I know someone who is very good at giving presents. She is assiduous about remembering when everybody’s birthday or anniversary occurs and then handing them the perfect gift, beautifully wrapped and with a nice little card containing a witty personalised message. I am not like that: I rarely give any sort of present to anybody, though this is not just because I’m mean or lack social grace: it is also because I am traumatised by the memory of the terrible damage a poorly thought-out present can cause.
I once had two friends, a couple called Mike and Sue. On the occasion of their tenth wedding anniversary one of Mike’s old schoolfriends, now the manager of a successful rock band, gave them a very expensive gift.
It was a book of vouchers that entitled them to dine at all kinds of smart restaurants, take trips to theme parks, go on sailing holidays, receive skiing lessons, undertake beauty treatments and have many more wonderful experiences of all kinds. The only catch was that it was basically a two-for-one offer, so if Mike and Sue dined at the Ritz, say, then Mike would eat for free but Sue would have to pay the full cost of everything she consumed; or if they took the best seats at the opera, again, one of them would pay nothing but the other would pay quite a lot.
Nevertheless, the vouchers in this book still offered the couple an entrée to all kinds of places and experiences that they could not normally have dreamed of enjoying.
However, Mike and Sue soon found that when they had a bit of free time they did not necessarily want to dine at the Ritz, or go rock climbing, even if accompanied by one of the world’s best instructors. The couple discovered that if they went out somewhere and the place was not in their book of vouchers they suffered a tremendous amount of guilt and anger because they were paying the maximum price. But if they did visit a place that was included in their book, they were consumed with a murderous rage at being forced into going somewhere they didn’t really want to go.
Slowly the pair stopped going out altogether and after work remained in their flat. They began to get on each other’s nerves, and in time Sue came to blame Mike for having such a thoughtless friend who would give them this poisoned offering. They turned in on themselves, horizons narrowed, and it was only a short time before both of them fell into depression and despair.
Finally, in an act of desperation, the couple took out the volume of vouchers, which had come to resemble a book of evil spells, and booked a hot-air balloon flight over the scenic Cotswolds. On a sunny Sunday morning, once the craft had reached a sufficient height, the couple threw themselves out of the basket. Well, one of them did.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink