Everyone has a small plastic cup of warm champagne and snow is falling gently past the office windows. Garlands of tinsel adorn the desks and monitors like the glittering intestines of Christmas. We are gathered together to exchange gifts before the office party and there is a sense of dread that some people have misinterpreted as low key excitement.
Can I just clear this up for the avoidance of doubt - usually Secret Santas are Shit.
I mean, obviously, you know it's going to be shit because it's a secret Santa. It's the gift lottery. It's unlucky dip.
You reach into a hat, pull out a name and t'dah this is the person you will buy a gift for! But, hang on, you don't really know what they'd like! Oh No!
What if they don't like what you've bought them?
Oh hang on, what's that you say? They don't know who is buying their gift?
Well in that case just buy any old shit.
I mean, why worry?, let's face it, the chances are you are going to be buying a present for someone you don't like anyway.
But some people don't just buy a shit gift, oh no, some people go a step further, using the opportunity to buy their colleague, as a random example, a huge coffee mug, one covered in a jolly festive holly pattern, with "World's Biggest Prick" written on it and the recipient has to laugh at this pun, even though he has just been called a Prick in front of the entire office. As a Christmas present.
I mean, come on guys, if you want to give someone anonymous abuse for Christmas don't use Secret Santa. Use Twitter like everybody else.
"Remember" says Brain "Whatever it is - look happy! If you have to fake it you fake it. Hide your disappointment by shouting out the name of the object, remember to nod your head slightly, to illustrate that you totally get the irony/comedy/deeper meaning behind the gift and keep smiling!"
"I know how to do this Brain, I do it every year!"
Luckily no-one can see or hear this exchange as I start to unwrap the present, I glance up and try to work out just who has bought this for me? Is anyone looking particularly interested? It's been wrapped using cheap shiny wrapping paper. Definitely a man then. With a yank I tear the paper and shout out
"Hey, it's a ..................SHOE SHINE SET! From Marks & Spencer no less!"
I smile and nod my head slightly, I glance up again to try and catch the prick who bought me this shit - but all I see are happy smiling people getting into the Christmas spirit.
Inside my head, Brain is angry.
"What the merry fuck?" says Brain "I mean, come on, a shoe shine set? That's basically a cleaning product? You don't buy cleaning products for Christmas!"
"I know!" I whisper "I hate the shoe shine set - people only think it's a gift because it's in the "Gifts for Him" section!"
"Who decided that this is a Christmas gift anyway? You wouldn't buy someone J-cloths would you? The 3 wise men didn't come bearing cleaning products! They didn't bring gold, frankincense and bleach. "
"I blame the big stores and their 'GIFT SECTIONS' Brain. Why do they think us "men" want this shit? I don't know a single man who really wants a mini hip flask or a table football game, a hilarious novelty sponge or a shampoo made to look like lager. Why?"
"Because they're bastards that's why! No recipient in the history of "Gifts for Him" has EVER used the novelty sealing wax, or the bicycle repair kit or the pet towel or the fucking shoe shine set."
The smile on my face is hurting my cheeks but no-one's looking anymore because someone else is opening their Secret Santa. I can tell it's from a girl because it's been wrapped with care using quality wrapping paper, it rolls out into the light and a surround-sound gasp of delight echoes around the room - it's a beautiful glass paperweight. Everybody looks impressed, as it's held aloft like some talisman of excellence, like the world's biggest most perfect secret Santa. It catches the light and twinkles like a well trained star. For a moment we are all transported back to happy childhood Christmases, when the festive magic was your very own, when you'd wake in the dark of Christmas morning and see that the impossible had happened! That somehow, despite not having a chimney, a foreign pensioner wearing a fur trimmed onesie had gained access to your property, come into your bedroom and put some presents and a Satsuma in a sock.
And you'd squeal with delight into the dark immunity of Christmas morning and then there'd be more presents and great things to eat and all day you'd feel warm and safe and everyone wore smiles and silly paper hats and you didn't have to worry about buying presents for anyone because you were a child and just seeing you happy seemed to be enough for all the adults around you.
And then one of the girls leans in and ruins it by saying
"Okay I confess! It was me! I hope you don't mind that I went a little over budget, but I just hope you think it was worth it!"
Every man in the room rolls his eyes as the two girls embrace. The hug goes on for an uncomfortable duration - I think they might have tears in their eyes. I glance down at my shoe shine set and wonder how far I could throw it. Perhaps I can take it back to Marks and Spencer? Maybe I could exchange it for some DIGNITAS vouchers or a razor blade?
"I can't believe she did that!" says Brain "She bought something genuinely beautiful AND went over-budget!"
"I know," I say "What a bitch!"
More presents are opened, a heart shaped frying pan - why? A bookmark torch - grow up? Pasta in the shape of men's genitals - bad taste? A magnetic female groin which you can decorate with iron filing pubes in the design of your choice - an excellent gift even if I do say so myself. On and on it goes until everyone has opened something. Some people look happy, others are pretending to look happy.
"I can't believe I got the worst present, I think I'd even prefer dick pasta to this"
"At least you can eat dick pasta!" says Brain "Although I'm not sure when you'd do that? Do you save dick pasta for a special occasion or just have it on a Tuesday night?"
"With Bollock-nese sauce?"
As I'm pondering dick pasta etiquette and desperately trying to come up with more dick pasta puns, I notice one of the women from accounts approaching. She's a very small quiet woman, equally ill at ease in crowds or one to one. Her eyes have a tragic honesty about them, an almost amphibian quality that promises tears are only ever a moment away. We don't really know each other but when you work in an office you gradually notice things about people, an attrition of detail that builds over the silent years of proximity. For example, I know that this woman has a difficult personal life, I've seen her hissing and pleading into her mobile phone in the stairwell more than once. Occasionally flowers arrive for her in the office, but these are not flowers that speak of love - these flowers are the colour of bruises. For the most part she keeps herself separate, like she's wading slowly away from some secret grief, hugging a fragile dignity to her like a thin shawl. Usually she looks so sad but today, for once, she's smiling - it must be the amazing gift I got her!
I smile and say "And what did Secret Santa get you?"
"Well, um It's a magnetic groin that you can try out pubic hair styles on?"
"Pube Doodle! Brilliant!" I say "It's a bit like etch-a-sketch!"
She nods in apparent agreement "Did you like your gift?" she asks
"Actually, I do," I whisper "I'm going to a fancy dress party next week and now I can go as either Al Jolson or a racist."
She looks a little confused so I do the "mammy" hands which, in all honesty, does nothing to rectify the situation.
"So you haven't opened it then?" she smiles again
"Er no, not yet. Sorry did you get this for me?"
"Yes but it's not shoe polish, I just used the tin. They're delicate you see."
We move across to an empty bank of desks away from the mince pies and prying eyes.
"I'm sorry, I thought you'd bought me actual shoe polish" I say, opening the tin,
"I didn't think to look inside."
The tin contains three handmade decorations wrapped in cloth. The first is a small glass bulb, quarter filled with light sand with two tiny pink cockle shells placed on top like footsteps. The second is a single white shell that has been delicately opened up to look like the wings of an angel, ribbon has been painstakingly wrapped between the shells, it is almost weightless. And finally there is a snow white starfish, rigid spines decorated with silver tips, a perfect unmeltable snowflake - all three fit comfortably in my trembling hand. I glance at "Pube doodle" and swallow.
"I don't know what to say, these must've taken you forever to make?"
"I just wanted to see them again. They remind me of my dad you see."
"I'm sorry I don't understand?"
"Can you remember, earlier this year, you went to the clean-up of Viking beach?"
I remember it well, a cold spring morning on a grey windy beach. We'd gone to get some fresh air and figured it was good for the kids to understand that if you throw something away then someone else always has to pick it up. We'd joined a whole bunch of volunteers picking up cans and bottles with numb fingers, observed with silent fury by a gang of local seagulls. The sea spray stung like chipped slate and a wind with teeth chased paper cups and tins across sand the colour of cement. Occasionally we'd all stop to drink something hot, the foam on our coffee matching the surf's edge. When the rain started to get heavy we'd sat in the car with the heaters on, listening to the hopeful drumroll for a sun that wouldn't be making an appearance, the children had fallen asleep and my wife and I sat in contented silence watching the windows steam up.
"I saw you there. You and your family, you spent the day. I remember watching you and thinking you all looked so happy. I don't think you recognized me?"
"I didn't! I'm sorry, sometimes it seems like I only ever really pay attention to my children. I don't remember any faces, I remember it being cold, but it was a good day. Plus, you may not know this about me but I'll do almost anything to piss off a seagull."
"It was a good day." She smiles again and looks at the baubles in my hand "That beach was my dad's. I mean, I don't mean that literally but it was the place we would always go, since I was little. It was where we'd walk on Christmas day. Just me and him. We loved it because it was always the same you know? Like time had stopped there? We could imagine that mum was still at home cooking Christmas lunch. I could ignore the grey in his hair and he could pretend I was still his little girl"
I keep my eyes fixed on the baubles in my hand, the tiny shells on the sand like footsteps.
"Every year we'd walk that beach. Except last year." She looks off into the middle distance "Last year, he couldn't walk the beach with me, couldn't manage it he said, so we sat in the car on Christmas day with the windows down and then I took him back. And this year........for the first time, we won't take that walk"
Over the other side of the office people are putting on coats and scarves. I look at the angel wings in my hand - they seem so fragile. I look up at her, try to imagine her as a little girl walking on the beach with her daddy. I try not to imagine her finding this starfish, washed up on the shore like a gift from the sea, loving it because it wouldn't fade or age or change. I try not to imagine her walking the beach alone this Christmas.
I really wish she wasn't holding pube doodle.
"Y'know - did he......die?"
"Who? Your dad!"
"I thought you were going to tell me he died? That you made these from things you found on the beach, as some kind of memorial? So that every Christmas you'd be reminded of him and that beach. I thought this was going to be one of those sad but ultimately uplifting stories? "
"Shit, that would've been great! But no. I'm sorry to disappoint you James but he's alive and well, silly old bugger will probably outlive me! No he's just moved to Croydon. Not many beaches in Croydon"
"But you said last year he couldn't walk the beach with you on Christmas day?"
"He was hungover, went a bit overboard on the Baileys"
"So you didn't make these?"
"No my dad did, that's what he does? He has a shop, sells nautical things"
"I know! Crazy right? But it seems to be doing well!"
I look at her again and realize I really don't know the first thing about her, that all that tragic bollocks I'd made up in my head about flowers the colour of bruises and shawls of dignity was just that: bollocks. Based on the general moistness of her eyes? I suddenly feel a bit stupid. Relieved, but stupid.
"Okay. So why did you tell me the story about the beach?"
"Well when I saw you at the clean-up with your family I realized that maybe I'd misjudged you and I felt a bit guilty so I made sure I got your secret Santa this year"
"Hey, we all misjudge people. You have nothing to feel guilty about"
"Well, I do" she says "Because I got you that oversized mug last year. The one with the holly?"
"That was you?"
"Sorry, I thought it was funny"
"It was. Kinda. But this, this is the best Secret Santa I've ever had! You know what? We should talk more!"
"We should!", she stands up, "I think a small plastic cup of warm champagne is in order don't you?"
"Bollocks to that," I say "I'm going to get my massive mug!"
And so it is my friends that I'd like to wish you all a very merry Christmas and will leave you with this advice
"Remember to look inside, you'll be amazed at what you might find."