My parents relish being subversive. They would argue with this statement, but it’s true. They don’t like doing, buying, wearing, performing in the way most people I meet in this world do. They have strong tastes and critiques. Partly out of necessity and partly out of habit, they are careful with their money to the point of being thrifty. They lent towards sustainability and anti-capitalism before it was fashionable. And while this has been something I have come to celebrate with age, all of this makes it hard to buy presents for them.
This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but when they announced in September of last year that they would be getting married – imminently, in January of 2020 – I was immediately thrown into a dilemma. This felt like a blistering opportunity. They were getting married after 40 years of partnership. I wanted to get them both something to celebrate the occasion, to fulfil the deep millennial itch I have to live out fairy tales and make things “experiential”. Special. But how do you pick out presents for people who are unmistakably cooler than you, and not polite enough to lie about liking their gifts?
Their marriage, after so long, did come as a bit of a surprise. I had always assumed that they had held off from marriage for political or perhaps explicitly feminist reasons, borne out, just last year in fact, by a study which showed that married women with children make up the unhappiest portion of the UK’s population. But no.
While they say they didn’t feel as though they needed a piece of paper nor a tick from an organisation to be partnered, finance and timings also played into their decision-making. I remember my mum telling me on multiple occasions when I begged to be a bridesmaid throughout my childhood that they wanted a big, bolshy, food-y wedding, where they could invite everyone they loved and pay for them too. My dad would tell me they’d get married if they won the lottery. In 2018, just after I got a book deal, I considered whisking them away on a surprise trip to Jamaica where I’d plan out their nuptials for them. Instead, they essentially said, “fuck it”. And I was left, happily, to find their presents.
September rolled into a slow October, and then a quickstep November, and I still wasn’t able to find anything that felt right. And then, suddenly, a holiday. Cuba with my boyfriend, for two-and-a-bit weeks, the first time I would be travelling to somewhere with limited internet connection since I had started a new, intense job, and a moment of hot-mojito calm. My dad called me a few days before the trip. Alongside a plea to look after myself, he exclaimed, “memorabilia!” And I realised that searching for their wedding gifts in Communist Cuba, the country where my maternal grandfather may or may not have been born, might just be a shout.
My parents have lived interesting lives. My dad was born in Hertfordshire, moving to a small satellite town called Harlow when he was a toddler. He grew up there with his two older sisters, gardener dad and school cook mum. He was happy but couldn’t wait to escape. At 17 he got married and was divorced by 18. He loved music and moved to London and partied hard and started bands and lived in squats. He met my mum, when he was 21 and she 19, because she and her twin sister were singing Grace Jones and Was (Not Was) covers on stage at St Albans Art College. He asked her and my aunty to join his band.
My mum, meanwhile, is a second-generation Windrush-era descendant who grew up in Wolverhampton. Fractious familial relationships meant she moved away at 17, to the town of St Albans to do a nursing degree with my aunty. The twins always loved dancing and singing and joined the band with glee. My parents became a couple not too long after their first kiss, on New Year’s Eve 1983. Eventually, they had a hit under the moniker Soho, with a 1990 song called ‘Hippychick’. It broke the American charts and became a club hit. I’ve found that most people over the age of 40 know it. Together, they travelled the world touring, but politics and economics meant they didn’t really have another chart-topper.
I came into the picture not long after, a welcome surprise for a couple who didn’t believe they could have children.
So my gift, then, holds even more resonance because I am the only one. I was the adorable, screaming baby, the cute toddler, the angry teenager, and am now the golden girl who writes for newspapers and makes them proud but doesn’t call as much as she ought to and forgets to send Mother’s Day cards and birthday cards and doesn’t often visit their new house in Birmingham and is still argumentative sometimes too. I needed to show them, on this momentous occasion, that I cared, that I loved and that I would always be there, just as they had shown me, all my life.
The first item I spotted was in a pretty town called Trinidad, where rivulets of water run through the streets and you can watch the sun set across a clutter of faded, brightly painted houses. Its main economy is tourism, and on every street there is a shop selling bundles of beautiful crocheted items, jewellery and, most interestingly, a type of shirt known as a guayabera. The one we chose for my dad was stiff and a little rough but nice, with a stitched pattern across the breast. I didn’t know this at the time, but these shirts have a special history. Cubans claim they were first made near the Yayabo River in Sancti Spiritus and they are often worn for weddings. As soon as my dad laid eyes on it, he decided to wear it on the day.
My mother’s present from Cuba was sweeter. In Havana, a city so lively, crumbling and grandiose that we often felt like we’d been dropped into a movie set, the Habana 1791 perfume shop is one of many relics of years gone by. Tucked inside a green-shuttered, 18th-century mansion, the scents are traditional – rose, jasmine, violet, tobacco – but heady. There are bottles and jars of all different colours and persuasions, and copper stills sitting on the counters. My mum can be luxurious – she favours leopard print and doesn’t leave the house without a full face on. She likes Chanel perfume. Buying her one of these to wear on the wedding day felt right. But when my boyfriend and I went to purchase, late on a Sunday, the shop was shut. Instead, some new friends we made bought it for us the next day, took it back to Ireland with them and posted it over to me in London a few months later. It was such a kind gesture.
On the day of the wedding, my parents actually looked nervous. More people had RSVPed than they were expecting, everyone was thrilled at the news, and what they had thought would be a low-key occasion was looking to be a big party. I turned up to the hotel where they were staying, with bunches of flowers and that tiny bottle of perfume for my mum to wear. She loved it. The taxi I arrived in turned out to be the same one taking my dad to Hackney Town Hall, where they were to sign the registry. Happily, he was wearing the shirt.
When, a few hours later, my parents were kissing (ew) on the steps of the hall, surrounded by family and friends who had travelled in from all over the UK, my heart swelled. My intentional contributions to their special day were material but immaterial would always be the love and acceptance of so many wonderful people. Forty years is a long time to wait, but, for them at least, it was worth it.