Ever since I can remember, my family have practised the fine art of Unbirthday Presents.
For each child who has a birthday, all siblings receive a small token of the household’s appreciation too.
Unbirthday Presents vanquish the tantrums of those fine young people who feel that, while the correct date has not yet arrived, it should by rights be their birthday too.
But they have the far more positive effect of causing all participants under 10 to look forward with warm appreciation to the birthday of a sibling.
Yesterday it was the birthday of one of the princesses: my pretty picture-book nieces who live just down the road with their small but definite four-year old brother, Al.
We turned up at the party to pay our respects to the little princess. The children had been to see a birthday film – Brave – and Al was nowhere to be seen.
“He got a bit scared,” his mother confided.
It appears the mother in the film turns into a bear and she has her fiercer moments. “She did go raaaaaaah!” Al told his mother disconsolately.
He sat convalescing in the sitting room with his favourite television programme, and did not make an appearance for the scrumptious banquet which included bacon crunchy crisps and strawberries dipped in Green and Black’s white chocolate.
There is one thing which can rouse Al from doldrums such as this, and that is Presents.
Grandma bustled into the kitchen with a big bag of packages wrapped in silver paper.
Al eyed his tubular parcel with speculative approval.
All thoughts of roaring bears vanished. This sparkly bundle was a most promising shape. With help he managed to remove all packaging to reveal a carefully researched Marks and Spencer’s sponge gun.
Satisfyingly long and chunky, it is essentially a huge water syringe. Dip the end in the water and pull out the stopper at the other end: and hey presto. A water syringe with a gratifying range of quite far away.
“No!” yelled my sister,”not over the fence, Al!”
The new acquisition held a substantial amount of water. An unsuspecting neighbour walking in their garden next door risked a drenching. I pottered outside.
“Al, I said, “we keep all our gun water in THIS garden.”
He considered this.
“Because you might splosh someone on the head.”
That made sense. He adjusted his aim and turned his gun affably on the household collie.
I scrabbled for the right words to protect the dog from next door’s grisly fate. “Al, can you hit the flowers? Try the yellow one. Now the red ones. And the purple ones right over there in the corner.”
Smugly I watched as Al conducted target practice.
But the dog was not safe for long. Shooting flowers holds extremely limited charm for four-year old boys. It’s not naughty enough.
And then the penny dropped: the dog loved the water. The dog was chasing the water. This was a ready-made, cyclical game in which Al could get up to no mischief whatsoever. The ancient team of boy and dog had once more united in a happy union.
I strolled inside to the other grownups and claimed my cup of tea. For Al was safe. The dog was safe. The neighbours were safe.
From my seat next to the window I watched in a kind of slow-motion as Al turned towards the house and spied his sisters and their twittering friends, clearly audible, planning a fashion show from the wide open upstairs window.
A wicked light appeared in Al’s eye. That window was Quite Far Away.
He took aim.
Just when you think you have sewn up the loopholes, Al will always find another.