Joe stepped out of the shower and reached for a towel. He threw the towel over his head and rubbed really hard to try to clear out the recollections of other people’s Christmas plans from his head.
I’m travelling to Melbourne to see my family this Christmas. It’s been a while since we had seen each other due to Covid and the border being closed. My parents have not seen our baby yet.
I’ve got seven grandchildren and they’re all coming over. I’m one of ten. Christmas is a very busy time for me. It’s practically mayhem. There is so much decorating to do. You should decorate your home too.
I don’t spend Christmas with my family. I spend it with my friends. That’s our way.
My kids are doing charity work for our church. They’re good kids.
We’re going away this year. We’re doing the Three Capes Track in Tasmania. Then we’ll spend a few days in Hobart. Two other couples are joining this trip. It should be fun.
With a sigh, Joe walked over to his wardrobe to look for something to wear for work. He settled on his checkered shirt and cargo pants. It’s casual Friday.
I really hate this time of the year. What a torture. You wanna know what am I doing for Christmas? Nothing, I’m doing absolutely nothing for Christmas. Leave me alone!
His thoughts then drifted to work. The workload seemed to grow each year. The seasonal cycle was long gone. It’s always busy these days. He could hear his manager’s voice cajoling everyone to do more. Team, we have to innovate. Team, we have to smash our goals. Team, we have an opportunity to shine. Team, we have a new CFO and I need you to introduce yourself. Team, team, team!
Seriously? Why don’t you try to do some work yourself for a change? BTW, my name is Joe, not team. The only thing that I like about Christmas is the time off work and away from this psychopath.
Joe was grumpy before he even got to work. Joe kept his head low as he shuffled himself into his cubicle. The computer system was so bad here that he had to manually prepare the sales report for the business. By the time he finished putting the numbers together and cleared his email, it was lunchtime.
‘Hey Joe, we are going to the Vietnamese place for lunch. Do you want to come?’ A colleague stuck his head over the partition.
‘Nah, I’m good thanks. I brought my lunch. And if I have to see those Christmas decorations and the wide-eyed shoppers in the shopping centre one more time, I’m going to throw up.’
‘Alright Grinch. See you later then.’
Joe pulled out his lunch box from his pack. It was spaghetti bolognese .
‘Cooking is a life skill. You must learn how to cook for yourself. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a boy or girl,’ said Joe’s mother. She had told him that often, and as far back as he could remember. The truth was that it was also an economic necessity for a single mum.
Joe recalled the small wooden dining table that his mother and him would eat all their meals on. They spent every birthday and any celebrate events facing each other, talking about their days, and sharing their meals at that little table. That was home. Joe looked up into the blue sky to acknowledge his mother whom he knew would be watching from above.
The office cafeteria was almost devoid of people. Most employees prefer to go to the shopping centre next door where there were many more food choices. Joe picked an outside table. He laid down his phone and pulled out his lunch. He looked around and there was only one other table that was occupied.
Judging by the fashionable clothes and designer sunglasses, the group that occupied the other table at the other end of the patio must be from marketing. They were young, energetic and glamorous. The girls were particularly attractive. Joe sneaked a glance at that table of the genetically gifted.
Girls like that won’t lay eyes on guys like me. They would not be caught dead with me. That’s for sure.
Joe went back to eating his lunch and reading the news.
Suddenly, the quietness was broken by the noise of chairs scraping along the ground. The group got up from their table to leave. They sprinkled their dust of joy and laughter along the way. All of them headed back inside except for one of the girls who kept walking.
Jeez, she’s pretty.
Joe stole a quick glance and put his head back down. She must be heading to the shopping centre. He estimated that she would sail past his table in a few seconds and he could watch her from behind then. He waited. A light breeze blew and brought with it a scent of sweet citrus. The scent lingered when it should pass.
‘Hi!’ a female voice.
Joe looked up.
Oh My God! It’s her. Why is she here?
Joe’s heartbeat went up to double time. He tried to pretend that everything was normal.
‘Hi,’ he replied.
Sorry to bother you but are you Joe from Finance?’
‘Yes I am.’
‘Great, my name is Jenny. I’m from the Consumables division. I’m their product manager and I wonder if I can check in with you on some numbers.’
‘Sure.’ Joe offered her a chair at his table.
‘Oh, would you like to go for a walk instead? My lunch hour is almost up and I still need to go to the shopping centre to pick up my phone from repair. Do you mind if we walk and talk at the same time?’
She is really beautiful.
The pair headed across the road towards the shopping centre.
‘The weather is so lovely at the moment. It’s so great to be out,’ Jenny took a deep breath and stretched out her arms.
Hmm… she smells nice.
‘Yes, it’s lovely.’
Gosh, I feel happy. This is strange.
The moment the pair entered the shopping centre, they were engulfed by the sights and sounds of Christmas. The air conditioner pumped perfume that was sweet with a hint of spice. The speakers played Christmas carols and every retail store was decorated to the hilt with tinsels, angles, snowflakes, Christmas trees, reindeers and Santa’s. Occasionally, there was even a baby Jesus with Mary.
Joe broke into a smile and started to chuckle to himself.
‘What’s so funny?’ Jenny asked.
‘I don’t know. I’m not a fan of Christmas and it usually annoys me to see so much Christmas. But I feel strangely excited,’ he confessed.
‘A Grinch eh. So why don’t you like Christmas?’
‘There are so many reasons. For starters, the totally unnecessary financial and emotional stress from buying gifts that will go unappreciated and end up in landfill before the New Year. Then the diabetes that we are all going to get from all the sweets and treats. Worst of all, the irrational and unrealistic expectation that we should be experiencing high levels of happiness.
What Christmas does is that it reminds the have-nots that they are the have-nots. Families that have conflicts get to re-live the failure of not being able to get along with their own blood and flesh. Even the pets are not spared. They are left behind when the rest of the family go on their vacations,’ Joe lamented. He was also shocked at how much he shared with someone he had just met. Her presence was calming and he didn’t feel like he had to have his guard up.
‘That’s a bit harsh. There are positives too. What about the spirits? Look around you. People do look happier this time of the year,’ Jenny offered.
‘Aha, they belong to the haves group. Christmas is a concentrator. For those who are doing well, Christmas enhances them. For those who are struggling, Christmas rubs it in their face. The happy faces that you see are members of the have’s group,’ Joe lifted his eyebrows at Jenny. He felt that his habitual grumpiness had left him and he felt lighter.
‘I think that the spirit of Christmas has the power to transform people. It can bring out the generosity in people. People give more. It stops your routines and it makes you think about other people. People also try to be better. They try to make amends. It’s an opportunity for redemption,’ Jenny raised her own eyebrows back at Joe.
‘I’ll give you a point for the opportunity angle. We can certainly do better and be kinder. Come to think of it, I must say that I have lightened up since I stepped inside the shopping centre with you. Maybe you’ve cured my Christmas blues,’ Joe smiled at Jenny.
‘You are welcome! So, what does a Grinch like you do for Christmas?’
‘I spend it with my favourite person on earth – ME!’
‘Now that you are a reforming Grinch, will you consider taking the first step of recovery by buying something to celebrate?’
‘If I must, I guess I’m at the perfect place for it.’
‘Oh, look over there,’ Jenny pointed at a pop up store near them.
Joe walked over with Jenny to see a display window filled with rows and rows of “Strawberry Santas” made from strawberries cleverly decorated with fresh cream to make them look like little adorable Santas.
‘There, everything is edible. No waste. Nothing to go to landfill,’ Jenny smiled.
‘I hope they’re worth the calories,’ Joe smiled back and bought a box.
‘And here’s the phone shop. How convenient. I’ll just be a sec.’ Jenny ran inside the store and came out holding her phone with a big smile on her face.
‘I felt so lost without it,’ Jenny stroked her phone pretending that it was something very precious.
‘Does that phone have a number?’ Joe closed one of his eyes as if he was bracing for a no.
‘Do you want to know what it is?’ Jenny teased.
‘I believe it could be very helpful for my rehabilitation,’ Joe smiled.
‘Be careful what you ask for,’ Jenny reached into her handbag and took out a pen and a bit of paper. She scribbled down a number and handed it to Joe.
‘High risk, high return,’ Joe winked at Jenny.
‘I forgot you’re in Finance,’ Jenny laughed.
‘Oh, that reminds me. I was hoping to pick your brain about a problem that I’m having.’
‘Not sure what you’ll find in there but go ahead.’
‘Well, I have used up all my marketing budget for this year already. But I just heard that my product would be made available earlier than expected. If I can take advantage of this new timing by launching it early, it can give us a head start.’
‘So you are thinking of the consequences of over-spending?’
‘Not if someone else is under-spending, we would be square.’
‘I can certainly check for you. But if you’re confident of the return, I don’t think the bosses would have a big issue with it.’
‘But if someone else is under-spending, we don’t have to ask for more. It takes away the risk.’
‘And it’ll be easier to get to a yes.’
‘Most definitely!’ Jenny squinted her eyes at Joe.
‘I’ll let you know this afternoon.’
‘Oh, and what does a merrymaker like you do for Christmas?’
‘I spend it with my family. My family has a farm down south. We all go there every year.’
‘If you want to come for lunch, you’re welcome. We have lots of room. You have my number. Just text me.”
Oh my God! Is this really happening?
Back in the office, Joe stood in front of the basin at the bathroom to wash his hands. When he looked up, he was taken aback by his own reflection on the mirror.
Far out, is that a smile? Am I smiling?
It struck him that he had not stopped smiling. He stared at the mirror in disbelief. He placed his hands over his face to feel it to make sure that it was real. He had not smiled like that for a long time. Not a smile like that, coming from the inside.
When he walked back to his desk, he was greeted by his colleague David, who had also returned from his Vietnamese lunch.
‘Was that you that I saw in the shopping centre? I thought you said the Christmas decor made you sick.’
‘Well, I think I have just discovered a cure,’ Joe smiled.
‘Oh no, you don’t mean Jenny, do you?’
The tone of the David’s voice was slightly off and it made Joe’s stomach drop. Joe ran his fingers through his hair to quiet the tingle on his scalp.
‘You know her?’
‘A little. What were you doing with her anyway if you don’t mind me asking?’
‘She was just asking me a work question.’
‘I see. Oops sorry, got to go. Another meeting,’ David grabbed his pen and notebook and ran off.
Shit, what’s that supposed to mean? What does David know that I don’t?
After analysing Jenny’s business run rate, plans and expenses, Joe emailed his findings to Jenny.
‘You can probably get away with the overspending if the planned upgrade of the website can be pushed back till the next quarter. The other option is to come in big this quarter. If that happens, all your sins will be forgiven. Nature of the beast.’
Joe then took out his phone and sent a text to Jenny.
‘About the Xmas lunch, would anyone want to car pool?’
Joe’s email was responded to almost immediately with a ‘Thank You’. The SMS went unanswered however.
Damn! Maybe she just wanted my help and that’s all. She never wanted to invite me anyway. I should probably stop making a fool of myself and wake up before anyone, mostly me, get hurt. Girls like that must already have a boyfriend. Stupid me. What was I thinking?
Joe opened up the box of strawberry santas and sighed.
He closed the lid on the box and went back to his spreadsheets.
‘Another disaster. Nobody wants to take responsibility. Just typical. It’ll take a miracle for us to make our numbers this year. Bye bye bonus,’ David threw his notepad down on his desk and sat down in a puff after returning from his meeting.
‘Seems like you’ve come around to my way of viewing the world. It’s a bad place,’ Joe poked his head over the cubicle to David.
‘I hope not,’ David retorted.
‘And hmm…so how do you know Jenny?’
‘I used to support her business division.’
‘What’s she like?’
‘She’s a really nice girl. But mate, she’s not your type.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She is the opposite of you. Like opposite ends of a spectrum.’
‘You’re anti-religion. She is from a deeply religious family. She goes to church on Sundays; bible study on Fridays and celebrates every Christmas and Easter with reverence. She’s a full on heavy weight Christian. You can’t even handle the decorations. You’ll clash like oil and water.’
‘I beg to differ. I think that I can be persuaded with the right person. I’m not as stubborn as you think.’
‘Good luck mate. I think you’re just horny.’
A light flashed on Joe’s phone signally a message had arrived.
‘David, ask me what I’m doing for Christmas.’
‘I have a feeling that you’re going to tell me anyway.’
‘I’m driving down south to a farm to be with someone who wants to save me!’