Great Aunt Bobby and Great Uncle Jimmy were many different things to many different people and none of them, not a single one, would say either of them had ever done anything remotely bad. They were without sin, with one notable exception. From a very young age, I knew without fear of jeopardization there was one charge of which they were undoubtedly guilty, and it wasn’t only me who thought so. It was a grievance shared by each and 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 gift a child might be delighted to receive.
To their credit they never forgot birthdays or special occasions, theirs was always the first card to arrive and it was always received with great pleasure even though the theme of card itself never varied and, without fail, celebrated in graphic water coloured detail the countless artifices of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. At intervals, during the year every family mantelpiece was adorned with a variety of steaming contraption. There were depictions of a steaming contraption standing idle while a band of sturdy men in overalls stood idly by scratching their heads. There were lovely drawings of a bridge with a steaming contraption passing over it, ones with a steaming contraption passing under it as well as those with a steaming bloody contraption chuntering alongside it. Occasionally there was a beautifully executed steaming ship, not many it has to be acknowledged because one had to be careful due to Great Aunt Muriel’s best friend’s mother being a casualty of the Titanic’s demise in the bleak and awesome black waters of the Atlantic. Who could blame her for her feelings running high?
No, the cards were not the problem. The crux of our anxiety lay in the contents of the package which was always attached to the card; a little something wrapped in brown paper, tied up with gardening string. The country air in gentrified enclaves the length and breadth of Royal Berkshire resounded with the thuds and tinkles of young hearts hitting the ground and breaking at the very sight of those shitty brown parcels.
They meant well, I knew it then and know it now, but it wasn’t just 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-beam take on exactly what constituted appropriate equipment for a child’s entertainment. For my eleventh birthday, for example, I was sent a mousetrap which bore the picture of a mouse (very much alive) and the word “Victor” printed in red beneath it along with the strapline “Outsmarting rodents since 1898”. Inside the box was a scrap of card which read, “One must never, ever, be too careful”. For a moment I actually envisaged Great Uncle Jim licking his lips and then, from 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 the owner of the elderly hand had drifted into an unexpected slumber. I, on the other hand, was in no doubt that the writing implement, much the same as me, had given up the will to live and disappeared into the void.
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 the whiskey hidden behind vol.13 of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the library.
Other works by Rod McRiven: Swell