Christmas, Army Men and Sofa crevices


Many a Christmas ago my family and I went on a trip to Singapore.  It was my first trip to Asia, and a few years before then we had travelled to Gold Coast, Australia (although I don’t remember much of that trip, as I would have only been six or so years old).

The first day or so was spent at Sentosa.  My memory of it is that of sitting excitedly in the monorail and traversing the vast underwater world — every kid’s dream, to put it simply.  The next morning we went on what I believe was to turn into a day-long shopping spree, which was every kid’s nightmare (mine especially), but Mum was wise to promise us a visit to the toy-shop afterwards, and that alone must have kept us shuffling along nigh uncomplainingly.

The shop was Toys R’ Us, but only if my memory serves me correctly.  Whatever it was, it was the most impressive depository of playthings I ever saw, and I must have been as excited as any nine-year-old boy could have been.  Now one of the things I was obsessed with as a kid was Army Men.  In our living room I used to build up massive battlefronts of ‘little green men’, and my childish imagination would lead me to believe that I was the general commander of the ‘good guys’, that we were somehow poised on the brink of defeat, yet against all odds I would manage to save the day… despite the grimmer fact that friendly casualties very often numbered in the dozens.

So by chance, or possibly by fate, as it would then have occurred to the nine-year-old me, I stumble across this shiny squad of Army Men which, once it had caught my attention, wasn’t so willing to let go of it too easily.  I was quickly mesmerised by it, and immediately made it my mission that I wasn’t going to leave the shop without it.  But extraordinary toys come at extraordinary prices, and Dad was unconvinced that it was entirely worth the money, or that I was sincerely attached to it rather than just being premature, as the nine-year-old me must often have been.  (If you happen to wonder how a squad of Army Men could be so costly, it was that it came ready with tanks and artillery and many other shiny gadgets, all of which seldom looked plastic, well, at least to my boyish eyes).

But it was apparent at the time that unless he bought it, I would surely leave the store pouting, and possibly pout all the way back to the hotel, which must have been in itself quite a grim prospect, but he did allow it to happen.  He hinted to me that it was too expensive a toy, and that I should pick something else in its stead, but overwhelmed with disappointment as I was, I didn’t, and I did pout all the way back to the hotel.  I even recall to have said something to my mum along the lines of “I don’t want any presents for Christmas,” which was at best a punchline craftily devised to get my parents’ attention, or perhaps to get them to feel a little guilty, but nonetheless, they seemed wholly unaffected by this whole matter.

Then came Christmas, and I must have felt a little queasy at the thought of getting absolutely no presents, and worse, the fact of it was that I had brought it all upon myself, and so deep down inside I probably knew I deserved the misery.  My brother sat with his playthings in his lap; and I imagine that I, sitting by him, would have felt secretly overwhelmed with a sense of being left out, bordering on unwitting jealousy.  It seemed like the worst feeling a boy can experience, and I must have tried my best to hide it from the family, although probably unsuccessfully.

The hotel room we stayed in was more like a little studio in that it had a small lounge area where there was a (green) sofa and a TV in the corner.  I vaguely recall to have been sitting in this lounge area, possibly watching TV, when Dad approach me with this wrapped present tucked under his arm, and he handed it over to me.  Words fail to describe how surprised I would have felt.  I can imagine my nine-year-old self scrambling to unwrap the present, and I would have been speechlessly transfixed with awe to see what was inside, beneath the ever-obscuring veil of wrapping paper.

It was exactly as I had hoped it to be.  I don’t quite know if Dad had sneaked back to the shop to buy it, or whether he actually bought it on the day behind my back, or what, but it was there now resting on my own lap, and just like that, I had transformed from the sad sod I was earlier, to becoming possibly the happiest boy out of this planet.  I began furiously tearing apart the rest of the wrapping paper, but was also nimble and delicate when it came to the actual unboxing process, making sure not to damage them precious little things which were tidily nested inside.

The tanks and stuff came with projectiles which they would fire out if you pushed the right buttons, and one of the artillery unit would disassemble itself if you pulled this tiny lever on its back, which I thought was thoroughly amazing.  But it wasn’t only me who was thrilled to the marrow by this entire experience.  I remember my little brother was so excited (I imagine he would have been peeking out from behind my shoulder and watching me unbox the present with unblinking eyes) that he even distanced himself from his own toys to sit by me on the carpeted floor, as one by one I unveiled these precious little figurines.

But it was my present, and not his.  As always, he began fooling around with the little bits and pieces, all the while I probably worried that things would get lost underneath the sofa and whatnot, so I told him to stop.  He didn’t.  He went up on the sofa and took some of the figurines with him, and started playing with them.  Then I caught him sort of pushing one of the Army Men into the little crevice between the sofa cushions (for whatever reason, I don’t know — possibly to simulate the trenches of the Great War?!), but it made me snap — and so I socked him one.

Needless to say Mum and Dad were shocked and angry at what I did, because my brother was crying, as it was the hardest punch I had ever given to anyone or anything in my life (and so you know, I used to kickbox as well).  I on the other hand was dead convinced I had done the right thing, and stood by this conviction even as I was being told to apologise or threatened with all kinds of punishments… punishments which I probably eventually received.  But for all I cared the boy fully deserved what he got.

I  don’t remember much of what happened next, but my brother didn’t talk to me again for a long time (probably the rest of that day, though it did seem long, at the time).  I don’t think I ever did apologise to him, or if I did, it would not have been a sincere apology, because I’d indoctrinated myself to believing that it was anything but my fault.

But all he was — was that he was excited for me that I got the present I so desperately wanted for Christmas, and all he wanted was to play it with me.  He wouldn’t have thought I was capable of hurting him in such a way, and I wouldn’t have known it myself, had it not been for Christmas, Army Men and sofa crevices.

I sometimes wonder if he ever forgot the incident, or whether he ever forgave me for it.  It wasn’t the way I would want him, or anyone, to remember me by, if it was the last thing I ever did.

The greatest gift you could ever give to someone is the gift of love, and of kindness.

Don’t keep it hidden away under your own tree, for too long.

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