The happy plastic children stare back – gold and shiny. A talisman of childhood. The holy grail of middle-class 90s Johannesburg. Pristine, perpetual, perfect. Oblivious.
There were other badges – bunnies, bicycles, planes – but those were from friends’ parties. The happy plastic children badge meant that your
soft-serve vanilla ice cream was the one with the sparkler plus an embarrassing side of “happy birthday to you” – a necessary rite of passage into the utopia of growing up, where you could stay up late, eat sweets all the time, watch too much TV, live at your friend’s house and never do any times tables.
And if you were lucky enough to: 1) convince your parents to take you to a birthday dinner
that kept you up past bedtime, and 2) convince your parents to take you to the Mike’s Kitchen of all Mike’s Kitchens, in Kensington, opposite the Shell Garage where you could rent videos while your mom stopped for petrol, well, let’s just say borderline life-changing. The night-time neon yellow and red of the giant scallop would reflect off the golden faces of the happy plastic children birthday badge pinned to your parachute tracksuit top as you emerged from birthday heaven, transfiguring them into something other –
something alive, something magic, like if you rubbed your fingers along their glinting contours you’d get three wishes. In that moment, anything was possible. Anything.
Until your brain squashed wonder with reason, and the figurative fluorescence melted back to gold. Just gold, and plastic.
At home, on that first night with your new birthday badge, you’d be sure to clean the sticky, sweet spare rib sauce that had dripped onto your precious badge while you were feasting. For a split second, you’d debate authenticity versus aesthetic, the cloth hovering restlessly over the stain…
…but to make those golden faces really stand out against the metallic, blues, greens and purples of the lesser comrades in your badge collection, the condiment had to go.
So, you’d wipe the taste away, allowing it to slip into the vortex of memory, living on in the lines of those shiny, happy, smiling children.
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