‘Let’s move on’: The true cost of a birthday present

It’s Jocasta’s birthday. I need to buy a present. Her solution: we go shopping for clothes and I’ll help her choose something. I think: “That sounds like fun.”

If I had some ominous music, this is the point I’d hit “play”.

We drive to an outlet centre. Jocasta says: “I just want something that’s not too pricey but looks classy, that’s a bit different but not pretentious, pretty but not girly, mature without being ageing.”

“What about this one?” I say, proffering a rustic frock with broad pockets and a charmingly prominent white collar.

If I had more ominous music, I’d throw it in here.

We arrive at the outlet centre. Jocasta says there’s a Colesworth nearby and, after she’s chosen her clothes, we’ll buy chicken thigh fillets for dinner. This week, they’re on special.

We enter the first clothes shop. Jocasta stands before the racks, flicking through the offerings, tsk-tsking, rolling her eyes. Occasionally, she guffaws. I get the message: she’s affronted the retailer is even offering her such ridiculous and limiting choices.

“There’s nothing here,” she says. “Nothing at all.”

I grab an item off the nearest rack. “This is nice,” I say, presenting a knitted wool top, attractively covered with tiny sparkles.

Jocasta widens her eyes with horror. “It’s a cardigan with bling. Let’s move on.”

We move on. The next shop is a bit Boho, or cottagecore, or prairie chic. Don’t ask me. I’m so out of my depth I need Bondi Rescue.

Jocasta does her power move on the racks. Bang. Bang, Bang. These clothes have the temerity to present themselves for her consideration. They don’t fit. They show off your armpits. They’re ribbed. They have puffy sleeves. What were they thinking?

“Puffy sleeves are not my friend,” says Jocasta.

I feel she needs some supportive advice from the man who has stood by her side, and loved her so much, for these many years.

“What about this one?” I say, proffering a rustic frock with broad pockets and a charmingly prominent white collar.

“Perfect,” replies Jocasta, “but only if I were working as a milkmaid in an Amish dairy.”

Luckily, the third shop was much groovier.

“You should get into this stuff,” I say. “You’d look terrific.”

Jocasta touches my arm and looks into my eyes. “Do you know who I am? Have you even met me?”

Fourth store, Jocasta won’t consider a single garment. Luckily, the sales assistant is particularly insistent, ignoring her “I’m just looking, thanks”, and pressing a clingy cape onto Jocasta’s shoulders. The shop lady stands back, appraises Jocasta, and judges the result to be “terrific”.

Jocasta says: “I don’t think it’s for me,” and makes good her escape.

“She was nice,” I say, once I catch up.

“Nice? Maybe,” says Jocasta, “although there’s a fine line between good sales technique and a serious physical assault.”

We decide to break for lunch. We have a very enjoyable time in the cafe – Jocasta ate my meal, having ordered badly – and then return to what Jocasta was now calling The Ordeal.

We attend more stores. Flip, flip, flip. Jocasta makes short work of the racks. She then turns her mind to the fashion industry more generally. “Why can’t they make things for women like me? We have money, you know! Some people don’t want to show off their armpits. Are we not people too?”

At this point, I feel like I’m shopping for dresses with Vladimir Lenin and it’s time for the speech at the Finland Station. Revolution is in the air. Jocasta has the fashion industry in her sights and, like the Romanovs, the best they can hope for is a quick and brutal death.

I grab a top from a nearby rack. “This looks nice,” I say in a voice that, admittedly, lacks conviction.

Jocasta says: “Do you even have eyes in your head?”

We mooch out of the shop. “Anyway,” says Jocasta, dragging her feet like a miserable 10-year-old, “let’s give up. Who cares about fancy clothes? I never go anywhere anyway.”

Three hours of shopping and we’ve reached the deepest of Dante’s circles of hell. The lovely dress or top is being sucked into a sinkhole of despair. Our life together is set to follow.

I understand one thing: it is a bad husband who does not buy his loved one a present on her birthday. I am so desperate.

“It’s been a miserable day,” I say. “We haven’t bought you anything.”

“Sure,” she says, “but at least you’ll get a column out of it.”

“Yes,” I reply, “but a good column would end with Jocasta finally walking into a shop and finding something perfect.”

“True,” says Jocasta. “But sometimes life’s not like that. Maybe we’ll try again next Saturday.”

Meanwhile, the chicken thigh fillets really are on special. She buys heaps. She signals for me to pay. I present our joint credit card.

“Happy birthday,” I say, handing her the bag.

“Thanks,” she says. “We’ll get three dinners out these.”

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