Much to Xavier’s initial disappointment, it been agreed that he should not open his birthday presents until the party tea was finished, so that he could share his joy with everyone there. He had also been told that, this year, he might only be having one present from his parents, but it was a big one. He had guessed what it might be, what he hoped for, anyway, and was waiting with eagerness for the time to come to open it and sit on its saddle.
As his school friends arrived, they were asked to leave the present each had brought on top of large box covered in assorted sheets of wrapping paper. It had taken eleven sheets to cover it and disguise what was inside and the parents had to stay up late to wrap it, because the neighbour who had stored the present for them had been out until eleven o’clock the previous evening. At least that meant that their son was sound asleep when it was carried in.
Everything had been carefully planned, with the special present being delivered by drone direct to the neighbour’s garden eleven days before, while Xavier was a school, so no one nosing about would know who it was actually destined for or see what it was.
Today, everyone would find out. At number 11, Eleventh Avenue, excitement was building as eleven children sat down around the rectangular, white and stainless steel table full of sandwiches, jellies, cakes and fizzy drinks. Xavier was sat at the far end from the door and the family’s serving robot, nicknamed Elevenses, was waiting just outside the room with the tray on which stood eleven iced muffins, each with a candle on it. Big old birthday cakes were a thing of the past and this way each child got to blow out a candle and make his own wish. Only after the last candle had been left with only its blue smoking, blackened wick, would any presents be opened.
Elevenses rolled in on his eleven smooth rollers, four for each foot and three on his stabiliser tail. It was constructed to look like a miniature dragon and it was able to breath warm air from its mouth whenever carrying hot food to the table. Eleven strong breaths and eleven wishes later the children were told to gather around the big package and Xavier was told he must open just one present at a time from each of his guests, before he could unwrap the big surprise (the contents of which he thought he knew) last.
One by one he pulled the wrappings hastily apart, looked at the model space car, the new game for his console, the latest Pokémon sticker book, the dinosaur park tickets, the new adventure memory chip for his VR glasses. After each one he thanked the giver and, each time, glanced back longingly at the big, colourful package the smaller presents sat on. Next came a little plastic card with a download credit for a nostalgic Star Wars e-album, something aired many years before and re-issued for his smart e-reader that projected pictures onto the wall, as he read along with the story. Next, an official FIFA branded World Cup football, promoting the event, now only days away, a Hi-Force water jet pump gun, a three-colour pen with built in LED light for writing secret spy messages in the dark, under his duvet, and finally a baseball cap for the Brighton Jets, a team he liked to follow, even though he was a soccer boy at heart. He looked once again at the colourfully wrapped, big box, not quite the shape he had expected.
A last thank you for the Jets cap, as he tightened the back strap and slammed it on his head, then he went to tear the paper away from the big box. He had pulled one big piece down when his father stopped him. He was reminded that there was one more tradition to follow, before he could open the last package, the climax of the day. The six-a-side cricket match out on the large lawn of the old Victorian property had yet to be played. Xavier would have first choice of which of his friends he wanted on his team and his Dad, Captain of the Dendle Green Cricket XI, would have the rest. To make it a quick match each batsman was limited to a maximum of eleven runs each and, if not out by any other means, had to give way to the next one. It was the first time eleven of the players had scored the maximum – and Xavier, who actually hated cricket, but never dare tell his parents, had then bowled his dad out for a golden duck, on the fifth ball of his second over.
At last, they traipsed back in and found the table cleared and placed to one side and the big box, with its partly peeled wrapping, now the focus of attention, in the middle of the room. It was opening time. They all stood around in a circle. Xavier eagerly stepped forward, looked first at his Dad, who gave a nod of approval and a proud smile and then tore at the wrapping, telling the others to join in.
In moments, the brown Amazon box inside was waiting to be opened and he looked for a way in, so that he could see what it contained. He was willing the contents to be what he had dreamed of: a shiny new bicycle with lights and electric horn and big wheels like a proper bike and not little ones with stabilisers like he had had when he was six. And hopefully a red frame and big knobbly tyres. He lifted the end: it felt a bit light and a little flatter and narrower than he had expected. The handlebars must be turned sideways and perhaps it didn’t have the pedals fitted yet. He could do that, or maybe his Dad would.
Discovering a long length of parcel tape stretching down the middle from one end of the box to the other, he teased up one end and ripped it right across. Already picturing himself sweeping down steep hills and racing his friends. He flung back the flaps of the box. And there it was. His eleventh birthday present, all neatly laid out; everything he needed to become a member of the junior team of his Dad’s cricket club. He stared at a brand new bat, one pair of pads, one pair of gloves, two white shirts, two pairs of trousers and a cap, plus a set of wickets, one pair of bails and a ball, for practising, between matches.
He swallowed hard and bit back the tears, as he thanked his Mum and Dad and knew he had to get away from gazing eyes. He quickly asked if they could all have a game of hide and seek, before his friends went home. They all loved that idea because it was a big three-storey house, with a large entrance hall, a spacious living room, a separate dining room, a breakfast kitchen, four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a conservatory. That made eleven places they could find somewhere to hide, behind furniture, curtains and doors.
They drew straws to decide who would be the seeker and then all the rest disappeared. Xavier hid under his own bed and let the tears flow at the disappointment. Cricket gear. What did he want with cricket gear? Football stuff would have been OK, but just because his Dad was good at cricket, it didn’t mean he had to like it, too. It was slow, it was boring and it sometimes went on for days. And half the time, most of the team just sat on their backsides in the dressing room and watched, until it was their turn to bowl and field, where you could still end up stuck on the boundary without touching the ball for several overs. At least in a soccer match, there were always eleven playing eleven (unless someone got a red card, of course) and you could keep on running around, passing the ball back and forth. Maybe you could even score the winning goal. He’d done that once at school. The only goal of the match, scored in the eleventh minute of the second half.
It was a good eleven minutes before Xavier was found and he was the last. By then he had wiped his tears away, happy he had been hidden the longest and skipped down the stairs to find his mother was lining up all eleven children, with Xavier at the end, to give them each a goodie bag to take home, full of little treats: a Kit-Kat, a tube of Smarties, a carton of fruit juice, a packet of crisps, two balloons, three stickers, a pack of coloured pencils and a Harry Potter colouring book. However, when she came to her son, all that was inside was a key, with a green plastic tab that said “Garden Shed”. He looked bewildered until his Mum pointed out into the garden and told him his Dad had said he could go and look inside.
It was the holy of holies, Dad’s shed. His private space, always kept locked and defended by a fearsome guard of eleven garden gnomes, arranged around it. With eleven other faces watching him, his mother’s and his ten friends’, he walked cautiously down the path and saw his Dad standing by the door, smiling. Inserting the key into the padlock he found it turned smoothly and the shank sprang open. He lifted the padlock from the staple and flicked back the hasp, then pulled the door open towards him as he heard his Dad saying that he and his Mum thought he’d need something to get him to cricket practice on time.
Grinning from ear to ear, Xavier wheeled out the shiny red bike with its big wheels and knobbly tyres, its lights and electric horn. Blow cricket practice, he was thinking, this would take him to more wondrous places, as he pushed it up the garden to the sound of little hands clapping applause. This time, his thank you to his Mum and Dad was whole hearted and he was overjoyed when he was told he could ride it up and down the street for ten minutes, after all his friends had been variously picked up by parents and grandparents. When he was called in, he begged for just one minute more.
The joy of the birthday evening went on, when he was allowed to stay up later than his usual bedtime and when he finally climbed into bed he sat quietly for a moment remembering all the fun of the day. He thought of all the places he could go and see on his new bike, exotic places even as he grew older, places further away than the city tramline. Then he opened the book that he kept by his bedside, written by an old friend of the family – now really old in Xavier’s eyes – and turned to his favourite poem about a number 11 bus that took its passengers on a long circular journey all the way around a big city, with marvellous sights to see, though some, of course, really only imagined.
When he had finished, he sighed with pleasure and lay down, ready to dream of far away travels. Sleep beginning to summon him to those dreams, he turned his head and looked at the time on his digital alarm clock. 11:11 pm.