In a sea of tinsel and cards festooning personal work spaces, one desk stood out as a Christmas-free zone. Slightly aloof from its neighbours, as befitted the slightly elevated status of its occupant, this desk was pristine and clear of any clutter. No festive decorations adorned the desk top. A copy of the Local Government Chronicle Year Planner was fixed to the notice board, beside the fire wardens’ extension numbers, and a postcard, depicting an image of Venice, at dawn. Key dates were highlighted on the year planner, red dots for financial and accounting deadlines, yellow for annual leave. On the desk, a stationary organiser and a coaster flanked the screen. Otherwise, the desk was utterly clear.
Around the open-plan office, strings of Christmas cards and reindeer antler head-bands, jostled with family snaps and post-it notes dotted about the screens and over the desks of other workers. ‘We may be the finance team,’ said Paul, ‘but that doesn’t mean we don’t know how to have a good time!’
Elizabeth kept her eyes fixed on the screen, scanning her email in-box for the figures she needed to complete the month-end financial processes. It may be Christmas, she thought, but that doesn’t mean that the finances will run themselves. She was the team leader in this office, a member of the Finance Department in the London borough council where she had worked since leaving school twenty five years earlier.
In that time, she had worked hard, studied for her accountancy qualifications, made her way slowly up the ladder. Living at home with her parents, and working all the time to ‘get on’, her studious looks and quiet manner had left her slightly outside the warm circles of easy friendships which other girls seemed to take for granted. Then, she had quietly longed to be inside the circles. Now, she had established her own pattern, rather solitary admittedly, but comfortable nonetheless.
Since the death of first her father and then, some years later, her mother, Elizabeth had remained in the family home. At first, stunned with loss and loneliness, she had simply existed, coming to work each day and finding comfort in that routine, knowing how proud her father had been of her achievements. No-one could have guessed how deeply she had felt that loss.
Gradually, as the years had gone by, she had begun to ‘do up’, as her mother would have said, the little Victorian terraced house. An innate sense of good, if understated taste had materialised. Little by little, the house had been changed, room by room, colour by colour, retaining its comforting childhood warmth and yet at the same time, achieving a stylish air that was her own.
Today, the 23rd of December, was the day of the office Christmas lunch. Screeching laughter from the far side of the office heralded the arrival from the cloakroom of the bevy of office beauties, who this year had decided to come dressed as Santa’s Elves, gorgeous and voluptuous in green mini-skirts and brief tops. Elizabeth sighed. No more work would be done this afternoon by anyone in her department, other than her. She closed down her computer and prepared to face the terrible, eye-wateringly loud music in Big Joe’s, the Christmas party venue of choice in her department. Democracy was a harsh master.
Elizabeth knew how ill-suited she was to take part in such festivities. She knew she looked as awkward as she felt, almost physically unable to force herself to take part, even to be there as a witness, let alone a participant. Over the years, she had learned to steal herself against the conflicting emotions that attending these parties brought. Why couldn’t she be an elf? Once upon a time, she had longed to be able to simply let go and join in. It was hopeless; whatever bound her, whatever cleaved her tongue to the roof of her mouth, and placed a shadow of actual fear behind her eyes, there was no escaping it. Both nature and nurture had cast her.
These days, her best hope was to avoid ruining it for the others. Sensitive and intensely shy, Elizabeth knew how most of them felt. How they dreaded being the one drawn to be her ‘secret Santa’: (oh God, no! What on earth can I buy for her? Swap…?), how they urged other, newer staff to sit down first so that they could avoid being seated beside her. She always made a valiant effort, drank maybe half of the dreadful and lurid Welcome Cocktail, ate the lunch and soon after, departed, leaving them to the rest to their afternoon of – what? Drunken dancing, unfortunate and regretted kisses with inappropriate colleagues or strangers, an uncertain journey home, sleeping and drooling past their stop? No matter, by three o’clock she’d be back at her desk and the next time she saw her colleagues would be a week or more away.
She walked along to the restaurant, exchanging stunted and intermittent small talk with her deputy, David and a new team member, Josie. The elves skipped and larked ahead, the bells on their green pixie-hats clearing a path in the busy crush of shoppers. The office males watched the office elves. Heads turned in the street as they passed, even in this busy city with so many parties, these elves made an impression.
In Big Joe’s, they joined a throng of noise, bodies, alcohol and food. Swept instantly to their table by a theatrically bored waitress, who announced that she was Sasha and she was their server today, before plonking down jugs of purple-coloured drinks at each end of the table: The Welcome Cocktail. Sasha shouted instructions at them regarding how long they were allowed to occupy the table before the next party arrived, the rule regarding the throwing of food, and demanded to know the identities of The Fish and The Veggie. Food arrived, wine was ordered, Elizabeth, as always, had given sufficient money to David to buy many bottles of wine, her gift to the team.
Sitting beside Elizabeth, Josie had drawn the short straw. Flicking anxious glances around the table, Josie wished she was an elf. Next year. In the meantime, ‘are you doing anything nice for Christmas?’ she asked Elizabeth. Elizabeth knew that an honest answer was not required. She could (but would not) honestly reply, ‘No, Josie, not really. You see, I live alone since the death of my parents and my only living relative is a cousin in New Zealand. When I leave the office tonight, I might not see or speak to a soul until I come back to the office on the 2nd of January. And you, Josie?’
That would fail to convey the real truth. Yes, she’d be alone but after many years of railing against her lot, time had dulled this, and now, this week of solitude each year, had become welcome and full of promise. She was not without friends, albeit a small number and they were often busy with their own families at Christmas time. Being alone at this time of year had in fact become her choice, now. Besides, to reply truthfully would make Josie cringe with awkward blushes. It would cast a brief but painful pall of silence around them, infecting their listening neighbours with a mixture of pity and fear – most people fear solitude and thus, by association, those who endure it, Elizabeth knew this.
‘Oh yes, I always enjoy this time of year, I’ll have a nice quiet time.’ That was the correct response. Josie, relieved, told Elizabeth all about her own plans, still living at home with her mum, how she’d see her boyfriend and her mates. ‘I never know what to buy my boyfriend ‘cos men are hard to buy for aren’t they? All he says is get me some music. He loves his music, but you can’t just give your boyfriend that, can you? For his 18th I bought him a gold chain but that was a special birthday and anyway, we’re saving up to buy a flat. So me and his mum are clubbing together to get him a Red Letter Day…you know, a special day out, he wants to go quad biking…’
Elizabeth marked the passage of time in Big Joe’s by the milestones of courses and drinks. Josie was a nice girl, she thought, and blessed with that gift Elizabeth had never owned – the gift of being able to chatter and fill silence with words until there was no more space to fill. Elizabeth had longed for it once, had tried to nurture it and practice its art, to no avail. Her mother had been a talker, Elizabeth was much more like her father, a quiet man, happy at home, peaceful and content.
No, Elizabeth thought, in her very limited experience, men were not hard to buy for. Admittedly, the only man for whom she had ever bought gifts had been her father, but she always knew precisely the right gift for him and he had always been so happy with her careful and thoughtful choices.
Elizabeth feared that the purple cocktail, from which she took tiny sips at five minute intervals, might be staining her teeth. It tasted of soap and sugar with a huge slug of a possibly eastern European spirit providing an unwelcome burning kick. Josie, unused to drinking, was very pink and shiny. Next year, she’d be an old hand. Plates and cups were whisked away, it was time to vacate the table and allow the next sitting to take their places. Deeper into the recesses of the restaurant, a tiny dance floor was thronged with post-lunch party goers. Deep and insistent bass music literally made the soles of Elizabeth’s feet vibrate and her ears itch inside.
More drinks were bought as the office party pressed towards the booths and tables around the dance floor. Time to leave. Elizabeth, a veteran of such situations, had wisely refrained from leaving her coat in the cloakroom, where the queue was now at least fifteen minutes long. She edged towards David. Yelled goodbyes, brief and awkward hugs, huge waves and cheers from the elves, who by now were very drunk.
The door was in sight as she pressed through yet another wave of office parties freshly arriving, eagerly awaiting their Welcome Cocktail jugs. Outside, Elizabeth was surprised, as one often is after being at the cinema during the day time, to find it was still quite light. And beautifully cold. She walked briskly back to the office. Two or three more hours at work and then she’d leave for the holiday.
The train journey home was slightly less crowded than usual, many of the commuters were either already on holiday or at parties such as the one she had recently fled. At her home station, she bought an evening paper as usual and walked home, the crowds thinning as she neared her road, turning off the main street full of lights and people in the shops, into the neat side street where she had lived all life. Many windows were bright with Christmas lights. Elizabeth regretted the recent practice of more and more decorations coming out each year, reindeer on porches, inflatable snowmen keeling wildly about in front gardens as they slowly leaked air, trees laden with nets of lights.
Round the bend in the road, her own house came in sight. Soft, creamy white lights bordered her front window. Small red velvet ribbons were tied to the branches of the two bay trees at the front door. How amazed her colleagues would have been to see that she did acknowledge Christmas after all. Inside, a tree stood in the hallway, small, but fresh and alive in its pot.
The tree decorations were old, each one evoking a childish Christmas memory. This tiny pair of scales with a pearly hoop to hang on the tree had been given to her mother by her father more than fifty years ago. Delicately beaded slippers, doll-sized, with Turkish pointy toes, hung on a faded red satin ribbon. Her father had told her that these slippers were worn by the Christmas Tree Fairy each night for dancing, and each dawn, as long as the tree was up, she’d carefully hang the slippers back on the branches before slipping off to sleep all day. Each morning when the young Elizabeth had run downstairs to see the tree again, the slippers would, just as he said, be hung back on the tree – but always in a different position. Proof, had she needed it, that the story was true. Tarnished but still gleaming, a set of glass baubles in all the vivid jewel colours her father had loved, chosen by a five year old Elizabeth in Woolworth’s almost forty years ago. A childish string of cardboard discs, covered in red shiny paper, made by her at school and lovingly stored by her mother for all these years. Each New Year’s day, she packed them away in the wooden box her father had made for them, and with a tinge of sadness, put them back into the attic. Each December, one week before Christmas day, the tree was brought in from the garden and the box unpacked. Then she did really commune across the years with her parents again and feel them to be somehow, and all too briefly, sitting with her, watching her excitement and pleasure as each one was unpacked and rediscovered.
The house was warming up, the heating was welcoming her home. So, Christmas had begun, a week of leisure was upon her, wanted or not. Drawing the curtains, lighting the fire, cooking her supper, Elizabeth made her plans for the seven days ahead.
Each Christmas Eve, she and her father had had a ritual which only they shared. This was to invent, each year, some excuse to walk from the house to the shops on the High Street, just before they all closed for the holiday. Although all the shopping had been done, (certainly her mother would have seen to that) her father had always said, at about two o’clock, ‘Beth, come on, I have to go to the shops for your mother.’ Her mother would smile and tut, excluded from the game but happy to see them play. ‘We haven’t got any bacon, Beth, will you come with me to the butcher?’ Or it might be coffee beans, or dates, or chestnuts. Off they’d go, buy the shopping and then walk about the High Street, watching the chemist and Woolworth’s and the green grocer shutting up for Christmas. Just before they actually did close, and it all became too sad, they’d hurry home with the bacon, and shutting the door behind him, her father would call to her mother. ‘All are safely gathered in,’ he’d say, happy because he had all he had ever wanted, and they were both safe.
Elizabeth spent the next day – Christmas Eve – at home as usual. She read the morning paper, feeling luxurious and lazy because it was a weekday. She emailed her cousin in New Zealand. She looked with pleasure at the food in the fridge and in the freezer and in the pantry.
She knitted. Beside the chair in the sitting room stood a small wooden blanket chest. Elizabeth sat in the chair and reached into the box, fetching out an old cloth work bag with worn wooden handles. Her fingers worked quickly and smoothly. Dark rose-wood knitting needles gleamed, and butter-soft yarn, glowing rich wine-red, slipped through her hands, onto the needles, off the needles, the fabric of the knitting growing and gathering into her lap. At her side, the old knitting bag yielded the yarn. This bag was etched deep and lovely with all her memories of home and holidays, with its pockets and pins, yarn and needles, lists and books, pebbles, shells and pencils. It had been her mother’s. Now it was hers.
At two o’clock, she put on her coat and gloves, and stood in the hall, looking into the mirror for a moment or two. A narrow, solemn face, the grey eyes and long sloping eyebrows so like her father. Leaving the house, she walked slowly to the High Street. The shops were not the same, but there was still a chemist and green grocers. There was still a butcher’s shop, they were lucky. It was a sought-after area now, with upwardly mobile young families eager to move there. What would her father have made of ‘The Truckle of Cheese’ and ‘The Olive Tree Deli’ she wondered? He would have loved them, she knew that, he would have loved the plenty and the warmth and the newness of far-away foods.
She bought some smoked bacon at the butcher’s and in the delicatessen, a bag of coffee beans. Just before the shops closed, she walked quickly home. Closing the door behind her and leaning back against it, she held the shopping bag close to her face and breathed in the smokey-bacon, coffee bean smells. All was safely gathered in.
© this story is copyright to, and remains in the ownership of, Alison Crowther-Smith.