Ebb and flow
Marley was dead, to begin with: there was no doubting it. The stress of leaving his wife, moving to Pattaya and spending six months in the clutches of bar-girls (and, on occasion, bar-boys) exploded an already weakened heart.
So Ebb would be spending Christmas alone. In her anger and her grief, Marley’s wife had pointedly declined to invite him. It was only ever Marley - benevolent old Marley - who had wanted him over on December 25. That much he now knew.
"Merry bollocks," he muttered, eyes fixed firmly on his keyboard.
"You what!? Woss that you say, Ebbo?" Across the desk, and behind three screens of power, sat Rob Critchley; marketing manager, berk-about-town and self-appointed office joker. Ebb’s boss. He leered through a narrow slit between the walls of technology, beery face radiating oily charm and Poundshop good cheer.
"You said sumfink? Wot was it?"
Demanding little oik.
"Spellcheck’s playing up again," said Ebb. "That’s all."
"Really? Or is it just the operator?"
Ebb didn’t reply. He knew enough about his younger superior to hand him any more ammunition. He was already on today’s shit-list for not wearing a Christmas jumper to work. Rob’s team had groaned like a panto audience when Ebb failed to arrive in the requisite piece of vomit-inducing knitwear.
"FORFEIT! FORFEIT! FORFEIT!" they yelled, baying for Ebb’s blood. Rob stepped, Godlike, into the arena.
"Ebb Scrooge, you are Christmas Eve’s official B.O.B - Boring Old Bastard," he announced, to cheers all round. "And for that, you will take your punishment like a man. You’ll be checking emails til closing time. Got it!?"
More bellows accompanied Rob’s placing of the Christmas Cracker Crown of Shame atop Ebb’s balding head. He thought he detected a look of sympathy from Sheila, the department secretary, but as she busied herself with The Mail Online, he decided it was just embarrassment.
The morning wore on. Someone dropped an iPod into the communal dock and the inevitable Christmas playlist began its infernal loop. Ebb wondered what it would be like to work in Debenhams or Toys R Us or John Lewis in the weeks leading up to the Great Event. He imagined the pushing, shoving, sweating and swearing. The hours spent on the shop floor, soothing and placating. Then on Boxing Day, the legal brawl that constituted the first morning of the sales. Hadn’t people had enough? Hadn’t they had enough of just about everything in general by the 26th?
He wouldn’t grumble. He’d promised, cajoled, persuaded himself that he wouldn’t grouse. They found him cantankerous, at best. Why give them any more flammable material to be ignited at regular intervals over the year.
"SANTA! SANTA! SANTA! SANTA!"
They banged the desks and quacked the response to Rob’s cheerleading "SECRET! SECRET! SECRET!" Ebb looked out of his window into the pale winter light. All over the country, employees like him were being corralled into public displays of unmitigated jollity. Never mind that it had been a shit 12 months, with an equally shit 12 months ahead; Christmas anaesthetised everything under a thick blanket of false bonhomie.
Rob folded his arms and patted the knitted pudding that spread across his belly. "Goodies on the table, guys!" he yelled. "Come on, out with them. Is that everyone?! Whoever got me is either hired or fired after this. Right?"
They smirked and shifted uncomfortably in their swivel chairs. Rob meant it. Last year, Polish Pieter got him a bottle of Hi-Karate as a joke. By February he was escorted from the building by security, desk toys in a cardboard box.
"Ebb, where’s yours? Come on....on the table." Rob leaned over his desk, pushing files aside to locate the wrapped gift he was meant to bring in.
"A poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket every December 25," Ebb muttered.
"In other words, Rob, I forgot. I should’ve said. I didn’t have the chance to get to the shops."
"Didn’t get the chance!?" Rob looked at him as a Saturday morning street cleaner approaches a pool of Friday’s vomit. "What the fack are you on at all? The facking shops have been open twenty-four-seven since September. You are full of shit, mate."
"Yeah, facking right you are. You don’t give a toss about the team. You’ve let us all down, mate, you know that?"
Ebb studied his screen, catching a glimpse of himself in eight weeks’ time, packing his belongings into a box. Marley was dead. No-one else understood.
"No facking Christmas jumper and no Secret Santa." Rob turned to his paid captives. "Fuck you, you tight-arsed prick. We’re going down the pub in ten minutes. You’re not. Sit here til 5.30pm and don’t facking move. And I’ll tell security to confiscate your lanyard if you dare piss off before. Got it? And make sure you’re back here at 8.30 sharp on the 27th. Merry Fucking Christmas."
The team did no more work, and at 12pm departed to the Old Jolly Sailor with no intention of returning. Their tight, regulated, repetitive world allowed it at lunchtime on December 24, and that was what they’d do - get shitfaced and scream until they were sick.
Ebb worked on. In truth, he liked the office when it was this quiet. The low hum of the fluorescent tube above was a kind of strange office music, accompanied by the dip and swell of the faulty air-con. At 5.30pm, Ebb closed the Excel programme, switched off his computer and lifted his hat and coat from the stand. Thirty Christmases he had walked out of this office and home to the small flat he shared with nothing and no-one. In the beginning he’d been popular, especially among the women. There had been Jayne in Finance, Heather in Purchasing, Dawn in HR: all had admired the young high-flier, making it clear that they wouldn’t say ‘no’ to a date. But a combination of shyness and unwillingness to part with a quid meant he’d never asked. They shrugged and moved on. Heather was a grandma now. Time had passed for most, but for Ebb it had simply gathered dust.
He opened the final fire door before reception, briefly examining his reflection in the wire meshed glass. His features were set as hard as flint. He wondered how he must appear to the Jaynes, Dawns and Heathers of Christmas Eve 2014. There were no more sideways looks across the canteen (indeed, there was no more canteen) or sidling over to borrow a paper clip. No-one asked how he was, and he didn’t enquire of them. Through all the years of upheaval, boom, bust and back again, he had stayed in his post. No-one cared. And Marley, the only friend he had known, was dead. Dead as a doornail.
Ebb muttered a ‘goodnight’ to the receptionist. She looked up from her magazine, surprised. He rarely acknowledged her; spoke to few outside his immediate hub. ‘Christ, it must be Christmas,’ she thought and went back to her pap pictures.
He walked down Rotherwick Street and towards the precinct. Above him, lit decorations hung in icicle shapes, like rows of used, frozen condoms. The street heaved with purpose; those trudging home colliding with the sprightly young going out, the couples sandwiched in seasonal affection, laden like mules with shopping bags. Across the road, a self-conscious man in a black beanie hat was dragging a Christmas tree. Ebb smiled at the cliche - was it really a Wonderful Life? - then immediately cursed his own cynicism, knowing that it would push down his mood. Suddenly, faces looked fat, self-satisfied and stupid. He despised the idiot mobs for their ugliness and sheep-like manner. Passing the Old Jolly Sailor, he glanced through the window to witness Rob Critchley, Santa hat askew, leaping up and down on the spot in the middle of the mob from marketing. As he jumped his mouth opened in time, flecks of spittle handing from the end of his thick, cretin tongue. While he bawled and pawed and swigged, somewhere Mrs Critchley and their three kids anxiously awaited a key jabbing at the door.
Ebb pressed on through the puddle-soaked precinct, passing KFC, and into Queen’s Square. Once the area’s thriving Victorian mercantile heart, the boarded-up windows and squat, vicious dogs tied up to old railing around the gardens told of its creeping, squalid misery. Ebb hurried across, catching no-one’s eye. No, he didn’t want crack, meth or pills, thank you. He just wanted the Co-op at the square’s eastern corner. It was 6pm. The shop would shut soon, and if he got there now....
At the chiller cabinet, Ebb took his time poking and prodding the selection of marked-down meats. He picked up a single cooked chicken breast, already grey with age. ‘Best before Dec 26.’ It would do nicely. There was a bag of oven chips and a carrot or two at home. Marley was dead. There would be no dinner to attend. As he rooted in his pockets for the £1.75 he became aware of wardrobe-shaped human at his shoulder, clad in a monogrammed fleece. Shaved head, goatee beard, purposeful look. Security.
"Till’s that way....sir," said the wardrobe. "We’re closing now." Ebb paid up and left. The door banged irritably behind him. Outside, a man in a suit, a tie round his head, was noisily throwing up into a recycling bin. Ebb thought about Rob, moody and hungover, unspeakably dangerous amid the paper and string of Christmas morning. His kids in their rooms, pale, nervous faces lit up by electronics. Mrs Critchley in the kitchen, vaping on an e-cig, wondering if 2015 was the year she’d remember who she once was.
Ebb shrugged off the image. It didn’t matter. Rob would be back at work on the 27th and harmony at home would be restored. He emptied the contents of the Co-op bag on to the table and plonked the chicken in the greasy microwave, ready for the morning. As a last meal, it was hardly up there with the best of Death Row. The old clock on the mantle struck seven. Where had time gone? A solitary envelope, complete with Christmas stamp, was tucked behind the clock. For the umpteenth time that week, Ebb eased it from its hiding place and opened the flap. The details had not changed; even so, he still couldn’t believe what he was reading.
Flight Number: CD22121859
Passenger Name: Mr E. Scrooge
Outside, the wind caught the chain of an old bike lock attached to the railing, its captive long since departed, lifting and dropping it with a harsh clink-clack. Somewhere, a dog barked in reply. Ebb reached up and turned off the light.