Grown ups give you things and you have to be grateful. They knit you baggy jumpers and expect you to wear them. They give you books with tiny writing and no pictures and expect you to read them or sweets that aren’t proper sweets at all like sugared almonds or fruit jellies and expect you to eat them. Grateful means lying through your teeth. ‘Dear Aunty Dorothy, Thank you for the lovely jumper it fits perfectly.’ ‘Dear Aunt Margaret, I really liked the Newberry Fruits you sent’ and ‘I am looking forward to reading Grimm’s Classic Fairy tales Retold for Boys and Girls’. The clue’s in the title, Aunty.
Lies, all lies.
“Just be grateful that you have presents at Christmas.” Mum said, “There are lots of poor children in the world with no parents or kind aunties.”
Sometimes, I wished I was one of them.
Writing thank you letters can put you off writing anything for life. My mum said “If you don’t write to say ‘thank you’ you won’t get a present next year.” I tried to tell her I didn’t want those presents next year. I’d said and said and said how I wanted a Tressy with hair that really grew or an orange Spacehopper, before I grew too big to bounce really high on one. How come she couldn’t hear that when she could hear me tiptoe across the bedroom floor to turn the light back on after I was meant to be asleep?
Something good Mum did get me every year though, was a Blue Peter Annual because it was educational. I loved Val, John and Pete smiling at me from the front cover wearing their Blue Peter badges and the tiny crack it made on Christmas morning, when I opened it for the first time. I tried making my own badge out of some cardboard from a cornflakes box. I coloured it in really thickly with blue felt tip but it was rubbish because the card was brown and my colouring was all streaky anyway.
The annual was full of pictures. Pictures of things that had been on the show that year, it was like being able to watch them all over again. I especially loved the picture of John slipping on the elephant poo and the instructions for making a ‘Dougal’ puppet off The Magic Roundabout. This year’s annual had loads of stuff about the different things people collect. Collectors have different names according to what’s in their collection. I learned that philatelists collect stamps, numismatics, coins and deltiologists, postcards. Every collector had loads of things that must have taken them years to get. Val, John and Pete said they’d like to hear about our collections. If we wrote them an interesting letter, they’d send us a Blue Peter Badge. Brilliant! I was on my way downstairs to ask Mum for a sheet of her best writing paper when I remembered I didn’t have much of anything you could call a collection. I had last year’s conkers but what could I tell Val, John and Pete about them? ‘I’ve got a big brown one, some little brown ones and some are a bit harder than the others but I don’t know which ones until the softer ones are smashed to bits.’ I slipped back in between the covers and let Aunty Dorothy’s bag of sugared almonds slide onto the floor.
Grandma lived up the end of our road; we walked up to see her almost every day. Granddad died which meant he wasn’t in the way anymore so Grandma could do lots of tidying up. Mum, Grandma and me made hundreds of trips to the Oxfam shop.
Once, not long after last Christmas, Grandma walked down the road to visit us. I didn’t see her because I was at school and she only stayed long enough to make Mum get her best china out to have a cup of tea.
“Grandma’s brought you a present,” said Mum when I got home.
Mum said ‘brought’ and not ‘bought’. That was a bad sign. She pointed to a box on the table. It was an old shoebox with some string tied round it, definitely a bad sign. I would probably be safe betting my pocket money from now until I’m really old like thirty-six or something that it wasn’t a Tressy or a Spacehopper.
“Go on then,” said Mum, “why don’t you open it?”
The box smelled funny. It smelled of Granddad’s Woodbines and the white stuff Grandma used to rub into his aches and pains. I didn’t want to open it. One of the corners was split which was why it needed the string. I was worried it was some of Granddad’s old books by people nobody’s ever heard of anymore. I closed my eyes and imagined Granddad was here again, spooky! I opened them straightaway and decided to get it over with.
“You’ll have to write Grandma a ‘thank you’.”
‘Wha…?” I slumped in the chair.
Mum’s mouth was in a thin straight line so hardly any of her lips showed at all.
I hooked my finger through the string that was holding the box together and slid it across the table towards me.
“Be careful,” Mum was still watching over me. She held her hands together in front of her pinny like she was hoping for something good to happen.
The knot was tiny so I pulled the string off the box with it still tied up. It was tight so it took a while to work it off. After a bit Grandma’s present didn’t smell so much. That was until I got the lid off, when it didn’t smell of Granddad any more. It was like someone sprayed a giant puff of junk shop stink right up my nose. I was brave and had a looked inside.
Well, it was brilliant! Granma had actually given me something I wanted! Exactly what I needed! I couldn’t believe I’d got one. Maybe this way it didn’t strictly count, but so what?
“Can I take it upstairs?”
“You will be careful won’t you?”
I put the lid back on the shoebox, tucked it under my arm and was careful not to let anything slide out the torn edge.
After tea, I was ready. “Can I have some paper please, Mum?”
I swear Mum clapped her hands for joy. She put a pen and a perfect bit of thick white paper, so thick it was almost a card, on the wiped table in front of me.
“I need two bits… please” her smile lost some of its curl as she returned from the cupboard again with another bit of the card paper. I expect it must have looked a bit suspicious when the most I usually managed was one side and that was by making my writing really big and spaced out.
I leant over the table, curled my left arm round the paper, rested my head on my arm and started writing. While my head was down, I felt mum place a matching envelope on the table by my guarding arm. I needed two so when she was back in the kitchen with the washing up, I pinched another one out the cupboard.
The next day, after school, I spent the sixpence I was saving for two ounces of lemon sherbet on a stamp instead. I posted one letter that wasn’t big and spaced out and when we went to Grandma’s on Saturday, gave her the other letter, which wasn’t big and spaced out either. When she read the letter, I was sure she smiled.
For weeks and weeks after that I’d come home from school and ask Mum if there’d been any post. When she asked me what I was expecting I’d pretend not to hear her until it got a bit awkward so I stopped asking and just looked to see if there were any letters lying around with my name on. A while after that, I stopped bothering to look too.
At Easter, I had three eggs, one from mum, one wrapped in turquoise silver foil in a mug from Grandma and one I won in a raffle at Holy Trinity’s spring clean jumble sale. The Aunties didn’t approve of chocolate. Mum let me off writing ‘cause we were going straight to Grandma’s for dinner.
Easter was late that year so the wait between then and my birthday wasn’t as long as usual. There was just enough time to cut out lots of pictures of Spacehoppers and Tressys from the old Kay’s catalogues in the wet playtime box at school and stick them on the bit of bedroom wall right in front of Mum’s nose if she came in to kiss me goodnight.
My birthday, when it came, was a near miss – a Cindy, with short hair and still no Spacehopper. There was a small pile of post for me when I got home from school. Mum sat me down at the table with an ice cream sandwich as a special treat before we went up to Grandma’s for tea. I opened my cards and stood each one in front of me; I made a card wall of lucky black cats, bouncy bunnies and cute ponies. The last envelope was bigger than the others. It was typed and in the corner there was a little blue boat. I felt a lump inside the envelope and then one wriggle up into my throat, I fizzed all over like new bottle of lemonade. I shivered when I pushed my finger through the gap at the top and ripped it open. I didn’t want anything loose to drop on the floor. First, I pulled out a typewritten letter
Thank you for your letter and the old postcard you sent us of Chinese boats. We really enjoyed reading about your collection and have put the card on our viewers’ board. Your Granddad must have had a very interesting time visiting China, when he was in the army. We think you certainly are a budding deltiologist! We hope you enjoy wearing your badge just as much as building your collection.
Val, John and Pete’
For about three seconds I didn’t want to look in the envelope just in case my letter wasn’t good enough. But I couldn’t think of anything else the lump could be so I took the better-than-a-space-hopper-by-a-hundred-miles present out and pinned it on my dress. I put my thank you letter from Val, John and Pete back in its envelope, took Mum’s hand and let her lead me, a real Blue Peter badge winner up the road to Grandma’s for my birthday tea.
I wanted to wear the letter as well to show everyone that I’d done something good and people liked it, not just people, Val, John and Pete from Blue Peter people. Now I knew what it felt like to get one, I didn’t mind quite so much about having to write them. Well…