Friday, December 22, 2006
Never too late
Five Christmases ago, I wrote this for The Big Issue. Enjoy it, and have a very happy christmas.
PANIC STATIONS. You've left it too late again. The shops are shut, you're half-cut and you haven't got a single present. But all is not lost. Adam Macqueen reveals the secrets of late-night Christmas shopping at the 24-hour garage.
Next year it's going to be different. Next year I'll buy everything from the sales in January and have it wrapped and gathering dust on top of the wardrobe for 11 full months. I'll post my cards in time and won't have to cross out the message inside and write 'Happy New Year' instead. I'll be that smug git who blithely says 'Oh, I got all mine online; I can't bear the crowds in the shops, you know.' Anything to avoid this horrendous last-minute rush.
It's 10pm. For the purposes of our exercise, it's Christmas Eve, no shopping days left till Christmas, and I'm slightly drunk. My mission: to buy presents for my entire family in the space of one hour, using only the retail outlets that will be available when staggering out of the pub on Christmas Eve. That's right, I'm off to the all-night garage.
Staggering up to the forecourt I reject the assorted barbecue materials on offer - I know I'm desperate buy you can't really buy someone coal for Christmas, even if they have been naughty. There's a bag of firewood though - if you screw up your eyes you could mistake it for a selection of yule logs. I can take them back to my parent's house and we can do... whatever it is you're supposed to do with a yule log.
Then the automatic doors glide back to reveal a shopping wonderland. Unfortunately, it falls rather short in the festive-gift department. There's not even a sprig of tinsel to be seen. But it is open, and that's the main thing.
I start off in the munchies section for no better reason than it's nearest to the door. Hobnobs do not a thoughtful present maek, even if they do come in a special resealable pack. But with a bit of lateral thinking... selection packs! That essential part of every 1970s Christmas, scaled up to adult size so that my nostalgia-freak student brother can make himself sick before lunch just like in the old days. Jammie Dodgers, Wagon Wheels, Custard Creams and Bourbons. But best of all, rather than a crappy nylon net stocking, his selection pack will come wrapped in a festive BP carrier bag. Anyway, the £20 I'll slip in for booze, drugs and whatever else students spend other people's money on should keep him happy.
Right, sister... she's a girl, so she's going to want something half-decent. I stop in front of the magazine rack. One copy of Marie Claire isn't going to do it... but 12, spread out throughout the year, might! And best of all, if I can just tear the subscription form out without the security guard seeing me, I don't even need to buy this one! Even better, the form offers subscriptions to otehr mags from the same company, so Golf Monthly and Homes And Gardens will sort out my uncle and aunt respectively.
Then there's their repulsive snotty son who'll be slouching his way through Christmas day with us. What do 15-year-old boys like? Sod it, I'll just get him some porn and fags, at least they should keep him out of the way for most of the festivities and avoid family arguments. I toy with the idea of asking the cashier which particular grumblemag he thinks would most appeal to a 15-year-old, but the conclusions he's likely to draw are just too alarming, so I just chuck in a couple along with a novelty mobile phone cover that will serve as the present he actually gets in front of his mum. Am I the coolest cousin in the world or what?
Brothers-in-law aren't a problem; they have their own section marked 'car care'. I toss a chamois leather and a novelty wind-screen-scraper into the basket. The sad thing is, he will actually think these are good presents. As for my baby niece, she gets a selection from the soft toys most garages keep for panicking divorced dads on their way to weekend access.
So, just my parents left. When you ask my dad what he wants for Christmas he always just says 'peace and quiet'. I consider getting him some blank tapes, but in the end the two universal truths of Christmas win out: one, that dads are utterly impossible to buy presents for, and two, that as long as there's enough booze, everyone's happy. I don't know when garages started selling alcohol, but I'm bloody glad this one does. A bottle of whisky, some port, a red and a white will mean he can potter about pouring things for people and not get in the way of my mum with the turkey.
Now then, mother, mother. A bunch of flowers will do as a start, and they'll be nice and fresh tomorrow morning... well, as fresh as garage flowers ever are, anyway. Some chocolates, obviously, and we'd better have a tin of Quality Street because that's the law at Christmas - but what the hell will I give her for a main present? Last time I asked her she just said 'Dont worry, it's enough just to see you all', which is mum-speak for 'you'd better get me something nice or I'll go all tearful after the first sherry.' My life could just be saved by the odd selection of CDs that all garages stock in accordance with the 'people who like petrol also like soft rock' formula... there we go, the latest Ruth Rendell read by that nice Jan Francis off the telly. Everybody's happy.
Mission accomplished, in only 38 minutes. In fact, if I get a move on putting all this in carrier bags, I can probably still make last orders...