A Christmas Story by Judith Barrow

This has been a tough year, but now that Christmas is nearly upon us, our brilliantly talented Crime Cymru authors have decided to bring us all some seasonal cheer with stories of murder, mayhem and the office party. In today’s story, Judith Barrow reveals the full and chilling horror of the office Christmas celebrations from hell.

THE WRONG ANGLE by Judith Barrow

‘There, that’s better?’ Anne Morgan steps back to admire the office, festooned in Christmas decorations. She touches the red and green balloons tied to the stapler on her desk and smiles as they bob around. Picking up the glass musical globe, she winds the key before placing it, first at one side of the phone, then the other. In the end she arranges it just a centimetre or two in front, next to her pen tray.

Humming let it snow, let it snow, let it snow, Anne smears the lipstick, Rose Pink, over her thin lips and tucks her grey hair behind her ears. Her hands tremble slightly; it’s taken her an hour to bring Christmas cheer to her drab surroundings and, even though she’s pleased, it’s been hard work climbing up and down on the filing cabinets and the narrow windowsills of the old building.

She admits to herself she’d dithered about whether to do it but is satisfied with the result.  

‘What do you think, Mum?’  

 Her mother’s voice echoes down the years. Sneering.

‘Not a clue. You’ve made a right mess of things again.’

Anne had always allowed herself to be ruled. As a child she’d dreamed of travelling to distant countries. As a young woman she’d driven her mother to Morecambe every year.

 Bitter at being widowed young; taking it as a personal insult that her husband had escaped in such a final way, Phyllis Morgan had rejoiced in tormenting her daughter.

Anne’s only respite has been her job. Thirty years in the same office, for the same firm.

Over the years she’s seen staff come and go; bored by the repetition of the work. She has no friends amongst the rest of the department and knows she’s seen as odd.

She’d liked her first manager, Bob (indeed if truth were known she was a little in love with him). They’d worked together for seventeen years and she lived vicariously within his family; through the childhood tantrums, teenage problems. She’d even been to his daughter’s wedding; seventeen and heavily pregnant. Recollecting this Anne sighs; it’s been many years since the one and only time she was able to put her morals to the test, and never had been a contributing part of the sixties; free love, Beatles, miniskirts and festivals. It had all passed her by, thanks to her mother’s demands.

Carrying three yellow balloons she goes into the cupboard designated as the refreshment room and rinses out her coffee cup in the wash hand basin. Then she ties the balloons to the taps.

Remembering Bob makes her sad; him retiring and the new manager arriving was one of the worst times of her life. Up to that point. Since then the new manager, Mr Jackson, had made it his mission to make her life a misery.

* * *

When the firm went through an economic crisis, five years ago, some of the staff were moved to other offices or made redundant. Joan was never offered the latter; she’d been employed too long; it would have cost the business too much.

 Eventually she was completely alone in the office, greeting the regular postman with relief. The morning chat with him a pleasant interlude.

This was stopped by Mr Jackson’s intervention

‘Gossiping again, Miss Morgan,’ he would drawl, holding his hand out for the mail, sifting through the envelopes until the postman took the hint and left.

Deciding that the post be taken directly ionto his office meant her isolation was complete.

Anne turns and looks around her office.

‘Very Christmassy, Mother, despite what you think,’ she murmurs.

Her desk is tidy, the morning’s filing done, the spider plant she’s named Mr Jackson because it reminds her of him, sitting like a spider in his room waiting for her to make a mistake, is watered. She doesn’t look at the computer, the first of her downfalls.

The next incumbent of her post could take over with little trouble. Will possibly ‒ probably, be able to use the dratted computer.

* * *

From the office next door, she thinks she can hear the deliberate, hard throat clearing coughs that always precedes one of his speeches and remembers the humiliation of the computer lecture when he pronounced her typing slovenly. In all her life she’d never been called slovenly; indeed, she considers to be neat, sometimes too particular. All that day his next words haunted her.

‘We’d better send you on another course, Miss Morgan; you don’t seem to be able to cope with modern technology. I do need someone who can deal more swiftly with up to date word processing and spreadsheets.’ The barely concealed sneer in the tone showing in his eyes.

Her mother hadn’t let her go on the course; she’d said it was pointless, Anne would only make a mess of it and, anyway, she wouldn’t be paid any more than the pittance she was already getting. To make things final, Phyllis had one of her fainting spells.

So Mr Jackson had stopped asking her to use the computer. These days it sat idle, quiet, malevolent. A symbol of her failures.

His bullying was subtle; each day he called her into his office and indicated with a flap of his hand to a pile of letters.

‘Take these next door and see if you can find someone to type these for me.’ Inevitably he would place a forefinger on the side of his nose; the sniff turning into a snort as he cleared his sinuses. It made Anne flinch each time.

Shaking with embarrassment, she would try a different department each day, conscious that people looked away as she approached them. Until someone took pity on her and, with an exaggerated exasperated, ‘Give them here, then, but he’ll have to wait until I’ve this lot,’ would nod towards their own pile of papers.

And each day, in his impatience, he would send her to collect them before they were ready and Anne, rather than face the annoyance of her colleagues, waited in the corridors before going back and saying brightly, ‘Sorry, Mr Jackson, not ready yet,’ and close the door on his irritated sigh.

The lecture he’d given this morning was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Thinking the cliché gives her satisfaction, so she says it aloud. ‘The straw that broke the camel’s back,’ and straightens her shoulders before entering his office, her footsteps silent on the thick carpet. Placing her resignation letter on Mr Jackson’s desk, she watches the moving screen saver on his computer for a moment and then, without shutting down the programme, and with great satisfaction, unplugs the machine.

* * *

It was the stapling of the minutes from the last departmental meeting that caused the upset. She’d just finished when he slid (as he always did) around the door of her office.

His exclamation made her look at him, something she always tried not to do. His long face, normally so sallow, was puce and his mouth stretched in an exaggerated gesture of horror.

‘No. No. No! Not like that!’ He snatched the top copy of the minutes and ripped them apart. ‘You staple the pages together as far as possible in the top left-hand corner at an angle of forty-five degrees. Exactly forty-five degrees.’ His voice rose. ‘Sloppy. Sloppy work. You’ll need to get them retyped.’

He’d swung round on his heels and was gone before Anne could speak.

She didn’t get them retyped.

* * *

She sits on one of the squashy, luxurious armchairs, opposite the tall figure of her tormentor. And waits. She’s already made the necessary telephone call; someone will arrive shortly to take over. She’s content to wait, as she’s often done while he deliberates over each sentence of his dictation, uncapping the stick of lip salve and applying it to his lips.

Unusually, for him, he’s slouched in the armchair in the corner of the office, legs spread out, his head tilted to one side, as though he’s thinking. Although the creases in his trousers are as sharp as always, his trousers are rucked up around his ankles and she can see the garters holding up his white socks. His elegant long fingers, with the immaculately manicured nails, lie loosely curled in his lap.

She watches as the collar of his blue blazer and the red and blue of his club tie slowly darken in colour. Sees the front of his shirt, the whitest of white, now has a glistening tide of red spreading down his chest.

Raising her eyes to the criss-cross of lines on the skin on the side of his neck, she sees the blood seeping from under his thick black hair, the angle that the scissors stick out from his neck.

‘Forty-five degrees exactly,’ she says, her voice loud in the silence. ‘That’s perfect, isn’t it, Mother.’

You can find out more about Judith Barrow on her website or on her Amazon page

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