The best toy in the box

He-man-toysThey say rich people don‘t have books in their houses. I beg to differ.

We all knew Michael was rich. He had the 36-pack of Colleen pencil crayons. I‘m talking serious money.

Michael‘s wealth kept him unusually calm and clean. Like at break time. While we unscrewed the caps of our bulging plastic juice bottles with the delicate slowness of bomb disposal technicians, dreading the tell-tale fizz of fermented orange juice about to go supernova, Michael would sip branded, non-exploding juice. Through a bendy straw. That‘s serious 1% shit right there.

Sometimes his cleanliness seemed supernatural. Take recorder class, for example.

If you’ve ever played competitive recorder, you’ll know that spit is your greatest enemy. Some people say the greatest threat to a recorder player is the urge to break into Mango Groove’s Special Star penny whistle solo, but they‘re wrong. It’s spit.

You first sense it after about a minute into Frère Jacques; a general moistening, like thunderclouds creeping across a blue sky. Two minutes in, and you‘re starting to sip at the mouthpiece between toots. And then, just as you start Lavender’s Blue, your recorder transforms into a porpoise with bronchitis. You’re no longer covering those holes to make the right notes come out: you’re just trying to plug the deluge. As you reach the finale, you’re fingering a length of 19th-century sewer pipe. There’s no music any more, just the echo of rats scampering down the pipe and the panting of Jean Valjean dragging himself past them.

Not Michael. Somehow, in a sea of spit, he managed to keep his recorder as dry and crisp as the R20 notes he got every month as an allowance…

So yes, we knew Michael was rich. But I didn’t realise just how rich he was until I went to his house.

It only happened once. We weren’t friends so I‘m not sure why I went. In retrospect it’s possible it was a half-hearted kidnapping carried out by his parents, wealthy suburban fortysomethings trying to break the monotony of coke-snorting and wife-swapping.

His house was a palace. It had two bathrooms, with carpets. And there were two phones. Two. With buttons. Buttons.

They had a Sodastream machine, with gas in it. Nobody in my world had gassed-up Sodastream machines. If you had one, it was one you’d been given by rich people who’d emigrated to New Zealand, and you didn’t know where to get the gas so when you pushed the button it went “ugh” and coughed exactly three bubbles into your bottle of broken dreams.

But when Michael’s mom pushed the button, bubbles poured out like coins out of a slot machine at Sun City. (His family had also been to Sun City.) And once we’d been handed our drinks we were sent out onto “the patio”, which was an actual patio and not just the concreted-over ruins of 1985’s attempt to build a pool without planning permission from the city. It was basically Southfork in Dallas.

I was awed as I wandered down the carpeted passage past yellow-tinted windows with swirls in the glass but when I walked into Michael’s room, my knees almost buckled. Because Michael had everything. The yellow Tron cycle and the red one. The whole A-Team, plus their van, plus Amy. I didn’t even know who Amy was, but she was here. Behind them: a giant bin containing every toy ever produced in the 1980s. I could just make out He-Man and Skeletor, locked in their eternal battle, their rubber heads slightly mashed in by the bumper of a battery-powered Batmobile.

I thought Michael would show them off to me. Instead, he went to a special shelf. With reverential care he took down something heavy and said, “You can‘t get this anywhere.”

It was true. You couldn’t.

It was that year‘s Guinness Book of World Records.

I had only held one once, the 1982 issue, in which I’d gazed at the world’s fastest computer, which could do up to nine calculations a minute depending on how often you changed its oil and water. To get this one, just months off the press, Michael must have known someone Overseas.

We sat together and pored over it, and he showed me his favourite pages. The most dangerous snake, the largest goitre … I reached for the edges of the page and tried to ease the book out of his hands but Michael pulled it away. I could play with anything in the room, but not this.

Writing is probably never going to make me rich. Every year words get cheaper and books get dearer. But still, I remember the richest boy in the world, tired of all the toys, guarding his book like a dragon on a heap of gold. In a world of stuff, sometimes marks on a page are all the treasure we need.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail


  1. I have to pop in here from Canada. This post made me laugh. I grew up outside a larger city in an area where incomes ran from truly poor to oil executives. We were somewhere in between, but only as an adult did I realize how little money my father made most of the time. But we always had books. Nonetheless, what I envied in other people’s homes was the encyclopedia! This would have been the early 70’s and sure my parents had bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica when first married. From 1957! They might have been fossils. When I found a full set of the more flashy and modern World Book in a friend’s home I was in awe. My god what a treat! I can’t even remember if these homes held any other books – a proud display of encyclopedia in the living room was a mark of prestige. I would have killed to have a set like that in my own house.


  2. Great piece! I remember the kid next door (who lived in the biggest house in the street) had every of Masters of the Universe produced at the time…even the cat one of them rode AND Castle Greyskull…turned out his mother worked for the distributor. He was a right little prick about it though and later, some older kids nicked a whole bunch of his collection while playing at his house. Funny what one remembers.


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