The Swap Card Thief

Posted March 01 2023
The year was 1972. The location: the outer limits of the school yard. Right where the demarcation line for grade five play met that of grade four, and it was here a deal went down that would be whispered about for many a year.

A deal that will haunt me forever and saw me labelled “the swap card thief”!

And although I protested long of my innocence, and as fervently as any righteous grade fiver could, AND with my case being so strong, it was a label that none of this, even aided by common sense, could ever shake.

So you be the judge.

Back in the day when swap cards were a thing, us kids collected them in all of their glorious colourful themes. We’d save up our pocket money and head to the local newsagent to trade our hard-earned wages for the latest glossy offerings. We’d keep them in books that preserved them perfectly, or some prized treasures were covered in carefully crafted plastic sleeves, sealed shut with sticky tape.

And we’d trade them with other, equally zealous, swap card aficionados.

Now you don’t need to be a Derren Brown or James Randi to hazard a well-founded guess that the theme of my cards was animals.

So there I was in the school yard. The morning bell had just rung, heralding our first break for the day. With a nod indicating where I was to head, I followed direction that landed me at the mercy of the grade four swap card lord.

My mission – to secure a much-prized horse card that had long eluded my collection, that word on the street told would be found here.

But which one of my treasures was I to trade? Oh, the decisions. I settled on the sacrificial lamb card, which could well have been a lamb for all I can remember as the ordeal has clearly left me scarred and some of my memory shaken.

(If only the latter could become of that darn “sacrificial lamb” label!)

With the deal done and dusted, or so I thought, I left the scene with my posse of grade fivers in tow, and she (who shall remain nameless) with her posse of grade fours, and never again did I think the twain should met.

However, come lunchtime that same day, how wrong I found I was. For on exiting my classroom I was ambushed by that same posse of grade fours as the words I will never forget assailed me: “You’ve got her card. Give. It. Back. NOW! Or else!”

The latter two words left me positively shaking in my Bata Scouts, as grubby and chubby fingers were thrust my way to remove any doubt as to the veracity of the statement.

Posse-less this time, I uttered my best defence: “No.” A clearly unconvincing one it must have been, for they reiterated their demand with even more fervour.

I pleaded my case again. This time channelling my best Perry Mason. “No, I haven’t”, “Yes you have”, “No I haven’t”, “Yes, you have,” “No, I haven’t”, “Yes, you have” … and so the exchange went.

But then I knew just what I had to do to clear my name. Heading back to my desk, I returned with my swag of cards, although the grade fours, suspecting I was up to something, had tagged closely along.

Then, with all the forthrightness of someone who knew of their unequivocal innocence, I pumped myself up to the full extent of my grade fiveness as I proceeded to shuffle the cards slowly from one hand to the other, spitting out the words “There! See! Not! Here!” each time I moved a card from one hand to the other. With all eyes peeled on the cards, my righteousness grew with each hand movement.

Until it did not.

Reaching the very last card in my deck, right there before my disbelieving eyes, and in my now very sweaty hand, and forever burned into my memory, was the offending card: Thomas Gainsborough’s iconic painting of “The Blue Boy”.

Before I could utter a word in my defence, the card was snatched from my hand and returned to its rightful owner as those haunting and hurting words were hurled my way – “swap card thief” – the posse moving off in triumphant procession.

It was to be a soul-destroying and most unjust title I would sadly be reminded of each time those grade fours saw me before I spied them and bolted in the other direction. My protests then as strong as they are now fell on deaf ears: “It was clearly an accident of which I had NO idea; you only have to look at my cards (and there were lots of them and all of animals) to see that The Blue Boy was so out of place.” Rarely did I get the chance to add my trump card, “Why would I be so dumb to show you my cards if I knew I had your card?”

Although life has moved on, so too my hobbies and thankfully those mean grade fours, I sometimes spare them a thought and wonder if, when a picture of me pops up in some medium, fingers are pointed towards my image as the words “swap card thief” are hurled in vitriol.

This is indeed a human condition: we love to fill in the gaps with what readily and conveniently makes sense to us; jump to conclusions despite logic and compassion telling us otherwise

All of which gives me more than pause for thought for the more-than-arbitrary, ill-informed and unjust labels we place on things to help the world make sense to us. Lazy labels we never really think about, and when we do, no amount of rational thought, common sense or even science can sway us away from them.

This is indeed a human condition: we love to fill in the gaps with what readily and conveniently makes sense to us; jump to conclusions despite logic and compassion telling us otherwise; and move on in thought and deed, rarely revisiting the unjust nature of the label and the ramifications, often cruel, that have been thrust upon someone or something.

I think by now you will realise where this train of thought is leading.

Alas, the logical conclusion was to take me many more years than my grade five ones to reach. That is, by labelling some animals as “farm” does not justify this use of them. And while for me, my label was just that, a label, for farmed animals, it is a death sentence.

Moreover, that label makes no more sense and provides no more justification for it being true than labelling a hapless swap card enthusiast with a penchant for animals, a thief, simply because someone said so and the circumstances appeared to confirm this.