Last Party at the Argus

Submitted into Contest #21 in response to: Write a short story about a work Christmas party that goes... awry. ... view prompt



It is a truth we probably ought to acknowledge that if an office has never established the tradition of a Christmas party, then there’s possibly a very good reason for it. 

     The staff at the office of the East Counties Argus (which was still surviving though there was talk that it might have to be made into a fortnightly rather than a weekly publication) weren’t a po-faced posse of the successors of Scrooge. They exchanged Christmas cards, which were strung up on green and red striped waxed cord across the window, and there was a neat, almost convincing little plastic tree in the corner of the front office, as they called it. We’ll have to get some new fairy lights, they said, as they had been saying for the last five years (at least). They might even, though not necessarily on the last day before they closed, pass round a packet of mince pies and open a bottle of sherry between them. None of them actually liked sherry that much, but that wasn’t the point. But that wasn’t a party. That didn’t count as a party, and they never put on Christmas music intentionally though if it came on the radio, they didn’t switch it off. Anyone who wished to wear a Christmas jumper was perfectly at liberty to do so, but it was not actively encouraged. 

     Everyone had been quite happy with that tradition (or non-tradition!) until, around the middle of October, Vikkii came along to, temporarily, join the East Counties Argus. It was, on the surface, an arrangement that couldn’t have worked out better. Tabitha was on maternity leave and Vikkii wanted to spend more time near her ailing grandfather, to whom she’d always been very close.

     It would have been so easy, thought Martha Jacobs, who was the theatre/arts correspondent, though they all tended to multi-task, which made it sound so much better, if they could have dismissed Vikkii as simply a short-term irritant. She wasn’t. Oh, she was, presumably, short-term or at least only with them until a happy or a sad event or both occurred, and she could most definitely be irritating, and not just because of how she chose to spell her name, which had prompted Arnold Myers (sport/features) to remark that her surname really ought to be Ppeedeya.  But though she was both an incomer and a newcomer, she was no barely post-pubertal intern, whose views could have easily (with that famous mixture of tact and firmness) been squashed. She had worked on the regional press, which might not have been the national, but was a step-up from the local. She could express herself with both grammatical accuracy and a way with words, and had never missed a deadline. Nor could they say she was some kind of grown-up spoilt brat. She was always more than willing to do what the editor-in-chief (not that they had any editors not-in-chief) Clive Edison, called muck in, whether it involved shifting a blockage in the loo, for which she had a decided flair, nor handling the person on the phone who was quite determined they’d change their electricity supplier nor acting as if producing a good piece on the local flower show eclipsed the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. 

     “I like the woman, dammit,” Martha exclaimed, whilst Vikkii was out reporting on a charity afternoon fashion show. 

     “I wouldn’t go that far, but I can live with her,” Elsie May (agony aunt and financial adviser) said. “But she’s obviously not unintelligent – why can’t she just get the message that we don’t do the office Christmas party, and that’s that?”

       Vikkii’s first impression, on learning, some time between Halloween and Remembrance Day, that they didn’t do office Christmas parties, had been one of what appeared to be wholly genuine astonishment and a presumption that they were only joking. “I mean – you have to, don’t you?” she had asked.

     Clive had given her one of those long, directly eye-to-eye stares of his, and said, quietly, “No, we don’t. Christmas parties are entirely optional!”

     She hadn’t sought any kind of confrontation, but had plainly decided this was a battle worth fighting. Vikkii was very good at being reasonable and seeing the other’s point of view. She had let the sleeping party dog lie for a day or so, then raised it in a studiedly casual way, over a coffee, to Martha, whom she had evidently decided was most likely to be her convert in such matters. “Martha, I know I’m the Jackie come lately and I don’t expect others to change their ways to suit mine. But genuinely, honestly, if you’ll excuse the tautology,” (as Martha had been about to silently accuse her of tautology that wasn’t quite fighting fair!) “I’ve never known an office that didn’t have some kind of Christmas party.”

     “It isn’t in any kind of workers’ rights legislation, you know,” Martha said, knocking back a coffee that was both hotter and stronger than she liked, as if to prove some kind of point.

     “Oh, of course not! And don’t get me wrong, I can see exactly why folk don’t like them. I’ve never been unlucky enough to work somewhere where they took photocopies of their own backsides, and frankly, though I’m totally against physical punishment when it comes to kids, I reckon an adult who does that deserves a tanned behind!” Martha happened to agree with her, both on the matter of physical punishment of children and potential adult exceptions, but that was neither here nor there. “But – a few drinks, a bit of music – where on earth is the harm?”

     “We pass round the sherry and there’s often Christmas music on the radio anyway,” Martha said, well aware she was trying to have it both ways, and adding, by means of an alibi, “Sometimes.”

     “I mean – I’m not some kind of party animal who wants to make a big deal about it. But we have the Christmas front cover. We advertise other folks’ Christmas do’s. So – well, why on earth not? Just something cosy and fun and harmless and …..”

     Please don’t say a bonding exercise thought Martha, at the same time as she thought please do. The former would make her want to scream. The latter would give her, and , indeed, all of them, a wholly legitimate excuse NOT to indulge in such things.

     Vikkii evidently decided that it was time to let it drop – temporarily. But Martha was well aware that though she may have declared an armistice in the battle, she hadn’t given up on the war.

     And there was, despite herself, a part of her that could see exactly what Vikkii meant. She most certainly didn’t crave an East Counties Argus Christmas office party, but after all – why not? It could do no harm. And it might be quite nice to have an excuse to get a new top and to indulge in some over-sugared and over-salted nibbles with a bit of karaoke going on. 

     They didn’t go in for hierarchies at the Argus, but if push came to shove, Clive was the boss, and proving to herself that she could do studiedly casual too, she brought up the matter of the hypothetical Christmas party in the middle of a conversation about whether a particular pantomime was part of their geographical remit or not. “You’ve been listening to our mutual friend Victoria,” he said, in a simple statement of fact. He almost always gave her what he called her “full handle”, unless talking directly to her face, and respecting a person’s right to (within reason) be called what they chose, but Martha knew that in his own mind it was spelt Vicky, like the great Queen’s daughter. 

     “We have talked about it, yes.”

     “And has anyone ever tried to stop you, or anyone else, if you really want to have one?”

     “Of course not. But – “

    “We used to, you know. Back in Dad’s day.” 

     Clive hardly ever made much of the fact that his Dad, also called Clive, had been editor before him, even back in the days when it was a daily newspaper. Clive senior had been no revolutionary, and had no objection to the hereditary principle when it came to the monarchy, but had been absolutely insistent on his son making his own way and, in a favourite phrase of his, earning his own spurs. 

     Until fairly recently, Clive Senior, who was still as bright as a button, had used to come into the office, though he never interfered. Sometimes, in a very old-fashioned way, and just because it was habit and custom, the staff referred to him as Mr Clive. More behind his back than they did to his face! It was mainly just a means of clarifying things. “Clive” wasn’t a name that lent itself easily to shortened forms or nicknames, and this Junior and Senior business, let alone the 1st and the 2nd, well, it just sounded a bit false and forced in the office of a local newspaper on a cobbled market square in the East of England. So, as much for convenience and clarity as anything else, father and son were Mr Clive and Clive. 

     Mr Clive, so Clive told his colleagues, was not exactly a party animal, “And nor was Tom Peterson, who was the editor in chief then, when editor in chief meant something. You’ve seen that photo of him, though Dad told me he wasn’t quite as stern as you’d think from the impression it gave, he liked formal pictures, but did have a good sense of humour and was no slavedriver. Anyway, they had their office party. They probably would have been just as puzzled as VIkkii at the idea of not having one. Spouses – in those days I suppose most of them were spouses – were asked – more to the point, were expected to come along. They brought in a record player – or later on it may have been a cassette player, and somebody – one of the spouses, generally! – saw to there being cocktail sticks with cubes of cheese and pineapple, and little sandwiches, and mince pies. There was dancing, and even a few party games. Silly, childish ones like musical chairs, and even pass the parcel. I can still remember Mum making the parcel and putting all the layers on, and the last one having a double prize – a woman’s scarf and a tie, and the winner could either take both, one for themselves and one for their spouse, or give the other one away. But there was red wine instead of fizzy orange – or sherry, for that matter. And red wine was still considered a little bit left-field then. It could be gut rot, or something decent someone had brought back from their holidays, or a mixture of both – even in the same glass, sometimes! Folk might have got a bit tipsy, but Mr Peterson wouldn’t have stood for any drunkenness. But that evening, Mr Peterson wasn’t in the office. He’d had a call from school that day that his son had had an accident in the gym. It turned out not to be too serious, only a sprained ankle, but he was a family man and felt better spending the evening at home rather than drinking red wine and playing party games. The thing is, Mr Peterson was – well, like Dad, really. Whether it was work or play, he wasn’t always interfering and laying the law down, and wasn’t heavy-handed, but there were things folk just didn’t do when he was around, and if they were starting to, then one look and saying, “Please, ladies and gentlemen,” in that quiet way of his was enough to bring them to their senses. This has always been a friendly office, but no Utopia, and sometimes a party can bring tensions to the surface more than any deadline or crisis. Tom Peterson was quite ahead of his time in some ways, and there was a female agricultural reporter.  Cecily, she was called, but was nicknamed the “Farmer’s Wife” though – well, I’m sorry if this offends your feminist principles, Elsie and Martha, but she would have been a very sexy farmer’s wife. Curves in all the right places, long dark hair, a great complexion …..”

     “Stop indulging in fantasies about a woman who’d be old enough to be your granny, and get on with it,” Martha said.

     “Sorry. Anyway, Mike, the business correspondent – yes, we had one of them in those days, too – definitely fancied her. And I think it was reciprocated. Which would have been fine – nothing wrong with an office romance, despite the new Puritanism and all that – but Mike was married – Irene, she was called. And apparently, for some reason known only to him – after all, he was more or less sure to be found out – he told Irene that Cecily had a face like a cow’s backside. Then she comes to the party and finds out otherwise, and jumps to the conclusion that he wouldn’t have told a lie without a good – or bad reason. The irony is that she was by no means unattractive herself, though I gather she had a taste for frills and flounces, and Cecily went in for the simple and elegant. At first, the three of them were surface-civilised. The thing is ….. Cecily had a significant other, too, though she wasn’t married, but he’d gone down with the flu. I wonder how things might have turned out if he’d dodged the virus, but we’ll never know. They weren’t only playing Christmas music, and Ring of Fire came on. Cecily laughed and said “They’re playing our song!” Here is where it gets a bit odd – it was their song, but so far as the song itself was concerned, not in a romantic way. Remember, you were allowed to smoke in the office then, and Cecily liked to say that only her alertness stopped Mike from setting the place on fire when he dropped missed the bin with a butt that was still smouldering and it was on the point of setting the carpet on fire when she saw it – or smelt it, more like – and stamped it out with her foot. There was still a mark they couldn’t get rid of – it was a pale grey carpet – but if Mr Peterson noticed anything, he decided not to make an issue of it. Irene was already a bit tipsy, but she could still move pretty quickly, especially when she wasn’t concerned about who or what she ploughed down in her wake. I gather that Cecily was up for it, but Irene wasn’t especially interested in her, and just said, “Get out of the way, cow-face. That’s what lover-boy calls you, isn’t it?” In a vain hope of avoiding a crisis and introducing a bit of peace on earth, good will to men, someone had changed the music to Silver Bells but they could have spared themselves the trouble. She’d still have headed for Mike if the London Philharmonic Orchestra had materialised in person. There were – two things that have never happened here since then. One was the office Christmas party. The other was having a pale coloured carpet – it had to be taken up and thrown away, of course.”

     “Red wine does stain,” Martha said, “And that business about white wine shifting it – it’s just a waste of wine …..”

     And then she realised, as they all did, that he wasn’t talking about red wine.

December 23, 2019 07:59

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