It was a Dark and Stormy Night

It was a dark and stormy night, but because it was Christmas Eve, there were still people about, hurrying to complete last minute Christmas shopping. The brightly lit shop windows promised relief from the wet and windy weather outside.

A girl and a man, obviously her father, stood peering into a bookshop window, the collars of their coats turned up against the wind and rain. The man pointed to a book in the window.

"Look, Rita, there's the new Janet and Allan Ahlberg book, It was a Dark and Stormy Night. I'd really like to read that. But it's in hardback. I can't afford it now after all the shopping we've done, and anyway it will come out in paperback after Christmas."

Rita said nothing.

"Come on", said her father, "We must be getting home".

And he took her hand, and they walked off together, their heads turned down against the rain. Rita looked up to her father.

"What do you think the story is about? Do you think it's a Christmas story?"

"Not with a title like that. Mind you, I can't say what I think it would be about. It was a Dark and Stormy Night? Well, it could be about anything."

"Yes, but what do you guess it's about?" persisted Rita.

At this moment, father and daughter reached their car. Rita got into the front passenger seat, and her father went round and let himself in to the driver's side. He switched on the engine and the car lights. Rita loved the glow of the dashboard light, especially on such a dark and stormy night. She imagined that it was a sort of fireside, and she snuggled up in her seat as the car moved off, swishing its way along the wet streets.

"Go on, Dad, what is it about? Have a guess!"

After a pause, her father replied.

"I think it goes like this:

"It was a dark and stormy night and the four bears were sitting round a blazing log fire in their little cottage deep in the middle of the Enchanted Wood. "Tell us a story, Grumpy!" exclaimed Baby Bear, looking at the big old grizzly bear sitting nearest the fire whose name, of course, was Grumpy. He sometimes gets left out of stories about the bears, which is quite wrong because there were really four bears not three, though I never make the mistake of leaving him out!"

Rita's father glanced towards his daughter, who put on a furious look.

"Dad, don't tease. Tell me what you really think it's about".

"I am", said her father, putting on a look of shock, "And the story goes on like this, I'm quite sure:

"Grumpy looked grumpy. "Children, children", he sighed, "Always wanting stories. Never content. Can't amuse themselves these days. Way they're brought up. Different in my day. Had to amuse ourselves". And he would have gone on like that for several minutes had not Baby Bear's mother intervened and scolded, "Oh, come on, Grumpy, tell us a story. It's a dark and stormy night, we're all sitting comfortably around the fire and you do tell such good stories". Grumpy was obviously delighted by this last remark. His grumpy face softened, and he replied, "Oh, very well then. Just one. And not a long one". The other three bears sat patiently and waited, until Grumpy began:

"Once upon a time it was a dark and stormy night, but because it was Christmas Eve, there were still people about hurrying to complete last minute Christmas shopping. The brightly lit shop windows promised relief from the wet and windy weather outside.

A girl and a man, obviously her father, stood peering into a bookshop window, the collars of their coats turned up against the wind and rain. The man pointed to a book in the window... "

Rita interrupted, banging on the dashboard:

"Dad, if this is going to be a story about us, I'm not listening. Why can't you tell stories about other people I'd even listen to stories about princes and princesses!"

"Just a minute, just a minute!", protested her father, "You don't know what comes next".

"What does come next?"

"This is what comes next":

"Suddenly, Grumpy stopped in mid - sentence and, looking at the other bears, said, "No, I don't think I'm going to tell that story tonight. It's too scary on a dark and stormy night. I'm going to tell you a different one". And he paused, cleared his throat and began again:

"Once upon at time, it was a warm and sunny day, and the eighteen bears had decided to go for a walk before breakfast..."

"What", exclaimed Baby Bear, "You can't have a story with eighteen bears in it, it's against the rules!"

Before Grumpy could reply, Baby Bear's father interrupted, "Now, now, Baby Bear, just listen. There aren't any rules as far as stories go, except that they have a beginning, middle and an end. Now just settle down and listen to Grumpy".

And he nodded towards Grumpy to continue the story.

"Thank you", said Grumpy, and continued:

"These eighteen bears lived together in a cottage deep in the middle of the Enchanted Wood and their names were..." - here Grumpy drew a deep breath - "Allan, Betty, Colin, Dinah, Esmerelda, Flossie, Giorgio, Horace, Ian, Janet, Kitty, Loretta, Maurice, Nadia, Obadiah, Peter, Roy and Shirley..."

At this point, Baby Bear interrupted and wailed, "How am I supposed to remember all those names? I'm only a Baby Bear. It's not fair. It must be against the rules..." - Baby Bear looked at his father - "It must be against the rules to have so many names in a story that you can't remember them".

And it looked as if Baby Bear was about to burst into tears. But Grumpy Bear smiled, and said:

"But I'm sure you can remember them, Baby Bear. Did you notice they were in Alphabetical Order?"

"Yes", said Baby Bear, shortly and grudgingly.

"Well, then," said Grumpy, "Let's go through them together. The first bear's name began with A for..."

And, sure enough, Baby Bear could remember all eighteen names; and Grumpy Bear continued with his story:

"So the eighteen bears set out for a walk in the Enchanted Wood, walking in a crocodile with Allan in the front and..." - here Grumpy paused and looked at Baby bear, who smiled and cried -

"Shirley"

"Correct. And Shirley at the back of the crocodile. Now you may imagine" - continued Grumpy - " that these eighteen bears were quite a peculiar sight, walking in a crocodile into the Enchanted Wood on a warm and sunny day. And when a little girl, who was also out for a walk, spotted them, she could scarcely believe her eyes and stood stock still with amazement"

"Goldilocks?", interrupted Rita.

"Whatever makes you think that she's Goldilocks?" replied her father. And looking over his glasses at Rita he said , "She's in the story with the THREE bears, isn't she?"

Rita was cross.

"Yes, but I can't see how it can be anyone else, even if there are eighteen bears. I think when Grumpy says she's a little girl out for a walk, you're meant to guess that she IS Goldilocks".

"I wouldn't be so sure", replied her father, "Because the story continues like this:

"Baby Bear almost jumped out of his seat, "It's Goldilocks!", he shouted. But Grumpy Bear looked at him in a puzzled way and asked, "Whatever makes you think that. Goldilocks is in the story with the THREE bears, isn't she?"

"Yes, she is", said Baby Bear, "But she can be in this story, too, can't she? It's not against the rules, is it?"

"No, it's not against the rules", replied Grumpy, "It's just that she isn't in this story. The little girl in this story is called Rita"

Now this time Rita really did thump the dashboard.

"Dad, you know that I do not - repeat, Do Not - like stories with me in them. Tell me a different story, PLEASE

But just at that moment the car came to a halt and Dad exclaimed:

"Home at last!"

Rita peered out of the window.

"Already? That didn't seem long."

"Of course it didn't", said Rita's father, "I've been telling you a story"

"No, you haven't", snorted Rita, "It didn't have a beginning, a middle and an end, just lots of beginnings".

"Are you sure?" said her father. "Anyway, let's not argue about it out here on such a dark and stormy night. Let's go in beside the fire"

So they did, and sat around the fire with Rita's Mum and her Grumpy Grandpa. And soon Rita found herself saying, "Tell us a story, Grandpa". And Grandpa, after huffing and puffing a bit, began to tell a story, but he didn't get very far before Rita threw a cushion at him, which may not seem a very nice thing to do. But you see, Grandpa's story just happened to start like this:

"It was a dark and stormy night..."

First published 1997 in Pandora's Books edited by Richard Crane (University of Sussex). Lightly revised for this 2004 website version. The author thanks Allan Ahlberg for his encouragement.