Once, these were the staple event of children’s birthday-party games. Remember? The simplest, youngest, versions took place in a sitting room, with an adult directing us: ‘Hotter, hotter, no colder, freezing-colder … that’s better, warming up…’ I know it wasn’t just me who got excited, because that game was always followed by: ‘I think we need to calm down now. Let’s play statues.’
It disappeared from the party menu long before pass-the-parcel or charades. I suspect it was too stressful, both to organise and, to watch as the carefully tidied party-house was usually dismantled in the process. Hide-and-seek was an easier replacement. It was fun, but lacked the sense of story that a true treasure hunt has.
I think the hours I spent with Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timmy gave me high expectations, because although I’ve never told anyone before, I’m ready to share my certainty that one day a treasure clue would come my way. I wasn’t sure I’d be as clever and brave as the Famous Five, but I lived in expectation of adventure.
Long John Silver had shown me what a real treasure map looked like. There was no sign of one in any of our books or boxes, and believe me, I looked. So one summer afternoon my friend Jane and I created our own treasure map.
It took hours. This was no casual project. It was paced out, checked with a compass and taken through several drafts before we made our best copy. There were landmarks, written clues, and a large scarlet X to mark the spot where we had buried a carefully wrapped ladybird book for our brothers to find.
The final document was drawn on a heavy fly-leaf that I ripped from an old book. I hope it wasn’t anything precious, even then I don’t think I would have damaged a book unless it was already in a bad way. But if I did, it was worth it. I can still remember how impressive the finished article was. We artistically ripped the edges, then aged it with cold coffee before rolling it up, tying it with a red ribbon, and hiding it in a jar. Then we handed out the first clue.
Much later I created treasure hunts for my niece’s birthday parties. Each one reminded me of that long summer afternoon. I don’t know what we did with that first map. Perhaps it’s still tucked amongst the paint pots in Dad’s shed.
This year my grown-up nieces asked me to create another Treasure Hunt, for Boxing Day. It was fun working it out. This time the map was in my head: the clues were anagrams, puns, allusions and poems that I secreted along a footpath to a distant field, then back again. While the family were out of sight, I snuck into the garden and set a final leg that led them round the house, to finish with a hoard of chocolate coins hidden near where they’d started.
And you know what? It was a creative buzz. In this story I had real characters to work with. I’d set them a journey that I hoped they would be able to pull off, but I wasn’t sure. I climbed up on the picnic table to watch for them. Was it too easy? Was it too hard?
Oh, the relief when they came into view. Keeping out of sight, I watched them track the next clue, then gather to read and discuss it. I sneaked closer, and eavesdropped. Even when I saw that it was working, I couldn’t walk away. This was story, and I was in it too, a flawed, but omniscient narrator.