For the previous 2 instalments of Ryo’s adventures, please click on the links:
Written by Tom Legge, Illustrated by Marissa Trierweiler, Edited by Liz Millership
It was Christmas time at Upper High Barnet Secondary School and everyone, except me, was getting into the festive spirit. After 4 months of teaching in London, I was suffering. I felt homesick, confused and it was only the rare social gatherings with my fellow BETs that were keeping me from boarding the next flight back to Japan. As I sat in my apartment, slurping down my morning bowl of ramen, the thought that it was the last day of term provided little solace. I couldn’t afford a flight back to Japan and yet, the UK was so intimidating. What on earth was I going to do for the next 3 weeks when school would be closed?
You see, Christmas is confusing. In Japan I have never celebrated it. Why was everyone suddenly so happy? How on earth could anyone justify taking so much time off work? It was therefore with some trepidation that I climbed aboard the bus to work that morning. I looked out of the window to see reminders of this dreadful season everywhere. There were inflatable Santa, holly, mistletoe and tinsel everywhere. Next to the post office, I spotted a fat man dressed as Father Christmas passed out in an alleyway surrounded by empty beer cans and bodily fluids, completely naked from the waist down.
No sooner had I arrived in the office and set down my briefcase, that a rather enthusiastic chemistry teacher grabbed me roughly, jamming an oversized Santa hat over my neatly combed hair and thrusting a mince pie toward my mouth. “Happy Christmas Nyo”, she said before waddling off in search of her next victim. “It’s Ryo”, I countered meekly but she had already gone.
The morning meeting was even more boisterous than usual. Not a soul listened as the principal went through the daily announcements. When opened to the floor, there was only one contribution that morning. The usually quiet math teacher stood up on his chair and yelled “IT’S FUCKING CHRISTMAS!!!”, to which the entire office whooped and cheered and Christmas songs immediately gushed from the speakers. What the onlooking students must have thought, I could only guess.
As I made my way across the office to head to class, I was accosted by my supervisor, Wayne, who gave me perhaps the worst news of this already terrible week. “Ryo, Christmas Party. Tonight. 6pm. Attendance is mandatory.” I was stunned. Where was it? What was it? Why was I being told about this only today? What was I going to do? Only a hastily scribbled note on another teacher’s desk gave some clue as to the precise details of this torrid affair.
Classes came thick and fast and the students were worse than ever. My explanation of the past perfect indicative had not gone well. Students were there in body only. Their minds were elsewhere. Even the ETJs looked bored. After a while, they too joined in with the mutterings of “Scrooge”, “Grinch” and “funsponge”. It seems everyone but me was ready to party.
At 4pm I grabbed my briefcase ready to dash home and change before the party but I was stopped by Wayne who, by the smell of it, had started his Christmas Party some time before lunch. “Ryo”, Wayne slurred, “The Japanese department is having a Christmas Party Pre-Party in the pub next door. Attendance is mandatory.” I panicked, my preparations once again thwarted by Wayne’s overzealous enthusiasm for alcohol. However, I regained my composure quickly. There was nothing I could do. The rule was mandatory attendance and the rules were there for a reason. I would, of course, follow them blindly.
‘The Coach and Horses’ was a fairly traditional British pub. That Friday afternoon it was packed to the rafters. Christmas songs were playing and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Except me. Wayne strong-armed his way to the bar and ordered a round of drinks before informing me of the British Christmas tradition that all drinks be accompanied with a shot of tequila.
Several ‘traditions’ later and I was beginning to relax. A glance across the bar revealed the same half-naked Santa that I had seen that morning, again passed out, his clothes this time entirely absent, save for his Santa hat. When a thoughtful patron sidled over to remove his Santa hat and place it upon his lap to protect the poor man’s modesty, even I cracked a smile.
Wayne informed us that it was time to go, (though not before ordering a final round of tequilas) and we pushed and jostled our way out of the busy pub and into the coldness outside.
The journey to the Christmas Party was a shambles. Wayne had used up the last of his battery obsessively swiping on Tinder and not a single member of the (now blind-drunk) group had any idea where the party was to be held. As we stumbled and swayed along the streets of London, somewhere in my alcohol-addled head, I knew that it was time to shine.
I searched the depths of my memory before it hit me. The note on the desk! I tried with all my might to remember what it had said, before it finally twigged. “I remember! It’s at Brannigans”, I said boldly and with a previously undiscovered hint of swagger. More shouts and cheers ensued and I almost doubled over, such was the weight of the backslaps I received. “Not so useless after all” said Wayne, with a laugh and a wink.
We arrived at the party 30 minutes late to find many of the other teachers in a similar state. The private room upstairs had seen better days. Paint was peeling, there was a definite musty smell and my feet stuck to the floor as I walked. Cold starters sat untouched on the round tables whilst sad-looking helium balloons bobbed up and down from their tethers. The latecomers sat down and immediately set about the bottles of wine on the table. “If there’s one thing these British people like more than alcohol”, I thought, “It’s free alcohol”.
I understood little of the speeches, which were long and largely incoherent. It was some consolation that it seemed that few of the other teachers understood these ramblings either, so at least I was not alone. When it was my turn to give an address, a brief moment of lucidity hit me. They weren’t listening. They didn’t care. I hadn’t prepared. “Screw it”, I thought “I’m doing this in Japanese.”
I reeled off no more than 60 seconds worth of Japanese in what was far from my most eloquent keigo and returned to my seat, albeit to rapturous applause. They’d been far too drunk to notice. Wayne actually congratulated me on how much my English had improved.
After an inedible meal, the tables and chairs were cleared away and the lights were dimmed further. Some rather feeble coloured spotlights provided the only illumination, reflected around this squalid chamber by a silver disco ball that had definitely seen better days. The music got louder and louder as the ‘DJ’, one of the geography teachers who was clearly going through a mid-life crisis, got more and more enthusiastic.
Teachers began to take to the dancefloor in their droves. The sight could only be described as horrendous. Pints of beer sloshed as men and women old enough to be my mother and father swayed and cavorted with one another. Ties were tied round heads and shirts flailed untucked. Someone was missing a shoe. Shouting and singing at the tops of their voices, not one person displayed even the slightest interest in the rhythm of the music. Somewhere near the front, an obese math teacher, nearing retirement, was twerking aggressively to all that would come within 3 feet of him. There are just some things you cannot unsee.
I tried my best to get into the spirit of things, spurred along no doubt by the alcohol coursing through my body. Several beers later, I saw her. Across the dancefloor I spotted Miss Cranston, a biology teacher a few years my senior. I smiled. She smiled back. Affectionately known as “Stumpy”, Miss Cranston was a short, mousy haired woman with a belly laugh that could shake a building. She winked at me from across the room.
Unfamiliar with the custom, I returned the wink, unprepared for what would happen next. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be to imagine yourself as the small trampoline in the vaulting event of a gymnastics competition. Imagine facing the runway and having someone running towards you extremely fast who then proceeds to launch themselves into the air and land on top of you. Such was the force of this assault that I was almost knocked to the floor.
Miss Cranston threw her arms around me and pulled my head towards hers. There was no stopping her. Overcome with lust, she kissed me passionately. Her tongue thrashed violently through my mouth like a desperate fish trapped in a bucket.
I was horrified. My thoughts turned to my mother. What would she think of me now? How would she react to this grotesque public display of depravity? Filled with shame, I mentally penned my resignation letter. Life in London was over, I thought.
My knees shuddered as the onslaught continued and my eyes turned to my watching colleagues. I was surprised to see, not stern faces, but in fact smiles. All were laughing and gesturing towards us with enthusiasm.
Miss Cranston eventually pulled away and pressed her finger over my mouth. “Happy Christmas, Ryo”, she said. I just stood there stunned. “Happy Christmas”, I replied almost voicelessly.
And then she smiled. With that smile, all inhibitions were forgotten. All transgressions nullified. It was the sort of smile you see in a Hollywood film. It was a smile that could melt a million hearts and I couldn’t help but smile back. All I wanted to do was hold her forever. “You’re my Christmas present”, she said. Still smiling, I had literally no idea what she meant.
Moments later, the lights came on and it was time to leave. A look at my watch told me that it was 4am. Miss Cranston parted with a kiss and a swiftly arranged date for the following day. “Is this the start of something amazing?” I thought to myself. “Is this what Christmas is all about?” Only time would tell.
My colleagues steered me towards the exit offering hugs, backslaps and all sorts of affection in the process. Everyone wished me an enjoyable holiday and a few even gave their sentiments in Japanese. For perhaps the first time, I looked at my colleagues fondly. “Maybe I am starting to get it”, I thought to myself.
They ushered me into a waiting taxi and waved and grinned as the driver set off. Feeling the worse for wear, I wound down the window for some fresh air and, at the traffic lights, heard a gruff shout of “Merry Christmas Japanese man!” from the side of the road. I looked out of the window to see Santa, still naked, laughing heartily to himself and swigging from a can of beer. I waved and smiled again. It was quite the image. Perhaps Christmas wasn’t so bad after all.