Victoria Neumark on conkers and computers.
Ben rushes up, howling. "It was a seventy-fiver and it's busted, Miss!" In his hand, the shattered pieces of a horse chestnut, its white innards powdery round the mangled string. Behind him lurks Tom. Two years older, in Year 5, Tom is wise in the ways of conkers and has an older brother, too. His view of conkers is playground-oriented, competitive. He shows no mercy in the conker wars.
Ben and his two pals are conker novices. They've only just graduated from the sheer fun of gathering, plastic bag clutched in hand, even with mum and little sisters, the gleaming brown booty which spills over the damp earth of the autumn parks. They still have feelings for the softness of the sheen, the magic of opening the hard green prickly shell and unpeeling the wet new brown nut from its fluffy white blanket. They still cherish the particular conker which is the biggest, the smallest, the most intricate in grain, the most unusual in shape.
This is the first year the boys have felt bold enough to run off on their own and hurl loose twigs into the higher branches of the conker trees like the older boys. Exhaustive discussion, consultation with dads and some scary experiences with corkscrews have led to the production of one fighting conker each. Iqbal and Jeneiv lost their conkers in early rounds, but Ben's was still a goer. Now it too lies broken in its owner's tender grasp. "It was a seventy-fiver," he sniffs again.
Tom smirks. He has cunningly soaked his conker in vinegar for two weeks. It was already a 500-er and now, assimilating its opponent's victories, is a 575-er. "Bet you mine's going to make a 1,000, Miss," he says cheerfully.
Ben's teacher has tried to capitalise on this touching mixture of aesthetic and mathematical interest by devising conker puzzles and conker art projects. She can't understand why they leave the class cold. They can't understand either why Miss is so keen on conkers when Miss has also gone on and on about why they can't bring in pocket computer games. At the moment, Pokemon, a game where you collect little monsters and house-train them, is all the rage. Ben's teacher is inclined to class this game as an invention of the devil, preventing children from reading, writing and doing arithmetic, ruining their eyesight and stopping them pursuing traditional childhood goals like, like, er, conkers.
To Ben, it's simple. "I like conkers," he says. "And I like Pokemon, too." He considers. "But Pokemon is more expensive. So I'll have to wait till Christmas for it, probably." Jeneiv chips in. "Yeah, but by Christmas conkers will be well over." Ben brightens. He looks once more at the remnants of the seventy-fiver, then flings it resolutely in the direction of the bin. "Yeah, conkers is finished," he says, and races off to the never-ending game of footy in the bottom playground.
Tom looks after him. "Baby," he says loftily. "My conker is gonna make a 1,000." And he stows it carefully away before searching out other contenders to the conker crown.