The sun creeps over the forest this morning, to dawn on Big Al’s fourth year.
The plastic party cups are empty and spent; the pristine car-shaped cake half eaten. The cake-top firework sits in the corner of the kitchen, blackened and burnt. And about ten Lightening McQueen cars are lined up in Big Al’s parking lot, ready for a gruelling day of play ahead.
When I got married almost 20 years ago, Phil and I did not have a wedding list. We were naive souls and were simply happy to have our favourite friends and family there at our big day. It never occurred to us to orchestrate gift-giving so we benefitted.
That mountain of presents next to the cake, though, that did look awfully promising. The thought of it sat in my subconscious as we drove away in our friends’ car to the hotel nestling in Surrey, and trolled around London indulging in all-you-can-eat-for £3 pizza deals, and jumping on a plane bound for a Greek island.
We dined and swam and snorkelled and discovered, thousands of miles away, and returned happily after a fortnight to our pile of pressies.
It was then that we discovered that the default wedding present is always glasses.
Gift after gift was opened joyfully, only to discover that we were good for glasses for about the next decade. Big glasses, small glasses, crystal upmarket wine goblets, chunky tumblers for bier blonde.
It is a mixed blessing, the clumsiness of my spouse and I. We don’t mean to, but we break things easily. And steadily, we smashed our way through the lot.
One day my mother was sitting on our lounge, bemoaning the glut of glasses once again. “How will you ever use them all?” she wailed.
Upon which the sound of smashing glass reverberated from the kitchen, where Phil was preparing our drinks. Problem solved.
Too many glasses.
Yesterday, everyone in the Shrewsday empire had one important appointment. Wild donkeys couldn’t have kept us away from it. For at 4:30 yesterday afternoon, it was Big Al’s birthday party.
We bundled his gifts into a big Sainsbury’s bag: Al is besotted with the Disney feature film, ‘Cars’. Unbeknown to us, Felix had wrapped two of his beloved models of its hero, Lightening McQueen: a bright red racing car with a big grin. We had obediently trotted out to find a brand new model of the same toy, it being on Al’s list and all.
The bag was getting quite bulky.
We picked it up and headed out to walk through the forest to Big Al’s house. Arriving with a soggy dog, we found Al was not open to conversation. He had two big Lightening McQueen cars, and was lining them up solemnly on the floor. I think they were talking to each other.
The party food was out and the Lightening McQueen cake parked quietly round the kitchen corner. Everyone fell on the spread and munched crisps and, to a predictably lesser extent, carrot sticks. Big Al sat down and did what he was told, but his heart wasn’t in it. His presents were piled round his plate.
And so he was given a dispensation to forgo food and open the gifts.
As he tore off the paper with the dismissive focus, it became clear that there was one item on his birthday list: Lightening McQueen. And that was just fine with Al.
One is never allowed to get down from the table mid-meal, but today was an exception. While the rest of us grazed, Al had a mission. He corralled every Lightening Mcqueen. Each one appeared to have a different voice. They had a symposium. It was very serious.
He was tempted back for the cake, of course. And when the sparkler firework on top went off he almost exploded himself. It was fortunate that he didn’t, however, because his Daddy had managed to unpackage our present to him. This McQueen, it seemed, would drive forwards on its own for a couple of yards. Press it, forward, stop.
I glanced over a little later to see Al with our Mcqueen and the cuddly one Felix had bequeathed him. The current game was to start the little car and when it moved, chase it with the other one.
The symposium continued.
Al’s mum was getting antsy about his tea. But he was on Planet McQueen, and he was not for returning. So she worked out a deal whereby he returned to her for a bite of bread and butter every now and then, only to return to the auto-parliament for more deliberation.
Al did not need a birthday list. Because there would always have been one item on it, and the more of that item, the better, as far as this four-year-old-boy was concerned.
He will give those McQueens a run for their money.