Remember the presents you got when you were a child were so exciting and the presents you got when you were just a little bit older suddenly so boring and general—boxer shorts if you are a boy, bath salts in lavender if you are a girl. In fact the presents had always been fairly mainstream, but for those first few years, things, any thing at all, were just great simply by virtue of having shape and colour and density. And all those things you got at the beginning tended to be robust and bright and pliable and squeaky clean. You could bash them and bury them and toss them and munch on them, then blithely toddle up through the patio doors and leave them smeared and capsized out in the summer rain. And it was exhilarating, trying all these things out gave you a kick of course, even though, much to your bewilderment, everyone else seemed to be extremely offended by this way of handling things and gave you a hard time about it perpetually. Look after your things, they’d say crossly, someone has bought that for you. They’d accuse you of all sorts of deviancy; being dangerous, stupid, ungrateful, impertinent, selfish, bone idle, and probably of being a conniving little liar to boot. Sometimes you’re better off having nothing at all, and let it all go on in the impenetrable limitless fabulations of your indiscriminate and mischievous mind. Then come the shorts and the socks and the powder puffs—you have a body, they know that much, but, as for the rest of you, well that’s quite a mystery and you get the feeling, with hardly any let up, that there’s an unease around the whole business of being a you at all.
I ask my friend what’s the worst present he’s ever received and he says he doesn’t know and we leave it—I carry on with this and he goes on reading. After a while he looks up and says, Oh, I know—the worst present I got was that book you gave me. What book, I say, Oh god knows, he says, Pompeii or something, it made me feel ill. I think you did it on purpose, he says. Is that the same year I gave you the yellow rose, I ask. No, he says, it was ages before you gave me the yellow rose. I swirl my wine and he looks at the fire and I suppose we’re both thinking back. The yellow rose is the best present I’ve ever had, he says at last—so, you are responsible for the worst and the best presents I’ve received. Oh that’s good, I say, that’s how it should be.
Then the good stuff starts trickling through. People, finally, are starting to get some idea of what you’re about—it hasn’t all gone unnoticed. Wraparound cardigans, vanity cases, anthologies, dramatically different moisturising lotion, second-hand records, velvety notebooks, birdhouses. And they get better and better really: with each year that passes you receive evermore exquisite proofs of just what a cultivated and discerning individual you turned out to be. And this is very gratifying, and of course you are very pleased and happy, to receive such beautiful, thoughtful gifts, but you also feel something else—you feel abnormally peeved, and a bit enclosed. You come downstairs in the early morning to use the bathroom and the floor is very cold beneath your bare crinkled feet and your gifts are sprawled out amongst tossed remnants of high quality wrapping paper and wreathing velvet ribbons in claret, green, and dove, and they horrify you and make you feel anxious and ashamed, they seem to mock you and gang up—don’t gang up on me, you think, you’re just things; but things haven’t been just things for a long time and you know that. Then, a bit later on, around noon when the sun comes right in and you are dressed and refreshed, they all light up and look quite vibrant and alluring again, and you are back on track. But that doesn’t mean the unsettling feelings you had before have gone away or are invalid. They haven’t gone anywhere and you must know by now that regardless of its sway one’s current feeling isn’t always one’s prevalent feeling and does not in fact speak for the whole of you, and you’d do well perhaps to coolly recall that previous fearsome sensation and acknowledge the deeper yearning these befitting gifts have revealed: the things you’ve received are indeed delightful and distinctive and you will flaunt and enjoy them for many months to come, but what you want most of all is to be unfathomable. An enigma that cannot be exacted through the emphatic medium of tangible objects, no matter how stylish they are.
No wonder indignant infants hurl toys out of their cots. No wonder they wander off fingers splayed and leave their most cherished possession out in the summer rain. And you remember sliding open the bedroom window at night when it was still and balmy and looking down and seeing her lying outstretched in the dry grass, her tiny upturned cotton face luminous and granular with moon dust. What a thrill it was to spurn her. And perhaps while you reflect upon all this it occurs to you that the more personal and expressive your surroundings become the more challenging it is to be privately absorbed by the marvel and terror of your own existence. Indeed, the more others recognise you, you realise, the less extensive and the less special you feel within. And then you hit upon one of life’s many niggardly paradoxes; the more fascinating other people find you, the more overwhelmingly dull you become to yourself.