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Gift Wrapped




“Gif’ wrapped?”Image

She is in her fifties, piped into the store’s idea of what a woman should wear in her thirties if she were a size 12. She is not a size twelve.

Plastic smile.  “Would’y’like to include-a-message?”


“Message.  Would’y’l….”

“Oh!  Sorry.  No thanks.”

The boxed perfume and cologne upon which I have just expended next month’s rent lies before me on the counter.  As enemies go it is already vanquished – its acetate window a little clouded, a little wrinkled, its cardboard colours brash.  Defiant, but defeated.  It is nothing like the resplendent offering that I selected from the brightly-lit glass case.   A cell-phone begins to play something Bieber.   She stifles it at the third chord.

“Yeah? Did he?  Oh, right, and he….”

A miracle happens.  Cell tucked against shoulder, bright paper from somewhere.

“Silver or gold?”

“Erm, silver?”

My perfume gift disappears, is interred, in a whirl of glitzy paper.

“Well, it’s not my fault, I tried!”  She tells the ‘phone.  “No, not tonight.  I’m goin’ t’ Freddy’s.  I said.”

Ribbon shoots from somewhere far beneath, not one but two strips.  She holds them up for my approval, her face a mirror of enquiry.  I am being asked to select a colour.  The ‘phone is squawking angrily. 

I point at red. 

“Its no good him prattin’ on.  I said last night I wasn’t goin’.”  From furious to obsequious.  “Yes, madam?”

She has a customer enquiry further along the counter.  I expect her to move away but no, the miracle is still happening.   My gift is wrapped neatly in silver, a red ribbon is flying around it.

“Those are really more for the older man, I think.  Hav’y’thought of Hugo Boss?”  And to the ‘phone:  “Well he knows where he can put it, doesn’ee?”

Ribbon in a tight binding, scissors from treasure house  below, their point stripping through the loose ends, reducing them to tight curls.  Gum, glitter.  To the new customer:  “He’ll really go for that one, I should think.  What about the cologne?”

To me:  “Seventy-Nine pounds, dear.  Cash or card?”

I never hear the end of the conversation.  I am dispatched, processed, a satisfied customer.  My gift cradled in my respectful grasp, my work of art, my Picasso in silver created by the hand (well, one hand) of an anonymous woman whose work should surely be exhibited somewhere more prominent than my humble Christmas tree.

At home I contemplate the bottle of single malt with naked fear.  They stretch out before me – the paper, the scissors that will never cut it in a straight line, the sellotape which has no distinguishable end; the instruments that are the true hell of Christmas.  Grimly, but with determination, I down a third gin and fit the scissors around my fingers.

My wife comes in from work at six o’clock.  “The neighbours are complaining about you shouting again.”  She sees the broken glass and the splash of gin on the wall. “Have you been throwing things?”

“It was an accident.”  I tell her.  “Me, shouting?  No, must have been number fifty-eight.”

“What on earth is that?”  She has spotted the wrapped bottle of single malt.  “It looks like a traffic accident.”

I come clean.  What else can I do?  At least in my long-sleeved jumper she cannot see the scars where I finally turned the scissors on myself.

“Well you do your best and it is the season of good will!”  My wife says charitably.  “I hope you haven’t bought me perfume again.”






There’s a reindeer down the chip shop thinks he’s Rudolph….

Christmas means different things to different people:  to nurses and doctors, for example, it is a busy period for hospital admissions.  Over-indulgence has its price.

Life in the transport business can become particularly fraught.  People rushing to and from shops and parties, visiting relatives, or, bizarrely, delivering presents towing a guy in a red suit….

Let’s call him Dasher:  it’s about the most inappropriate name possible because he has never really dashed anywhere; but if legends must….Dasher, you see, is a reindeer.

A twenty-first century lust for sensation has decreed that Dasher’s diary is full these days – from late October right through the holiday season.  The guy in the red suit needs him, apparently, for deliveries, although for some reason he doesn’t seem to do chimneys anymore, nor does he do much in the way of night visits.

In fact there are many things haven’t worked out the way Dasher was promised.   Seven mates, for example; he gets to do the towing on his own.  And one night’s work a year has turned into eight weeks of hard labour.

The trouble is, Dasher doesn’t have a work ethic.  Before he was incarcerated in a crate and brought from his Nordic home across an extremely irritable North Sea, he had never seen a cart in his life, let alone pulled one. So his regular routine, travelling in a horsebox, being harnessed to a weighty sleigh then towing the red bloke along a street of screaming kids is not exactly attractive to him.  Dasher doesn’t actually like people. 

He is not happy in his work.Image

While he is standing outside the mall having his nose swiped at by dozens of curious children he may well be pining for his sub-arctic Lapland home.  He will certainly be stressed.  He may not be aware that he owes his predicament to a poem: if he was, I am certain he would express some strong opinions on the subject.   And if he could ever meet with Clement Moore, I’m sure he would find a constructive use for those antlers…..

I just surfaced from immersion in an article about etiquette – the kind of thing that brings out the zealot in certain people and transforms them into pre-occasion monsters – what sort of gift to bring to a party, how many drinks should be the maximum, whether to formally introduce anyone lower in rank than a Duchess, and so on.   Not a pretty subject (well, not to me) and not a new one, either.  In fact, the days of ‘finishing school’ and ‘Coming Out’, while not entirely behind us, have dwindled into a rather comic back-cloth, like those back-projection movies shown through car rear windows on old silent films.

And I quite miss them…..

In my world I am one ant in thousands carrying a bit of leaf back to the nest.  I am a six-figure number on a Government computer, vaguely scared in case someone presses the wrong button.  I’m a file in the system; Google has a picture of my house, when I go to buy a pair of shoes someone asks for my address, when I go to buy a TV the retailer already knows my address….

Great grandfather proclaimed himself a ‘Society Photographer’.  He married an impossibly air-headed flapper (my great-grandmother) when he was fifty and still using the kind of camera that required his subjects to remain motionless while he went for lunch.  Technology had moved past him, but he didn’t care, and guvnorwhat is more, he was very successful.     He drove an open-topped Morris Oxford down the centre of every road in London demanding loudly that elderly pedestrians and other motorists get out of the way.  He died of a stroke at ninety-two.

My grandfather was a merchant sailor with a master’s ticket.  When they finally gave him a ship he got his own cabin, which he lined with bMC900212933ottles of brandy.   He died aged forty-four, probably of alcoholism, though I like to think he baled rather than face a life in retirement running a Torquay guest house.

Aunt Daisy was a coiffure’d Edinburgh lady who swam and dived in the sea of etiquette as only a Scottish lady can.  Long and elegant, she pronounced any form of ribald enjoyment ‘sinful’ and was devastating in her criticism of bad Scottish dancing.   She also put away prohibitive amounts of very good sherry without turning so much as a hair.   Her house was always filled with flowers which Uncle Hubert insisted should be stripped from their vases and re-deployed for her funeral.  Uncle Hubert was parsimonious in other ways too.   At dinner he was famed for his detailed examination of restaurant menus.  His habit of carrying menus from several different restaurants with him and openly comparing them with the fare offered did not necessarily endear him to waiters.

In my youth I befriended a sign-writer:  not one of those undoubtedly highly-skilled guys who cut out and stick vinyl letters onto plastic, but a genuine original with paints and brushes and a ladder.  The back seat of his car was a mass of colour with spilled paints and congealed brushes stuck all over it.  The car only had three gears and Harold had never learned to change them, so he drove everywhere in second…..

Where have they all gone, these probably unpleasant but colourful, interesting people whose lives were defined not by what they were, but by who they were?    In today’s world ‘The Gov’nor’ my great grandfather would have quailed before digital technology and his driving or his manners would have ended in a gaol sentence.   Shipping in the English Channel would be far too busy for my grandfather to miss all of it, and Daisy would be a sad old woman buffeted by a busy street.

What of Hubert, confronted by ‘fine dining’?   Driven downmarket, might he have resorted to Pizza Express?  Imagine, if you can!   And Harold the sign-writer?  Well, the times caught up with Harold long before the retirement he richly deserved.  His craft died far too long before he did.

The obvious common characteristic of each of these individuals was just that – their individuality.   What was so different, then?   When did we become the sober, calculating machines that people the modern Metropolis?  How did it creep in, this insidious ‘patterning’ we are told we all must follow?   What, in floods and volumes and avalanches of individuality have we suppressed – have we lost?    Orwell warned us, and we thought we listened, didn’t we?

So this New Year I raise a calculating glass (150 calories, 75cl alcohol content) to those who turned the grey street of my past into a kaleidoscope of colour and I wish them well, at whatever stage they have reached upon their journey.  They may have sworn at me or made me laugh, hit me or kissed me, but not one of them would be seen carrying a bit of leaf back to anyone’s nest.

(media courtesy Microsoft clipart)