I am terrible at buying birthday presents. I don’t know why, I just am. Especially for my wife. I just seem to get it wrong, year after year. So birthday shopping for me is a source of extreme anxiety. Blurred vision. Tingling fingertips. Shortness of breath. Diazepam. The whole lot.
Some people feel this way in exams. Not me. I was brilliant at exams. I think it’s because I learnt early that examiners WANT you to do well, so they’re working hard to find the good points in your scrawl. Not so with birthdays. My wife is not thinking about giving me the benefit of the doubt as she unwraps her present. There is a right way, and a wrong way, to do birthdays. I invariably choose the wrong way. Like a sinner at the mythical crossroads. Like an action hero cutting one of two wires linked to an IED. Like Neo choosing between two pills. That’s me in a shop, immobile, sweating, blacking out from the hyperventilation … do I choose crap present A, or crap present B.
Several years ago we went through a period of extreme poverty (we were at Bible college. Right?). For months, my wife repeatedly reminded me that she is easy to buy for, and that there was only one thing she wanted that year … and I would know what that one thing was.
But I didn’t. I didn’t have a clue. I looked in her diary for a sign. I asked friends and family. I looked for hidden Post-It notes in the hope that it was some sort of game. It wasn’t. It was deadly serious. I begged her daily for a hint but she, in the mistaken belief that I was being coy, merely smiled and said, ‘You know.’
I didn’t know. I was not the mind-reader she thought I was — and my disappointed at realising as much was as devastating to me as it was about to be for her. I did what any man would do in that situation: I bought everything I could think of, whether she needed it or not. If you don’t have the key to a woman’s heart … throw everything at it! Advice that you will not read anywhere else.
The day arrived and she opened all her presents in a state of resigned sadness, with drooping eyes and a trembling lip. I knew that I had failed. Either that, or she had the palsy. In a moment of deep regret I even hoped for the latter, for it was easier to contend with a sudden debilitation in her facial muscle than it was to confront the fact I did not know her well enough to choose the ONE thing she most wanted.
When she had opened everything, and the U2 DVD and the power drill and the chandelier lay discarded on the carpet, she simply said: “All I wanted was for you to bake a birthday cake.”
Unbelievable. The one thing she wanted was the one thing I would never have done … even if I’d known. See? Useless at birthdays.
With her birthday approaching again a few years ago, I was determined to make some improvements. I made a list of prospective birthday presents, well in advance. I even made a list of shops that I would visit in the weeks leading up to the terrifying day. But my mistake was that, having made my lists, I developed what is referred to as a false sense of security. And I left the actual purchasing of the gift to the day before her birthday. The cascading issues that accompany this basic error are such that as the day progresses and the hours count down, it’s as if you are slipping through some kind of temporal vortex that accelerates your experience of time and escalates your anxiety response. In no time at all I had no time at all, and that’s when I found myself in a World store. That’s when my slow seduction began.
He looked like David Beckham, but had a beard like a Tolkien dwarf. His clothes were straight off the World brand clothes rack. They are clothes no one wears, unless they work in a World store, or they are auditioning for the role of a villain in a DC super hero film.
He had me at ‘Hello!’
He bounded over like Rumpelstiltskin, and when I whimpered the fateful words, ‘It’s my wife’s birthday tomorrow,’ his eyes sparkled in a way that was full of both hope and malevolence.
‘Does your wife like candles?’ he said, and his voice was creamy like a flat white.
And she did! She did like candles. That much I knew. Praise the Lord. My troubles were over.
He backed away from me in a fluid, pirouetting motion, as if he was suspended by invisible strings. He lifted a finger and beckoned me, like a magician at an agricultural show, to a small table laden with candles, each one protected from the elements beneath a glass dome. He moonwalked backwards and, as he did so, whipped a dome from the candle nearest to the edge of the table. Then he raised it to his nose like he might a glass of expensive brandy, closed his eyes and took a sniff, then allowed himself an ecstatic smile as if he had just injected heroin.
‘Let me tell you about the Maison Trudon,’ he said, his eyes still closed.
‘The Mays On what?’
‘Le Maison Trudon. Makers of candles. The finest candles. Candle makers to the Queen of France since 1643. Here, please …’
He leant forward in a curtsy motion, one arm behind his back, the other holding forth the glass bowl so that I might partake of its bouquet. I took a big sniff, and … yes, it was indeed the finest candle I had ever smelt.
‘This particular candle was concocted from a recipe some 450 years old,’ he said.
‘No way,’ I responded.
‘Uh-huh. The glass which houses the candle was crafted by artisans in Vinci, Italy. The candle itself is made from premium quality natural wax. The wick is made from the finest cotton. The house crest of the Trudon line adorns the front of the candle and bears the family motto.’
‘Tell me,’ I said. ‘Tell me the family motto.’
‘Bees work for God,’ he said, his eyes closed once more. ‘And for king.’
He moved around the table like his feet were dancing on water, lifting each dome as if it was a silver bowl over the most exquisite meal. With each one, the routine was the same — he brought it to his nostrils, took a great sniff, then wafted it beneath mine, then we both stood there with our eyes closed, utterly intoxicated, each candle more potent than the last: Moroccan Mint Tea, Leather and Tobacco, Verbana and Roses, Versailles Woodworks, Mist Soil and Meadows.
But finally, the tour de force, the jewel in the crown … Le Petit Chaperon Rouge … the Little Red Riding Hood special edition, complete with story book and blood red crest.
‘A candle specially scented to evoke woody and fresh notes,’ he said.
Speaking of woody, by the time he was finished I was in a state of near erotic excitement, my head swimming from the myrrh, my central nervous system on the point of complete and utter collapse.
‘I have to have this one,’ I said, indicating Le Petit Chaperon Rouge.
‘Haha,’ he responded. ‘You love it. I knew you would.’
‘Just $169.95 for the candle,’ he said. ‘And $79.95 for the glass dome.’
I did a quick mental calculation.
‘Just $250 for a candle made for the Queen of France?’ I said.
What a steal!
The afterglow lingered for several hours, long enough to secrete the candle in a special hiding place, worthy of such a magnificent gift.
It was not until the next morning, once the spell had worn off, that I realised my folly. My wife opened the box, but did not see what I had seen, did not smell what I had smelt, and was not transported in the way that I was. The candle remains in its box. The little story book has never been read. The glass dome is still in its wrapping paper. All of it sits by the door, waiting to be returned to the World store, after all these years.
And from time to time I catch a whiff of those woody notes … and think to myself, if only I’d brought home the dude.