With love from Roald Dahl
This piece, titled “With love from”, is an autobiographical piece that I originally wrote in shorter form for an appearance by Compass Writers at Waterford Writers Weekend 2011. I subsequently broadcast this modified and extended version on 30.10.2011 on RTE Radio One’s Sunday Miscellany show. A recording of that show is here; the piece starts at 10:57.
With love from
“Gipsy House, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. Twenty-third of October, nineteen eighty-five.” My hands trembled as I held the letter in both hands.
The address, printed in bold in the top right-hand corner, read like a poem to my ten-year-old eyes. I pictured an ivy-covered cottage, nestled amongst lush willow trees and rose bushes, the rolling dales of my imaginary Great Missenden stretching away into the distance on all sides, bathed in the rays of a perpetual sun.
In my mind, I walked past the front door and around the side of the house. Tucked away in a corner of the back garden was the heart of it all: the writing den. I approached the den and pushed open the door. There he sat, as alive and well as ever, a man with a high forehead and crinkly eyes. Just as it said in his biography, the plaid rug was tucked around his knees, the board covered with green felt lay across the arms of the chair, a row of neatly sharpened pencils sat to one side, and in the centre was a single sheet of paper.
He looked up to see who it was, a pencil poised in mid-air. “Just replying to a letter from one of my young fans,” he said in a wonderfully clipped, English tone that was incredibly exotic to my ears. I smiled and leaned over, cheekily, to take a peek. The letter began “Dear Orla”.
The writer and I were firm friends from that day on. That this was the case solely in my imagination did not bother me at all. I would sit on a stool by the arm of his chair and watch the pages of his copy books fill up with the stories that the rest of the world only got to read much later, when the books came out. Not only did I become well acquainted with the writer, I also got to know some of his characters. I was there in the sweet shop with Charlie as he tore the wrapper off his bar of Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight and saw the glint of the Golden Ticket. I begged him to take me with him into the Chocolate Factory. Only one child per ticket was allowed, and I waved him off at the big iron gates, shedding bitter tears. Another time, as the Giant Peach bobbed up and down in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by hungry sharks, I clung on, terrified, along with James, Miss Spider, Earthworm, and the other Peach residents, the sharks’ teeth snapping greedily in the sea below.
For many years, the letter lived the darkened existence of young girl’s treasure: folded carefully as it had been in the envelope and secreted carefully away in a fancy box in the top of a wardrobe, occasionally taken out and marvelled over.
Today, the letter is a dearly cherished possession that I hope to pass on to my children, though only when they prize it from my cold dead fingers – literally.
The lure of the internet is always there, like a wayward friend, urging me to simply Google the address at the top of the letter to see photographs of the house in Great Missenden as it really is. But we have a pact, my childhood self and I.
I will go there one day, to the house that was once his home. I will push open the door of the den in the garden and see the chair, the writing board and the rug, all laid out exactly as he had them. Until then, I am happy with the Gipsy House that I have in my head, and the letter from him that now hangs in a frame over my own writing desk:
“Gipsy House, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire
23rd October 1985
I’m sorry you have had such a hard time in reaching me with our letters but your last one arrived safely by today’s post. I must confess that I do not usually reply to individual children’s letters. My secretary says that it would be impossible to answer them all but you certainly deserve an acknowledgement and a big thank you from me for writing.
With love from
(c) Orla Shanaghy 2011