Boy­hood of Bur­glar Bill’, pub­lished by Puf­fin at £8·99; he will be ap­pear­ing at The Daily Tele­graph Bath Fes­ti­val of Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture on Fri­day, Sept 21 (see box above).

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