41 The Scrubbins
A joyful and merry festive season to you all.
What a year it has been! For the Family Thompson – Colin, Helen, and sons Tom and David – this has been a year of highs and lows. Christmas 2019, when Colin had just lost his job, was a low point for us. Little did any of us know back then how much worse things could get!
After the web development company that Colin worked for went bust last year, things quickly went from bad to worse. Our youngest, Tom (15 – they grow up so fast!) moved in with his Nan, and we missed him terribly. Our eldest, David, 17 now, ever the enterpreneur, a young Lord Sugar if you will, started a very successful business growing and selling plants.
In the early part of the year, Colin filled in hundreds of job applications, with no luck. Some of you will no doubt remember a “Certain Event” that started happening from March onwards this year. The job market dried right up. Helen was furloughed from her job as a lunchtime supervisor, and we were just scraping by. Though David offered to help out with money, we couldn’t take our son’s hard-earned cash. We lived on beans and instant noodles. Our skin took on a gaunt, exhausted look, and we were down to one cup of tea each a day because we didn’t want to run up a big electric bill by boiling the kettle. That was how bad it got.
But the Thompsons are nothing but optimists, and Colin kept on trying. During a hot spell of weather in July our luck changed. He got a ping on his phone from one of the job apps. A permanent job, 37 hours per week, working from home!
You can imagine our joy. We jumped like children in the back yard. We threw our hands up in the air. We screamed and squealed. Helen started planning what we would do with the first pay cheque. She wanted a skiing holiday in 2021, which we probably wouldn’t be able to go on now, for reasons which will sadly become clear later; she wanted new clothes, a laptop for each boy for school, and an M&S Christmas. No sooner had Colin got his first month’s wages than all the money had already been accounted for.
The work itself was fairly simple. Each day a courier on a motorbike brought a batch of papers, and Colin had to enter the numbers and letters from these papers into columns on a spreadsheet. It wouldn’t have been a demanding job apart from the accuracy needed. The numbers and letters came in long streams of codes, sometimes twenty or thirty characters in length (don’t ask us what they were for! We don’t know!) and he had to enter each one correctly, no errors, even down to the upper and lower case. If he made even a single mistake, his boss, a man he had never met, would be on the phone right away to shout at him for half an hour.
No matter how huge the pile of papers, Colin had to complete them all that day, and sometimes the papers arrived in boxes, stacks and stacks of them. He could be at his computer until midnight or one in the morning. If he didn’t finish, the work would still be there the next morning, and a new batch of papers on top of that.
We don’t mean to complain. We know Colin was lucky to have a job, especially in this climate. Dear pals, we have not forgotten how trying it is to be out of work. Constantly worrying about money, watching where every penny goes. Colin had not forgotten how the days had stretched emptily before him, with no end in sight, and no prospect of work. Being employed gives us something to do with our days. It gives the week structure. Something to get up for in the morning. Besides, Helen was happy. She had started going to the supermarket again, throwing the premium range items into the trolley with all the gay abandon of a recently widowed millionaire’s wife.
Colin was happy, Helen was happy. The kids – they were teenage boys. Tom FaceTimed us from his Nan’s a couple of times a week, and David was busy with his work. Always tinkering with his plants, or running ‘off-sales’ as he called it. Even though college was closed, he was often out and about, running deliveries on his bike. He was earning so much money, he said, that he didn’t need to think about going to University. When the week for A Level results came we, his dear parents, were in shreds more than he was, ha ha!
We have tried to get him to put all the cash he is making into a bank account, but David seems to have a bit of a phobia of banks. Still, we are proud to report that he will soon start his first term doing ‘Business Studies’ at the local University, and we are sure he will get top marks in every class (apart from the ones about accounting!!!)
Given the amount of cancellations of events this year, you can imagine Colin’s surprise to find out that his Work Christmas Party would not be taking place on Zoom, but in real life, in Head Office, in one of the office blocks in Leeds City Centre. “Wear Black Tie”, the invitation said. The invitation, printed in silver on black card, somehow made it clear that attendance at the office party was mandatory for all employees. “All drinks provided,” it said. “Free bar!” There was no invitation to bring a plus-one.
Helen had not forgotten all those hard months of cold and hunger, of sitting in the dark with the lights off. “You have to go,” she said. “At least you’ll get to meet your boss at last, if nothing else.” Neither of us wanted Colin to be out of a job again!
So Colin dusted off his best suit, polished his work shoes, and set out.
The party was held in the office. Carpet tiles, desks, headsets, cheap wooden fittings, dead pot plants, a photocopier winking away in one corner. Straight away Colin somehow recognised that photocopier/printer as being the one that produced the sheaf of papers he worked from every day, and was seized with an irrational urge to smash it. It looked to be the only piece of equipment in the office that had been used since March. Everything else was covered in dust.
He met two of his fellow employees as soon as he arrived. There was a woman in gold sequinned dress and orange lipstick, called Yvonne, and a balding man whose suit was too small for him, Geoff. There were others dotted around the edges of the room, wrapping their arms around themselves to keep warm: the heating had been switched off, it seemed. Most were drinking boxed wine out of plastic cups. Colin noticed the boxes – one red, one white – sitting by the photocopier, but he didn’t want to cross the room and walk past everybody to get one. He had barely been out of the house in months. A large pink pinata hung in the centre of the room. It was wearing a Santa hat and it seemed to Colin that everybody else was trying not to look at it.
A voice boomed out: “Dance! Dance!” Colin looked around. The voice seemed to be coming from the large glass office at the end of the room, but he couldn’t see the owner of it. “We are here to have fun, so enjoy yourselves!” Colin recognised the voice of his supervisor, the one who shouted at him down the phone at least once a day.
Music came on, Jingle Bell Rock, and people started shuffling around, pretending to have fun.
“What’s the pinata for,” Colin asked Yvonne. She was shuffling from foot to foot, moving side to side, doing the least amount of dancing possible. She glanced over to where Colin was pointing, and her eyes slid over the pinata as though it wasn’t there.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said. “I don’t see any pinata.”
The music stopped: Jingle bell, jingle bell, jin – and the rest of the partygoers stopped wherever they were, exactly still. Yvonne stood with her sequinned dress slightly aloft and one foot pointing towards the dead aspidistra. The man in the suit held both arms at chest height, his bald head sweating.
Colin was taken by surprise. “What’s going on,” he asked. “Are we playing a game?”
He looked at Yvonne. Her eyes and jaw were tense; she didn’t even move her eyeballs or blink. “COLIN THOMPSON!” the voice boomed. “YOU ARE OUT!”
“Out of what?” Colin asked.
“Colin Thompson, you are out of the game! Please take a seat by the edge of the room.”
The music started up again: -gle bell, jingle bell rock, Jingle Bells chime in jingle bell time – and Colin went and poured himself a glass of lukewarm white wine from the box. The other employees, he noticed now – lanyards, name badges – were playing Musical Statues as though their lives depended on it. They played grim-faced and barren of joy. The wine was as all boxed wine is, tasting of cardboard and distress.
They played on. After a while, Geoff, the bald man, was out too. He came and sat beside Colin, and gave a huge, fake laugh. His mouth opened, he slapped Colin on the back. “What’s the joke?” Colin wondered. Geoff was laughing but his heart didn’t seem to be in it. If you have ever seen recently divorced parents meeting at their child’s birthday party you will know the sort of laugh. “Try to seem as if you’re having fun,” Geoff advised, under his breath. “Sometimes they give us a bonus for it.” Every now and again, his eyes flicked to the pinata.
“I’m going home soon anyway,” Colin said. He wanted to catch Tom and his Mum on the way home.
“No!” Geoff grabbed him by both arms. It seemed he had forgotten himself. “Don’t leave early. Don’t you see? This is all part of it.”
“Part of what?” Colin asked.
“The restructure.” Geoff’s eyes moved around terribly, a fast-moving spider in a bathtub. “They do it every Christmas. It’s how they decide who stays and who goes.” The pinata wobbled in the strip lights, its smile a sinister curve.
A restructure every year, Colin was thinking. What kind of place is this?
Dear reader, had Helen not already spent his November and December pay on everything for Christmas, he could have left right then and there. But the bank account was bare. Every last penny had been cleaned out. The turkey alone had cost nearly £100. Everybody including Nan had been bought Christmas pyjamas and a Christmas jumper to wear on Christmas morning. On Christmas Eve, Tom and Nan were coming to stay. The whole family would be together for the first time since 2019. Colin couldn’t bear to think about all that, and countenance going home to tell them all he’d lost his job at the office Christmas Party.
“Whoever gets the fewest sweets,” Geoff went on, “gets their P45.”
“What about performance?” Colin asked. “Productivity? Accuracy? Customer satisfaction?” He was desperately flinging out measures that had been used in appraisals at previous workplaces. All useless here, it turned out. Lucky for Colin they weren’t doing the redundancies on the basis of last in, first out. He didn’t know how long everybody else had been at the company. The woman in the gold sequinned dress looked very tired. He guessed that she had been here the longest.
“This is performance,” Geoff said. “Killer instinct. The will to win. Eye of the tiger. Who dares wins, etc.” He was struggling to pull a blindfold down over his eyes. “Help me with this, would you?”
Once they’d both got their blindfolds on, Colin was handed something that felt like a cricket bat. He stood up and made his way over towards the pinata.
Shuffling. The sound of the footsteps of the others as they vied to get the best spot under the pink donkey. Somebody in heels trod on his foot. At first Colin thought it was an accident but a minute later it happened again, sharper this time. “Ow,” he said.
He tried to get further in, but realised somebody was standing in his way. The person was taller than him, a man, and wearing Old Spice. “On your marks -” Boomed the voice: “Get set – go!”
The first blow was on Colin’s upper arm. He’d hardly got a go at the pinata himself, when somebody else’s bat connected with his elbow with a sharp crack. Feeling a sharp wave of nausea, and a pain in his arm like nothing else, he fell to the floor. Dear readers, we apologise to those of you who sent us “get well soon” messages on Facebook. We said at the time that Colin had got these injuries falling off a motorbike. We now admit that this story was a lie.
No doubt you’re asking yourself, as Helen did: “What kind of a workplace is it where somebody can get injured and nobody stops to check they’re ok?”
What you have to remember here is that everybody else was wearing a blindfold. They couldn’t check on Colin because they didn’t know he was hurt. Instead, poor Colin fell injured to the floor, battered by a falling shower of wrapped penny sweets on the way down, where he then used his still good hand – the left – to funnel them into his jacket pocket.
When he landed on the carpet he found there was somebody else already there. He didn’t know who it was but he could hear her breathing. The way it came out in gasps as she used the elbow to fold the sweets together, the way a croupier uses a stick to gather chips at a poker table, told him that perhaps she had been doing this for years.
“Sorry,” he said, and started doing the same. His right arm was no use: it was hurting like a road traffic accident, and though his jacket was getting in the way, he couldn’t take it off. “I’m sorry,” he said. Always only thinking of us, his wife and children.
At one point his arm encountered hers, and she shoved it away roughly. “I’ve got three kids at home,” she said. “I’m divorced. I’m a single Mum. You stay on your side.” Somebody stood on Colin’s leg. Somebody kicked him. He didn’t even know how many sweets he had.
He grabbed whatever he could – humbugs, wrapped toffees, aniseed balls – and shoved them into his trouser pockets, inside jacket pocket, he even shoved some down his trousers. The carpet was wet with fallen wine and beer, and he heard the sound of the pinata ripping apart, and the sweets fell on him in a hard rain.
He thought for sure that the game would soon end: the other members of staff fell on him in a pile. He was a fallback in a scrum, they grabbed at him like an action pending in an assault case, he felt hands all over him, on his legs, his back, his bum, his bad arm – they were grabbing at him and scanning his body for fallen sweets – nobody cared who touched who where or who was going to allege what later on, all they cared about was the sweets, that there were a finite number of them, and that there was more riding on this than being the subject of an embarrassing story told at the office the next day.
The boss came on severely over the loudspeaker: “I’m not enjoying this any more than you are,” he said. “But we have to think about the bottom line. Better that one or two of you go, than the whole place goes bust and you all lose your jobs.” Stop The Cavalry was playing. Colin’s arm was as painful as a shining knife. He was amazed that he hadn’t yet passed out.
“Two!” shouted Yvonne. “They’ve never done two jobs before!”
“It’s not fair!” shouted somebody else.
They were all over him like ants on a picnic blanket. Colin shoved whatever he could under his shirt. He shoved a load of cola cubes and several packets of Love Hearts down his trousers. Because of the blindfold he had no idea how much anyone else had managed to grab and their breath was hot and sour, a toxic cloud of desperation hanging in the air heavy as an industrial accident, and this was the last thing Colin remembered before the pain got too much, and he finally did pass out.
Thank you, readers and friends, for all of your kind words and messages over the past few days. Our special thanks to Alison at Number 24 for the fruit basket. Some of your comments on Facebook said that you thought it looked as though Colin had been in a fight, and though we didn’t like to admit it at the time, the truth was that he more or less had.
Anyway, I know what you’re all wondering – did he get to keep his job or not?
The sad truth is we don’t know how many sweeties Colin had in his pockets and down the front of his shirt and in the lining of his jacket, and we never shall know. He had passed out by the time they made the final tally, the blue lights of the ambulance shearing across the photocopier, the strip lights, the crumpled glasses, so although we don’t know whether he came top of the contest or somewhere near the bottom, what we do know is that the courier had delivered another stack of papers to the house while we were waiting at A&E, which means – we think – that Colin is still in a job. Well done Colin!
So though it won’t be the Christmas we’d hoped for – Colin spending the festive season with one arm in a cast, and still getting visits from a nurse once a day for the headaches, we are glad to have some good news at last.
Many best wishes to you and yours, and may Family Thompson wish you all the best for a wonderful Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
Colin, Helen, David, Tom, and Nan. xxx
SJ Bradley is an award-winning author from Leeds, UK whose short fiction has appeared in December, Strix, and Willesden New Short Stories. She is editor of Remembering Oluwale, which won a Saboteur Award in 2017, and has been writer in residence at Alton Towers and for First Story. If you have enjoyed the story, buy her a ko-fi here.