Christmas Factory – Chapter 1

# The day of borrowed shirts

Nate walked through the morning city rain under a small brightly coloured umbrella that was clearly not the sort he would normally use. His mostly dull black and blue clothes contrasted with the bright rainbow of the umbrella. His shoes and the lower half of his jeans were soaked.

Five minutes earlier he had been at the train-station with all the other ill-prepared commuters as the rain had started. He had looked at his watch and then back to the sky, trying to determine if he could wait out the downpour. But he was already running late. The only thing for it was to buy an overpriced umbrella from the nearby convenience store and continue on.

He arrived at the old factory, mostly wet anyway and with an umbrella he would probably never use again. He stood under a small awning and pushed the intercom button. The small speaker hummed softly and then spluttered static.

A distorted voice crackled through the static. “Maxwell’s Christmas Factory.”

“Jenny, it’s Nate.”

More static: “Jenny’s'not in today.”

He leaned in closer to the speaker grill. “Its Nate, Nathaniel.”

The static blasted again. “Nate’s not in either.”

He actually groaned. “No. I’m Nate. Come on, I’ve worked here for four months, its pouring out here, just let me in.”

Nothing, not even static. He leaned against the door as he reached into his pocket to retrieve his phone. The door buzzed as it unlocked and swung open behind him, he fell through and landed on his butt in a puddle of water on the cold concrete floor.

He cursed loudly, got back to his feet and slammed the door closed. The sound echoed through the empty factory floor and around the forgotten machines, not disturbing the decade of dust that covered everything. He tried to brush himself off and headed up the stairs to the office level.

At the front desk sat the overly perky Scarlet. She smiled sweetly.

“Oh, Nate, it’s you.”

He nodded. “Yeah, me, wet, but still me.” He smiled back, happy to at least be in out of the weather. Even after 4 months he didn’t know what to make of Scarlet, she was always happy and sincere, but totally inefficient and unable to do the simplest of office tasks. He had no idea why she still had a job.

He weaved his way down the hallways and into his office, setting down the completely wet rainbow umbrella and taking off his mostly wet jacket. He pushed the ‘power’ button on the computer and picked up his empty coffee mug and left the computer to startup as he made his way to the small kitchenette at the end of the long narrow hall.

First coffee of the day. Only instant, but still very important, as was the ritual of making it. Fresh hot coffee in his mug, he turned quickly to return to his office and ran into Scarlet as she walked into the kitchenette. Hot coffee went all over his shirt.

“Oh, opps, that was clumsy.” Scarlet smiled and pushed past him.

He could just tell. It was going to be one of those days.

Nate looked down at his coffee soaked business shirt and then at his empty coffee mug. The wet shirt didn’t really bother him, the hot coffee soaking through the cotton and onto his chest and belly had a warming effect compared to the cold rain outside. The empty mug however did bother him.

He put the mug in the sink, unbuttoned his shirt and took it off.

Scarlet made herself a cup of hot water and dropped in one white sugar cube while she watched Nate disrobe. She made a point of looking him up and down.

“Not bad for a nerd.”

Nate smiled as he put the plug in the sink and turned on the taps. “Thanks, I think.” He replied as he soaked his shirt in the warm water.

Scarlet sipped at her sugar water and shrugged and left Nate to do his laundry.

With a fresh cup of instant coffee in his hand, and his wet shirt over his shoulder, Nate finally made it back to his office. He hung the shirt up in the hope that it would dry before the end of the day. Knowing it was unlikely, a problem to worry about later.

Despite the lack of a shirt it was past time to get to some work done. Checking the website and his emails kept him busy for a few hours. A few people came up to his door, as if about to ask him a question. But they would notice he was sitting semi-naked at this desk and they would just turn around and leave again. He actually got a lot more work done than usual.

***

Around lunch time he checked the shirt, it was still damp, and it was still raining heavily outside. Sandwich at his desk for lunch.

Again.

Just as he was about to take his first bite, the intercom buzzed and Scarlet’s voice filled his small office.

“Nate, delivery here for you, guy wants you to sign for it.”

He set his untouched sandwich down and reached over and pushed the buzzer. “I’ll be right out.”

The delivery guy smirked at Nate’s lack of shirt and handed Nate the electronic-clipboard.

“Nice outfit.” He said.

“Er, thanks.” Replied Nate as he glanced at the delivery guy.

He was shorter than average, fitter than average, his wet uniform showing off more than it should, sandy brown hair that didn’t look natural and bright green eyes that didn’t look natural either, the creases around his eyes when he smiled said he was over 30, but not by much, his name badge read ‘Brian’, but he didn’t look like a Brian.

Nate signed the clipboard and took the package and was about to leave, when the delivery guy, Brian, stopped him.

“Oh, and here’s my card.” Brian said, scribbling a phone number on the back and handing it to Nate. “In case there are any, erm, problems.”

Nate frowned at the card and shrugged. “Okay then. Thanks.”

The delivery guy turned and bounded down the stairs two at a time, and headed back out into the rain.

Nate was still looking at the card. “That was a little weird, right?”

Scarlet smiled looking over the edge of her newspaper. “Only if you think getting hit-on by a super cute man in uniform is ‘weird’.”

Nate looked up. “He was hitting on me?”

Scarlet added a thirteen to her sudoku. “I was flirting with him, yet you ended up with his number, its not rocket science you know.”

Nate nodded. “No, much more complicated.” And he turned to leave the room.

Scarlet stopped him. “Wait 20 minutes, ring him, ask him for a coffee, tonight. If he says yes, cancel whatever boring thing you were going to do.”

Nate looked back at her from the doorway. “Really?”

Scarlet shrugged. “Or you could do nothing and go home and play your computer games. Up to you. But next time you feel lonely you’ll know it was ’cause you couldn’t make a phone call.”

Nate walked back to his office, even less sure what to make of Scarlet.

He set the package down on his desk and examined the card. Turning the small cheap business card over in his fingers, examining the hand written phone number.

His mind was fixated with the ten digits. Before he could stop himself images of ‘happily-ever-after’ flooded his imagination. Brian and him buying a small apartment in Bronte, growing old together and spending evenings having dinner parties and entertaining the sort of friends that a glamerous couple ought to have. Feelings of a perfect first date, where every sentence Brian said was wry and clever and insightful, and Nate having the perfect response.

He turned the card over again.

Visions of the worst date of all time flashed through his mind equally unbidden. What if he made a fool of himself, what if Brian was a moron. What if his parents didn’t like him. What if they spit up in ten years time and couldn’t decided who should keep the dog.

He turned the card over again.

He looked at the simple phone number. The one thought that rang true in his head was:

“Your 29. And this is the first time that anyone has ever given you their number. Ever.”

There was a knock on his door and Nate looked up. Scarlet was standing in his doorway.

“So?”

Nate frowned. “So what?”

Scarlet smiled. “So, its been 20 minutes.”

Nate blinked and glanced at his watch.

“Are you going to ring him or not?”

Nate looked at the card.

“What if your wrong, what if he wasn’t hitting on me?”

Scarlet shrugged. “What if I’m not?” She smiled and then reached over and pulled the door closed, leaving Nate in his small office alone, shirtless, and resolved to make the call.

He picked up the phone and punched in 4 digits, got the 5th digit wrong and slammed the phone down nervously.

He tried again, this time making it all the way to the end and waiting for the phone to answer.

“Er, hi, is that Brian?”

Nate listened closely, his eyebrows furrow with the stress.

“It’s Nate here, the, um, shirtless guy.”

He paused and his posture tensed a little.

“Um, no, I haven’t opened it yet. Um, I was wondering-” he stopped, interrupted.

“Yeah, coffee.” He nodded to himself.

“Newtown?” He nodded again.

“Yeah I know the place. What-” interrupted again.

“Okay. See you then.”

He hung up the phone and sighed and slumped into his chair.

That had actually gone a lot better than expected. He glanced at his still damp shirt. It was also his best shirt and he had nothing clean at home to wear. More problems. Was it overkill to buy a new shirt for a date? Was coffee a date?

Nate sat back in his chair and noticed his still untouched sandwich. Finally, time for lunch.

***

After lunch Nate found it difficult to concentrate. Nervousness about the evenings date kept him form focusing on his work. He needed something to take his mind off it.

Coffee.

He reached for the half full mug on his desk, lifted it to his lips and sipped. Cold coffee filled his mouth and he spat it back into the mug, realising he had made the coffee hours ago. Time for a refill.

The rain continued to pour down on the factories tin roof, filling the building with loud soothing sounds. Much better than the continuous christmas music that was piped though the factories PA system.

He returned to his office, fresh coffee in hand and was surprised to find his boss waiting for him. More worrying was that his boss was idling turning the package on Nate’s desk over and examining it.

“Can I help you Jock?”

The old man jumped slightly, having been caught doing something he shouldn’t. He turned and frowned noticing Nate’s shirtlessness.

“Um, yeah, Scarlet said you got a package.”

Nate nodded. “Yes. For me. Just something I bought online.”

Nate reached over and picked up the package and put it in his shoulder bag under the desk as he finally figured out what Jock was looking for.

“Is the new prototype supposed to get here today?”

Jock nodded.

“Well, I’m sure it will turn up. I’m keen to see this thing myself.”

Jock nodded again. “Okay, well you will let me know if you get it.”

Nate shrugs. “Won’t it be addressed to you?”

Jock shrugged back. “The elves don’t always get this stuff right.” And he turned and left the room.

The rain started to ease outside and the sounds of ‘Jingle Bells’ Caribbean style could be heard through the loudspeakers. Nate reached over and turned on his radio to listen to something else, anything else.

He sipped at his coffee.

Scarlet knocked on his door and he frowned.

“Yes Miss Scarlet?”

She smiled and tossed a bright yellow t-shirt at Nate.

“Found this in the store room.”

Nate lifted the shirt up and looked at it. On the shirt in garish green and red letters, it read: “Maxwell’s where it’s Christmas everyday!”

“Um, thanks.”

Scarlet just shrugged. “Incase your shirt isn’t dry in time.”

Nate raised an eyebrow. “Well, I guess I could turn it inside out or something. Thank Scarlet.”

Scarlet smiled brightly. “No problems sugar.” And she turned and bounced off down the hallway.

Nate eyed his trash bin, but decided that wouldn’t look good if Jock came back in, he shrugged and pulled the t-shirt on, finding it was a size too small and hugged tight to his body. He wasn’t sure if this was better or worse than going shirtless.

He was about to pull the shirt back over his head when he heard shouting from the other end of the hallway.

“Its hear, its hear!” bellowed Jock’s voice.

An appearance at these sort of events was mandatory. He had learnt that on his first week on the job.

Everyone gathered in the meeting room, a little over 20 people, squeezed into a room meant to hold 12. Nate looked around, some were like him and only turned up at these unveilings out of obligation. Others, like Jock himself, were actually genuinely eager to see what the next major development in christmas decoration technology was.

Jock was too eager to wait, he opened the large box and dove his arms into the polystyrene packaging peanuts and pulled out a truly grotesque 2ft tall santa statue.

Jock set it down on the table. The santa look old and stooped over, his cloak and clothes dark brown, his hair and beard unkept, a large hock nose and a grin that said “I’m going to steal your children” on his face.

Nate had never seen such an un-christmas christmas decoration. He loved it.

Jock was examining it in great detail. To Nate’s total surprise Jocks first comment was:

“I expected it to be uglier than that.”

Nobody else said anything, nobody seemed to know what to say.

In this awkward silence blasted a flash of lightning, followed less than a second later by a loud boom of thunder.

Then the lights went out.

Nate turned and ran out of the room and down the hallways and into the small utility closet that now housed the web server. The machine was beeping loudly, its backup battery only good for 5 minutes at most.

Nate pushed the big red ‘emergency shut down’ button. The button didn’t do anything, it wasn’t hooked up. But it felt good to press it anyway. He then pushed the small silver button on the front of each machine causing them to save and shutdown safely.

Another rumble of thunder echoed through the building.

Then the hail started.

The hail pounded on the factory’s tin roof, filling the empty factory floor with a deafening roar. The offices were better protected, but the noise was still oppressively loud.

The lack of power was a bigger problem.

Nate went down stairs and walked through the unused machinery, leaving footprints in the dust. He unlocked and opened the door to the power room and went in and checked the fuses. Everything was in full working order. The building was simply not getting any power.

The blackout must be outside somewhere. He headed over to the front door of the factory and opened it. The little designer swimwear shop across the road was in darkness too. He leaned out the door and looked up and down the street. Everything was out.

Well at least it wasn’t something he would be expected to fix. He went back up to the offices and found Jock.

“Looks like power is out for the whole block at least.”

Jock nodded.

Nate went on. “The website is down, and even if someone rings to place an order by phone, with the computers down we can’t do anything.”

Jock was clearly not thrilled about this. “So we’re screwed?”

Nate shrugged. “Until the power comes back on yeah.” He paused. “And even if we had that generator you wanted, that would only give us an hour of power.”

Nate looked at his watch. It was 3.14pm. The chance that he would get out of here before five today were almost non-existent.

Jock shock his head. “Mains will probably be back on in an hour.”

“Wanna bet?” Nate asked as he walked over to the door.

Jock’s reply was drowned out but deafening boom of thunder.

This sort of thing had happened to Jock before. 29 times before. He only remembered three. The human memory is a fickle thing, and he didn’t even remember that he didn’t remember.

On the occasions he didn’t remember he had simple repeated whatever he had been saying that got drowned out by the background noise. Sometimes this had been the right thing to say, sometimes it hadn’t.

However three times in his life he had stopped, reconsidered and changed his mind. Coincidentally all three times this had turned out to be the best thing to do. These were the only three occasions that Jock remembered.

To Jock this was proof positive. Every single time he had had to repeat himself due to loud noise, changing what he said had been the right thing to do. It was the only option. His poor memory was proof of that.

So as Nate politely waited for the thunder to pass and asked the seemingly simple question. “What was that?” There was nothing simple or accurate about the thoughts that bounced through Jock’s brain.

“Err, nothing. Just let me know when everything is back online.” Jock answered.

Nate went back to his office, stopping at the front desk and the little waiting vestibule to pick up an old newspaper. He folded the paper open to the crossword section and realised Scarlet had already finished the crossword. Perhaps ‘finished’ wasn’t the right word, filled-in was more accurate. She always wrote random colours and numbers into the crosswords.

One hour and four minutes later the lights came back on. Time to get to work. Nate headed to the broom closet he mockingly called the ‘server room’, and started the process of bringing the website back online.

Jock opened the door as Nate was down on his hands and knees resetting the power supply. The overly tight yellow shirt riding up a little, and Nate’s jeans riding down, revealing his plumbers-crack.

Jock, just like anyone else in this position couldn’t help but look. As he did he noticed a large mole above Nate’s left buttock.

He pointed at the mole. “You should get that looked at, it looks cancerous.”

Nate yelped in surprise at Jock being there, and at the comment Jock had made. He tried to twist around to see what Jock was pointing at.

“Are you serious?”

Jock nodes. “I never joke about cancer. Just get your doctor to have a look at it.”

Nate stood up and dusted his knees off as the severs started to hum back to life.

“Great, just what I needed.” Nate checked the computer screen and nodded. “The website will be back online in about 10 minutes.”

Jock wandered off, satisfied that his supervision had fixed the problem, and went to find something else that needed his management.

Nate twisted around, trying to look at the spot on his lower back, but it was in just the wrong place. He went to the men’s room to check it in the mirror. Small, black, irregular shaped mole. Had it always been there? Had it always been that shape? He would have to get it looked at.

***

5.29pm and Nate was still at his desk, the website up and running smoothly, everything going as it should. He could finally go home and relax after the strange day.

He looked out the window. It was still raining. He pulled on his damp shirt over the top of the bright yellow t-shirt, picked up his shoulder bag and his rainbow umbrella and headed out into the rain.

A 5 minute walk to the station, a 10 minute wait for the train, a 12 minute train ride into town, change train, 6 minute more waiting, a 18 minute train ride home, and finally a 4 minute walk to his flat.

He climbed the three flights of stair to the top floor apartment, side the key into the lock and turned it, and stopped.

“Ah crap.” He shouted to himself, suddenly remembering his date plans for the evening. He had planned to stop in the city and get a new shirt. He looked at his watch. 6.27 not enough time. He pushed the apartment door open and went inside.

Before he got three steps in the door he was stopped by his flatmate. Glen.

Glen was a nice guy, a really nice guy, a bit of a flake, but a nice guy. Without a doubt the best flatmate Nate had ever had. And Nate had had a few in the past few years. But Glen was also the campiest little queen Nate had ever meet.

“Okay, before you freak out, it’s not as bad as it looks.”

Nate frowned and raised an eyebrow. “What’s not as bad as it looks?”

“The damage.”

Nate’s frown deepened. “What damage.”

Glen pointed towards the kitchen. “From that super scary hail storm.”

Nate dumped his bag and umbrella in the hallway and stepped into the kitchen. The window had been smashed, and several plates and cups were shattered on the floor among the window glass.

Glen walked into the kitchen too, pulling on a pair of kitchen gloves.

“Broken stuff.” Glen said, as if that was somehow helpful.

Nate nodded.

“Do I, just put all the bits in the bin?”

Nate nodded again.

“And then… mop or something?”

Nate nodded. “Yeah… and I’ll find something to put over the broken window.”

Half an hour later, the mess all cleaned up and Nate had tapped a large piece of cardboard over the window. It wasn’t a good solution, but it would see the night through.

Nate slumped down on the couch and Glen turned on the telly.

“So… what you up to tonight Nate?”

Nate shrugged and then yelled. “Oh crap.” He got back to his feet and rushed to his room. “I’ve got a date tonight.”

Glen frowned and turned the telly off again. “Did you just say ‘date’.”

Nate’s dashed across the small apartment, unbuttoning his still damp work shirt as he walked into the bathroom. “Yeah, and I’ve got nothing to wear.”

Glen smirked. “Nothing to wear? OMG, you are gay after all.”

Nate stuck his head out of the bathroom door. “Why does everyone always think I’m straight?”

Glen shrugged. “That doesn’t matter right now. Right now you have to tell me everything, about this date, about this guy… it is a guy right?”

Nate grumbled from the bathroom. “Yes it’s a guy. Fine. I’ll tell you, but you have to lend me a shirt to wear.”

***

1:23 AM

Tuesday, 25th October 2011

Nate was alone, standing on the footpath outside of his apartment building, confused and unsure of himself or of the future.

He slowly walked up the three flights of stairs. His confusion was mostly caused by feelings he had never felt before and didn’t know the right names of. Not knowing what to call these strange new feelings was bothering him far more at the moment, than what these feeling might mean.

Deep down in the being he was sure he had made the biggest fool of himself, and screwed up his one and only chance of true happiness. The perfectly messed up ending to a truly crappy day.

Falling out of bed, orange juice on the cereal, coffee on the office shirt, black out, cancer, and now this, the date from hell.

Maybe he would be in luck, maybe Glen would be asleep and he could just sneak in and…

“Nate! Your back!” Glen chirped.

Nate shrugged and slumped down in the couch, there was no way he was getting out of this.

“So… how did the date go?”

“Worst date ever.” Nate mumbled.

Glen frowned. “Oh really? I’ve told you about that guy whose aunt pulled a knife on me?”

Nate nodded. “Okay, maybe not ever. But MY worst date.”

“Nate, don’t take this the wrong way, but you haven’t got a clue what your talking about. Tell me everything.”

The last thing Nate wanted to do.

“Besides,” continued Glen, “I did lend you my ‘lucky’ shirt.”

Nate nodded.

“Well… it all started with your so called lucky shirt didn’t it.”

Glen frowned and raised one eyebrow.

“We meet at the coffee shop. Turns out his name isn’t Brian. So I made a fool out of myself there.”

Glen interrupted. “So what is his name?”

“Er, Lex. Anyway, so I kept getting his name wrong, after about the tenth time he corrected me. So embarrassing. But then he said he didn’t like my shirt. He said something about ‘liking what I had been wearing earlier’.”

Glen smirked. “When you where shirtless?”

Nate frowned. “Oh… that makes a lot more sense.”

Glen shock his head and got up and went into the kitchen and turned on the kettle. “So then what happened?” He shouted out.

“Well. We ordered coffee. He ordered decaf with soy.”

Glen stuck his head out of the kitchen. “Doesn’t mean he’s a stinky hippy.”

Nate nodded and went into the kitchen so he could continue this conversation without having to shout. “Yeah. Well, turns out he’s lactose intolerant. And the waiter got the order wrong. He downed half his coffee before he noticed it was milk and then he ran to the bathroom. I was left sitting there for 25 minutes waiting for him to return.”

Glen made two large mugs of black tee, one in his bright blue mug, the other in Nate’s pink mug. “Sounds like Lex might have had a crap date too then.”

Nate sipped his tea. “That’s the point. The first time we meet and he gets sick. Why would he come back for more?”

Glen lead the way back to the lounge room. “So… this was at what 8? 8:30? Its now 1:30. What have you been up to for the last five hours? Just moping around and feeling sorry for yourself?”

Nate shock his head. “No, Lex walked me to the front door. We’ve been talking and had more coffee and food and walked around a lot.”

“I’ve had relationships that didn’t last that long.”

Nate sipped at his tea slowly.

“So what else did you do wrong?”

Nate frowned. “Criticised his religion, and a few of his other stupid beliefs, his politics, you know… all the subjects to avoid.”

“But he kept talking to you?”

“Well… yeah.”

“And he walked you home?”

Nate nodded.

“The there is only one question that really matters.”

Nate frowned, a little worried about what this question could be.

Glen smiled. “Was the kiss any good?”

Nate blushed deeply at this and just nodded.

Glen smiled more. “Going to see him again?”

Nate shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Glen smirked, a strange little smirk that made him look more like an elf. “Can I have his number then?”

This caught Nate by surprise. “What, no way. No.” He almost yelled. The conviction in his voice surprised himself.

Glen nodded and got up. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. ‘Worst date ever’ my arse! I’m going to bed.” And with that Glen headed off to his room.

Nate sat on the couch and finished his tea. He was still confused.

Nothing had gone right today. He was sure as he sat there in the darkened room and tallied up all the things that had happened.

Fear and anxiety kept rattling around in his head, but so did these new feeling. He still wasn’t sure what they were called. But he had narrowed it down to two labels. It was either love or lust. That just confused him more.

He got up, put his empty tea mug in the sink and fell into his unmade bed.

It had been a bad day. One of the worst. He was sure. Hadn’t it?

*end of chapter*