by Wendy Pike
a vat of mulled wine
‘I need that like I need a bill from the Inland Revenue.’ My father is grumbling about his least favourite Christmas present. At least, for once, I’m not responsible.
‘What do I need that for? What am I going to do with it?’ Rhetorical questions. I know precisely the answer to the latter. Momentarily it’s going to be heading my way in a speed-re-gifting world record attempt. I try to pre-empt this by agreeing how awful it is. But it isn’t enough. ‘Would you like it?’ After thanking him for his ‘kind’ offer, I make my excuses and mercifully the baton of pressure lifts from me and heads onwards to the next ‘lucky’ person on Dad’s re-gifting pecking order list.
Although my Dad is the epitome of generosity when it comes to gift giving, the challenge of purchasing presents for my father is a perilous pursuit. About to start his tenth decade on the planet, the task gets increasingly difficult as the years roll on. Truth is, it’s always been a tricky business. Forget it’s the thought that counts.
On opening gift parcels his verdict on the suitability of the contents is brutal. His social politeness filter is dialled down so much he simply says whatever he is thinking, usually starting with a downbeat ‘oh’.
Scrutinising yet another unwanted, unsuitable, unappreciated gift, his face refuses to mask the disappointment he feels so keenly and gurns accordingly, completely ignoring the kind sentiment behind the giving of the token. He takes personal affront and the offending article has to be re-gifted immediately. It’s recycling of sorts I suppose. Dad is way ahead of the pack on this popular eco trend.
My track record of gift hits and misses is long and varied. One Christmas I thought I’d really cracked it. I found the ‘perfect’ gift in a most unlikely place. A charity shop. What a find. A beautifully made, smart, expensive-looking, brand new, dark deep green, smooth textured, felted-wool, authentic Tyrolean hat. Topped off with a modest but pretty posy of feathers on one side, tucked into the colour-matched, twisted rope band, lassoing its girth. Following an Austrian vacation years earlier, he was already sporting similar headgear. But the holiday memento, worn incessantly, was starting to look shabby. Although a hard hat to follow, the mark II replacement would surely be held in the same high esteem?
The big day arrives. With my Santa hat on and a big smile on my face, I hand my father his Christmas present. The anticipation and excitement we both feel melds into dual dismay as Dad opens the neatly wrapped, beribboned and bow-topped parcel. “Oh,” he says.
A look of bewilderment spreads across his face. The ‘I don’t like it’ gurning face turns into a ‘What the hell is this?’ expression.
‘It’s a hat Dad,’ I say, stating the obvious.
‘Yes,’ says he, swiftly dropping it onto the sideboard, like it’s burning his fingers. And this is where the abandoned bonce cover remains forlorn for almost a week.
Thinking Dad has rejected it and following his re-gifting lead, I offer this fine quality, well-made, smart, Alpine hat to a friend for her father. And so the Austrian hat mark II leaves our house. Exactly one week later, it boomerangs back with an apology from my friend. Despite her father loving it, her mother has over-ruled him on grounds of his appalling fashion sense, insisting that the ‘ugly’ hat must be returned, saying, ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead out with him wearing that!’
Once again the Austrian hat mark II arrives on our sideboard, this time destined for a sad return journey to the charity shop. I am too busy to go straightaway which is lucky because a day or two afterwards Dad pops over asking, ‘Have you seen my new Titfer Tat? I think I left it here.’
Albeit slightly belatedly, Dad eventually likes his Austrian hat (II). With a couple of small modifications, taking the feathers off and moulding the creases in the crown from Tryolean convex to Trilby-like concave, it becomes a favourite wardrobe accessory which he wears for all occasions, in all seasons.
Jumping ahead to last Christmas: flushed with the unexpected triumph of the velcro- fastening carpet slippers I bought for his birthday just weeks before, I put my thinking cap on for Christmas, aiming for further glory. Not being a huge fan of Dad’s current choice in year round headwear, namely his beige, Chairman Mao style hat, I thought I’d go for gold again and get him a trendier alternative noggin warmer.
As before: colourful festive wrapping. Ribbon. Bow. Quiet rustling noises, then to overcome the stubborn Sellotape fastenings, urgent, louder ripping paper. As the olive green, thin brown-checked, woolly, tweed, silky-lined, flat cap emerges, crushingly Dad’s face brims with disapproval not joy. ‘Oh. A hat,’ he mutters. ‘To keep you warm in winter Dad. Why don’t you try it on?’ I say. Tentatively he sees if the cap fits. It really suits him. ‘It fits nicely. The one you got me last year was too big,’ he says. ‘Did I get you a hat last year? I can’t remember that.’
The next time I visit Dad at his house he unearths from the dining table, underneath a pile of paperwork, old shopping receipts and clean laundry, the soft, green, felted wool, baseball cap which I now suddenly remember from the previous year. ‘Do you think it’ll shrink in the wash? Only it’s too big,’ he asks.
‘Do you really need it? You’ve got your new one now,’ I say. Without realising the possibility of perfect cosmos balancing karma or irony, I add, ‘Why don’t I take this one to the charity shop for you?’
So the tally on my scoresheet of success in the Dad’s tifter tat hat trick stakes reads: delayed hit for the Austrian Hat Mark II, semi-hit for the oversized, forgotten, wooly baseball cap (he did keep it a year) and virtual hit for the new, fashionable, flat cap. Why so? I’ve seen Dad wear it only once since last Christmas. Already old hat, it’s gathering dust on the dining table of doom among the old shopping receipts, folders and laundry, only a matter of time before it’s either totally buried from view or quietly removed from the premises. Hat’s off to Chairman Mao though. At any time of the year, the beige headpiece still rules supreme and much to my disappointment, firmly remains Dad’s top hat
So what about this Christmas? I think I’ll probably stay clear of headwear. If I manage to find an acceptable gift it’ll be nothing short of a Yuletide miracle. A huge feather in my cap. In the unlikely event of this actually happening, there’ll be no aroma of roasting turkey or spicy Christmas pudding emanating from my kitchen on 25th December. Instead you’ll find me at the dining table with my crocheted cream beret on a plate before me, knife and fork poised, as due to the scale of my surprise, I’ll be obliged to eat my own hat.