But for her own eerie reflection in her glass office, Carole O’Moeney was all alone. She silenced a call from her chief operating officer (and sometime lover), Thomas Treadwick, and put her noise-reducing headphones over her ears. Anything to block out the pub‑crawl cackles and tin-can carols rising up from the streets below. It was almost 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve, two hours since she had let her team sign off on their latest contract. “Cardamon Martini when you’re finished?” Thomas had suggested, draining the untouched glass of prosecco on her desk. “Or would that be too much like having fun?”
“Piss off, Bob Cratchit,” she had snapped, but he didn’t get it. Thomas was a great corporate lawyer, but a cultural desert.
Only once he had left, whistling Wham! as he went, could Carole fully immerse herself in the black-and-white refuge that was the 100-page contract on her desk. At a conservative estimate, she had at least another three hours of work to do. As well as being Christmas Day, tomorrow was also 30 years since her parents… she screwed up her eyes to put aside the thought – yes, she really would steel herself to visit the churchyard tomorrow.
She looked at the pathologically happy family photograph on the front of her brother’s Christmas card – the only one she hadn’t asked her PA to consign to the recycling – and marvelled at the way he had always been able to smile at the sorrow. She really ought to have replied to his offer of Christmas lunch with more than just a paper clip and a thumbs-down emoji…
Carole shivered, pulled her cardigan around her and did the only thing she could: pressed play on her gloomiest Rachmaninoff playlist and started to read.
As she got to the end of the document, she rotated her stiff neck and checked the time. Five minutes to midnight. Her bright office was suspended in an inky darkness. Even the streets had fallen silent. She checked her messages from Thomas; the last – “Heading home” – sent half an hour ago.
Cold to the bone, Carole decided to go and make herself a warming cup of tea for her final read-through. With its ranks of empty screens and chairs, the gloomy office beyond her glass box was like a corporate graveyard. Speeding up her walk to the kitchen, Carole chided herself for allowing her mind to imagine a shadowy figure sitting at an empty desk in the distance. Reaching to pick up the boiling kettle, she froze at the sound of footsteps coming up behind her, and the chill that crept around her neck.
“Working late?” said a deep voice.
Carole whipped around to see a man looking at her with lifeless eyes. He had a strangely familiar face, grey hair, grey suit and skin the colour of ageing bacon.
“I’m like you. Always get my best work done when nobody else is around,” he shrugged. “Still, not much point in going home to an empty house, is there? My wife cited desertion as grounds for divorce, which seemed a bit rich seeing as it was she who deserted me. Took the children and everything. Barely a stick of furniture left. Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t have bought it all again, 10 times over. I could fill 10 houses if I wanted to.”
He laughed – a strange, empty laugh – and shook his head.
“Not with people though. People are harder to come by.”
Suddenly, Carole’s brother and his family came, grinning, into her head. Quickly followed by Thomas Treadwick.
“Don’t go!’ the man shouted, trying to grab her arm as she rushed past him. “It’s nice to have someone to talk to…”
Snatching her bag from her office, Carole tapped out a quick message – “Yours or mine?” – to Thomas as she ran down the stairwell.
The vast, marble foyer was empty and dark, but for a single light picking out the large portrait behind the receptionist’s desk.
“Who is that?” she panted, handing the bottle of champagne her team had given her to the man behind it – “Tim” his name badge said – whom she had ignored for 15 years. “Merry Christmas, by the way.”
“Very kind of you, Madam. Thank you. And a very Merry Christmas to you too. That’s the founder of the company, Madam. Mr Claude Dickens. Very sad tale…” But before Tim could say more she turned tail and fled into the dark of the night.