Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Christmas Alone

A few years ago I had to spend Christmas alone. I say “I had to,” but I mean that a series of events within and out of my control conspired in such a way that it came about I was spending Christmas alone.

I had just started a new engineering contract in a northern city in England far from home, home being the shores of Portsmouth on the southern sea front of England at the time. My new contract was as an electronic engineer with a manufacturer of medical devices such as MRI scanners, ultrasound scanners, and life support machines such as ventilators and heart-lung monitors. Our company not only designed, manufactured, and installed the machines, but also provided second-line support. Given the nature of their use, at least one engineer had to be in the labs or on call at all times to provide support and troubleshoot the devices should a problem arise at a client site. Being new to the company, I wanted to impress my very good looking boss. Also being Buddhist and having no kids I thought it would be a great Christmas gift to give my Christian colleagues to let them go home to their kids on Christmas Eve.

I was also about a year into my current relationship. I had tactfully avoided going to my boyfriend’s house for Christmas the year before by telling him it was too early to meet the parents, but it was getting difficult to do that again this year. The poor guy had missed spending the previous holidays with his family to stay and celebrate Christmas with me. This was the only excuse I had to send him home for Christmas on his own. It wasn’t so much the parents, but the sisters, man. Parents were adorable, but I was terrified of sisters-in-law. I was highly skeptical of Steig Larsson’s interpretation in his books (The Millennium Trilogy) of some fathers as daughter killers for I think fathers are dear creatures who, even when they were rapists and serial killers of other women, when it came to their own daughters they were driven by the same protective instincts as mother hens. However, there was something definitely Freudian and incestuous about sisters-in-law’s relationships with one’s boyfriend or husband. I vividly remembered how the two sisters-in-law had tortured me in my first relationship. I was a “gold digger” who had stolen their brothers’ monthly pay that had rightfully come to them as presents. I had stolen his time which he had been spending babysitting their little ones. I had cooked wrong, hadn’t cleaned enough, had folded the bathroom towels wrong, and so went my list of errors. I had been deemed a bad engineer for having to go to a third interview to meet the MD to secure a job, having already completed technical, phone, and first face-to-face interviews. (Multi stage interviews like this were a common practice in Engineering by the way.) All this had led to fights in the bedroom with my then husband.

Experiences with subsequent boyfriends’ sisters after the divorce had been almost as bad, and this one had three. So you could say I jumped at the chance of sending my cutie home for Christmas alone, explaining that my boss had asked me to work over Christmas.

Christmas day in the lab was itself uneventful and I came home at six in the evening to a microwave dinner in my new flat. It was a crisp clear night at 10ºC (50ºF) and I decided I was going to take the 25 minute walk into the city to stretch my legs and see if anything interesting was going on. I only had to have my phone with me to be on call and I took my laptop with mobile broadband in a backpack, just to be prepared in case an urgent support call were to come through. As I was taking the brisk walk into town, it occurred to me that I had never been in a city at Christmas; I had always been at home around a warm fire or at a nice big party surrounded by friends and relatives. This was going to be a novel experience, which was a good thing, I told myself.

I could not understand how the city could be so deserted at 7 in the evening. With shops normally open till 9 this place was always buzzing like a beehive as far as I knew. Not a soul was in sight; not a shop open for sales. It felt surreal. I had grabbed a couple of bottles of beer on my way out of the flat which I proceeded to enjoy all alone on my favourite bench in front of the mall, watching the stars. I walked the deserted, but well lit streets and pavements for a while before the beers started to take effect and I desperately needed the loo.

I walked over to the public toilets which, to my alarm, were closed and locked! I walked over to some of the familiar pubs, and I walked the crowded market street in the desperate hope of finding some place open, to no avail. Then it occurred to me that I was all alone and no one was there to see me if I were to choose one of the many islands of bushes. I contemplated the big patch of bushes separating the cinema from the car park, complaining of God’s sex discrimination at how badly designed we were for this. The city that seemed so deserted suddenly felt like it was thronging with crowds. I knew this was irrational, but the city was a place where millions of people roamed, and I felt that now that they were safe and happy in nice warm homes, their guardian angels were roaming the city all alone just like me.

I headed over to the park where there were several overgrown patches of land out of the immediate site of any roaming guardian angels and carefully picked a patch of overgrown bushes with an enclave nicely hidden away. After a minute or two, I was happily on my way once again to enjoy the city centre without discomfort.

Not so soon. No sooner I had made my way out of the bushes than I felt a stinging sensation. With my hand I could feel my back patched with stinging, itchy, swollen spots. I had had contact with poison ivy or stinging nettle, or I had been stung by some creature whose lazy nest of winter hibernation I had rudely disturbed. Soon my back was covered with patches of swollen blotches which were spreading gradually but surely. It was time to panic because I was someone who was allergic to many unpredictable things. Some years ago I had suddenly broken out in a rash of blotches in my gym. The rash had spread fast all over my body and in the end I had been taken to the A&E with my tongue swollen and wheezing from the respiratory tract being blocked by the swelling. It had turned out that I had been having an allergic reaction to Olbas oil that the friend I was working out with had released into the steam in the sauna; and the oil had accidentally spilled onto the clothes I had worn after the workout. The blotches were spreading over my back and upper thighs now. The situation could get serious very rapidly.

I quickly dialled several taxi companies, intending to take a taxi to the nearest Accident and Emergency ward, picking the numbers from the yellow pages app on my iPhone. I had made about 10 calls, all of which went unanswered, before I realized that none of the taxi companies were working on Christmas Eve either. The blotches were spreading up my back and down my legs now. I called 911 and the operator put me through to someone who advised me to describe clearly where I was and then to remain there and wait for them.

I sat on the park bench and waited, swollen and itching all over, for what seemed like an eon. I had never had to call the emergency services before and I suddenly realized that the emergency number in England was 999; I had remembered 911 from the 9-11 disaster in New York. I thought 999 was much more appropriate because 9 was the unluckiest number possible and it suitably represented a situation of maximum possible bad luck that one would have to be in, as I was, to call it. Number 1 was my lucky number (having been born on the 19th of the month which added up to 1) and the two 1’s diminished the bad luck representation of the leading 9. Anyway, it turned out, as I learned by chance, that 911 is also redirected to 999 in England in order to accommodate the accidental use of the American convention.

I had to go through the humiliating experience of explaining my misadventure while being examined and treated by the paramedics. They had in fact arrived within 7 minutes of my call though it had seemed much longer to me. I was later taken to the A&E where I was monitored until the blotches and swelling went down. The next morning I was able to take a taxi home to my flat.

The moral of the story is that, just as the City never sleeps, it is also never empty, even on Christmas Eve. If you do wrong things in it there are City Elves who will make you suffer.  Also your sisters-in-law will always get you somehow.

For stories of life and love in the world of high tech engineering look out for Jac Wright's upcoming series The Reckless Engineer.

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