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Alan And The Empty Money Box

I've had a financial crisis every November since I was nine years old.

It all began the day my father took me to one side and said, "It's your mum's birthday soon. Don't you think you are old enough now to buy her a present?"

I hadn't realised that grown ups had birthdays. I thought that only children had birthdays. I knew that birthdays meant that you got presents (I got lots of presents on my birthday), but children and adults were quite different beings and I thought of them in completely separate compartments in my head. I was sure that different rules applied. How could adults possibly have birthdays? I hadn't yet made the connection between birthdays and growing up. I didn't know that the more birthdays you had, the older you got. Indeed, I hadn't even realised that one day I would be a grown up. I thought that my parents were adults and I was a child and that's just the way it would always be.

So everything my father said in that little speech was very puzzling indeed.

"When's her birthday?" I asked tentatively.

"November 11th," said my dad.

"November 11th?"

"Yes," said my dad. "That's the day that everybody in the country wears a poppy. It's the day that all the towns in England have a celebration at dawn, and the Queen lays a wreath at the Cenotaph in London. You've seen it on the television."

"Gosh," I said, impressed beyond measure. "My mum must be really special if they do all that on her birthday."

"Yes she is," said my dad. "She's very special indeed."

My pocket money was only threepence a week. Even in 1950s England, you couldn't get anything very elaborate for threepence. Mum would have to have a small present. I was sure she wouldn't mind. Perhaps I could afford a penny. That would still leave me twopence to pay my regular bills. Frozen jubblies and a potato for my potato gun, the occasional Lucky Bag.

A few days later, my mother took me to one side. "Your dad's birthday is coming up soon," she said. " Don't you think you are old enough now to buy him a present?"

Gosh! My father had birthdays just like my mum did. Was there no end to the wonders of the world?

"When is it?" I asked.

"November 13th," said my mum. "Just two days after my birthday. That's why I find it so easy to remember."

Things weren't looking good. Two birthdays in the same week! Oh, no!

Perhaps I could manage one penny for mum, and one penny for dad, which would mean I had one penny left over to see me through the week. I wasn't sure my money box could cope with that degree of financial pressure though. It was starting to look like it would be a very lean week.

"And it's Christmas soon after that," said mum thoughtfully. "You'll need to start saving up for Christmas. Christmas presents are always bigger and better than birthday presents."

Christmas presents? What did that have to do with me? Didn't Father Christmas take care of all that? I asked my mum how that worked.

"Father Christmas doesn't come for grown ups," she explained. "And so children have to buy presents for their parents to make up for it."

I was horrified! I'd never have any money of my own again if I had to make it stretch that far.

"But I only get threepence a week," I howled in anguish.

"Well, I suppose you could borrow against your future earnings," said my mum doubtfully. "But you might find the interest payments hard to manage on only threepence a week. Compound interest, of course"

"What's compound interest?" I asked. It sounded as if it might be, er, um, interesting.

"Einstein called it the greatest mathematical discovery of all time."

"What's an Einstein?"

I really didn't know very much at all when I was nine years old.

My teenage years passed in a haze of beer, exams and sexual frustration. All three things may well have been connected. Compound interest soon revealed its mysteries to me and I learned that if you divide 72 by the interest rate, the answer is the number of years it takes for your investment (or, more likely, your debt) to double itself. If you borrow $2000 at 6% and never make any repayments, after 72 / 6 = 12 years, you will owe $4000. It was all very depressing and not at all interesting. My parents continued to have birthdays far too close together for comfort and Christmas remained irritatingly close to the birthdays – bad planning on someone's part, I always thought.

University seemed like a great way of putting off the evil day of having to get a job. Students are notoriously poor. Surely to goodness I could be allowed to forget birthdays and Christmases?

"Buy a poppy for armistice day, guv?"

"No thank you."

"Your mum will never forgive you if you don't buy one. It is her birthday, after all."

"Oh all right then." I dug my beer money out of my pocket and clanked it into the collecting tin. The sacrifices I had to make! Being a student was very hard sometimes.

Eventually I couldn't put the decision off any longer. I had to get a job, and so I did. November rolled round with its normal irritating precision and I went to see the boss.

"I'm having my annual financial crisis," I explained. "Can you do anything for me?"

"As it happens I can, young Robson," he declaimed. "Walk this way."

He lurched out of the office and I lurched after him. We both pretended that we had one leg shorter than the other and that we were hunchbacks. The old jokes are the best ones. We cackled as we lurched.

He took me to the computer room. "One of the operators is on holiday," he said. "If you stand in for him on the night shift, we'll pay you a miserable pittance and it will be much cheaper for us than getting in a contractor."

"It's a deal," I said, and for the next few weeks I worked my normal 9.00am to 5.00pm job and then I did the 5.00pm to 1.00am shift in the computer room. After a month of 16 hour days I was a zombie – but a zombie who could once again afford birthdays and Christmas. I did this every November for eight years until I'd had enough and so I moved to New Zealand to escape from it.

When I arrived in New Zealand, I made an interesting discovery. Mum's birthday was on April 25th here. I never really worked out how they calculated that, but sure enough, every April the poppies went on sale and the dawn ceremony took place. I told mum and she was horrified.

"But that means I'll be seven months older than I really am!" she declared and nothing would shift her from this idea.

I hadn't been in New Zealand very long when my parents died. It was a sad time, but it proved to have hidden benefits. November ceased to be as financially frightening as once it was. This would never do – I was at a complete loss! Financial habits are hard to give up. I immediately arranged for my house insurance, house contents insurance and car insurance to fall due half way through November, thereby guaranteeing me my usual impoverished Christmas. As an added attraction, I got the AA to demand their membership fee in November as well. I paid all these bills with my credit card and then I spent the next twelve months carefully not paying the credit card bills, so that I could be absolutely certain that when November rolled around again I wouldn't have paid for last November yet.

At last I could relax. Things were back to normal. Then I met Robin. "It's my birthday soon," she hinted one day.

"When?" I asked her.

"November 17th," said Robin.

"Perfect!" I cried. "Will you marry me?"

"Yes," said Robin.

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