It was a hot afternoon and the train was uncomfortably warm. The next stop was Templecombe, nearly an hour away. In the train, there were a small girl and a smaller girl and a small boy. The children’s aunt was in one corner and a stranger was opposite her. But the train was clearly the children’s. Both the aunt and the children talked all the time. They were like flies that never go away. The aunt's sentences usually began
with "Don't," and nearly all of the children's answers started with "Why?" The stranger said nothing.
"Don't, Cyril, don't," shouted the aunt, as the small boy began hitting the seat.
"Come and look out of the window," she added.
The bored child moved slowly to the window. "Why’s the farmer driving the sheep out of that field?" he asked.
"I expect there is more grass in the other field," said the aunt.
"But there is lots of grass in that field," said the boy. "There's nothing except grass there. Aunt, there's lots of grass in that field."
"Perhaps the grass in the other field is better," said the aunt stupidly.
"Why is it better?" came the quick, unstoppable question.
"Oh, look at those cows!" said the aunt. Nearly every field had cows, but she spoke like these cows were very unusual.
"Why is the grass in the other field better?" continued Cyril.
The look on the stranger's face was getting blacker. He was a hard, unkind man, the aunt decided. And she couldn’t say anything clever about the grass in the other field.
The smaller girl began to say a poem. She only knew the first line, but she repeated the line over and over again in a dreamy but very loud voice. It seemed to the stranger like she was trying to repeat the line aloud two thousand times without stopping, perhaps to win some money. She was certainly going to win.
"Come over here and listen to a story," said the aunt, when the stranger looked twice at her.
The children moved unhappily towards the aunt. Clearly, they did not think she was a very good storyteller.
In a low voice, often stopped by loud questions from her listeners, she began an uninteresting story about a little girl who was good, and made friends with everyone because she was so good, and how some very good people saved her from a mad lion because she was so good.
"So, they wouldn’t save her, if she wasn’t good?" asked the bigger of the small girls. It was exactly the question that the stranger wanted to ask.
"Well, yes," answered the aunt carefully, "but I don't think they would run so fast to help her if they didn’t like her so much."
"It's the stupidest story I've ever heard," said the bigger of the small girls, with absolute certainty.
"I didn't listen after the first bit, it was so stupid," said Cyril.
The smaller girl said nothing about the story, but she had long ago started saying her favourite line of the poem again.
"You don't seem to be a very successful storyteller," said the stranger from his corner.
"It's a very difficult thing to tell stories that children can both understand and enjoy," she said angrily.
"I don't agree with you," said the stranger.
"Perhaps you’d like to tell them a story," was the aunt's reply.
"Tell us a story," shouted the bigger of the small girls.
"Once upon a time," began the stranger, "there was a little girl called Bertha, who was extra-, extra-, extraordinarily good."
The children's interest of the moment began to die; all stories seemed the same, no matter who told them.
"She did everything that her parents and teachers wanted. She never told lies; she kept her clothes clean, ate all the greenest vegetables, learnt her lessons perfectly and she was always polite."
"Was she pretty?" asked the bigger of the small girls.
"Not as pretty as you," said the stranger, "but she was horribly good."
There was an immediate reaction; the word ‘horribly’ with goodness was something new. It seemed to be more honest about a child’s life than their aunt’s stories.
"She was so good," continued the stranger, "that she won medals for goodness, which she always wore on her dress. There was a medal for doing exactly what her parents and teachers said, another medal for always being on time, and a third for good behaviour. They were large metal medals and they clinked against one another as she walked. No other child in the town where she lived had three medals, so everybody knew that she must be an extra good child."
"Horribly good," quoted Cyril.
"Everybody talked about her goodness and the Prince of the country got to hear about it. And he said that because she was so very good she could walk in his park once a week. It was a beautiful park and no children ever went in it, so it was a great thing for Bertha to go there."
"Were there any sheep in the park?" asked Cyril.
"No;" said the stranger, "there were no sheep."
"Why weren't there any sheep?" came the next question.
The aunt smiled.
"There were no sheep in the park," said the stranger, "because the Prince's mother once had a dream that her son would die by a clock falling on him or a sheep would kill him. For that reason the Prince never kept a sheep in his park or a clock in his palace."
The aunt tried hard not to look surprised.
"Was the Prince killed by a sheep or by a clock?" asked Cyril.
"He’s still alive, so we can't tell if the dream will come true," said the stranger without thinking; "Anyway, there were no sheep in the park, but there were lots of little rabbits running all over the place."
"What colour were they?"
"Black with white faces, white with black faces, black all over, grey with white spots, and some were white all over. None was grey all over."
The storyteller paused to let the children get a real idea of the rabbits. Then he continued:
"Bertha was quite sorry to find that there were no flowers in the park. She promised her aunts, with tears in her eyes, that she would not cut any of the kind Prince's flowers and she wanted to keep her promise, so of course she felt stupid that there were no flowers to cut."
"Why weren't there any flowers?"
"Because the rabbits had eaten them all," said the stranger immediately. "The gardeners told the Prince that you couldn't have rabbits and flowers, so he decided to have rabbits and no flowers."
The children liked the Prince's decision; most people would decide the other way.
"There were lots of other lovely things in the park. There were lakes with gold and blue and green fish in them, and trees with colourful parrots that said clever things at every moment, and beautiful little birds that sang all the best pop songs. Bertha walked up and down and enjoyed herself very much and she thought to herself: 'I am only in this beautiful park and enjoying myself so much because I am so extraordinarily good,' and her three medals clinked against one another as she walked and helped her to remember how very good she really was. Just then an enormous wolf came running into the park to see if he could catch a fat little rabbit for his supper."
"What colour was it?" asked the children, immediately interested.
"Dirt-colour all over, with a black tongue and red eyes. The first thing that it saw in the park was Bertha; her dress was so white and clean that the wolf could see it from a long way away. Bertha saw the wolf and knew that it was coming towards her and she began to wish that she was not in the park. She ran as fast as she could, but the wolf came after her much faster. She managed to get to some very smelly bushes and she hid in one of the thickest. The wolf came, its black tongue going in and out of its mouth, and its red eyes got redder and redder with anger.
Bertha was very frightened and thought: 'It’s because I am so extraordinarily good that I’m not safe in the town at this moment.' However, the smell of the bushes was so strong that the wolf could not find where Bertha was hiding, and they were so thick that he could not see her. So, he thought he would go and catch a little rabbit.
Bertha was shaking because she was very afraid with the wolf so near her, and, while she was shaking, the medal for always being on time clinked against the medals for good behaviour and the medal for always doing what her teachers and parents said. The wolf was just moving away when he heard the sound of the medals clinking and stopped to listen; they clinked again in a bush near him. He ran into it and pulled Bertha out and ate her – he ate every little bit of her. They only found her shoes, bits of her clothes and the three medals for goodness."
"Were any of the little rabbits killed?"
"No, they all escaped."
"The story began badly," said the smaller of the small girls, "but it had a beautiful ending."
"It is the most beautiful story that I’ve ever heard," said the bigger of the small girls, with certainty.
"It’s the only beautiful story I’ve ever heard," said Cyril.
The aunt did not agree.
"A very naughty story to tell young children! You have destroyed years of careful teaching."
"I kept them quiet for ten minutes,”said the stranger, as they arrived at the station,“which was more than you could do."
"Unhappy woman!" he said to himself as he left Templecombe station; "for the next six months, those children will ask her in public for a naughty story!"