Dear Serena

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Dear Serena,

How do I introduce my cohabiting lover?

Dawn, Portsmouth

There is actually no way round this one, as whatever you do someone will be offended. But please, please don't use "partner", which is a deathly, humourless term invented by people who have never expected to reach managerial level at work, and should be stomped on with vigour before it gets out of hand.

"Boyfriend" or "girlfriend" is unacceptable in anybody of mortgageable age, and suggests people who like to window-shop at Ikea at weekends and think that the loo-paper ads with the fluffy puppy are just yummy. "Lover" is horribly graphic and should be confined to purple novels written by the convent-school educated daughters of MPs. There seems to be some objection to "other half" on the grounds that it suggests that one is not a whole person alone; personally, I think that this is silly nit-picking, as it is perfectly obvious that the phrase could be interpreted as meaning the other half of one's relationship. "'im/'er indoors" only works for people who talk posh like what I do.

Actually, though, I think that any introduction using the word "my" is probably a sign of terrible insecurity. It is a bit like putting name- tags inside your knickers: I have met women (and to a lesser extent, men) to whom having a "my" is essential to their sense of worth in the world. You don't want to be one of those, do you?

Have you ever tried simply introducing them like a normal person? You could append something like "whom I live with" if you are nervous that people might not know where you stand, but since relationships (as they are always saying on The Ricki Lake Show) are supposed to be about trust, you should just expect him/her to turn down attempts to hit on them rather than waving a label around like some sort of talisman against infidelity.

I have been invited to a wedding in South America. Part of the ritual involves attending a cockfight. What is the recommended code of dress?

Barney, Hampstead

Black, because it doesn't show blood, and sunglasses painted with matt black paint on the inside, which you can put on if it all gets a bit much.

What are the essential ingredients for the modern woman's handbag?

Mags, Herne Hill

As handbags should be kept to the minimum size to facilitate running for the bus, dancing round in confined places, etc, everything within should have at least one purpose other than its obvious one, apart from the Swiss Army knife, which is essential as men don't seem to carry them much these days and you never know when you might need to get a stone out of a Boy Scout's hoof.

I would suggest: scent spray for warding off muggers; lip-salve for lubricating sticky bicycle parts, keys, bolts etc; brownish lipstick to double up as blusher and eyeshadow; condoms for frightening off unwanted traditional- style suitors; reflective sunglasses for doing makeup in; invitation to somewhere swanky for insouciantly tearing corners off when handing out one's phone number; matchbook for jamming shut doors in ladies' loos where the lock has fallen off; painkillers, which can make useful replacement buttons when wrapped in a shred of cloth and tied off; antihistamines in case of blushing attacks; a small Bible which you can be seen studying fervidly if required to wait for someone in a place where people might try to talk to you; toothbrush for getting under fingernails; and pill bottle full of white wine for putting on red-wine stains.

Any further suggestions, please send them to the address at the end.

Dear Serena.

Do you have to buy people's books at their launch party?

Keith, Soho

Yes, it is the done thing. I know it is not much of a return for two glasses of vinegar and a conversation with a childhood friend of the author who hasn't seen them in 20 years and has taken up chicken-farming in the Welsh Marches, but you never know: it might actually be a good read. If it turns out to be a bestseller, you've got a First Edition to bore your grandchildren with. And if you get it signed and don't bend the spine while you're leafing through it, you can palm it off on someone as a Christmas present.

When you dial 1471 on the phone to find out who called while you were out, and it is an unfamiliar number, do you call it back?

Hilary, Glastonbury

No. It is probably a wrong number anyway, or a pension salesman, and just how desperate do you want to seem? Get out more. Take up a hobby. Get a pen-pal. If they really want to speak to you, they will call back.

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