The queen of story

BEDTIME STORY: Late author Margaret Mahy reads at Wellington’s Museum of City and Sea in 2010.
BEDTIME STORY: Late author Margaret Mahy reads at Wellington’s Museum of City and Sea in 2010.

Joy Cowley remembers her friend and fellow writer Margaret Mahy, who died last week, aged 76.

Horrakapotchkin! We are discombobulated! We have lost Margaret Mahy but the well of grief is filled with dancing characters who have no intention of leaving us. The lion is still in his meadow, the witch in her cherry tree, and the man still pushes his pirate mother in a wheelbarrow towards a never- ending sea. No sooner do we think Margaret Mahy has gone, than a great chorus of voices turns it into a lie. All of those voices are Margaret's.

I can't remember where I first met Margaret. It was some time in the early 1970s when she pointed out to me that we'd been born in the same year, 1936, and had our first children's books published in 1969 - her The Lion in the Meadow and my The Duck in the Gun. She observed that the titles were similar and that both books had been published overseas. Over the years, our friendship has been punctuated with other coincidences that amused us. We discovered that we'd had tattoos of a rose done at the same time, both on the upper arm, although for different reasons, and we'd both driven off in our cars with a saucepan of stew on the roof. The difference between us was that Margaret could take these small domestic incidents, breathe her magic into them and turn them into a shining story. Her tattoo was woven into a young adult novel. Her pot of stew became a rollicking picture book, Stop That Stew!

In the late 1970s, TV One filmed a Kaleidoscope programme about Margaret and me, at Margaret's house in Governors Bay. The filming took place over three days of story, laughter and occasional mayhem as Margaret's pet rabbits tried to chew through lighting wiring. At the end of the session, the director asked if one of us could think of a brief statement to round off the interviews. I'm sure if I'd had a pen and paper and an hour, I could have thought of something. But Margaret gave an immediate response: "When one embarks on a weekend convivial, it can be serious, it can be trivial."

Margaret's mind worked like a fairy godmother's wand, turning pumpkins into coaches and mice into elegant footmen, with instant touch. A large audience was delighted with her description of a hotel swimming pool. Margaret was on tour. Hot and tired, she got in the pool that had only two other persons in it, a young couple in a passionate embrace. Margaret said, as she watched these lovers, she felt "all bitter and twisted" and imagined that she was a great white shark attacking them. She went back to her room and the episode turned into the popular picture book about the boy and the shark.

It seemed to me that Margaret was never entirely satisfied with ordinariness. She would pick up a prosaic topic and run with it into new territory, much to everyone's delight. Sometimes, we made story talk together. On one occasion in Christchurch, she picked me up after I'd finished some school visits, and took me back to her house. The drive, however, was complicated. The school was in an unfamiliar part of the city and we got lost because an expected road seemed to have vanished. Now who would want to steal a road? we wondered.

The idea seeded a story that grew so fast it became a major preoccupation and we continued to drive down wrong roads and dead- end streets. When we finally found our way to Governors Bay, we had the Road Robber, a giant who stole roads, rolled them up like carpets and then sold them at ridiculous profit for tennis courts and airport runways. Margaret and I looked at each other with the satisfaction of friends who'd completed a piano duet and I told her she should turn the story into a picture book. She said: "No, you write it because I stole your story."

She didn't steal my story. That error came from a publisher who had put Margaret's name instead of mine on a picture book, An Elephant in the House. But Margaret insisted I adopt the road thief, and I still see her word magic and laughter in Road Robber.

Her ability to enlarge the domestic scene is demonstrated poignantly and with much tenderness in my favourite Mahy novel, Memory - the story of a boy who runs away from home, and his friendship with an elderly woman who has Alzheimer's. When I knew Margaret's Aunt Francie, she had lost much functional cognition. She lived next door, an elderly, gracious child who sometimes wore her underclothes on top of street wear, and tried to buy food with bus tickets. Margaret's love and respect for Francie, and the care she gave her, blossoms in Memory, and the Wonderful Aunt books published by Wendy Pye. My own favourite Francie story came in a phone call from Margaret, after the Kaleidoscope programme came to air. Margaret sat with Francie in front of the TV. Initially, Francie was not interested; but when there was a close view of Margaret, Francie became very excited. She pointed to the screen, shouting, "I know her! I know her!"

Our own memories of Margaret are intact. We will all miss her warm hugs, her sly humour, her enthusiasm, her lightning intellect; but her voice in her books will live on and on.

The queen is dead. Long live the queen.

Joy Cowley, OBE, is the author of numerous celebrated novels for adults and for children, dozens of picture books and many hundreds of early readers.

Sunday Star Times