Title: Twelve Days: Christmas Wrapping
Spoilers: General Season One stuff.
Disclaimers: Evie, Morag & Max are mine, and everyone else isn't. This is becoming a source of continued depression on my part...
Thanks: To Lisa, who it would appear is taking my Universe very seriously...and for this I am very grateful. When I grow up I want to be like you :->
Category: New Characters/General
Twelve Days: Christmas Wrapping
I think I know what I want to do at this precise moment.
Twelve days earlier...Sunday
I really don't believe this. CJ sits and nods glumly at me from across my dining room table.
"That's it. There's a buffet on the Friday evening, which the President and the First Lady prepare, but that's all. No Pantomime, no Cabaret...Christmas is very much uncelebrated in the White House this year. Personally, I blame Toby."
I hope it's not going to be like this at Christmas for my entire tenure.
Even though I don't talk to nearly all of my family anymore I love the Festive Season, just because it gives me an excuse to give other people presents, cook food that at other times of the year would probably kill you if you ate too much of it and generally be a big kid. For five years I had to survive with no celebration because of Richard's religion and now I have it back...well, I'm determined not to ever live without it again. You can still have a great time without being dictated to by commercialism...
I need all the help I can get this year: on Friday, Leo volunteered me to oversee the final stage of the White House's Y2K Project. Anything I can find to divert me from the horrors of Year 2000 Compliance will be gratefully received.
There has to be something we can organise, even at this late stage.
"Are you sure that we can't suggest some kind of entertainment for the bit after the food?"
"We've only got twelve days, and with the workload we're locked into at the moment it's hardly going to be easy to pull everyone together, now is it?"
CJ is being far too dismissive: I blame the wine she and I have consumed with our dinner. Occasionally it's difficult to reconcile the non White House CJ Cregg with her professional persona. Pressure influences everyone in it's own time...I don't think it helps thought that she's winding herself into a knot over the attentions of a certain member of the White House Press Corps...
"I suppose I could do "The Jackal" if all else failed...I normally end up doing it at Christmas..." I can tell she's thinking about him again, she gets this look about her...Danny would love a private performance of that, I bet...
Inspiration suddenly hits me like a heavily loaded freight train. What a delightfully simple yet brilliant idea.
"No, I've got a better suggestion..."
Eleven days earlier...Monday
"I could ask Leo to be the judge" Margaret considers for a moment "Actually, I think we'd need more than one..."
"Why not ask Mrs Landingham and Charlie to to do it? You'd have a panel then..." CJ's already ahead of the game, thinking about the options available "Could people use props?" She looks at me for clarification. This is my idea, after all...
Last night I suggested to CJ it might be cool to see how well other people could lip-synch to tunes the same way she does with "The Jackal". The challenge could be open to anyone and everyone in the White House, and if we charged a modest entry fee per team we'd make some gratefully recieved cash for the President's Good Cause Box that currently sits in the Lobby.
"Props?" Margaret isn't sure what CJ means. I try and expand on the term.
"Things to use to enhance the whole experience...hats, wigs maybe"
"That could give some people an unfair advantage..." Margaret screws up her face as she thinks "I suppose wigs and hats would be okay, maybe small props. I presume people would use their imaginations..."
"That's the general idea, after all..." CJ is being as persuasive as she can, and it appears to be working.
"We'd only have eleven days to organise this, we'd need to think about the limitations" Margaret is almost there...it's now down to the details.
"How do we decide who performs and when?" She looks at me, and I'm ready with a response.
"You get everyone who wants to participate to give their names to you, we put all the names in a hat and the President pulls them out at random and that forms the running order"
"He'd do that?" Margaret is suddenly a little sceptical.
"I think that if we could encourage Leo to believe it's a practical suggestion then the President is pretty much a given"
I can see Margaret is already converted, but it's not her with the final say, and she knows it: "I think I'm going to really need your help if we're going to persuade Leo this is a good idea..."
"What's a good idea?"
Leo stands in his doorway and looks disapprovingly at the three of us. If we're going to sell this, then there's no time like the present.
Ten days earlier...Tuesday
"Leo actually agreed to this?"
Toby looks at me in disbelief from behind his desk as I hand him a flyer.
"You know, when we want to, CJ and I can sell pretty much anything"
I made the flyers for Margaret last night: we decided on "Day of the Jackal" as the name for the event, mostly because it would help people identify with CJ's performance and the general idea of the evening. The final decision was teams of no less than two and no more than five people, with props at the discretion of the participants. Toby is obviously unimpressed by all this hard work.
"Have you ever read the book "Day of the Jackal"?"
"It's a fictional account of an assassination attempt on French President Charles de Gaulle" I knew at least one of the Three Stooges would ask me, so even though I've never read it I still have an answer.
"It's hardly an appropriate banner for a Talent Contest, now is it?"
I put on my best scowl and look directly at him.
"You know your problem, Toby?"
"I don't celebrate Christmas: believe me at times like this that's a distinct advantage"
"You're not going to participate, then?"
"Is there a prize to be won?"
"Toby, you should want to enter simply for the prestige, for the chance to bathe albeit briefly in the loving adoration of your colleagues..."
"It's immoral and it will deflect people from the serious business of Government"
"Oh, for goodness sake Toby, even if you don't celebrate Christmas four fifths of the people here do. Lighten up and give it a spin...after all you have the makings of at least two backing singers out there..."
Bonnie and Ginger stand in the Communications Bullpen with Sam and Cathy. All of them have flyers in their hands. If truth be told, there's no way he can escape this if he tries...
Nine days earlier...Wednesday
"You are aware we've spawned a monster?"
CJ is covering my desk with Garden Salad and French dressing. I am blithely ignoring this as I try to digest my ninth briefing document about Y2K contingencies. Being the only Senior Staffer who has no real family to visit or genuine plans over the Christmas and New Year period my name automatically came up for Y2K Monitoring. On December 31st I'm driving to Quantico to spend a thrilling New Year watching everything run exactly as planned inside a lovely concrete-lined bunker, so it can be proven once and for all that the Millennium Bug is simply a marketing ploy by the computer companies to sell more copies of up-to-date software, and to make money for out-of-work IT systems analysts.
"Margaret tells me there are ten groups who've already left their names with her, that's $500 for the President's charity. I'm wondering how many teams we could fit into the time we have. I'm thinking we might need to put a time-limit on each performance..."
I'm really not listening to her, and it's not simply because I'm trying to grasp the intricacies of this document...
"I didn't tell you, we're having our first rehearsal tomorrow"
This is the point where I decide there's little point in trying to continue with the mechanics of Electronic Disaster Planning, so look up at her for the first time in about fifteen minutes. Her eyes are bright and she's gesticulating fluidly, just as she does when she's excited about something.
"We've chosen to wear our appropriate Spice Girl's colour for the evening..."
CJ, Bonnie, Carol, Margaret and Donna are the Spice Girls, it appears.
"Which one are you?"
"Which one do you think?"
"I'd put my money on Posh Spice"
"I get to wear black so it's hardly a problem..."
I think I can work out the rest.
"Let me hazard a guess: Donna's Baby Spice, Margaret's Ginger Spice, Bonnie's Scary Spice and Carol's Sporty Spice..."
CJ looks at me in amazement...it's not as if it's that difficult to work out once you put Donna, Bonnie and Margaret in their pre-destined roles. The incredulity is quickly replaced by interest.
"So, with whom are you performing?"
She waits for a response and it takes her a few seconds to understand my silence.
"I thought you'd be doing something with Sam?"
"He's been poached by Toby, who it appears has decided he's going to win this. Cathy and Ginger have been roped in on my suggestion"
"She's in charge of the music and running order"
"What about Josh?"
"He's not playing, he says it's beneath him"
CJ continues to stare at me sadly.
"Nobody's asked you?"
I try to smile back cheerfully. It's really no big deal; after all I'm still pretty much the new girl around here. Three months is enough time to get some good professional roots established, but not enough to expect to be everybody's first choice for anything.
"It's really not a problem, CJ: I have a lot to sort out on this Y2K stuff anyway, most of my evenings for the next week are taken up with getting up to speed on procedures so I'm fully briefed and trained...if you'll excuse the pun, it's hardly the end of the world..."
Eight Days earlier...Thursday
"Are you ready?"
I'm wishing I hadn't put these shoes on now; they're really not that comfortable. As I'm going to have walk from the parking lot at Quantico for about a quarter of a mile to the building we'll be working in today I can guarantee I'll have a blister at the end of it. I'm standing in Josh's doorway, waiting for the Deputy Chief to get his arse in gear. I notice he's been reading the "Introduction to Film Form" book I gave him again, which means I'm going to be quizzed on Baseball the whole way there and the whole way back. At least it means I won't have to think about Y2-bloody-K.
Josh is amassing his briefing documents for our seminar on Emergency Procedures. I'm not sure what happened but last night it appears that Leo decided that someone other than me needed to be better aware of what was going on at a Senior Level.
"Can I ask a question?" It occurs to me I don't know why it was that Josh got lumbered with the task.
Josh is wearing a very flattering dark blue suit this morning, which I'm sure I haven't seen before.
"That's not a question, that's a statement"
"That wasn't the question"
"This is the question, coming now"
"You have my undivided attention"
"Yeah, sure I have. You're not thinking about my question, you're thinking about the first baseball question you're going to ask me when we get to the car"
He looks indignant, but I know I'm right.
"You want the baseball question now?"
"Can I do my question first?"
"Is it about baseball?"
"Is it as interesting as my question?"
"Somehow I doubt it. How come you drew the short straw on all this Y2K stuff?"
"I asked. I thought it was unfair that you were taking all this on without some back-up"
I'm confused: I'm sure that if that were the case then CJ would have told me that.
"CJ said that Leo asked-"
"I asked Leo."
Maybe I need to check this with CJ, if I can tear her away from practicing dance moves with the rest of the "Girls"
"I'm the Deputy Chief of Staff, I should know about stuff like this"
"You don't trust me?"
"I didn't say that!"
"You trust me with this stuff...say it, please"
"Don't take this the wrong way, but we need an American in this somewhere"
"Ah, I see. You can't be seen to be entrusting this obviously very important task to someone who's not an American citizen...As the person who actually handles your PR, could I point out that not that many people really care..."
"They will if the lights go out January 1st and don't come back on again"
"Like that's actually likely to happen..."
It comes out a lot grouchier than I mean it to, and Josh stops to look at me. I'm really not in the mood for all this. He stands with his hand on his hip and a quizzical look.
"I probably didn't start this whole thing well, did I?"
"Don't worry, I'm just pissed that no-one asked me to play in their team"
I don't mean to say it but it just slips out. I am upset, of course I am. Margaret closed the book on entrants this morning, after Leo decided that twelve teams was enough. The die is cast. Josh looks at me now with what I think is a genuinely sympathetic expression.
"You still feel like the new girl?"
"Every day. You're not supposed to be nice to me, you know, you're supposed to be my fiercest critic"
He flashes me a smile.
"I tried that, it was just so passť. Does it really bother you?"
"Now, yes. Tomorrow... less, and so on...until the World ends and the only thing I have to worry about is whether I get the Express Elevator up or down..."
"That could be sooner than you think"
"Let's hope I'm right and you're wrong, shall we?"
He's finally ready, and picks up his backpack. As we walk towards the Lobby I know I'm going to have a blister the size of a quarter on my heel by the end of the day. Josh's mind however, is thinking of lighter things.
"Can I do my question about baseball now?"
Seven Days earlier...Friday
I plunge my hand deep into the decorated Top Hat and pull out a precisely folded piece of paper. Like everything Margaret has organised thus far this Christmas, the Secret Santa is precision personified.
"You have a number, you have to check that number against the numbers for the staff I've put up on the main Notice Board. You also have to swear on this picture of the President that you won't divulge the name of the person you're buying for"
It's a particularly cheesy picture of the President.
"Margaret, as I'm not actually obliged to take the Oath of Allegiance will you trust me I'll keep quiet?"
"I think you're one of the few people I can depend on to keep quiet"
I walk out of Leo's office and head for the Notice Board. Sam is there, checking off his number on the list. He's been strangely focussed the last couple of days...not that he isn't focussed most of the time, it's just...well, this whole competition seems to be improving the general mood and productivity of the place. Leo even commented on it this morning in Staff: people are working harder so that they can use their free time to labour on their party pieces.
Once it became apparent that Toby had his sights set on the main prize the whole competition seemed to switch into a different gear. Everyone has gone very quiet; there is now a great deal of covert activity. People are meeting in secret locations and exchanging notes in the Mess Hall. I'm sure that there are certain individuals who are using code words. The only team who are being flagrant about their piece are the "Spice Girls". Josh has started calling Donna "Baby Spice" in public, much to her annoyance and everyone else's amusement. Sam wants to know if she'll be doing her hair in pigtails for the night.
CJ was right, we may have spawned a monster, but it's a very organised and focussed monster...that sounds about right for the White House. At least it finally gives me the much-needed distraction that I'd hoped for from the terrors of Millennium Compliance.
I'm at the board now, and watch Sam pocket his piece of paper.
Sam flashes me a sympathetic grin: I know what's coming.
"I feel really bad for not asking you to do a thing with me..."
"Sam, for what must be the twenty-third time, it's fine. I'm okay, at least this way I can watch under absolutely no pressure and take incriminating pictures to boot"
"You're sure you're okay about this?"
"It's all right: whatever it is that Toby's got you and the girls fired up about I'm sure is well worth the effort"
Sam smiles at me, the smile of a man who knows the man who has next week's winning Lotto numbers.
"I think it's fair to say that we're pretty confident"
I have received rumours of Cathy and Ginger sitting at home cutting pictures from magazines, of Toby listening to Ginger's Discman in his lunch hour...this is obviously being taken very seriously.
"We're having our first proper rehearsal tonight, you wanna come along?"
I shake my head.
"I think I'll wait for the premiere, if that's okay...I don't want to lose the impact of seeing the routine for the very first time in a room full of slightly tipsy White House staffers..."
I have a lot to do this weekend: I have many more presents to buy. This is the penultimate weekend shopping experience before Christmas. All I need to know now is who's present I need to add to my list. I locate number twenty-seven on Margaret's "Secret Santa Checklist"
I have to buy a present for Donna.
Six Days earlier...Saturday
CJ takes another bite of Pecan Danish. We were lucky to get a table, even though it's only ten fifteen in the morning the Coffee Shop is already heaving. Everyone, it seems, has decided to shop today. Donna's present is going to be a lot simpler than I'd first envisaged.
"Yeah, she's been badgering Josh for the last week and he's been clearly ignoring her"
Well, that's one less gift to worry about. I'm almost there; it's been an hour since we started and I've got nearly everything I need. CJ hasn't even begun, which is a mite worrying. I'd hoped to be in and out by lunchtime so I could spend the afternoon with my briefing documents. I should be enjoying this time with the Press Secretary but I'm becoming rapidly obsessed with the intricacies of Disaster Management. What if there really is truth in all these rumours of Russian missiles being automatically fired from silos? What if the Power Stations do go offline and stay there? If everyone gets called back on January 1st as a State of National Emergency is declared I'm supposed to know what to do...
"You're thinking about Y2K again, aren't you?"
CJ shakes her head, we had an agreement. No thinking about work...that was the idea, anyway.
"I'm sorry, it's just all getting to me a bit"
"The idea of this was to give you a diversion, now you and Josh are the only two people who aren't being distracted"
"That's how it works sometimes...whilst we're on the subject, can I ask you something?"
"He asked me not to tell you"
"Josh asked you not to tell me he volunteered but that Leo told him to do it"
"Because he wanted to tell you himself but he knew you'd ask me first, and he knew you wouldn't believe him when he said he actually asked to be involved. Josh takes his responsibilities just as seriously as you do, remember. I believe he also thought that you might appreciate the company"
I am indeed greatly appreciative of his presence. Our daily discussions on baseball and movies are the only thing currently keeping me sane.
Five Days earlier...Sunday
"So that's it?"
Josh and I have been talking on the phone for a little over an hour now, mostly about the next two days seminar work. He has two further days of training at the Quantico Control Centre next week, and wants to make sure I'm clear on what needs to be covered in his absence.
"We'll be a well-oiled machine, then" I'm sitting on my sofabed with a packet of potato chips and a large mug of tea, surrounded by documents and paperwork that I'm not even sure I understand any more. The whole thing boils down to a simple premise: if the lights do go out January 1st we'll try and cope with it, but we'll only be 62.7% successful.
"Just be grateful you won't be part of the 37.3% who get left in the cold" Josh jokes at the other end of the line, but I know part of him, like part of me, is nervous. I'd never really grasped the fact that we're actually quite alike in our approach to the inevitable. We're both control freaks, and not being able to grasp our destinies is a distressing prospect.
"I think I'm going to go and make a big bonfire and burn all this stuff"
What I am going to do is put it all in a big pile and go have a long bath, and at least try and forget it all for an hour or so.
"Good idea. I'll talk to you in the morning. Weatherman says it's gonna snow tonight..."
"Great, that's all I need..."
A good ninety minutes later I have bathed, applied and rinsed off a facemask, plucked my eyebrows, done my nails and soaked my feet. I feel suitably relaxed and ready to take another swing at the Year 2000 Mountain in my den. I then put off the inevitable for at least an hour as I wrap presents, and it's almost nine pm before I sit down to begin again. As I do the 'phone rings: I expect it to be Josh but the Caller ID doesn't flash up his number, in fact there is no number showing on my display. I cautiously pick up the 'phone.
A shiver runs through me. I know this voice.
I have to sit down, I'm stunned.
"How are you, Mum?"
"I'm very good, thank you."
There is a long and awkward silence. I finally think of something to say.
"Congratulations on the appointment at Warwick, by the way"
"I should say the same to you for your appointment to the White House. You know you're something of a minor celebrity over here, don't you?"
As a matter of fact I do. I know there's been a documentary made about me for BBC2, for which both my parents were approached with a view to be interviewed...both turned down the requests.
"I hear that I've caused a bit of a stir"
"You've really upset your father, you know"
"Well, there's something I don't do very often..."
"I have to say that anything that you do to upset your Father is fine with me"
She sounds really well.
"So, I hear from Tom that you're moving house next year?"
She speaks to Tom, I know. Tom is my elder brother, the only member of my family I still maintain a regular line of communication with. I sent him pictures of the place when I moved here.
"I'm looking for something a bit less ostentatious, with just me and the cat this is a bit of a waste, all this space"
There is another silence, and this time I can't think of anything to say. I haven't spoken to my mother since 1993, and I can't think of anything to say...
" I just 'phoned to ask if it's okay if I started to call once a week at about this time...you know, say hello, talk about your job..."
"Yes, that's fine, once a week is great"
"I'm going to Granny Maud's place in Lewes for a couple of weeks but I'll 'phone in the New Year, I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas and tell you how proud I was of you for doing so well. I've sent you a little something in the post, you should get it before Christmas, I hope..."
There it was, like it always was with my Mother, the compliment slipped in so that you could almost miss it. She's proud of me. I'm trying hard not to cry now, but I'm failing.
"Thank you Mum, I appreciate that. Have a really happy Christmas yourself"
"I will, and I'll talk to you in the New Year. Goodbye now"
That's it, she's gone. The call lasted three minutes at the most.
All I can do is sit here and cry my heart out.
Four Days earlier...Monday
The string quartet is playing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" in the Lobby as I arrive, with a bag full of presents and a hat and jacket covered with a light dusting of snow. After the stunning episode of the night before I woke this morning and opened the blinds to see the whole of my garden covered in a delicate blanket of white, and then promptly started to cry again. I'm pretty confused and not at all prepared for the day...
Josh announces it to the World as if he's never seen the stuff before: he comes bounding towards me. He is, without doubt, a Very Big Kid when it comes to the Festive Season.
"We should go have a snowball fight after Staff...hey, are you okay?"
Even with make-up I can't completely cover up my eyes after all that crying. He notices and quickly puts a hand up to my arm. It's not that I actually need steadying, but the gesture does help me focus.
"Walk me to my office" I ask him quietly. He takes the bag of presents from me without being requested and follows, not saying a word, until we reach our destination and I've shut the door behind us.
"My mother called me for the first time last night after a six year silence. Needless to say I got a bit emotional"
"What did she say?"
"She said she was proud of me"
Saying the words starts huge tears running down my cheeks again: I just can't stop them. There's too much feeling all wrapped up in all this, for it to happen so suddenly.... It's Christmas, and out of the blue I've re-established contact with one of my estranged parents...it's all just too much. There's no fuss over our embrace, it just happens and he hugs me quickly but quietly, but I'm rapidly conscious of getting make-up on his suit. It's the attractive dark blue one he was wearing last week.
"This suit is new, isn't it?" I say between sniffles.
"My mom bought it for me as a Christmas present last year, I realised last week I've never worn it"
"I like it"
"So you said last week"
"Is that why you're wearing it?"
"Because you like it?"
"Did you say you liked this suit?"
I'm beginning to feel better.
"You know I did"
Morag will be here in a minute; I need to pull myself together for Staff, and re-apply makeup. Today is going to be a long day. Josh senses I'm done with hugging for now and steps back. I make a quick decision and reach down to pull out his Christmas present from the bag; he might as well have it now.
"What's this?" he asks in mock surprise.
"I could wait to give you this but just in case, you know...what with the world scheduled to end and all"
"Can I open this now?"
"Yeah, why not?"
To complete this particular gift I actually had to steal something from Josh's office, something I'm not particularly proud of. I hope the crime will be worth the reward.
He opens the parcel in silence and stares at the gift inside. After our bonding session the night of the AFI Gala, he showed me a picture of his father and him as a kid, and I though it might be sweet to "borrow" the picture over a lunchtime and get a photographic enlargement made. He now has a six-inch by four-inch picture of him and his dad to put on his wall in an attractive wooden frame.
"I had to steal the picture from your desk drawer, I'm hoping you didn't mind"
I look at him and see there are tears in his eyes: I wonder for a moment if I've done the right thing.
"Thank you" is all he says, as he leans over and kisses me gently on the cheek.
Three Days earlier...Tuesday
"Yes, I'll hold"
I've been holding now for just over ten minutes...how difficult can this guy be to find? If I could stumble on the ability within myself to be indignant at this moment I would, but I'm just too tired. I didn't sleep much last night, and add that to the total lack of sleep the night before and an eighteen-hour day yesterday and I'm dead on my feet. I have sent Morag out for strong coffee and chocolate somethings...I don't mind what. Just as long as there is lots of chocolate.
I look up and Toby is there, standing and smiling in front of me. He has a book-shaped parcel in his hand, which looks suspiciously like a gift. I wave him in and he comes to sit in front of me.
"I'm on hold, you can talk to me"
"Who's not talking to you?"
"Quantico. I'm supposed to be seeing someone today and they didn't turn up. I'm betting his alarm didn't go off"
"Obviously it isn't Year 2000 compliant"
"That would have been my first line, actually"
He studies me closely.
"You feeling better?"
Josh told Sam, and Sam told Toby...just like the King telling the Queen and the Dairy Maid...the whole world seems to know about my mother. I don't mind half as much as I thought I would.
"I will when I get some sleep, which will hopefully be before Friday...I'd hate to drop off and miss your performance"
Toby smiles, the smile of a man who truly believes he does have the winning Lotto numbers.
"I confidently predict we will be good enough to secure the top prize"
"I wouldn't be so sure, I'm hearing very good things about Nancy, Larry and Ed"
There are now three clear candidates for the title of "Best White House Lip Synchers"... Josh is running a clandestine book and it's these acts that have most of the smart money behind them. The Spice Girls are a popular bet amongst the male members of staff, but it's Nancy and Toby who are generating the most interest. Both of their "themes" are closely guarded secrets, and both have been rehearsing extensively off-site.
"Nancy doesn't phase me" Toby smiles again "I think I should be worrying about The Spice Girls: with Leo and Charlie on the judging panel I think we might be at a disadvantage"
"I'm sure that the panel will be fair and accurate in their judging of the best as the best"
I'm still listening to "Jingle Bells" on the 'phone. I think I'm going to be a while yet. Toby puts his gift on the desk in front of me and stands "As I don't celebrate Christmas this a little something to apologise for being so dismissive of a good idea. Enjoy"
I open the package as I hear "Jingle Bells" melt into "Silent Night" Inside the wrapping is a copy of "Day of the Jackal" by Frederick Forsyth.
Two Days earlier...Wednesday
I arrive back to find a small, plainly wrapped parcel on my desk.
Sam and I have just braved the DC lunchtime traffic to go buy a box of Dunkin Donuts to share plus two coffees, and as I open my office door it just sits there. I look at Sam but he offers no immediate explanation.
Mr Seaborn has bought me a selection of MGM Musicals on DVD for Christmas; we have an arrangement in place that goes back to beyond our days at the White House. Sam is hopeless at gifts, and I'm hopeless at buying gifts for Sam, so we tell each other what we want and that's what we buy...or so he thinks. This year's gift from me to Sam is a one-off, never to be repeated absolute corker of a gift, to thank him for what he did in getting me here. He still hasn't opened it, it's sitting in the corner of his office. Everything gets opened together on Friday...
He really hasn't changed at all.
I put down the Donuts and it suddenly occurs to me what I'm looking at.
"I'm pretty certain that this is from Angela"
Angela is Max's sister. She's a teacher at a Kindergarten in Brooklyn, but she is also a ceramicist, and a pretty good one at that. She came to clay and pottery five years ago after she took a Summer School Course at Columbia, and since then she's been honing her craft. She now makes a pretty good third income, which in part pays the weekly housekeeping bills, but mostly goes to form the basis of Greg and Penny's College Fund. Penny is nine and Greg is twelve, and with my new job I am apparently "way cool" and therefore expected to attend their Holiday celebrations. Peter, her husband, is coming to collect me by car with Max in tow on Christmas Eve.
They will be my surrogate family for three days over Christmas, so at least I have somewhere to go. We're all going to spend Christmas Morning like we did last year, I think...which seemed to involve Max and me playing with the kids presents whilst they watched TV. Christmas is undoubtedly more fun when there are children involved.
Sam takes the coffees and I take off my coat, then sit down at my desk and carefully open the parcel. I was right, it is from Angela...I asked her for a quick favour last week and she said she would be honoured to come up with something. I imagine I'm going to have to explain the events of this coming Friday in great detail to the Richmond family...as their mother has designed the prize that's to be given to the winner.
"Behold," I say to Sam as I hold up the ceramic model "The Official White House Lip-Synch Trophy"
She's done a great job, and has created an abstract but clearly recognisable model of the White House, no more than six inches wide. "Lip Synch Champions" is written in delicate gold pigment across the bottom. I think that this makes her and me more than even. Sam is suitably impressed and carefully takes the trophy to examine.
"She's really come along in the last couple of years, hasn't she?"
"It just goes to show that it's never too late to take a chance and to try something different. I think she could end up sculpting full-time if she continues the way she's going."
"This is a great touch. When people realise there's a trophy to be won it's really going to tighten the competition" Sam looks at me with the smile that I know means that I've done a Good Thing
"Well, even if I'm not taking part I can at least contribute something to the evening"
One Day Earlier: Thursday
I'm sitting and waiting to see the President in Leo's Office.
I idly daydream of warmer climes: Morag's flying to Florida again on Saturday, that's twice in four weeks. I must get around to organising myself a proper vacation... Maybe I should find somewhere to live first, as my house is being rapidly sold from under me. There are lots of things I should sort out, but if the whole world ends in just under three weeks it really doesn't matter, now does it? It's amazing to think how pointless life would be if we were all fatalists, it's undoubtedly the optimists that keep the World turning... optimists like Donna.
In the end I bought her a ski hat and gloves: at least she gets something she asked for on her list. That's something else I have to thank CJ for this week, she's kept me sane for at least part of the time away from the business of the end of the electronic world. She and I had our present opening session this morning: I bought her Calvin Klein, she bought me Chanel. I haven't had a bottle of Number Five since...God; it must almost be ten years now. We've had a lot of fun in the three short months we've known each other, and I hope this is the first of many Christmases together as friends.
My mother's Christmas present arrived this morning: it's a copy of "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" by CS Lewis. I cried for a bit, but I'm getting better. I shut the door and read for an hour this morning and remembered why it was one of my favourite books as a kid. I really do hope that the World doesn't come to an end because I'd hate to think that I finally had a chance to start communicating with at least part of my family again and never got the chance to capitalise on it...I should think instead about something more entertaining: let's consider tomorrow's titanic clash.
Margaret is getting into character by listening to "Spice up your Life" on her Walkman in front of me: Sam will be practicing his guitar technique with Josh's tennis racquet in his office. I caught him at it yesterday before we went to lunch and I'm sworn to secrecy. CJ will be working through her moves with Carol, Donna will be working with Bonnie...with this being the penultimate lunch-hour before the big event tomorrow, every moment is precious.
The connecting door opens: Leo appears and motions me to enter.
I'm surprised to find both the President and the First Lady inside.
"Good afternoon, Evie...I believe you've met my wife?"
It's a running joke now between the President and me; I actually met his wife a few years ago at a function in Los Angeles. Mrs Bartlet offers her traditional "please excuse my husband, I'll admonish him later" smile.
"Did you have a nice time in my birthplace, Mrs Bartlet?" Abigail Bartlet has just spent forty-eight hours at an "International Women's Issues" conference in London.
"Indeed I did, Evie. Hopefully the next time I go I'll actually get a chance to do some proper sightseeing"
"Yes, I saw you were forced to take a tour of the Millennium Dome..."
"You know, it will look impressive if they can actually get it finished on time"
"It's okay, the World will have ended long before that happens..."
Leo looks at the President, and the President looks at me.
"I've been talking to Leo about tomorrow night's entertainment"
Oh boy...I'm in trouble now.
"I'll admit it, Mr President, it was my idea, and it seemed like such a simple concept when it started...I think it's just...erm..."
"Escalated?" Mrs Bartlet is obviously amused by my discomfort.
"That's certainly one way to describe it"
I think now it's probably best to agree with everything and just take my punishment.
"I wish we could find a way to apply the same principle to the Senate" The President doesn't look particularly mad: nobody in the room looks nervous except, I expect, me. "You've been working on the Y2K contingencies with Josh, haven't you?"
"Yes, Sir. I think we're as ready as we can be"
"So, how did you get the time to organise this trophy?"
The President has Angela's sculpture on his desk. She's going to be so impressed when I tell her... He picks it up and takes a long look at it.
"I called in a favour with a friend."
"You know, Leo asked me if I thought this was a good idea before he said yes to it, because he wasn't so sure. I hear that even Toby has been bitten by the bug"
"So it would appear"
"We spent a long time working hard to get here, and I think somewhere along the way we forgot how to really enjoy ourselves. My wife and I wondered if you would be willing from this moment on to organise the Christmas Events for the staff here, for as long as you're with us.... which I hope will be as least as long as we're all here. I think it's fair to say that you're more than capable of balancing work and pleasure and you quite obviously know what people want in order to enjoy themselves. We'd be honoured if you'd accept the very unofficial and newly created title of Entertainment Coordinator"
I don't know what to say for a moment: my mum said she was proud of me and it made me cry, this is almost as good as that, and I find myself getting tearful. It's a supreme effort not to lose my composure but I manage it.
"Thank you, I'd be honoured. It really should be a big celebration tomorrow, as it's likely to be the last time everyone's together before we're all consumed by a fiery conflagration"
The Big Day
I sign in and the place is humming, even at 7.30am. As I check down the list of Staff already in the building I see I'm actually one of the last people to get here...I have visions of furtive groups sneaking in early with props in plastic bags, trying to keep their final performance details a secret. The President will draw the Running Order this morning so that people can prepare themselves and Morag and I can collect and edit the music. We will be the only two people who know who's performing what before the whole sordid affair kicks off at eight o'clock tonight.
Today has "Certified 100% Weird" stamped all over it.
There is a small box in festive gift-wrap on my desk as I take off my coat: I know it's from Morag. We've exchanged our traditional Festive Hug and given each other our traditional Christmas accessories. I'm wearing a small silver candy-cane on my jacket lapel, and Morag now has a flashing Christmas stocking pinned to her blouse. I've already given her the present she asked for: a new pair of sunglasses for her ten days in the sun. This will be what she always gets me for Christmas, a box of chocolate-covered candied ginger...and that's all I ever really desire. She buys me ginger, Max buys me sugarcoated almonds, and I really want for nothing else for Christmas...except perhaps one thing. If I had thought about it I could have asked the First Lady to buy me some whilst she was in the UK...
He has returned from his two days training, and he's wearing that suit again...it's so unfair that guys can get away with wearing the same stuff without the inevitable comments they make to women when they do the same. It is a VERY flattering suit, though...and doesn't Josh know it. I realise that I've actually missed him.
He stands next to Morag, who's holding what I hope is my mug of tea.
"That smells really good"
Morag raises an eyebrow at the Deputy Chief.
"I suppose you'll be wanting one?"
Donna's inability to bring Josh beverages is, of course, legendary. Morag however is a sucker for his dimples. He smiles and it has precisely the desired effect.
"Give this to the bairn and I'll make you one"
She thrusts the mug into his hands and wanders off to make another.
Josh is looking particularly smug this morning: I suspect he has come here this early to gloat. He fairly saunters into my office and deposits the mug on my desk, before perching himself on it's corner. He looks at me provocatively.
"What's up?" Of course I'm immediately suspicious.
"Does something have to be up for me to come and see you?"
"You are wearing your smug bastard grin, which means you either did something extraordinarily clever or you've gotten one over on either me or Sam"
His face changes as I say this, settling to a smile that suggests warmth without self-righteousness. He's making a real effort all of the sudden to look genuine, and it's a little unsettling.
"I finally got your Christmas present last night. It was hard work, but it was worth it"
He pulls a small package out of his inside jacket pocket, about the size of a box of cigars, but a little thicker. I'm unexpectedly fascinated: he wouldn't have bought me jewellery, surely? That would indicate a real affection for me and that would be strange, to say the least. CJ only ever gets fragrance or toiletries, I know. He hands the box to me, watching my every move. I'm overcome by the urge to sniff it: this doesn't smell like perfume, in fact, it smells like...
My whole demeanour must instantly change as he smiles at me now, a smile that's a glorious combination of pleasure and satisfaction. I can't believe this, I was only just thinking, it's been so long since I've had any, I'd kill for a bar right now...
"You spoke to the First Lady, didn't you? Who told you?"
"I asked Sam, and I double-checked it with Max. You buy him a tie every year?"
"Every year he buys me sugarcoated almonds. We have an arrangement"
We must be less than six inches away from each other.
"I wanna ask you that every year for Christmas you buy me something different"
"It's going to be tough coming up with enough original ideas for the foreseeable future"
"You're a smart woman, you'll figure out something"
I've opened the box while we've been talking. Inside is a thirty-five gram bar of Mars' Galaxy chocolate. This is now, without doubt, the best present I've had so far, albeit a little on the small side. Should I say something or will I sound ungrateful? Oh, what the Hell...
"I'm unbelievably impressed Josh, of course I am, but...they do bigger bars, you know"
He drops his voice to a whisper and puts his lips close to my ear. I feel his words melt into my brain.
"I know, I have three sitting in my desk drawer"
I'm shaking as I quietly and deliberately open the wrapper. It's like a drug, it's like sex and it's like pure unadulterated vice all rolled into one small gold foil wrapped package. It's a smell like no other confectionary in the whole world and it's all mine. I don't want to think what I might have to do to get my hands on the three 150 gramme bars: that's the next problem...
"It's not the same as Mars chocolate over here, you know"
Of course you know this don't you, you utter, utter bastard.
Josh clearly loves the hold this stuff has over me.
"It's to do with the milk to cocoa content, I'm told. The First Lady had to go to some length to get this..."
I'm about to eat my first square when I stop. If he's going to taunt me, I should get him hooked too, and then he'll know the pure terror that is the fate of the Galaxy Chocolate Whore. I stop the square inches from my mouth and offer it to him instead.
He looks bemused
"You haven't had a bar of this for nearly six years, and now you want me to have the first piece...?"
"Christmas is a time for sharing. Try it"
He opens his mouth and I place the square on his tongue. He closes his mouth and sucks experimentally, and I watch his face crinkle into a delighted smile
I think that means he likes it. I lean over and give him a kiss, a long and deliberately provocative kiss that leaves a faint trace of lipstick on his cheek. As I pull away I can see he's blushing.
"Good gift, Joshua"
He can only mumble incoherently in response.
Sam loves Galaxy, I got him hooked a long time ago but he too hasn't eaten the stuff since my last illicit stock was bought through Customs. We sit in his office with the remaining half of the first 150 gramme bar I was able to liberate from Josh's desk...the small one got finished well before lunchtime. The last square of that went to the President, as he picked out the teams to decide the running order for the evening. Two teams have dropped out, so it's ten groups who will fight it out for the trophy. The Spice Girls are first up: Toby and his team are the penultimate act, followed by Nancy's threesome. It's now only twenty minutes before the President's and First Lady's Buffet is due to be served
Sam has opened nearly every other gift except mine, and I'm now convinced he's doing it deliberately. He puts CJ's present of a ship in a bottle down into his neat pile and finally picks up my offering.
"You know, call me unobservant, but this really doesn't feel or indeed look like the shirt you normally buy me"
The parcel is six by twelve and the thickness of a magazine.
"I could have had a shirt vacuum sealed..." I offer helpfully.
Sam isn't convinced. Finally, he starts the process of opening: no careless ripping of gift paper for Sam, and in this case the care is justified. He finishes opening the package and stares at the cover of the libretto. This, however, is no ordinary version. When Sam and Richard were in their final year at college the Gilbert and Sullivan Society produced a version of "The Mikado" in which Sam played the role of Nanki-Poo to rave reviews. Richard was the Stage Manager for the production and this was his annotated version of the libretto, full of signatures from the cast after the production was finished, and pictures of the rehearsals. When Sam left New York and Lisa he left his cast-signed copy of the operetta behind, something I know he's always regretted. It seemed only fair to give him Richard's copy in replacement.
For the second time this week I reduce a member of the Senior Staff to tears: all I need now is to get Toby and CJ all emotional and I have the full set. Sam comes and hugs me for an age, and I hug him back.
It's so good to be friends again.
There's less than five minutes to go before the first act is due to perform, and the atmosphere in the Lobby is a palpable combination of excitement and anticipation all rolled into one slightly inebriated bundle. The Judging Panel is already in place to one side of the stage: Leo, Mrs Landingham and Charlie Young are all talking to each other quietly...Margaret has provided them with clipboards, the scores will remain a secret until the very end. The Trophy plus a couple of other prizes sit on the table to Leo's left. The five Spice Girls are away in the Ladies Room, putting the finishing touches to their "outfits" and Morag has been charged with the duty of pulling them out and getting them to the "stage", which has been marked off in front of the large Christmas Tree in the Lobby area.
Toby and Sam have pulled the best two seats front and centre: the place is reassuringly packed. Apart from the support and skeleton staff actually running the White House I think every member of personnel is here. This, of course, would be precisely the right moment for someone to decide to invade South Carolina or for some other major disaster to befall us. I hope that whatever fates are watching us tonight keep the evening's external events to a minimum.
Josh and I have been commandeered to act as MC's for the evening, so I do have something to do, and it's hardly a chore. Josh appears now, and I know what's coming next: it's time for a message from our Sponsor.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, your Boss and mine, The President of the United States"
The place bursts into applause, and everyone is up. The President is wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt and jeans, Mrs Bartlet is in a pretty purple frock. Zoey has insisted on coming down for the evening and she stands with her parents for a moment before scooting off to join Charlie at the Judges Table. A little bird tells me that Mallory will be here in time for Sam's turn on the makeshift stage.
"Okay, people, please all sit down, you're making me nervous"
The room is seated and silent in a moment.
"I just wanted to say that I'm honoured and proud to be presenting the award for this evening's artistic endeavours...having handed over a large number of awards in what is nearly our first year here I'm happy to say this one is undeniably going to give me the most pleasure. I'd like to thank everyone who's talking part this evening and to wish everyone the best of luck. May the team who paid Leo the biggest bribe win"
Somehow I suspect neither Sam nor Toby wrote those impromptu remarks. After the applause has died down and the Bartlet's have taken their place next to the Judges Table we're all set. Morag gives me the thumbs up, I am about the introduce the first act. I'm not quite ready for the standing ovation I get as I walk to the front of the stage, but if I was at any point concerned about not being asked to perform it's gone, I'm happy. I'm going to doing this for a good few years to come...I hope.
Once I subdue the audience it's time to begin. Morag and Josh hold up a large fabric "curtain" which allows the five girls to walk onto their stage without giving away their appearance. They flank me at either end of the long black material and wait for their cue.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to our evening's entertainment. First up, the British girl group who've already taken the world by storm and who are set to do the same tonight at the White House. Performing their hit song "Too Much" please put your hands together and welcome... The Spice Girls!
The "curtain" drops and Morag runs to the CD player and presses the "Play" button. There are five broom-handle microphone stands, on which five hairbrushes are stuck in place with Velcro. The five "girls" are standing with their backs to the cheering crowd, and as the music begins they all strike a pose. At what is of course the appropriate moment in the music they all turn, completely in synch. The five are dressed in identical outfits: knee-length skirts and fluffy tops in their appropriate colour. Donna has done her hair in pigtails to delighted whoops from Sam: the rest of the "girls" have appropriate hairstyles too. CJ has styled hers in a Posh Spice bob. Bonnie wears hers big and Scary Spice style, whilst Margaret has coloured hers with Ginger Spice streaks. Carol wears her long locks in the traditional Sporty Spice ponytail and whilst the rest of her group wear sling backs or high heels she wears trainers.
If everyone is this good, we are in for an unforgettable evening.
The applause is still ringing around the Lobby, and I can see the three judges conferring frantically. The President and the First Lady are also joining in, keen to make their opinions felt. Amazingly we still are running to time, and there have been very few mistakes.
The Spice Girls were a tough act to follow, but they've at least been equalled by every act that has succeeded them. The standard of production has been striking and innovative: from the four deputies of Josh's who performed Billy Joel's "We didn't Start the Fire" with a dazzling array of props and placards, to Debbie DiLaguardia and her two assistants whose rendition of Barry Manilow's "Copacabana" will surely live in my memory for years to come. There are still ostrich feathers everywhere...
Now, however, we start to get serious. As the act before last was beginning Toby and Sam slipped out of their front seats, with Ginger and Cathy following them. I'm actually nervous in anticipation, I want to see this without having glimpsed them beforehand. I'm sure I can hear jewellery rattling behind me as Morag and Josh are holding up the curtain. As I turn around I catch a glimpse of Josh's expression: it's as if he's seen J Edgar Hoover walking towards him...a quick glimpse to the other side of the curtain and Morag is unable to control her laughter. This I have to see.
"Well, now we start to get really serious. You've seen eight acts so far, the last two are I'm sure going to be just as entertaining. So, next up...Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the Golden Nugget Players..."
Zoey is now operating the music, which allows Josh and Morag to control the dropping of the curtain. As the applause dies down and I take my seat at the side of the stage I catch a glimpse of Cathy in an evening dress and a long white beard...
The music starts and the curtain drops.
"Y'all still want me to come with you?"
Toby is Elvis.
Elvis tonight wears a white rhinestone-encrusted suit and his own beard. Sam is in evening dress with a beard, as are Ginger and Cathy... they both have ZZ Top beards. The track that you would be able to hear if the place hadn't just erupted into laughter and applause is the Top's impressively catchy "Viva Las Vegas"...ironically one of my personal favourites, but now potentially tainted forever... we shall see.
Five minutes later they've brought the White House down. I spend this momentous moment in history with Josh on one side who laughs so much he cries, plus Mallory on the other who's not sure whether she should be bemused or impressed by Sam's performance. I really don't think any of those participating will be allowed to forget this in a hurry.
Sam's tennis racquet guitar playing was a little ropey in places, the girls were a little uncoordinated but covered it by holding up cards with the words to the song, so in the end people were singing along, and dancing in the aisles. The President didn't stop smiling the entire time, and let's face it, who can blame him...for someone who initially wasn't going to take part, Toby did himself proud. He did his whole team proud.
If these guys get voted out next time around he's off to Vegas to follow his true vocation.
But it's not over yet, and it takes a few moments for the crowd to settle. Josh is introducing the next act, and I'm holding the curtain. As I turn around I am confronted with the sight of Larry and Ed in authentic 1964 dresses with net petticoats and beehive hairdos. Nancy is behind them and looks simply radiant. I know what's coming, and I think she's going to make a perfect Martha Reeves.
They all walk past me, the boys a little more slowly in their heels. Nancy stops and whispers to me
"I want the music to start when everyone's gone quiet so we don't lose any impact, can I get Zoey to do that?"
"No problems... just go down and ask her, that's fine"
Ed is closest to me and leans over as Nancy walks past
"Thanks for organising this, Evelyn. This has been a great evening"
"You're more than welcome. Break a leg"
It is a performance that outclasses Toby's group in every way. The three of them perform "Heat Wave" in complete synchronisation; the backing singers and Nancy don't forget their lines or their moves. In the end the applause is for a consummately professional performance: I know from Mrs L that they practiced for two hours a day after work and didn't forgo any of their normal workload in the process. Although Toby's team scored highly in impact, they really didn't come close in dedication.
It was a great end to a marvellous display of talent, or at least that's what the President said as he awarded the trophy to a clearly delighted Nancy. In the end, the best team did win.
CJ is draped around Toby as I pass them now like an attentive groupie. She's not as drunk as she's making out, but for the purposes of this evening...Toby has kept the suit on, insisting he get full use of it before it goes back to the costume shop tomorrow. He's been delighting smaller groups of people with Elvis moves and a very convincing accent. I wonder how he did his research for the part.
Sam is showing Josh the libretto from Mikado, I think about disturbing them but I know they'll be okay for a while, after all...if someone needs me it shouldn't take them too long to work out where I've gone. I walk back into the Bullpen and head for my office, it's quiet but there are people working still, even this late. Whatever may happen, this place carries on, even over Christmas...and into the next century. It will take more than a few badly written computer programmes to keep these people away from their desks in the years to come. If one thing is abundantly clear from tonight's shenanigans, it's that people in the White House take both their work and their play very seriously indeed.
I switch on my office light and go to my desk. I open the left hand top drawer and pull out the remains of the first big bar of Galaxy and my mother's Christmas present. If no one disturbs me I should be able to finish both before I go home. That will be the perfect way to end the day.