Ahhhhhh. Clearing the shelves in my attic, I find two oval shapes: blue at the bottom, clear at the top, with tiny shells embedded in each.
Plasticraft. Toy of the Year in 1972 when I was 14. Not since Santa had delivered the board game Mouse Trap when I was five had I been this excited. I think.
I probably had been, but every Christmas brought a new joy that filled me with such all-consuming toy lust, I was consumed by its new mystery (it’s not hard to see why Woody was put out when Buzz Lightyear arrived in Toy Story). Booby Trap – blue and yellow bobbles you had to extract from a trap without letting the whole thing blow up in your face and blinding you on Boxing Day; Pick-a-Stick (ditto – if the trap didn’t get you, the spears would); Hats Off, a gentler game perfected by our tiny poodle Emma, whose paw stayed on the plastic hats’ launch pads long after I had moved on to my next adventure.
Plasticraft was the first toy I remember that enabled me to make something. The John Bull Printing Set of my early childhood had come close. It consisted of rubber letters that you stuck on a rack, pressed on a pad of ink, and then watch as the imprint magically appeared on a piece of blank paper. The word made flesh. It was my first publication.
The art-work that will go down in history as my Plastics Period was altogether more adventurous. Now, instead of my hands being covered in ink that I couldn’t get off for days, they were glued together with dripping colours that might well cripple my fingers for life.
But I loved it – especially the sea life I created in each key ring, paperweight (they couldn’t have held down a dead fly, to be honest), or ornament. Ever impatient, I sat for hours waiting for the blue sea level to set before I could pour on the clear plastic that would create the arena of an aquarium. Today, I hold them in my hands, unable to part with these jewels, and remembering, as if it were yesterday, the smell of roast turkey, mince pies and molten plastic that was the purest pleasure my fingers ever tasted.
I have them in my possession because they were gifts I gave to my grandmother and, when she died, I took them when clearing her house. They were still in pride of place alongside the photograph she had when she and Grandpa won a prize for their garden in the Old Globe, the pub they managed in Rogerstone, near Newport.
Without life experience, do our primal sensations make more of an impression when we are young? I remember the smell of freshly cut grass at Cefn Mably Hospital where Grandpa died in June when I was 13, asking my mother “Do you think he’s going to be all right?” and hearing, through her tears, “No, I don’t.”
Is it just in my imagination that I recall the smell of dark wood and the touch of the sticky sugar imprint of the Lucozade bottle on his bedside table before he went into hospital for what would be the last time? Could I ever forget the smell of freshly baked Cornish pasties baking in the downstairs kitchen when I stayed at the Globe – my grandmother up at the crack of dawn cooking for the lunchtime rush?
Plasticraft holds Grandma’s life in my hands: a woman who worked tirelessly her whole life, brought up three daughters during a war, and who I never heard complain. I am moved to tears now, finding things she also gave to me. There’s a picture of clowns, in various facial expressions of sadness and joy (“She’s got your number,” said a friend, at the time); my Children’s Bible; A Chid’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson; and, my favourite, A Book of Girls’ Stories.
Re-reading the tales, these are not just any girls: if they have a horse, they are not going to be content trotting around a field: they are going to win that damned gymkhana. Yes, every girl is a winner. Was this, in my early teens, where I discovered the ambitious streak that propelled me forward? I never had a horse, but I was always in it for the race. I still am.
I pack my shells in plastic carefully, with bubble wrap, even though I know they don’t need it. Along with my grandmother’s gold watch and my grandfather’s banjo, they are the only material things I have left that belonged to them. But I have Girls’ Stories, and a grandmother who clearly understood me and took pleasure in the life I was about to live and she could never have.
No bitterness, though. Get on that horse, girl, and Giddyup. It’s a long ride, but it’ll be worth it.
Bless you, Grandma, Elsie May Culliford. I will remember you forever.