The fluorescent lights carved dark circles under Sallie’s eyes, picking out the hard lines beginning to set around her eyes and mouth and stripping away any lingering illusion of glamour. Twelve Christmas parties on her watch, each bleaker than the last.
Twelve Christmas parties, no gold rings. Never a turtle-dove.
She shoved armloads of coloured streamers into a bin bag, hoping that whatever the neanderthals from Finance had spattered over the carpet wouldn’t cost her the deposit. No-one else had chipped in this year, not even Huw, and she was damned if she was going to pay for everything herself again.
Her 80s theme idea had fallen rather flat, though it had paid off for her; Huw had looked extremely fetching as Adam Ant, the dandy highwayman. He had even noticed her Kate Bush outfit - red dress, wild hair, smoky eyes. He said her dress looked nice, and she had thought, just for a moment, maybe -
But then he was dancing to Harry Belafonte with Katie from HR and that was that.
Katie had come as Madonna. Sallie watched as she rubbed her perfect little backside against Huw’s crotch to the beat, giggling, while Huw blushed and stammered and let her. Fat Bob from IT leered at them from behind his stained Father Christmas beard, belching and feeling up anyone who drifted within his reach.
But not Sallie. No-one ever tried to feel up Sallie. Poor bland Sallie in her beige skirts and sensible cardigans. Thirty three going on sixty, the HR girls whispered behind their hands.
And now it was the end of the night. Christmas eve and here Sallie was, gathering up fag ends and sticky plastic cups to salvage a few quid from the annihilated deposit.
It was gone 2am when she let herself out of the dreary little building and began the walk home to her empty flat, promising herself a nice glass of scotch and an episode of Friends before bed.
When she heard the footsteps behind her, her first instinct was to clutch her keys in her fist, ready to go for the eyes, like she had been taught. Palm flat, push up into the nose. Hurt or be hurt. Assertive. Powerful. Strong.
But as she heard her would-be attacker draw nearer all her plans went out the window. She panicked, feeling the hot flesh of his hand on her shoulder, hearing the intake of breath as he opened his mouth to speak -
“Stand and deliver! Your money or -“
Crash. She smashed him round the head with her handbag. Down he went and before he could move she pinned him to the ground with her substantial backside and launched a full pepper spray attack in his face. Katie’s scrap of an arse wouldn’t hold up under this kind of pressure Sallie thought smugly.
Only when he stopped flailing did she calm down enough to look properly at her attacker. He seemed to be wearing some kind of cape and had a weird stripe painted across his face, like an old-fashioned bandit or a -
Or a dandy highwayman.
Sallie’s heart dropped to her scuffed and bleeding knees in horror. Huw, eyes streaming, breath coming in short rasping gasps, was clutching a bunch of wilting flowers and a small gift-wrapped parcel.
“Your money or your life” he coughed, weakly.