Last Tuesday night was the Bella Vista PR Christmas party. Our 2020 party was a very sad affair, held over Zoom as we stared down the barrel of another lockdown. Our boss Bella sent a half bottle of champagne to each of our homes and we opened them in front of our screens, before playing a pub quiz, with questions inviting answers that would have resulted in a couple of instant dismissals had Bella’s internet connection not gone down at exactly the right time.
This year, we went “out out” to have a real-life party in an upstairs room at the pub nearest our office. When Bella first announced that the party would be held on the last day of November, we all thought she was a cheapskate, but following the Downing Street press conference on 27 November, when BoJo announced new rules to boost the Christmas bonuses of his mates in the PCR industry, Bella’s decision seemed quite prescient. Who knows how long we’ve got until we’re back to the “rule of six” and no mixing of households?
George organised the Secret Santa, signing us all up to Pickaname.com, a website that invited us to make “wish lists” from an array of items that might better have stayed on the container ship that brought them to the UK so they could be taken straight to one of those far-distant plants that deals with our plastic recycling. Dreading the prospect that my Secret Santa gifter would not look beyond the list when shopping for me, I chose the three least-worst things I could find: a set of nail files; a mini-desk cleaner in the shape of Henry the Hoover (since we’ve started hot-desking, I always end up sitting at a desk recently vacated by someone addicted to Greggs’ vegan sausage rolls, and those things make a lot of crumbs); and a reusable water bottle bearing the legend “I heart the Earth.”
At six o’clock, we downed tools and started the evening with pre-drinks in the office. Everyone eschewed the sparkling new potato-based #Yne that my client Saskia had so generously sent to get the party going, in favour of the Lidl champagne. There was more champagne at the pub (well, cava), so we were all fairly merry by the time it came to hand out the Secret Santa presents, which could more accurately have been described as the “swapping of client samples”. I recognised the box of vegan mini cupcakes I received as part of a recent PR handout for Carrot’s Cakes, Bella’s newest client. I tried not to look too disappointed. At least they were biodegradable. And to be fair, I had wrapped up a press sample of my own to give to my giftee, Lizzie. Who doesn’t like a scented candle? Lizzie, it turns out.
“Scented candles bring on my migraines.”
At least I was not Sarah, who had unwrapped an enamel “Queen bitch” badge. Her Secret Santa was George.
“I meant it affectionately,” he insisted, and he maintained that line when he opened his Secret Santa gift from Lizzie, which was exactly the same badge only bigger. I don’t think Lizzie meant it affectionately at all.
Only Bella was really happy with her Secret Santa, which was a vintage copy of Lady Boss by Jackie Collins, gifted to her by Sarah. She guessed right away.
“Thank you, Sarah. Perfect holiday reading for Val d’Isere,” Bella announced (assuming we’re still allowed to leave our houses by Christmas). “I can rely on you,” she continued. “Sarah, it’s like you can read my mind.”
It was a one-way thing – Bella still didn’t know that Sarah had moved to Scotland.
As the evening drew to a close, I took the opportunity to hand out my Christmas cards, not knowing when we would all be together in the same room again. I like to get my Christmas card writing out of the way early. I’d had them stashed in my drawer of the communal filing cabinet for a week.
“I seem to have two,” said Bella. Sozzled from my first night back on the sauce since Sober October, I was confused. And then I wasn’t. The room seemed to go into slow motion as I realised what I had done. It was too late. She had already opened the fatter envelope and pulled out the letter inside. It was my resignation letter from March 2020. The letter that had lived in my desk for 20 months, after the first lockdown was announced on the day I had planned to deliver it.
Bella’s big smile faltered as she read the words I could remember only too well.
“Is this a joke?” she asked. “Are you resigning?”
“I, er, I was resigning,” I blustered. “But then Covid… I thought it best to put my plans on hold.”
“Do you still feel this way? Do you feel like you’re wasting your life at Bella Vista? After everything we’ve been through in the last year and a half?”
The entire room was silent as everyone waited to hear my answer. I couldn’t give one. I was absolutely lost for words.
I ate the entire box of vegan cupcakes before I went to bed that night. I’ve always found that in moments of panic, mainlining carbs helps me to feel more calm. But not that night. As we left the Christmas party, Bella told me that she would let me think about it for a week. She did not want to lose one of her best employees without us both giving the situation some serious thought first. It was the kindest she had been to me since that day back in the summer when she was desperate to find a holiday dog-sitter for her feral lockdown pup.
I had a lot of thinking to do.