I went out with a really strange person, just as I was finishing my degree.
He was good-looking, charming. Not my usual type. We went on a few walks, went to the cinema, held hands. I went to watch him perform as an extra in a play. I heard some stories which made me suspect that he wasn't being entirely honourable but he was just good looking enough that it was possible to ignore them.
He turned up at my birthday party, a beach party, with a gift. A mug wrapped in a plastic bag.
It was a porcelain mug with a table of imperial to metric conversions printed on it.
Because I had no confidence at the time, I was polite and grateful when it was presented, but I thought privately: ‘Why did he give me such a rubbish, thoughtless gift?’ After all, we talked about the arts!
On serious reflection, maybe it was I who talked about the arts. He just swung his head melodramatically from looking brooding and quizzical to looking pensively into middle distance. Maybe I'd misinterpreted him.
Back to the mug.
Giving me the gift of a mug was puzzling, but giving me a mug with a numerical table on it was completely inappropriate.
He left the party early. My friends and I huddled around the mug, passing it between us, trying to work out what it meant.
It was £7.99 the label told us - he could have bought a book for less. Or a beaded necklace. Or a pretty notebook. We knew that he'd bought it from a shop in the middle of town, and, from later investigations, I learnt that this range of mugs was displayed on the top shelf of a dusty cabinet at the back of the store. He must have searched for a while. He must have passed all of the other slightly more interesting gifts en route.
But then, in the spark of imagination which is only experienced by an English literature student looking for meaning in the apparently meaningless, I realised he'd given me this gift because I was the mug.
The mug was his way of saying that the relationship was over.
Perhaps a doormat would have been more appropriate.