The Gift that keeps on Shrinking is the first column in The Familiar, published in 2009 by Black & White.

ANY Christmas parcel from a relative that looks remotely squidgy is greeted in our house by tears before turkey, so it’s always best to filter out such suspect parcels before they create untold damage on the big day.

Basically, the bigger and softer the parcel the worse the effect, because it means one of our relatives has decided we would be utterly enchanted by an embroidered toilet cistern jacket or a Peruvian pampas grass dog-blanket for the dog we don’t have.
These are the worst kind of gifts because you can’t immediately guess what they might be, so you open them with immense optimism and when they turn out to be a Harry Potter alarm clock or, my personal best of last year, a stamp wallet embossed with my initials, the disappointment overwhelms you until, of course, you think of someone you can send it to.
There was only one big squidgy parcel to deal with this year, but it looked like a challenge from every angle. It even had the nerve to arrive a week early, bringing with it all sorts of unpleasant memories of its predecessors,
combined with a curious presentment of brazen defiance. I had it down as a family big slipper and was willing to give it some space.
Rural life is riven with icy draughts of Dickensian proportions. Although they might bring an air of Victorian authenticity to the festive season, it’s an air that’s generally below freezing.
My wife wasn’t so sure. She had a bad feeling about the contents of this parcel and on its arrival it had been swiftly put to one side in the conservatory.
The fact that it had made it through security meant nothing; it was still in gift limbo and the likelihood of it ever making it to the next stage was slight, to say the least. It lurked around the conservatory for a couple of days causing trouble and general unease until it was stealthily repositioned in my study. Apparently, when it was opened, I was to put it immediately on eBay.
My wife had torn a hole in the wrapping paper and revealed something brown and woolly hiding within.
I was intrigued and every so often last week I gave it a cursory poke, hoping for some kind of reaction. A scream or a groan would have been great, but I assumed I’d have to wait until the parcel was unwrapped for that kind of thing.
Then, last Saturday morning, my wife pounced on it.
“Right,” she shouted, “this thing’s annoying me.”
She then immediately began laying into the wrapping paper, which at first put up a reasonable but ultimately pointless fight. Out came what I thought was a monkey suit of some description and jokingly I said I would have it, but my wife had a strange look about her. She looked slightly suspicious then deeply thoughtful, then faintly surprised.
“Actually, this is rather nice,” she said, smiling.
“As monkey suits go, I would say it was one of the best I’ve seen,” I added, then started reeling off a list of  possible people we could send it to.
“Do you mind; it’s a chunky Angora wool cardigan and I quite like it,” returned my wife.
I would have been amazed if I had believed her. For a start, it was huge and if it hadn’t been for the sleeves and the buttons I would have said it was something you could lag the tank in the loft with. In fact, it would have made ideal insulation.
“I think it’s for both of us,” I said, and promptly slipped an arm into one of the sleeves. My wife followed suit and we stood there in front of the hallway mirror like a two-headed woolly monkey. Personally, I couldn’t see the attraction, but for some reason my wife saw potential in it, even if it was at least a size twenty.
“I think that’s just the style of it,” said my wife, trying to convince herself as she posed around in front of the mirror. Suddenly it dawned on me that she might be serious.
“But it’s too big for both of us put together and it’s ghastly,” I laughed.
“Says the man who thinks hot pants are still in fashion,” retorted my wife.
“That’s just wishful thinking,” I replied, then sloped off .
I had forgotten about the cardigan until Christmas Eve morning when I heard my wife scream. I found her standing by the washing-machine holding something guiltily behind her back. Her face was drained of colour and she was trembling.
“You know that expensive Angora cardigan?” she asked nervously.
“It was expensive, was it?” I asked.
“Don’t rub it in; I tried to shrink it,” screamed my wife, then from behind her back produced this strange shrunken brown headless torso, the sort of thing you would have seen in a Victorian freak show.
My first instinct was to make a run for it, so I did, with my wife hot on my heels waving this weird thing at me like it had voodoo powers. Even from the other end of the room I could barely bring myself to look at the gruesome article, it was so strange and creepy.
Just to make matters worse, my wife tried to put it on, hoping it would spring back to its former size, but I doubt if it would have fitted a four-yearold. Strangely, even although she struggled hard with it and managed to get an arm halfway up each sleeve and then had to escape from it like a wailing madwoman from a straitjacket, the cardigan reverted in an instant to its tiny, perfectly formed self.
The little old lady in the charity shop lit up when she saw it.
“Now, I would have worn that if it had been a bit bigger,” she said brightly
as she examined it closely. “Oh, it’s a man’s cardigan; I thought it was a lady’s,” she added, looking up at me.
“I think it’s optional now,” said my wife as she swiftly left the shop.