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Small wonder of a life stranger than fiction

AFTER they took away his voice, 14-year-old David Small had a dream. He was a frightened lost baby bat, wailing "Mama? Mama?" No answer came until he found an umbrella and opened it to find that the broken ribs and rotted canopy gave him no shelter from the raging storm.

The kid who grew up to be one of the world's greatest children's writers, publishing books such as Imogene's Antlers and Eulalie and the Hopping Head are worldwide bestsellers, had recognised his parents' real nature.

Small's mother came from the kind of mad Irish background that makes you wonder whether some emigrants were forcibly exported --or were driven crazy by exile. Great-grandpa and great-grandma Murphy wouldn't have his mother in their house when she was a baby. Her parents, who'd married against the steely Murphy will, lived in a cottage in the grounds. Until her papa, Small's grandpa, went drinking with his buddies and their car sailed off the cliff.

Great-grandpa Murphy drank Drano to kill himself, destroyed his vocal cords and never spoke again. Not a croak.

Oh, yeah, you wanted to know what this had to do with health. Small's mama grew up into a woman as tight as a wound spring. She married a doctor. Unluckily for David, who was born sickly. His father treated his sinus problems with X-rays by the hundred. And the result: David got cancer. His parents gave him cancer.

It was a house of percussive noise; Mom slamming the cupboard doors, Dad battering the punchbag in the cellar, big brother Ted beating a drum. A childhood of cocktail parties, David had a big thing for sexy neighbour Mrs Dillon, snuggled into her mink. David: a weird little kid who loved Alice in Wonderland.

When David was 14, an operation for a cyst slashed away his thyroid gland and half of his vocal cords. The angry teenager was silenced.

They didn't tell him what was wrong. He found a note Mom wrote to her mother: "The boy doesn't know it's cancer . . ."

What was it? Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, so familiar to us all now from the soaps? The limitless power of the 1950s father? Disguised hatred?

Why did they do it? Why does any child abuser do it, you might as well ask. These are bad people. It's surprising his family noticed that he couldn't speak -- they never spoke, unless they shouted: 'Do you care? Do you think we're millionaires?'

Yet they saved him. After the runnings away, the night in the jail cell and a strict Bible-bashing boarding school, they sent him to a psychoanalyst. Small draws this kindly man as the White Rabbit from Alice.

The White Rabbit told him the truth: "Your mother doesn't love you."

And when David came home one day and found his mother in bed with a friend, he began to understand. It was sexy Mrs Dillon.

His family was falling to bits. His Murphy grandma tried to kill his step-grandpa and set herself on fire. His father told him: "I gave you cancer."

David left home at 16, lived alone in a single room, had friends as weird as himself, among whom he could feel normal.

But he began to be able to speak again, softly at first, but then gradually louder.

Screaming made his vocal cords stronger. He screamed a lot.

And he grew up to be a great storyteller.

He arose out of the cruelty of his childhood. It can be done.