For what I think was my 10th birthday, my mother bought me a model of an F-104 Starfighter. It was one of the self-assembly types popular at the time. The effect this had on me is ably demonstrated by the fact that I remember the name of the plane. I've probably got the year wrong, but I remember the circumstances.
The thing I remember, and it's an important point, is that my father had recently left home. Something about life in Britain, during Margaret Thatcher's term as Prime Minister, caused the divorce rate to sky-rocket. We were always at the lower end of the income scale as a family, so Conservative policies affected us more than most. It was a time of great hardship for us and, looking back, I realise how hard my parents tried to shield us from the reality of our situation. In no way does that excuse my father's behaviour: even with two young sons at home, he decided that the questionable charms of another woman were too much to resist.
I had told my mother that a birthday present would not be necessary, because I saw how much harder things had become for her, and I was as aware as a child could be that she was suffering from episodes of depression. Such things were not talked about in those days, but I was dimly aware that she was not the same.
I didn't understand why I had a model aeroplane as a birthday present. I had always been bookish and aloof: quite the opposite of the other members of the family. My father had once made some money, and bought a second-hand motorbike for my brother. Mine came the following year and, much to my father's bemusement, was rarely used. My mother worried that, with my studious nature and small frame, I would be a target for bullies. As things turned out, I was a target, as my mother feared but, thanks to the Judo lessons her and my father had insisted my brother and I attend, rarely a victim.
Though I didn't understand the reasons behind the gift, I spent what probably seems longer than it actually was gluing the tiny pieces of grey and clear plastic together. The picture on the front of the box was a painting of an F-104 in action, which made me eager to complete the model. Most importantly, my mother saw that I was happy with the gift. I don't know when I realised that I would never have the optional pots of paint to make my Starfighter look like the one on the box, because I didn't dare to mention it to my mother, but it didn't matter. This was something I would never have asked for, and that made it a more thoughtful gift.
I can't remember what happened to that model aeroplane. The difficult teenage years have been and gone since then, including the time my voice broke, and the small-framed son she had worried would become a victim of bullying came home from school one day with the voice of a man. I know this amused her, because she often laughed about me being so small and having a voice "in my boots", as she put it. At the same time, I could see a sadness in her, because the little boy who relied on her was slowly disappearing before her eyes.
Ultimately, the model plane doesn't matter. It sat on a second-hand school desk in the room I shared with my brother, waiting for the coat of paint it would never receive, but that doesn't matter either. The memories attached to it are what matter: my mother seeing me patiently glue the pieces together, the thought behind the gift and, perhaps most importantly, the gratitude I showed for the gift and the thought behind it.