The Girl in the Red Dress (Part One)
Steve Berry had always had a dislike for Christmas, despite all the jollity and faux fun because unlike many of his Christmas mad friends he had no happy Christmas memories to anesthetise him against the season.
His parents were alcoholics and each year their Christmas came in a bottle and thanks to his father Steve’s came with a slap.
So his childhood Christmases were memories he would rather have forgotten.
But adulthood brought no relief and it always seemed to him that when shit happens Christmas just magnifies the misery.
If someone dies at Christmas the very season makes it more keenly felt.
He could testify to that as his mother died on Christmas Eve when he was 19.
He has no idea where his father is and quite frankly he doesn’t care.
He never showed up for the funeral and he could be dead as well for all he knew.
So as a result he has never trusted Christmas, he knows that shit lurks beneath the coloured lights and paper chains.
He used to dream of getting away at Christmas and going somewhere that doesn’t celebrate it in any way shape or form.
But where exactly is that place. If anyone has any ideas then answers on a postcard to Steve Berry.
So each year like the rest of us he is subjected to all the usual false jollity, Christmas Parties, Secret Santa’s and Christmas Lunch, Paper hats, crackers and all that shit.
And everywhere he would go from October onwards was bedecked with tinsel, garlands, bells, baubles and led lights.
Each and every shop plays endless spools of regurgitated Christmas tunes and God forbid you ever broach the subject of the morons who decorate the outside of their houses.
Steve never had a girlfriend at Christmas he always dumped them. Or got himself dumped, when they started to get too jolly.
So when he was 21 he developed the perfect anti Christmas strategy.
He would always save a chunk of annual leave and finished work at least one week before the big day and returned after the New Year debacle.
He would stock up with food along with the other festive numpties and armed with a stack of DVD box sets he became a Christmas recluse until the year turned.
It’s been 9 years now and he believes so far so good.
He has found it has become easier over the years with catch up TV, he just needed to avoid the adverts that remind him that it’s Christmas or that he can’t afford a holiday.
So he was in the Pig and Whistle, not exactly a real shit hole of a pub but the only one in town guaranteed not to play Christmas stuff because the landlord Phil hated Christmas almost as much as Steve did.
It was his last night out before his Christmas exile and it was his intention to get totally shitfaced as he had almost three weeks to recover.
He was not a social animal, he liked his own company and if he ever engaged in conversation with fellow patrons it was because he had initiated it.
He was averse to being rude if someone else spoke first.
So he was just enjoying his third pint as he sat in the furthest most corner of the bar reading his book when it happened.
“Hello” she said
Steve ignored her, normally if he didn’t respond they’d get the message and go away
“Hello” she said louder “Are you ok?”
“I was” he sighed
“Oh dear Mr Grinch” she said “what you need is some Christmas spirit”
“I’m fine” he insisted
“I don’t think you are sitting on your own in the furthest most corner” she said
Steve looked at her for the first time, she was roughly his age, maybe a little younger, and she was wearing a red dress and red and white striped stockings and had tinsel in her mousy hair.
“Who are you? The Christmas fairy?” he asked gruffly
He wanted to tell her to fuck off but she was quite cute.
“No I’m Holly, Phil’s niece” she said
“Holly? How very festive” He said sarcastically
“Yes I’m going to instil a little Christmas spirit” Holly said
“But Phil hates Christmas” Steve informed her
“I know” she said “which is why he’s going to Las Vegas until the New Year”
“When?” He asked
“Half an hour ago” she replied
“So are you going to come and join the rest of us?”
“No thanks I don’t do Christmas” he said and returned to his book
“Oh well perhaps some Christmas music will get you in the mood” she said resolutely
“Oh God” he said
The Christmas party mix was really grating on him but he was too far along with his Christmas strategy to go off hunting for another Christmas free pub so he had to put up with it.
As the evening wore on she persisted in trying to draw him out of his corner, but to no avail.
He left the corner only to go to the bar and get another drink and then returned to his solitude.
Apart from the music upsetting his plans there was the added annoyance of customers, more arriving every hour, word had got out that Phil “The Grinch who stole Christmas” had gone for the duration, and that there was a new Santa in town.
This only became a problem however when while he was at the bar and somebody took over his corner.
So he returned to the bar again.
“Back again already Steve?” Holly asked
“Someone is in my seat” he said
“Well pull up a stool” she suggested
“Do I have a choice?” he said grumpily
“You’re just a little ray of sunshine” she said and laughed
“I can see I’m going to have to use all my magic on you”
He settled himself down
“I’ve never seen it so busy in here” Steve said
“I know” Holly said “I’m going to need more staff at this rate”
“Good luck with that” he said
The Girl in the Red Dress (Part Two)
He woke up the next morning with his face stuck to the mock leather of a bench seat.
And when he painfully sat himself up he saw he was in the lounge bar of the Pig and Whistle.
Well he had intended getting shit faced the night before, so mission accomplished there, he had expected to wake up with a hangover, so another box ticked, but it was never part of the plan to wake up at the pub.
“Good morning sunshine” Holly called as she crashed through the door wearing a dressing gown and slippers.
“Ow” he said “have some respect for the dead”
She put a mug of black coffee on the table in front of him and peered at his bloodshot eyes
“Blimey! Can you actually see through those?” she asked
“I hope you don’t drink like that when you’re working”
“Well I don’t need to worry about work until January” he said and sipped at his coffee
“Don’t you remember anything about last night?” Holly asked with a wry smile on her lips
He closed his eyes and replied
“I remember I don’t like Christmas”
“Anything else?” Holly persisted
“It was very busy, very noisy” Steve said but could remember nothing else
“Do you remember me saying I needed more staff?” she asked
“Yes I do remember that” he replied
“Good” she said “because your it”
“What?” he said loudly and then winced
“You volunteered to work right through till New Year’s Eve”
“I can’t have” Steve said
“Well you did” She insisted and showed him a piece of paper detailing the fore mentioned offer signed by Steve.
“That doesn’t count” he said “I was pissed”
“It’s legally binding” Holly stated “It’s notarized by a solicitor”
Steve stared at the signature
“Sam Culver?” he said “he’s not a solicitor he’s a forklift driver”
“Be that as it may he has still witnessed your signature on this contract” she said coolly
“Contract?” he said in disbelieve
“Contract” she confirmed
“Oh please you’re not really going to hold me to this?” Steve said waving the “contract” in her direction
“You start tonight” she informed him
“Oh God I’ve sold my soul to the Christmas fairy” he said with his head in his hands
“I prefer Christmas angel” she said “But I’m not the one with tinsel in my hair”
“Oh shit” he exclaimed
“Get yourself a hair of the dog, I’m going to get dressed” Holly said smiling
“Oh and there’s no drinking on the job, by the way”
Over the week and a half that followed his entrapment, between his first shift and Christmas Eve, Holly had done her best to elicit the details of why it was that Steve hated Christmas so much.
Holly had noticed right at the beginning that he was not the miserable git that she first thought.
In fact that first night when he was forced to sit at the bar he had been very funny, once he managed to forget it was Christmas.
But every time he heard someone utter the words happy Christmas it was like he’d been stabbed.
So she relentlessly picked away at the scab every day, but she couldn’t get him to open up, but she wasn’t prepared to give up under any circumstances.
Steve would never have admitted it and despite his initial protests he was rather enjoying working behind a bar again.
He hadn’t done it since he left university and started working as an accountant.
The repetitive festive music still grated on him, though less so, even the Christmas t-shirts and jumpers that Holly made him wear had become less onerous.
Holly herself led by example and wore an almost inexhaustible supply of festive outfits and he had to admit she still looked cute in which ever one she was wearing.
She was a nosey cow though and kept poking and prodding at him trying to find out what made him tick.
But it amused him that his not playing ball was driving her crackers.
The Girl in the Red Dress (Part Three)
On Christmas Eve he drove to the pub, arriving at 9.30am, and thought
“It’s going to be a long day”
It was bitterly cold and the sky was grey and overcast, he sniffed the air and knocked on the front door which Holly opened within a couple of minutes and she was already dressed in her Christmas outfit, namely Mrs. Clause.
“Morning Steve” she said “Happy Christmas Eve”
“Why are you always so cheerful?” he asked in response
“Because “it’s a wonderful life”” she said
“Oh God are you going to throw festive film titles at me all day?”
“I hadn’t thought of that” she said “but it sounds like fun”
He took his coat off and revealed his jumper of the day adorned with a reindeers head.
“There’s snow in the air” he said hanging up his coat
“Lovely” she replied with a chuckle “White Christmas”
“Stop it” Steve said
Holly had walked to the bar picked something up and returned with it behind her back.
“What’s that?” he asked suspiciously
“Antlers” she said triumphantly and put them on his head
“Please no” he said “that’s too much”
“Stop whining Grinch or I’ll put the Christmas tape on” she threatened
They knew it was going to be busy in the pub that day so in addition to Holly and Steve there were barmaids Clare and Petra and in the kitchen were Stefano and Ausra.
It wasn’t manically busy but there was a steady flow all day, shoppers popping in for a warm, that kind of thing, and as it was such a bitter cold day the kitchen did a roaring trade in warming chili, casseroles and stews so much so that they kept the kitchen going right through the afternoon.
It was not however a day for cold desserts.
By five o’clock they had sold out and the till drawers were stuffed.
Holly kept taking them away to the office but they kept filling up.
While Holly counted the takings in the office, Steve and Petra manned the bar and Clare helped Steph and Ausra clear away.
Job done they joined Steve at the bar and were enjoying a well-earned drink when Holly came out.
“Well done you lot” she said “I hope that drink is on the house”
“It is” Steve said
“We have had a phenomenal day” she said handing out pay packets “so there’s a little something extra in there”
“Thanks boss” Stephanos said
“Cheers Hol” Petra
“Thanks Holly” Clare and Ausra said simultaneously
What she didn’t tell them was that the little extra was 100 pounds per head, they wouldn’t find that out until later.
“Where’s mine?” Steve asked
“Grinch tax” Holly said to the great amusement of the others and patted his cheek
“Charming” he replied but was laughing when he said it he knew that the others were finished until after Christmas he still and the evening shift.
Although he wasn’t bothered about the money particularly he knew he would get it, he had actually enjoyed Christmas Eve for the first time ever.
They all finished their drinks and it was the moment that Steve hated most, the final farewell when Christmas wishes were exchanged.
“Merry Christmas” Clare said and kissed Steve
“And you” he replied
“Happy Christmas Stevie” Ausra said kissing him
“Yes you too” said Steve
Happy, Happy Christmas” Petra said planting a very exuberant kiss on his mouth
“Ditto” he replied
“A very happy Christmas my friend” Stephanos said extravagantly and feigned to kiss him but shook his hand instead and roared with laughter.
“Have a good one” Steve said and also laughed.
When they had gone Steve noticed it had started snowing lightly.
“So why can’t you say Happy Christmas?” Holly asked
“I told you it was going to snow” he said
“Don’t change the subject” Holly persisted
“I can say it, I just didn’t need to as everyone else said it”
He answered “I didn’t want to wear the phrase out”
“Baubles” Holly said
Holly disappeared upstairs for half an hour and when she came down she had changed outfits
She wore a different red Dress with white trim and a more daring neckline
But instead of her customary stripy tights she was wearing black tights with holly motifs, how appropriate Steve thought as he was wiping down the tables in readiness for the next wave of punters.
Steve thought she was quite cute but he would have to liberate her from the Christmas stuff first if she was ever to progress further than cute.
“I wish I’d asked Steph to keep some Chili back” Holly said “I’m starving”
“Don’t worry” he said “when Debbie arrives I’ll go over the road and get a take away”
“Ok” she concurred “but what takeaway”
“Your choice, my treat” he replied
“What a Christmas treat?” Holly asked
“No just a treat” he replied and smiled
Debbie arrived right on time.
“The snows settling” she said as she went behind the bar
“Hi Debbie” Holly said
“So what’s your poison?” Steve asked
“Pizza” She replied very definitely “Pepperoni”
“Have you eaten Debbie?” he shouted
“Yes but I can eat a slice or two” she replied
As he walked across the road to Dominoes he noticed the snow was falling faster and would lay quite deep if it persisted.
Despite Debbie saying she would only eat a piece or two he decided to get a pizza each, he’d seen Debbie eat before and for a skinny bird she could really pack it away.
When he got back to the pub the clientele had almost doubled so he thought it was the beginning of the evening rush and wasn’t sure if they’d have time to enjoy the pizzas.
He needn’t have worried it proved to be a false dawn and the rush never materialized.
He was right about one thing Debbie demolished a whole pizza.
By seven o’clock the numbers hadn’t really changed even if the faces had.
And by eight with the snow falling thick and fast in near blizzard conditions it was fairly obvious punters weren’t going to be venturing out in any significant numbers.
Knowing that Debbie had a ten mile journey home Holly said
“I think you’d better get off hon or you won’t get home at all”
“Are you sure Hol?” Debbie asked
“Absolutely” She said and handed Debbie her coat and her pay packet.
“Thanks Holly” she said “Happy Christmas”
“Happy Christmas and drive safely” she said “Text me when your home”
“Ok, happy Christmas Steve” she said
“And you Deb” he replied
The Girl in the Red Dress (Part Four)
Holly had walked to the door with Debbie and stared out the window for a long time as she watched her get underway.
When she returned to the bar she said
“You’d better get off as well Steve”
“No I’ll stay a bit longer” he replied
“This might be your last chance” she said “it’s coming down like billy-o”
“That’s ok” he said “I can always kip in the lounge bar again”
It was a strange night although there weren’t many customers they still managed to sell quite a lot of beer.
They had a succession of punter coming in for jugs of ale, so much so that they ran out of jugs.
But all in all it was very quiet.
So by 9 o’clock Holly said
“Right let’s have a drink”
“I thought you didn’t like the staff drinking on duty” he said
“What the hell its Christmas” she replied and noticed that he visibly tensed at the word Christmas
She pulled him a pint and poured a glass of wine for herself.
And they sat on stools on the punters side of the bar to drink them.
“Do you mind if I crash here tonight Holly? He asked
“I’d rather you crashed here than out there” She replied
“And it looks like my plans for tomorrow will need to be revised, so we can spend the day together, if you like”
“Ok thanks” he said
They were well into their second drink when Holly asked
“So what exactly is the deal with you and Christmas?”
“Do we have to go there” he asked
“Yes we do” she said “I’ve been watching you this week and every time someone wishes you a happy Christmas you react as if you’ve been stabbed”
“Well I wouldn’t go that far” Steve responded
“I would” she said but he just shrugged
“Come on Steve” she insisted “You are such an infuriating man, cough it up”
“Can’t you just leave it alone?” he said
“You can’t tell me you haven’t enjoyed this week” she said “or that you would have preferred to be locked away in your flat pretending that that Christmas was just a bad dream”
Steve drained his glass and went through the hatch and pulled himself another one.
“I don’t want to go into all the details, suffice is to say that for me There was no happy little boy waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve” he said painfully
“My childhood was unbearable and Christmas was even more so”
Holly didn’t speak but sat with head sympathetically inclined
“Not everyone is raised by Mary Poppins” he said factiously
“That’s not very fare” Holly said hurtfully
“I suppose you think my Christmases were happy?”
Steve merely snorted
“I had a lousy Christmases as a child, my parents didn’t believe in it so we didn’t celebrate it,” she said forcefully
But Steve looked unconvinced
“My parents are hippies” She stated “Christmases for me were spent in a VW Camper van on Salisbury plain, don’t get me wrong, I love my parents and for me at the time it seemed perfectly normal and I was perfectly happy”
“And I would get a present, though it was never wrapped in Christmas paper, there was no Christmas trees, No baubles or tinsel, No garlands or colored lights, in my childhood Christmas just didn’t exist”
“So now you’re over compensating” Steve said and took another drink.
“Not at all I decided that feeling sorry for myself was not an option, and
I refused to be dictated to by the past” she said “I decided I would make new memories and stop looking back”
“I was 17 when I first experience a proper Christmas, and I thought it was wonderful, magical and I’ve made sure I’ve enjoyed everyone since”
“There is no similarity between our childhoods” he said
“Your childhood was happy it just didn’t include Christmas,
Mine was desperately unhappy”
“And you blame Christmas for it” Holly said “I know for your life was different, but I want to squeeze the most joy I can from every moment”
Steve just looked at her as she took a brief pause
“Just as you should” She said and put her hand on his knee
At that moment the doors opened and a new group of punters came through the door.
He stood behind the bar drying glasses as he watched Holly as she chatted to the clientele in turn.
He liked it as she walked from table to table, she had a gait that was easy on the eye and the way the flared skirt moved across her legs was quite sensual.
Then one by one the meagre band of customers disappeared into the snowy night.
It was midnight and as the last customer left for the night, Holly wished them a happy Christmas and locked the front doors.
As she slipped the last bolt across and drew the curtain.
Steve appeared behind her just as the church bells chimed.
Holly turned and faced him
“Merry Christmas Holly” he said and kissed her