On the day of my fifth birthday, Monday, July 14, a week before we broke up for the long summer holiday, I was really surprised when my dad, not my grandma, met me at the end of the school day. Dad had never picked me up from school before.
He was in his driver’s uniform so I knew he’d come straight from work. My stomach turned over – was something wrong? Was Grandma ill? Or, Mum? Was she ok?
Standing by the rusty iron fence, Dad smiled when he saw some of the children rush out of the school yard, up to the street corner, and turn and slide down back towards school, skidding on the cobble road, sending up a stream of yellow sparks from their hob-nailed boots. Then he took my hand and we walked together in the afternoon sun towards the harbor. Dad said we were going pebbling, pebbling on Lariggan Beach.
Just Dad and me. Pebbling. On Lariggan Beach. After school. Could it get any better than that?
I felt so special, and knew in my bones that something magical was about to happen. It was, after all, my birthday treat.
And what a memorable and lifetime treat it turned out to be.
We walked hand in hand on the cobbled street to the Fradgan, past Uncle Steve and Aunty Flo’s white cottage, past the tall icehouse towering over the small inner harbor, and crossed over to the open fish market. We reached the small stone bridge by the Fisherman’s Institute at the end of Newlyn pier, where the Coombe River ran into the sea. Dad lifted me up so I could see the swans and
the seagulls dipping their heads into the refreshing, bubbling blend of fresh and salt water.
We walked around the corner by the Austin and Morris garage onto the seafront, then down the smooth, worn granite steps, onto the beach. The sky was bright blue, and the sun a shimmering yellow. St. Michael’s Mount, way off in the distance, looked very majestic, its fairy-tale castle catching the late afternoon sun that was setting behind the Mousehole granite cliffs.
The tide was out and the large, smooth rocks, black and grey and white, were wet and shining in the late afternoon sun. As the greeny-blue water lapped back and forth, herring gulls squabbled as they looked for food scraps.
We stepped over the pebbles, making sure we didn’t step on the strands of slimy brown and yellow seaweed. Dad reached in his pocket and brought out two of his OLD HOLBORN tobacco tins.
“Here,” he said, giving me one, “take this and fill it.” “Just wishing rocks, mind you.”
I was thrilled. I’d never had an OLD HOLBORN tin before. With a broad smile and a knowing twinkle in his eye, he said, “Bet I fill mine first.”
The competition was on. We walked slowly along the seashore, and we looked and we touched and we talked and we collected. The beach pebbles were so endearing, small, round, smooth, and warm to the touch. Soon my tin was full of tiny wishing rocks and heart-shaped pebbles that I wanted to take home to show my mum. I so wanted to tell her and Jimmie that I filled my OLD HOLBORN tin before Dad filled his.
Just as we were walking towards the granite steps, I spotted something different. There, lying with all the pebbles was a bright yellow object. It didn’t look like any of the other pebbles. It was so different from all the others, more like the picture I’d seen at school of a small slice of pineapple. What was it?
It stared up at me, wanting, I felt, badly to be picked up, wanting to be touched and admired. By me, Johnny Paull.
And that’s what I did..........I bent over, picked it up, held it in the palm of my hand, and touched it. It was a magical moment. It was lighter than a pebble. Wide-eyed, I showed my dad. Because I knew he knew everything, I asked:
“What’s this, Dad?” He looked down at it, smiled, and then, half-closing his eyes, frowned.
Dad had no idea what I’d found. “Dunno. Never seen anything like that before.”
“Good, though, isn’t it?”
Funny, because I thought he had seen everything there was to see. I couldn’t believe that he had never ever seen anything like the yellow thingy before – and he’d been to the beach over a thousand thousand times in his life.
But Dad did know it was different, and, therefore, very, very special.
“Take it home and show your ma. She might know.”
I stared at my orangey-yellow, rock-like, magical find. It looked soft. Not wanting to scratch it, I wrapped it up in my white hanky and put it in my right-hand pocket – it didn’t seem right to mix such a special thingy in the OLD HOLBORN tin with the other pebbles I’d found. My dad took my hand and we made our way back home. As I walked up the very steep hill, I kept feeling the OLD HOLBORN treasure tin in one pocket, and checking the lumpy hanky in the other.
I KNEW I’d found something very special. I KNEW it was lying on the beach waiting for me to come along and find it. I KNEW it was a special day. I was excited. My discovery made my head glow. It was something that I KNEW belonged just to me – and would, forever.
When we reached Treveneth Crescent I quickly skipped up the back garden path, past the three gooseberry bushes (one for Jimmie, one for Charles, and one for me), pushed opened the glass door, and ran straight into the kitchen. Mum and Grandma were standing by the white enameled cooker, waiting for the kettle to boil. Charles was sleeping in mum’s arms.
“Mum, Mum, Grandma, see what I found.”
“ It’s brilliant.”
I took out my OLD HOLBORN tin and showed them what I’d found on the beach. I knew then by the look on my mum’s and my grandma’s faces that the yellow rock I had found was something very special. And I found it on my birthday, too.
“Where’d you find THAT?” asked Grandma.
“Dad, where’d he find that? Did you give it to him for a birthday surprise?”
Mum said softly, “THAT beautiful yellow rock was waiting for you. Just for you.”
“It’s a treasure. A real treasure. Put it in one of your OXO treasure tins, Johnny, and keep it there, forever.”
“Forever. You hear me? It’s treasure.”
“ Forever and a day.”
I squeezed my treasure tightly in my hand and took it into the kitchen. I had never held treasure before. I put it under the hot water tap and washed off the grainy sand with hand soap, dried it with newspaper, stroked it, and looked at it again. I put it on the dinner table, next to my birthday tea treats - the big blue and white plate covered with splits, homemade blackberry jam, Cornish cream, sticky treacle, sausage rolls, and yellow saffron buns.
When I went upstairs to bed, I put the OLD HOLBORN treasure tin containing my special find under my pillow, curled my fingers around it and fell asleep, with a broad smile on my face.
As I dressed in the morning, I put the treasure inside a small OXO tin in my left-hand trouser pocket, next to my favorite small seashell, to take to school so I could show my teacher, Miss Harvey.
Dad reminded me as I went out the door with Grandma. “Got your yellow treasure for your teacher, Johnny?” “Don’t forget it. You know what your Ma said.”
Running ahead of Grandma as we approached school, I couldn’t wait to show Miss Harvey my treasure. The bell went and I chased into school.
Even before all the boys and girls sat in their seats, I was standing by Miss Harvey’s tall desk, the OXO treasure tin in my hand, spluttering, “Miss Harvey, Miss Harvey, see what I found. I found it on the beach, after school, yesterday. You know, next to the harbor wall. I found it on Lariggan. Went there with my dad. You know, when the tide was out, when you can see what the tide brought in.”
Every word came out in a rush.
As Miss Harvey looked inside my scratched OXO tin, her eyes widened. It wasn’t, apparently a rock at all! It was ancient fossilized tree resin, and, she said, it was called amber. Miss Harvey knew amber was millions of years old and came from the inside of trees
Resin? Fossilized? Amber? Ancient? What beautiful words, I thought. I rolled the words around in my head. Resin. Fossilized. Amber, amber……….
Miss Harveyheld my beautiful amber in her hand, smiled, looked down at me through her glasses that balanced on the end of her sharp nose, and said loudly, so everyone in class could hear, that it had come from a far-off country, and probably been washed ashore after a long, long trip in the sea.
She wrote the word A M B E R on the board. “And Johnny Paull was lucky enough to find it.”
I could tell Miss Harvey was thrilled. I don’t think I had ever seen her wide smile before.
What a great teaching moment it must have been for her - and what a great learning moment it surely was for me. Her words made me realize that I had found something very, very special.
“Show it to everyone,” Miss Harvey said. I proudly turned to face everyone in the room. As I held out my hand and showed the class, everyone stopped chattering. They really wanted to see what I had found.
She turned to me, “Johnny Paull, why don’t you draw a picture of your amber? Here, here’s some white paper. Use this!” “Don’t just draw the amber, draw the other beach pebbles, too. Just as you remember.” “Can you see them in your head?”
I couldn’t wait to grab some yellow, black and brown crayons from the big biscuit tin. Closing my eyes, I tried to remember just how the amber looked when I saw it lying with all the other pebbles.
When I’d finished my drawing and showed it to Miss Harvey, I could tell from her eyes that she liked it.
“Good drawing. Good color, Johnny Paull.”
Quickly, she glued the picture onto some black paper, then taped it to the wall close to my desk, and told me to write my name and the date underneath.
Wow! It felt so good to see my picture on display so that everyone in class could see it – a teaching lesson I was to remember time and time again much later when I worked as a teacher with young children.
As I was drawing another picture of one of my wishing rocks, Miss Harvey came next to me and, with a broad smile, said, very emphatically so that everyone could hear,
”Keep it, Johnny Paull. The amber. And that wishing rock. They’re wonderful. Keep them. Keep the amber. Keep it in your oxo tin- treasure tin, sorry - and save it. Save it forever.”
For well over 60 years, from my very special fifthh birthday day, the smooth yellow treasure, my special amber, resides in the OXO tin.
Sometimes, the precious, magical amber’s in my right-hand trouser pocket, sometimes in the left.
I touch it a million times a day – just to make sure that it’s still there, just to make me feel good. As I
touch it, I remind myself of that magical birthday all those years ago.
It’s a big part of my life. Especially my teaching life.