Wandering through a community fete, held in a small, locally tended garden in the more middle-class zone of my very mixed neighbourhood, I spotted a boy standing behind a little table. To my child-free eyes, he could’ve been anywhere from eight to fourteen. On the table—his wares, I assumed—were a few second-hand purses.
Nobody was paying him any attention. I guess I felt sorry. It’s not often I feel an adult duty of attention to a kid, but I was on my own too.
‘Have you been left to run the stall on your own?’
‘It’s my stall,’ he replied, and I was conscious of a dreadful injury to his dignity.
To make amends, I looked at the purses. They were all well-used and I wondered if his mother had donated them or if he’d gone to a charity shop. I had no desire to buy them and besides, I was cash-free, apart from a few pound coins.
It got awkward.
I pointed to the dice sitting in a moulded plastic container.
He explained, very seriously: if I threw a double, I could pick a number out of a bag, entitling me to one of a motley selection of prizes on the bench behind him.
It only cost a pound for three throws. This was my way out.
On my second turn, I threw two sixes. My prize was a plastic bottle of bubble bath.
I thanked him and walked away, with a sense of release. I’d done my adult duty to a neglected kid, a little middle-class boy (obviously) who’d shown the initiative to set up his little stall. No doubt his parents had encouraged him in this enterprising initiative; in a couple of years’ time, he could be an eBay millionaire, if eBay still exists then.
Once the fleeting serotonin rush of ‘winning’ had passed, I realised that I did not want the goddamn bubble bath. When I shared baths with my two brothers, my mother used to fire up bubbles with a squirt of Palmolive dish detergent, the green stuff that was good for your hands (why not use gloves?). As a menopausal woman, I use fancy flavoured concoctions of Epsom salts, as advised by a nutritionist, because you absorb relaxing magnesium through your skin. The nutritionist was contracted by the university to present a webinar, thus demonstrating its fashionable awareness of menopause and its care for staff at the same time as it slashes their pensions.
Perhaps someone had given the boy the bubble bath as a present, another injury to his dignity. Obviously, he was far too old for such a childish gift. Or perhaps his mother had received it as part of a ‘pampering’ gift set, the kind often given to women as an easy default, because smelly potions and creams and bath bombs make our lives easier and more pleasant, even though our pensions are shit.
The charmless plastic bottle had the distinct appearance of mawari-mono (回りもの): a gift item that has no value apart from as a token, a signifier, of gift. Nobody actually wants it and because of its intrinsic, non-specific, infinitely transferable ‘gift’ nature, it can be passed on endlessly, until somebody actually opens it, thus rendering it used. A Japanese acquaintance once used this term; I’ve not found it in any dictionary but it rings true as a concept embedded in a culture in which gift-giving is compulsory and burdensome.
I’ve always been leery of toiletry items in charity shops, but I’m about to add my own contribution. When the next ‘village fete’ swings around, I’ll cash up and have the neck and back chair massage I had to forego this time. Experiences don’t take up space and you can’t get rid of them, even if you want to.