Leiden Fiction: The Christmas Party

She stood in the corner clutching a fresh drink in her slightly sweaty hand, shifting gently from foot to foot. The strappy sandals she had purchased especially for the party were now pinching her rapidly swelling feet. The reindeer ears, also newly purchased, had, two hours ago, added a much needed ‘although I work hard, I’m still fun’ vibe to her modest black dress. Now they were drooping drunkenly forward, threatening to fall off entirely.

Fighting the urge to make a run for it while no one was looking, she instead allowed herself one more minute in her dark, quiet corner. She had already given the party a solid two hours of time and energy but feared the consequences of making a stealthy exit before the speeches. What if her boss decided to single her out as an exemplary employee? The chances of this actually happening were so slim, especially after last week’s little incident, that she once again toyed with the idea of slipping out.

But no, it would be just her luck that the one time someone decided to praise her at work she wouldn’t be there to enjoy it.

She had been in the department for nearly two years now. Sacrificing drunken nights out for evenings at home studying had earned her a degree competitive enough to land a coveted graduate position. She could still remember how proud her mum and dad had been when she told them. A sensible job with good pay and good prospects. Every millennial parent’s dream.

Between graduation and starting her first grown up job she had spent two months solo in Europe appreciating art and architecture, mindfully drinking lattes while reflecting upon what she had experienced, connecting with the other travellers she came across in her budget accommodation — all of it carefully curated on her Instagram for the benefit of her friends and family.

In reality, she felt isolated and often unsafe, her regret over making the decision to travel alone rather than with friends preventing her from falling asleep each night. She instead imagined how her life would change when she returned home to a full time job, eventually drifting off to sleep pacified by the images she conjured of the money she would earn, the meals out she would buy and the donations to charity she would make.

‘There you are.’

One of her colleagues, a beleaguered mother of three who appeared to spend more time making phone calls to her husband than doing any work, had spotted her.

‘What are you hiding over here for?’

‘Oh, I’m not hiding!’ Her false laugh rang hollow in her ears. ‘I just needed to catch my breath. Too much fun and all that.’ She self-conciously readjusted her reindeer ears.

‘Well come out of there, it’s almost time for the speeches.’

She exhaled slowly, steeling herself as the air left her body. Draining her drink in one, she followed her colleague back towards the party.

Her entire department, which comprised four teams of about six or seven people, were starting to gather in front of her balding boss who was adjusting the height of a microphone. In preparation for his speech he had removed his ill-fitting suit jacket to reveal a salmon pink shirt and armpits moistened by sweat. His tie, dotted with insipid little Santas, had also been loosened about his neck.

Almost as soon as he launched into an energetic wrap up of the year that had been, she began to disengage, instead allowing her gaze to move from colleague to colleague. She recognised all of them by sight but still knew very little about any of their personal lives. Despite writing on her CV that she thrived in a team environment, she actually preferred to work alone and actively scheduled her lunch break to avoid having to make small talk in the kitchen.

‘I would now like to single out a few employees who have really gone above and beyond this year.’

Her attention snapped back. Was all her previously unrecognised hard work about to be acknowledged? All those extra hours she had stayed back, all that extra responsibility she had taken on without a dollar of extra pay? Not to mention the regular team-building morning teas she had organised. Yes, she did make a teeny tiny fuck up with that report the other week, but surely that didn’t negate everything else.

It turned out the only junior person to be mentioned was that other grad from the team that sat next to the toilets. He was always staying back for drinks on a Friday afternoon, schmoozing with the other men in the department. She had tried it once but had felt so uncomfortable she had never braved it again. There was only so much she could offer on bushwalking and bicycle riding.

‘So how long have you been with us now?’

Her boss was before her, his jacket back on but his tie still loose and noose-like.

‘Two years now, and loving every moment. I’m learning so much.’ She had to stop letting her mind wander, this was now the second person she had let catch her off guard. And it was her bloody boss to top things off.

‘Well, I would expect nothing less. We offer a lot of opportunities here.’

His eyes moved from her face to her breasts where they lingered a beat too long.

‘So where do you see yourself next year?’

Perhaps working overseas, visiting a different city every other weekend, falling in love with a devastatingly attractive Swedish boy and never coming home. Or maybe moving back home, working for a not for profit four days a week and spending the other three writing a blog about the changing shape of activism in the post-internet age. Perhaps she could work in a bookstore in a role where she had little to no responsibilities and plenty of time to read.

Her mind raced over these options as if they were each a real possibility just waiting to be triggered at the moment of her choosing and not the limp, partially inflated balloons that they were, filled by her hope and longing for something meaningful but squashed and squeezed by the sheer weight of society’s expectations.

‘Um, I was planning to put in an expression of interest to act for Debbie while she’s on maternity leave. I am really eager to push myself and take on more responsibility.’

Her boss nodded appreciatively, mopping his brow with his tie, the Santas now sporting their own droplets of sweat.

How do I even come out with this garbage, she thought angrily, noting how easily the lie came out. She again shifted her weight from foot to foot, vomit bubbling into her throat.

‘I’m so sorry, I’m not feeling very well, please excuse me.’

Without looking back, she headed straight to the elevator, swallowing hard. Once safely enclosed inside, she rested her forehead against the cool metal and took a deep breath. Maybe she could leave. Just come in here tomorrow and give notice before heading straight to the nearest bar to get shitfaced.

For one joyous moment she could picture it exactly and her body pulsated with anticipation. But then the lift doors opened and she knew it would never be.

Illustrations: Lexi Keelan

Interested in writing fiction? Leiden is looking to publish fiction pieces from both emerging and established writers. Find out more in our submission guidelines.

Emma Batchelor

Emma Batchelor

As well as a near obsessive interest in fashion, Emma is a former scientist, occasional contemporary dancer, avid reader and self-confessed cat lady (she has three). Emma lived in Leiden in the Netherlands as a baby and Leiden ought to have been her middle name had her mother thought of it at the time and not chosen Louise instead.

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