E Jane Dickson: Staying Afloat

A nice surprise can be a lot of hard work
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The Independent Online

Conor is looking for investors for his latest invention. "It's such a simple idea, Mum," he enthuses. "It's a wonder no one thought of it before."

Conor is looking for investors for his latest invention. "It's such a simple idea, Mum," he enthuses. "It's a wonder no one thought of it before."

Since his "invention" consists of chunks of Crunchie bar dipped in Creme Egg, this is perhaps not to be wondered at. I'm loath to discourage entrepreneurial flair, but I refuse to finance the scheme. Con is therefore delighted when an envelope arrives from Granny with four crisp tenners in it, and only slightly less delighted when Clara reads out the accompanying note.

My mother, perennially worried that single mothers have no one to spoil them, has stipulated that two of the tenners are to be spent on surprise gifts, of the children's own choosing, for me. It is good training for children, Granny maintains, to think of what others might like occasionally, and hey, I'm not complaining.

"Well," says Con, after much chin-rubbing, "Mummy is fond of Creme Eggs..." But Clara has grander ideas. We head for Camden and I find myself steered towards Waterstone's.

"We'll be in the children's section," says Clara. "You could have a look round the adult books if you like. There's all kinds of romances and history things," she adds, encouragingly.

"Yes, go on," urges Con. "We'll be in the children's section for ages."

I duly mooch about the three-for-two table, conscious of two small figures marking me from behind a pillar. It probably looks a little odd when I pick up a copy of Colm Toibin's The Master and wave it about in the excited manner of one who has found the key to all happiness, but it does the trick. As I move on to browse the shelves, Clara palms a copy of the book with shoplifter's stealth and scuttles off to the cash desk.

Con, however, is keen to get on with things and decides to go for the direct approach. "So, Mummy," he says, "what book are you after?"

"Oh, I don't know," I say, eyeballing Nigel Slater's Toast in a very pronounced fashion. "Maybe something about breakfasty things. I always like a book," I slog on, when the penny fails to drop, "with just one word in the title."

Con can scarcely believe his luck in finding something that matches his mother's eccentric criteria so exactly, but his covert purchase takes a little longer, on account of his tenner being folded into a 5mm square.

Books safely stowed inside jumpers, we move on to Boots, where Clara bundles her brother up against the "gift ideas" section. "Hand over the change from the book," she whispers, hoarsely. "There's some soap here we can get her, too."

"But I need my change," wails Con. "I need it for my invention!"

None the less, at a ceremonial tea, I am duly presented with two beautifully chosen books and a bar of lime-and-ginger soap. "I organised the soap," says Clara, proudly, when I declare myself surprised and thrilled. "S'true, Mum," concedes Con. "But even though I didn't actually give permission, it was my money, too."

"Well, how clever of you both to choose such lovely things. I couldn't be more pleased," I tell them, and I mean it. It's not always the thought that counts.