In the autumn of my ninth year I was invited to Flippy Calcoun’s birthday party. He was turning seven. Flippy’s parents were friends of my parents. We played together when our parents socialised, and in that environment, neither the age gap nor the fact he was a boy, mattered to me.
Two memories from that afternoon are scored, with Swiss army knife precision, onto my psyche. The first was a dress.
On receipt of the invitation, Mum sewed me a new outfit. Most avant- garde in the 60’s, it was made of a sylvan green checked fabric and buttoned right through. It had a large, floppy red bow tie that clipped the collar closed. Called a coat- dress, it respected my tomboy tendencies, and I liked it for that. I liked it until I got to the party.
“Shall I take your coat?” Flippy’s mother asked me.
Mortified, I said, “No,” and wore my ‘coat’ with only knickers and a vest beneath, for the remainder of the party. I eyed with hunger the grey shorts and sweaters that adorned the other party guests with such comfort and clarity of both design and purpose.
If she was the cause of a clothing disaster, Mum cannot be blamed for the second memory, forever hard-wired into my synapses. It came in the guise of a game. Decades before the advent of party bags, Family Calcoun had strung a rope across their living room. Dangling, were items wrapped in birthday and Christmas paper. They hung at varying heights and were very different sizes. It was, in effect, an aerial lucky dip.
Having fathomed the rubrics of blindfold and spin with alacrity, I pin- pointed the largest package, just left of centre and designated it mine. Swathed in red and gold Christmas paper, it beckoned me with power and gravitas.
“I shall be yours,” it carolled. “Come to me. Find a way.”
I found a way. Directly in line with my gift was a wooden handled armchair. I mind -paced the steps I would need to go directly forward from the arm closest to me. I memorised the parcels on either side of my prize, their girth and texture. I knew, even with the spin I could do this and emerge triumphant with the biggest and best result.
Two boys went before me, neither getting my present. I watched their stumbles. I watched the reveal: one, a Matchbox Ferrari and the other, an intricate padlock and key set. I would have liked either but knew, with increasing conviction, that the huge secret my heart was set on contained, nothing less than crown jewels and I, as the princess, deserved nothing less than that.
My turn came. I was spun and threw myself against the chair. With a steadying hand, I balanced and counted steps to the rope. Hands above head, I groped toward the bounty as others shouted helpful hints. I needed no help.
I felt tissue paper and knew I was one item right of my target. A step, a hand drawn down the dangling string and it was mine. Lighter than I expected I hesitated but, triumphant in the success of my plan, I pulled and it released. Removing the blindfold I breathed, satisfied. And unwrapped the treasure.
It was a plastic money box, nothing more nothing less. It was a red plastic money box: a money box for babies. Tears threatened. I swallowed hard. I would not cry.
I didn’t cry as others unwrapped, slug guns, playing cards, miniature Lego. In one of the smallest packages there were tickets to the Christmas Circus.
“Don’t be fooled by size,” I tell my daughters. “The best things often come in small packages.”
“Ahh, the money box,” they say, having heard my cautionary tale before. “ Mum’s on about the red, plastic money box again.”