Let me just tell you straight away, I’ve never been good at buying presents.
Some of you may be saying,” Yes, that’s because you’re a bloke, they’re never good at buying presents.”
I know there are some men out there who are really good at it. They know exactly what to buy, which holiday to choose, what shade of colour best suits their partner, things that light up their faces on their birthday or at Christmas. This special breed of man has a real talent for getting it right. I like to call them complete bastards. They make me look so bad it’s unbelievable and it’s not as if I don’t have a feminine side. The female colleagues at (almost voluntary) work accuse me of mincing. “Walk like a man!” they shout at me as I flounce past. So it can’t be that. It’s not right to stereotype people. I cannot believe all gay men are perfect when it comes to giving gifts.
What is it that makes me so awful?
When I was a child and a young man, I was probably unaware of my shortcomings in the gift department. I can remember saving up for ages to buy my mum a china fake oil lamp with red roses painted on it. It cost two pounds, I took it home, wrapped it carefully, not ripping the paper too much and getting the sticking tape on the right way round in most places. On Christmas Day, mum carefully opened her present and gave a gasp of surprise, followed by a hug and kiss. I’d cracked it. I was the present giving king of all time.
Thirty five years later, I was standing in mum’s front room staring at the very same lamp. I caught mum’s eye.
“You got me that for Christmas,” she reminded me, even though I didn’t need a reminder.
“Did you like it?” I asked, looking directly at her, smiling.
“Ooo, ha ha, what did you say dear?” she said, her hearing aid suddenly failing her; almost as easily as my faith in buying presents had years before.
As I grew into a young man and I eventually had a girlfriend, I still felt I had the “gift gift.” Most of you will be aware of that first bloom of love feeling, when you frequently buy little gifts for the loved one in your life. This could be cuddly toys, funny pictures, cheap jewellery; things that remind them of you. Our generation were very fond of making ‘mix tapes’ – songs recorded onto cassette tapes and passed on to the girl/boy we fancied/were going out with.
I could never even get this right. I gave one girlfriend two 7” singles for presents. One was Chas n’ Dave’s “Rabbit Song.” The other was “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” by Ian Dury.
I went out with her for two years and she gave me absolute hell. Looking back, I’m starting to see why. Sorry, Jane.
Of course, my crap judgement wasn’t reserved for grown ups. My lovely niece, Suzanne, was the recipient of a wonderful souvenir from my 18-30 holiday to Benidorm. Staggering into my sister’s house, unshaven, hung over and smelling of sangria, I presented my thrilled niece with a gigantic stuffed donkey. My sister eyed the animal suspiciously before pointing out the six inch nails holding the animal’s head to its body. Undeterred, I made my assurances that Suzanne’s new best toy was perfectly harmless. How was I to know the straw stuffing would be full of biting insects?
When I started going out with Lady Barton St Mary, I continued the trend for quirky presents to show my affection, all of them met with approval, a smile, a kiss and a hug that would send that lovely tingly feeling up my spine. On reflection, why I bought her a cuddly toy mole I’ll never know. When I say mole, I mean the burrowing animal, not the skin type. Anyway, she was lovely about it, and a couple of years later, we married.
I debated as to whether I should buy her an anniversary present, but as the time drew near, I brought up the subject.
“Oh, really, don’t worry. I don’t mind, don’t get me anything,” she said, before snuggling up on the sofa, where we sat watching ‘Howard’s Way’. So I didn’t.
Here’s a piece of advice. When a woman tells you she doesn’t mind, she doesn’t want anything, there’s one thing you should know. She’s lying. When she says she doesn’t mind, she doesn’t want anything, what she means is she does mind and she wants something fabulous.
Therefore, when our anniversary arrived and I hadn’t bought her anything, she put a brave face on it for several seconds before bursting into tears. The card she bought me was very nice though. Suffice to say I have tried my best to buy something nice every anniversary since then, but with my record and the fact I can never recover that first anniversary, I’m always at a disadvantage.
In order to defend myself, I have a theory, based around the latest developments in neuroscience that may go some way to explaining my condition. I believe there are many other (mainly male) sufferers. We start out on a shopping trip with a good idea of what we need to buy, what shop to go to, what to ask and how to check that all is in order. The working areas of the brain looks like this:
Then something may happen. The shop no longer stocks what you set out to get. They don’t have a particular colour or size. You can’t find it on the shelves. This can put your brain completely out of synch. The frontal lobes start to overheat. Then, after 3 hours of fruitless searching, the working areas of the brain look like this:
At this point, you start to panic. You buy things in a state of stress and go home, convincing yourself you’ve bought the perfect presents. Sometimes it may be something that she never even mentioned, but your brain is telling you this is exactly what she wants right up until the time she opens her present. That’s when your brain suddenly has an influx of sensible chemicals stimulated by your loved one’s face of absolute disappointment.There can be no other explanation.
To confirm my theory, a female colleague told me that when she was a student, she worked in a lingerie shop. Men would rush into the shop on Christmas Eve, half an hour before closing time.
“We could sell them absolutely anything,” she explained.
“The fun part would be on Boxing Day, when the shop was full of disappointed women exchanging the most inappropriate underwear you could ever have imagined!”
I rest my case.
To make things worse, Lady Barton St Mary’s birthday is on the 18th December, exactly a week away from Christmas Day. This means that I have a double dose of shit-for-brains when shopping.
How else can you explain why I bought a beautiful woman a mustard coloured track suit for her birthday and a leopard skin kimono for Christmas? The track suit was velour and the kimono the finest polyester. But there was no learning curve. Next year an itchy brown jumper with beige llamas knitted on the front. The unfeasibly uncomfortable nylon underwear, completely impractical and likely to either cut her in half or cause 3rd degree burns from the static produced when they came in close proximity to the llama jumper.
Her patience and kindness could only last for so long, until eventually she started to have more involvement in choosing her own presents. This did improve things slightly, though the brain freeze would still take over, meaning that I would get something near to what she wanted, but not exactly, like one of those pickers at the supermarket who collect your internet shop. You know, when one orders a bunch of organic bananas, but they’re out of stock and the picker replaces it with a tin of Nesquik milk shake.
The system was tightened yet again. Before the dreaded month of December, Lady BSM would write out a list of ideal presents. She would also write down which shop I could purchase it from. In fact, very often, she would also write down which shelf I needed to look on. Things started to look up. Birthday and Christmas presents are received with a big smile, a kiss and a hug, along with the inevitable comment.
“What a surprise !” she purrs, with a mischievous look.
I still get it wrong. I’m still unsure that she really appreciated a Nintendo DS with ‘Brain Training.’ For her 40th birthday, I surpassed myself by arranging a long weekend in Prague, though if she had seen my research and selection technique, I’m sure she would have passed out. This was good.
Also for her 40th birthday, I arranged for a childhood friend to come and stay for the weekend with her husband and young sons. It was a total surprise. She was expecting my niece Lady Fairfield and her husband, Young Mr Raggett. Instead, she had to spend the weekend with a lady who wore loud colourful clothes and constantly dropped names. To make matters worse, her husband was a rather quiet, balding man who had no interest in football, rugby or beer, but preferred balance sheets and growing orchids. By lunchtime on the first day, Lady Barton St Mary wore a rictus grin. They finally left on Sunday evening.
“Next time invite Suzanne and Simon like you said you had,” she said, not looking at me but still smiling and waving at the departing car. This was bad.
This year was no different. She shares her birthday with our son, Master Johnny, which makes things even more complicated. As her birthday approached yet again, I explained my predicament to my old friend Gordon the electrician. What should I buy her?
“Tie a bow around it!” he guffawed.
Thanks, Gordy. Big help. Anyway, I’m not sure I can tie bows that small.
But help was at hand. She wanted to dine at the local gastropub, so I booked a table for January, after Christmas so it didn’t interfere with anything. She wanted some leather gloves, so I took one of her old ones for reference and purchased a pair. She said she would like some ear rings, so I really pushed the boat out and went to a proper jeweller. Two young ladies wearing black suits and slightly less make up than the women on the cosmetics counter at Debenhams looked on approvingly at my choice. I’d succeeded yet again. The relief flooded over me.
On the big day, I brought her a cup of peppermint tea and her birthday card with a message inside about the dinner date.
“Ah that’s lovely!” she cooed. After a slight pause, she continued.
“We’re going somewhere else on the 11th, though. Can you change the date?”
I handed over the second package. She tore open the paper to reveal the leather gloves. That familiar expression, the one I’ve come to know, passed over her face like a delicate cloud.
“You don’t like them, do you?” I asked.
“It’s not that I don’t like them…” she began. My brain kicked back into gear. Of course she didn’t. They weren’t as good as her old pair, but the synapses in my crapgifter brain had short circuited again.
On to the fail safe, nail on present. Some lovely ear rings.
“Oh they’re nice,” she said. Success!
“They’re white gold,” I explained, “with diamonds.”
Lady BSM scrabbled in the drawer for her reading glasses. Then held the ear rings under the bed side lamp. Then returned to the drawer to find the big magnifying glass.
Finally, Master Johnny and Miss Katherine confirmed that yes, there were diamonds present, but possibly a little smaller than the ones Elizabeth Taylor was used to receiving.
She gave me a big hug and I looked into her big blue eyes. She kissed me.
“I love you,” she whispered in my ear.
I’m phoning the gastropub tomorrow to rearrange our date. Just before I pop down to Debenhams and the jeweller’s to get a refund.