A bit of family humor from Ashley Sterne, published in The Telegraph (Brisbane, Queensland) on March 9th 1935.
Sterne, the son of a Congregational minister, has a bit of fun with an arcane reference to nineteenth-century hymn writer Frances Ridley Havergal. I enjoyed the joke because I grew up singing Havergal's excellent hymns, such as "Like a River Glorious", "I Gave My Life for Thee", and "Take My Life and Let It Be."
JUST WHAT I WANT
By Ashley Sterne
I am in a bit of a hole, and if anyone can lend me a ladder or a balloon I shall be more than grateful.
It's like this. At the beginning of December last year my eldest sister, who lives in Penzance, wrote to me as follows: —
"My Dear Augustus,— I am rather perturbed about what to give you for a Christmas present. Do you possess the Complete Works of Frances Ridley Havergal? Did you like the box of figs I sent you last Christmas? Are you still keen on hand-knitted silk ties?
Your affectionate sister,
P.S.— Would you like an autographed photo of the Bishop of Bodmin?"
To which I replied (not verbatim, but here's the spirit of it):—
"My Dear Wilhelmina,— I am rather perturbed at your suggestions for my Christmas present. Who's Frances Ridley Havergal, and are her works, complete or separate, quite— er— pure? Or have you forgotten I was only sixty-four last birthday? The figs you sent me last Christmas were forbidden fruit to me in the sense that nobody doomed to wear artificial teeth would dream of eating figs— unless he was drunk. I was never keen on hand-knitted ties, silk or oakum. The one you perpetrated for me in Christmas 1931, which suggested a colour-compromise between the MacGregor tartan and a rainbow cocktail, went to the vicarage rummage sale in January, 1932.
Your affectionate brother,
P.S.— I didn't even know there was a Bishop of Bodmin. Much less that he'd had his photo taken. Infinitely less that he had autographed it. If you can make it Don Bradman or Henry Hall, I'm on."
And this evoked the response : —
"... Really you are very difficult. Look here, will you buy yourself some not too extravagant trifle you do want, then tell me how much you expended, and I'll refund ..."
Which seemed to me a very sensible idea. I never did hold with the haphazard method of present-giving, which seems to imply that any old memento will serve to foster the spirit of peace and goodwill towards men between members of the same family. And I really did want a new umbrella very badly. I had seen just the one I fancied in the local hosier's. It had been there since July, but its price had been enhanced from 15s. to 16s. 9d. in celebration of Christmas.
However. 16s. 9d. was obviously much more than Wilhelmina intended to expend upon me, for I assumed that the complete works of F R. Havergal were the customary price of 7s. 6., while I assessed the figs at 5s. and the hand-knitted tie at — well, counting cost of material, labour, packing, postage, and amusement tax, say 4s. 6d. The Bishop of Bodmin s photo, being literally priceless, I could not take into my reckoning but on calculating the average cost of the other things it was clear that I was expected to expend something in the neighbourhood of 5s. 8d.
That apparently washed out the umbrella. But then my second sister, Maud, who lives at Newcastle-on-Tyne, probably getting the idea from Wilhelmina in the course of their biweekly correspondence, made a precisely similar suggestion — to wit, that I should buy myself something and she would reimburse me. And finally my youngest sister, Angela, who lives quite near met me in the street last Christmas Eve.
"Hullo, Augustus!" she greeted me. "I was just thinking about a Christmas present for you. What have Wilhelmina and Maud given you?"
I explained and Angela commented:—
"Topping idea! I'll do the same. Just buy yourself . . ."
And so on. I needn't repeat the shibboleth. Then I went and bought the umbrella. I even went so far as to get one of those little tie-on tabs bordered with holly and robins and inscribed, "With all Good Wishes for Christmas from... and wrote on the dotted line, Wilhelmina, Maud and Angela, with much love."
* * *
That was a year ago. But do you imagine I have been able to collect the money. What a hope!
I duly wrote to Wilhelmina explaining how I had pooled her gesture with similar gestures from Maud and Angela, and bought myself a superb umbrella, all made to roll up, her share of which amounted to 5s. 6d. (I thought it would seem whatever-the-converse-to-cheese-paring to claim the full 5s. 7d.) I also thanked her lavishly.
Wilhelmina wrote in reply that she was enclosing postal order for 5s. 6., but as she did nothing of the sort I had to write back and say so. Then Wilhelmina wrote again, expressing regret at her oversight, and stating that she was now enclosing cheque for 5s. 6d.
However, the cupboard was bare again, so to speak, and we had further correspondence, which culminated in Wilhelmina's writing to say that she would be coming up to town at Easter and would pay me then, in cash.
Communications of a like nature passed between Maud and myself. The only essential difference was that she was coming up to town at Whitsun. Neither visit, however, materialised. Wilhelmina decided to have her tonsils out over the Easter holidays, while Maud went down with 'flu at Whitsun. After intervals of four and five months respectively, I couldn't somehow bring myself to write: "So sorry about your tonsils (attack of 'flu), but what about my 5s. 6d.?" Moreover, it was now obvious that each had long since forgotten the obligation.
As for Angela, for the first few weeks in the New Year she used to say to me whenever we met:—
"I musn't forget that I still owe you 5s. 6d. You haven't change for a five-pound note, I suppose?"
Her supposition was invariably correct. Never in my life have I possessed change for a five-pound note all at once. But even she has now forgotten the debt. Definitely. When I met her yesterday, she said:—
"By the way, about your Christmas present. We girls are going to do just as we did last year. Such a good idea! You buy yourself something you really want. ..."
What am I to do about it? Between you and me, my last Christmas's umbrella has never been used. How can I use a present that hasn't been paid for, but merely temporarily financed? I can't bear to shelter myself from the rain on tick. Shall I buy myself another umbrella, and trust that that will remind my sisters of their liability of last year, or shall I go bald-headed for them and write each of them to this effect:—
"Thanks awfully for your generous proposal. After giving the matter careful consideration, I have decided that your last year's Christmas present to me shall be your this year's Christmas present to me."
I shan't be any more out of pocket that way, at all events. But if anyone can suggest to me a more diplomatic (if possible) solution of my present difficulty, I will greet it with a shout.