The Day Manager
A Short Story
Usually he- the Day Manager- would hand over to the incoming Night Manager, grab a quick post-shift pint at the bar and then head home.
But it was Christmas Eve and so the post-shift pint had become three, then four and the regulars- ruddy faced with red noses and physiques like the fat cats of Victorian political cartoons- had insisted on standing him a shot of whiskey to go with each of those beers. ‘Tis the season, one of them had said- he couldn’t remember which- as they all clinked heavy shot glasses one by one and looked each other in the eye before tilting back the burning orange-brown measures.
Other than the standard end of shift pint- a cherished ritual, a basic pressure release- he wasn’t much of a drinker anymore, and so the three beers and three shots, or four beers and four shots, whichever it had been, had been enough to slur his words and wobble his legs.
He was forty next year.
He found himself at the cathedral’s Midnight Mass, somehow, shoutsinging hymns with the other inebriates as the pious and sober congregants- the minority- judged from behind their hymn sheets. Or that’s what he imagined them to be doing as he glanced around the pews left and right while the man in robes leading the show spoke from the pulpit about the flight from Herod and the nativity of Christ.
Forty next year.
Outside, out on the street, his street, his collar-up navy overcoat over his thin black work shirt and thin black work trousers- not enough to keep out the biting cold and the fine rain that was falling near-sideways. His wristwatch under the streetlamp light read half past one. The Night Manager would be sweeping up now, mopping the floors. Or maybe making a drink for an insomniac guest who couldn’t find sleep in a strange bed in a strange city at this time of year. Or maybe he’d be at the reception desk, alone and reading one of his dogeared old thriller books, listening to the rain and trying to keep his eyes open. You do what you have to do to earn a living, put up with what you have to put up with and you grasp moments of relaxation, laughter, respite and meaning where you can.
But, too bad. Under the streetlight and the rainfall he patted and repatted his pockets and worked through them again and again with gloved hands. He swayed a little and then leaned a shoulder to the lamppost like an old friend and snorted out a single laugh at how ludicrous the dripping wet, cold, hood-eyed, tipsy, confused figure he was cutting must look to the eyes of God or Santa Claus or whoever else was looking on and watching over him on this silent cold dark wee small hours of Christmas morning. Damn keys. He took a steadying breath and knew that if he could see his reflection he would see red rimmed eyes and a meandering grin looking back at him, like a hiccupping cartoon of a down but not yet out drunk. Another try, another pat down in search of the elusive housekeys. He felt his money clip again, the banknotes it once held now lost to the collection plate and the sleeping figure swaddled in a sleeping bag by the sheltered entrance to the old Art Deco cinema. The mat of flattened damp cardboard and the stained navy blue cocoon had contrasted with the ostentatious glamour of the period drama poster and moved the Day Manager enough to silently wedge all of his cash, all of his Christmas tips into the sleeping figure’s takeaway coffee cup of change. A Christmas miracle for when they awoke. A chance to turn things around for the day or at least not feel quite so alone and so forsaken.
Money clip, a gnawed pen, a paper napkin with a scratched-out list of tasks from the shift. The inner pockets: his work name badge, a spare coat button, a folded and creased hymn sheet. His keys. Yes. He pinched his front door key between thumb and forefinger and left the lamplight to weave towards his end terrace. Like the others in the front gardenless row of houses along the single lane street it had twinkling lights in the windows, a wreath on the door and a tinsel and bauble festooned tree in the living room. Under the lamplight and the moonlight his street had never felt more like home.
The Day Manager approached the front door, the holly wreath, and for the first time in his years of living here he fully noticed the cast iron boot scraper set into the wall by the door. He had never used this old relic before now and he used it enthusiastically to remove the mud and wet leaves from his night walk home. Not that he could see much under the flickering illumination of red and green Christmas lights.
In the near-darkness he felt for the door with one hand while trying to key the lock with the other. He missed and scraped wood. And again. With the pinched key held ready for the third attempt the door swung open by itself, almost silently. There she was in baggy red Christmas pyjamas dotted with thick white snowflake shapes, her thick navy dressing gown tied at the waist and her head haloed by the blindingly bright hallway light.
‘I thought we said you wouldn’t wait up.’ He said as he squinted at her.
‘I changed my mind’ she replied in a whisper. ‘You look freezing, you should dry your hair off.’ She kissed him hello. ‘Did you smoke a cigar?’
‘Tis the season!’ He hiccupped and held a hand to his chest.
Silently laughing, She hushed him with a finger and pointed to the ceiling.
He nodded that he understood.
‘Mince pie?’ She asked.
There wasn’t anything he could’ve wanted more. He nodded, remembering the upward pointing finger.
He dried his hair, changed out of his tired work shoes into equally worn but infinitely more comfortable slippers and joined her on the sofa. He devoured the mince pie on its dainty china plate and read and re-read the note for Santa Claus that came with it. The bold, free, oversized handwriting brought a lump to his throat as he sat there, feeling more drunk and completely sober at once.
He looked at the muted television for a few seconds. It was a black and white Christmas film that he didn’t recognise. A man- one of those broad-shouldered old-time actors who normally played private eyes and tough guys- was working in a department store surrounded by wide eyed children in scarves and bobble hats. A glamorous and serious faced woman in a beret and a fur coat approached him and offered the slick-haired actor a fan of banknotes. He counted it, both him and the glamorous actress mouthing lines of muted dialogue.
After a beat the Day Manager turned from the screen and looked his wife in the eyes.
Another beat. ‘I’m sorry I was so late getting back. I just.’
‘Were really thirsty.’ She waited for his come-back, for his sharp and witty retort. Nothing.
Instead, he rubbed his eyes with the heel of his palm, put his dainty crumb strewn china plate on the coffee table and stood and stretched. ‘Talking of which,’ he held his hand over a yawn, ‘I have another thing on my list to do.’
He padded across the room and into the kitchen and whispered back, ‘Don’t look.’
She put her feet up on the edge of the coffee table and watched the silent monochrome man and the silent monochrome woman on screen. One scene faded to the next as the television was blocked by her husband still smelling of beer and whiskey and cigar tobacco and church incense, but now much more animated. The hotel’s Christmas season at work, the stress, the hours, all of it had etched dark rings around his eyes and a weariness to his step but that was gone now. He moved like the energetic young man he had been when they first met. He had found a red Santa hat from somewhere which was askew on his head and he had a matching sack slung over his shoulder, filled with various rectangular parcels.
He crouched down by the tree that they had all spent hours decorating the week before on his one day off from the hotel, and started placing presents from the bag around its base. He smiled at her over his shoulder.
‘You want to get involved?’ He asked.
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