Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth

Under a bridge in Holloway, a narrow cellophane wrapper holding a bunch of red roses.  It was wedged into a metal hook in the wall to hold it upright.  Also there, neatly folded and forming a puffy cube: a duvet without a cover.  I hurried past, late, and wondered.  Usually under that bridge there are people, wrapped in winter clothes and lying under duvets.  Last time, a young woman had stopped to give a dishevelled man some coins.  Now just the duvet and the roses.  Had the flowers been a gift?  And if so, how was that gift received?  I had a vision of someone being interviewed: ‘I went through some hard times, and I’ll never forget how one day, when I was living under a bridge, someone gave me some flowers, and what pleasure they gave me’.  Or more likely: ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do with these?’

I have been reflecting on my own attitude to and history with being the recipient of gifts.  The whole subject makes me deeply uncomfortable.  Receiving gifts makes me squirm and feel unworthy.  I was a very cheap date.  Throughout my marriage I took the view that these things are superficial and petty.  If asked what I wanted the answer was always ‘nothing’.  My mother does this.  So, very often, do my kids.  I know perfectly well how annoying it is to hear.

Dinner.  One of the group was having a moan.  For her husband’s recent 50th she’d organised a romantic city break, no expense spared.  For Christmas, they’d agreed a budget, which both had slightly exceeded.  His gift to her had a fault,  the replacement was the same, and the company had offered them a credit note which exceeded the original cost.  Yet the husband had gone and bought her (for less than the credit note) a handbag that she actually wanted.  She was furious!  She was fed up with him and thinking of separation and I didn’t know her well enough to understand or to ask whether the business of the gift was a symptom, when she made it sound like a cause.  She kept going on about how much she spent on the birthday trip.  I thought that was irrelevant.  Could not understand her fury at all.  Mystified.

I was on the phone with one of my sisters and she described in detail the chronicle of a gift she had been given by an old friend.  What struck me was the word she used over and over to describe her reaction to it: outrage.  I was baffled.  I admit I’ve been disappointed before now by gifts that I couldn’t imagine using, but never outraged.  She’d phoned the store to get a refund, had managed to identify the order, and it was not recent. My sister concluded that the gift had not been chosen with her in mind.  I still didn’t get it.  My sister had then retaliated (if that is the right word) by withdrawing her permission for said friend to park her car outside the house while on holiday.  Bizarre, in my view. Maybe the friend planned to give it earlier.  Maybe she planned to give it to someone else, or keep it.  At least she bought it.  Lord knows I have received ‘regifted’ items in the past, and have regifted myself.  So what?  Even if I think the present is disappointing, what I have always felt is grateful to get anything at all.

One Xmas (I was a teenager living in Iran) I got various gifts, and chief among them a watch and a calculator.  This was riches beyond my wildest dreams, and I remember with a vividness that still makes me blush when I think of it now, how what I felt was GUILTY.  It was too much.  (A Timex watch and a Casio calculator; we’re not talking Rolex.)  I felt UNWORTHY.  Why?

Last week was my birthday.  I’d toyed with the idea of having some kind of dinner or party and ended up doing nothing at all.  It’s the same old reasons: I look like shit, I have no money, I have no friends, no one will come, no one ever invites me to anything, yadda yadda yadda, I think I’ll go and eat worms.

In the event I was working on my birthday – first time this year.  Someone I worked with as a freelancer last year has been freelancing somewhere else and got in touch to tip me the wink that they needed more people, so I got 4 days’ work.  Interviewing in the US, so it’s the late shift.  On the one hand: great to have some money coming in, of course, and a vote of confidence to be asked.  Also: great excuse for not celebrating.  On the other: miserable.

My son is a great believer (aged 17) in not bothering.  It’s just another day, etc.  His twin always used to go overboard.  Probably still does, for her mates and her dad.  Since months can go by without hearing from her, even in response to communication from me, imagine my delight when I saw an email from her on my birthday.  It was ‘what is my national insurance number?’

Should I care?  Yes!  Do I dare to?  No.  I say: Maybe I shouldn’t.  Maybe she doesn’t mean to hurt me.  Maybe she does.  Maybe that’s OK.  Maybe she’s right.  Maybe she’s not.

For so long I have been a doormat, feeling I don’t deserve to expect anything from anyone. My relationship with the estranged one is impossible for me to understand, can I expect anything from her?  Is she trying to hurt me?  What can I do about it?

My eldest had called to ask if I was doing anything for my birthday and I wallowed a bit: why bother, noone will come etc, and she said ‘I’d come!’  I work on the assumption that a student in her early 20s has better things to do with her time and money, but maybe that’s just the flip side of the ‘I’m unworthy’ coin.  (Most of the people I know would, I suppose, if they were having a party of some kind, expect the kids to turn up.  I tell myself sometimes that, well, that would be because it was some huge deal in a swanky hotel, or with caterers and florists and special outfits and makeup artists and not just a rather soulless dinner with only half of the family…)  However, heartened by that, I found a stand up comedy show in a pub, then booked a special offer dinner nearby, and we had a lovely time.  No weekend away for me, no party in a swanky hotel, no cheap party with booze in the bath.  (Why am I talking about what I DIDN’T get?)  Me and the two non-estranged children, who both bought me lovely presents (well-chosen books).


(This was written earlier this year but I just found it in drafts.)




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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

One thought on “Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth”

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