One year I couldn’t help noticing that my brother Ralph got more Christmas presents than I did.
Only one more than I did, but that was enough.
He got a present from Uncle Henry and I didn’t.
I was furious.
Why him and not me?
I was so furious that instead of sulking I had it out with Ralph. They say that in marriage it’s better to talk about problems than to keep silent. Of course, nobody is married to someone like Ralph.
‘Well, perhaps the reason Uncle Henry sent me a present and not you is that he knows of my existence and not yours,’ said Ralph. ‘Or, more likely, perhaps he likes me and doesn’t like you. Perhaps Uncle Henry thinks you have got enough possessions already and doesn’t want you to have too many. Perhaps he thinks you’re a spoilt brat …’
I leapt on him.
‘Why are you two boys fighting again?’ said my father, coming in.
‘Because Uncle Henry sent him a present and didn’t send me one,’ I said.
‘The secret of getting presents is sending thank you letters,’ said my father. ‘And the main thing is to write a thank you letter as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter what you say. Speed is all. The donor will remember speed of response and give you another present next time. It’s an investment for the future.’
‘Well,’ said my mother doubtfully, ‘I’m not sure that speed is the most
important thing. I’m happy to get a thank you letter at any time. In fact, sometimes children write to me two or three weeks later and I’m never cross that they’ve waited so long. I’m just happy they’ve done it. In a way, it’s really nice to get one when you’re not expecting it.’
‘As far as I can gather,’ my brother said, ‘you and Dad want us to write two thank you letters to each person. One straight after the event and one a lot later.’
‘I think that would be excessive,’ said my mother.
‘Look!’ I said. ‘This is no good to me! Uncle Henry has never given me a present! So how can I say thank you?’
‘The whole trouble with making the effort to write thank you letters,’ said my father, as if I hadn’t spoken, ‘is that once you have got the present, the incentive to write back has gone. It’s like being paid in advance. When someone gets the lolly in advance, they feel they don’t really have to do the job. Well, getting a present first is the same sort of thing. Ideally, you should write the thank you letter before you get the present.’
‘I think that would be excessive,’ said my mother.
Later, when Ralph and I were friends again, I asked him what he would do.
‘Mum and Dad have given their advice,’ I said, ‘and pretty rotten it was too, so what’s yours?’
‘Funnily enough,’ said Ralph, ‘it’s the same as Dad’s. Write the thank you letter before you get the present.’
‘Well, it’s what I did with Uncle Henry.’
‘Yes, I did. Way before Christmas, when I was feeling very poor, I made a list of people I might get presents from. Uncle Henry was not on the list. I thought it would be nice for him to be on the list. So I wrote him a letter thanking him for a present from the Christmas before. I didn’t refer to what the present was, as he hadn’t sent me one. I reckoned that he would never remember that he hadn’t sent me anything and it would never occur to him that any child would write a thank you letter for something he hadn’t
got and he’d be shaken enough to put me on his gift list and send me something this time.’
‘That’s stupid,’ I said.
‘Seems to have worked,’ said Ralph.
‘Are you going to write a thank you letter for this present?’ I said.
‘When I get round to it,’ he said.
That gave me a chance. I suddenly saw that if I wrote a thank you letter to Uncle Henry now
, I would be ahead of Ralph next year.
So I wrote a letter to Uncle Henry which went roughly like this:
Dear Uncle Henry,
Thanks very much for the present, it was very kind of you. We had a wonderful Christmas, except for the mistletoe catching fire. We went to the pantomime in the New Year and it was great, especially the bit where the pumpkin would not change into a stagecoach and the fairy godmother said a very rude word.
With love from your nephew.
Someone had once told me that grown-ups liked it if you put things in letters which had gone wrong, so that’s why I mentioned the mistletoe and the pumpkin trick.
A little while later I got a letter from Uncle Henry which said:
I was very pleased to get your thank you letter, especially as I had never sent you a present, as you well know, you cheeky little bugger. Still, one should always reward enterprise, so I enclose a £10 note to make up for me being mean at Christmas. If you feel like it, give half to your brother Ralph as I never sent him a present either. One day you must tell me how the mistletoe caught fire.
Your old Uncle Henry.
I had never thought of Uncle Henry as anything but a rather quiet and boring old chap before, but this rather changed my view of him. It also rather changed my view of Ralph.
‘Ralph,’ I said to him one day, ‘just supposing, just supposing
, you had never written to Uncle Henry. I’m just supposing. And supposing he had never sent you a Christmas present. Then who do you suppose that present from Uncle Henry at Christmas time was really from?’
Ralph looked at me closely. I obviously knew more than I was letting on. And I obviously knew there was something fishy about Uncle Henry’s present. And he knew when it was time to come clean.
‘It wasn’t a present from Uncle Henry,’ he confessed. ‘Well, it was. But I gave it to myself and made pretend it came from Uncle Henry.’
‘To make you jealous.’
I took this in for a moment, in silence. It was just the sort of thing that Ralph would like to do. I was surprised that he actually had the energy to do it, though.
‘It must have been very disappointing not getting a present from Uncle Henry,’ I said. ‘So I hope this makes up for it a bit.’
And I gave him £2.
It wasn’t quite the £5 that Uncle Henry had suggested.
But it was a lot more than I felt he deserved.
And it was worth it, to see the expression on Ralph’s face. Which, I have to say, didn’t go away until I told him the full story.
And that wasn’t for another four or five weeks.
Someone Like Me 2005