Working Life: What's your problem?

INDISPENSABLE ADVICE FROM REAL LIFE'S AGONY AUNT AND UNCLE

A BRA FOR THE MISSUS

I am planning to get my wife a new dress or perhaps some luxurious underwear for Christmas. I'm not worried about choosing the style - I know her tastes pretty well - but I do wonder about getting the size right: my first thought was to go and look at stuff she already has to see what's needed but she is one of these people who finds labels itchy and snips them out of her clothes.

Richard, Peterborough

He says: Perhaps you could ask your sister-in-law or mother-in-law for the requisite information. Failing that, ask her best friend. Women always have these kinds of facts about each other at their fingertips.

She says: Under no circumstances should you go shopping for your wife armed merely with her vital statistics. Don't even think about it. The reason is that clothes vary immensely in cut and fit and what fits in a size 12 in one store may be hopelessly big or skimpy in another. Knitwear is easier to get away with if you really must aim for a surprise. But do not, I repeat, do not, try to buy her a bra without a fitting. Bras must be tried on in the same way as shoes: you would never buy a pair of shoes without trying them on, I hope. Any sensible woman would gladly sacrifice the not-so-essential element of surprise in her gift for the wonderful element of it actually fitting. It takes half the pleasure out of a present, however gorgeous, if the receipt and original carrier bag must be reassembled, and it has to be tediously hauled back to the shop.

A WEEK TOO LATE

Last Saturday I was working late and was horrified to receive a phone call from a friend who was expecting me and my husband to supper. I had thought that our appointment was for the following Saturday, and was mortified to find that she had cooked the meal, opened the wine, and was sitting waiting for us. Given that I was in the office I couldn't drop everything and rush over. How can I make amends?

Esther, London SW11

He says: As Freud says, there is no such thing as a mistake: such mix- ups are usually a product of something deep in the subconscious. I suggest that either deep-down you did not want to go to this soiree in the first place and double-booked yourself deliberately, or she didn't want to have you round and, similarly deliberately, mixed up her dates. Could one of you be harbouring a secret desire to drop the other and be accidentally- on-purpose engineering a rift?

She says: Into every life a little rain must fall and given that this was a genuine misunderstanding no amends are necessary. Next time tell your chum to bung the food into the freezer (unless it's a souffle or suchlike, in which case she could try and rope in some hungry neighbours) and to merrily drink up the wine herself.

NO TIME TO TALK

I have a couple of lovely friends who are both real socialites. They are never happier than when they're in a crowd of people and their house is always full of friends, their parents and brothers and sisters, friends of their two little boys, parents and brothers and sisters of friends of their two little boys and so on. The trouble is that they have both separately confided to me that their relationship is in trouble. They both say "We never see each other" but neither will respond to hints that perhaps they need some time and space to themselves to talk things through.

Madeleine, Mansfield

He says: Why not create that time and space for them? Invite them round for supper, making it very clear that the children are not included. Prepare some delicious food that you can leave on the table, open a bottle of wine, tell them you have arranged a time for them to be together and retreat upstairs with a good book. This is a strategy that I would only recommend for really quite intimate friends, though, as it is the kind of direct interference in other people's relationships that should normally only be attempted by a professional.

She says: It's perfectly obvious that by filling the house with extraneous people in this way that they are doing an absolutely brilliant job of living together but avoiding each other almost completely. Many would be jealous of this superbly alternative lifestyle. Given the hideousness of Talking Things Through (is this a term that people really use?) with its contingent possibilities of Making A Date For Ourselves Once A Week or Setting Aside Our Special Space or even going the whole hog and Splitting Up But Staying In Touch For The Sake Of The Children, this kind of head- in-the-sand attitude is not an implausible way to go. Butt out.

CHRISTMAS HOLLY

Why do we use holly and ivy as traditional decorations at Christmas?

Suzanne, Worthing

He says: According to ancient superstition the spirits of the woodland lived on through the winter in evergreen branches and they are brought in out of the cold to help preserve those spirits. A charming tale, I think you will agree.

She says: I haven't the slightest notion and have no intention of finding out for you. I think you may have mistaken us for one of those tedious question-and-answer column things. Why people cannot simply look things up for themselves I do not know. Tisk. Perhaps you could put a decent encyclopedia on your Christmas list. Or, even better, join your local library.

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