There’s someone outside.
Um. Run? Fight? Fight. FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT –
Oh. Oh, wait. It’s you.
Archive for February, 2016
There’s someone outside.
From a distance, toiletries gift sets look like a totally logical gift choice. They’re about the right price. They come in pretty colours. They’re easy to wrap and when you’ve wrapped them, they look pleasing and substantial. Every Christmas you can guarantee at least one will pass through your household. Then you get a bit closer, and it all turns weird.
Take the box off the last toiletries gift set you got. (Go on. I’ll wait.) Now look at what you have. Some sort of soap. Some sort of soap application device, which takes up an unfeasible amount of room and doubles as a great place to culture spores, moulds and fungus. Some sort of cream to smear on yourself afterwards. A scent that may or may not suit you. A toiletries gift set is one of your relatives saying to you, with great conviction and sincerity, “YOU SHOULD SMELL LIKE THIS.”
To be clear, I don’t think it’s always wrong to tell someone how they ought to smell. When my husband buys me perfume (“YOU SHOULD SMELL LIKE MARC JACOBS DAISY”), I find it delightfully masterful. The implication that he will be sniffing my skin later and liking it is pretty damn sexy. I feel the same when I buy him aftershave (“YOU SHOULD SMELL LIKE HUGO BOSS”). It’s grooming and possessiveness and intimacy and nice expensive things, all topped off with a ribbon.
It’s just that it seems…kind of intimate. I’m not comfortable with the idea of dictating the fragrance of someone I wouldn’t get naked with. How have toiletries gift sets become the safe and socially-acceptable way to let relatives we see six times in a decade know that we’re thinking about them? And what does FCUK smell like anyway?
Oh, I know; I’m missing the point. The point is not the cream, the soap, the soap application device. The point is how these three things look when put together in their luxurious oversized carton, and the brief but beautiful thrill of the Christmas Shiny Thing. They’re about the beautiful fonts and the extravagant cut-outs and the gold embossing, and the way everything glitters under the Christmas lights when you unwrap them. They’re not meant to be examined at close quarters. I bet there were a lot of toiletries gift sets on the shelves of the Looking Glass shop.
Maybe this is why toiletries gift sets lend themselves so well to recycling. A few months ago, I won a toiletries gift set (“YOU SHOULD SMELL LIKE GRAPESEEDS AND POMEGRANATES”) at a Church tombola. When I got it home, I discovered it had not one, not two, but three scraps of sellotape, all complete with a residual coating of raffle-ticket, stuck at various spots on the box. I was clearly not the first person to win this toiletries gift set. It had spent time adorning many bathroom shelves, safe in its beautiful box, untouched and glittery and glorious. It was a gift set with history. And now that history included me. I liked that. I kept it for a while, then sent it on to the school fete to continue its journey.
Every year, I buy a toiletries gift set for my mother in law (“YOU SHOULD SMELL LIKE ROSES”), and every year, I feel guilty for not being more imaginative. My mother-in-law – who has already given me half of my husband and a quarter of my children – also buys me gifts that are genuinely awesome. She often buys me the second book in an ongoing series, because she sincerely believes I have read almost everything, and therefore must have read the first one. She buys me things with pictures of cats on, because I love cats. One year, she found a present she knew would be right in my gift-receiving sweet spot; an encyclopaedia of cat breeds. She is a gift-giver who really studies her audience and is not afraid to take risks.
And in return, I bottle out and buy her toiletries gift sets. She always seems pleased, but I always look at them and think, Could do better.
The week before Christmas 2015 found me at a garden centre with my two best friends and a killer hangover. Our office Christmas party had left me so uncoordinated that when I dropped my gloves on the floor, I burst into tears and begged my friend to pick them up for me. When I recovered from this, I found I was staring at a display of scented drawer liners.
My mother-in-law had recently bought herself a new chest of drawers. This was a gift item designed to go inside chests of drawers. They were in a pretty box. They were not a toiletries gift set. I didn’t even need to bend down to get hold of them. It was clearly meant to be.
When I came to wrap them, I was no longer hungover, and it occurred to me that scented drawer liners were potentially even more oddly intimate than the toiletries gift set that I had – of course – also bought for her. But by then it was Christmas Eve, and it was too late to change my mind. I watched as she unwrapped them. Were the scented drawer liners (“YOUR PANTS SHOULD SMELL LIKE THIS”) a step too far?
“These are wonderful!” she declared. “I didn’t even know you could still get them! Thank you so much! And they match my toiletries as well! Oh, how lovely! I am spoiled.”
Rose-scented toiletries gift set; £18.99. Rose-scented drawer-liners: £9.99. Getting my mother-in-law something that makes her feel spoiled at Christmas; priceless.
Of course, it’s possible she is just very good at faking happiness, and the drawer liners and the toiletries set will shortly become regulars on the Church Bazaar circuit. But when I hugged her, she smelled all warm and floral and delicious. It was the rose-scented toiletries I’d bought her last year.