A short story for those for whom the Christmas spirit is cynicism. Content note (white text; highlight to read): hospital trauma; implied stillbirth; enforced fun; social awkwardness.
It was dark outside. Rain pattered half-heartedly against the window. The meeting was almost over.
‘Item five, office renovations. Roy’s office should be finished next week. After that we can have the meeting room back and not have to do our team meetings in the middle of the office, which I admit isn’t ideal.’ Donna looked over the top of her spectacles. ‘Finally, arrangements for Christmas social events, and then you can all go. Over to you, Carol.’
Carol smiled at the team. ‘Friday is Christmas Jumper Day! It’s all for a good cause! Two pounds if you wear a Christmas jumper! Ten pounds – Scrooge tax – if you don’t!’
‘Ten pounds?’ somebody squeaked.
Carol pretended she hadn’t heard that, and continued to smile around the office. She had saved the best news until last.
‘And… you’ll never guess what! I’ve been able to change the booking for the Christmas dinner! I’ve had to bring it forward a bit, but I’ve looked at everybody’s diaries, and I’ve found a date when nobody’s on leave! Not even Justine!’
‘Oh,’ Justine said. She didn’t seem particularly pleased.
Carol asked, ‘Is there something wrong?’
‘I don’t celebrate Christmas,’ Justine said in a flat, emotionless tone.
‘Oh, come on, Justine!’ Carol said. ‘Get in the spirit of things! Even Amina’s coming out!’
Amina smiled tightly and said nothing.
‘Personally,’ Tim said, ‘I’m with Justine.’
Betrayed, Carol whirled round. ‘You can’t tell me that you don’t celebrate Christmas!’
He smiled slyly. ‘I can. It’s against my religion to celebrate Christmas before the twenty-fifth of December. I’m celebrating Advent at the moment.’
Carol did her best to be patient, but this was just like Tim. ‘You’re just being pedantic now.’
‘Perhaps I am,’ Tim said. ‘But honestly, if the Church gives us a whole season in which to be miserable and pessimistic – which is my default state, come on, Carol – you can’t expect me to pretend to be cheerful.’ Behind him, Justine had slunk back to her desk. She was shutting down her computer, slipping her pass into her handbag, and putting her coat on. Tim continued, ‘You need to have some consideration.’
Carol was infuriated. ‘Really,’ she said, ‘I think some people need to lighten up a bit.’
Donna was trying to look disapproving, but she was laughing anyway. ‘I think some people need to grow up. Thank you for that, Carol. I assume everybody’s menu choices still stand?’
‘Well, I’ll need some from Justine, obviously,’ Carol said.
But Justine had gone.
Carol slept badly that night. She always slept badly after distressing encounters like that. And she dreamed.
She was alone. The place was dark, a maze-like complex of shadowy passages. Incomprehensible signs dangled overhead; the floor felt slippery.
‘Hospital…’ she murmured. But not like St Mary’s. This wasn’t her rheumatology outpatients’ appointment; this was much longer ago than last Wednesday.
The sound of a radio drifted down the long, low-ceilinged corridor. The stars in the bright sky… Nobody was around. Carol held her breath. She knew that she was out of place.
A voice. ‘Please… please… come back… don’t make me stay here… let it be over…’ It was familiar; it belonged to someone she knew, a woman, but scared, and young. She couldn’t place it.
… the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…
‘No, oh, no… please…’
Walking on tiptoe, Carol followed the voice.
Somewhere in one of the other rooms – wards, they must be wards – a baby was crying. But Carol was walking away from the baby, towards the voice, towards the grief and the pain. She wanted to stop, but she couldn’t; her feet wouldn’t obey her. She just kept on following that voice.
It was too late. Whatever was happening, it was too late. And yet it wasn’t ending.
Footsteps. Not hers. Someone was coming, someone in charge, someone who could do something. ‘Why didn’t you come before?’ she asked. ‘Why didn’t you come before it was too late?’ But the figure walked straight past Carol as if it couldn’t hear her. She shrank into a corner, knowing that neither of them could see her or hear her, yet still feeling that she was intruding.
The rustle of paper. ‘Justine Denham?’
Justine. Of course it was.
‘Mrs Denham. I’m so sorry.’ The voice was kind, but uninvolved. It skated over the surface of the pain and loneliness. It had other things to worry about. Living, crying babies. ‘I realise this is all very upsetting for you, but you need to pull yourself together.’
The door opened and shut, and Justine was alone again. Except that Carol was there, too.
‘No Justine today?’ Carol said brightly.
Tim looked up. ‘First Aid course. She said she’d come in if it finished early, but I don’t see how she’d manage it. It’s miles away.’
‘Oh,’ Carol said. To tell the truth, she was relieved. She had no idea what she was going to say to Justine. Justine, I had this dream… Ridiculous. Justine, I found out why you don’t like Christmas… No. Horrible. Justine, I’m really sorry. It’s none of my business what you do at Christmas time, and I shouldn’t have pushed you… That was… getting there?
She pushed it from her mind and logged on to her computer.
When she passed the reception desk on the way out, Roy was talking to Michelle. He caught Carol as she passed. ‘Just a minute, Carol. I’ve just been telling Michelle, she doesn’t need to wear a jumper tomorrow. I want her presenting a professional impression on the front desk here. So you don’t need to charge her, er, ten pounds.’
Carol smiled at Roy. ‘Oh, come on, Roy. It’s Christmas. It’s not fair on poor Michelle, to keep her out of the fun.’
Michelle was blushing furiously. ‘It’s up to you,’ she said. It wasn’t clear who she meant by you. ‘I’m quite happy not to wear one.’
‘Don’t be silly, Michelle,’ Carol said. ‘Of course you must wear one. You don’t want to be left out.’
She dreamed again that night.
Darkness. Not lonely, like yesterday. This was chilly, intimate darkness, smelling of humans and cheap soap. Somebody’s bedroom? But goodness, it was cold.
Someone was in there. Carol could hear breathing. Two people, close to sleep, but not quite there. Suddenly, a sigh.
‘What’s up?’ A man’s voice.
‘Nothing.’ This time, Carol knew the voice immediately. Michelle.
‘I bet it isn’t.’
‘Carol, at work. Christmas jumper day. Two quid. And if we don’t turn up in a jumper, then she’s going to charge us a tenner. Scrooge tax, she says.’
The man – he must be Michelle’s husband – sucked his breath in through his teeth. ‘A tenner? She’s got to be joking.’
‘You don’t know her,’ Michelle said. ‘She isn’t. It’s going to be cheaper to buy the bloody jumper.’
‘I don’t suppose my mum could knit…?’
A bubble of laughter. ‘Amazing and lovely as your mum is, even she couldn’t knit me a jumper in eight hours. Anyway, I’d have to give her money for the wool.’
He tried again. ‘I haven’t topped up the gas key yet…’
‘It’s not going to last if you don’t, is it?’
‘No,’ the man admitted.
Michelle sighed again. ‘OK. I’ll just tell Carol we can’t afford it, and let her think what she thinks, stuck-up cow. I’m not having the kids going cold. Or you. It’s not like I need a jumper in the office.’
And yet, when Carol got in the next morning (a little late; the traffic was appalling) Michelle was sitting there in a bright red jumper with white snowflakes knitted into it. ‘Good morning, Carol,’ she said sweetly. ‘Two pounds, wasn’t it?’
Flabbergasted, Carol took the money. She thought of saying something, but all she could think of was, ‘Well. Thank you.’
All day she wondered about it.
Tonight, the lights were blazing. There was no mystery about where the dream had taken her this time. Back to the office. But it wasn’t as she’d left it. The computers were newer, sleeker; the blinds had been changed; the pot plant on Tim’s desk had grown about a foot.
Tim was there himself, and Donna. (Blonde suits her, Carol thought.)
‘So,’ Tim was saying. ‘Christmas party day. Your first one as senior manager. How’s that going?’
‘Take your feet off the desk,’ Donna said, not meaning it. ‘It’s going fine. It’s the first year that poor Justine hasn’t had to pull a sickie to get out of it.’
‘Well, I hope she’s enjoying wherever it is she’s gone,’ Tim said. ‘If she’s gone anywhere. Maybe she’s just having a quiet day at home. You never wrote a single one of those sick days down, did you?’
‘Roy told me not to,’ Donna said.
Tim nodded. ‘It’s fair enough. We all knew that she’d have been in work if only Carol hadn’t badgered her into going to the Christmas dinner. And it’s not as if anybody would have been doing any work, anyway.’
Donna said, ‘I always thought that Roy should have had the fight with Carol. Tell her to lay off a bit. But he never would. I think he was scared she’d go to the tabloids or something. War on Christmas.’ She chuckled. ‘You used to do a good job of drawing her fire.’
‘Oh, shut up. I saw you slipping your Christmas jumper to Michelle and stumping up a tenner, the year before last.’
‘I seem to remember that I had a meeting with the national head of Finance,’ Donna said stiffly.
Tim snorted. ‘Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it.’
‘I did. You put it in my diary yourself.’
‘Oh, Carol,’ Tim said, shaking his head.
‘She meant well,’ Donna said.
‘Yes,’ Tim agreed, his voice carefully neutral.
There was a little silence, and then Donna said, in a rush, ‘But, do you know, I’m really enjoying things this year.’
‘Peace,’ Tim said. ‘Goodwill to all. Particularly the peace. It’s rather nice, isn’t it?’
Carol’s first thought was, Didn’t I have a retirement do, then? Then she opened her eyes. Her work skirt and blouse were hanging, neatly pressed, from the hook on the back of the bedroom door. It was still very much now.
‘I haven’t missed anything,’ she said, out loud.
Then she remembered.
Justine, alone in the hospital. Michelle, scratching around for cash to keep her children warm. Donna, tactfully admitting that Carol was a management nightmare.
Her face was hot. She wasn’t sure she could face any of them. Maybe she should pull a sickie herself. Surely they didn’t think those things about her. Surely not. After all, it had only been a dream. Even if it was true – and she didn’t believe it, not for a moment – well, then, it had given her a useful insight. Perhaps the restaurant would change the booking back. And she could tell Michelle that she’d thought about it all and agreed with Roy after all: it would look more professional if she didn’t wear a Christmas jumper.
Really, she thought, Tim and Donna, talking behind her back like that!
Michelle had found two pounds from somewhere, hadn’t she? She couldn’t have been as desperate as all that.
And it would do Justine good to go out with the gang and take her mind off it all.
No, Carol would go to work today, and she wasn’t going to change a single thing.
You know, she’d say, last night I dreamt I was retired. And I was really upset because I couldn’t remember my retirement do! So let’s make this Christmas one to remember!