The Office Party

Those of you who visit this blog regularly will know that I am not a sociable person. This does not mean to say I don’t like people – far from it. But I am not thrilled by having to meet lots of strangers all at once or having to find superficial chitchat for hours at a time, or indeed by facing up to that challenge to which I seem peculiarly unequal, eating and talking at the same time. So it is generally with a heavy heart that I greet the advent of Mister Litlove’s annual works Christmas party. He has stopped asking me now whether I want to go, as in his view attendance is obligatory, and just emails the menu over to me. This year the dinner was being held in Upper Hall in Jesus College, where we met as undergraduates and later married. So it was a nice venue, but that didn’t make it anything other than the office party.

We were leaving our son happily home alone. ‘Don’t be afraid if there’s anything wrong – anything at all – to text me,’ I told him, as I was being forcibly steered towards the door. ‘I’ll be happy to come home for your least worry, no matter how trivial.’

‘Your mother will enjoy herself,’ said Mister Litlove grimly as my son laughed, well aware of my disinclination for big social events. He has his father to lobby for the opposing view, so I don’t feel I’m determining his outlook. He snuggled down behind a warm computer, whilst we trekked out into the arctic wastes of Cambridge in a cold snap. I thought I must be mad, or loyal to the point of diminished responsibility.

‘It’s very good of you to come with me,’ my husband said dutifully as we drove to the college. ‘I’m very glad to have you along.’

‘You may not say that by the end of the evening,’ I replied cheerily.

In what felt like no time at all, we had arrived and entered the somewhat draughty Upper Hall with its rather interesting artwork on the wall, a floor to ceiling spiral of golden handprints, which is a lot better than some of the weird and wonderful stuff a previous modern-art-loving Master installed, including a huge wooden dinosaur in the grounds. I admit I had a certain curiosity to see the new women who had been recruited in the last few months to the company. Mostly my husband has worked in male-dominated environments so he can get a bit excited when real live women hove into view. And he is tall and handsome and quite princely, is Mister Litlove, with much charm and no vanity. However, I was content to see that the computer programmer was very young and girly, whereas Mister L has always liked quite grown-up women, and the new office manager, very stately in a strapless dress, was probably more woman than he would be confident to handle all in one go. He is intrinsically a faithful type, but it’s always good to be reassured.

We sat down to eat with a tremendous amount of shilly-shallying, as there were no place names on the tables and everyone was very hesitant to commit. We ended up with a couple of the male programmers and their partners and a couple of venture capitalists. As our meal began to be served, so I realized that an interesting feat of Chinese whispers between me, my husband and the office manager had transformed my no yeast, no sugar diet into a wheat intolerance one. This is one of the reasons why I mostly refuse to let other people cook for me. I feel marginally guilty leaving food I’ve been served in a restaurant, but I feel terrible having to turn down food that someone I know has cooked for me. I was handed a special bread roll with my soup and I felt so sorry that I couldn’t eat it. The woman opposite me, who actually turned out to be wheat intolerant, said she’d try the roll out and pronounced it delicious but wasn’t sure what was in it. Its bouncy, fluffy texture assured me that one ingredient was yeast. The soup, also delicious, was sweet potato and coconut, and I was at least halfway into it before realizing that part of its taste was probably due to a good glug of white wine. Alcohol is something else I’ve strenuously avoided for years. It’s easy to turn down in a glass (well, unless I’m with people who think me a party pooper for not drinking), far more difficult to turn down in food. I was having to do the eating and talking thing, though, which is not conducive to appetite, so it didn’t matter so very much.

Conversation was very jolly. I discussed creative communications with the wheat-intolerant lady opposite, whose job involved them (and thought about swapping dinners with her, as my turkey arrived with no sausage and bacon, and in a bright orange, thyme-heavy sauce). And we discussed the difficulties of learning foreign languages to a fluent standard with the other end of the table (one of the venture capitalists being Russian). Then the conversation somehow hitched up on the fact that my hometown of Colchester had spawned the runner-up in the X-Factor, the UK’s equivalent of American Idol. This was indeed a shock to me, as he is actually from nearby Witham (said Wit-ham), a place I never dreamed would ever garner media glory. I was most surprised to turn on the television Sunday night and see hoardes of screaming fans supposedly from Colchester, although I cynically think you can order hoardes by the square meter for television shows and bus them in. I suppose I shouldn’t be so amazed. The group Blur (who were musically quite classy) came from Colchester and the glam rockers The Darkness are from Lowestoft, just up the coast, a place that cannot ever have stocked a lycra catsuit in its long, long anglo-saxon history, although it may well have a tattoo parlour down near the docks.

Then it was time for dessert, which was the saddest part of my meal. Normally I just turn it away, but Mister Litlove assured me that something special for me was coming. At first he thought it was cheese, which I can and do eat, although it is not my favourite thing. But then he thought it was fruit, which is just fine. Alas, what turned up was a beautifully prepared pear cooked in red wine, surrounded by berries all coated in a sugar-dense coulis. Even the whipped cream had sugar added. All that unnecessary trouble someone had gone to! I urged Mister Litlove to try some, but although getting a dinner and a half has always been part of the pleasure of marriage to me, he was slowing down by the end of the meal. And the napkins were linen, so my usual strategy of wrapping up what I can’t eat and taking it home had been thwarted.

Once we’d finished eating, people started milling around, and one of my husband’s colleagues from the London office came over to chat. He had greeted me at the start of the evening with the somewhat unexpected phrase ‘I understand you are the Perez Hilton of book bloggers,’ which made me laugh uproariously, not least because of its delightful distance from reality. I really do have to wonder how Mister Litlove describes me in my absence. Anyway, he turned out to be one of those amazing people who have a tremendous range of knowledge, having studied literature at university before going on to be a computer person. He’d been on monastic retreats (‘You should try one,’ he urged. ‘We’re afraid she’d never come back,’ said Mister Litlove). He also had a three and a half year-old son. ‘And what’s he into now?’ I asked. ‘Being strong,’ he replied. ‘We have to feel his muscles all the time.’ He and Mister Litlove fell into a current affairs discussion, provoked by the information supplied by our new friend that the Iraq war had cost the country six billion pounds and the banking crisis sixty billion. ‘Which means we could have spent the money invading ten other countries and had the empire back,’ he ironically suggested. Now what really surprised me at this point was the rapidity with which Mister L. reeled off a list of possible countries to invade. I struggled to think of anywhere that would offer mutual benefits. France, not enough good shopping; Italy, too excitable; efficient, regulated Germany would be brought to its knees; America would be just too much country altogether, in the way the office manager would be too much woman for my husband. Eventually I suggested Luxembourg. ‘Pooh, who wants Luxembourg? What would be the point of that?’ my husband said. ‘I’m going for the smaller, vulnerable Middle Eastern states.’ Did this mean he had a plan already worked out? Is this what men think about in their vacant moments? I realized that the point of coming to parties was to see one’s nearest and dearest in a completely different light.

People were beginning to drift off now, so once our group broke up chatting I was allowed to go home. As we were saying goodbye, the woman who had sat opposite me pressed her business card on me. ‘I so enjoyed our chat,’ she said,’ I thought perhaps we could meet for coffee in the New Year.’ This was such a kind gesture that I didn’t mention at that point that I don’t drink coffee. ‘You see, you can be sociable when you try,’ said Mister Litlove. And it hadn’t been too bad, for once, but I am by no means a convert yet.  The cloistered retreat will tempt me long before the party season swallows me up.

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25 thoughts on “The Office Party

  1. Love your story of the office party – as they go, it sounds like it was a good one. I would definitely take a monastic retreat over a Christmas party, though.

    You ARE the Perez Hilton of book bloggers! But in a nice way. And you come from the same town as Blur. You’re cutting-edge, Litlove.

  2. So, so funny. And I’m glad to hear that my country is entirely too much country. I was afraid for a minute that we might have to raise the ramparts!

    And I hear you on the obligatory party small talk. I find my own office parties nearly intolerable; the only consolation I find is that we now have them during the work day so I don’t have to give up a free evening for it. I can’t imagine giving up an evening for someone else’s office party.

  3. Litlove dear, you have me in stitches! I love it when you describe yourself in these difficult moments. You are a better person than I – I simply refuse to attend these events. And look what I’ve been missing: all that wonderful food and conversation. Ah well. I am so happy that Mr. Litlove was pleased, and your comment “the point of coming to parties was to see one’s nearest and dearest in a completely different light” gave me the willies. That is something I try to avoid at all costs! so I am glad it worked out for you.
    Happy holidays!

  4. I so understand about eating and talking, which is especially tricky when you try soup because then you have to eat, talk and co-ordinate so that you don’t spill on yourself. Reading that you are now having to manage social events with random people without wine makes me very impressed, I need drink when I meet strangers (although that doesn’t make me sound too good). The lack of alchol means you can recreate social events so amusingly for us though so it’s probably for the best ;)

  5. A lovely account and how well you turn it to your advantage here. It can’t be all bad, but I’m with you on the monastic. I wouldn’t mind the food, though! And I can’t think of anywhere I’d want to invade other than a bookshop!

  6. I feel very lucky that I don’t have to go to my husband’s work party but must admit I like to check out the girls who work in his male-dominated industry too, just to make sure. And what a delicious dessert! You must have been so disappointed that you couldn’t eat it!

  7. You have all my admiration. The only unequivocally attractive part of such occasions for me is the food. If it turned out to be something I couldn’t eat, I would probably cry.

  8. Mrs. Dalloway would find you a special challenge and would, I am sure, attempt to introduce you to someone she thought was very interesting, a writer or artist or someone like that. I hear you though about parties. I went to a library consortium party a couple of weeks ago and their vegetarian meal was three kinds of vegetables smothered in a horrible tasting marinara sauce and polenta patties that tasted like cardboard. It was terrible and I spent most of my time pretending to eat. I managed to avoid the law school party and the university party, both held on the same night because, darn, I had plans for the night before the dates were even announced (I didn’t tell anyone those plans had been cancelled!). I’m not sure I’ll be able to get away with it next year, but I have time to work up some kind of excuse.

  9. Litlove, this should be worked into a short story or something. I thought it was absolutely marvelous and felt as though I had accompanied you and Mr. Litlove to the soiree. However, I too have never been able to negotiate the whole eat and talk thing, and am constantly worried “is there something stuck in my teeth?” “Will someone ask me something before I have time to fully chew and swallow?” And the worse, “What if a morsel somehow escapes into the air as I’m blathering on.” Or a particle goes down the wrong way and you end up choking thereby summoning the paramedics and causing chaos and attention to yourself. No, I’d rather just stay home as well. All in all, it sounds as though you had a good time.

  10. Ug, having a special diet is very frustrating – I feel your pain. Mine doesn’t sound as limiting as yours but avoiding gluten is still very difficult…I find myself ignoring the food and simply socializing. I agree, as far as office parties go this sounds about as good as you can expect, and perhaps even better. I have three work-related parties left, and am looking forward to their conclusion and to saying “Oh, I can’t eat that…”

  11. Well, Litlove, that was delightful (for us)! Of the civilized agreements my wife and I have come to over the long course of our marriage, one most cherished is that neither of us is obligated to attend anything the other must attend. The arrangement works best if both parties are expected at equally tedious parties and happy to make the deal. To your question about men’s brains when not engaged in work or sport, better we daydream about conquering the Eastern bloc than the new computer programmer!

  12. I do feel sorry for the poor chef who got it totally wrong. And my heart sank when I saw what you can’t eat or drink. Oh well, glad you had a good time and you describe this so well that it was like we were right there thinking about which small Middle-Eastern states to invade and admiring the woman who was too much woman to handle. Good luck with the rest of the social season!

  13. I really must insist, LL, that in 2010 you take yourself off to as many of these things as you can possibly abide, because each time you do, we’re rewarded with the most hilarious, delicious (or not so, as the case may be with that sauce…) account of it. You’re too good at this sort of thing to deny us. I love your outings, apparently a great deal more than you do!

    Btw, at least you’re invited to dashing Mr LL’s Christmas parties. L’s is tomorrow night in the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House and if I turned up they’d call security.

  14. Ah, Colchester – a dodgy bunch indeed! As we know :)) Lovely to see Witham being mentioned though. We shouldn’t neglect Tiptree either, I feel!

    :))

    Well done on surviving the Christmas jolly.

    Axxx

  15. I so enjoyed reading this! I’m like you, not in love with going to parties. I’ve made a resolution for the New Year to be more sociable, but oh how I don’t like parties. It sounds like you managed much better than I usually do!

  16. Kate – what a lovely thing to say – thank you so much! I enjoy the retelling – it’s like my own private postmortem of the event, and it’s always fun to share with my dear blogging friends.

    Charlotte – lol! What a fab comment – I will cherish the thought of my potential cutting-edgeness. And when I see you at the monastery I will give you a big wink so you know it’s me. ;)

    Teresa – America is safe! And well beyond our limited means of control – lol! And how very sensible indeed to have your parties during the working day. What a good idea that is.

    qugrainne – I did laugh to hear that you avoid seeing your nearest and dearest in a new light – I don’t blame you! It’s most unnerving. :) And good on you for refusing the works parties – there is honestly not that much to miss, although it was a good meal this year for those who were not dietarily challenged. And thank you for your kind comment – what a nice audience you are.

    Jodie – believe you me, I miss Dutch courage in these situations! I can see exactly what the benefit of a drink or two would be. But we don’t fight over who has to drive home. And I am the queen of spilling food down my front, so I don’t need any encouragement! :)

    Bookboxed – when you have your strategic plan in place to takeover the bookshops of the UK, you give me a call. I didn’t think of that in the discussion and wish I had. It WAS a good meal – how I miss sugar!

    apiece – I did regret that I couldn’t eat it! But I am very glad not to be alone in checking out the women at my husband’s workplace – thank you for the solidarity. :)

    Jean – lol! It’s been four years on this diet now and I am sort of used to it. But it is best not to show me cheesecake. That’s most depressing to my spirits. It’s always reassuring to me that other people dislike parties – makes me feel more normal!

  17. I actually had fun at my work party last week, but that’s a rare occurrence! I dread parties too, and I SO sympathize. More often than not I end up having a decent time, but I dread them anyway. Your account was great — very entertaining!

  18. I’m glad you had more fun this year. I’m very similar to you in this way – I’ve not been to any of my company’s parties yet, 3 years so far. I used to quite enjoy going to the black-tie Balls at Uni in Scotland, but the idea of office get-togethers here in north america fills me with horror.

  19. It’s hard enough to go to these sorts of things when you know the people, and far worse when you have to make small talk with those you don’t know! It sounds like you pulled it off all quite respectably, though. I’d fare more prefer to be a fly on the wall and just listen in than actually participate. It’s probably entertaining though, to see this other side to your husband. As Kate said, even though you may not have enjoyed this, it was very entertaining to read! :)

  20. Sorry all – we have had snow here, so of course everything has ground to a halt, including the internet. Can you imagine, we’ve been without it almost a day!!!!! Anyway, I will now resume where I left off…

    Stefanie – oh I like your avoidance strategies there, very good. But I am sorry about the vegetarian meal, if unsurprised. My husband offered me the vegetarian option, and I declined, having seen them in action before. Your comment about Mrs Dalloway is brilliant; I might actually like to go to one of her parties – they seem very drifty and disconnected and like I might be able to stare off into space for a while without anyone complaining! :)

    Grad – lol! your comments are always so funny. I did that once – choked myself on a piece of duck at a fancy meal in college (I was all of 19), and then swallowed about a gallon of water to try to deal with it discreetly at table. My stomach then rumbled SO loudly for the rest of the meal – so much for dignity! :) And spinach on one’s teeth is another nagging concern. And bless you for such a kind comment. It was fun to share it with you all.

    Courtney – you really could have eaten my dinner! They even gave me a gluten-free mince pie. If I could box it up and send it over, I would… Good luck for the last three parties – do hope someone relates some really funny anecdotes or there are people you like a lot to help ease you through.

    David – and a very happy festive season to you! What a civilised arrangement you have there; it sounds very fair and equal. And I do hope you get to have a few dreams of conquest at your own desk. A handful of Peloponnese islands, maybe? A couple of Baltic states?

    Pete – thank you for the good luck – I’ll need it! And it would have been fun if you, or indeed a selection of my blogging friends had been there. Perhaps that’s in the realm of blog posts yet to be written – the virtual party where we all get together in cyberspace….:)

    David – and I wish I were any good at accommodation! I think I did too much of it in the first 30 years of my life and have built up a literal intolerance… Still, sometimes the conversations strike me as very funny.

    Doctordi – lol! for your comment about the Sydney Opera House – now that IS a good venue and one it’s not fair to have to miss. And I do appreciate so much your kind words. It’s an irony for me that I think I would make a decent travel writer, if I didn’t loathe and detest travel so much…. Guess I’ll have to stick with the books. :)

    Anne – that must be the first EVER mention of Tiptree on the internet! How funny. Should we get in a mention of Ardleigh too? And Fingeringhoe? Lovely to hear from you – hope you’re well! :) xoxox

    Jenny – parties are a real divider, aren’t they? That’s good of you to make a resolution like that – I should do something similar (she says, edging back towards the sofa and the pile of books… ;) ). It was better than usual, but not my favourite thing to do…

    Lilian – I am so glad! :)

  21. Dorothy – I’m so glad your party was good! My son feels much like you – he is reluctant to go and then pretty much always enjoys himself. It is fun writing about it afterwards, I must say… ;)

    Andrew – we anti-party-goers need to unite! I don’t blame you at all for not going to office parties. Uni balls contain at least a load of your friends and acquaintances, whereas work parties contain only disparate colleagues. I quite understand your feelings!

    Danielle – If I could sit behind a two-way mirror with my dinner and just watch everyone, that would be ideal! :) And it really does help to know a few people. But at the same time, I do try and tell myself they will never necessarily see me again, so if I mess up, I’ll just be a fading memory of disaster.. ;)

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