David Andrew Johnson was seven last week. All the children in his class were invited to a barbecue in the large garden at his Grandparents’ house.
‘I don’t want one of those parties with soppy games,’ declared David. ‘Can we do something different?
Grandpa Johnson thought for a bit.
‘How about a project?’ he asked.
‘What’s a project?’ David was puzzled by the word.
‘Something to do, something to make, something useful.’
‘Like making a cake?’
‘That would be good, but I’ve got a better idea. Wait and see.’
Grandpa knows what children like. He set the friends to build a bridge across the little stream at the bottom of the garden. The boys and girls found a pile of branches, cut from the hazel hedge, a couple of spades and a big reel of orange cord.
‘What have we got to do with those Mr Johnson?’
‘Well, we’d better see what’s what first.’ Grandpa’s eyes had a cheeky twinkle. ‘Anyone got a measuring tape?’
Blank faces stared back at him. Then Helen worked out what Grandpa was getting at. ‘We need to measure the width of the stream to see which branches are long enough to go across. Could we use the cord to measure?’
‘OK. One of you will have to go across to the other side with the end of the cord.’
‘No, me.’ A chorus of voices yelled and a forest of hands waved.
Luckily the party invitations had said ‘Wear wellies and old clothes.’ so everyone would be able to get as muddy and wet as they liked without a fuss.
‘We’d better do a choosing game’ said David. The children clenched their fists into a tube, and put one on top of another in a tower to the chanted rhyme:
‘One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, four. Five potatoes, six potatoes, seven potatoes more. One, two, three OUT.’
The one whose fist was last to go on the pile when the chant reached OUT dropped out of the game. They repeated the whole thing over and over, getting noisier and noisier, until the last one left in, Richard, was given the end of the cord. He scrambled down the bank, sploshed through the shallow water, and climbed up on the other side.
‘Pull the string tight now.’ said Richard.
‘You’d better hang on tight to your end then. And stand back from the edge.’
The cord was marked with a knotted handkerchief at the right place for the length of the bridge with a stepping-off-place at each end, so that it wouldn’t fall in the water when someone stepped on it.
‘Now for choosing the branches,’ said Grandpa. They measured the branches to see which ones would do the job.
‘Now’ said Grandpa, ‘we must choose the longest branches and lay them side by side’ and Grandpa showed them how to lash the poles together, weaving two orange cords over and under each branch, crossing and re-crossing, until they had made a solid platform about eighteen inches wide. Grandpa cut the cord with his pocketknife, so that none of the children would hurt themselves.
‘But how do we fix it to the ground?’ asked Leo.
‘Ah’ said Grandpa. ‘That’s where the spades come in,’ and he set teams to dig a wide shallow groove on each side of the stream. A lot of mud went flying about as the delighted children discovered the joys of a mud fight.
The platform was heavy for the children to lift, so they found a big smooth branch and used it as a roller to pull the platform to the edge. Then the fun started. Everyone except Grandpa got in the stream and pushed and pulled again until it slotted into the groove on the other side. There was lots of splashing and laughing as they climbed out again. Then the mud was shovelled back on to the ends of the branches on each side and splatted flat with the backs of the spades.
‘We don’t want it to tip up like a seesaw when someone steps onto the end’ explained Grandpa. ‘It would be no good for crossing the stream and it might hit someone on the nose.’
‘Who’s going to try it first?’ asked Leo.
‘ How about the birthday boy?’ Grandpa wanted no arguments at the party.
‘Yay’ they yelled at the tops of their voices.
So David stood at the end of the splendid new bridge, put his arms out like a tightrope walker and put one foot on it. Then the other. Inch by inch he proudly crossed the stream, to loud cheers from the others. Then they all took it in turns to try the bridge. Nobody fell off and the poles stayed in firmly in place.
‘Gosh thanks Grandpa.’ That was great, said David and the others all agreed. They thanked the smiling Mr Johnson enthusiastically. Grandma came to call them for tea, and she admired the beautiful bridge. ‘Well done my loves. Now I can get across to the vegetable garden without going round by the road. Thank you all very much. But it’s a good job David’s birthday is in summer, or you’d all have gone down with pneumonia.’
Then a happy, wet and muddy party trooped up the garden to demolish the huge tea that David’s Mum, Dad and Grandma had been cooking on the barbecue: sausages, chicken drumsticks and hamburgers, with colourful salads, all washed down with fruit juice or cola. Everyone had a huge appetite after all the hard work.
When the candles had been successfully blown out and wishes made, the chocolate birthday cake met a sticky end. Luckily, chocolate stains don’t notice against muddy faces.
As they left, the children all told their Mums that it had been the best party ever. They waved goodbye as Grandpa went into the house to have a snooze in front of the television. His afternoon’s work had tired him out.