Three stories, but no hippopotamus
Children’s writer Allan Ahlberg illustrates the challenges of writing for grown-ups
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).