I guess it will be Christmas with my next door neighbour this year

·6 min read
 (Illustration by Tom Ford)
(Illustration by Tom Ford)

There’s always a mad rush to get stuff done before the end of the year, isn’t there? All the more so when you’re preparing to leave a job. Though everyone else was officially WFH again, venturing out of the house only to attend government-sanctioned cheese and wine parties, I went into the office every day last week to go through old files and make sure that I’d tied up all the loose ends from my decade at Bella Vista PR.

The most important task was to make sure that my clients knew who would be looking after them once I’d gone. I suggested to Saskia at #Yne that George should be her new contact at Bella Vista. He’d never been exactly complimentary about her root-based, alcohol-free beverage range, but she didn’t know that and I was sure that in time he would perhaps even come to enjoy Swede Sauvignon and Beetroot Beaujolais. He’d put worse things in his mouth, as he liked to remind me.

As I parcelled up the work for my colleagues, I felt a strange mixture of exhilaration and fear. Exhilaration that I would never again have to think of a new way to present an old product. Fear that I was saying goodbye, for the time being, to a monthly pay cheque. Though I’m sure Prince Harry would have been proud of my decision to join the “Great Resignation” and put my mental health above my job, I did not have a prince-sized trust to fall back on. And the way things were looking with Omicron, there was no immediate hope of waltzing off into the sunset anyway – unless it was the sunset over Clapham Common. But I wanted to start 2022 as I intended to go on and that meant taking a punt on myself. After all, in March 2020, I had been confident that leaving Bella Vista was the right thing to do. I’d been looking forward to building a freelance career that left me time to explore my own entrepreneurial ideas.

It wasn’t only my work life where the loose ends needed tidying up. I took advantage of the fact that, despite one half of the government’s insistence that nobody should panic, my weekend plans had been panicked into non-existence. I had time to do some decluttering. I started with the cupboard under the stairs.

I still had the cage that Minky the hamster – my boss Bella’s hamster – had arrived in almost a year before. Where was Minky now, I wondered. I hadn’t seen her since the summer when, sprung from her cage after Bella’s dog knocked it off the table, she made a rush for freedom. Actually, there was that brief moment when I saw her in my backyard, but nothing since. I hoped she had enjoyed her time in the wild. I had to assume she hadn’t survived out there for long. Minky was never coming back. The cage joined the pile of things I planned to take to the dump.

While I was loading the cage into the car, my neighbour Brenda came walking down the street with two heavy-looking carrier bags.

“Sprouts,” she said. “I saw a Facebook post saying there’s going to be a shortage. All the sprout pickers have gone back to Europe.”

“Hmmm. Do you like sprouts?” I asked.

“Not really. But Christmas isn’t Christmas without them.”

“I suppose you could always sell them at a mark-up to sprout lovers who didn’t get the memo about the shortage,” I suggested.

“Exactly.”

“I don’t need any,” I said quickly.

Since I’d already “done Christmas” at my brother’s house, in anticipation of the now traditional Yuletide Covid variant fiasco, I was planning to have truffled mac and cheese for my Christmas lunch. I told Brenda.

“You can’t have Christmas on your own,” she said.

“I did last year.”

“So did I,” Brenda said. “And to be honest, it looks like I’ll be having it alone again this year. My sister doesn’t want to come to London in case she gets Omicron. That’s what she says. I know she’s really planning to spend the day with her new boyfriend. She met him on Facebook.”

“He’s not a UN surgeon, is he?” I asked, gently teasing Brenda about her own romantic adventures.

“No. He’s not a Danish dentist either. He’s a retired chiropodist from Tewkesbury.”

We agreed that if one were trying to con someone out of their life savings, one would probably choose a different fake job and a different fake hometown.

“I bought a turkey crown,” Brenda sighed. “It’s too much for one.”

There was a moment of silence which ended when we both blurted out, “Shall we do Christmas together?”

“I’ve got the turkey and the sprouts,” said Brenda.

“I’ll bring the mac and cheese.”

“Can you have mac and cheese with turkey?”

“We can have whatever we want.”

“But no presents,” Brenda said.

I was happy with that. Not that it isn’t wonderful that people feel they want to give me a gift, but if no one is going to go with my suggestion that we have Christmas only once every four years, then could we not at least make it more like Thanksgiving, where the important thing is getting together, not the ritual exchange of miniature hand cream “trees” (which is what was inside my sister-in-law’s gift to me and vice versa).

“Your place or mine?”

“Definitely mine,” said Brenda.

So that was settled. Things I had not expected when I started 2021: that I would be spending Christmas Day with Brenda.

Having loaded all my junk into the back of the car – if you’re going to steal my car, I thought, make it tonight – I settled down to eat a mini-mac and cheese in front of Post Mortem, my new favourite Norwegian comedy horror show. If there’s a skill lockdown has given me, it’s the ability to eat while watching any amount of gore.

As I was putting my dish in the sink, out of the corner of my eye I saw something dash along the skirting board. Not a mouse, surely? The mouse people had guaranteed their mouse-proofing for a year. Slowly, I moved in the direction of the flitting shadow, hoping to find it was just a figment of my imagination, but no… There in the corner, looking a little mangey but still identifiably 100 per cent herself was Minky. The prodigal hamster was back.

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