Dad commuted to work on a steam train; for me, a little boy with small knees and a big imagination that was more exciting than Christmas. How can I be sure of that? Is such unfounded confidence in a memory merely proof of the truth that it isn’t only computers that need regular defragging?
As I recall I was about seven. In our bedroom we had a chimney that was boarded up with a piece of hardboard, painted white and into which someone had drilled air-holes. I remember the draughts.
I was then and remain now very credulous. The Archaeologist was born a sceptic. ‘So this here Santa chappie,’ he muses, ‘is able to squeeze down this chimney and through the board, is he?’
Dad, who wanted everything festive to be fun – mum was too busy cooking to spend time on idle speculation – explained his theories. Mum let them debate for a while but, seeing my growing worries that Santa was about to disappear in a flurry of geometry, stopped them.
‘Hmm?’ The two mooting males regarded her with the reverence she deserved.
‘Take the board off and measure it. Then you’ll have an idea of how small he needs to be.’
This was beyond exciting for two small boys. While dad collected enough tools to fabricate a scale model of the Queen Mary from matchsticks we went and positioned ourselves either side of the chimney breast. Dad arrived and with the first screwdriver dislodged the board. The Archaeologist and I peered at the never before exposed (in our lifetimes) grate. Lying on the concrete floor was a rectangle of bright pink cardboard. I’d never seen anything so pink. There were black letters and numbers on it, a sort of code.
‘Well, blow me.’ Dad picked it up and studied it carefully. ‘How did that get here?’
‘What is it?’ The Archaeologist displayed the fundamental curiosity that has made him both fascinating and a total pain these last 50 something years.
‘My season ticket. For the train. This one ran out over a year ago.’ Dad handed it to the senior subaltern (The Archaeologist) while other ranks (me) hopped from foot to foot trying to see this printed wonder. ‘I normally hand them in when I get the new one.’
Mum was consulted but no one could explain how this pink ticket had found its way to the long shut up fireplace. While I turned this wonder over in my fingers, trying and failing to decipher the codes, dad and the Archaeologist took a series of measurements and debated the volumetric challenges of a supersized fantasy figure squeezing down a small bedroom chimney.
I tried to imagine the way, much like the arrival of Mary Poppins, in which the card had been blown on the north wind and ended up waiting to be found. There had to be a message, but what?
Mum understood the mystery of this. She explained what the figures meant but also helped with some speculation of her own on its journey and arrival. I wonder what happened to the card; probably the Archaeologist purloined it: he’s collected most things all his life – his house is crammed with stuff. Me, I just needed the idea of the card, lying there, waiting, maybe expecting, to be discovered – it was my ticket to a world inside my head, a world of stories to be unfurled and retold.
As for the chimney, well Santa squeezed down after a couple of pints at the rugby club – he left us socks full of chocolate money and satsumas, Betta Bilda blocks (upmarket Lego) and plastic animals for the farm that formed an adjunct to our train set. We’d understand not to disturb Santa and Mrs Santa until after 7 while we played with our gifts. The Archaeologist probably mused on some anatomical faux pas in the design of the Okapi while I thought about the journey I might undertake, up that chimney with the freedom of the pink ticket. Maybe that’s what led me, inexorably a few years later, to this alter-ego..
Imagination can be, well, interesting.