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The flash of gold

Our family has a tradition in which my wife and I bury some ‘treasure’ and some time after Christmas the children find it.

A couple of times, we’ve led them to the treasure via maps and clues, but last year, accidentally, the kids found the treasure before we’d done the whole map ‘n’ clue thing, and their excitement was wildly greater than it had been in earlier years.

So this year, we aimed to follow that same basic template. The kids had already searched our garden and found nothing. They didn’t grumble exactly, but their disappointment was there.

Then, yesterday, Nuala and I led them up the road for a walk. It wasn’t a treasure-hunt, just a chance to walk in some rare January sunshine.

On the way out – nothing.

The light started to fade. We began to return home. As we did so, one of us saw a single gold (chocolate) coin shining from the mud on the verge.

Had that coin been there before? The kids weren’t sure, but no, it hadn’t been, I placed it there while they were running ahead.

They started to inspect the site more carefully and saw a second coin gleaming from a nearby tree.

We adults did the adult thing: warning that someone had probably just dropped a coin, it probably wasn’t really chocolate, none of these things really meant anything – but then one of the girls found a spade leaning up against a tree, a sure sign that there was digging to be done.

With a little bit of guidance, they found the right spot – a place where the ground ivy could be simply brushed aside and some clean, bare soil exposed. The kids were, by this point, almost leaping with excitement, except that the tremble of the impending discovery kept them almost hypnotically glued to the spot.

Then they started digging, made a mess of things, and asked me to help. I plunged the spade into the earth and we all heard the soft thud of a spade hitting up against a hard object in the soft earth.

Tabby, the older girl, then scraped away enough soil to expose an old metal box with yellow markings. At this point, the kids were literally jumping and screaming. Tabby had to hand me the spade, so she could jump and scream too.

We levered the box (an old army ammo tin, bought from eBay) out of the ground, brushed it off, opened it – and found a mass of gold coins, more than 100 of them.

And in all of that, it occurred to me that the whole adventure was a kind of story-making. The very faint grumbling discontent that this year, no treasure had materialised. An evening walk in end-of-day sunshine. A quiet, domestic ordinariness on the journey out – nothing to rouse suspicion. Then, on the way back, a tiny sign of something unusual. A sign repeated by that second gold coin in the tree. A sign affirmed, emphatically, by the presence of a spade. Then a frenzy of action – characters responding to their story situation – and the genuinely thrilling moment when spade thumped box,

For almost all of us, and perhaps for literally all of us, the appetite for story begins in childhood. My kids are aged 6 and 8, which is about the peak for make-believe play of all sorts. The world just shapes itself into story at least as easily as it shapes itself into an adult-style, empirical conversation about reality.

And it occurred to me that, if we’re writing for kids, it’s blooming obvious that we need to write those finding-treasure type scenes. We need to generate the sense of wonder, of discovery, of the quotidian breaking into the magical.

But isn’t that also, and equally, the case when we write for adults? If you’re a crime novelist, doesn’t the discovery of a corpse offer something like the same kind of thrill? Even in properly hi-falutin’ literary fiction, isn’t there a demand for something like that moment? The moment when, in Atonement for example, a lewd letter is misdelivered, when ordinary consensual sex is mistaken for something darker.

I won’t say that every published book out there has those moments, or even that every successful book does. But they nearly all do and they probably all should.

I think alive in all of us, as readers or writers, is the desire to re-stage and re-encounter those moments of magic. Unlike the kids, we know it’s fake, but we don’t care, we just want that feeling repeated.

And, for us as writers, I think that means we have to be honest about discarding some of our adulthood when we write. Of course, to get by in our complicated modern world, we need to reason, and study evidence, and build a picture of reality as it is. But as writers, we just have to drop some of those attitudes, or loosen them.

We need to allow ourselves the moment of watching a spade plunge into earth believing, that yes, really, there’ll be treasure beneath.

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Comments (11)
    • That's how I feel when I'm in the middle of creating a plot. It's like an adventure trip and it's what I love most about writing my own novels.

      I don't have any family traditions to tell about, but I can tell you about the one that stands for Christmas presents giving in my homeland, Catalunya.

      We don't wait for the Magi like in the rest of the peninsula. We don't have Santa Claus either, that's imported. We have our very own Christmas spirit, the Tió, embodied in a log.

      Yes, we take a simple log, paint a smiling face on one end, put a barretina (the traditional farmer's hat) on it, and show it to the house children at the beginning of December. "You have to feed it every day," we tell them, and give them an apple that they must place next to the tió in the evening. Of course, the apple will have disappeared next morning.

      On Christmas Day morning the adults prepare a table covering it with a tablecloth large enough that its skirts will reach the floor. The tió is placed close to it on the floor so that the tablecloth covers its rear end.

      And then the children are brought to this room and given a stick. They take turns to hit the tió with this stick, shouting all the while: "Poo, Tió, or I'll give you a beating with this stick!"

      And it works! with each hit, the tió poos a present, which the adults rescue from below the table and hand to the child who's just used the stick.

      Not as romantic as an old man coming down the chimney, but it works a treat! Several!

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      • Love this, Harry—how fun for you and your wife to watch the planning and work pay off in your children’s joy!! Worth every moment!

        I’m the eldest of three girls and one of our most enduring family traditions started in England and continued every Christmas we lived there—tickets to see the Royal Festival Ballet perform The Nutcracker with the London Symphony Orchestra. Every aspect of the event from dressing up to the train ride across countryside to velvet curtains rising to British chocolate at intermission to Snow Queen twirls to grandfather clocks that hid armies was a thrill for us. So much of our foundation crumbled when our parents divorced—but we hold on to those beautiful memories each Christmas giving each other nutcrackers in such amazing variety that my husband made a moratorium: no person was ever allowed to give anyone anything to do with nutcrackers ever again! We happily ignored him, and he could do nothing but reform. This Christmas he bought our two grandsons, ages 3 years and 5 months, their first.

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        • Accessing imagination and play. I think it was Richard Neville who wrote 'Playpower'.  I have a copy in the shed. I should look at it again.

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          • Inspirational (as usual) and a fantastic family tradition.  I have several friends whose kids would love this sort of thing; unfortunately the rest of the kids would say, "We have to LOOK (dripping with disdain) for the presents!?  Just hand the stuff over we don't have time for finding stuff."  Like others, I think your kids related posts are quite enjoyable.

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            • The most rewarding things are those we have sacrificed something for. Whether that’s a few hours of our time, or our right arm, having beaten off a dragon to save the world. We follow stories vicariously, the journey is where permission to enjoy the treasure is gained. It’s no fun without a bit of suffering. Deep down we are all a little masochistic. 

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