Tuesday, 19 November 2013

It's the thought that counts

There’s no avoiding it any longer, Christmas is coming. I am braced for shopping, wish-lists are circulating, beleaguered mothers are arriving late at the school gates after shopping expeditions, and the shops are full of tat that will end up in a local charity shop before the end of January. 

The pressure’s on again to dream up ideas for ever-more surprising, interesting presents, because when it comes to gifts, we all know it’s the thought that counts.

Over the years, I’ve been first-hand witness to how a gift can be a code for the sentiment in which it’s given, which makes for interesting interpretation. Once the wrapping paper’s torn and contents revealed, what meaning could be construed?

Putting my own dear husband in the spotlight, I’ve received a particularly interesting line in gifts over the past ten years. The first of its ilk was quite a surprise in the early days of our relationship, when jewellery, chocolate or even flowers would have made the grade. It was… a food processor. We had recently bought a house together, and I was able to excuse it as a gift demonstrating commitment, if lacking romance. If my husband-to-be wanted to equip the kitchen for the preparation of delicious meals, who was I to complain (it wasn’t at all clear back then who the long-term chef would be). 

By the following Christmas, he’d upped the stakes. There was no gift-wrap to disguise the huge, grey wheelie bin which contained an assortment of curious smelling accessories, including a tub labelled ‘Handle with care’. I opened it to reveal a tangle of thin, red worms. The tiny creatures wriggled against each other in a way that made me want to tip them to freedom into the flowerbed, but remembering this was a birthday present, I replaced the lid quickly and tentatively dug deeper for some instructions. On the outside of the bin, at the bottom, was a tap. I didn’t yet know its purpose, but at the same time, suspected this was its purpose. The instructions enlightened me that my very own wormery would work by feeding the worms with compost. They would gobble up the discarded delicacies leaving all waste elements on tap for me. Yes, all I had to do was turn the tap and those nutritious juices of fermented compost and worm wee that had trickled to the bottom would all be mine. And the herbaceous border would love it.

The wormery quickly became a burden. As the wriggly red threads fattened into hungry, plump snakes, they demanded to be fed with their probing mouth-ends when I lifted the lid. I piled in the compost, and as spring turned to summer, a problem came to light. I lifted the lid, and a swarm of tiny fruit flies would make their bid to escape, right into my face. What kind of a gift was this? When we moved home, my husband agreed to include the wormery in the price of the house as a bonus for the new owners. Think of it as re-gifting.

Since the year of the wormery, there have been more surprises. There was the year that tact forgot, with an assortment of self-help books; the year of unwanted advice with the Driver’s Handbook, just 20 years too late for passing my test. Digressing slightly, there was the spontaneous gift of a rather nice red purse, apropos nothing – no birthday, no Christmas. The only trouble with it was a certain amount of secrecy around its ancestry. It was years later when my husband confessed he’d found it on the upper deck of a 109 bus. ‘The purse was empty!’ he protested when I gasped ‘NO WAY!’ ‘Someone already had the money out of it.’

With this year’s birthday came the gloves; a box of latex gloves. ‘For doing chores like cleaning out the drain or sanding the window frames,’ said husband with a twinkle in his eye, ‘to save your hands from being so rough.’ I said my hands would be even softer if a cleaner came once a week to wear them, but sadly these gloves were in my size. 

At the school gates, a friend bemoaned her day Christmas shopping, and the fruitless hunt for a gift for her father in law. ‘I almost bought a book on how to keep your mind active in old age,’ she sighed, ‘but thought better of it.’ Perhaps my husband is not alone, at least not in spirit, if in gall.

Strangely, the gloves, the food processor, even the self-help books have been among the most useful gifts I’ve had. I hasten to add not the wormery, god no, although the garden would disagree. So this year, I’m taking a leaf out of my husband’s book for our children, considering a themed dustpan and brush, a set of favourite character coat hooks, even a personalised doormat. And while my husband prepares to put his tongue in cheek, I look forward to counting his seasonal thoughts.

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