The pun in the title was a terrible one and I apologise, but you can blame my dad. He could never turn down the opportunity for a word-play or a spoonerism and "Sass the pugar, please" was heard round our dining table on a daily basis, spoken in shades of Scouse.
As I wrapped up this year's presents - not nearly so many as in previous years and not because people have passed away, but because several of my close friends have declared that they have everything that they need and would rather have donations to charity - I found myself remembering presents I received long ago.
One of my earliest memories is being in a cot and tearing the wrapping paper off a small green wooden boat. I recall feeling hugely disappointed at this uninteresting gift, which was probably all my parents could afford in 1948, and putting it to one side and playing with the wrapping paper instead. At least the green boat was new, or newish. My only other toy at the time was a threadbare nightdress case and this is why I can pinpoint which Christmas it was, because the following one, I spent in hospital and the previous one I was too young to remember.
The nightdress case was called Spot. He was half a white (or rather, grubby grey) dog, with one embroidered eye, one black ear and half a mouth, and looked a bit like the dog in this photo I found on the web. The other side of the case, which is where the zip was, wasn't embroidered at all. I adored Spot and cuddled him in bed every night. The following December, I can still remember being sped to hospital in an ambulance with the siren going, as I had a bad stomach pain and a temperature of 105F.
Once at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, I was x-rayed and they decided I didn't have appendicitis after all. They didn't know what I had and so I was kept in for observation and was unfortunate enough to catch a dysentery bug that was sweeping the hospital. I then had to spend a month in an isolation room, my only contact with other humans being with the nurses who tended to me and brought my food, and my parents who could only peer through the glass window and blow kisses and wave to me. I was there till the New Year.
Even as a four-year-old, I knew I was being treated cruelly. I remember telling a nurse I was going to be sick. She did nothing, I was sick and I got slapped and shouted at for throwing up on the bed. As if I could help it! I felt a huge sense of unfairness. I had warned, her after all.
Another time, I was brought a mug of Ovaltine that was scalding hot. A nurse stood over me, ordering me to drink it. I couldn't as I would have burnt my lips, so, with a flash of childish logic, I folded the cloth napkin I'd been given over the top of the mug and sucked the liquid through it, protecting my lips. When the nurse noticed what I'd done, I got screamed at, had the mug snatched away and earned another slap. Can you imagine a child being treated like that today? But these were the harsh post-war years when nursing staff were hard to come by.
But back to Spot and the first heartbreak of my life. He was taken off me in the hospital and burnt, for fear he carried germs. I have never loved a toy so much before or since. When I was ten, my maternal grandmother gave me a big, beautiful doll called Rosemary which must have cost her a huge amount of money in 1955, but I refused to play with her and she was consigned to the back of the wardrobe forever. Just seven years ago, I found her in a box and put her on the bonfire, as I felt so terribly guilty about never having loved her. Too late, I realised she was wearing my Christening robe, so that got burnt as well. I can just imagine what my mum and gran must have been saying about it 'Up There'!
About fifteen years ago, I read an article by Beryl Bainbridge in which she recalled having been admitted to Alder Hey as a child and being terribly upset when they burnt the toy she had brought in with her, for the same reason that they destroyed Spot. It was such a coincidence that I wrote to her and received a lovely letter back.
As for the green boat... As I got older, I started to sail it in the bath and had it for many years, until the wood got too rotten and soggy with soap and it had to be thrown away. I honestly believe that the fewer toys children have, the more they value them. My friend's kids break brand new toys within hours of getting them. They certainly wouldn't have the same one for ten or more years. Except perhaps a teddy bear... Oddly enough, I didn't get my first bear until I was 25, when a boyfriend bought me one. He and I split up and I did a runner and forgot to pack my bear. I hadn't formed an emotional attachment to it - or to the boyfriend!
I bet I'd still have Spot with me now. Hand-me-down or not, he was the best present ever.