What's your problem?

INDISPENSABLE ADVICE FROM REAL LIFE'S AGONY AUNT AND UNCLE

BRING A KNICK-KNACK

Can you shed any light on the etiquette of taking gifts to dinner parties? I have always thought that a bottle of wine was an adequate token of appreciation, but we have somehow managed to get ourselves into a ridiculous gifting spiral with our neighbours. It started when they came back from holiday with a present: a matching pottery jug and bowl, and handed it over when they came round for a meal. My wife then felt she had to take something more than just a bottle of wine the next time we went to see them, and now things have escalated to the point where, each time we see each other for supper, we are taking round wine, Belgian chocolates and some tasteful (and bloody expensive) knick-knack. Our shelves are crowded with bits and pieces and I have calculated that it is costing us about pounds 25 each time we go and see them. How can we break the cycle without looking mean?

Robert, London, SW19

He says:

Don't give in to this emotional blackmail. Assert yourself: simply stop playing along. Don't attempt any justification or excuse, because that will look mean and calculated. The next time you go round, turn up with wine and nothing else, and hand it over with a charming smile. After all, these are grown-ups, not toddlers - they can hardly stamp their feet and throw a tantrum complete with howls of, "It's not fair; we didn't get a present!" (If they do, they have much bigger problems than a gift spiral).

She says:

Perhaps you could consider opening up a small shop that supplies wine, Belgian chocolates and tasteful (and bloody expensive) knick-knacks. That way you can get rid of the unwanted gifts, decongest your shelves and recoup your losses all at the same time. With sufficient acumen you might even turn a small profit. It is, incidentally, thoroughly stingy for a couple to turn up with just the one bottle of wine between them: make it two.

LUNCH DRAMA PART ONE

I have had a rather alarming falling-out with someone who I'd previously thought of as a really good friend. She invited me to lunch with some other mutual girlfriends, and, unable to find a babysitter, I took along my adorable three-year-old son, Jack, who can be a bit of a rogue. He disappeared for what seemed like seconds but when I tracked him down he had got into my friend's bedroom, and decanted the contents of her make- up bag on to her new cream silk bedspread. It was a pretty ghastly mess, and my friend went very prune-faced; refused all offers of help and shrugged off my apologies. We beat a hasty retreat. This was three weeks ago, and I haven't heard from her since. How can I heal the rift?

Alyson, Warwickshire

He says:

Tsk, you girls! Imagine falling out over a few lipsticks. Just ring her up, and I'm sure you'll be laughing over the whole thing in a few minutes. Men are so much more reasonable.

She says:

Ha. If this had been a similar incident involving men, it would have ended in physical violence. Quite frankly, I'm not surprised that your friend now hates you. "Beat a hasty retreat" indeed! That hasty retreat should have been via the nearest beauty shop and specialist dry-cleaners. Your son is not a lovable little rogue, he is a destructive little swine, as most toddlers are. Letting a small person wander off unaccompanied in someone else's home is little short of certifiable behaviour. Don't ever do it again. Like most parents, you have got into the habit of living in an environment where everything that isn't five feet above the floor is broken and/or filthy. Just get it into your head that other people don't live this way. If you want to get your friend back, you'd better be prepared to grovel, grovel, grovel. Send flowers, send a pathetic letter, and for goodness' sake make some move towards forking out for the damage.

LUNCH DRAMA PART TWO

Three weeks ago I held a lunch party at my house, and one of my friends turned up with her little boy in tow. He disappeared for a bit, and when she went off to find him there was a terrible shriek from my bedroom; he had got hold of my make-up bag and tipped everything out on to my new cream silk bedspread (which had cost nearly pounds 300). It was dreadful - a mix of foundation and lipstick - luckily he didn't manage to get the top off the nail varnish. I was seething with rage, and she just mumbled an apology and fled. It cost me a fortune to replace all my make-up and get my bedspread dry-cleaned. I miss my friend but can't help thinking it's all her fault. And I'm not going to make the first move towards making things up.

Naomi, Warwickshire

He says:

Tsk, you girls! Imagine falling out over a few lipsticks. Ring her up and I'm sure you'll be laughing over the whole thing in a few minutes. Men are so much more reasonable.

She says:

Ha. If this had been a similar incident involving men, it would have ended in physical violence. Quite frankly, I'm not surprised that you now hate your friend. She should have fled to the nearest beauty shop and specialist dry-cleaners. Her son is not a lovable little rogue, he is a destructive little swine, as most toddlers are. Letting a small person wander off in someone else's home is little short of certifiable behaviour and she should never do it again. Like most parents, she has got into the habit of living in an environment where everything that isn't five feet above the floor is broken and/or filthy: she needs to get it into her head that other people don't live this way. Expect flowers, a pathetic letter and a big cheque some time soon.

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