The Office Party by Pat Byrne. A Christmas Story in Glasgow.
The Office Party
Sylvie sat in the booth at the back of the café. She watched as Karl came in, struggling to open the double doors in the strong wind. They slammed behind him as he stamped his boots on the big ‘Welcome’ mat. He grinned when he spotted her and as he got closer she could see his nose and ears were red from the cold.
‘I’ve ordered,’ she said, ‘French Toast.’
Karl kissed her cheek, ‘How’s the birthday girl?’
‘Good. Here’s ours already.’
The waiter sat their plates of food on the table. ‘Who’s the coffee?’
Sylvie smiled at him and tapped a finger on her chest.
‘Soon heat you up,’ he said, as he put the cup down beside her and handed Karl the hot chocolate.
‘Thanks,’ said Sylvie. ‘It’s freezing so it is. But nice and warm in here.’
Karl nodded his thanks and unwound his scarf. ‘You look nice,’ he said. ‘Like the coat. You’ll need to get some some new gloves though.’
‘Don’t be cheeky,’ said Sylvie. She pulled off her woolly gloves and tossed them into her handbag. She slipped off the leather coat, held it against her face for a moment, folded it and put it on the seat beside her.
‘Expensive,’ said Karl.
‘It’s for my birthday. And Christmas.’ Sylvie lifted the wee jug of maple syrup and poured it slowly over her French toast, going round and round the plate with it. ‘I’m famished.’ She lifted a forkful of toast and glanced at her coat. ‘My Auntie Rose chipped in. It’s the best present I’ve ever had.’
Karl rummaged beneath the table, brought up a box of chocolates and slid it across the table. The cellophane cover had been taken off.
‘Have you been eating them?’
‘Lift the lid and see.’
Sylvie did as he said. One of the chocolates had been removed and in its place was a wee red velvet box. She stopped and looked up at him.
‘You going to open it?’ he said.
She opened the box and looked at the ring. The stone was unusual, pale, pale blue with tiny sparkles embedded round the edges. She’d never seen anything like it. She ran a finger over it. It was lovely and smooth. She took it out of the box and slipped the ring onto her finger and held her hand up. The ring gleamed in the light from the wall lamp. ‘Oh, it’s lovely. Did you make it yourself?’
‘Aye, but it should go here,’ he said and moved the ring to her left hand.
Sylvie tried to smile. ‘We can’t get engaged.’
He ran a finger down her cheek, then lightly across her bottom lip. ‘You’re seventeen now. People your age get engaged all the time.’
‘Agnes Hamilton! She’s nineteen and a half.’ Sylvie started to pull the ring off but Karl placed his hand over hers; it felt rough and he was still cold. The rims of his nails were stained with ink or maybe it was dark blue paint.
‘Wear it to the party. Just to please me.’
Sylvie didn’t answer. She pulled her hand away and took a sip of her coffee.
‘It’s one of the stones we found on the beach on Iona. I thought it was different,’ he said.
‘O.K. I’ll wear it but I’m not staying at yours.’
‘Who said anything about that?’
She sighed, and ran her fingers backwards and forwards over the ring again.
‘I’ve had enough,’ she said, pushing her plate away. ‘I’ll need to get back to the office. There’s stuff still to do for the party.’
Karl stood up and helped her on with her coat. ‘Give us a twirl then.’
‘Not in here.’
Karl left some money on the table, and the waiter nodded and smiled as they passed him. Outside the sleet had come back on – they put their heads down and ran, arm in arm along the street.
Sylvie watched in the mirror as Kathleen attached the false piece to the top of her head. She teased it into an elaborate bouffant with a steel comb and then fastened it on with what felt like a hundred grips. ‘You suit it up, Sylvie,’ she said, ‘it’s a great match for your own hair.’
Sylvie smiled at her in the mirror. ‘It’s a great present. Thanks. I think that’ll do. It feels pretty secure.’
Kathleen patted her friend’s hair and took a step back. ‘You look dead sophisticated. Doesn’t she, Janice? Like Audrey Hepburn.’
‘Just a mo.’ Janice held a false eyelash to her lid as she turned round. ‘Oh, you’re gorgeous.’ She laughed. ‘Karl would be proposin if he hudnae already.’
‘I told yous. We’re not engaged. I’m only wearing the ring for the party,’ said Sylvie.
‘Well I think it’s dead romantic,’ said Janice.
‘What’s dead romantic?’ Ellen Forsyth the office supervisor stood at the door of the staff room
‘Nothing . . .’ said Sylvie.
‘Sylvie’s engaged,’ said Janice. ‘Her ring’s unique.’
Ellen smiled and raised her eyebrows. ‘Is it now?’ she said. She swept her long hair over her shoulders as she walked towards the mirror. Her red dress was very short and she wore knee high black suede hoots. The three younger girls watched as she pursed her lips and applied scarlet lipstick. She put the lid back on the tube and turned to face Sylvie. ‘Sixteen. Bit young to get engaged.’
‘Seventeen today,’ said Sylvie, ‘but I’m not engaged. I wish everyone would stop saying that.’
‘Well what’s with the ring? Your wee German boyfriend give you it?’ said Ellen.
‘He designed it,’ said Kathleen.
‘He’s not German,’ said Sylvie.
Ellen looked at Sylvie’s hand. ‘No diamond! Very nice though.’ She laughed as she sauntered towards the door. ‘You know what’s on his mind. Anyway, happy birthday, see you lot upstairs.’
Janice pulled a face. ‘Who does she think she is? And who wears red lipstick?’
‘My mum,’ said Kathleen. ‘What age do you think she is?’
‘Your maw?’ said Janice.
‘Don’t be dense. Her. Ellen. She must be twenty-five or something.’
‘Who cares,’ said Sylvie, standing up and giving her hair a final glance. ‘C’mon. Time we headed upstairs. The boys will be waiting.’
Karl held a glass out to Sylvie. ‘Mulled wine.’
‘Coke’s fine for me.’ She pointed to the large silver bowl. ‘That’s actually punch. There’s rum and vodka and God knows all what’s in that. Lethal!’
Karl laughed and scooped a ladelful into his glass and took a drink. ‘Goes down like lemonade.’
The office had been cleared for the party and Sylvie and Karl sat on the floor with some of the others. Tony, Kathleen’s boyfriend, brought out his guitar and they called out their favourite songs: I Got You Babe, Please, Please Me, Mr Tambourine Man … After a while Kathleen took the guitar from Tony and pulled him to his feet. ‘Right that’s enough. I fancy a dance,’ she said.
‘You want to dance, Sylvie?’ Karl pulled her to him.
‘Not just now, I’ve to take first turn at the records.’
‘I’ll get a drink and be right over,’ he said.
She sorted through the singles, stacked them on the record player and lent against the wall. Karl didn’t come back. Probably blethering to somebody. She watched the others dancing and carrying on. When Little Red Rooster came on Tony pretended to be Mick Jagger. Kathleen was in knots laughing at him pouting and strutting about. Then she came over and stood with Sylvie. ‘I can’t keep up with him,’ she said.
‘You look for something slow and smoochy. I fancy a dance,’ said Sylvie.
The Moody Blues’ Go Now started to play and she stood on tiptoe and looked round the room for Karl. He was dancing with someone. He’d come and get her when he saw her. She moved round the edge of the floor so that he could spot her – but he wasn’t dancing. He was in a clinch with someone. Ellen. He couldn’t be kissing Ellen.
Sylvie pushed through the dancers till she reached them. ‘Karl,’ she said. He didn’t hear her. ‘Karl,’ she shouted his name loud and some of the dancers turned their heads. Sylvie moved closed and when he looked up she slapped him.. He rubbed his face and staggered as he took a step towards her.
‘Whadye do that for, Sylvie?’ he said. ‘It’s Christmas.’
‘Yeah, Happy Christmas,’ she said. She turned and made for the door.
She was shrugging her arms into her coat when Kathleen came into the staff room. ‘You’re not going? He’s an eejit,’ she said. ‘Too much to drink.’
Sylvie groped in her bag for a tissue and dabbed at her eyes. Her mascara had run, the hairpiece had come undone and hair straggled over her face. ‘I hate him.’
‘Here I’ll get that.’ Kathleen eased off the hairpiece and grips fell to the floor. ‘He’s steaming. It doesn’t mean anything.’
‘It’s a right showing up – on my birthday as well. Rotten pig. And that bitch. Did you see her standing there smirking?’ Sylvie gulped and took the hairpiece from Kathleen. ‘Thanks,’ she said and stuffed it in her bag. ‘I’m going to try and catch the bus.’
Coat flapping she ran passed the crowds leaving the theatre and groups of girls and fellas, all done up to the nines. The bus was coming as she reached the bus stop. She could hear someone shouting her name. It was him. Too bad. She didn’t look round. She jumped onto the platform and the bus moved off. He was right behind her. He lost his footing as he grabbed the handrail and fell. My God. She heard the crack as his head hit the pavement. She clung onto the rail and looked back at him lying on the ground. As the bus turned the corner she watched as he tried to struggle to his feet.
Her legs almost gave way under her as she sank into a seat near the door.
‘Another wan wi too much tae drink’ said the conductor. ‘Casualtys gonnae be mobbed the night.’
‘Aye,’ she said. She looked in her purse for her return ticket.
They were finished. Definitely. Be his own fault if his skull was fractured – knocking back the drink like that. Everybody would be laughing at her. She’d never been so mortified and that Ellen Forsyth – Bitch! She looked up at the Christmas trees, fairy lights twinkling in the tenement windows. Her wee sister Sally liked to count the trees. Sylvie twisted the ring round and round her finger and thought about when Karl took her to Iona. A magical place. They’d explored the Abbey then wandered along the shore looking for special shells and stones. Karl had told her all about Cadell, the artist who’d gone there every year to paint. Showing off. She should have thrown the damn ring at him. She took it off, searched in her bag for the velvet box, put the ring in it and pushed it down into the corner of her bag.
She smoothed her hands over her coat, pulled the belt tight and sat back in the seat.
Pat Byrne, December, 2014.
This section: Christmas Poems , Stories and Winter Tales
Filed under: Christmas Poems , Stories and Winter Tales
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