The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 11 Office Christmas Dinner

I’VE BEEN co-opted onto the firm’s events committee. Some considerable time ago, I rashly suggested at one of the firm’s then rare and poorly attended staff and partner meetings that it would be nice if the firm put on a few more bonding activities, to strengthen the staff’s loyalties to the firm and our corporate identity and essentially make work more fun.

Such as what, I was asked sceptically at the time. I dunno, I replied. Things like river trips, paintballing contests, hot air balloon rides, going to see historic local houses, visits to local nightclubs, meals out … I had to be stopped at that point. I mean, there’s no shortage of things you can do if people are interested. It’s just getting them interested and someone being willing to organise the trips and people being prepared to pay something towards them. There’s about sixty of us at the office not counting branch offices. What with husbands, girlfriends, etc, we surely ought to be able to work up a decent number of bodies to go on a few outings every so often.

The few attendees muttered at the time and stuck their noses into the leaves of papers produced by the probate partner in readiness for the meeting regarding the subjects in the agenda, like accounts difficulties, IT issues, how to more effectively record and subsequently extract information about cases for our annual PII renewal given the insurance companies’ vociferous and growing appetites for the most minute detail, how to create more business for the firm, the state of the washrooms, etc.

Well, I said at the time, perhaps if everyone had more fellow feeling for the firm, they’d purvey more of an air of confidence and enthusiasm more likely to bring in business than asking them to worry about old bars of soap making a mess in the sinks; half finished rolls of toilet paper being left on the floors of the cubicles; who’s responsible for the persistent floaters (in the men’s toilets naturally); and so on. Again the muttering seemed to override my sentiments and I thought: I’m not coming to any more of these crummy meetings!

But, seemingly, my words hit home and struck a chord with the senior partner who, the following week, sent me a short thank-you email for my constructive comments and then got the put-upon second from senior partner to do something about the suggestion. To his credit he did, forming the said events committee which proceeded to organise a range of outings including one to a local amateur opera in which his wife was performing, a trip to the House of Commons, a trip to the British Library. There’s talk of an up-coming trip to the Law Society’s Hall at Chancery Lane. There haven’t been many takers so far, and, while these are mostly no doubt interesting venues, I think that the majority of people would probably prefer something more exciting or else more local and more down-to-earth.

However, they did organise a Christmas dinner and dance which seems to me like a good idea. I think this might have been quite a success had the staff not been totally deterred by the previous outings. It’s not actually our own event. It’s an outside do put on by a local hotel with the possibility of taking a bedroom and staying the night lest the festivities result in a sufficient degree of inebriation to oil the social wheels and render driving home unwise but hopefully not cause unseemly falling about.

The committee has rashly ordered eighty tickets for this event, telling the staff that the firm was prepared to pay an unspecified finite sum towards the total cost of the tickets and then the rest of the cost would be split between those who want to sign up to the event. I’m bound to point out that on this basis, no one will want to risk committing themselves to the cost of this dinner. The tickets would normally be £75 each and if the firm’s contribution is only, say, £500 and, say, the full 80 people would have been minded to attend, that means only £6 from the firm towards the cost of each tickets leaving people to pay £69 per head themselves. And no one will.

Well then, the second from senior partner says huffily, how much would you suggest.

OK, I retort, I reckon people might come along if it’s only going to cost them, say, £30 each, or say £35 including wine at the table. To a man, the partners go brick-red in the face, some coronary purple (the women partners, naturally, are less prone to hysterical overreaction), as their grey matter ticks away and tries to work out the sums involved. Solicitors never were very good at maths but where their own pockets are concerned it’s amazing how their brains can suddenly become sabre sharp, neurons firing fifty to the dozen, and they calculate very quickly that the resulting sum the firm would have to shell out would be £3,600. They start to mutter about reducing Christmas bonuses.

“I think it may get round you’re doing that if that’s what you do,” I tell them, “and there’d be an uprising of the non-attendees griping that they were subsidising the Christmas do! They wouldn’t be happy.”

The partners shuffle their papers and look uncomfortable.

The firm, I point out, have already committed themselves to the cost of eighty tickets at £75 each therefore what have they got to lose by subbing the staff to the extent of, say, £45 per ticket, or even better £50 leaving the staff to pay £25 or £30 each. That’s more than reasonable for a dinner and dance at a posh establishment. It is, after all, tax deductible. And if we still can’t fill the seats, how about offering them at cost to other firms, small firms that only have a few members of staff or sole practitioners such as my friend Tamsin used to be who haven’t got enough people to get up a proper Christmas do.

The partners look glum but the suggestion is put to the meeting and carried almost unanimously.

As a mollifier, I suggest that next year, instead of rashly pre-booking eighty tickets for an outside event, they hire caterers, a disco etc and put on their own event for a lot less money at one of the partners’ large homes.

I have more suggestions. Dress-down Tuesday with a Chinese or pizza takeaway after the office has closed. Dress-up Friday with a trip to a local nighclub or a popular pub after the office shuts. How about Rollerworld! This causes a stir and some wilting around the table. And the things I suggested previously to do in the New Year. Interesting historic houses, river trips, visiting China Town even. The muttering is more positive this time.

I think of other things that won’t cost a fortune. Many villages now have film clubs. For about £4 a seat, you can go and watch a new film with refreshments, wine, ice cream, et cetera at the interval. You don’t have to queue or drive into town and worry about where to park. It’s there locally, conveniently for anyone to book over the internet. I suggest this and the response is enthusiastic. The meeting is called to a close.

Later I do wonder about the film club. In my village it’s hugely successful and well attended and if I were to make a block booking of, say, forty tickets assuming enough people would be interested and there’s every chance we could attract that number, that would take up 40% of the available seats. Given how popular these local film clubs have become, I’m not sure I’d be flavour of the month in my village if I were to deprive forty per cent of the likely would-be village film-goers of the possibility of buying a ticket if they didn’t book straightaway.

I decide to shelve the idea and not mention it again. Hopefully they’ll forget. Or maybe agree to moderate the take to 20 tickets or less.

SO TWO weeks later, I’m at this dinner and dance organised by the events committee. Our pre-booked tables have been filled by a selection of late bookers from the firm with their partners and other members of their families on learning it would only cost £25 per head (the partners went mad or had some sort of collective epiphany after the meeting and decided on contributions of £50 towards the ticket price), people from other firms with their staff and partners and very small firms such as I’d suggested who were more than happy to pay the full price to have a Christmas do with others of the same profession whom they know reasonably well.

Then there’s Sheila who has no partner, and there’s me and I also have no partner. I don’t care. There’s no shame these days in being single, in turning up at events on one’s own. It’s a growing trend.

Ned and Mrs. Ned are looking uncomfortable, presumably because the dinner portions weren’t of colossal proportions, i.e. they were normal and no seconds were on offer. Having hoovered up all the available bread on the table, they are surreptitiously eyeing up everyone’s after dinner mints, mouths obviously watering for any that might be left going begging. Mrs. Ned is squeezed into what looks like a royal blue crinoline size twenty-six barrage balloon. She wears no eye makeup but compensates for it with what looks like factory fifty lotion covering her face in a thick layer. Something you might scoop up from vast puddles outside a Chinese chemical works, a lurid luminescent orange colour. It’s started to crack now and I wonder when hard bits of it are going to disengage from her skin and fall off in large chunks that we have to walk around to make it safely to the dance floor.

Speaking of which, everyone is getting on the floor and bopping together. The music is Eighties-based, some Nineties. I’d barely been born when these songs were all the rage but the bloke running the disco obviously thinks it’s appropriate to the average age of the guests. Not sure he’s got it quite right there, but the stuff is easy to get up and dance to. No slow dirges to get everyone back to their seats looking guiltily away from their partners.

Actually as the evening drew to a close, I became conscious of a trend in recent years mentioned by a friend of mine towards not playing a smoochy few tunes at the end. This always used to happen, but I understand that it can cause friction and result in unwilling partners coming to blows even, so disc jockeys with any sense now skip the last waltz and play the disco favourites, Stones etc, right to the end.

A friend told me of a ball she’d been to with another couple. She knew very well that the man of the couple had had an affair with another woman but the couple hadn’t split up. For possibly practical reasons (children, lack of money, depressed house prices at the time), they’d stayed together and stuck it out. At this event however, a slow last dance had been played and every other loving couple in the room had got up onto the floor and cuddled up for it. However this friend of my friend had refused point blank to do so. It would be hypocritical she’d said. I entirely agree with her.

Her husband didn’t. He thought that despite his having put it about, that he should be treated like every other loving husband and be given a chance at a public grope notwithstanding that he never got the chance in private these days. Due to what he’d done.

The argument became heated and it would have ended when the wife threw the remainder of her glass of red wine over the front of the husband’s white pleated dinner shirt and started to walk off to call the taxi ordered earlier. However, he’d sworn handsomely and followed her, trying to drag her back to the dance floor and a fierce fist fight had ensued. Only the bravest of other diners had been prepared to try to intervene to very little effect. Most of the rest of the guests had formed an enthusiastic baying circle around the protagonists, cheering and urging them on. Not until the husband passed out after a particularly hard blow and the wife fell to the floor exhausted, did the mob pick them up and carry them to their taxi. My friend said that the couple divorced shortly thereafter.

I’m also reminded of another trend this evening. A sort of laddette-ishness is emerging amongst older women, or at least those in their thirties and forties who should know better (ribaldry at young male striptease concerts aside). Boisterous, inebriated behaviour that you’d expect only teenagers and students to exhibit. At least two of the women have fallen over on the dance floor tonight and didn’t seem to feel in the least ashamed and no one barely batted an eyelid. You could put it down to the highness of the heels and that probably has a lot to do with it but I think it’s largely the alcohol consumption and the greater freedom women now feel to be themselves and not some demure throwback to Victorian times.

Not long before the end of the event, one woman came crashing spectacularly through a crowd of us like a Jenny Packman-clad intercontinental ballistic missile, flattening a board next to us advertising the disco’s name. After we’d helped her up, I, fairly well-oiled myself by this time, made an in-depth comparison of heel heights with her and her friend, another collapsee from earlier in the evening.

The brief entertainment over, I sit and resolve that if they play a smoochy this evening, I’m damn well not going to dance with Sheila. But I don’t get the chance anyway. I see she’s gone over to the DJ and whispered something to him, no doubt at high volume given the racket his equipment is making. Then she’s approached Justine, whose bruised and swollen face is heavily made up tonight to disguise her injuries, and bellowed in her ear too, and when the music starts, the pair of them wrap themselves around each other on the dance floor. I’m confused. I know I had an experience myself with Justine, but she’d arrived with a bloke and I know some people do like to have it both ways. Turns out later he was her brother.

And then everyone else on our table gets up and does the same thing to the dirge of the PCE Love Is All Around by Wet Wet Wet followed by the close contender Can’t Help Falling in Love by Elvis Presley. I sit there, all alone, except for the brother who’s not my type and too young for me anyway. He’s eyeing up some girls on an adjoining table who’re giggling and joshing and at length, he gets up without a glance in my direction and goes over to them. Before long he and the prettiest girl are entwined along with the rest of them and I’m sitting alone. Damn you Arsehole! I think.

It’s nearly Christmas and I sit considering the last few months and the various unsatisfactory attempts to get myself back into this couples club we’re all supposed to want, nay, need to be members of. I think about Dennis and Milton and Jeremy and Simmsey and Ollie and Justine and even Ebden Andrews. And Dennis. I wonder what Dennis is doing tonight. Whether Dennis and Trixie are snuggling up together on the sofa. How nice it would be to join them and do just that myself. And then a figure walks into my thoughts. Female, long-haired, long-limbed, sexy, indubitably Northern. And she leaps onto the sofa and curls up with Dennis and Trixie.

I wish I were anywhere but here and walk out of the room, collect my coat and flag down a prowling taxi outside.

Sod Christmas!

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