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2 November 2022

Thanks to a kind reader, I won’t need to sit through the winter in an electric onesie

A mystery package arrives. Days of speculation ensue.

By Nicholas Lezard

BZZZT! goes the doorbell. Oh, I hate it when the doorbell goes. It is the sound of bailiffs. But this time it is the postie, who is much more welcome. Most often he brings books, of which I am fond; sometimes – hint, hint – he brings whisky, of which I am even more fond. (I said: SOMETIMES HE BRINGS WHISKY, HINT, HINT.) Sometimes he brings gifts in the form of cash, and that is probably the best, for cash can be exchanged not just for whisky.

This time, the parcel I have to open the door for baffles me. I am good at telling what’s inside an unopened parcel. I can even do envelopes, and I once was able to say, correctly, just by looking at it, “Ah, this is the unpublished manuscript of my Inspirational English Teacher’s novel, which he is sending me in the hope I can somehow help to get it published,” and it was, and it is very good, and does deserve publication, but we are not here today to discuss that particular injustice.

[See also: After a visit to the theatre I feel more of a Brightonian than I did the day before]

But this is a mystery package. It is about the size of two or three telephone directories stacked on top of each other (ask your grandparents, younger readers), but is too light for books, or bottles of Scotch, of which I am very fond, hint, hint, so I put it to one side while I try to work out what it is. Occasionally I put my hand on the package and try to mind-meld with it like a Vulcan in Star Trek, but no, nothing. It has an unusual centre of gravity, too, and that unsettles me. It is also mummified in brown packing tape, a further deterrent.

Eventually, curiosity gets the better of me. It’s not books, it’s not booze, and it’s not cash. I get one of my trusty Swiss Army penknives out and start hacking away at it. Later that day, I manage to get the first layer off. And a few hours later, the next layer. And, peering inside, I see some kind of fabric in biodegradable plastic, and the end of a plug.

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At which point my mind races ahead to a conclusion. It turns out not to be the correct one, but I have my reasons. My first thought is that it is an electric blanket. This I find somewhat dispiriting. For various friends have, at times, offered to send me an electric blanket as a way of beating the cold. And every time this offer has been floated, I have replied with a firm but gentle “no thanks”. I go on to explain that while I have moaned about the cold in the past, this was perhaps more performative than heartfelt. When I overwintered in Scotland, in the MacHovel, it was cold. It was really, really cold. No central heating, windows having to be kept open because it was being painted and the fumes from the wallpaper stripper were toxic, and 95 per cent of the heat from the giant wood-burning stove in the living room went up the flue. As I said at the time, I was spending more on wood than I was on wine, and I was a) getting a really good deal on the wood, and b) drinking a lot of wine.

But I survived, because I developed a revolutionary technique combining jumpers and not getting out of bed. On the very coldest nights I added a hot-water bottle, but that was only for real emergencies. I got used to seeing my breath steam indoors throughout the day, and as for the kitchen, I put things in the fridge to stop them freezing. The electric blanket, I thought, was the coward’s way out.

And then I thought it might not be an electric blanket, but something even less manly: an electric onesie. That is, an all-enveloping garment that you plug in to keep you warm. That’s even worse: for then you have the possibility of spilling your wine over it and either shorting out all the circuits in the flat, or electrocuting yourself to death. (BZZZT!) It’s a quick death, I imagine, but it’s not how I’d like to be found.

So I waited a couple more days while I tried to guess who’d sent it and compose a polite thank you in my head. Once I had excavated the package I discovered an electric heater, a couple of brackets, a metal frame, a couple of packets of “Woolcool” (“We have captured the amazing natural properties of Wool”), which is nothing to do with the heater but is in the package to stop it getting bumped around in transit (“ensuring your parcel arrives in ‘sheep’ shape”). The heating element is a white cylinder about a foot long and with the rough dimensions of a pipe bomb, and the accompanying note, written by a reader who clearly cares about me, says it is for heating up my kitchen. And it is true, my kitchen gets very cold, although it does warm up quickly when I start cooking in it, because it is also very small. The heater costs, I am told, about as much to run as a light bulb.

Well, dear reader A—, thank you very much. I shall indeed use this, although I shall not be screwing any brackets into the walls as that would violate the terms of my rent. You know what else, though, is good at keeping out the cold? A clear, golden, alcoholic liquid made in Scotland. Hint, hint.

[See also: Even when the country is circling the plughole, pleasant things can happen]

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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak