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What are they on about?

David Newnham blots his copybook. Printed on a pack of Staedtler ballpoint pens: Usage: Ideal for greeting cards, gift tags and letters. Everyday writing. Warning: Not suitable for children under 36 months. Contains functional, sharp points and detachable small components. Please retain packaging for reference.

I blame Ursula. If she hadn't rushed me, none of this would have happened. But she sounded panicky. "We're going on holiday first thing, and I have to cancel the milk," she said. "I need something to write a note with."

In the newsagents I was confused and flustered. There were just too many pens to choose from. In the end, I settled for a pack with a German name. "Ideal for cards, gift tags and letters," it said. There was no mention of notes, and as we had never been away before it hardly qualified as "everyday writing". But was a note not a small letter?

I was worrying so much about "usage" that I overlooked the safety aspect. "Ideal for greeting cards?" said Ursula when she had written her note. "That means we can use these next month for Toby'sI" But even before she had said the words "third birthday", we knew that I had made a terrible mistake. There had been five pens in the packet, but only four were on the kitchen table. Toby!

"Don't blame the manufacturers," I pleaded as I followed Ursula to the boy's bedroom. "Those points may be sharp, but they are functional, you know." But it was too late. There was Toby, a colouring book in front of him. And in his hand was the fifth pen.

"Are you hurt? Speak to me, Toby!" I begged him. But my wife just grabbed the bewildered child and flew downstairs with him in her arms. "I'm taking him into casualty," she said. "Quick! Fetch the other four pens. And bring the packaging."

As it happened, Toby was fine. The doctor examined all the pens for signs of detached components, and after taking a tally (here he referred to the number five on the packaging) satisfied himself that nothing was missing.

We were able to go on holiday as planned, and the milkman delivered 0 pints, as requested. But those pens are going into my safe until Toby's third birthday. It's true what the packet says. They really aren't suitable.

newnham@danecroft.demon.co.uk

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