Secret Santa

This was written for The Tea Room Christmas Holiday Story Challenge

“Settle down, Thomas, and go to sleep.”

George’s murmured complaint stilled my restless limbs. I tucked the duvet round my shoulders to exclude draughts and curled up yet again in an effort to get comfortable. I should’ve been out like a light after the frantic few days we’d just had in the office. Normally I only have to snuggle up beside George in the comforting warmth of our bed and I’m drifting off in no time. But a guilty conscience is the enemy of sleep. By the time the clock showed midnight I was tossing and turning once more and trying not to disturb my partner who was fast asleep. Cautiously I swung my legs to the floor and climbed out of bed.

The chill hit me at once. The central heating had long since gone off and the bedroom radiator was stone cold. In the darkness it took me a moment or two to locate my slippers and then I reached for the dressing gown which hung behind the bedroom door. With such meagre protection from the cold I went down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and to try and get my thoughts in order.

While I waited for the kettle to boil I retrieved my briefcase from the corner where I’d slung it the night before and hunted through the detritus at the bottom to retrieve the crumpled piece of paper which was the source of my anxiety. When I was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of hot tea in my hand I gazed at the familiar, spidery writing with renewed loathing. Of course it was all his fault. If he hadn’t behaved like a total arsehole I wouldn’t have been tempted to get my own back. And I’d been handed the perfect opportunity on a plate. It would have been a criminal waste to squander a chance which would never present itself again. I’d been delighted when the plan first sprang to mind. It was so entirely appropriate, so utterly deserved. I’d laughed out loud with glee, sorry only that I could never share my stroke of genius with anyone else. It would have to remain my little secret.

And that was what I’d been worrying about. How could I be sure it would remain a secret? I’d bargained on him being too embarrassed to say anything but knowing him he’d start a hue and cry to track down the culprit. The whole beastly Secret Santa thing had been organised by Tracey, the office busybody. I bet she’d taken a perverse pleasure in matching donors and recipients, and it wouldn’t take much to get her talking if he put pressure on her. I couldn’t take the risk of my boss opening the present I’d smuggled into his in tray the night before. If he ever discovered the identity of his Secret Santa I’d be out of a job. There was nothing for it but to go back to the office, let myself in with my pass key and retrieve the offending article before it ended my career.

“Are you feeling all right, Tom?” George’s soft voiced enquiry made me jump. I hadn’t heard him come into the kitchen and the concern in his tone made me feel guilty.

“Sorry,” I said at once. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I just came down to make a cup of tea. Would you like one?”

“Yes, please. Then we can sit and talk about what’s worrying you.”

“Nothing’s worrying me,” I assured him, getting up to refill the kettle and pushing the Secret Santa questionnaire under a table mat with deft sleight of hand. “I’ve just got a bit of a problem at work but I’ve decided to fix it tonight and put my mind at rest.”

“It’s always better to address difficulties head on,” he agreed solemnly, taking the seat I’d vacated at the kitchen table. “It’s when you try to pretend they don’t exist that they haunt your waking hours and intrude into your sleep time.”

“Thank you for those words of wisdom, doctor,” I responded with just that hint of sarcasm I reserve for the times when my psychiatrist partner lets his professional judgement spill over into our private life. But either my barb fell wide of the mark or he was deliberately ignoring my provocation for he reverted to practicalities.

“It’s far too late to be doing office work now,” he objected. “You’re not at your best and the house is too cold to be sitting at the computer.”

“I won’t be sitting at the computer,” I responded briskly. “I’m just going to pop briefly into the office to sort something out before morning. I’ll sleep better for knowing that I’ve resolved a little local difficulty.”

“Absolutely not,” George said with finality. “It’s the middle of the night. The office will be locked up. Whatever it is you need to do, it can wait until morning.”

I didn’t want to get into an argument with my lover. It’s very difficult to outmanoeuvre him verbally. I’ve found from experience it’s better just to ignore what he says and continue with my own line of reasoning. “I have a pass key to the office,” I said. “I should be able to get in and out without alerting the night watchman. The whole trip won’t take me much above an hour. I’ll try not to disturb you when I get back.”

I had my head in the fridge at that point, trying to locate the skimmed milk which George insists on having in his tea. As a result I didn’t immediately grasp the significance of the protracted silence from the kitchen table. “Does the little local difficulty have anything to do with the office Secret Santa?” he asked eventually.

I was glad my head was still in the fridge and he couldn’t see me wince. I located the milk, took a deep breath and turned round. “It might have. Why do you ask?”

“It looks to me as though you’re the lucky person who has to buy a present for the boss.” As I suspected, George had unearthed the crumpled questionnaire and was scanning Alan Shillito’s answers to the printed list of questions. I walked back to the table, poured milk into George’s tea and sat down beside him.

“Okay,” I admitted. “I have got myself into a bit of a fix over Mr Shillito’s present. It’s not that easy to buy something appropriate for the boss when he has such refined tastes and there’s an upper price limit of eight pounds. I’ve made a bit of a misjudgement and… well… I’m going to retrieve my present before he has a chance to open it.”

“Care to tell me what you bought him?” George asked in his neutral, non judgemental, consulting room tone.

I gave the question some thought. “No,” I answered finally.

Much to my surprise, George let that go and returned to something I’d said earlier. “What makes you think Mr Shillito has such refined tastes?”

I snorted with disdain. “You only have to look at his answers to the questionnaire! Favourite brand: Armani. Favourite drink: Champagne. Favourite store: Harrods. That doesn’t offer much scope for a purchase within the price limit.”

“Of course not. I think he’s saying that he’s not expecting to receive a consumer item. He gives away more about himself in some of the other answers. Look at his hobbies and interests. He reads history and biography. He likes music and plays the piano. And that last question is very revealing: What would you like that money can’t buy? He’s put: the respect of my colleagues and recognition for my achievements. I find that rather sad. It suggests to me that he feels undervalued at work.”

“No wonder,” I said rather belligerently. “He’s a first class bastard at work.”

“Really? You’ve never complained about him before. I take it you’ve bought him something unpleasant and are now having second thoughts. What’s he done to cause you such offence?”

Sometimes I wish my lover wasn’t so damn perceptive. “Mr Shitface Shillito gave me a formal reprimand the week before last,” I admitted angrily, “made me feel like I was back at school in front of the headmaster and then went and put a note on my personnel file. I just wanted him to get a little taste of his own medicine, to know what it feels like to be told you’re a naughty boy.”

“Were you a naughty boy?”

I glared at my lover. “I’m not a boy and it wasn’t my fault that I was late every day that week. Lots of things went wrong in the mornings which were beyond my control.”

“Including the fact that I was away at a conference,” remarked my lover dryly. “You’re never good in the mornings if I’m not there to chivvy you along.”

“Don’t you start. Drink your tea and I’ll go up and put on some warm clothes. The sooner I get going the sooner I’ll be back and in bed.”

I made to stand up but George put a hand over mine. “Sit down,” he said in a tone I rarely heard from him. I pulled away slightly but mainly for form’s sake. I really didn’t feel it was a good idea to defy him and with bad grace I sunk back onto the chair. “If I understand the situation correctly,” he said, “you’ve purchased an entirely unsuitable gift for Mr Shillito in a fit of pique. You’re now having second thoughts, possibly because you fear being found out, and have resolved to recover your present before it’s found in the morning. Am I right?”

I wish I didn’t blush so readily. I hung my head, nodded and uttered some indeterminate sound indicating assent. Mercifully, George didn’t press me any further. “Right,” he said. “If you’re set on going back to the office, I’m coming with you. I’m not having you driving around on your own at this time of night, to say nothing of the risk of you being mistaken for a burglar at your place of work.”

I looked at him in astonishment. The last thing I’d expected was such unqualified support. No further argument, no reproof, no grousing — just wholehearted assistance and understanding. I should have known he wouldn’t let me down. In fact, I should have told him earlier what I’d been worrying about and then we wouldn’t have been trying to resolve the problem in the middle of the night. I twisted my hand under his and gripped his fingers. “Thank you,” I whispered.

“What are you going to give Alan Shillito instead?” he asked.

“Oh… I hadn’t thought… I wasn’t going to…”

“I rather think you should find a replacement gift,” he suggested. “Presumably you agreed to take part in the office Secret Santa. If you let the side down by not providing a gift for Mr Shillito it might become known. Giving nothing might cause almost as much offence as giving something inappropriate, don’t you think?”

“I suppose so,” I admitted reluctantly. “It is meant to be a Secret Santa though. The identity of the giver is not revealed unless he wishes to make himself known.”

“So why are you worried about the gift you’ve chosen then?” enquired George with uncanny perception.

“Well, the whole thing’s been organised by Miss Tracey Blabbermouth. I wouldn’t trust her as far as I could throw her. If the boss asks for the name of his Secret Santa she’d be delighted to drop me in it.”

“Why did you agree to take part if you’ve got no time for the organiser?”

“Oh, I suppose Tracey can be a good laugh,” I conceded. “And I didn’t want to be labelled the office Scrooge.”

“In which case let’s think of an appropriate present for your boss and you can wrap it up before we leave.”

“I’ll get that box of Turkish Delight I bought for my mother. That’ll do.”

“No, it won’t do. I’ve got a far better idea. Wait there.”

I washed up our mugs while George went upstairs. I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders now he’d taken charge and appeared fully committed to solving my immediate problem. There was just one nagging doubt at the back of my mind. It had something to do with the fact that he hadn’t challenged my evasions or commented on my mistakes. Not that he’s ever one to nag or criticise. But he does have a habit of calling my attention to faults and failings with just the gentlest of suggestions for avoiding such errors in the future. I know his methodology is very client based but I’m not his patient and I don’t always take kindly to direction, however lovingly offered. I spared a moment to hope that I hadn’t finally exhausted his patience and then turned as I heard his steps on the stairs.

“I think I’ve got the perfect gift for your boss, Thomas. What do you think?”

He handed me a book of piano music and I glanced at the title: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. I recognised the words as the well known mnemonic for the lines of the treble clef. “It was the title that first drew my attention,” George said, “and it seems just perfect for a man who feels undervalued at work. We know he likes music and plays the piano.”

I flipped the book open. “There are some great pieces in here,” I said enthusiastically. “I’d love to have a go at playing them.”

“That’s just what I thought.”

I drew the obvious conclusion and responded predictably. “I can’t believe you’re suggesting I give away a present you’d intended for me!”

“Can’t you?” my lover responded with equally predictable equanimity. “It seems eminently appropriate to me. Do you have any better suggestions?”

Well, obviously there was no alternative to be had at that time of night. The cost of the book was a little over the price limit for our Secret Santa but not excessively so. The pieces were playable and tuneful and the title… well… the title could only gladden the heart of a boss who wanted to be assured of the undying loyalty of his workforce. I made no further comment but went in search of scissors, sellotape, paper and ribbon. By the time I’d worked my magic with the gift wrapping George was dressed and ready to go. I left him to get the car out of the garage while I went upstairs and pulled on my warmest clothes.

When we got to my place of work, George parked down a side street and we approached the entrance on foot, already feeling like partners in crime. There was no sign of the night watchman in the lobby as I opened the door with my pass key. We entered warily and I felt a distinct sense of unease. If challenged I would be hard pressed to explain my presence in the building in the early hours of the morning and accounting for my partner’s presence would be even more of a problem.

By mutual agreement we ignored the lift which might give away our location and began climbing the stairs. Mr Shillito’s office was on the top floor but mercifully the building is only five storeys tall. Nonetheless, we were a little breathless when we emerged from the stairwell and stopped for a moment to recover. It was just as well because at that moment the unmistakable sound of footsteps coming along the corridor made us both draw back onto the stairs and glance at one another in fear that the night watchman might come upon us.

After a nervous few minutes, the sound of receding footsteps had us both sighing with relief and we ventured yet again onto the corridor, tiptoeing in our urge to remain silent. It felt like we were on a search and destroy mission and I started to pretend I was a member of the SAS. In the event, it was lucky that George was the one to come equipped for an SAS mission. Mr Shillito’s office was in darkness and I was blundering into furniture when my partner turned on a small but powerful torch. I walked over to the boss’s desk and there in the in tray, cunningly concealed under the buff coloured file which I’d used as camouflage, was the distinctively shaped parcel which I’d smuggled into his office after he’d left for home that evening. I retrieved it rapidly and placed on the desk the gift chosen by George, the gift that was intended for me, the gift which would have brought me a lot of pleasure on Christmas morning and for weeks afterwards. I stifled my resentment, straightened the red ribbon bow which had become crushed on the journey, and lined up my gift right beside Mr Shillito’s keyboard where he couldn’t help but see it the moment he walked into the office.

Then we got out of the building as quickly and as quietly as we could, grateful to have no further close encounters with the night watchman. “An interesting shaped present,” George remarked casually as we drove home with me clutching the offensive gift I’d purchased for my boss. I wasn’t deceived by the tone. George wasn’t going to let me get away without disclosing the contents of the package. But that was no reason to give him any encouragement.

“Yes,” I replied equally casually. “I try to ensure that my packaging doesn’t give too much away about the nature of a gift.” In all honesty I’d been quite defeated by the challenge of disguising the purpose of this particular gift but it was, nonetheless, a slightly unusual shape, longer and thinner than the standard model and intended more for show than for practical use.

“As I’ve had to sacrifice one of the presents I’d so carefully chosen for you I think we’d better put this one under the tree when we get home and it can be yours to open on Christmas morning.”

I was beginning to suspect that George had guessed what I’d bought for Mr Shillito and that he was deliberately provoking me. I tried to convey an air of calm unconcern. “That’s a nice thought, George, but I was thinking of dropping it off at the charity shop tomorrow. They’re appealing for wrapped Christmas gifts to give to the homeless.”

“Really? And you think your gift will ease the plight of a homeless person? I suppose he or she could use it to light a fire and generate a bit of warmth.”

Had George guessed that the article was made of wood? Or was there a deeper meaning to be read into his comment? I shifted in my seat at the thought of the fire that could be lit with such an implement and the warmth that would thus be generated. There was something arousing but also profoundly embarrassing at the thought. I didn’t reply immediately and George appeared to be concentrating on his driving and allowing the matter to drop. I was immensely grateful. The more I thought about it the less keen I was to unwrap this parcel and show my partner what I’d thought fit to purchase for my boss. I leant forward surreptitiously and placed it in the foot well of the car where it could be out of sight and out of mind.

Before long I was beginning to doze, the lateness of the hour and the stress over Secret Santa taking their toll. I was hardly aware of the car coming to a halt and I was still blinking and stretching when George opened the passenger door. He helped me to my feet before bending to retrieve the gift I’d nearly forgotten but in which he seemed to be showing an altogether unwelcome interest. Once he had the brightly wrapped package in his hand it was the work of moments to locate the handle, heft the item in his hand and tap it experimentally against his thigh. If he hadn’t identified it earlier, he’d certainly worked out what it was by this point.

“Be careful,” I warned. “It’s ornamental; you might break it.” Strictly speaking that was correct. It was a novelty item, designed to be hung on the wall. I hoped my objection would confuse George and lead him to reject his initial assumption. All it did was get him to tear the wrapping paper so he could see with his own eyes the object I’d spotted in a gift shop where I’d laughed at the inscription. Then it seemed like a perfect means of making a pointed criticism of my boss’s attitude to tardy employees and I purchased it without thought for the consequences.

I cringed as George pulled the long thin paddle from its gift wrapping and read the hackneyed words which didn’t seem so funny as I stood on our drive in the cold night air.

“Attitude adjuster, eh?” remarked George. “It’s certainly nicely painted and might look good hanging in grandma’s kitchen but I wouldn’t say this was an ornamental object. It seems eminently sturdy and serviceable to me.” Matching his action to his words, George slapped the paddle much more firmly against his leg. It emitted a distinctly sinister thud and gave not the slightest indication that it might break under the strain. I thought it was time to draw the experimentation to a halt.

“Come on. It’s freezing cold out here. We need to get to bed and get some sleep. We’ve both got work in the morning.”

George followed me, without further comment, up to the front door and into the kitchen where I put on the kettle. Despite my earlier tiredness I was now wide awake. George, too, appeared energised and excited. I put it down to the after effects of a successful mission. This must have been how members of the SAS felt after the successful storming of the Libyan Embassy.

I made hot chocolate to celebrate our victory and we took the steaming mugs upstairs with us. George took the paddle upstairs as well. “I reckon we could get some use out of this,” he remarked conversationally as we undressed in the bedroom.

“What?” I squeaked.

“Well, you paid good money for it and you sacrificed one of your Christmas presents in order to keep it.”

“Not willingly,” I objected. “I’m still regretting the loss of that book of piano music. I hope you’ll get me something else instead.”

“I’ve got lots of things for you. You won’t be going short on Christmas morning, I promise you. And now you’ve got this,” he twisted the paddle thoughtfully in his hands. “I’ve a mind to try it out.”

“Oh, no,” I said in some alarm, my stomach contracting with apprehension and my heart starting to race with a sensation my mind was unwilling to acknowledge.

“I’d say that if anyone is in need of an attitude adjustment it’s you,” George observed without any sign of rancour.

“What do you mean?” I replied with a pretence of incomprehension and no serious desire to hear my lover’s reasoning.

“Well, you’re late for work five days in a row despite all I’ve tried to do to help you get organised in the mornings. You take against your boss when he’s forced to issue a well deserved reprimand. You purchase an unsuitable present with the intention of embarrassing and humiliating him during the Christmas festivities. You keep all of this from me and then try to make a secret trip to the office in the middle of the night to rectify your mistake before it’s too late. I’d say you could benefit from a little attitude adjustment. Besides, I fancy getting you over my lap and warming your backside!”

I’d been trying to marshal my wits sufficiently to present a case for the defence but my lover’s final admission left me spluttering and lost for words. I’d been hanging my head in shame as he made a recitation of my faults but I risked a glance upwards when he stopped speaking and I saw he was smiling at me, although there was a predatory glitter in his eye. “I won’t touch you without your consent, Tom,” he said with surprising gentleness, “but I think maybe you’ve got a fascination with the whole notion of punishment. You’re curious about it, right?”

Does my partner have a window into my soul? “Curious maybe,” I conceded, “but that doesn’t mean I want to be hurt.”

“Don’t you? A little hurt can provide catharsis, to say nothing of its deterrent effect. And there’s good medical evidence to show that excitation of the nerve endings in the gluteus maximus has a tendency to transfer to the genitalia.”

“I might have known you’d finish up quoting medical research at me. The next thing you’ll be saying is that a spanking will be good for me!”

“Don’t you want to give it a try? It will hurt but I promise I’ll warm you up in more ways than one. This could be fun for us both and maybe, just maybe, I won’t have to resort to such elaborate stratagems in future to get you out of bed for work.”

It was the early hours of the morning. We’d just got back from a clandestine trip to the office. A sense of unreality hung over the whole situation. It wasn’t the time for lengthy negotiation or even for too much introspection. George seemed to believe I was willing to go along with his proposal as he’d taken a seat on the bed and shifted back to make room for me over his lap. I trusted him and the clear invitation he was offering wasn’t precisely unwelcome. I realised that my heart was pounding with excitement as well as fear. I trusted George implicitly and even the shame of having to submit to his discipline was perversely arousing. Without doubt he knew the effect he was having on me as he deliberately placed the paddle beside him on the bed and held out a hand. “Come on, my lad, let’s be having you,” he said in a tone which gave me the shivers yet took away my uncertainty.

I stepped forward obediently, took George’s hand and allowed him to pull me gently down across his lap. My upper body extended along the bed, my bottom was firmly planted on George’s lap and my feet just touched the floor beside his. I felt his arm extend across my back to pull my body closer to his own and then his fingers dipped inside the waistband of the underpants I was still wearing along with my socks and shirt. I made a faint sound of protest but George seemed undeterred. His only response was to ask me to lift up so he could pull my underwear down to my thighs. I must have been fully complicit in the whole procedure by that point because I obediently exerted pressure on my toes to lift my body sufficiently to release the trapped fabric which had snagged on my anatomical protuberances. After my bottom was bared I felt the shirt being pushed up my back and the chill of the unheated bedroom sank into my trembling flesh.

I felt a slight dip in the bed as George reached to retrieve the paddle and the next thing I knew he’d snapped it down on my buttocks with a crisp and businesslike smack.

“Ow,” I protested, “not so hard!”

“Don’t be a wimp,” George teased. “I’m taking it easy but really you deserve everything you’ve got coming. In fact, you’ve been asking for this for a long time.”

I opened my mouth to contradict him but found I needed all my breath to cope with the hail of blows which then descended on my vulnerable backside. I wriggled and kicked, so much so that George stopped at one point and instructed me to keep still, but I never seriously tried to evade the punishment. In fact, I found myself adjusting to the pain, absorbing the impact and marvelling at my ability to endure. There was a tremendous sense of connection to my lover who was clearly enjoying himself and also a feeling of release as I suffered for my faults.

This was the stuff of my fantasies, of guilt inducing day dreams which I’d never shared with another. There was always the fear of encountering shock or rejection as well as the suspicion that a spanking might prove far less erotic in reality than in fantasy. But it seemed that my partner had, by some process, divined my most secret desires. Not only that, he appeared to share my fascination with discipline, albeit from a very different perspective. By the time he stayed his hand and put down the paddle I’d entered a state of euphoria which, nonetheless, did nothing to diminish the intensity of the sting. George ran his hand lightly over my burning buttocks and I flinched at his touch. He seemed quite unabashed.

“I wish you could see yourself from this angle, Tom. You have the most beautiful bottom and the glowing red cheeks just add to your appeal. Hurry up and get the rest of your clothes off. I can’t wait to get you into bed.”

I groaned for form’s sake and stiffly levered myself off George’s lap but the truth was I couldn’t wait to get into bed either. I wanted to be overwhelmed, possessed and mastered. I believe the technical term is fucked senseless. Afterwards I fell at once into such a deep sleep that even the insistent ringing of the alarm clock a shockingly short time later barely registered in my befuddled brain. The next thing I knew George was shaking my shoulder. “Come on, sleepyhead. It’s time to get up.”

I started to shake him off and turn over but the slight rasp of cotton sheet against my naked bottom acted as a powerful reminder and I hastily transformed the action into a graceful roll out of bed. I tried to behave as though I always got up so promptly but I couldn’t quite carry it off. I cast a self conscious glance at George as I dressed with uncharacteristic haste and efficiency and he rewarded me with a delighted grin and a ready comment. “I think we’ve finally hit upon the magic formula, don’t you?”

I pretended I hadn’t understood but George wasn’t deceived. He picked up the paddle from where he’d left it on his bedside table. “This paddle has a loop on the handle for hanging it up. How about we put a hook over the bed and have it on the wall here in the bedroom. I’m sure it will continue to have a remedial effect and we’ll be able to enjoy many more stress free mornings.”

My mumbled response was not meant to be audible as it cast aspersions on George’s birth and parentage. Mercifully he didn’t ask me to repeat it. He put down the paddle and began transferring his small change and keys from the bedside table to his trouser pocket. “I’m making a cooked breakfast,” he informed me. “You’ve got ten minutes to get downstairs and be seated at the table.”

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten a cooked breakfast. To be honest I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten breakfast sitting at the table but I was downstairs in less than five minutes, ready to offer my services in laying the table. It was pleasant to have time to chat over the meal, to share our plans for the day and not to be watching the clock in desperation.

I arrived at work relaxed and unstressed and was surprised to find a small and beautifully wrapped gift on my desk. In all the panic of the midnight expedition to swap my boss’s present, I’d quite forgotten that I too would be the recipient of a gift from Secret Santa. I sat down and carefully undid the ribbon and wrapping. Inside there was a tiny but stylish alarm clock which instantly appealed to my taste. I know that the price of such things has fallen dramatically but I found it difficult to believe anyone could have found such a classy present for under eight pounds.

I was musing on that question when it occurred to me that none of my answers to the Secret Santa questionnaire could have been interpreted, even by the wildest stretch of the imagination, as a request for an alarm clock. On the other hand, my woeful record in the timekeeping department must have been well known in the office. And I hadn’t exactly kept my resentment to myself when I was reprimanded for persistent lateness. Anyone could have thought to buy me an alarm clock and I wasn’t about to take offence.

As more and more people arrived for work there were squeals of excitement, pleasure and amusement as presents were opened. Employees wearing feather boas, fake antlers and musical earrings began to circulate round the office trying to discover the identity of their Secret Santa. I was able to deny responsibility for all the tasteless and tacky gifts but when Alan Shillito came out of his office to join in the fun I was moved by the spirit of the season to make a gesture of reconciliation.

“I’ve been given this beautiful little alarm clock,” I announced to no one in particular. Heads turned and Tracey held out her hand to look at it more closely. “I don’t know who it’s from but it couldn’t be a better present for someone with as bad a record for lateness as me.” I noticed one or two people glancing rather nervously at the boss and clearly wondering whether I was aware of his presence. I turned deliberately to face Mr Shillito and continued, “Thank you to whoever was my Secret Santa. I’ve now got a real incentive to start my New Year’s resolution a few week’s early and I’ll be reporting for work on time from now on.”

Mr Shillito had no way of knowing what had really caused me to change my attitude but I saw the pleasure with which he received, not the promise to improve my timekeeping, but the acknowledgement of my fault. I’d been giving him the cold shoulder ever since he’d reprimanded me and the man had only been doing his job. Normally we had a good working relationship and it took only a rather wry smile from me and an answering grin from him for an apology to be offered and accepted.

“Someone’s given me a book of piano music,” Mr Shillito said. There were one or murmurs of approval but it was clear that most people considered that a disappointing gift. “I’ll get a lot of pleasure playing the pieces,” he continued.

“Fancy you playing the piano,” I said with what I hoped was a fair approximation of surprise. “So do I.”

“Let me show you the pieces then,” said Mr Shillito inviting me back into his office.

As he handed me the book I glanced at the title. “Nice to know that your Secret Santa thinks you’re a good boy,” I remarked.

Mr Shillito laughed but couldn’t disguise his delight which showed itself in a faint blush. Nonetheless, his reply was instantaneous. “Nice to know your Secret Santa thinks your timekeeping will improve.”

Considering how little information had been exchanged, I think we understood one another very well. “Happy Christmas, Alan,” I said and began humming the first tune in the book. My boss looked over my shoulder and joined in, singing loudly.