Sunday, December 03, 2006

A short story for this time of year


After I’d settled into the hotel room, unpacking my spongebag, hanging up suits and blouses in the wardrobe, and plugging in the laptop ready for the inevitable evening working, I took the advent calendar Malcolm had given me out of a large envelope. I re-opened the three windows which had been squashed flat, and stood it on the desk.
We don’t make a fuss about Christmas, usually both work flat out till the last minute, then treat it as a long weekend. The advent calendar was a first that year, because I was going to be away from home I suppose. I wasn’t sure that I liked the gesture - was it so I could count the days till we were back together?
‘It’s definite’, I’d said, ‘I’m to spend two weeks at the Head Office before Christmas.’
‘OK. Why’s that again?’
‘To work with the editorial team there. It’s a new series of Maths books. For secondary schools.’
‘Not specially.’
He was organising papers for the next day’s meetings at one end of the sofa. My briefcase spilled open at my feet at the other.
‘You’ll miss my office dinner dance,’ he said, putting a sheaf of papers back into a folder.
‘Yes.’ Indifference sat between us like an adolescent at a grown-up party. ‘Yes, I will.’

On the first morning at the hotel, before leaving for the office, I sat down at the desk and opened the fourth window on the calendar. It felt vaguely familiar. The anticipation as I scanned for the next number amongst the reindeers, robins and sleds; the graze of glitter against my finger; and finally, the unlocking of a miniature revelation by a fingernail hooked under a flap in the card. That day the window revealed a parcel, wrapped around with a large yellow ribbon. It gave me a little glow of surprise. I found myself looking forward to this ritual each morning during my stay.
The walk to the office gave me an insight into the midwinter city. The whole population seemed to have come out in the middle of the night and vomited on the pavements. Sometimes only dark star-shaped stains were left by the pigeons. Cars were belittled with traffic cones on their roofs. Streamers, tinsel and deflated balloons dangled from benches and telephone boxes.
I left the office for a breath of fresh air at lunchtime and found the morning quiet had surrendered to clamour, as offices were abandoned en masse to take over restaurants. I couldn’t make out how anyone got any work done. I felt misplaced in the city, frumpy in office clothes, in the midst of a massive street party. Cars circulated the city with tinsel streaming from their aerials, bass beat bulging the windows outwards.
Leaving the office under cover of darkness at five o’clock, I shared the pavements with shoppers and party-goers. Groups of young people with arms locked shouted Christmas pop songs. And after midnight that night, I could see from my hotel window, as I packed up the laptop for the night, men in suits and dark overcoats weaving along pavements, briefcases still clutched under their arms. They bantered with groups of girls on their way to clubs. I wondered if they had wives who had to put up with their cold bodies crashing late into bed and snoring.

Towards the end of the meeting, my colleagues started talking about something which had nothing to do with me. The details of a book promotion which would happen when I was weeks away from there. My mind started to wander, but I positioned my features and the angle of my head to look attentive, moved my eyes onto whoever was speaking. The occasional nod or murmur. Terry was in full flood, a cigarette stubbed out in front of him, black coffee half drunk, saying something about post-modernism.
The game started because as I watched, he took his jacket off, hooked it over the back of the chair; never stopped talking. I continued the process. Cream polo neck slipped easily over his arms and head; slip-on shoes slipped off; olive green chinos dropped to his ankles; and finally the underwear (vest, no; boxers, yes). I kept it decent, snipped the elastic hospital-style with scissors and kept my eyes averted. Then I scooped him up in my forearms, and laid him gently into a satin-lined coffin, pressed his eyelids down with my thumbs. Something was missing. That was it - today’s advent image. I put a spray of mistletoe between the clasped hands on his chest. He immediately became inoffensive. In fact, mysteriously, I warmed to him. I obscured the chuckle which was threatening to escape in a cough. Margaret was flashing her gold earrings and long red nails - she could be next.
As December progressed, meetings frequently finished with an invitation for lunch. At first I tried to escape, clutching my briefcase, but the climate was persuasive. Normally stressed-out editors smiled more, gave in to this pressure with weary fatalism. And my office routines were over a hundred miles away. Bar tenders tempted us with mulled wine or cocktails. No-one cared about big bar bills. Christmas pop played in the background. I found myself drawn into conversations about families and friends, not about work. The boundaries between work and pleasure seemed to blur.
The office night out came around while I was there. Between leaving work and meeting the others at the restaurant, I had about two and a half hours and I wasn’t going to sit at my laptop. It was dark, and as I strolled up the hill, briefcase in gloved hand, I could see through the windows that the bars were already filling up. My breath misted out in front of my face, fogged the milky way of lights suspended from trees along the High Street.
In front of me a girl emerged out of a pub, and swung around to laugh back in through the door. Music and laughter escaped onto the pavement for a moment before the door enclosed the party again. The girl turned and walked up the street ahead of me, lighting a cigarette. A white wool jacket swung around her hips, accentuated the long legs in black velvet jeans. Her dark hair was cut sharp at her shoulders; it shone and swung under the street lights.
It was Thursday; late-night shopping night. A novel thought occurred to me. I could buy something special to wear, before a quick shower at the hotel. A present to myself. I wandered into the shopping centre, brushing against groups of teenage girls who glowed and bounced in short-skirted clusters, geared up with carrier bags from Oasis, rolls of wrapping paper and wide smiles. It was a shop I didn’t know; not one I frequent for my publishing executive clothes. Soul music slunk around us, removed workaday worries, suggested a different order of priorities; the importance of partying and the need to glitter. I avoided the obvious festive clothes - too transparent, skimpy, black. Just imagine what Malcolm would say, ‘You’re not in your twenties now, Fiona!’
It was the feel that sold it to me. My hand strayed onto it when I was looking at something on the next hanger. It poured against my hand like oil. I expected black or chocolate brown, and was surprised by deep orange.
V-necked and long-sleeved, it was cut in at the waist and then flared out. I faced the mirror in the fitting room as I buttoned it up, feeling the velvet slip and warm against the skin of my waist. As I moved to look from the side, the velvet hem swung heavily, as the white coat on the girl earlier had done. I found myself smiling into the mirror, pulled my hair up and off my face, twisted it on the top of my head, and looked again. Something was coiled up in my stomach. Excitement. It was how Christmas felt when I was a child.

To get into the club, we had to push between bodies melted together by the crowd. Bare shoulders glowed in the lowlight. It was hot, and I felt over-dressed in the black crombie which had barely kept me warm in the sharpness of the street. The volume of the music conspired to make everyone intimate, forcing heads together, brushing lips on ears for the simplest conversation about orders at the bar. The coil in my stomach seemed to compress and expand, resonating with the beat of the music. The idiocy of the crush, the heat, the unfamiliarity, all added to it. Imagine ever doing this at home. But it was better not to think of that.
I’d already drunk more than I was used to, but I wanted more. We dazzled smiles at each other. I was left alone with the afterglow as Margaret went for drinks and Terry took away the coats. Aware of the way the light hit the orange blouse, I dropped my shoulders, laughed upwards, felt the heavy velvet swing.
From the direction of the cloakroom, a sprig of mistletoe advanced. Trembling above heads, it pitched and stalled its way towards me.
‘Happy Christmas!’ Terry darkened my space with an arm around my shoulder, caught the edge of my mouth with a kiss which smelt of warm leather, and tasted faintly of smoke. It should have been disgusting. A gurgle of laughter bubbled up from the bottom of my stomach. I felt the curl of orange around me, felt my whole body smile. It was so completely what I deserved. Like Belgian chocolates after a heavy week of meetings. It was familiar. As if I was in a film. Emulating black-and-white, Ingrid-Bergman-glamour. As he pulled away to continue his mistletoe pilgrimage, he slurred ‘sexy stuff’ and rubbed a bit of my sleeve between his fingers. And I knew, absolutely, that I was desirable.

In the narrow street on the way back to the hotel, I followed a young man with a ponytail. His leather trousers were well-fitting, slightly ruckled around the ankles, his legs bowed a little at the knee, enough to suggest athleticism. He turned his head a little, in a vulnerable way, aware of my presence behind him. If I could whistle, I might have been tempted to.
Back in the hotel room my ears buzzed and I didn’t feel like sleep. I sat on the edge of the bed. I didn’t have much to pack. I picked up the advent calendar, looked at the pictures of parcels and mistletoe, the white-bearded man assuring happiness. Only a few windows to go. It was nice of Malcolm to give it to me. It had been fun. It had gained a special status, but that had nothing to do with being away from or going back to Malcolm. It was as if it marked a time in which I’d been allowed to play, to enjoy some midwinter madness. I put my lips to it, pushed the windows shut and put it back into the envelope, ready to go in my suitcase.
And then I recognised a new feeling. Not the coil in my stomach this time, but another of those feelings from Christmases past. Usually it comes a bit later though, on Christmas Day, when you’re searching around under heaps of torn wrapping paper, and you realise there are no presents left to undo.
I took the new blouse off, pressed my nose deep into its smoothness. Breathed in smoke, beer, a faint whiff of after-shave. I put it on a hanger by the window to air, opened the empty suitcase on the bed, and went over to the wardrobe. I decided on a navy suit for the journey home, and started to fold all the other clothes into the case. A thought flirted its way into my mind, shameless and brazen. It danced across in front of me as I leant over the suitcase, flattening the pleats of a skirt. I looked over one shoulder at the navy suit, and over the other at the orange blouse. They both hung there, suspended above the floor, watching me like a couple of angels. All they needed was wings. I stood up, smiled, pulled the navy suit off its perch and stuffed it into the suitcase. I’d wear the orange blouse home. Smells and all.

Previously published in 'Life Drawing' by Linda Cracknell, NWP 2000, ISBN 1-903238-13-7
Also broadcast by BBC Radio Four

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