I found Secret Santa fun at first. Tashinda got me a fluffy turkey hat that made gobbling noises, and Malcom made a clay ashtray, delicately painted with flowers. It didn’t matter that Malcom’s Secret Santa recipient didn’t smoke or that I’d never wear the hat again once Christmas was over, that isn’t what Christmas is about, it’s about fun and happiness. So Secret Santa was great for the first two years, but then things started to change, it started to get competitive. People stopped keeping to the ten pound limit; no one specified a new limit, just that ten pounds wasn’t enough. Then everybody started using sparkly wrapping paper and ribbons on the presents, even though you can’t recycle either and they just get thrown away. Last year, in the big pile of shiny presents tied up with curly ribbons, mine stood out as the only package sellotaped together, in cheap red paper with bells on, and everybody laughed at me. But at least I didn’t get Dennis’s present.
Dennis is scary. Mostly he’s just sarcastic, but that can bubble into rage. It’s difficult to know when, it could be someone sitting in his spot in the canteen or a splatter of tomato sauce on the floor. Everybody is too frightened to leave unwashed mugs in the sink anymore, or crumbs around the microwave. And then when we passed around the Secret Santa gifts at the Christmas meal last year, Dennis smashed his new mug in fury.
“What is this?” he screeched.
Tashinda said nervously, “You don’t like it?”
“It’s thoughtless tat!” shouted Dennis. “This could be for anyone! There’s no thought in this, there’s no effort!”
So this year, when I pulled Dennis’s name from the bobble hat, I felt my stomach drop into my shoes and I haven’t rested since. What can I buy him? He’s not my friend, I don’t know what he wants.
I woke up at two in the morning, fretting. I tried to calm down by writing a list of all the things I knew about Dennis and possible presents: likes custard creams (buy twenty packets), doesn’t like it when people leave crumbs in the kitchen (dustbuster), has neat beard (beard trimmer). No present seems thoughtful enough. So, unable to sleep, I went looking on his Facebook page. I discovered he liked Metallica and is a member of a biker group, but he doesn’t have a motorbike. He often wrote bitchy lectures to people he called ‘A waste of oxygen’, people who needed to ‘Stop whining and starting winning’, this made me more nervous. I searched a bit harder, googling various nicknames he used for himself on his wall, following the friends he had, the groups he was part of.
If you really pay attention to what people write on social media, it’s not that difficult to pull the threads together. You can find forums they write on anonymously, Instagram and Twitter accounts under different names, even old Myspace pages they’ve forgotten existed. So that’s how I found out that Dennis writes poetry about his feelings. He started as a teenager, but hasn’t stopped, he just keeps it hidden. I’m normally a pretty mild-mannered chap, I don’t like to ruffle feathers, but I kept thinking of Tashinda looking crestfallen after Dennis broke her mug, and soon I was thinking: maybe if I frame his cheesiest poem, or find a photo if him posing as a teenager, maybe that would be funny. So I kept looking, and found more poetry, more blog posts about how lonely and misunderstood he was, but as dawn came round, I didn’t want to laugh at him anymore. I felt that all the bluster and complaint was a way of covering up for feeling unhappy and out of place, which are things I know quite well. I felt he needed a hug more than to be mocked.
I wasn’t with Dennis when he got his present, but I heard he liked it. I got him a book of Sylvia Plath poems and Ten Simple Steps to Happiness. I was told the books made him smile, and that’s what Christmas is all about.