Disclaimer: none of the characters are mine, but belong to their respective owners-1-
"You're working, Lester?"
James Lester rapidly suppressed the urge to swear, jump up on his chair and close the magazine. That would've given him away for sure. After all, he was working, in theory.
"Of course, sir," he all but snapped. "I am."
From the photo (the reason why he did buy this magazine – it wasn't exactly James's usual reading material) Lester could see a rather tanned and cheering Christine Johnson. Clearly, she was enjoying her life – unlike Lester, who had to write a report about the five-foot-long monitor that one of the minister's nephews thought would be fun to unleash in their building.
Unfortunately, the minister was very insistent, and while he was usually fond of his relatives, the huge lizard incident had rather soured the mood, so a report had to be written, no matter what.
"Well, I see," the minister carefully approached and looked straight at Lester. "You're sure you're working, James?"
"Of course, sir," James Lester tried to discreetly look away. Both Claudia and Lorraine swore that he was a terrible liar and that was one of the few things Lester never really liked to argue about.
The minister looked down. Fortunately, instead of the magazine, he saw the report, which was being written – when one looks at their interlocutor's eyes or face they cannot notice what the latter's hands are doing, can they?
"I want to see the report by the next morning at the latest," the minister exhaled. "Keep on doing it, Lester."
"Yes sir," Lester nodded, and as soon as the minister was gone, he was back to reading the article about Johnson's latest shenanigans.
The woman's photo, admittedly, was nowhere as annoying as the real thing, but Lester felt that the minister took care of that difference quite nicely. -2-
James Lester did enjoy his work.
Oh, he wasn't too crazy about it, but still...
He had to admit that it was rather sedentary, and while hitting the gym every once in a while was a tolerable solution to the physical stagnation, he wouldn't mind just a touch of more excitement in his life.
Plus, of course, he wouldn't mind being more famous – or at least renowned or even acknowledged – among his co-workers. A small article in some newspaper, an interview of Her Majesty's civil servant James Lester, who did something or other, say, discovered the aliens hidden amongst us (the kind that came from Cuba, rather than Jupiter) would've done wonders for him, no doubt. The kind of paper work that he was doing didn't deserve a mention in the newspapers. Seriously, it was sad, but the whole monitor lizard incident was probably the most excitement this building in general and James Lester in particular had had in the last couple of years.
Lorraine, on the other hand, seemed to be perfectly happy to be working here, among the pillars and columns of paperwork, and was always practically perky. Maybe this really was a good life? If so, James Lester didn't care – there was something wrong with him, and so be it... -3-
The Christmas tree that was standing in the hall was very noticeable. Ribbons of all colours of rainbow were wrapped around its boughs, there were silver sparkles as well, and an angel that was gazing around himself with clear surprise was topping the tree top. Yup, good sir, you're in Her Majesty's government now. Feel free to be honoured.
The images on the glassy – and glossy – decorations were very impressive and various. A snowman was making himself a comrade, a reindeer was peeking shyly around a corner, some snowshoe hares or rabbits were playing tag, while children were having a snow-fight...
"Rather gaudy, don't you think?" the minister spoke up suddenly.
James Lester twitched. The minister just liked to startle people when he could, it seemed. "Doesn't he trust us?" Claudia would always say. "It's just the way he is," Lorraine would justify it.
And Lester? Lester just didn't care.
"Well, maybe it's a bit colourful, but it is celebratory," he replied instead. Admittedly, this didn't seem to be the usual Christmas decorations of the ministry. Maybe Johnson had something to do with it. "You can really feel the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of the holiday, so to speak."
"Yes, well, I still haven't received my report," the minister said flatly. He took another look at the tree but said nothing for a change.
"Right. I was about to deliver it."
Honestly, it was the holidays – didn't the minister have a life outside his work? -4-
Whenever Lester would see Johnson, he would find her more intolerable than the usual.
Really, so she finally had gotten engaged to someone or other. It's not like she was getting old or wanted children of her own, did she? Then why the sudden shift in the personality?
"So, how's the tree?" – And speak of the Devil, here she was in person, smug, and still tanned from her job in Jamaica, and just as arrogant as before.
"Just fine," James replied curtly, wondering if he could smuggle himself some beer.
"Good. And what does everyone else thing?" Mainly the minister, Lester supposed.
"Well, gee, what do you think?"
"Ah," Johnson didn't say anything. After all, it was the same man who had relocated her to that embassy in the first place.
And yet, there was time when Johnson was not so flippant about the man in question, not at all. Something has changed her, and Lester was willing to bet that it wasn't the stint overseas, but her engagement (who was the man) that given her that new perspective on life.
"Yes, well, as Lorraine – or others in the department would say – he isn't that bad," Lester felt obligated to say.
"Of course he's not."
"That said, will you be coming to the usual celebration?"
Johnson looked at Lester thoughtfully, clearly reluctant to say whatever she was going to say next.
"Look," she finally spoke, still reluctant. "Nick and I... we're having a Christmas party of our own. Just some people that we both know, from the university, from the museum, you can come, if you want. Maybe even with a date. Just think about it, would you?"
"Of course," Lester said, as words have failed him, for a change.
"Just think about it," Johnson carefully repeated.
Lester nodded. He really was going to. -5-
The minister was never a big fan of the holidays. Possibly, he had descended from the Puritans. "He's just a workaholic," Claudia would comment. "Or maybe lonely," Lorraine would disagree.
James Lester, for his part, just didn't care.
Still, he had to admit that something needed to be done about something, or he would never be able to look Christine Johnson in the eye again, and that was something that just he wouldn't do.
Consequently, after Claudia Brown received another stern talking from the minister, he approached her halfway, and offered to take her as a date to Johnson's Christmas party, even though he wasn't a particularly party-going person.
Claudia, it seemed, was, and she tentatively accepted it. -6-
It wasn't Johnson who picked up the phone when Lester called her to specify their party's location, but some stranger, probably her new fiancé.
"Hello?" the man asked, with a noticeable accent. Scottish, perhaps, or Irish.
"This is Lester. Um, Christine has invited me to the party, but we forgot to specify where it will be."
"Uh, it'll be a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Lester," the man chuckled, "from Christine's description you're one of the best people she'd ever worked with. The party'll be at our home, located at-" the address wasn't at Christine's old flat, as Lester half-expected it to be, but a completely different location – probably the man's house. Clearly, Johnson was going somewhere, even in a completely direction from which she had originally intended to go. "It'll be interesting to meet you, sir."
"Yes, well, will it be formal?" Lester carefully enquired. "And, uh, I will be bringing a date."
"It's just a small house party," the man said, rather cheerfully, "so nothing fancy is required. Dress as you usually do, Christine here is saying... and who's your date?"
"Claudia Brown; Christine knows her," Lester said, feeling rather unbalanced as he heard some very feminine giggling in the background. The idea of Johnson giggling was disquieting somehow, but Lester kept enough self-control to say good-bye to her man civilly and then hang-up.
"Well," he turned to Claudia (and Lorraine), who didn't even pretend not to eavesdrop. "It's settled, and dress casually."
Claudia nodded. Her eyes were somehow bigger and warmer than the usual, and that disquieted Lester even more – but not enough not to finish his latest report. -7-
"Ah, Lester, glad to see that you've actually managed to finish it early," the minister said, sounding almost surprised. "What can be behind this extraordinary event, I wonder?"
"Mostly the fact that this evening Ms. Brown and I are leaving for a private party, I suppose."
"Indeed? Thrown by Christine, I suppose? She was the only one who could emit such a reaction from you, and vice versa. Ran into her and her fellow some time ago – a good man. A professor in the university. Divorced and very clearly intent on doing something about it. He might do Christine some good – teach her that not all men are bastards, for one thing."
"Yes sir, very good. Should I pass something from you onto her?"
"No, no, your usual gift to her is fine," the minister said absent-mindedly, clearly dismissing Lester from his presence. "Oh, and one more thing?"
"Yes, sir?" Lester turned back from the doorway.
"Merry Christmas, James. And tell Claudia Brown that I may've been unduly harsh with her earlier today."
"Yes sir, I will. And a merry Christmas to you to," Lester nodded in return and left. This departure was in no way symbolic, and Lester was sure that tonight would change nothing, not really, but something has changed in his, he was sure of that. -8-
...Outside, it was snowing, but inside it was actually quite warm. The fire was burning, the Christmas pudding was actually quite good, and Claudia, though her outfit didn't differ that much from her usual clothing, looked actually somehow different, more lively than the usual.
"This is nice," Lester said nonchalantly, as he gazed around the house, "the conversation tends to ebb and flow, but I like it. Don't know why a professor would want to get involved with Johnson, though. If that woman understands science-"
"James," Claudia said softly, and Lester somehow fell silent, for some reason, "they want to make it work, and if it's not too comfortable or very convenient for either of them, I don't care. I talked to the man's ex-wife, a rather interesting, if a bit eccentric woman, and what she said struck a certain resonance with me..."
"Nothing, just some feminine matters," Claudia said, absent-mindedly playing with her bracelet. "Anyways, uh, New Year's Eve is coming up, and, uh, you want to celebrate it? Privately, just the two of us?"
For several moments Lester sat in silence, and then nodded. "Why not? It'll be a pleasant break from the ministry's official gatherings. Deal."
Claudia smiled, instinctively Lester smiled back, and it was then that he knew for sure, that somehow or other, but his life was never going to be truly boring again.