And so the solitary raid begins, the cashing in of Christmas vouchers, gift cards. Present Time with no photos for the future to look back on. The casual practice of recent years has been to hoard the generosity, play possum with retailers, tease out til September; but this year I am swift – and recall and replay an annual childhood rite:
A few days after Christmas, or New Year even, before the return to school and still aglow, wilful and potent indoors in this dreamlike, precarious and adored bowl of time – Mum would bustle us, one and three halfs, on the bus to town to spend our Christmas gift tokens.
Mid-morning in WHSmith’s; good old teacher shop; Leeds and an unremembered precinct.
Years, of course, merge.
A wheezing boy in a panic of choice – as today I am in a bookstore, or by the bags in TKMaxx – and hobbyless, unaligned, unheired to anything but my lot of prim docility; tranquilised mute castrato, I flap between aisles, gawp at the shelves, at the time, and do not have a clue what to get.
Nothing is bothered to tempt me.
I am a ceremonious child, career altar boy, and believe I have a duty in all I do – a duty to others – become the cracking irony of my life; profligate with troubling, and worrying with servility. I do not know exactly how I got the notion that all things mattered, but by Jesus God even today I think they do.
So in stuttering silence as I scan the shelves and racks of books and toys I think that my selection will need to measure up, be worthy of another’s gifting and be, ultimately, public; a reassuring broadcast as the seventies run out. And from this emerges a gyroscope – a well-made, grave and intricate thing for which I instantly have no affection, and is a rubbish plaything; unbondable smart-arse gimcrack of physics; a loathed school subject. I do not have the audience to recreate the expressions on the box, nor the chummy bravado nor self-belief to show its spinning fact off with any natural delivery. Everyone I show it to knows we are unmatched – that I caught my sleeve on this thing – and a bad deal closing foray into salesmanship, should ring an early fucking bell.
On another occasion, or maybe the same, I choose a set of cars which are oddly scaled to my others; two-thirds, I think, of Matchbox models; and an odd trio: a green army jeep, a police Range Rover and generic saloon. No hint of a back story, they do not integrate well in any direction, and continue to be regarded by nephews now as still new and complicating in the one hundred mile away box in the loft.
A success was my two-model speedway motorbike set. Well detailed and skeletally fine with fine, thin tyres and lean, mean pipework. I do not think these exist now and the riders melted on a lighter. But for a couple of years they are engines of romance, of lithe and brave escape.
These I raced before I had a bicycle; down at carpet level and squinting for the life-sized. I was an easy lover of two-wheeled machines, their promise of passionate bachelorhood.
My first (first unhomemade) Top Trumps were of motorbikes, and I would, having never heard it said, pronounce Kawasaki with the stress on the second syllable, as in ‘impossible’. Could be right. I remember the dark-purpled model, a mid-range cc; silver, chrome, spokes.
Younger, perhaps a beginner’s luck with vouchers, I got the Lego Family, the Little Prince in paperback. Spastic browsing, bad selection, was of a growingly, cripplingly self-aware child – sometime before him I was eager, glassy-eyed, had goals and could spend to them.
Farm animals and Lego – oh, forever Lego – a new set of chalet shutters, blue roof tiles, a wagon with rails; a steerable milk float, a police car, the Family, a London bus, a fir tree – all of these by gift tokens; selected well and loved, and parked or erected by the hearth rug and gas fire, neatly: gentle totems of my lot – my nearly-modern birth and my British wealth; knitting a little world about me and not becoming a team player – knowing then that teams were noisy and made little sense.
Now, I tell B., pleased to be so very actioning, that I’ve cashed in the download voucher I got from her nan. Listing what I got includes three albums, which, she reminds me, she has on CD. And she gives me a look that knows the boy in Leeds in the too-warm parka: asks me what other vouchers remain; and to bring them to her.