Gift Wrapped.

This is a tribute.  Whatever damage to our health this black COVID comedy has visited upon us, its most permanent effect has been the demise of our traditional way of shopping.  Although our physical wellbeing will return, we are witnessing the final decline of the Mall, the Department Store, the High Street retailer.  

So, a little piece from Christmas past, and maybe an expression of sorrow for things lost; things we’ll miss in the online society of years to come…

“Gif’ wrapped?”

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?”

“Sorry?”

“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.   The woman 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 is interred in a whirl of glitzy paper.

“Well, it’s not my fault, I tried!”  The woman 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 Lichtenstein 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 that I shall gift to Uncle Bill 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,”  she says,  “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 Uncle Bill’s 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.”

Today, when the thoroughfare should be brimming with supplicants to the Great God of Consumerism, scarcely a foot is heard to fall.  Brightly lit windows flicker code to each other across empty streets – gone the street markets; still-born the Santa Claus parades, the rattling strings of coloured lights that echo in a rain-rich wind.

Not once have I ventured out to make my contribution to those echoes. My Christmas is already shopped – day after day parcels to be gifted trickle to my door, from Amazon, from Etsy people, from emporia I have only seen on my monitor and whose threshold I shall never need to cross.   

One hellish prospect remains, however:  the paper, the sellotape, the scissors that won’t cut straight sit waiting and I know my skills have not improved!   If I was briefly the acquaintance of a lady, a true artist, and if she should remember how she wrapped some perfume for me once?  If she should by any chance be reading this, and be in need of some libation, maybe a mince pie or two as reward for a small service, I can assure her of a welcome at my door…

As We Are Mortal…

We have to accept it:  as we are mortal, so we are weak.

IMHO we shouldn’t hide our weaknesses – evolution has made a pretty good job of us, by and large.  No, we should embrace them; we should enjoy them, just as we should recognise that in women, and in men, they take different forms.

We don’t, though.  Between these two celestial bodies is an expanse of interplanetary space inaccessible to most of our species.   Those exceptions who do cross the Great Divide are regarded with suspicion, even thought to be slightly dangerous: although those who travel away from the Sun are more generously treated.  A woman on a Kawasaki Ninja SX may generate admiration, a man in six-inch heels sensations of a different kind…  These are generalities; I’m not saying either exception is ethically wrong, merely that we typical herd members have to think more carefully about how we strike up a conversation.

So the balance of traffic across the void is not entirely equal: the astronomically-informed will claim that’s because Venus is rather larger than Mars, whilst critics will point to an abundance of harmful gas.   Mars, by contrast, is drier and colder and, continuing the same analogy, anyone wanting to be nasty might suggest a lot smaller than it pretends.  To return to the subject…

Most of us do stay on our own side of the divide.  ‘Most’ women understand little about football, care for it even less.  ‘Most’ men (illogically) spurn the offer of a handbag, despite its obvious uses.  And it is well that it should remain that way – imagine the chaos if husband and wife were to fight over who wears the brogues.

The other point to make about these weaknesses is the total absence of logic that drives them.  The word ‘fetish’ gets bandied about quite liberally and with good reason.   How, for example, can you justify spending half a month’s salary on a pair of heels that prove so uncomfortable they cannot be worn for longer than half-an-hour?   How can I prove a case for buying a car that will reach sixty miles an hour in seven-and-a-half-seconds on roads where it is rarely possible to go faster than fifty?

In vain our SOs plead the case for car ownership as simple transport.  It’s all about luggage space, enough doors for the installation of kids, enough cubby holes for baby bottles, drinks cans, paper tissues (endless paper tissues), maps, magazines, and various motley items such as ice scrapers and medical supplies.

 Such justifications count for nothing with me.  I am male.  I do not choose a fresh car, the car chooses me.  The car that will be my companion in life sits on its car lot with paint brightly shining.  It teases; it flirts, it flutters its headlights demurely:  I fall in love.

There is nothing ‘fresh’ about it, actually.  It has a dent in the side – that can be beaten out.  When I steer, it resolves to take no notice.  How capriciously feminine is that?  It will stop – sometimes; but then, sometimes it won’t start.  There are moments of sheer joy, unparalleled elation when man and machine are as one:  they usually last ten minutes, before they end in a hedge or a pointless argument.

There have been many cars in my life, the greater proportion of which have been old.  Dignified antiques?  No.  Tragic basket cases?  Well….yes, I suppose.  And the more I think about it, the more I realise they compensate for the stability in my life and the happiness of my marriage.  The car is The Other Woman.  I have affaires – covert relationships as tempestuous as they are brief.  Wow!  That’s deep!

In case you live nearby and are worried, the car I have now is sensible, soulless and almost new.  The cars I describe above, well, they are from my past, and I have spent thousands down the years in making them safe, because I would never drive a weapon.

To conclude, I would like to attach this picture of my last Great Love.  A Volvo, as you see.  She is, sadly, no longer with us, having succumbed to a long illness – an incurable oil leak which left a series of Ronschach images on my driveway – my best and enduring memory of her, and, I firmly believe, her plaintive attempts to communicate.  She knew her pain..

Therefore let us all be proud.  Do not disguise your weakness, or bite back those spontaneous outbursts of emotion that visit now and then.  Having a friend for support, that is important; yet you must not lay blame upon them because they dragged you screaming away from that shop window, or frog-marched you, tearful, from that car mart.  They recognise, as do you, the great emotional harmonies of life, and one day you will be able to do the same for them.

A Writer’s Rant at Christmas

It’s come around again.

Somehow, every year, the media dredge up new perspectives at Christmas, incurring my admiration because  I confess freely I cannot.  Christmas confounds me.  Miraculous survivals, acts of goodness and extraordinary achievements are being reported on every side.  Why do I miss them all?  Why do I not know where every royal person is spending their festive season – and why do I not care?

Frankly, I don’t know why any aspect of Christmas should be news.  After all, it begins unfailingly around 1st November, and swoops in like a great dark cloud, gushing forth episode after episode of trauma to finally collapse like a half-set jelly on December 25th.  Equally routinely, we are to be found sweeping up its victims in the cold dawn of Boxing Day, amidst the pitiful groans of the suffering, a secondary feast of medicaments and salves, and ladles brimming with schadenfreude.

So what’s new?

With my Bah-Humbug specs planted firmly on my nose, I am going to issue you with an invitation you will rarely get:  how do you really feel about Christmas?   I am going to ask you for an extraordinary degree of honesty; for truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Where are you reading this?

Are you at the airport?  Have you been there for more than five hours because your plane is late,  your cabin crew are on strike, or there is a bomb scare?

Are you on the motorway?  Have you been stuck in traffic for more than five hours, missing your plane because it was the only one today that departed on time?

Honestly, what is it like being marooned in that changing cubicle at John Lewis, convinced that if you try to step outside the mob will kill you?

On a register of one to ten, how joyful do you feel about spending eight hours of Monday in the close company of Uncle Freddy after he has stuffed himself to the gills with turkey and drunk enough whisky to sink the Nimitz?  Do you really want to hear that song again?

How do you describe the complexity of your feelings, watching the educational toy which cost you a hundred pounds (give or take a penny) being systematically ignored by its recipients in favour of the cardboard box in which it arrived?

“He’ll grow into it.” His mother assures you.

Is there a moment more memorable than that in which ‘our youngest’ falls on top of the laptop you bought for ‘our eldest’?  It will stay with you, will that crunching sound – a memory to carry to your grave.  The family rows, the burnt mince pies, the drinks you never normally touch and certainly shouldn’t, the vomiting dogs and the panicking cats – with so much living to pack into twenty-four hours; no wonder Christmas’s popularity endures.  We humans are naturally masochistic, after all.

Cynical?  Me?  Hah!  I confess it.  I love watching others engorge themselves in Bacchanalian feasting, while I consume my allowance of boiled fowl and steamed broccoli, and I may even have a sip of wine or two, whether or not I am forced to go and lie down afterwards.   While the young whirl and screech about me, I will take my ease watching Julie Andrews doing her own whirling and screeching on top of that damned hill and I won’t be envious – no, I will not!

I suspect though, like most of you, I will be glad when the day is over, and I am able to wash up, wipe up, clear up, sober up, and go exhausted to my bed (or whatever appalling equivalent has been reserved for me).

All right, I will acknowledge that it is not all doom and gloom, this Christmas thing.  There are experiences not to be missed, pleasures to be found.  Yet how fresh and crisp the dawn of the twenty-sixth, the promise of another year!  How sweetly the robin, his voice no longer drowned by one hundred and forty decibels of Black Sabbath, sings!  And how freely the EBayers bid for that educational toy, in the year’s only real sale!

Happy Christmas, everyone!