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Danny Wallace on the joy of a surprise free gift

"Those words. Free gift. They shoot straight through you. Hook you. Pull you in"

Danny Wallace on the joy of a surprise free gift
17 January 2018

Free gifts are such wonderful things, for not only are they ‘free’ but they are also ‘gifts’, too.

“We’ve actually got a free gift for you!” says the tall man in the suit, looking deep into my eyes.

Those words. Free gift. They shoot straight through you. Hook you. Pull you in. Free! Gift! I don’t care if it’s a moisturiser sample the size of a kitten’s lips or some stiff and chalky bubblegum taped to the front of a child’s magazine: a free gift is a free gift!

And then with a great sense of ceremony, the man opens his desk drawer and pulls out a white box wrapped in a perfect red ribbon.

“What is it?” I say, intrigued.

The man puts on a very serious face. And then he presents the box to me. I swear, it looks like he’s proposing.

Problem is, we’re in a regional car showroom where I’ve just leased a car. There are couples milling about everywhere, pointing at hubcaps and opening boots. Plus, I am not that fussed about having leased a car. It’s just like renting one for ages. It’s not like I’m buying it. It’s not like it’s a sports car. But to this man, who is very nice and good at his job, leasing out cars is an occasion worthy of extravagant commemoration. So much so that when I turned up this morning, I found that he had prepared the car I am only really borrowing by hiding it under an enormous red cloth. He wanted me to whip the cloth away to reveal it. I didn’t want to do that. Would you? People might start clapping. Also, I haven’t won the car. He even wanted to get my phone off me so he could take my photo next to it, possibly in case I started crying. I could tell he was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t enter into the razzle-dazzle spirit of leasing a car.

Yet he’s still giving me this free gift – a mystery free gift! – and when someone offers you a mystery free gift, you take it.

“Do I open it now?” I say, turning the box over in my hands, and then I joke: “But I didn’t get you anything!”

“No need,” he says, putting his hands up and shaking his head to show his professionalism. “It’s just a little something to say thank you for leasing from me.”

It’s incredible Hallmark doesn’t do cards that say that.

Still, I know what this will be. It’ll be a branded key fob.

“I’ll open it now!” I say, and I undo the ribbon and open the box.

And I find that the man has given me a two-hour studio photoshoot with a noted local photographer.

“Oh!” I say. “A photoshoot!”

As I say it, I’m trying not to say it in a weird way. I don’t want him to think that two men standing in a regional car showroom handing each other two-hour studio photoshoots is in any way unusual. There must be men all over Britain doing exactly the same thing right now. I just don’t quite know what to say next.

So I just say “A photoshoot!” again.

“It’s worth a few hundred quid,” he says, enthusiastically. “It’s great!”

It just feels a bit of a random gift. Like buying a fishing rod and getting a voucher for a facial. Or buying a facial and getting a fishing rod. Also, I don’t think this man knows if I have a family. As far as he knows, he is just giving me an expensive photoshoot so that I can go off and have an expensive photoshoot on my own. Now, I’ve seen this type of thing before. You get them on GroupOn. They make you look all glamorous. They airbrush you and make your eyes sparkle. You’re supposed to trail your fingers across your chin and look slightly off-camera.

Wait. What if I lose control of the shoot? What if they want to dress me as a clown?

“That’s very nice of you,” I say, and I stuff the box in my pocket.

When I get home, I tell my wife I got a mystery free gift.

“Key fob?” she says.

“No, a two-hour studio photoshoot with a local photographer,” I say.

“Well,” she says, perking up. “This is something you must do.”

“Something we could do,” I say, correcting her.

“There’s nothing creepier than a couple having their own photoshoot,” she says.

“I’m not doing it,” I say. “The photographer will ask me questions to capture my essence. They’ll say, ‘Is it a special occasion?’ and I’ll have to say, ‘Yes, I just leased a car.’”

Two days later, the texts start. The photo studio has been given my number and they want to know when I’m coming in. Every time I realise I have not used my free gift, I feel guilty for having accepted it in the first place. Is the man waiting for confirmation I have used it? Does he want to see the photos?

I decide that just to make it stop, I will consider this lonely photoshoot. And that if I do it, I will dress up as a clown. And when I get the prints back, I will frame them, and send each one to the man, so he can put them all on his desk until he finds it weird.

And that after I do, I will never, ever accept a mystery free gift again.

Unless it’s a fishing rod.

The Danny archive:

The unsung glory of the Great British Wimpy

The Very British Christmas Miracle

The Curious Incident of the Spatula at the Pub Crawl

Making the most of room service

Beginning my new life as a yoga devotee

The perils of forgetting to RSVP to a party

A networking event like no other

When textspeak becomes actual language

Learning the unwritten rules of the commute

The etiquette of paying a busker

(Main image: Caley Dimmock)