Editor’s letter—The mystery gift
Museum

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For Museum Issue 6, themed Sorry… have we met?

Unless you often attend the birthday parties of children you don’t know—where pass-the-parcel rituals are dernier cri—it is unusual to receive presents from strangers. It’s only happened to me once, and it made an indelible impression.

The gifting occurred in the playground of my primary school. There were rows of silver bubblers bolted against a great stony wall, and I was standing near them in the sizzling heat, surveying a game of handball. I was wearing our summer uniform: a brown and yellow sack with a Peter Pan collar, a dark hat with a wide brim, its drawstring pulled up to my chin.

It was break time and I was on my own, willing the bell to ring, when a redheaded girl I’d never met approached me gleefully, her pale arms outstretched, hands clasping a small and oddly shaped object wrapped in newspaper. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” she exclaimed, “THIS IS FOR YOU,” and thrust the parcel into my chest.

I’ll be truthful, dear reader: it wasn’t my birthday. (I was a first-grader, sure, but I still knew this for a fact.) Before I could correct her, the girl had run-skipped out of sight, her long ponytail swinging like a cheery metronome. I was left alone in the playground, clasping a gift that wasn’t meant for me. I could have chased her down, I suppose. But I didn’t. I wanted to open it.

There was a rabid thrill in tearing the flimsy newsprint away as kids darted around me, letting angry headlines and bits of sticky-tape fall to the ground. When I first touched the thing inside, it felt cold and hard; its curved U-shape was unexpected. As I finally reached my prize and held it to the sun, I knew I had done something wrong. The object was a heavy, rounded plate, steely and foreign. It looked pretty dangerous, like a medieval weapon; a few nails protruded from small holes and bent at weird angles. I’d no idea what this thing was, or how to use it. It was surely meant for someone who would have understood. But I shoved the hunk of metal in my school bag as if it were rightfully mine. I’d take it home to examine in private, with my bedroom door shut.

After this, funnily enough, the redhead and I became close friends, though we later grew apart. Throughout our friendship, I never mentioned the mystery gift, which maybe came down to guilt, or a fear that I’d have to give it back. I learned soon enough it was a common horseshoe, not the cruel, hardened tool I’d guessed. But that loss of mystery didn’t make my present less attractive; the allure was always in our accidental exchange. It’s still there, in my old bedroom, resting behind piles of books and papers. I’m not sure if it’s facing up or down. I don’t believe in good luck.

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