James, of the black pudding that he’d said I’d love if I wasn’t a vegetarian, was given a Nice Present. Six inches long and of sturdy construction, there was a rumble of anticipation as it was handed over. Karen and Marta were whistling and nudging and eyebrow raising and hallooing that perhaps it might make up for his inadequacy in the trouser department. But James went with it and he wielded the present in its candy cane coloured wrapping paper in the most suggestive manner he knew.
“You don’t do it like that, love,” Karen shouted. And then she offered a mime which resulted in Corrine almost falling off her chair.
I closed my eyes as the clapping and the whistling and the hollering continued through the first tear of the assiduously applied Sellotape.
“Not drinking, then?” asked Pauline. The Coke wasn’t fooling anyone. “Gotta get a drink inside you,” she said. “It’s more fun that way.”
As I watched James tear the final wrapping from what, to the entire room’s disappointment, turned out not to be a black ribbed knobbler, I had to agree that she was right.
“Nice present!” the room roared. And then the chant was picked up and run with. Like a five year old in a rugby scrum. “Nice present, nice present, nice present!”
The table next to ours was an altogether more formal affair. They were wearing the Christmas hats from their crackers, true, but not over their eyes or round their necks or very much elsewhere, as Deborah was, much to the delight of Maurice the caretaker.
“Ah, sit down!” shouted David, with all the manner of the stand-up comic he didn’t remotely resemble. He reached into the novelty Guinness hat for the next of the Secret Santas.
The table next to ours were getting a little peeved at the constant barrage of screwed up envelopes and wrapping paper from our crowd. I watched as their head honcho – I reckoned an accountant – called over one of the young waitresses. There were words exchanged. She looked at us in a way that, any other time, would have had me heading for the exit.
“Alright, alright, alright,” David said, like some kind of aging rock star who’d achieved fame for one week in 1975. “Let’s see who’s next up, shall we?”
James was sitting again, back on the black pudding again. His Secret Santa had bought him a white pudding. A genuinely nice present. For the normal non-vegetarian type.
“Pray silence,” David said, only leading to more clapping and table rapping. “Next up to suffer, then – and I hope she does…”
She. He said she. I was off the hook for another minute, at least.
And they roared. Mr Accountant Man was beckoning to the waitress again.
Corinne’s present turned out to a mug. The “Nice present” crowd were furious. Until shown the photo of the male stripper on it. Until it was explained what would happen to his cock when Corinne made her next cup of coffee.
“Perhaps don’t leave it in the staffroom,” David said, to general hysteria.
“And next… Phillip.”
A roar. The new boy next up for mortification. The new boy who was oh-so-serious and wore a suit that first day. Of course he was going to get bondage gear or a chocolate willy or hardcore porn from the petrol station. There was legend that, a couple of years back, the staff had been so disappointed by the lack of filth that deputy Stan had actually run off to the BP garage to get a variety pack of jazz mags. Just to improve the tone.
Karen passed me the present with a wink. Like James’, it was long. Very long. But thin and suspiciously flexible.
They counted me down. The waitress was approaching David with the manager not too far behind her.
I got it over with.
And they were appalled.
“Nice present, nice present, nice present!” was the shriek as David turned to have a quiet word with the manager and money was exchanged.
I looked at the metre stick, carefully marked out for classroom times tables counting, and I realised that someone here had thought, even believed, that I might be a class teacher.
Like the rest of them.
“Yeah,” I said, sitting down, red faced and burning. “Thanks everyone. Thanks, headteacher.” David preferred the formality. “Nice present.”
Although if it was intended for a teacher – and there wasn’t even the hint of beating someone on the bare bottom with it whilst shackled to a bedstead – then my Secret Santa had got entirely the wrong idea.
After that night, I determined I wouldn’t be one for much longer.
Which was, now I think back on it, the nicest present of the night.
Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including 2018’s “Not So Funny Now” about Groucho Marx and Erin Fleming. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, Dwelling Literary, Bandit Fiction, Nymphs, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brown Bag, and Safe and Sound Press. His co-written, completed six-part BBC radio sit com remains unproduced but available to interested producers!