Great Aunt Bobby and Great Uncle Jimmy meant many things to many different people and none of them, not a single one, could say either of them had ever done anything remotely bad. They were without sin.
However, from a young age, I knew, without fear of jeopardization, there was one charge of which they were guilty, and it wasn’t only me that thought so. It was a grievance shared by every one of the swiftly multiplying swarms of great-nieces and great-nephews. Simply put, they had a very odd idea of the type of birthday gift a child would delight in receiving.
To their credit, they never forgot a birthday or any other special occasion. Theirs was often the first card to arrive and it was always received with great pleasure even though the theme of the card itself invariably celebrated, in graphic water-colour detail, one of the countless engineering feats of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
At intervals throughout the year, every family mantelpiece would be adorned with a picture card of one steaming contraption or another. There was a steaming contraption standing idle at a railway station while a band of sturdy men in overalls stood idly by scratching their heads. One bore a lovely drawing of a bridge with a steaming contraption passing over it and a bosomy girl waving a red handkerchief from a carriage window. Another with a steaming contraption passing over a viaduct, yet another with a red steaming contraption chuntering alongside a green steaming bloody contraption. Occasionally there were beautifully executed pictures of a steaming ship. Not many of those, it must be said, because steaming ships of any variety were a sore point due to the unfortunate matter of Great Aunt Muriel’s best friend’s mother being a casualty of the Titanic’s sinking in the bleak and awesome waters of the Atlantic.
The cards weren’t the problem. It was the contents of the accompanying package which caused such consternation; a little something wrapped in brown paper, tied with gardening string. The air in gentrified enclaves across the entire county of Royal Berkshire rang with the splat and tinkle of young hearts hitting the ground and shattering at the very sight of those shitty brown parcels.
They meant well, I knew it then and know it now. But it wasn’t only that they had no idea about the fashions and crazes so important to their trendy young relatives, it was more to do with their unique and off-beat take on exactly what constituted appropriate equipment for a child’s entertainment. For example, for my eleventh birthday, they sent me a mousetrap. It was a mousetrap of superior quality which bore a picture of a mouse (very much alive) and the word “Victor” printed in red along with the strapline “Outsmarting rodents since 1898.” Inside the box was a scrap of card which read, “One must never be too careful!” For a moment I envisaged Great Uncle Jim licking his lips and then, from the force of habit, licking the tip of the biro while gazing wistfully at the weather waiting for Great Aunt to finish her sherry and begin dictation. Curiously the biro line, black and thin as a spider’s leg, drifted to the edge of the card as if his elderly hand had drifted into an unexpected slumber. I, on the other hand, was in no doubt that the writing implement had given up the will to live and had disappeared into the void.
I have the card to this day which, I suppose, proves something about the enduring curiosity of their eccentricity. And I still wonder at the meaning of the words written on the card. Did they mean me not be too careful, but to throw caution to the wind, and grasp every opportunity for adventure?
Thankfully, the mousetrap didn’t go to waste, Grandad, who was living with us in the Great House at the time, used it to catch out Mr Goodenough, the head gardener, who had been pilfering whiskey Grandad had hidden behind volume 13 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the library.
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