Not even two weeks left until the big day and I hadn’t bought anything – not even a roll of wrapping paper. To be honest, I didn’t care that I hadn’t bought any gifts. Christmas for me was the time of year I usually wanted to avoid. It was a time that had progressively become more commercial, focusing less and less on the values I’d expected Christmas to hold. Goodwill to all men, love thy neighbour, spending time with people I care about and love beyond reason. It wasn’t about who could get the latest gadget, the ‘toy of the moment’, the prize turkey in the poulterer’s window mentioned in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
What am I saying?
I didn’t believe in the values of the season any more than I believed Father Christmas actually existed, and as for the ‘prize turkey’, I believe I had cooked mine a long time ago. People like me are definitely on the naughty list when it comes to Christmas, not that I gave two shits what the judgmental bastard from the North Pole thought about my year long activities. Even less so considering he is a figment of kids’ imaginations promoted by knackered parents in times of stress, especially in the run up to the festive season.
‘Father Christmas won’t come.’
Who cares? Not me, especially this year. And the reason I didn’t care this year? No reason really. I just didn’t care any year, and each year I didn’t care, the next year I cared even less. The older I became, the less I thought about the season of goodwill.
2014 is no different to 2013, even though I had mentioned the lack of Christmas cheer constantly decreasing. And as I’ve already indicated, the calendar on my desk highlighted two weeks until the big day and I was sans everything associated with the season.
It didn’t help my mood that I could hear the constant seasonal noises coming from the reception area – laughter especially. The sound of the guffawing made my teeth painfully grind together. Well, all the laughter apart from one person’s laugh – and that was only because Branwen Campbell was my secretary. No other reason than that. She was a good worker – conscientious, intelligent, punctual. Branwen didn’t moan if I wanted her to work late, or even work through her lunch. She was willing to give one hundred percent, unlike most of the other people who worked in my office.
‘Come on, Bran. You know you want to.’ The sound of Tim Clement’s rat like voice drifted through the gap in my door and I wanted to get up and tell him I didn’t give two fucks what he wanted Branwen to do, but could he please just go and do it someplace else. I had work to do.
‘Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Tim. I don’t want to. I’d rather stay here late than do that.’
At this admission from Branwen, I lifted my head and looked towards the door, the spreadsheet forgotten.
‘But …’ His voice showed he was unhappy by Branwen admitting that, I assumed, she would rather work than go out on a date with him, but that was the only word he said. I heard a few whisperings, but the conversation and giggling seemed to be over for now.
Weirdly enough, I missed it. I liked to hear Branwen’s laughter, although I could do without the nasally timbre of Tim Clement’s whining voice.
My eyes drifted back to the spreadsheet in front of me. Thoughts of working on profit projections were the last thing I wanted to be thinking about at this moment, but I wasn’t too sure what else to do with my time. If I wasn’t working, or thinking about work, I felt like a fish out of water.
Click. The door closed softly, completely isolating me from what was happening just outside my door. I acutely felt the separation of me from Branwen.
I was not happy about this revelation at all.
After my realisation, I felt off kilter for the rest of the day. When Branwen popped in to ask if I wanted my afternoon coffee, it took all my strength to answer her without my voice vibrating. I tried to avoid looking at her directly whilst delivering my response, but when I did make eye contact I felt a clenching sensation in my gut, something I could not remember experiencing before. I always knew her eyes were brown, but it wasn’t until that exact moment that I discovered how absolutely delectably brown they really were. The words I intended to speak seemed to fizzle and fade into nothingness, and I cleared my throat and fiddled stupidly with my mouse. Branwen seemed to understand what I’d garbled and she turned to leave.
I noted each movement she made as she left the office to get the coffee without even looking in her direction mainly because I knew how she would move, where she would stop and check the plants, straighten the straight painting on the wall. My attention was fixed on the computer screen in front of me, the numbers from the last quarter’s sales dancing in front of me like elves on crack and the mouse’s cursor seeming to audition for Riverdance.
‘Here you go, Ms Staunton.’
I wanted to grunt a thank you, or nod at the place I wanted her to put the cup, but I found myself looking up and into those gorgeous eyes of hers once again.
‘Than … Thank you, Bran …wen.’ Her eyebrows furrowed slightly, but she seemed to change her expression so fluidly that I didn’t even see the shift from confusion to a wonderful lopsided smile. I was fascinated by her lips and found myself smiling back at her.
‘Are you okay, Ms Staunton?’ Initially I wanted to say I had never felt better, just before leading on to tell her to call me Erin, but then I realised what I was doing and shook my head before changing it to an almost demented nod, my hand gesticulating to the screen as if to tell her I needed to get back to work.
‘I’ll leave you to it. Give me a shout if you need me for anything.’ I had always thought Branwen had a beautiful voice, but it wasn’t until that moment that I felt as if it had seeped through my skin and was merrily making its way throughout my body.
I didn’t get a chance to respond as she was gone before I had metaphorically slapped myself from out of my stupor.
Resignedly, I slammed my head into my hands and groaned. This should not be happening. Not now, not with an employee, not with anyone.
‘Don’t forget …’ My head shot up and over to the doorway. Branwen was standing just inside my office, her expression concerned. ‘If you need anything, I’m just outside.’
All that afternoon I kept on going over how I had felt when the door had closed. And the more I thought about how I’d felt isolated from the jollities of a few workers and from Branwen, the more pissed off I became. I didn’t do sociable. I didn’t do ‘attracted’. Actually, I was beginning to think that a lot of the things ‘I didn’t do’ were being tested. I mean, I didn’t do Christmas but found myself contemplating looking for gifts to say thank you to employees by the end of the day. That would never do. I had a reputation to uphold.
‘Did you need me for anything else before I leave, Ms Staunton?’
I don’t know why I slammed the lid of my laptop closed. I’d recognised the voice to be that of Branwen Campbell, and I’d also noted she must’ve been at least ten feet away from me and not hovering over my shoulder prying into my personal life when she had spoken. I couldn’t understand why I had been so jumpy. It wasn’t as if I had actually Googled appropriate online shops to fit with my temporary lapse in my usual Christmas hating and was now sifting through my list when she had come into my office. However, I did have a great image of a Pandora bracelet on my screen when she had popped in and disturbed my research. Weirdly enough, I didn’t wear jewellery and I believe that was why my impulsive lid slamming had come about.
I stared at Branwen’s empty wrists and wanted to mentally slap myself stupid.
‘No.’ Decisive and sharp, and soon to be followed by, ‘You can go.’ My voice was cold – even I could feel the chill of it. I tried not to look at her, tried to fix my attention on lifting the lid back up on my laptop and entering my password instead of being civil to my secretary.
‘Well, erm … goodnight, Ms Staunton. Have a lovely weekend.’ It was the sound of her voice that made me look at her. It sounded completely different to her initial greeting from moments before. Branwen had turned, her back to me, but was still in the room. Her head was hanging slightly lower than usual and I wasn’t sure whether she was contemplating something or that my gruffness had upset her.
Shit. I couldn’t let her go without at least being civil – even just a ‘Thank you, Branwen. Have a lovely weekend, too’ would have been a start. However, I couldn’t think of anything to say at that moment to make her turn around – not even the previously stated ‘Thank you, Branwen. Have a lovely weekend, too’ as that only came with the gift of hindsight.
So, I gormlessly sat and watched her leave the office, the door pulling slowly closed behind her.
Click. As soon as the door met the frame, it was as if the spell had been broken. I wish I could say that I felt better now that she had gone, or that I didn’t feel the guilt of the way I had spoken to her, but that is not what I mean when I said the spell had been broken. What I should have said is the spell of staring at the place where she had been had been broken.
Well, after a few minutes any way.
I wanted my weekend to be mainly filled with work. I didn’t mind, as my weekend was always ‘mainly’ filled with work – it was something I felt comfortable with. I hadn’t wanted to stay late in the office on my own, so I grabbed a stack of work and shoved it into my briefcase, more than enough to keep me going for a couple of days.
However, I found myself moving away from my laptop a little too often over the course of the weekend and started to think I was coming down with a bug – or something just as sinister like a bad case of lazyitus. There had to be a reason for my lack of focus as bunking off work was something I didn’t do. I liked working. I liked the sense of achievement it gave me when everything came together. To me, feeling as if I had made a significant impact on whatever I was working on was better than sex.
But. As I said. Not this weekend. This weekend was a waste of time as far as work related things went. I couldn’t seem to settle in one place for more than a few minutes and I was getting more and more annoyed. Every time I tried to concentrate on what I classed to be important things, I kept on thinking about the slumped shoulders of my secretary and it was pissing me off. To think I was wasting my weekend being tormented by something as trivial as upsetting a member of staff was beyond me. I spoke to people that way all of the time. I was the boss after all – it was my right to be succinct and not molly coddle every one with weak words and phrases that were better suited to anything other than the workplace. It wasn’t as if I had made her stay later was it? I’d said that she could go, let her off early, let her slip out to maybe catch that date with Tim Clements after all.
‘Rat faced whiney voiced creepy fucker.’ I slammed my body back into my office chair, the wheels slipping over the stripped wood floor and taking me backwards about half a foot. Like everything else, this fucked me off even more than I had been previously and I leaned forward and gripped hold of the desk and pulled myself forward with a little too much zest. Slam. My kneecap hit the wood sending a shooting pain up the side of my leg.
‘For fuck’s sake!’ I stood up sharply and shoved the chair backwards with force. I didn’t even get the chance to explode about anything else as the chair flew backwards, bounced off the wall and sprung forward again at an astonishing speed.
That was the last thing I remembered for a while.
Waking up on the floor of my office was something I had never experienced before. I still wasn’t too sure about what had actually happened, but one thing I did know was that stripped wood was not the most comfortable place to be. I didn’t know how long I had been out for the count, but it must’ve been a fair while as I was a stiff as a board when I tried to move.
Grabbing hold of the desk, I pulled upwards, my body straining with the effort. This struck me as strange as I would have always classed myself as pretty fit. Instead of my thirty five years, I felt more like I was clocking on eighty – an unfit, chain smoking lard addicted eighty at that with a penchant for alcohol abuse.
Kneeling at the side of the desk, I sucked in a breath and held it inside. At least my lungs didn’t hurt – that was a big tick for me and my rapidly deteriorating health. Little lights hovered in front of my eyes almost like I had stared at a bright bulb for way too long. It was either that I had clocked an overly bright light, or I was on the verge of passing out. I wasn’t sure that a person would see little floating lights if they were on the verge of passing out, but I just felt as if that seemed apt somehow – probably because I just had woken up on the floor moments before.
Leaning forward, I attempted to grab the seat of the chair that had taken me out but paused just before I did. Why I deliberated I have no idea. It was not as if the chair had purposefully knocked me over and unconscious. That had just been bad luck coupled by my own stupidity. If I hadn’t shoved the chair so forcefully, then I wouldn’t be trying to clamber up from knee level.
Instead of using the chair, I decided the table was my safest option. Slipping my hand over the polished wood, I made to pull myself erect but stopped as my hand seemed to slip on the surface. Turning my attention to the spot where my hand sat, I saw there was something underneath it. Frowning, I lifted my hand and looked closer at the object. It was a photograph – but I think I knew that just by the sensation of my palm over glossy paper.
Picking it up, I brought it closer, my brain scrambling around for a reason why an unframed picture should have been lying on my desk in the first place. I didn’t have photos scattered around my office. Hell, I didn’t have photographs on display anywhere in my house. I knew that I hadn’t placed the picture there, but what was even more worrying was that I had not noticed it being there all of the time I had been working in that area. It had definitely not been there just before I slammed my chair into the wall – and said had returned the favour by slamming back into me – that I could almost guarantee.
More importantly, if there ever could be anything more important than finding a photograph on your desk after you had knocked yourself out (leaving only a potential burglar to have placed it there), I didn’t think I had a photograph of my ex-girlfriend in my house, never mind in my office.
Lifting the image closer to my face, I was greeted by a blast from the past – the smiling face of my one time lover and partner, Shannon McEwen. Shannon was beautiful in a classic primary school teacher kind of way. In the picture, we were seated on a bench recognisable in all picnic areas around the country, but, more specifically, a beautiful park just outside Matlock Bath in Derbyshire. I remembered the day well even though the snap must’ve been taken getting on for fifteen years ago. I had just turned twenty and life seemed so wonderful, so perfectly, gloriously wonderful. Being naïve, I hadn’t realised what a total crock of shit that actually was until about five years later.
I slumped back, my ass landing on my feet making sure I would not be moving anywhere anytime soon. As I held the photo, my thumb over the indentation probably caused by a paper-clip, or something similar, in the corner, I used the finger of my other hand to trace over the outline of the grinning woman in the shot. Not me as the grinning woman, I hasten to add. The other, more beautiful woman who was looking directly into the lens of the camera, her smoky grey eyes standing out against the paleness of her flawless skin.
Shannon McEwen had been my first love. She was the most beautiful creature I believed I’d ever seen. When I had first met her I was smitten by her initial smile in my direction. I hadn’t even realised I was a lesbian until that moment, and to be honest, what I had felt for her in that first sixty seconds had no name tag. I just knew that it felt right my being with her. More than right.
Tracing my finger over her lips, I released a sigh into the air. It hurt. The sigh I meant and not the fact that my legs were beginning to indicate they were not comfortable being pinned onto a hard wooden floor by the weight of the top half of my body. Pursing my lips, I made a smacking sound, almost as if I was kissing air.
Swapping my attention, I looked at my image. Young and stupidly in love. My focus was fixed on the side of Shannon’s face, my youthful grin so innocent, so naive.
Closing my eyes, I conjured the moment the picture was taken from the depths of my memories. I could feel the warmth in the air, the birds chattering in the branches above us. If I leaned forward just a tad I honestly believed I could smell Shannon’s scent.
The sound of my voice hitting the air surprised me. My eyes opened slowly almost as if I didn’t want to be brought back to the present. It hurt to see her smiling face now that I had experienced the loss of her all over again.
A lump formed at the back of my throat and I swallowed it down. It was too late to be crying over Shannon McEwen. She had long left me behind whilst she moved on with her stupid fucking career looking after someone else’s kids.
I knew that was a lie. Knew the reason why I’d let the woman I’d loved slip through my fingers was not because she was career orientated.
Unfortunately, that was my problem not hers, and the number one cause why she had left me nearly ten years ago. Shannon had never understood the motivation behind why I worked all the hours I did … she didn’t understand it wasn’t because I didn’t want to be with her. It was because I wanted to take care of her, build a career so I could afford to buy her the biggest and the best. I still felt the prickle of remorse when I remembered her standing in the front room of our home, her suitcases stacked in the doorway. Even then she had given me the chance to make things right by choosing ‘us’ over ‘me and my work’, but I had just told her that if she couldn’t accept that this is how things had to be, then her leaving was the best for the both of us.
A spurt of anger raced through me and I gripped the photograph as if to tear it in two.
But those eyes stopped me. That smile. I had long stopped being in love with Shannon McEwen, but I don’t think I had ever stopped wanting that connection again, that feeling of being totally and utterly in love.
I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, the air ballooning my lungs, the ache coinciding with the ache in my chest.
The knowledge of why I had the ache in my chest made me even angrier.