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This time we were asked to write about drawing a crowd. I immediately thought of a famous Ray Bradbury story about the ghoulish crowds that gather around car accidents and I knew I had to avoid anything like that at all costs. But what to do? The Ray Bradbury story wouldn't leave my mind. I sat down to see what inspiration a blank screen would give me and, rather to my surprise, this rather odd little story popped into my head. I like it a lot -- partly because it isn't anything like the story Ray Bradbury wrote and partly because I think he could have written it if only he'd thought of it first. I'm really rather proud of this one.

The Birthday Party

Peter’s suspicions about his five year old daughter Elizabeth were first aroused on the day that his trousers turned green.

It started just like any other day. He dressed for work as he normally did. A crisp white business shirt, a neatly knotted tie and a freshly dry-cleaned charcoal grey suit. He went into the kitchen to say goodbye to his wife and daughter before going out to catch the early morning bus. His wife Margery was boiling an egg for Elizabeth’s breakfast. While it boiled, she prepared soldiers for Elizabeth dip into it. Elizabeth herself was sitting at the breakfast table engrossed with her crayons, scribbling busily on a sheet of paper. Her tongue was sticking out of the corner of her mouth and she was humming to herself. Peter always thought of the humming as Elizabeth’s busy noise. She did it whenever she was concentrating hard on anything.

The crayons were a birthday present from Margery and Peter. Elizabeth absolutely loved them to bits. They went everywhere with her. She even took them to bed, and last night she had coloured her pillow with them, much to her parents’ annoyance. Peter made a mental note to bring some more paper home from the office – reams of the stuff came off the printers, and then got distributed round the office for people to glance at casually and then toss into the waste paper basket.  Most of the paper was printed on only one side. The other side was just perfect for a little girl to to make pictures on.

"Bye, bye, beautiful," said Peter to both Margery and Elizabeth as he picked up his briefcase and headed for the front door.

"Bye darling," said Margery. "Have a good day."

Elizabeth looked up. "I’m five!" she announced proudly. She’d been five for two whole days now and she was still overcome with the wonder of it all. There would be a birthday party for her next Saturday, only a day away now, and she was looking forward to it eagerly.

"Yes you’re five," said Margery, putting the boiled egg in an egg cup and then putting the egg cup and a plate of soldiers on the table. She expertly decapitated the egg and dipped a soldier into it. She held the soldier temptingly in front of Elizabeth’s face. "Even five year olds have to eat breakfast."

"Don’t drip that eggy soldier on my picture," protested Elizabeth. "It’s a picture of daddy. Daddy, come and look at your picture before you go to work."

Peter glanced at the scribble on the paper that Elizabeth had pulled to safety, far away from the threatening soldier. A vague, pink blob of a head sat on top of an even more vaguely blobby grey middle. Two thin sticks of legs poked out from beneath the charcoal grey tummy. For some reason known only to herself, Elizabeth had coloured the legs bright green. Perhaps she’d got fed up with grey.  "That’s lovely," said Peter enthusiastically. "But I’ve got to hurry or I’ll miss the bus." He dashed out of the door leaving Margery and Elizabeth to their breakfast.

Peter raced for the bus stop and caught the bus with only a few seconds to spare. He plonked himself down on a seat and rested his briefcase on his lap. Only then did he notice that his trousers were now bright green rather than being the terribly conservative charcoal grey that he vividly remembered pulling up his legs this morning. He knew in his bones that today he would have to put up with a lot of sartorial teasing from his office colleagues, and he also knew that it was all Elizabeth’s fault. Damn her surrealistic sense of colour!

Peter spent as much of the day as he could at his desk, hiding his legs underneath it. But like it or not, he had to take tea and toilet breaks, and he had to go to lunch. On those occasions his green trousers excited much ribald comment and he was very relieved when the day was finally over and he could escape from the office and go back home.

As he walked from the bus stop towards his house, he couldn’t help noticing that it looked quite different from the house he remembered leaving that morning. What had once been a rather large weatherboard bungalow was now a squat, square two storey brick building. There were two square windows set a little lopsidedly on the left and right of the top storey and two square windows at the bottom, one to each side of a narrow door that stretched up almost to the level of the two top windows. A chimney poked out of the triangular roof and a curl of smoke stretched up into the solid blue sky in defiance of council regulations. A circular yellow sun was anchored into the sky just to the right of the chimney. Straight lines of light stuck out from the sun, making it look like an over-excited dandelion.

Peter opened the front door and went in. "Good news, everybody!" he announced excitedly.

"Hello darling," said Margery.

"What’s the good news?" asked Elizabeth.

"I’m home!" Peter answered her.

"Oh," said Elizabeth. She returned to her crayons and started making her busy noise again.

Peter went upstairs to the bedroom so that he could get changed out of his work clothes. Going upstairs was quite a novelty – he’d never done it before and he wasn’t sure that he liked it. But climbing out of those horrible green trousers made it all worth while. He put on a pair of jeans, took off his tie and went to rejoin Margery and Elizabeth.

"Let’s start planning your birthday party," said Peter. "Who do you think we should ask to come to it?"

Elizabeth put down the crayon that she was currently using to create a cat sitting on the fence that now surrounded the two storey brick house in her picture. "The cat is called Gilbert," she said, ignoring Peter’s question. "He eats mice and marbles and mushrooms and men."

"Will he eat me?" asked Peter, pretending to be anxious.

"Of course not, silly," said Elizabeth scornfully. "You aren’t any of those things. You’re a daddy. Don’t you know the difference?"

Gilbert jumped in through the open window. He climbed on to the kitchen bench, sat down, wrapped his tail around his front paws, stared intently at the fridge and mewed insistently. Everybody ignored him, so he jumped down again, padded over to Peter and bit him on the ankle. "Ow!" said Peter. "I think Gilbert just tried to eat me."

"Nonsense," said Margery. "He just wants to play." Peter frowned. He wasn’t sure how to play with a cat. There had never been a cat in the house until today.

"Who shall we invite to your birthday party?" he asked Elizabeth again, returning to the main point of the conversation.

"Nobody!" said Elizabeth firmly. "I want to do it by myself."

"But I’ve baked you a cake, with candles on it," said Margery. "Don’t you want to blow out the candles, make a wish and share the cake with your friends?"

"No," said Elizabeth, pouting. "I don’t!"

"But if nobody comes to your party you won’t get any presents," said Peter.

Elizabeth stopped pouting and looked thoughtful. Clearly this was a new idea that needed careful consideration. "Does everyone who comes to my party have to give me a present?" she asked.

"Yes," said Peter. "It’s a rule."

"So," said Elizabeth, still struggling with the concept, "The more people who come to my party, the more presents I get?"

"Yes," said Peter.

Elizabeth went wide eyed with wonder as the implications of this thought sunk in, then she got a new piece of paper, started making her busy noise, and began to cover the paper with amorphous pink blobs. When it was full, she picked up another piece of paper and did the same thing to it. As she reached for a third piece of paper Peter asked, "What are you doing?"

Elizabeth said, "I’m drawing a crowd."

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