By: Di Sylvester
It was always going to be an odd Christmas. We were booked for lunch with my in-laws and dinner with my son’s in-laws. Our own Christmas would have to wait—until my daughter and baby grandson arrived from Adelaide in the New Year. I tried not to be disappointed. I resolved to focus on the real Christmas Day I was having, not the imaginary one I was missing.
Christmas is for children. I decided to make a beautiful present for the only child I would see on Christmas Day—my brother-in-law’s four year old granddaughter, Bryony. I spent twenty minutes of an already expired lunch hour choosing the right book for her. I tagged together a shopping-list of must-haves in my mind. Something to be read to her—in bed, as she snuggles up in a twilight land of whimsy before drifting off to the world of dreams. Something with pictures to delight, and a story to engage—a circular narrative with predictability and charm. Something to introduce her to the magic of words, and the wonders of the imaginative life.
After much toing and froing, and umming and ahhing, and scuttling around Dymocks with half a dozen short-listed books in my arms—as the ever growing queue of Christmas shoppers snaked its way across the store—I told myself I had better make my mind up right now, or there would be no getting back to the office before 3pm. I settled on the 25th Anniversary Edition of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Bryony will love it. It even has a gold 25th Anniversary Edition stamp on it. It ticks all the boxes. Sure to be a hit!
I went all out with the wrapping: a heavy gloss paper all blood red on one side and red and white stripes on the other—not so much candy stripes as lipstick samples, beautiful bold lipstick lines, tied all round with a big red satin bow. Then I added some fun—a so-bright-many-coloured hand-held-run-along-spin-about pinwheel. No junk here—Italian made, trendy and sturdy. I was proud of this little Christmas creation. It was, as my Grandma used to say, ‘a picture’.
On Christmas Day Bryony arrived late, with Mum and Dad looking a little the worse for wear. Bryony was wearing a vaguely defiant fun face. Looking back, there were other warning signs—the pink plastic princess dress, the pink plastic princess shoes, the pink plastic princess doll in the immediately erected pink plastic princess castle.
We ate our way through a delightful Christmas spread in the gazebo. We chatted amiable Christmas chat—complaining about the heat, sharing holiday plans and generally catching up in that we-are-all-the-best-of-friends and everything-in-the-world-is-good-today way that makes Christmas Day so special.
As the heat finally began to give, Bryony’s Dad started to gather her things together. They would soon be off. I made a dash for Bryony’s gift and brought it out with not a little pride. “I have something …”. The back end of my announcement was obliterated by Bryony’s screaming delight, “preEEEEEEEEssies!!!!!”. She dashed towards me and made a grab for the gift. I smartly walked to the table, gathering her onto my knee. Bryony took the present from me in a firm two-handed grip. She didn’t unwrap it. Instead she tore shreds of paper from it. She spotted the half-words “ersary Edit”. That was enough.
The word ‘bellow’ connotes a depth of sound that a four year old’s voice cannot sustain. But I will use it anyway—because I don’t know how else to evoke both the depth of feeling and intensity of the din that ricocheted between the brick wall of the house and the tin roof of the gazebo.
“No, no, not a book! … I don’t want a book!!!!!!!”
She screamed. She stiffened. Her thin body arched as she distanced herself from the book that so thoroughly repelled her.
“not a book! I … don’t … want … a … boOOOOOOOOok!!!!!!!”
Oh dear. This was awkward. What does one do when one has failed so dismally to delight? I looked around for any hints, any helpful clues? Some of those around me were as stunned as I was, and equally clueless. Others (Bryony’s parents among them) luckily found themselves at some distance from the unwrapping Bryony, and (despite the uproar) imperturbably elsewhere.
“Well, Bryony,” (I dug deep and found some blowed-if-I-will-be-beaten-by-a-four-year-old equanimity) “this is a good book, Bryony. It is a beautiful book and you will enjoy this book when Daddy reads it to you in bed. But for now—a pinwheel … perhaps?”
I grasped the pinwheel (yes, the pinwheel) by the throat and demonstrated the forward thrust. “See, Bryony, when you move it, it spins!” (I felt my mouth clinching into a fake smile. Oh dear. What happened to my Christmas Day conviviality?) “Maybe, Bryony, you would like to play with this for now?” She snatched the pinwheel and ran off—twirling and whirling, calling and cackling.
Some ten minutes later Bryony let loose again.
“No!! No!! Not ANOTHER book!! I don’t want AN…OTH…ER book!!”
It was still defiant, but this time it was tinged with a pathetic exasperation.
But I hadn’t chosen this book, nor wrapped it, nor hoped anything for it. So I could smile.
I guess some people just don’t like books.