A junior Public Address reader has written to me, asking if there will be another Southerly Christmas story this year suitable for "reading aloud to good children on Christmas Eve".
Why, of course there is. Here at Public Address, we attempt to meet every reasonable request from our readers, no matter how junior, or how heavily-prompted by their parents. Mind you, we're not entirely sure that we've ever heard of good children on Christmas Eve. Wouldn't it be more fun to stay up all night, drinking coffee, and re-arranging the furniture into more interesting and useful configurations? Yes, we think so, too.
But first, an apology. The author had every intention of providing illustrations to accompany this story. Alas, that he has discovered, deep within himself, a complete inability to draw otters. As it was far too late to change the main character into something more easily drawn (such as a triangle or a letterbox), then the story is presented without adornment.
A portable easy-to-read version, suitable for bedtime requirements, can be obtained by clicking on the 'print' button at the bottom of this post.
There was no doubting that Albert Otter was different.
"Our other children don't particularly care for fish," said Albert Otter's mother, "but Albert Otter will eat nothing else. And our other children walk on two legs, but Albert prefers to walk on four. And none of our other children have fur, or a tail like Albert does -- or such sharp teeth."
Albert Otter's father was the King's gardener. Each day, on his way to the palace, he would walk Albert to the village school. It wasn't easy being different at school. Albert Otter had trouble with sums, and he didn't seem to have right type of hands to hold a pen. His tail always seemed to be knocking over bottles of ink.
Each time Albert Otter made another spelling mistake, or accidentally tracked inky paw-prints across the classroom, his teacher would let out an exasperated sigh. "Oh, Al-bert," she'd say despairingly. And the other pupils would all join in: "Oh, Al-bert."
Games at school were, if anything, even worse. Albert Otter was much shorter than his school-mates, and he was hopeless at the high-jump and the pole-vault. When it came to football, he always seemed to forget himself, and would attempt to use his teeth instead of his feet. The other children would look forlornly at the deflating ball. "Oh, Al-bert," they'd groan.
Sometimes after school, Albert Otter would go to his bedroom, and weep bitter tears. "I'm hopeless at everything," he'd sob. His mother would sit beside him on the bed, gently patting his fur. "Don't worry, Albert," she'd say. "You'll find your talent -- we just have to figure out what it is."
She decided to hire a piano teacher to give Albert lessons. "My son is trying to find his hidden talent," she explained, "and I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be music." But Albert Otter's paws were too small for the keyboard. He found it so frustrating that he accidentally bit the piano teacher on the leg.
"Your son should be muzzled," the teacher told Albert's mother angrily -- and billed her for twice the normal fee.
Albert's father wondered if Albert might have a hidden talent for gardening. He took him to the palace one Saturday morning. But while he was pruning the roses, Albert Otter somehow managed to eat all the prize-winning tropical fish from the palace lake. "I only meant to see what one tasted like," explained Albert apologetically.
"The Queen was very nice about it," Albert's father told Albert's mother, "but you could tell she was a bit put out. I don't think I should take Albert Otter to work again."
That winter was the coldest that anyone could remember. The last school-day before Christmas was particularly unlucky for Albert Otter. He slept in, and didn't have time for breakfast. Then, walking to school through the snow, he became so hungry that he had to eat his own homework. The teacher gave him an after-school detention as punishment.
It was nearly dark before Albert was allowed home. He was trudging wearily past the palace, when suddenly he heard the Queen cry out: "Help! Help! The Princess has been skating on the lake, and she's fallen through the ice!"
Albert Otter didn't hesitate for a moment. He threw down his school-bag, squeezed through the fence railings, and scampered onto the frozen lake. The Queen was sobbing beside a hole in the ice. Albert plunged into the freezing water.
Beneath the ice, the world looked blue and shimmering. Far below him, Albert could see the Princess struggling on the lake bottom -- weighed down by her heavy skates. He dived towards her. His sharp teeth gnawed deftly through her skate-straps. The Princess and Albert glided upwards through the water. Moonlight glittered upon the ice above their heads.
A crowd had gathered beside the lake. The Royal Physician wrapped a quilt around the Princess. The King shook Albert Otter's paw. "Well done on rescuing my daughter, Albert Otter," he said. "You've found your secret talent -- life-saving!"
The Princess's teeth were chattering with cold, but she gave Albert a special smile. She whispered a few words into her father's ear. The King cleared his throat. "And, furthermore," he added. "I would like to offer you my daughter's hand in marriage."
Albert and the Princess had a short engagement. The wedding was on Twelfth Night, and Albert became Prince Albert Otter. The King built a new palace in the former Royal Parking Lot, and the happy couple lived there all year round -- except for summer, when they would visit the seaside, and Albert would save a couple of lives so as to keep his secret talent in good working order.
When the old King died, Albert ascended to the throne, and became famous as a wise and peaceful ruler. His first royal act was to abolish the tax on sea-food, thus making fish suppers affordable to everyone in the land.