The CEO declared the holiday season begun with a tug of his party popper. Men and women who had not spoken to each other in months failed once more to engage meaningfully in conversation. Managers hovered close to their dens on the outskirts of the open-plan or gazed through the frosted windows to their cars lamp-lit in the snow out front, while administrators scurried backwards and forwards between partitions foraging for cold beers, Frankenfurters, and mirth. Anticipation of Christmas bonuses kept everyone in their place.
Thirty minutes into the third motivational speech, Diana decided she really hated office parties and judging by the collective sigh so did everyone else. She didn´t have much reason to be there under the banner reading ´Good will to all men´. She would rather have been in the car and away. It was her first Christmas with her new family and she still hadn´t got everything on the gift list. Linda and she both had children from different marriages so holidays were always testing. If only the CEO Duncan didn´t have the habit of phoning staff at inconvenient moments to chase up work.
She hadn´t made much of an effort to dress up. Despite the tiresome emails that had been round-robined weeks before the big day, she chose to wear what she always wore: a grey work suit that Kim Jong-il would have approved of – strictly business. It was baggier on her since she had the diet.
Diana started to make her way to her man as the golf clap simmered down. He wasn´t difficult to spot because of his shock of red hair topped with a gold paper crown, and the tinsel he wore around his neck. It also helped that he was the tallest in the room – far taller than the plastic tree whose sharply lit bulbs and baubles made visitors to the reception area wince. Duncan kept everyone talking as he bounded from circle to circle shaking hands. The inadequates and the po-faced were unable to barricade themselves in claiming missed deadlines and heavy workloads. Duncan, the major chairholder´s only son had made the celebration mandatory. That was why Diana was there; even the killjoys of the world partied.
Diana´s rival for the next promotion, Roger, looked dishevelled though he was dressed almost identically to his boss. His shirt was so tight around the belly the buttons were almost pinging off, and the back of his suit was heavily rumpled. Roger didn´t have much cause to travel yet every time there was even a hint of a conference, he was there with his mobile phone in one hand, wheelie suitcase in the other. Duncan swanned from conference to conference like they were delightful soireés. Roger sweated in the airport lounge while his wife read out the telephone numbers he had forgotten to add onto his phone from the home computer.
Free flowing alcohol and the anticipation of feasts to come with loved ones loosened chapped lips. Male filing clerks stood in line rubbernecking the familiar talent, hands in pockets. Blouses began to unbutton, gestures became grander, and giggles exploded raucously. Grown men gave chase. As in previous years, the affairs of the office generated office affairs and finally gossip. And as in previous years, Diana was determined her private life would remain private. Eyes peeped over the tops of glasses and photos were taken without consent. No-one could stop the nosey parkers because they masked their snooping with copious anounts of sugary Christmas glee.
The CEO´s wife, Morgan, was weaving a path between the lumpen revellers with a tray loaded with flutes of pink champagne balanced in one hand. Morgan had dressed up for the occasion as a tight-fitting Mrs. Santa Claus of polyester, velcro and pom-poms. The tiniest motion would have sent the tottering crystal to the ground with a jarring smash and a forthy puddle. Diana put a brake on.
“Oh, Diana,” said Morgan. “I really must introduce you to some friends of mine who wanted to meet the mad people I work with. I told them you´re all a hoot.”
“Can´t it wait?” said Diana.
“Darling,” said Morgan. “The Hendersons will be so disappointed if they don´t get to speak to a member of our Risk Management team.”
Two earnest faces appeared before her, and one stretched out a hand, “That must be so interesting.”
The resulting conversation was not as awkward as Diana had imagined – it was worse. That knock knock joke she made, remembered from a Christmas cracker, was inadvisable. She had to explain the punchline several times to increasingly jerky head nodding from her stupefied audience. She could glimpse Roger ushering Duncan away from the archiving team and follow the thread of the golden crown. It appeared again in front of the closed-off conference room by the fire exit and then was gone. Diana knew she would have to take the initiative if she wanted to get the statements to her man.
“Another.” Diana swung for a flute and veered away from Duncan´s beaming wife and her guests. “Really must dash”. Grimacing, she captained the crystal ship over heads and under bunting. Her breath constricted.
She could hear the polite teeheeheeing of Duncan, ahead, offset by Roger´s donkey guffaw. Laughter passed person to person from the pair at the centre. Those within each new ripple were increasingly less aware of why they were laughing. Every gasp made her woozy, every snigger notched up the tension in her body.
Diana made a heavy turn around a portly body studying the meats tray, and lost her footing in her desperation to escape the enforced jollity. Thwack! The folder under her arm juddered and bucked. There was a shriek.
“Where am I?” said a frail voice.
A doe-eyed elderly gentleman with a delicious-looking sponge cake half-exploded in his white beard lay at Diana´s feet.
“You!” said the old man.
It wasn´t like she knew him; she had probably seen him once as she was passing through accounting on the way to smoke a cigarette on the fire escape. She must have left an impression. His tantrum face reminded her of her stepdaughter´s, Natalie, who held her breath and threw herself on the ground and flailed her fists. The expression made her feel oddly homesick.
“I´m …” said Diana.
The doe-eyed man coughed up an entire cherry, and the onlookers gasped.
“Oh my goodness,” yelped Morgan who had come to assess the damage. “Mr. Mankin, what on Earth are you doing on the floor?”
Morgan dressed as Mrs.Christmas reached out a hand but it was brushed away as vigourously as it was offered.
“I think he´s had a little too much of the Christmas spirit,” said Diana. She pointed at the old man and lifted an outstretched finger and thumb to her open mouth. Diana made for the conference room door. All she could hear was the old man saying, “It was her. It was her I tell you.”
Chairs acted as boundaries partitioning off areas keeping the free-flowing festivity in and office routine out. Behind her, Diana could hear Morgan reassuring the man, “Let´s get you back into the chair. Another glass of bubbly, Mr Mankin?” She didn´t look back. There was a sense of liberty and dread as she pushed the chairs aside and the metal feet squealed against the tiling.
Seeing the pine door ajar, she stepped inside prepared to break into the conversation with a witty rejoinder, and hand over the paperwork before taking her leave. She wasn´t ready to find her boss and her work colleague kissing in a clearly non-professional way.
They parted. Roger hid his hands behind his back. Duncan smiled it off until a voice was heard through the open doorway:
“Merry Christmas,” replied Diana – completely flummoxed as to the right words in such an awkward situation.
“For God´s sake,” said Duncan. “Close the bloody door!”
It banged shut with a flick of Diana´s boot.
“I´m dreadfully sorry, it was just,” said Diana. “I don´t mean to bother you. You both, I mean, it´s just the papers – well, statements.”
She reached for the folder under her arm, and in her haste forgot all about the Champagne flute. She saw the droplets as if hung motionless in the air. Lengthy mental calculations were made instantaneously before the Champagne went all over trousers and shirt with a splosh.
Roger was quick to whip out a handkerchief from his backpocket and begin dabbing at the wet spot on seeing his boss´s distress. Diana did the same pulling a screwed-up tissue from the cuff of her blouse and going down on her knees. She didn´t want to ruin her relationship with Duncan so close to Christmas and all the bills to be paid.
Upon applying the tissue to the damp area she discovered her hands had flecks of cream upon them which speckled the CEO´s trousers with suspicious white marks. When Diana finally saw the result she wanted to cry. Why couldn´t life be simple? Find man, give papers, and leave.
In his determination to dry the shirt, Roger pulled the tails out of Duncan´s trousers. Diana couldn´t believe what she was seeing.
“Roger, I´m a grown man,” said Duncan. “I´m perfectly capable of cleaning myself up.”
“I´m so…” said Diana. “Sorry.”
What else could she say. It wasn´t like she knew them other than in a professional capacity. She didn´t have time to speak further before there was a knock at the door.
“Duncan” Morgan´s voice carried around the cubicle in which they were trapped. “I need you a moment. One of the guests has done himself an injury. You know Mr. Mankin.”
Diana sighed. Yes, she definitely knew Mr. Mankin and she was quite getting sick of the old man though she barely knew him.
No-one needed to say the situation was getting out of control.
“Yes, dear,” said Duncan. “I´m prepping for the end of year speech.”
Diana raised an eyebrow. In all her time in the company, she had never seen him organise anything. She had heard Duncan got his personal secretary to buy all his presents and cards for him because he hated negotiating the traffic and the crowds. When she told her partner, Linda, this, it made her laugh. Duncan´s cronies did everything for him. Not always especially well, mind. Roger was making as ham-fisted a job of trying to get the shirt tails back into the trousers as he did with all his assignments. Diana looked over them before they got sent up to Duncan so she could laugh over his deplorable spelling mistakes.
Duncan batted Roger´s hands away. “For God´s sake, man!”
This was not the moment to discover the CEO went commando. As the two men fought to maintain respectability the trousers came down in a shiver of fabric and the CEO twanged backwards and forwards in Roger´s hand. Diana was transfixed by the downy lightning bolt down its centre. With the dropping of Duncan´s pants, came a whole world of trouble.
Alarmed expressions were exchanged as the handle rattled. “Duncan, honey. I can tell when you´re lying.”
“Can´t this wait, dear,” said Duncan, looking down at himself exposed to his two employees.
There was no hiding to be done: not under the giant glass table, nor behind the conference projector screen bedecked with holly which stood at the end of the room and had a clear gap at the bottom where the feet would show. Duncan bobbed up and down as the CEO shuffled-hopped his hairy legs to the door, trousers round his ankles and the belt buckle clanking. The other two came close behind. Duncan managed to curb the door´s long arc with the mass of his stocky frame. Diana and Roger secured it hunched beneath him.
“Well, don´t the silly man get up,” came Morgan through the door “Tell him no.”
“This is not the time,” said Duncan.
“Oh, for god´s sake. What now?” came Morgan´s voice one last time followed by the clacking of her heels.
Diana breathed a sigh of relief as did the other two. Everything was going to be okay. Duncan and Roger both looked shaken.
“I think we´re safe, ” said Roger.
There was no time to act when the carol, Good King Wencelas, reverberated around the room from the big screen at the back. The wide-hearted eyes and mouths of the office staff were beaming through on conference call. The laptop that controlled the screen hadn´t been been disconnected allowing anyone to phone in, like, for instance, Morgan.
Diana stopped to watch the two men who were frenetically readying themselves for the breach. She heard the simmering mob through the speakers. The two seemed so vulnerable side by side. Oh, why had Duncan let desire get the better of him? She tried to think her way out of the situation but she knew there was no escape.
On the screen the lights from a dozen cameras blazed like a yuletide log and the merrymakers pointed and laughed. The sounds of the party drifted through the speakers. There was music but no one was dancing. There was food but no one was eating. There was booze but no-one was drinking. They were staring and they were pointing. The three approached the screen trying to discern faces from the mass of bodies but the features were out of focus.
“Duncan, you little bastard,” came the shriek from behind the door. “I´m going to crucify you when I get my hands on you.” There was a hush and a click as the door swung open to reveal Mrs. Santa Claus, lit up from above like brimstone by the emergency exit light.