A mysterious Christmas gift appears under the tree late on Christmas Eve. Should Helen open it, or as this is Twistmas, are some things best left well alone...?
The gift was sitting there like a perfectly-packaged reproach when Steve came down to put Helen’s present under the tree. He looked at the Tesco’s bag for life that housed a new set of kitchen knives, and felt his festive feelings subside a little. This year he’d picked a hessian bag with penguins on it; useful, seasonal and environmentally-friendly. She had to be pleased with that, surely? He looked again at the parcel under the tree. It was small enough to contain something very expensive, and had apparently been wrapped by a fastidious drag-queen. Steve felt his confidence ebbing away.
No, he thought to himself. It’s bad enough having to get dragged into this rampant consumer-fest every year, without family one-upmanship entering the arena. And anyway, it’s probably for one of the boys, or her mother. Still, curiosity made him pick up the gift and inspect it for a label. It was surprisingly heavy, for such a small box, and stone cold. She must have been hiding it in the garage.
Finding no label, he stuck it at the back of the gift-pile and placed his penguin-present centre-stage. That was better. Confidence restored, he headed for the kitchen to see what there was to eat, and to wash his hands.
The gift was still sitting there the next morning, after the boys had ripped through their stockings and gone running outside to hit each other with the contents. Helen had opened her present from Steve with good grace, much to his relief, and he had opened his socks and shirt with his usual benign indifference. Helen’s mother had asked for gift vouchers that year, which Helen had attached to a bottle of sherry, and she had gone straight into the kitchen to open it, leaving Steve and Helen alone with a mountain of wrapping paper and that one last gift.
They looked at each other expectantly. Neither wanted to be the one to draw attention to the gift; neither wanted to be presumptuous. But Helen’s eyes did keep wandering over to it, Steve noticed, and back to him, and there was something girlish and almost flirtatious about the smile she was wearing. He realised with slowly dawning misery that she though it was for her, from him. He decided the safest course of action was to feign ignorance.
‘Right then, I’d better get this lot cleared up.’ Steve picked up the roll of bin bags that Helen had had the forethought to bring into the living room, and started scooping large handfuls of torn wrapping paper into it.
‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’ Helen was looking at him with naked expectation on her face now. Her plan to not get excited had clearly not worked.
‘I don’t think so, why?’
Helen’s expression darkened.
‘Well, what about that one, over there, at the back?’
Steve stopped stuffing paper into the bin bag and made a show of looking under the tree.
‘Oh yes, look, there’s one left! Who’s it for?’
Helen’s face resembled a Christmas tree with the lights starting to sputter. She wasn’t sure whether Steve was teasing her or not.
‘Well, let’s have a look, shall we?’ Helen reached under the tree and brought out the gift. ‘Wow, it’s heavier than it looks. No label.’ She sat with it on her lap. ‘Look, Steve, is it for me, or not?’
Steve frowned. ‘No. I only saw it last night, to be honest. I thought it was for one of the boys, or your mother.’
‘I never saw it until last night. One of the boys might have brought it home from school and we never noticed.’
Steve nodded at the possibility, then said, ‘So why didn’t he open it, then?’
The gift was starting to feel very heavy on Helen’s lap, and its leaden coldness was seeping through her trousers and into the skin on her thighs. She suddenly didn’t want to be holding it, and she held it out to Steve, who made no attempt to take it off her.
‘Well, take it then. We may as well open it; see what it is.’
She was sure it was growing heavier, and her arm started to shake with the effort of holding it out.
‘You open it.’
‘No, I think you should.’
Helen put the gift on the floor at her feet; she didn’t want to have to touch it any more. The curly ribbons looked somehow incongruous, like a helium balloon on a gravestone, and the knot looked tourniquet-tight.
‘You might as well pass me one of my new kitchen knives. I’ll never get that knot open otherwise.’
Steve was delighted.
‘See? They’ve come in useful already!’
His buoyant mood was punctured by the look Helen shot him, and he found himself wishing he had laid claim to the mystery gift after all. He decided then and there, that if, when Helen opened it, she was delighted by its contents, he would pretend this had been an elaborate festive trick, and he had bought it for her after all.
He opened the imitation wood presentation box and selected a short paring knife, slipped off the protective cover, and handed it to his wife.
Helen took it. She was surprised to notice that she enjoyed the balanced weight of the knife in her hand, and she took a moment to appreciate it before sliding the fresh blade underneath the tight knot of ribbons and giving it a slight, yet satisfying, twist. The knot sprang apart, and ribbons of scarlet pooled around Helen’s feet.
Her heart was pounding as she slipped the flat of the blade under the seam where the stars matched up, and watched them fall away from each other. There seemed to be nothing inside the gift but blackness. An abyss. A blast of cold hit her face and she heard screaming. Sirens. There was a metallic, meaty smell. Horrified, she gathered up the opened seams of the gift and pressed them together. There was a smooth click as the stars matched up again, perfectly.
Helen looked at the knife, and at the scarlet pool around her feet, and at Steve. A moment hung in the air and twisted between them, like a dead man on the end of a rope. She took a deep breath to steady her heart, which was banging against her ribs like a caged lunatic.
Helen and Steve looked at each other. Wordlessly, Steve picked up the gift, and holding it away from him as if it was an unexploded bomb, took it outside.
By the time Helen’s mother came back into the room with the sherry and three glasses, Steve was standing outside watching a blazing fire in the brazier, and Helen was stuffing the scarlet ribbons and the paring knife to the very bottom of the bin bag. Helen’s mother didn’t ask why Helen drank her first two glasses of sherry straight off, but she guessed it might have been something to do with Steve’s gift.
Still, she thought, as she watched her daughter take a third glass of sherry and some more deep breaths, it’s the thought that counts.
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Cover image by Yogendra Singh via Unsplash