The annual invite to the Christmas party slinks into our inboxes in early autumn. Every year bosses assure us they've listened to the feedback from last Christmas's event, and have devised an outstanding event they know we'll all love. In even-numbered years they tell us that last year's all-singing all-dancing whole company party won't be repeated, and instead we can enjoy smaller gatherings organised on a team by team basis. In odd-numbered years they tell us that last year's smaller gatherings organised on a team by team basis won't be repeated, and instead we can enjoy an all-singing all-dancing whole company party. It being 2011 we get the large-scale megabash, so no doubt 2012 will be thirty of us down the local Pizza Express again. I bet they both cost much the same, head for head.
Anticipation takes several weeks to reach fever pitch. The invitation email encourages us to RSVP, but evidently few people do. It's barely October, we're still wearing short sleeves to work, it's too early to be thinking about midwinter revelry. A reminder email creeps through a few weeks later - don't forget to reply, it'll be an amazing night, please respond. There's a deadline, beyond which festive freezeout applies, so don't be late. The organisers need to confirm numbers with the venue, to ensure there'll be enough waiters serving sufficient canapes and ample wine in a big enough room. The reminder email may also bring first news of the party's dress code. Black tie one year, smart casual another, best party clothes the next. We're on medium bling this year, to the delight of many, and the abhorrence of others.
On the day of the Christmas party, some come to work already attired. What ought to be an ordinary meeting is made extraordinary by the amount of effort evident in certain attendees' apparel. Over-tasteful trousers, a better blouse than usual, perhaps a sparkly brooch on a lapel that'd normally be empty. Some have been out shopping specially at the weekend to pick that perfect party dress, others have grabbed a borderline adequate sports jacket and hoped it'll do. For many the evening's uniform arrives stashed in a bag ready for late-afternoon transformation. A silent signal goes out, an unknown call to arms, and people start sneaking off to the washrooms to get changed. There are lips to redden, whiskers to trim, and fabulous creations to slip into. You can always tell that the Christmas party is imminent because the gents smells of aftershave and the ladies (so I'm told) reeks like the front of Debenhams.
The party's off-site, presumably because hanging tinsel and a few helium balloons in the canteen isn't deemed special enough. Maps are consulted, tube routes planned, taxis ordered ("Have you seen the weather out there! I'm not walking in that wearing this!"). Some attendees are ready promptly, heading out of the front door in good time to arrive for the opening glass of bubbly. These are the folk who don't get invited to many parties so don't realise it's important to arrive fashionably late, else there's nobody to talk to but the unfashionably early. Others dither a little, dashing off a last email or tweaking their errant collar in front of a mirror one last time. Slowly the office empties, until only the slowest dressers and the resolutely anti-social remain.
Seven o'clock passes, and the party must be well underway by now. Trays of food will be emptying, goblets will be on their second refill, and the band hired for the night will be wondering what they have to do to entice anyone onto the floor. Back in the office there are still shrieks and giggles coming from one of the meeting rooms - transformed, temporarily, into a changing room. Eventually the door opens and the girls within emerge one by one, metamorphosis complete. Each is almost unrecognisable, immaculately turned out in a little black dress, with every last strand of hair neatly cajoled into place. Everyone's wearing far more make-up than usual, and sufficient depth of foundation to smooth out any natural contour beneath. A procession on high heels totters carefully to the lift, then swiftly down to a waiting taxi. The girls' entrance at the party may be long overdue, but they aim to make every head turn.
The cleaner arrives. She smiles, she gets her equipment out of the cupboard and she makes a start on clearing up the mess everybody's left behind. She's not been invited to any party, and her clothes aren't anything special, nor indeed does she look like there's a smart little black number hanging up at home. She'd probably make better use of a platter of mini vol-au-vents than the hordes now tucking in down the road, but she'll never get the opportunity. I try to engage her in conversation, but we share a minimal amount of language so it's impossible to get further than good evening and a grin. I turn back to the report I'm writing, with its imminent untimely pre-Christmas deadline.
They'll be talking about last night work's Christmas Party all day today. I'm looking forward to Pizza Express again next year.