My Fourth Birthday

I am four years old and I am living in a small mining village in Scotland. It is 1942 and the middle of the second world war.

My mother and I have come to live with my grandmother and my uncle who is a miner and exempt therefore from fighting. My father is in the RAF. It is early in the morning and still very dark because of the blackout curtains and the lack of street lighting.

But I spy my present a TRICYCLE!! My very own wheels! I can't wait to ride outside and above all to show it off to my friend Mollie who lives just a few doors along in the same terrace of houses.

The wait seems interminable but at last my grandmother says I can go. I peddle fast and park up outside Mollie's house and proudly ring my new bicycle bell. A few minutes and Mollie appears. She comes slowly out of the house and stands shyly by my side. I feel so strong and so proud perched in the saddle. I demonstrate the bell giving a prolonged and peremptory ring. Mollie looks suitably impressed and shyly reaches out her hand and lays it reverently on my handlebar. MY handlebar.

I can still remember very clearly what I did next. i didn't think. It was a pure reflex action. Quick as a flash I bent down and bit her hand hard.

Unsurprisingly she let out a sharp cry. Mollie I think would probably have accepted her punishment - but her mother happened at that moment to be looking out of her kitchen window and had witnessed the whole thing. She rapped hard on the glass and shouted something incomprehensible. I turned the trike round and leaving Mollie on the street pedalled furiously home.

When I entered the kitchen my grandmother asked "Where's Mollie?" and again my reply was not considered, not planned, but pure reflex. "She bit me!" I said. "And on your birthday too!" said my sympathetic grandmother.

I can't remember what happened next but I have a clear memory of the latter part of that morning. By then Mollie and I are together again, back in my grandmother's kitchen. We are sitting on two wooden chairs. Our legs don't reach the ground and I'm swinging my feet. On our knees we are balancing small plates with a "jam piece" - a little triangular sandwich of white bread my grandmother treats us to for our "elevensies".

Of course it is war time and there is no butter under the jam - but delicious all the same. I'm feeling very happy - its my birthday after all, I have a great present - my tricycle - and my faithful uncomplaining friend is suitably impressed. But then my grandmother starts to speak. She talks sternly to Mollie about her bad behaviour. How could she have bitten my finger - and on my birthday of all days?

Mollie hangs her head and says nothing. I am burning with the shame of it but I don't say anything either and we both continue to sit primly on our too big chairs, swinging our little legs. I'm 82 and that's the birthday I remember most clearly and most often.