To Felicity she left turquoise shoes. To Rose, a scarf

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Janet Ahlberg, magical illustrator of children's books, died in 1994, age 50, of breast cancer. Her husband/collaborator Allan Ahlberg has made a new book about her and her work. This is how he begins...

It is September, nine o'clock one morning. I have taken up her breakfast tray: porridge, maple syrup, glass of milk, plus a few other things: Tylex and Votarol for the pain, Zantac to protect her stomach lining from some of the other drugs, Maxolon and Kytril for sickness after chemotherapy.

The sun comes in at the window. I pull up a chair and sit beside the bed. Janet sips her milk through a straw. She looks at me, mildly - her usual gaze, then past me, over my shoulder to something on the mantelpiece.

"Rose'd like that scarf," she says.

Some people, as their lives go by, acknowledge death, talk of it, let it out and look at it from time to time. Others, the majority perhaps, don't, preferring to stay mum. Jan was one of these. She had been gripped by breast cancer for almost two years. It had spread to her bones and now her liver. Well, she had read the books and BACUP pamphlets, was realistic and knew the score. She had her massive fears and tiny hopes (until the very end), but nothing else. Until this day.

"Rose'd like that scarf," she said.

I knew entirely what she meant. It was her first bequest.

So Jan began to deal with death. Typically, for her, she approached it first with presents. She had a small notebook, a page per person. Often the items were drawn as well as listed. There was, however, no particular system. The whole thing was simply driven by her powerful memory. She just recalled that someone once had expressed a liking for something: "Byron: Fish poster in studio", or was present when something else was bought: "Felicity: Turquoise shoes with heels and bow".

Janet dealt with death, faced it, hated it. She didn't want to leave; the party was still going on. There was a manuscript waiting, proofs in the pipeline, a plaintive cat stationed by the fridge and Red Dwarf on the telly. Most of all, of course, there was Jessica (nearly fifteen), her beloved daughter. The days passed. Janet's life was shrunk to a little patch, a few hours in the afternoon downstairs on the chesterfield.

A couple of times she spoke of her own funeral. Jan was not religious. She wanted a secular ceremony and burial in the local cemetery. It was her wish that family and friends would gather together, sing a bit and speak for her. She wasn't solemn either. At one point, smiling her slight, sly smile, she said, "Tell Graham he's allowed to say `bum'" (guaranteed with her to get a laugh).

It's February now. Janet has been dead three months. In the bedroom her last-worn clothes hang over the end of the bed, her numerous shoes still clutter the floor and her perfume lingers (mainly because I spray it around from time to time). On the mantelpiece: some talc, some rings, a foolish- looking knitted rabbit and a polystyrene head with a wig on it, bought just in case and luckily (!) not needed. There is a box of bargain jewels ... but no scarf.

`Janet's Last Book' by Allan Ahlberg, published this week by Penguin at pounds 9.99

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