Pierce sits at the back of the hall, wishing to go unnoticed. A man and a woman sit next to him. They’re of similar age but act younger. The couple smile, share a joke; the man holds an expensive looking digital camcorder and makes a big play about not knowing how it works.
Pierce suspects the man knows exactly how it works.
The rows of seats begin to fill up: expectant, excited parents filing into the assembly hall, the murmur of voices mingling with the jagged screech of metal legs from moulded plastic chairs, scratching across the wooden floor. Fond eyes glancing at the stage, hoping to catch a glimpse of their sons and daughters: adults young enough to remember their own star performances of past nativities. Amazed that they have reached an age to be the audience of their own off-spring.
Pierce scans the room; he spots her two rows from the front. Lora. She’s with a man, vaguely familiar. Navy suit, no tie, his arm resting on the back of her seat.
A piano: Away in a Manger.
Children shuffle onto the stage, emerging from behind cardboard palm trees. The adults shift, sway from left to right, craning necks for a better view. Arms at odd angles, red lights blinking on digi-cams.
He’s there. Pierce spots him immediately; small, fragile body draped in a brown robe, wisps of blonde hair escaping the pink tea-towel on his head. Pierce straightens his back, suppresses the urge to shout, to stand, to wave his arms. He looks towards Lora. She’s waving excitedly at the stage; the boy, seeing his mum, smiling. He’s always been a good natured boy.
The man beside him holds his camera aloft, above bobbing heads. His eyes are glazed, a thin wet streak from an escaped tear running down his cheek. He’s crying. I want to cry too, Piercethinks. He doesn’t. His chest feels tight. He hasn’t seen the boy in six months, since before he went away. He’s grown, he thinks.
The play winds its predictable, cute, way to a climax. Each cast member reciting a line, wringing sentiment out of the receptive crowd. From the stage the boy looks out, across the rows, towards the back. Pierce raises a hand, instinctively, giving a thumbs up sign. The boy raises his in response.
Lora turns; she looks back through the rows of parents. They catch each others stare. Pierce shouldn’t be here. They told him to stay away until he’d proved himself. But how could he stay away? He looks at her, pleading.
The children on stage begin singing: Once in Royal David’s City.
Lucy nods, half smiles, then looks back towards the stage.
That’s the term used for this particular Friday of the working calendar. The day when the offices and workplaces across the country down tools, logout of Windows, step away from their desktops, give advance apologies of hangovers to come via their Facebook status and, if legend is to be believed, start using the photocopier to take pictures of their genitalia.
As Noddy Holder might scream:
The day when the white collared descend upon the restaurants and bars of the city centre. The day that deems it ok to drink into a stupendous stupor and slur insults and innuendo across the long, paper covered table of torn party hats, bad jokes and spilled wine as Wizard play and compete for sonic supremacy above the din of drunken workers who’ve replaced bringing toys and top trumps to school with this tawdry adult equivalent of the last day of term. When managers mix awkwardly with minions and laugh at the tinsel on the Rudolph tie as though this is eccentricity gone mad. The day that the men and women who never drink decide that they’re Oliver Reed incarnate, consuming the beer and the wine and the gin and the Aftershock in a fashion that suggests they think Prohibition is going to be declared and they better get their share in before they teeter, fall, throw up and cry or fight or otherwise jeopardise their careers or families.
My experience of such events is limited, my career path has kept me away from office environments for most of my working life and so I only note from the point of casual observer. But to me, it seems like a ritual to be endured rather than enjoyed. I love Christmas, and never have I felt as though I were missing out by not attending an office party. In my younger days I worked briefly for one of those major High Street Banks that we all know and loathe – I was young and needed the money – and did have the displeasure of attending one such do. It started in an Italian restaurant in Cardiff where all was sedate and pleasant and the food was good. I was seated by a few older women and one of the hotshot salesmen/account managers who lacked not for confidence or something to say. The women were nice in the true sense of the word and as such I found I had almost nothing to say that contributed to the conversation as we all made polite and slightly awkward small talk before the alcohol had a chance to take effect.
By the end of the meal, after the coffee and the panettone, the mints and the Cointreau (yes, really) the tongues had loosened as well as the ties, some of which were now hilariously wrapped around foreheads (ties that is) and the salesman across the table, whose radar I’d never once appeared on before then, had decided that I was his new best friend and protégé whose wing I really needed to be taken under. As we moved to the bar so I was inaugurated into the sanctum of these high-flying financiers and their little clique of twattishness to revel in the wit of crass misogyny and casual racism. From here the evening descended into a mire of drunkenness, of tears and tantrums, bad singing and instantly regretted snogs between co-workers who would soon have some serious explaining to do. I left, my brain addled and the worse for drink, my soul a little tainted by the whole experience.
You can see, perhaps, why my view of the Christmas party is somewhat skewed.
In defence of those who do enjoy and indulge in these affairs I somewhat suspect the problem is partly mine. Firstly, my own limited experience was not a memory to be held in particular fondness and I’m sure there are many examples that are considerably more pleasant. Also, I’ve never entirely enjoyed these types of gatherings where you are thrust together with people with whom I have little in common. Don’t get me wrong I love going out and think myself as a reasonably sociable sort. But among people with whom I consider friends or at the very least, whose company I rather enjoy being within, and where I’ve made a conscious decision to do so – rather than simply thrust together because we all happen to share a place of work. It comes from being inherently shy as a boy, a condition that often manifested itself as being rude or bored or both. As a child my least favourite time of Christmas was the children’s party arranged by my dad’s workplace, where I would have to sit through party games and renditions of jingle bells with kids I didn’t know and didn’t really feel any inclination to get to know. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely while I couldn’t wait for Father Christmas to arrive so I could get my selection box and return to the familiarity and comfort of home.
What an ungrateful little sod I was, eh?
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