“We’re home!” shouted Alexander as he came in one Sunday morning after church. He threw himself into the easy chair next to the spot where his father was lounging and stared at him, willing him to turn around and open his eyes.
“Do you know who is going to have a birthday next in this family Daddy?” he asked, eventually.
“What?” his father asked lazily as he struggled to focus his eyes on his son. Professor McKie often slept late on Sundays, sprawled on the sofa, under the newspapers, the television watching him, while his wife and the children were out of his way at church.
“Whose birthday is going to be next?” Alexander repeated, patiently. He had to shout over the television that was now blaring the opening soundtrack of a Sci.Fi. movie that he had already seen three times. He flicked the switch. Sometimes his father was a little hazy, especially when he had just awakened so he added. “We need to work on a special project.”
“That would be Sylvester wouldn’t it?” Prof. McKie grumbled carefully. He yawned and waited for more information. He didn’t want to say too much before he understood why Alexander was asking. At nine, Alex was, at times, just a little too bright for his taste. Unfortunately, Sylvester, his seven-year-old brother, was worse.
“You mean nobody is going to have a birthday before November?” the boy asked, sadly.
“Alex’s teacher was talking about the three wise guys bringing gifts for baby Jesus at Sunday school today,” Sylvester explained, innocently. “So Alex says that we have to buy a birthday present for someone who is having a birthday soon.”
“Oh, the three wise guys huh?” Professor McKie, chuckled. “It’s true that I went to Sunday school a long time ago, but I don’t think your teacher told you anything about wise guys at all. Are you sure she didn’t say wise men?”
“So what’s the difference? They were wise weren’t they? Anyway, she was talking about them because we have to start practising.”
“Practising for what?” his father asked.
“Our play and our songs that we have to learn for the festival at Christmas,” both boys chorused. Their father really should have been more alert by now. He’d been awake for long enough.
“Mrs. Roderiques said that people would think that you were nice if you give them presents for their birthday,” Alexander said getting back to the point. “It’s better to give than receive,” he quoted virtuously.
His father laughed. He had heard that kind of talk from his children many times before. Their resolve usually lasted for about two weeks or until their next squabble – whichever came sooner.
“And you want people to think you’re nice?”
“But naturally,” said Alexander.
“Well, I don’t really care if they think I’m nice. I just want to go see the new mall,” said Sylvester honestly. “I’m sure I’ll see something that I need there. Jason said that they have a really cool video arcade and I heard that they have a really radical Internet Café where they let children in,” he said excitedly. “I already know that I’m a blessing in disguise and if people can’t see that then I can’t help them. Alexander can stay there with that foolishness. Besides, being nice hasn’t really got you anywhere has it Daddy?”
“No son, apparently not,” said his father. He chose to focus on the fact that his son thought that he was nice rather than on the fact that he seemed not to think that he had amounted to much. “Well it would be a nice idea anyway; but there are no birthdays before yours in November… Sorry guys.”
“Not even Grandpa’s or Uncle Wayne’s?” asked Alex, worriedly. He could be as persistent as an annoying little mosquito when it suited him but at other times, he seemed to have the attention span of a two-year-old. He didn’t like to face the possibility of having to give Sylvester a free birthday gift.
“Oh. I didn’t know you were thinking of them too,” his father said; and he thought for a little while. “I think it might be your Aunt Winnie’s… no-o-o, I think it’s your Aunt Gail’s birthday next. October, third… Isn’t that right honey?” he called out to his wife. “Yeah? Now that I think about it though, it would be a good idea, you could make something for your Auntie if you wanted to do something nice. I think she’d really like that…” he continued.
“Are you serious? Make something for her!” Alexander cut in. He looked at his father as if he thought he was crazy. “No, no! We’re going to buy something nice for her,” he declared as he walked away excitedly to begin planning.
The boys didn’t talk about the gift for the rest of that day, or for that matter, the next, or the next; and soon their father forgot all about it. He was too busy driving all over the place taking them to karate and swimming, buying school books for their older sister, Efua, doing his research and trying to prepare his lecture notes for the new academic year at the university where he worked. He didn’t notice that the boys were indeed working very hard to try to save the money to buy Auntie Gail’s surprise gift. They made colourful business cards from scraps of cardboard. ‘No job too big, no job too small, no job too dirty’ their slogan declared. Their father smiled at them but said nothing. He’d only hope for the best.
‘No job too big, no job too small, no job too dirty.’
Call on us Alexander and Sylvester McKie, Managing Directors and Owners. (Next Door)
At first, getting the money didn’t seem to be too difficult. The boys found loose change on the floor of Uncle Wayne’s car and he let them keep the money. They cleaned their bedrooms and did extra chores for Mummy around the house – sweeping, washing dishes, watering the flowers – and she actually paid them. She also let them have some of her change from the supermarket when they helped her and if they had both behaved well. The boys also began a pet sitting service and a car wash for the neighbours and they paid them. Efua even paid Alex a hundred and fifty dollars to clean cow poop off her shoes!
Everything didn’t go quite so smoothly though, because their mother and sister refused to pay them to stay out of their way and when they raked the yard and washed their father’s car and demanded their money he just chased them away! He argued that they were supposed to rake the yard anyway and he hadn’t asked them to wash his car when the boys’ mother asked him about it. The boys were very upset. They called their father a swindler and resolved never to do yard work or wash his car ever again…
They got back at him though, for when the new school term started they asked for a raise on their pocket money. Ordinarily they each got a hundred dollars every day along with their snacks. On the first day of school, however, when their father was about to give them their hundred dollars Alexander asked if he could have twenty dollars more.
“May I have fifty?” Sylvester asked, chirpily.
Prof. McKie’s bushy eyebrows shot up and he began to cough because he had tried to stifle a laugh.
“What do you need a hundred and fifty dollars for?” he wanted to know.
“I want to buy something…”
“Just so? Naw man,” his father interrupted. “I expect you to save some of your money if you want to buy something. Don’t just ask me for more.”
“The cost-a-livin’ gone up yuh know Daddy,” Sylvester muttered hotly. He had suddenly remembered that his father hadn’t yet paid for all that extra work that he and Alex had done for him.
“Okay,” his father said, trying not to laugh again. “I’ll give you twenty dollars more; but you’re going to have to save out of that.”
“Thanks!” said Alexander. “A hundred and twenty dollars a day will be enough. Come on Sylly;” he added dragging his brother away; and they scooted away leaving their father shaking his head in amusement.
The boys were very good about saving their money. At Alexander’s insistence, they each tried to save the extra twenty dollars that they got from their father every day and on three days Alex managed to save everything! Sylvester sold the snacks that his parents gave him each day to his friends at school and he saved some of that money too. He thought about selling his schoolbooks but since the other children had also rented the same books from the school he couldn’t find a buyer. Soon the boys’ savings had grown substantially and despite a few minor setbacks when Alex lost his lunch money to a school bully and Sylvester got detention for one week for vending on the school’s premises, they found that they had fourteen hundred dollars. They were very pleased with themselves and tried to think of other ways to earn even more money.
“I know what I’ll do,” Sylvester said to himself one Tuesday afternoon. I’ll go down by Stranga’s shop.”
Stranga was the man who operated around the corner near the boy’s school gate at St. Peter & Paul. He sold newspapers and boxed lunches to the people who passed by during the days. Sylvester had often sneaked through the fence to watch him shuffle cups with little things hidden under them on his table. He would then dare the people to guess the cup under which he had hidden the token. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. If they did then they won a lot of money. Sylvester was sure that he could.
“What? What happened? I’ll kill you! You stole my money!” Alexander screamed with rage the next afternoon when poor little Sylvester sadly described how he had lost most of their hard-earned money. Alex burst into tears simply because he couldn’t really kill his younger brother. He did the next best thing though, he actually beat him up, a thing he didn’t manage to do very often, and then he told their parents.
At first, Mrs. McKie could not believe that her baby had taken to gambling in the streets. Prof. McKie, on the other hand, would put nothing past Sylvester. Efua, to everyone’s annoyance, only giggled.
Although he tried to make everyone understand that he was only trying to earn some more money for Auntie Gail’s gift and although he pointed out that his money was lost too and not only Alex’s, Sylvester was grounded. His parents told him that he would have to write a thousand word essay title ‘Why I shouldn’t gamble’ and he would have to give his pocket money to his brother and carry a packed lunch to school every day for two weeks. There would also be no karate, no swimming, no movies and, definitely, no computer games for one month. Sylvester would also have to rake the leaves in the yard for one month – without pay – since he needed something to do AND he had to clean his room. Every one in the family was very angry with him. Efua actually told him that their father had reported the incident to the police and had caused Stranga to be prosecuted for encouraging a child to gamble. The police promised to return Sylvester’s money, but they said that they would need to keep it for a while as evidence for the trial.
There was really nothing for it then, the boys would have to begin saving again, if they were still going to buy Auntie Gail’s present, although this time Alex insisted that they would have to do so separately. He said that he doubted that he would ever trust Sylvester again.
Despite this setback, the money in Sylvester’s Milo tin grew steadily. He earned a hundred and sixty-eight dollars through singing songs and dancing at lunchtime for the children at school and a whopping five hundred and thirty-three dollars when, against his better judgement, and unknown to any adult, he began to do his friends’ homework for them before he went outside to rake the leaves in the afternoon. He also entered the contests on the radio, but even though he often knew the answers he didn’t win anything except one case of rum and he really couldn’t think who would buy that from him or indeed, how he would get it to them.
“This is a lot of money for one little boy to save up on his own so quickly,” his mother exclaimed when she saw him counting his money quietly on the sofa one afternoon. “…and to think that your Auntie’s birthday was still ten days away!” She wondered where he was getting the money but was really too afraid to ask.
Alexander did very well too. He saved fifteen hundred and forty-three dollars and eighty cents – mostly from the money that Sylvester had to pay him.
The boys had asked their mother to take them to the El Grandiosa, the new mall complex uptown so that they could buy something for their aunt. She agreed and promised to take them on the weekend.
It was about 10:30 on Saturday morning when Mummy and the boys drove to the Mall. Efua had wanted to come too, but the boys didn’t want her to share in the expedition so their mother dropped her off at a friend’s home to spend the morning. Mrs. McKie had suggested that the boys make a list of the possible gifts that they might like to buy. In that way, they wouldn’t waste time going into the stores which wouldn’t be of any use to them.
The boys had five items on their list.
“What about a picture for the wall of Auntie Gail’s living room?” Alexander had suggested. “You know she’s just bought that new apartment.”
“I think that some bathroom towels or a set of hankies with her initials on them would be very nice. What do you think?” his mother had said.
“Eh eh,” said Sylvester. “Let’s get her either a computer game or a pet.”
“They don’t allow pets in apartments,” said Alex.
“Why not?” asked Sylvester.
“Because they make too much noise.”
“Well, if we got her a quiet pet then how would they know?”
“Well…” began Alex.
“Let’s think of some other things,” Mrs. McKie said hastily cutting him off.
“Get her bubble bath,” Efua shouted from the kitchen.
Prof. McKie had astutely suggested that they buy something for Auntie Gail herself instead of for her home… The children couldn’t understand why their mother smiled at him so approvingly when he said that, for surely, a gift for Auntie Gail’s house was a gift for Auntie Gail, wasn’t it? They were disgusted when she leapt up to give him a hug and a kiss. Yuck! They just couldn’t understand grown-ups. Thank goodness – they were weird and if you understood them then it probably meant that you were weird too. Sylvester began to make reeking sounds as if he wanted to throw up.
“Stop that!” his father thundered.
Later, as the children sat giggling in the boys’ bedroom Sylvester was congratulated for stopping his parents from kissing.
They went into many stores and looked at pictures, perfumes, towels, and hankies and even at computer games. Some of the things they saw weren’t very pretty and others were too expensive. They walked around for over forty minutes without any luck. The boys became miserable and soon they began to look at things for themselves.
Sylvester began to want to buy a new computer game and Alexander wanted to purchase the football pump that he had admired in the window of a sporting goods store. They both wanted roller skates and had decided to treat themselves to those when their mother hastily reminded them that they hadn’t yet looked in at the pet store.
The boys glanced at each other and Sylvester shrugged his shoulders. The pet had been his idea after all, and so he marched off resolutely toward a sign that said Exotic Pet World.
The store was sensational! It had been decorated to look like an enchanted jungle scene in a movie. Giant plants with outsized, shiny, deep-green leaves soared toward the skylights that hung just out of their reach. Thick, luxuriant vines dangled heavily from the roof, cascading almost to the floor and enormous, moss-covered boulders perched precariously either at the river banks or squatted, smack in the middle of the stream which flowed gently from the waterfall which tinkled musically to one side of the store.
“Look at that! Look at that!” Alexander shrieked excitedly and pointed wildly at everything he saw.
“Cool,” said Sylvester in wonder. “Look at all those birds.” He dashed toward a little flock of about thirty canaries scattering them instantly.
“Don’t run in here,” his mother warned as she ducked out of the way of a flying squirrel.
Huge butterflies zig-zagged silently by. Exotic tropical birds flew freely around the enclosure. Nightingales and honey-creepers flitted about joyfully, singing and chirping while the minnas called to the patrons from their perches with their mechanical, parrot-like voices.
“Hello Darlin’… Hello Darlin’,” said an especially cheeky little fellow to anyone who passed near him.
“Kiss me… Kiss me,” urged a parrot from his perch opposite.
Several large snakes slithered slowly up and down the branches of the trees. It was difficult to tell the difference between the snakes and the branches unless the snakes moved. Two mischievous-looking monkeys swung down from a young yellow poui to make funny faces at the boys while a school of veil-tailed goldfish fluttered by them like a troupe of ballet dancers and several turtles did the Australian crawl among the lilies in the calm part of the river near where they stood. There were lobsters and other colourful fish – angels and zebras, gouramis, and damsel fish and painted tetras of every hue – in aquariums placed cleverly in the walls and embedded neatly in the pieces of furniture arranged to allow the customers to admire the ever-changing scenic tapestry.
Sylvester spied six baby rabbits sitting snugly in a little patch of soft green grass. He stared awe struck at a huge stuffed leopard which crouched just behind a clump of low bushes and stared glassily in the direction of the little bunnies and at the clay deer who paused, reflectively, by the lake watching the ducks and swans that glided elegantly in the water. The deer stood at a respectful distance from an impressive life-size stone elephant and her calf.
Alexander wanted to buy a monkey for Auntie Gail. “I know that she’ll love that,” he declared, confidently.
“She already has you boys, Darling,” his mother laughed.
Sylvester insisted on getting the stuffed leopard instead.
“Auntie Gail will be the only one among her friends to have her own leopard. He’s a Clouded leopard you know,” he said airing his knowledge on top of his voice in the store.
“So who doesn’t know that?” countered Alexander, annoyed.
“Well no-one in this store has any doubt about it now,” said their mother, wryly. “There’s no need to speak so loudly Sylvester.”
The boys began to argue about which would be the more exciting gift for their aunt.
“We have to get the leopard,” Sylvester was adamant. “You always want to buy something sissyish.”
“I do not,” Alex said hotly. “You and your leopard. He’s not even real. I’m not going to spend my money on a stuffed toy! What could be more girlie, girlie than that?”
“He’s not a stuffed toy! I’m not spending my money on a silly-looking monkey.”
“Ha! Your money?” said Alexander, fiercely. “Yes… go and spend your money however you like and we’ll see how far you can get with your stupid money. You don’t want the monkey just because I want him. You said we had to get a pet for Auntie Gail and here we are. You always want things your way. You didn’t think that they looked so silly a short time ago.”
“That’s because they reminded me of you. But you’re just a silly show-off,” said Sylvester, stung to the quick. He had thought that his parents had been unfair to make him give all of his money to Alexander for two whole weeks. Alexander hadn’t even saved all of it but rather, he had spent some of the money and bought a set of pokemon cards!
“Oh hush up.”
“Don’t tell me to shut up! You’re not my father!” Sylvester was really beginning to get angry with his brother.
“I didn’t say ‘shut up’” Alex said, defensively.
The other patrons in the store began to stare at the boys. Mrs. McKie was beginning to become embarrassed by the boys’ behaviour. She felt desperate because she didn’t want to become angry too. It would only make things worse.
“I don’t think that the leopard or the monkeys are for sale,” she said hopefully. “What about getting a pair of birds for Auntie?”
Quite surprisingly, the boys agreed that a bird was a reasonable compromise. The family had no difficulty in catching the eye of one of the attendants and Mrs. McKie asked her for the price of a pair of the budgies that they had seen in a discreet little cage to the back of the store. Alexander also wanted to know the price of a macaw.
The budgies were three thousand five hundred dollars for the pair. The macaws were fifteen thousand dollars each!
“What about a pair of parakeets?” the store clerk suggested helpfully when she saw their disappointed faces. “I can give you a pair for two thousand five hundred dollars,” she told them.
The boys looked at each other and shook their heads despondently. They had only just a little over two thousand seven hundred dollars and they would still have to buy the cage and bird toys and some food.
The attendant glanced at Mrs. McKie over the boys’ heads and then suggested that they consider buying some fish instead. She told them that if they bought a tank and stand for two thousand seven hundred dollars she would give them some fish for free.
“These fish are really very pretty,” she said. “I’m sure that your Aunt would like some of these.”
Mrs. McKie smiled encouragingly at her sons, “I’ll buy the pump and filter for you,” she promised.
But the boys didn’t want fish for their aunt. They wanted birds, but unfortunately, they couldn’t afford the three thousand five hundred dollars that it would all cost! They looked very miserable.
“Excuse us please,” Mrs. McKie said to the attendant; then, turning to the boys she said, “Let me tell you what you can do. We might be able to work something out here. The way I see it is that you may either get the fish for Auntie Gail now, or you can continue to save until Christmas to buy the parakeets for her then. Who knows, you might even be able to afford the budgies.”
Neither of the boys noticed how their mother had looked at them slyly before she offered them a third option…
“… Or, I can lend the money to you to buy the birds now, but you’ll have to pay me back.”
The boys agreed to this readily; but Mrs. McKie wasn’t quite finished. She asked each boy to shake her hand as a sign of a solemn promise to do his chores and his homework without fussing. They also had to get up on time to go to school but most important of all – there was to be no fighting for the rest of the year! This was how their mother said she wanted to be repaid.
The boys thought about their mother’s proposal for a few seconds and then made their decision.
Tolerate that degenerate nuisance Sylvester??!!! Get up early!!!!! Do chores!??!!? No man, Mummy couldn’t be serious! Alexander frowned at his mother.
Put up with that bossy show-off Alexander!!!!!?? Do chores? Do homework!!!???? Mummy must have knocked her head! Sylvester scowled at her.
“It’s okay. The birds will probably fly away before we got them home anyway,” said Alexander, simply.
“We don’t even have a cage for them and Auntie Gail would probably prefer fish anyway. She’s a girl you know,” said Sylvester, sadly.