Some months later, in the spring, I decided to go for a spin in my pedal car - that too was second hand, but my father had added all sorts of buttons and levers to it and so it not only felt very much mine but was also, I had no doubt, a total chick magnet. The trouble was, I couldn't find it. I asked my parents where it was, and 'a look' came over them. It turned out that the only way they'd been able to afford the personnel carrier was to sell my pedal car. The poisoned chalice of that year's present fixes the Christmas in my mind. It was the year that, aged four, I became a man. I truly understood how things had consequences, that resources are finite and what impact military spending actually has on civilian services.
Nothing much happened in my life for the next twenty-six years.
Then, 'That's terrible,' said my girlfriend, pointing to how I'd wrapped a gift and seemingly unaware that she was speaking twenty-six years later. 'You're no good at wrapping presents, are you?'.
'I am very good indeed at wrapping presents, in fact,' I replied. I directed her attention to the pre-cut strips of sellotape I had dangling from the edge of the table in readiness, the way I was able to slice the paper with open scissors in one, smooth movement and how I attached name tags with a diligence that meant Aunt Gladys would never open one of my presents and say, 'Um... thank you very much,' while holding up the fluffy handcuffs meant for someone else entirely. I was known throughout England for my present wrapping skills and I took criticism of them very personally indeed.
My girlfriend held up something that blurred the distinction between 'gift' and 'debris'.
'Yes,' I said, 'but that's not my fault.'
'You wrapped it.'
'But you bought it. Who the hell buys a spherical present? Don't they teach geometry in German schools?'
'I don't buy presents on the basis of how easily they can be wrapped.'
'Pft,' I snorted, pleased with securing her confession so easily, 'clearly not. So don't start on me when I'm left to deal with the consequences.'
'Let me wrap something.'
'Because I wrap the Christmas presents. It's who I am.'
'I know something else you are.'
'I knew that was going to rip.'
'It only ripped because you're sitting there watching me.'
'But, I love you.'
'Your eyes look really piggy when you grin, did you know that?'
What do these events, separated by over two and a half decades, have in common? The answer, of course, is 'presents'. Presents are what Christmas is made of. The joy (or disappointment, or horror) of receiving them, the joy (or misery, or trauma) of finding them for others; the paraphernalia of present use; the shocking void created by the present that never came, and the Christmas remembered by the present that did. The wrapping of them is a rite with precise rules; "a shopping trip to buy Christmas presents for one's extended family" is what it says in the OED during the entry for "dispiriting"; looking down at a freshly opened present and realising with sudden, suffocating dismay that this item is how the giver - and possibly the world - sees you; the special laugh you use to indicate how very funny the comedy socks you've just been given are: all these things and more are intertwined. Even how the present is presented can come into play.
One Christmas morning, my girlfriend opened her present from me. Inside was nothing but a slip of paper. It read, 'Look under the sink.' Stuck under the sink was another slip of paper: 'Look in the washing machine.' This led to another, and another, and so on. She dashed around the house absolutely fizzing with excitement as she was directed from place to place - never knowing if this drawer or that shoe or the bucket in the garden or whatever was next would turn out to be the end of the trail. Finally, in the cupboard in the kitchen, she found the present itself and clawed away the wrapping paper to reveal her torch.
'Ah,' she said, 'a torch.'
'Yes. You said you wanted a torch. For the car.'
'A couple of months ago. We were out somewhere and you mentioned it, and I made a mental note that you'd said you'd like a torch. For the car.'
'It's rubberised... look.'
This Christmas has been known in our house ever since as The Year of the Torch. Margret will sometimes tell the story to a small group of her girlfriends during those sessions where they exchange tales of their partners in the manner that Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss swapped accounts of their shark injuries in Jaws. Yet - I can assure you - it is not the worst Christmas present I've ever bought her, not by a long way. It was the ill-considered fashion in which I gave it that's made it stand out; a na´ve mistake made back when I was still too inexperienced to realise the danger of ever giving my girlfriend expectations.
A present is not just for Christmas: it's for the life of my girlfriend.
Presents can sometimes even wash over the sides of Christmas. Occasionally, this may be deliberate. A man may surprise his partner by proffering nothing but a small envelope on Christmas Day: but an envelope that contains tickets for a dizzyingly exotic holiday some time in January that he's booked for them both. Hugely expensive, having required weeks of meticulous planning, but sure to delight his partner with the dream vacation she's always talked about. Many presents have meanings. This one, obviously, means: 'I'm having an affair with Emma at the office and I really feel awfully guilty about it.' For the same meaning, see also: 'extravagant items of jewellery', 'shoes' (that fit) (and aren't eight-inch, red stilettos that come with a matching leather outfit), 'anything soppy'.
Often, however, presents spill out over the edges of Christmas Day because they are rebounds. It's ironic that, in what's supposed to be the season of goodwill, some malicious individuals will buy you a present when they can't, in all seriousness, have any expectation whatsoever that you've bought them one. It's just like the sod at work who hands you a Christmas card - utterly out of the blue. It can only be to see you squirm and splutter, 'Oh, thank you. I've, erm, got yours at home. I'll bring it in tomorrow...' (you flick open the card you've just been handed) '....Jerry.' Jerry knows you don't have it at home: he saw you hand out all your work cards last week - handing out your work cards isn't something you do in stages, for God's sake. Now you'll have to race off to Clinton's after work to get the git a card simply to maintain a pretence that Jerry knows is false, and knows that you know he knows is false too. Jerry's a swine.
This whole rebound misery is amplified a thousand times - amplified to the volume of a scream inside your head - if it's a present rather than a card, though. Often it's a neighbour. A neighbour will ambush you with a gift. Seven o'clock at night, say, and there you are: standing in your doorway, a smile attacking your face, the screaming in your head and in your hands the guerrilla gift from Mrs Bennett on the corner. You can't even use the 'yours is at home' excuse, because you are at home. You have to invent some ludicrously urgent defence to stall her - 'Sorry - must go - I've left the oven on - and my children are by it - filling cans of petrol.' - until you can get hold of a rebound present. That's your lunch hour gone tomorrow, then. No time to eat: you'll be trawling round the shops trying to find Mrs Bennett (and you've no idea what Mrs Bennett's into - Gardening? Barbara Streisand? S&M?) a present (a present, naturally, that costs precisely what you judge the one she's given you must have done). Thank you very much Mrs Bennett. Haven't got a son called 'Jerry' at all, have you? .
You'd think that sorting out presents for your kids, at least, would be straightforward. They are, after all, not infuriatingly coy about what they want - there's none of the 'surprise me' nonsense your partner might give you: kids will tell you explicitly. Explicitly and repeatedly - mine follow me into the lavatory..
However, I know that each year our children will have one present that is special, just as I had when I was a boy. However, I've no idea, in any given year, what this present will be. All I know is that it won't be the present that they kept on about wanting. And that was arrogantly expensive enough for the packaging to be simply a photograph of the president of the toy company laughing in my face. And that was so difficult to get hold of that I felt I hadn't so much 'bought it' as 'scored it'. No, it'll be some trivial thing, bought off-handedly at the cost of about 15p. That's the thing they'll play with all day and take to bed with them at night. That plastic frog on a suckered spring, or whatever, will be the physical form taken by Christmas that year. Never think you're the master of the presents simply because you bought them and know what each cost - such hubris will not go unpunished. Don't imagine either that the presents you buy are the result of your choice. If they so desire, presents can call you to buy them - twisting your thoughts so you believe the idea was your own. How else could one possibly explain how it could be that - in a world that now holds several series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD, 5.1 surround sound TV speaker systems and any number of computer games - my girlfriend said to me the other day, 'Hey - for Christmas - should I buy you a unicycle?' (I swear to you that's true.).
Presents are Christmas. Recognise it, accept it, practise saying, '...but, if you don't like it, I've kept the receipt,' and all will be well. Attempt to deny it - or, worse still, go down the, 'We all agreed we wouldn't bother this year...' path - and don't blame me if, on Christmas Day, you find yourself in a room with nothing but tangerines, your sister-in-law's family and the shrill howling of Marley's ghost.