THE tree in the corner of the front room looks splendidly jolly and bright, but it isn’t the twinkling lights or the colourful baubles that keep drawing my eye.
No, it’s one of the presents underneath it that my gaze returns to. It’s about a foot square, and when it arrived by courier a few days ago, and crinkled as it yielded to the touch, I gulped nervously.
There’s an item of clothing inside the holly-patterned wrapping paper, I’m sure, and that’s why I’m edgy. I fear it’s another pullover of horror to rival the one that the same relative sent a few years ago.
Now I know it doesn’t do to be ungrateful, and it is the thought that counts, but once in a very rare while when the presents are opened on Christmas morning, something so jaw-droppingly inappropriate emerges that the laughter and exclamations of delight filling the air are silenced.
So it was that morning when a hard frost made Yorkshire resemble the pictures on the Christmas cards. I picked up the present, smiled at the best wishes on the attached tag and tore the wrapping paper off.
Inside, a label on the opaque outer packaging stated in bold lettering “Saving the planet by knitting” which struck me as one of the less orthodox approaches to preserving the polar ice caps and rainforests.
It went on to say that the individually-designed and hand-knitted garment inside was made from recycled wool. A pullover for Christmas, then. How lovely, and just the job on a frosty day.
I opened the packaging and froze. All I could see was a psychedelic pattern of checks and zig-zags interspersed by dots and dashes that looked like a deranged Morse Code, all in lurid green and purple.
I’d never seen a green like it since an early 1970s episode of Doctor Who that made a vivid and frightening impression on me as a child, where a malevolent slime of exactly the same hue emerged out of a Welsh coalmine and started dissolving people.
Just looking at the pattern made my eyes feel strange, rather like one of those magic pictures made up of thousands of brightly-coloured dots, which reveal an image if stared at for long enough.
As I held the pullover up, the room was struck dumb. The Other Half was the first to speak. “There’s no way I’m going anywhere with you if you wear that,” she said. “You’ve got some terrible clothes, but that takes the biscuit. It’s the most ghastly thing I’ve ever seen.”
I had to try it on. The left sleeve was about an inch longer than the right, and one shoulder was a bit wonky, making it uncomfortably tight around the armpit, which meant I had to hold my arm out at an angle.
But that wasn’t the problem. Moving about brought the green-and-purple pattern to life and made the eyes feel even stranger. “Take it off,” she demanded. “I’m worried it’s going to give me a migraine.”
I hate telling untruths, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. So when I rang the relative to thank her for her thoughtfulness, feigned delight and the assurance that I would think of the planet’s welfare every time I put the pullover on were the only options.
It had to go. My first thought was to offer it to a friend who volunteered at a shelter for the homeless where donations of clothes were always welcome.
He shifted about uncomfortably for a moment, and glanced downwards. Then he looked me straight in the eye and said: “Mate, they’ve got enough to put up with as it is.”
I took the coward’s way out, put it into a black plastic bin liner and left it on the doorstep of a charity shop a few minutes before it opened after Christmas, so the volunteers wouldn’t be able to turn me away.
The pullover cropped up in conversation at home from time to time, but then faded into the past – until more than a year later.
A friend had been to see an amateur dramatic company’s staging of the sort of creaky farce where characters keep popping in and out of the French windows, and the leading man either periodically lost his trousers or got locked in a wardrobe.
It had been a so-so production, she said, except for one big laugh when an archetypal British silly ass character made his first entrance.
“He had this appalling jumper on,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Everybody was saying it made their eyes feel funny. Heaven knows where they got it.”
I like the idea that it’s probably still out there somewhere, maybe in a props box waiting to give the unwary a jolt when they unearth it, or perhaps even appearing in panto alongside an Australian soap star or X Factor runner-up.
But I do hope that its companion in a yet-to-be-formed double act of psychedelic knitwear isn’t lurking under the tree. A very happy and peaceful Christmas to everybody.