Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'Matthew won't tell me what he wants. It would ruin his birthday if I managed to buy him a satisfactory present'
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The Independent Online

The birthday season has come and gone. Mine was first and Matthew's a fortnight later. Aside from all the usual indications that we are in November – moist leaves, dark evenings, increased central heating requirements etc, I am always made aware of the imminence of these anniversaries by the appearance on the kitchen table of the soda siphon.

I say "the" soda siphon rather than "a" soda siphon because it is a very specific siphon that Matthew digs out each year solely for the purposes of taunting me. It is the siphon that I bought him for his 34th birthday; a siphon with two problems; the first and minor one, is that while it is a beautiful 1950's style siphon, it is largely redundant in this house because Matthew drinks his whisky neat. The other, major problem with it is that it never worked. It never had any intention of working, in fact, because a key element in it was missing and although during the early days of Matthew's ownership of it I claimed to have taken it back to the shop several times, the truth was that I couldn't be bothered and subsequently I forgot all about it.

I thought that Matthew had forgotten about it too until three weeks before his 35th birthday, ten years ago, it made a dramatic appearance on the kitchen table. It had a pleading little note around its neck, presumably inspired by the notes tied around the necks of new-born foundlings deposited on Dickensian doorsteps. The note read: "Please, please help. If you cannot find it in your heart to mend me, at least replace me with a brother or sister that works. Love from The Siphon."


When The Siphon appeared again the following November, it had acquired a friend. Next to it on the kitchen table, arranged neatly around it so that the two objects appeared to nestle against one another like two rather clingy foundlings, was the present I had given Matthew the previous year; a pair of trousers that, due to my numerical dyslexia and lack of aptitude with a tape measure, were three sizes too short in the leg but wide enough to fit the late King of Tonga.

And every year since then I have bought Matthew something he didn't want or couldn't use because it didn't work. Come November each and every year the newest failure joins The Siphon on the table, positioned with all the rest of the flawed gifts in a tableau which soon started to look like the Foundling Family annual photograph. So what greeted me just over a fortnight ago as the birthday's loomed, with The Siphon in the centre, was a montage incorporating the fat midget trousers, some iPod speakers that were apparently "just wrong", a digital camera with a faulty on switch, a flat-pack chess table that was too big to fit in Matthew's shed, a corduroy jacket with its hem down and a cigar humidor with a skew hinge.

What makes it all so much worse as the years go by is that Matthew inevitably gives me something truly wonderful for my birthday. In my defence I am very easy to buy for, while he is very difficult. Also I suspect, he is more motivated by his desire to humiliate than by any particular ambition to delight me with a magnificent and appropriate present. That the latter is always the case is, I believe just a happy side effect.


This year, in fact, he gave me the present to beat all presents. It is one of a very limited, 1936 first edition signed by the obscure novelist author of whom I am inordinately fond and it is probably the best present I have ever received. My eyes welled with tears when I opened it and while Matthew attempted to remain smugly smiling he too was overcome and welled himself. He recovered by suggesting sardonically that we have a drink and saying provocatively that he really fancied a scotch and soda; "Oh no! The Siphon's not working so well at the moment is it?" he yelped stagily, "unless that is it has been fixed? No? Ah well, hardly worth crying over a broken siphon and I'm sure you'll be making it up to me this year with an outstanding gift idea. I simply cannot wait!"

The problem I always face that Matthew resolutely refuses to tell me what he wants. This is partly because he never actually does seem to want anything – he has his darts and his internet poker and his shed, but it is also partly because it would ruin his birthday fun if I managed to buy him a satisfactory, useable present.

This year however, I believed he might have inadvertently given me a clue and that I had at last come up with a winner. I found a newspaper cutting about the iPhone on his bedside table, propped up between a Sherbert Fountain and a packet of chocolate digestives.

I didn't dare ask him if this is what he wanted (the iPhone not the Sherbert Fountain and digestives) because he would unquestionably have said that it was the very last thing he could imagine wanting and then he would have gone out and bought it for himself. So I determined that I was going to get him one and I did.


He was a little thrown when he opened it on his birthday morning. I could see, however that he was very pleased and he couldn't wait to get going with it. He asked me if I had activated it and set up an account for him. "Because obviously it is an incomplete gift if it isn't actually working, so..." I interrupted him then and told him I hadn't yet activated it but that I would in due course. And I will. Not today because I am a bit busy, but I will, sooner or later.