It had been a while since Dale was last in the office. He was making a return from a week of holidays and was set to immediate unease upon exiting the lift. There were colourful lights strung up betwixt the cubicles, flashing off and on in chains of random colours. Red, green and blue splashed the walls. The shiny, metal water cooler in the corner of the walls reflected sparkling to the periphery no matter which way Dale looked.
"Merry Christmas!" cried Tina Cratchit, the new receptionist, as Dale passed by her desk on the way into the glittering fray.
Dale backtracked and turned to her, "What day is it?"
"November the seventh. It's a Mondale," she said.
"Oh. Good," he said. "I was afraid I might have used up a month's worth of leave and not remembered any of it."
Dale walked into his pod and found his cubicle neighbours ornamenting a miniature Christmas tree on his desk.
"Oh, you're back," said Miguel, "do you mind having this here?"
The tree was two feet tall and obscured most of his monitor.
"I would be against this in the last week of December, let alone in November," said Dale.
"But Dale," said Harold, looking at him with pleading eyes, "Christmas?"
"Humbug," said Dale. He raised a palm to slap the tree down, but hesitated, and then lifted it gently and carried it to the desk next to his.
Dale sat to work while behind him his colleagues continued to drape colourful decorations across every available surface. He had intended to kill time by slowly reading all the emails from the last week in chronological order, but the natter of the others distracted him. Eventually they ran out of things to decorate and moved on. Only Joe stayed behind.
"Dale, one thing?" he said.
"What you said before, about the last week before Christmas. I just wanted to check you know. There's a Christmas Shutdown here."
"A Christmas Shutdown? What does that mean?"
"The company requires that we all take annual leave over Christmas and New Years, from December 12 to January 6."
"They force us?" said Dale. "I didn't know this, and I just used up all my annual leave!"
"They will make you use more, in advance." Joe said. "Unless you can get an exception to work through."
"Do many people ask for exceptions?"
"Some ask," said Joe, "few succeed."
"Who do I need to ask?"
Dale knocked on Karl's office door with two fat, dull thuds.
"Come in," said Karl.
Dale swung the door open and found Karl and Tina on opposite sides of an enormous desk.
Karl's office was dark, the lack of light made it seem cavernous and foreboding. Contrarily, there was no Christmas decorations, which made Dale feel more comfortable.
Tina left as Dale walked in.
"Let me guess," said Karl. "You think the office is too cold as well."
"No," said Dale. "I wanted to talk to you about the Christmas shutdown. Can I please be exempted from taking leave? I..."
"Stop," said Karl. There are no exceptions to the Christmas closure. The company feels it is very important for all employees to spend time with friends and family, relax and recharge for a successful and profitable 2012 financial year."
"But," said Dale, "I don't have any family. Or any leave, because I just used all my hours up last week, which means I don't need resting or recharging. I can start delivering results and sustaining... sustaining..."
Dale was starting to panic. The Christmas weeks were usually slow, lazy days and the nearer Christmas was, the fewer co-workers he had to deal with. It was like a holiday from work at the end of each year, and the thought that he would have to use his leave and miss it was terrifying.
"Growth," said Karl.
"Growth!" said Dale, finally. "Growth three weeks ahead of schedule."
Karl carefully placed his papers on his desk and looked at Dale with a serious expression. "You speak of growth, and profits, but what about meeting the quarterly targets in your life? What about Christmas spirit? You can't work over Christmas, Dale. That's like a child not going to sleep on Christmas Eve."
"Christmas spirit?" Dale repeated. The phrase from a man who dedicated an entire drawer of his desk to socks caught him off-guard. In his mind he could feel the weeks of lighter train patronage, more acceptable thresholds of stubble and polo shirts, and shorter queues for the microwave slipping away. "Christmas... spirit..."
"OK, look," Karl's posture relaxed a little. "I can tell you're not buying this bullshit. You're sharp, Dale, so I'm willing to level with you. When we have everyone on leave at the same time the company saves money. A lot of money. We can cancel the cleaners and the milk deliveries, we can stop running the air-conditioners. Payroll can do their December reports when they do November's, and the CFO is given a report that shows our leave liability is down a thousand hours. Your astuteness impresses me Dale, this just reinforces the potential I see in you. Unfortunately you will still need to take those weeks off."
Dale sighed, thanked Karl and slunk back to his desk.
"Did it work?" asked Joe.
"I'm sorry to hear that, buddy," he said.
The day passed, then the week, and then the month.
The last day before closure came quickly. The start and finish times of each day crept closer together and the phrase "we'll work on that after the break" was heard more frequently. Those who had not learned the stress-relief strategies of multiple daily coffees and toilet naps started to crack and requested even earlier starts to their leave.
At 3pm the night before Christmas closure Dale left the office along with the few remaining workers still billing their time.
"Merry Christmas, Dale," said Tina. "Sorry you're forced to use up your leave.
By 3:30pm the office was empty. Only the fluorescent light behind Karl's office door stayed lit.
On the first day of involuntary leave Dale awoke, frowning. The light through his bedroom window was glowing brighter than it ever should have. He walked to the window to find the reason for the extra brightness and he heard the carols before he even pushed open the shutters.
The streets below were covered with snow. Under a clear sky it reflected the sunlight everywhere.
Dale's colleagues had gathered on the snow below. Harold, Marcus and Tina were singing carols as they stood in front of a giant Christmas tree. Dale's eyebrow rose in curiosity.
I was working with Joe and Bry on a snowman. Miguel was behind a small hill, digging in the snow. I waved up at Dale and called him to join us.
Dale hurried downstairs and found himself looking up at the towering tree, confused yet intrigued.
Miguel saw Dale arrive and ducked behind a shrub to retrieve his pile of snowballs...
...However, before he could launch one at Dale a pre-emptive strike flew from Joe and thunked into his flannel shirt.
Everyone laughed, and for the first time that Christmas Closure, Dale smiled.
After the snowballs were spent, Santa Claus arrived and called everyone around.
"Ho ho ho," he laughed. "Merry Christmas Bonus!" He passed out envelopes from his backpack to each member of the team.
"Thanks, Santa," said Joe.
"Thanks," said Tina.
They all smiled at each other.
"This is the best Christmas closure ever," said Harold. Everyone agreed.
"Hey, everyone's here except Karl," said Bry. "Is he late?"
"Maybe he's on the naughty list?" laughed Joe, and he looked at Santa for confirmation.
Dale, however, knew exactly where Karl would be: in his office, preparing tenders and writing cost-benefit analyses. All the office lights would be in power saving mode, the bins would be unemptied and in a few more days a thick carpet of stubble would cover his cheeks and be creeping down his neck.
Santa tapped Dale on the shoulder, breaking the daydream.
"For you, Dale," he said and handed him an envelope.
Dale looked inside and found his Christmas bonus. He smiled, along with the rest of his colleagues. Perhaps an enforced Christmas closure wasn't so bad after all.
"Screw Karl," cried Tina. "Merry Christmas to the rest of us!"
"Merry Christmas!" the office workers said to each other. "Merry Christmas."
Santa walked away while they returned to frolic in the snow.
Around the corner, the red hat and fake beard removed, Karl smiled to himself.
Note: My jQuery photo viewer thing is home-cooked and a tad buggy. If images fail to load then going back and forward again should fix the issue.
A non jQuery copy of this story can be found here.
This story is dedicated to Vanessa who put up with me spending all Christmas Eve playing with Lego.
Merry Christmas from the bradism.com team!