Happy birthday, Shirley Hughes

But I always have my door key in my pocket. Whenever I leave the house, even if I’m just putting the washing out, it goes in my left pocket. Without fail.

And ANYWAY, we hadn’t even really left the house. It was just a leisurely chat outside in our little square garden. During spring and summer the garden becomes a vital extra room in our tiny house. We’d even left the front door wide open while we chatted with the health visitor, who’d come to see how we were doing in our early parenting.

Maybe I was too slow to register that our two-year-old had got bored and skipped back into the house. All I remember seeing was his gleeful face, concealed suddenly by the front door, which he’d flung enthusiastically shut.

SLAM.

The health visitor and you and I stood there, taking in what had just happened. And you said to me, “have you got your key?”

Because I always have my key. It’s in my left pocket, without fail. Even when I’m only putting out the washing.

But my ears have a memory. They have a memory of the door jangling and tinkling as it slammed shut. The keys still swinging in the mortice lock inside.

“I do not have my key.”

We hadn’t even really left the house, you see.

So there you were, on all fours at the catflap, trying to calm our now sobbing two-year-old.

And the health visitor was probably thinking, “I’m a health visitor; am I allowed to go at this point? I’ve got appointments.”

And just at that moment, while the health visitor and I were standing there, and you were on all fours, our neighbour, the school caretaker, appeared with his wife Rachael. They were on their way to work.

“He’s just locked himself in,” I said.
“You might have to smash a window,” said Rachael.

Clank.

From the street down the hill. There’d been a clank while she was talking. The unmistakeable clank of a ladder. Who knew a ladder clank was unmistakeable? It is. Of course! The house on the street down the hill was being repainted!

I raced down the hill. “Hiya,” I said breathlessly to the decorator, who had already adopted the position of someone trying not to be seen. “I don’t suppose I could borrow your ladder?”

“No,” he said.

“It’s just . . .” I said, “my two-year-old’s locked himself in our house, and I really need to break in and get to him.”

“Oh,” he said, with maximum reluctance, “go on, then.”

Back up the hill I clanked with the ladder, back to the health visitor and you and the caretaker and Rachael.

And anyway, it turned out to be a good thing I hadn’t got round to fixing the catch on our bedroom window since 2005. Up the ladder-happy caretaker went, wielding a wire coat-hanger fetched and refashioned by Rachael. He opened the window easily.

He came down, and I agreed to go up and in through the window, because our bedroom was such a mess, and we were all a bit embarrassed about that.

And I must admit, your cat-flap calming worked wonders, as our two-year-old didn’t bat an eyelid when I came down the stairs and opened the front door from the inside.

And the health visitor and the caretaker and Rachael all went off to work with a grin and a wink, and the ladder and I clanked back down the hill while you strode in to comfort the two-year-old who no longer needed comforting at all.

And anyway, if all that hadn’t happened, my friend Dominic wouldn’t have said, “Have you read ‘Alfie Gets In First’ by Shirley Hughes? It has exactly that situation.”

And so I might not have encountered it, and read it every night for a month on the express request of our two-year-old.

And I wouldn’t have been able to make him laugh by doing a wobbly voice when Alfie locked himself in his house and cried, and when Alfie’s sister Annie-Rose was locked out of the house and cried.

And he would never have learned about how clever Alfie was in stopping crying and fetching his little footstool and using it to reach the latch and open the door.

And if all that hadn’t happened, in the following months I might not have learned my lesson and always, always taken my key with me, even when I was putting the washing out; even when we were having little sit-downs in the garden with visitors.

And ANYWAY, taking the bins out isn’t really going out; I don’t even put my shoes on for that. I can do it in my socks on a dry day.

SLAM.

I got down on all fours and peered in through the cat-flap. “Hello . . . ?”

“Hello daddy!”
“You’ve shut the door again.”
“Yes.”
“It’s locked.”
“Oh.”
“Now. Can you remember Alfie? Can you remember what he does? Can you remember he gets his stool and opens the door? Will you try that for me?”

Less than a minute it took for him to get his footstool and open that door.

From my heart, thank you Shirley Hughes.

And happy birthday.

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